exploring stories, traditions, and folklore from Scotland

The Much Feared Spirit of the Lochs: The Each-Uisge

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The Each-Uisge is a Scottish water spirit, thought to be the most vicious of all the water-dwelling creatures in Scotland. 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, because 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.

In Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs (1891), James MacKinlay takes a much more cautionary stance:

“If anyone suggested to a Lochaber or Rannoch Highlander that the cleverest horse-tamer could clap a saddle on one of the demon-steeds of Loch Treig as he issues in the grey dawn, snorting, from his crystal-paved lacustral stalls, he would answer, with a look of mingled horror and awe, ‘Impossible!’ The water-horse would tear him into a thousand pieces with his teeth and trample and pound him into a pulp with his jet-black, iron-hard-though-unshod hoofs!”

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 the loch.

Before long a great churning of bubbles broke the surface of the still waters and the Each-Uisge emerged and snatched the roasted 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 that morning, nothing remained of the beast but a pool of green-tinged 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, or stuck between his teeth. In places reputed to the inhabited by the Each-Uisge, people were always wary of lone animals or strangers found standing by the water’s edge.

The belief in the Each-Uisge was so strong on Skye that, in 1870, when the residents became convinced that Loch nan Dubhrachan housed one, a local lord ordered that the loch be trawled, a huge undertaking. John MacRae witnessed the attempt to find the monster:

“Well, Lord MacDonald got all his gillies and gamekeepers out with a big net. And they started walking along opposite sides of the loch like, dragging the net after them.

“I saw it 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.

Despite all their efforts the search was unsuccessful, and the net yielded only some mud and two small pikes.