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The Ben Vehir Dragons

The mountain Ben Beithir [1] got this name from a dragon. Long ago, she took shelter in Corrie Lia [2], a great hollow in the face of the mountain, and almost right above Ballachulish Pier. The dragon was a terror to the district. From the lip of the corrie she overlooked the path round the foot of the mountain, and if the unsuspecting traveller tried to pass by her, she would leap down and tear him to pieces.

No one dared to attack her, nor could anyone tell how she might be destroyed until Charles, the Skipper, came that way. He anchored his vessel a good distance out from the site of the present pier, and between the vessel and the shore he formed a bridge of empty barrels, lashed together with ropes, and bristling with iron spikes. When the bridge was finished, he kindled a large fire on board the vessel, and placed pieces of flesh on the burning embers.

As soon as the savour of the burning flesh reached the corrie, the dragon came down by a series of leaps to the shore, and from there she tried to make her way out on the barrels to the vessel. But the spikes entered her body and tore her up so badly that she was nearly dead before she reached the outer end of the bridge. Meantime the vessel was moved from the bridge, until there was a wide distance between it and the last barrel. The dragon did not have enough strength left to leap to the deck of the vessel over this gap. And as she could not return the way she came, she died of her wounds where she was, at the end of the bridge.

The people in the neighbourhood of the mountain now felt at peace. But they did not know that the old dragon left behind her a whelp in Corrie Lia. In course of time the whelp became a full-grown dragon that had a brood of young dragons hidden away in a corn stack at the foot of the mountain.

When the farmer discovered them in his stack, he at once set fire to it, hoping to destroy them all. Their shrieking was carried up the mountain-side with the wind, and as soon as it reached their mother, she rushed down to their assistance. But she was long in reaching them, and in spite of all her efforts they were burnt to death.

When she saw this, she stretched herself on a flat rock near the shore, and continued to lash the rock with her tail until she killed herself.

The rock is still known as the Dragon Rock, and Ben Vehir House now stands on it.

(MacDougall 1910, 96-100]

Ben Vehir, Ben Beithir
Ben Beithir (Ben Vehir), the peak to the left, is a mountain in the Scottish Highlands to the south of Ballachulish, on the south side of Loch Leven.

  1. Ben Beithir is Ben Vehir in the original text: A mountain south of the entrance to Glencoe (Glen Coe) in West Scotland is named after a savage creature that took shelter in a round hollow in the hillside there. Ben is 'mountain', and Beithir is Scottich Gaelic for bear, serpent, wild beast, and possibly dragon. In early Scottish Gaelic it was an undetermined savage creature. The folkloric beithir may have a long tail, but it never seems to be a fiery winged dragon.
  2. Corrie Lia: A specific hollow in the mountainside of Ben Beithir. A corrie is a round hollow in a hillside; a narrow circular valley with high walls, a cirque.
  3. Loch: loch: a lake or a part of the sea that is almost surrounded by land (Merriam-Webster)


The Horse-dealer and Thomas the Rhymer

It chanced, long years ago, that a certain horse-dealer lived in the south of Scotland, near the English border, not very far from Longtown. He was known as Canonbie Dick. As he went up and down the country, he almost always had behind him a long string of horses that he bought at one fair and sold at another, generally managing to earn much money by the transaction.

He was a rather fearless man, not easily daunted. One evening he was returning from a fair at some distance from his home with a pair of horses that he had not succeeded in selling. He was riding over Bowden Moor to the west of the Eildon Hills, where some say King Arthur and his knights are asleep, resting under the three high peaks and waiting for a mystic call to wake them up.

The horse-dealer was riding along at a snail's pace, thinking over the bargains that he had made at the fair that day, and wondering when he was likely to dispose of his two remaining horses. All at once he was startled by the approach of a venerable man. The man had white hair and an old-world dress. He seemed almost to start out of the ground, so suddenly he appeared.

When they met, the stranger stopped, and to Canonbie Dick's amazement, he asked him how much money he wanted for his horses. The wily horse-dealer saw a chance of driving a good bargain, so he named a good round sum.

The old man tried to bargain with him, but no one ever did succeed in inducing Canonbie Dick to sell a horse for a less sum than he named for it at first, so at last the man pulled a bag of gold from the pocket of his breeches and began to count out the price.

As he did so, Canonbie Dick got another surprise, for the gold that the stranger gave him was ancient coins of good, pure gold. The horse-dealer thought he to himself, "Surely this gold is worth much more than the two horses."

Then the two parted, but not before the old man had told Dick to get him other good horses at the same price, if Dick would bring them to the same spot, after dark, and always come alone.

And, as time went on, the horse-dealer found that he had indeed got a good customer. For whenever he came across a suitable horse, he had only to lead it over Bowden Moor after dark, and he was sure to meet the mysterious, white-headed stranger, who always paid him for the animal in gold pieces.

Now Canonbie Dick was apt to get very thirsty, and customers that knew this, took care always to provide him with something to drink. The old man never did so; he paid down his money and led away his horses. But one night Dick was even more thirsty than usual. He felt sure that his mysterious horse-buyer must live somewhere in the neighbourhood, since he was wandering about the hillside when everyone else was asleep. Therefore, Dick hinted that he would be very glad to go home with him and have a little refreshment.

"He would need to be a brave man who asks to go home with me," returned the stranger; 'but, if you will, you can follow me. Only, remember this: If your courage fails you, you will rue it all your life."

Canonbie Dick laughed long and loud. "My courage has never failed me yet," he cried. "So lead on, and I will follow."

Without a word the stranger turned and began to ascend a narrow path which led to a curious small hill that was called the "Lucken Hare" by the country-folk. It was supposed to be a great haunt of witches, and as a rule nobody passed that way after dark if they could possibly help it.

Canonbie Dick was not afraid of witches, however, so he followed his guide with a bold step up the hillside; but he felt a little startled when he saw him turn down what seemed to be an entrance to a cavern, especially as he never remembered having seen any opening in the hillside there before.

He paused for a moment, looking round him perplexedly and wondering where he was taken.

His guide glanced at him sternly. "You can go back if you will," he said. "I warned you that you were going on a journey that would try your courage a lot." There was a jeering note in his voice that touched Dick's pride.

"Who said that I was afraid?" he retorted. "I was just taking note of where this passage stands on the hillside, so as to know it another time."

The stranger shrugged his shoulders. "Time enough to look for it when you would visit it again," he said. Then he walked on, with Dick following closely at his heels.

After the first yard or two, they were enveloped in thick darkness, and the guide had to hold out his hand for him to grasp. But after a little while a faint glimmering of light began to appear, which grew clearer and clearer, until at last they found themselves in a huge cavern lit by flaming torches that were stuck here and there in candleholders in the rocky walls and threw scary shadows on the floor in the gloom that hung over the vast apartment.

Along one side of this strange cave was a long row of horse stalls. In each stall stood a coal-black cavalry horse, saddled and bridled, as if ready for fight. And on the straw by every horse's side lay a knight that was clad from head to foot in coal-black armour, and with a drawn sword in his mailed hand.

But not a horse moved, not a chain rattled. Knights and horses alike were silent and motionless, looking exactly as if some strange enchantment had been thrown over them and turned them into black marble.

At the sight of this, Canonbie Dick's courage waned and his knees began to shake under him. Still, he followed the old man up the hall to the far end of it, where there was a table. On the table lay a glittering sword and a hunting-horn.

When they reached this table the stranger turned to him and said gravely, "You may have heard of Thomas the Rhymer, who went to live for a time with the queen of fairyland, and got the gifts of truth and prophecy from her?"

Canonbie Dick nodded.

"That is me," the white-haired stranger went on. "And I have let you get what you wanted and follow me here, where I can test what stuff you are made of. Before you lies a horn and a sword. He sounds the horn or draws the sword, shall be king over the whole of Britain if his courage does not fail. But the outcome of it all depends on solid bravery. Besides, the task with be light or heavy according to what you lay hand on first, the sword or the horn."

Now Dick's first impulse was to seize the sword, for then he had something in his hand to defend himself with, come what might. But just as he was about to lift it, the thought struck him that this action of his might cause this band of warrior spirits in the cave to go against him. So, changing his mind, he picked up the horn with a trembling hand and blew a blast on it. But the sound was so weak and feeble that it could hardly be heard at the other end of the hall.

The result of the sounding was remarkable, though. Thunder rolled in crashing peals through the immense hall. The charmed knights and their horses woke in an instant from their enchanted sleep. The knights sprang to their feet and seized their swords and waved them round their heads, while their great black horses stamped, snorted, and ground their bits as if eager to escape from their stalls. Where all had been stillness and silence just a moment before, there was now a scene of wild din and excitement.

Now was the time for Canonbie Dick to show off to the soldiers, but his courage failed him. Terrified at seeing so many threatening faces turned towards him, he dropped the horn and made one weak, undecided effort to pick up the sword. But before he could do so, a voice sounded from somewhere in the hall:

"Woe to the man who did not draw the sword before he blew the horn."

And before Dick knew what he was about, a whirlwind of cold, raw air tore through the cavern, carrying the horse-dealer along with it. The wind hurried him along the narrow passage that he had entered through, and dashed him down outside on a bank of loose stones and silt. He fell right to the bottom, and was found next morning by some shepherds. By then there was little life left in him. He had just strength enough left to whisper the story of his adventure.


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 1910, 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).



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