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The Water-Horse of Poll Nan Craobhan

In bygone days, Poll nan Craobhan, a pool in Cromdale on the river Spey, was haunted by a water-horse [1] that was the terror of the surrounding country. At certain seasons he was to be seen feeding with the cattle on the bank of the river; and then he seemed to be the most beautiful horse that man ever beheld. His coat was as black and glossy as the raven's wing. On his head was a glittering bridle, and on his back a saddle with stirrups of silver.

But when any man, bolder than his fellows, came too near him, one glance of the horse's fiery eye sent a thrill of terror through him that rooted him to the earth, so that he could not move hand or foot. If, in his fear, the man then forgot to cross himself, the black horse of the most beautiful shape would draw nearer and nearer him, and the fierce glance of his eye would change to the mild look of the deer. When he would come up to the man, he would fawn on him by rubbing his shining head against his breast.

Soon the man's fear would vanish, and he would spring into the saddle; and then, quick as an arrow from the bow, the black horse would plunge into Poll nan Craobhan. The man would be seen no more, and the black horse was not to be seen for a year and a day.

Near the river Spey lived a man named Little John. Little John usually spent a great part of the year in the Yellow Moss making peats [2], and on that account he was known over the parish as Little John of the Yellow Moss. Though Little John was very small, he was bold and fearless. His thoughts all day and his dreams by night were of the water horse in Poll nan Craobhan; and he formed many fruitless plans to destroy the horse.

At long last he thought he would go and consult the wisewoman [3] of Alnaic. When he arrived at the hut of the black wife, he knocked on the door, and the answer came out at once, "Come in, Little John of the Yellow Moss. I am aware of what you want. And who knows, maybe you and I can put a tether on the black horse of Poll nan Craobhan."

When John had got enough sowens [4] and sweet milk, the black wife took her divining stone, and looked into it for a long time. At last she lifted up her head, and said, "Now, Little John, I know that you will subdue the water horse of Poll nan Craobhan."

"I don't know about that," said Little John.

"Keep up your heart, and there will be nothing to fear in the matter. But this is what you must do: The horse will be feeding on the meadow on Beltane-eve [5]. When the sun begins to descend from his highest point in the sky, you are to kill the speckled ox. You will then put the skin about yourself, and go on your hands and feet, like an ox.

Before the sun sets, let someone drive you and the cows to the side of Poll nan Craobhan. And as soon as the sun sets, the black horse will come up out of the water, and begin feeding with the cattle. As you will look like an ox, the horse will be thrown off his guard. But if you feel or show the least fear, your wife will look for your return in vain. Draw nearer and nearer the river at your leisure, until you get between the horse and the water; and then it will be your own fault if you do not get the better of him. The bridle has neither bit nor chin-strap; and, therefore, when you get near enough, you will make a spring at the bridle, and pull it off. The black horse is then under your control and will do whatever you wish so long as you keep the bridle from him. Be careful of the bridle, or it will be the worse for you. Now, Little John, go your way."

Little John went home, and waited till the day before Beltane-eve came round. As soon as the sun had crossed his highest point in the sky, he killed the speckled ox. His wife put the skin upon him in such a clever way that even cows mistook him for the ox that had been killed. Before sunset she drove the cows to the bank of the river, and he followed as best he could. When the sun went down, the black horse came slowly up out of the pool and began feeding among the cattle.

Little John said to himself, "Now, son of my own father, don't be afraid." And pretending to be nibbling the grass as he went, he at last got between the horse and the water. Then with a great spring he got hold of the glittering bridle, pulled it off the horse, and caught him by the forelock.

"Ha, ha! I have you now," he said.

The horse answered, "Indeed, you have me now, Little John of the Yellow Moss. But if you will show me the same kindness as you show to your other animals, I will serve you faithfully day and night till you give me back my own bridle and saddle by the hand of a maiden, and then I will trouble the country no more."

"We will see about that," said Little John.

Great was the terror of Little John's wife when she saw the awful beast being led to the stable; but Little John assured her that the water-horse of Poll nan Craobhan would yet make their fortune.

Little John hid the bridle and the saddle in a secret corner above the kitchen bed. No man was so proud as he; for no horse along the Spey river could be compared with his beautiful black horse. No road was too rough for him to tread, no load too heavy to carry, no fodder too coarse to eat. With his great sled-cart, Little John could now empty the Yellow Moss of peats quicker than the men of the Clachan could build them into stacks.

He was getting rich, and many came from far and near to buy the black horse, but they were left to return home without him.

Things went on in this way with Little John for some years, until one day he and his wife went to a fair at the Clachan of Cromdale, and left their daughter Sheena Vane to look after the house. Sheena Vane used to feed the black horse with her own hand and ride him to water; but on this day she happened to light upon [6] the bridle and saddle where they lay hidden.

She thought to herself that now was her chance of having a good long ride on the black horse's back; and away she went with the bridle and saddle to the stable. When the horse saw his own furniture, he neighed at it with great delight. In a short time he was in harness; but no sooner was Sheena Vane seated on the saddle than away he went with the swiftness of the wind, not to Poll nan Craobhan, but to a Lochan [7] near the Clachan of Cromdale. As they were going through Achroisk, they were met by Little John and his wife, and the black horse cried out in passing, "I have now got my bridle and saddle from the hands of a maiden, and I will trouble no man any more."

The horse and the maiden were seen to plunge headlong into the deepest part of the Lochan, where many believed it had no bottom. That was the last that was seen of Sheena Vane and the water-horse of Poll nan Craobhan, but not the last that was heard of Sheena.

It was observed that the part of the Lochan in which the black horse disappeared with Sheena Vane never froze over, however thick the ice might be on the surrounding water. In the cold winter nights, when the wind blew strong, and swept the snow in blinding clouds from Cromdale Hill, an eerie, piteous cry of, "I am cold, I am cold," was heard above the noise of the storm, coming from the Lochan and sending a cold chill through the hearts of those that heard it. Year after year the same mournful cry was heard, until a smith from Glen Braon came and settled in the Clachan. This smith had been taught by the wise woman of Alnaic how to speak to ghosts; and when he first heard the piteous cry, he said that he would soon see what the ghost was wanting.

He went out to the Lochan, and used the words he had learned from the wise woman of Alnaic; and the ghost told him that it could find no rest until the priest had said seven masses for the soul of Sheena Vane.

The mass was said, and the eerie cry of, "I am cold, I am cold," was not heard afterwards. The Lochan is called to this day Bog-an-Loirein; and the place where Little John of the Yellow Moss lived, Dalchapple (Horsefield).

[MacDougall, p. 308-20]

  1. Water-horse: a shape-shifting nix in folklore. It rides victims on its back into water and drowns them. In Orkney a similar creature is called the Nuggle, and in Shetland a similar creature is called the Shoopiltee, the Njogel, or the Tangi. On the Isle of Man it is known as the Cabbyl-Ushtey or the Glashtin.
  2. Peat: partially decayed vegetation matter is an important source of fuel, and a forerunner of coal. About 60% of the world's wetlands are peat.
  3. Wisewoman: A wise woman is a woman versed in charms, conjuring, or fortune-telling, and can be a healer and a type of witch.
  4. Sowens: A pudding made from oatmeal husks steeped and boiled.
  5. Beltane: Beltane or Beltaine are names for an ancient festival on the first day of May. Bonfires were lighted on the eve of Bealtaine on certain mountains and hills was one of the main activities of the festival. A revived Beltane Fire Festival has been held almost every year since 1988 during the night of 30 April on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland and attended by up to 15,000 people.
  6. Light upon: Find unexpectedly.
  7. Lochan: small inland loch (a small lake).


The Kintalen Changeling

There was living in Kintalen [1] a woman who had a male child that neither grew nor bloomed like other children of his age. From morning to evening he would not cease one minute from crying, and he would eat far more food than was natural for the like of him.

It was harvest, and there was not a person on the farm who could draw a sickle who was not out on the reaping field, except the mother of the child. She too would have been out were if not for fear that the screaming thing would break his heart crying if she should leave him in charge of any other person.

There was at the time a tailor in the house, making clothes. The tailor was a shrewd, observant man, and he was but a short time within until he became suspicious of the lad in the cradle. He said to the woman, "You may go to the reaping, and I will take care of the child."

The woman went away. But she had barely taken her feet over the threshold when the withered object she had left behind began shrieking and crying loudly and sorely. The tailor listened to him a good while, keeping his eye on him, till he was sure that he was nothing but a changeling [2]. He now lost patience with him, and cried in a sharp, angry voice, "Stop that music, lad, or I'll put you on the fire."

The crying ceased for a while, but afterwards it began a second time. "Are you at it again, piper of the one tune?" said the tailor. "Let me hear that music any more from you, and I will kill you with the dagger."

When the fairy beheld the frown on the tailor's countenance and the dirk in his hand, he took such a fright that he kept quiet a good while. The tailor was a cheerful man, and to keep from wearying, he began to hum a tune. In the middle of the music the ugly elf raised a loud howl. But he was not allowed to go on with his warble but a very short time. The tailor leaped off his work-table, went, dirk in hand, over to the cradle, and said to the fairy, "We have enough of that music, take the right great bagpipes and give us one good tune on them, or else I'll put the dirk in you."

The fairy sat up in the cradle, took the pipes which he had somewhere about him, and struck up the sweetest music the tailor had ever heard. The reapers heard it on the field, and at once dropped their sickles and stood listening to the fairy music. At length they left the field and ran towards the music. But before they reached the house the tune had ceased; and they did not know who played it or where it came from.

When the reapers returned home in the evening and the tailor got the mistress of the house alone, he told her everything that happened while she was at the reaping, and that her child was nothing but a changeling. He then told her to go with him to the Ardsheal side of the bay, and to throw him out in the loch [3].

She did as was told her. And as soon as the little elf touched the water, he became a big grey-haired old man and swam to the other side of the bay. When he got his foot on dry land, he cried to her that if he had known beforehand what she was going to do, he would have made her never think of doing such a thing again.

She returned home and found her own child at the door before her, healthy and free from defects.

[MacDougall, p. 148-54]

  1. Kintalen seems to be Kentallen on the west coast of Scotland, north-east of the Isle of Mull along Loch Linnhe.
  2. Changeling: a child secretly exchanged for another in infancy; In legend: a (fairy) child believed to have been exchanged by fairies for the parents' true child.
  3. Loch: Bay or inland lake.


Fairies of Craig Tulloch

A Loch Awe [1] man was one day travelling over the hill of Balliemore, a farm that was a short way from the place where he lived. The day was sunny and beautiful, and when he reached Craig Tulloch [2], he sat down on the summit of the hill to take a view of the surrounding district. He had not been long there until two fairies came to him in great wrath because he was sitting where they found him. One of them wanted to throw him over the rock without delay, but the other wished to let him off that time. They wrangled over this matter for a while, but in the end they let him off on condition that he would never again sit where he had been found.

 Craig of Tulloch. Modified part of a copyrighted Nigel Corby photo that is licensed for further reuse.
Craig (hill) of Tulloch. From a photo by Nigel Corby

Some time after, the man happened to be in the neighbourhood of the rock again. To prove whether he had been awake or asleep when he thought he saw the two fairies, he sat down in the same place where he had been the first time.

In the twinkling of an eye three fairies came to him in a terrible passion. They laid hold of him and gave him a bad shaking and bruising, and then they allowed him to go, threatening him with worse punishment should they ever find him in the same place again.

[MacDougall, p. 190-92]

  1. Loch Awe is a large lake in Argyll and Bute, Scotland. It has also given its name to a village on its banks, variously known as Loch Awe, or Lochawe.
  2. Craig of Tulloch: A hill.


Scottish folktales, legends, fairy tales of Scotland, Literature  

MacDougall, James. Folk Tales and Fairy Lore in Gaelic and English: Collected from Oral Tradition. Edinburgh: J. Grant, 1910.

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