he Each-Uisge (AY-ach OOSH-kay) is a Scottish water spirit, thought to be the most vicious of all the water dwelling creatures. Its name literally means water horse and it can be found in Scotland’s sea inlets and lochs, unlike the Kelpie that inhabits rivers and streams. It’s described as being much larger than an ordinary horse, with wide, staring eyes, webbed feet, and a slimy black coat, tinged with green, and it can take on the form of a regular horse or a man.
In the form of a horse the Each-Uisge is quite safe to ride provided it’s kept away from water, but at the merest hint of a nearby loch it will bind itself to the rider and swim down to the depths, drowning the unfortunate victim before tearing him apart and devouring him completely, all except the liver, which floats back to the surface. One story, from John G. McKay’s More West Highland Tales, Vol II, tells of a blacksmith who had a small herd of cattle that he tasked his children with tending to. One evening, his daughter did not return home from watching the herd. The blacksmith and his son searched high and low for the girl until they discovered a bloody mess strewn across the rocky shore of the nearby loch. In the morass of organs and body parts he found the young girl’s plaid. Heartbroken, he vowed to avenge his daughter.
The blacksmith and his son built a makeshift forge on the banks of the loch, and whilst the boy stoked the roaring flames his father forged huge hooks made of iron. As the sun began to set, the blacksmith and his son placed the carcass of a sheep on the fire and the scent of roasting meat drifted out across loch. Before long a great churning of bubbles broke the surface of the still waters and the Each-Uisge emerged and snatched the sheep from the fire. The blacksmith and his son were ready, and they plunged the still smouldering hooks into the water horse’s flesh. After a great struggle the men triumphed, and the Each-Uisge lay lifeless at their feet. By the time the sun rose again that morning, nothing remained of the beast but a pool of water.
In human form the Each-Uisge is a young man, always pleasing in appearance and charming in manner, and can only be recognised as his true self by the water weed entwined in his hair. In places reputed to the inhabited by the Each-Uisge, people were understandably wary of lone animals or strangers found standing by the waters edge.
In 1870 the residents of Skye were so convinced that Loch nan Dubhrachan housed an Each-Uisge that a local lord ordered that the loch be trawled. John MacRae witnessed the attempt to find the monster:
“You may be sure the people was terrified. They were certain it was the Each-Uisge. So Lord MacDonald said he would dredge the loch – trawl it like, for the monster. Well, he got all his gillies and gamekeepers out one day with a big net. And they started walking along opposite sides of the loch like, dragging the net after them.
“I saw the thing myself. I was a boy going to school. We got a holiday that day. Well, we were all watching carefully when the net got stuck, and all the gillies got the fear of death on them. So they just dropped the net, and ran back from the loch. I mind the day fine. A whilie after they commenced again, and after a whilie the net came away on a sudden. Well, then, they pulled it in like, afraid all the time what would be in the net.
“Is it pike you call them long things?” MacRae inquired, demonstrating an approximate length from the tip of the forefinger of his left hand by placing his right hand sideways on his left arm.
“Pike, I think you call them. Anyway,” he concluded, “there was nothing in the net at the finish but some mud and two small pikes.”