Almost every Scottish loch has a monster, or at least stories about a monster. Perhaps they are just convenient tales told by grannies to stop local children playing too near the water? The most common monster in these watery warnings is the kelpie, the waterhorse.
The kelpie was a creature that lived deep under the water. When it clambered onto the loch shore, it changed shape, to become a beautiful horse, already saddled and bridled, luring local boys and girls, young men and women, or even unwary travelers, to step into the stirrups and sit on the saddle.
But the minute anyone sat on the saddle they were held fast, stuck to the horse’s back. Then the beautiful horse would gallop straight down the bank to the water, and keep on going. Keep galloping under until the rider’s feet were under, knees, chest, and then screaming mouth. The kelpie would dive under the water, and drown its rider in the depths of the cold dark loch.
This is the story that all children living near a loch were told. To beware of horses they didn’t know, and to beware of the edge of the loch.
But only those with very wise grannies heard the full story. Heard that kelpies can take on more than just one shape….
Many years ago, a family were farming the land to the north of a long thin loch. They knew about the beasts of the lochside, and were not surprised when one of their cattle gave birth to a huge black calf, with red-rimmed nostrils and a fiery temper. Because sometimes the fairy bulls would get in amongst the crofters’ cows, and their fairy blood was welcome in the herds.
But this fairy bull calf was wilder than most, bigger, faster growing, and with a rare bad temper. So the crofter locked him in a pen, to try to tame him. But all he did was eat and grow and bellow.
One day, the crofter’s daughter was walking along the loch. She was, as always, wary of saddled horses, but she wasn’t concerned when a young man stepped out in front of her. He was dressed in fine blue clothes, had long wild blond hair and a very charming smile.
“Would you do me a favour, young lady?”
“Of course, sir.”
“Would you lend me a comb?”
She had a comb in her apron pocket, so she handed it to him, and he began to get the tangles out of his hair. But he was struggling with the hair at the back of his head, and he raised his eyebrows at her and grinned. “Would you mind?”
So she sat on the ground, and he lay his head in her lap, and she began to tease and tug at the knots in his hair.
His hair was little damp, which was odd, as there had been no rain since yesterday, but ever odder, there was water weed, stringy lumps of green stems and leaves, wound into his hair. That’s why it was so hard to comb out.
Water weed in damp hair? The girl’s combing fingers slowed. This wasn’t a handsome young man. This must be the beast from the loch, changed not into a horse, but into a man, to try to trick unwary locals under the waves.
Her fingers began to move again. But this time she hummed as she combed, lullabies and love songs, until the man dozed off. She untied her apron, leaving his head upon it as she stood up carefully.
She started to run for home. But she heard a roar of rage behind her. Then she heard the sound she had dreaded. Not feet running after her, but hooves. She would never make it all the way back to the croft. Not chased by a four-legged water horse.
Then she realised she was running past the pen of the fairy bull. She used the comb to flick the latch up and she kicked the pen open and she took cover behind the gate, as the angry black fairy bull stormed out. Right into the path of the white water horse.
The bull bellowed, and the horse screamed. And they bit, and they kicked, and they reared, and the kelpie forgot all about the girl, who ran home as fast as she could, the noise of the fight fading behind her.
As she reached the door of the croft, she looked round. The bull and the horse, a whirling battle of white mane and black horns, had forced each other all the way to the lochside. Suddenly, the hooves slipped and slid, and the beasts vanished beneath the waves.
And neither of them have ever been seen since.
But it’s probably still wise, even all these years later, not to let the kids play out of sight on the lochside.
This story was told for the Scotclans website by Scottish writer and storyteller Lari Don. Her new book, First Aid for Fairies and Other Fabled Beasts, a Scottish adventure story for children, is available now. More details about the book and her storytelling on www.laridon.co.uk .
©opyright Lari Don, Scotclans 2008