Thursday 2 March 2023

The Water-Horse of Varkasaig


'Water-Horse' by Andrew Paciorek

This tale about a water-horse is taken from ‘Skye: The Island and its Legends’ by Otta F. Swire (Oxford University Press, 1952). Varkasaig is on Loch Bharcasaig (same name, different spelling) on the north-west coast of Skye. ‘Crowdie’ is gruel, a ‘shieling’ is a rough hut or shelter built on a piece of pasture and a ‘cailin’ is a girl (like the Irish ‘colleen’). I love the wonderful, evocative phrase with which the mother threatens the kelpie. 


Orbost and Varkasaig are both said to be Scandinavian place-names, Orbost being ‘the homestead of the seals’, of which a great number once haunted the bay, and Varkasaig being ‘the place of the great jumping beast’, though this, I fear, is too good to be true. This refers to an ‘Each Uisge’ or water-horse which lives in the stream.

          At one time there was a shieling not far from the burn and here an old woman and her daughter came one summer to herd the cows. One night there was a great storm of thunder, lightning, and rain. When the storm was at its height there came a knocking at the door of the shieling: the girl hastened to open it and found on the threshold a very handsome young man, well dressed but dripping wet, who begged for shelter. Rather thrilled, the girl invited him in and offered him a place by the fire and some oatcake and crowdie. He accepted both, then settled himself near the maiden with his head on her lap, where she sang him to sleep.

          When he slept the old woman handed her a comb and,very gently, she began to comb his hair. As the wise woman expected, it was full of sand and small shells. Then they knew him for what he was – a water-horse. The frightened girl gently moved his head on to a bundle of unspun wool her mother brought her, and slipped out of the house to cross the burn, knowing that no supernatural creature can pursue across running water. But the hut was some way from the burn side and in a few moments the young man awoke: when he realised what had happened he at once resumed his horse’s shape and, roaring with fury, pursued the maiden in great leaps and jumps. Her mother was beforehand with him, however, and threw a naked knife in his path. As he paused she came up with him and said: ‘If you pursue the cailin I will cry your name to the four brown boundaries of the earth’, and she whispered his name. What it was or how she knew it has never been told, but the effect was instantaneous; with a terrible shriek the water-horse rushed to the burn side, plunged into the deep pool by the bridge, and vanished.

          It is said that, ignorant that the old woman has long since died, he has never again dared to venture far from his burn lest she name him, but those who go quietly on a fine summer evening may perchance see him frolicking all alone on the sand at the river mouth; and colts born in the valley exceed all others in strength and swiftness. But other say that the ‘Each Uisge’ made a pact with the wise woman, that every tenth year the burn should bring him a living sacrifice so long as he remained beneath its waters.

Picture credit: 

'Water-Horse' by kind permission of Andrew Paciorek:

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