MY grand-uncle Macgregor, was so much devoted to the study of that mysterious and unpronounceable art which gives man control over the world of spirits, that he ultimately became a powerful adept in it. He lived on the banks of the river Dulnan, in Strathspey, and his fame went so much abroad, that his name was never mentioned without reverential awe. Whilst involved in the pursuit of these studies, he was much used to take solitary walks, during which it was believed that he held high converse with beings rarely brought within the reach of human communing.
He was walking one evening on the lonely shore of Loch-an-dorbe. The sky was calm, but the air was hot and sulphurous, and the sun went down in a blood-red haze, that the gifted eye of Macgregor knew to be portentous. Wrapped in his plaid, he leaned against a huge stone, and stood earnestly gazing at the sinking orb till it had altogether disappeared. He read therein that some mighty deed was to be achieved, and he wound himself up to encounter whatever adventure might befall him.
Suddenly the black waters of the lake began to heave from their centre without any seeming cause. Not a breath of wind stirred them, yet they came boiling outwards, so as at once to dash their waves on every part of the surrounding shores. A dark object was seen to bound forth upon the beach at no great distance from the spot where Macgregor stood. A less strongly fortified heart would have quailed with fear, but his was armed with potent spells. He stretched his eyeballs towards the object, when, less to his astonishment than delight, he beheld a black horse, of immense size, and of beautiful proportions, approaching him through the lurid twilight. On he came, prancing proudly along the strand, pawing the ground from time to time, and neighing aloud with a voice of thunder, while blue lightnings were ever and anon darting from his expanded nostrils, and his eyes were shining like stars. It required not Macgregor’s skill to know that this was no ordinary horse, but his superhuman knowledge made him at once aware that it was the water-kelpie himself, and he watched his coming with a heart beating high with hope. Well instructed as to the measures which it now became necessary for him to adopt, he stood aside behind the large stone, and employed certain charms which he knew would aid in his concealment; and as this terrific incarnation of the spirit of the waters was curvetting grandly past him, he sprang suddenly out upon him, and, seizing his bridle with his left hand, he raised aloft his gleaming claymore with his right, and cut it out of the water-kelpie’s head at one blow. In an instant the terrible spirit was metamorphosed into the shape of a man of huge and very formidable appearance.
“Give me back my bridle, thou son of earth!” cried he, in a voice like the roaring of a cataract.
“No!” said Macgregor, boldly; “I have won it, and I shall keep it.”
“Then,” roared the enraged spirit, “you and it shall never enter your house together!”
Macgregor stayed not to hear more, but ran off in the direction of his home, from which he was then distant a good many miles. The enraged spirit came roaring and howling after him. Ten thousand floods pouring down over the rocky ridge of Ben Nevis could not have created so appalling a combination of terrific sounds. The hot breath of the fiend came about Macgregor as he flew, as if it would have threatened suffocation. Lucky it was for my grand-uncle that the kelpie, in losing his bridle, had also lost with it, for the time at least, the power of becoming a horse, else had his chance of escape been small indeed. As it was, however, it seemed as if Macgregor had suddenly acquired a large proportion of those racing qualities which were derived from that magical virtue so strongly inherent in the bridle which he bore; for he appeared, even to himself, rather to skim than to run over the vast extent of moors, hills, and bogs that lay between him and his own home, scarcely bending the heather tops in his way, so lightly and rapidly did his feet fly over the ground. But great as was the supernatural speed he had acquired, that of the water-kelpie was so little short of it, that the wicked spirit was close at his heels when he reached his own house. With a presence of mind, and an adroitness, which no one but an experienced and expert adept in the management of a contest with powers naturally so superior to man, could have commanded or exercised, he avoided entering by the door, although it stood yawning temptingly wide to receive him. Luckily a window was open. “Hulloo!” cried he hastily to his wife, whom he happily observed within, “catch this in your apron!” And, throwing the bridle to her through the window, he cunningly avoided the denunciation which the kelpie had uttered against him.
No sooner did the kelpie perceive that he was thus outwitted, than he shrieked so loud that all the hills of Strathspey re-echoed again. – Yes, you need not stare, gentlemen; I tell you that the mountains echoed again, as if the lofty Craig Ellachie had rent itself from its foundations, and rolled itself into the river Spey. The water-kelpie disappeared, and, what is strange, he has never since been seen by mortal man. But my grand-uncle Macgregor had his bridle, which, as you see, afterwards descended from him to me.
The story of the acquirement of the Mermaid’s Stone is no whit less extraordinary than that of the bridle. The stone came to me from my maternal grandfather, who gained it by the superhuman powers which he possessed; for in my veins two most potent streams of necromantic blood have united themselves, though it would ill become me to say that I have ever equalled my ancestors. After having made frequent visits to the sea coast, my grandfather at last found out the spot where a beautiful mermaid was wont to sport amid the shallows, and sit on a rock, to comb her long hair, and to sing the most exquisite melodies. Long and anxiously did he watch her motions, till he perceived her one day combing her lovely tresses over her face and bosom, altogether unconscious that she was observed. Arming himself with certain spells which he possessed, which gave him superhuman powers, he crept into the sea from the rocky point where he lay concealed, and wading silently towards the stone where she sat, he came behind her, and clasping her eagerly in his arms, he held her fast, and, in spite of all her wailings, her lamentations, and her struggles, he succeeded in carrying her on shore. When fairly on land, she became exceedingly helpless, so that he had no farther trouble with her, and, delighted with his fair prize, he brought her home in triumph. There he made a soft bed for her upon the rafters of the house; and although he was unwillingly compelled by prudence to make sure of her by subjecting her to the restraint of tying her to the couples of the roof, he in all other respects lavished the utmost kindness upon her.
So very much, indeed, was my grandfather taken up with his new acquisition, that my grandmother began to grow jealous of his attentions to the fair sea nymph; and, more out of spite, perhaps, than from any real wickedness, she began to encourage the visits of a young man who had been formerly attached to her. Now, strange as it may seem, it is no less true, that, great as were my grandfather’s powers in the art magic, he was yet unable thereby to discover the fact, that his wife received the visits of this lover, on certain occasions, when his trifling affairs required his absence from home. Now, it happened one day that my grandfather returned so suddenly, and so unexpectedly, that his wife was compelled to conceal the youth hastily behind a bed. The lady was in a terrible taking, you may believe; but she so far subdued her agitation as to receive her husband with every possible appearance of kindness and affection.
“I dreamed a strange dream last night,” said she, after fully recovering her presence of mind, and smiling gaily. “I dreamed that I put both my hands over your eyes, and yet you saw as well as if they had not been there.”
“Come try, then!” replied her husband sportively, taking what she said as the mere prelude to some little innocent matrimonial frolic; “come try then, my dear. I believe I can see as far into a millstone as most people.”
“No doubt you can,” said his spouse, laughing outright, and approaching him with a merry air, she clapped her hands so firmly over his eyes that he was completely blindfolded, “now can you see?” exclaimed she.
“No!” replied the husband, “not one whit.”
“Stay a little,” cried his wife, laughing heartily again, “depend upon it this miraculous light will come to you at last!”
“Aye, aye!” cried he, struggling till he escaped from her hands, and then kissing her heartily, “I see now well enough.” But, alas! my grandfather’s vision had come too late, for the lover had availed himself of this brief opportunity, so cunningly afforded him, to make his escape.
The mermaid, who was seated on the rafters above, laughed aloud with an unearthly laughter, as she witnessed the trick that had been played to my grandfather. To divert her husband’s attention from a mirth that at first appalled her, the lady, with great presence of mind, threw down the girdle-stone, a flat stone, which in those primitive times was used for firing the oaten cakes, instead of the iron plate of that name, which now forms so important an article of furniture in the kitchen of every Scottish cottage. The stone was broken to pieces, and the lady’s loud lamentation for this apparently accidental misfortune, quickly diverted her husband’s attention from the mysterious merriment of the mermaid, and having thus effected her purpose, she threw the fragments of the stone out on the dunghill.
The poor mermaid pined and sighed for her native element, until she wrung the heart of her captor to pity.
“Take me but down to the sea,” said she with her sweet voice, “take me but down to the sea, and put me but into the waves – but three yards from the shore – and it shall be better for thee than all the good thou can’st gain by keeping me here.”
Softened to compliance at last, my grandfather did take her down from the rafters, and carrying her to the coast, he waded into the sea with her, the three yards she had specified, and put her gently down amid the waves, near the very stone where he had originally caught her. The joy of this beautiful marine spirit in finding herself thus again bathing in invigorating water of her own native ocean, after having been so long hung up, as it were, on the rafters of a Highland cottage, to be smoked like an Aberdeen haddock, or a kipper salmon, may be easily imagined. But, although wicked people might perhaps impute her parting speech more to that natural love of scandal which is said to belong to her sex, than to any strong feeling for my grandfather, yet we must say, that her words and her counsel showed that her gratitude was no less abundant than her joy. Turning to him who had treated her so compassionately, she passed her taper fingers gracefully through her long silken tresses, and thus addressed him with her siren tongue:-
“Travel not so oft nor so far from home again! Ill luck attends that home whence the master often wanders. Dost thou remember my loud laugh on that day when thy wife broke the girdle-stone? It was because she made a fool of thee by blinding thine eyes that her lover might escape unseen. Be wiser, in future, and never leave home; and when you go back now, look among the straw where the broken bits of the girdle-stone were thrown, and you will find that which will be a treasure to you and to your children for ever.”
With these words she dived among the breakers and was seen by him no more. My grandfather returned home rather chopfallen; but on searching where the mermaid had indicated him, he found that very stone, which has now, for three generations, been the agent in performing so many wonders.