Scotland's Haunted Depths
Nessie and other weird creatures
Loch Ness and 'Nessie' need no introduction, but let's put this famous beast to the side for once to look at Scotland's other lochs. They too harbour mysteries, but more of a supernatural kind. Somewhere in the twilight between reality, imagination, folklore, spirit and history dwells some of the most terrifying creatures to haunt Scotland's depths.
Malevolent water horses? Blue water demons? Merfolk? All colourful descriptions of beings, if folklore holds any truth, that haunt Scotland’s waterways. Let’s take a look at a few of these supernatural beings.
Perhaps the most well known creatures to inhabit Scottish and Irish lochs, are the water kelpie and water horse . Both are very similar and are often thought of as being one entity. The Water Kelpie was a malevolent force which usually took the form of a horse but often transformed itself into a handsome youth or beautiful woman. The purpose for this shape-shifting was to fool unwary folk into a sense of security before leading them to their doom in the depths of the loch. Whether it was human flesh it was seeking or a human soul is not clear. Whatever its purpose people took great precautions to avoid meeting this fresh water demon.
The water horse,(Scots Gaelic - Each Uisge) was similar to the Kelpie and was found mainly in the Western Highlands. This creature was often seen harmlessly grazing with a group of normal horses, and in appearance did not seem any different to the rest of the herd. Its true form only being revealed when a rider mounted the animal. It would then gallop furiously far into the loch with its victim, first drowning and then devouring them. It would seem that once the rider had mounted the animal, for some mysterious reason, they became stuck fast to the beast and it was impossible to jump off.
Even the famous Scots poet Robert Burns makes mention of this hideous demon:
When thaws dissolve the snawy hoord,
An’ float the jingling icy boord,
The water-kelpies haunt the foord,
By your direction,
And nightly travellers are allur’d
To their destruction.
BURNS’ Address to the Deil*.
Other frightening creatures also inhabited the depths. They would seem to not only have a taste for human flesh but for the meat of horses and other animals.
The Wizard’s Shackle, (Scots Gaelic – Burach-Bhaoi), was a mythical creature reputed to have the appearance of a large eel – in some cases it is described as resembling a leech – but with nine eyes distributed over its head and back. It would coil its hideous body around the legs of a horse grazing at the shore – horses would seem to have been this monster’s favourite food – pulling it into the water to drown and then proceed to drink the unfortunate animal’s blood.
The Water Bull lived in lonely stretches of water and its appearance must have been very strange since descriptions are of an animal with a black, slippery hide and no ears. It was small and had an eerie bellow which was heard at night when the creature would leave the water.
The Big Beast of Loch Awe was even stranger. It had twelve legs and according to some descriptions was horse-shaped, whereas in other accounts it was described as elongated, like a snake or eel.
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The Blue Men of the Minch are so called because of their body colour and long grey faces. (Known in Scots Gaelic as Na Fir Ghorma - The Blue Men), their main aim was to cause havoc in the turbulent waters between the westward Outer Hebrides, the eastward Inner Hebrides and the mainland. The area is referred to as Struth nam Fear Gorm, the stream of the blue men. They have also been referred to as Storm Kelpies.
Their favourite ploy was to swim out to passing ships in order to capsize them. In some legends it is claimed that the Blue Men would pose riddles which the fishermen had to solve in order to be allowed safely on their way. Alternatively if the captain of the ship could answer the blue men back with a superior rhyming answer, then the water demons would be beaten and disappear into the depths.
The origin of these Blue Men is spoken of in a tradition that states they were one group among three who were banished from heaven – the Blue Men expelled to the sea; the Nimber men to the sky and the Fairies to the earth.
Along with the Blue Men in the sea, there were many sea monsters and sea serpents. The Stoor Worm was a particularly ferocious beast much feared by all who travelled on the waters. The serpent frequently attacked boats hoping to dislodge the occupants into the water and then devour them. The Brigdi was another creature who would attack boats in order to throw the human cargo into the waters. The Brigdi was described as being very flat like in shape, but extremely large with an insatiable appetite for human flesh.
Perhaps the most terrifying in appearance and reputation was the Draygan, (Scots Gaelic - Uilebheist), this was a monster indeed having several heads and aggression to match its size.
In addition to fighting off sea serpents, monsters and blue men the fishermen also had to placate the gods and goddesses of the seas. .
One such god was Shoney and if the sacrifice was well received then the fishermen and their families would be assured of good fishing for the coming year. Shoney in some stories is a goddess rather than a god and later became a collective name, the Shoney, who are reputed to be a group of sea fairies living off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. In the north and east of Scotland fishermen continued to give libations to Shoney as late as the 19th century in order to ensure a good catch and safety from storms and other dangers of the sea. Many authorities have equated the Highland Shoney with the maritime tales of Davy Jones whose wrath was eased by a sacrifice – the soul of a drowned mariner.
Sea Hags were another formidable obstacle to avoid. One of the main characters was the Pictish Mother of the western storms. The name derives from Pict, the ancient people of Alba, - the original name for Scotland, She was deemed to be the mother of the king of the mythical water world of Luchlan. She had one eye in her forehead, red skin and jagged teeth. She was also reported as having little or no hair.
Another sea hag was Muireartach, with long, razor sharp teeth and blue skin. She had connections with the Celtic sea world of Lochlann and was blamed for many of the ferocious storms that hammered the North and West coasts of Scotland.
Additional female spirits abound in Scottish folklore and they tended to give warning of imminent death or disaster.An example of this was the Bean-Nighe. Although this particular name, along with her appearance, can differ from region to region, she nevertheless performs the same duty of singing a dirge while washing a shroud for the person who is soon to die.
There are many similarities here to the Irish Banshee. Other beings resembling the Bean-Nighe are found throughout Scotland under the names of ‘The Cointeach ’ and ‘The Fuath’ . The appearance tends to be along similar lines with regional distinctions, but in the main they are described as being small in build and wear garments of green. Green is one of the predominant colours for both Irish and Scottish ghosts and mystical figures. Further south in England and Wales, similar apparitions tend to be white. The Bean-Nighe or 'washer woman' has been described also as green and having red, webbed feet like a duck. If any passer by was brave or lucky enough to capture one of these beings they would be granted a wish for letting her go. Although these 'hags' tend to have a horrific appearance, legend states that they can also appear as beautiful young women when it suits them to do so.
Although the majority of Scottish mythical figures do not tend to be friendly, there are some exceptions. One creature that would seem to be benevolent was the Bainisg, who was very rarely seen. But when she did appear this tended to be in remote areas where she would assist lost travellers or herders looking for strays from their flock. And it was not only females who assisted people in lonely areas. The Urisk was a male spirit with a goat-like appearance who usually lived near or within waterfalls. He was regarded as benevolent towards farmers and would assist them with various tasks on the farm.
As any wildlife enthusiast will tell you, Scotland has many seal colonies around her shores. Perhaps less well known is the fact that seals also feature prominently in Scottish folklore. Through the centuries, the legends of the Seal People have merged with those of the Merfolk . One of the most enduring beliefs was that seals were people who had drowned. The only time they could retain their human form was during the night, returning to the sea just before sunrise. Although not known overly for benevolence, they nevertheless were reputed to have inter-married with humankind.
Lastly, throughout Scottish folklore there are numerous tales of offering sacrifices to water – rivers, lochs and wells. The offerings could take many forms and were made to placate the spirits who dwelt within the water. These spirits were believed to be capable of doing both good and bad deeds. Although in the main they tended to be benevolent and many were credited with having healing powers. The most enduring inhabitants of certain wells would seem to be fish – Each Saint or Holy Fish. Many of these wells were situated near to hazel trees, the fruit of which was deemed to contain magical properties. When the hazel nuts fell into the water they nourished the fish bodily and kept their healing and psychic gifts intact. Because the fish were regarded as the holy keepers of the well, to harm them in any way was to bring about divine repercussions. Some schools of thought equate the fish with the Celtic ‘Salmon of Knowledge’.
Water holds an eerie fascination for many of us today. You only have to look at how many people still throw a coin into a wishing well and ask for a favour in return. In many religious ceremonies water is still used to purify and protect. And in the oceans, which remain largely unexplored, who can tell what strange creatures may be lurking in the black depths to greet us – or eat us?
© 2010 Helen Murphy Howell
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