The Ùruisg (OO-rishk) is described variously as a faun or satyr-like creature with the lower half of a goat and the upper half of a human, or as a shambling wild man, covered in thick, shaggy hair, with long, sharp teeth and claws. The latter part of its name, uisg, comes from the Gaelic word for water, uisge, and the stories associated with it always take place near a stream.
The Ùruisg is a solitary soul, living in caves behind waterfalls or in mountain corries. The nature of its appearance often frightens away any human contact it pursues, but those who can see past its alarming countenance are rewarded, as the Ùruisg will happily work through the night at even the most menial, repetitive tasks in exchange for a little kindness. In The King of Lochan’s Three Daughters, collected by J.F. Campbell in his Popular Tales of the West Highlands, an Ùruisg constructs a boat that can sail on both land and sea in exchange for nothing more than a bannock.
When the Ùruisg dares to venture out from its den, it follows the course of the nearest stream until reaching a mill. It was said that every mill had its own Ùruisg, and a seat in the kitchen would be left unoccupied for it beside the fire. It has a particular fondness for dairy products, especially cream, and plates of fresh cream and oatcakes would be set down in return for its hard work. A story is told of the Ùruisg of Glaschoil Farm in Moray that duly fulfilled the tasks expected of it before discovering that no one had left it any food. At daybreak, the Ùruisg’s terrible shrieking yell was heard echoing around the glen, and it was never seen again.
Ùruisgs were reputed to hold assemblies in Coire-nan-Uriskin, the Goblin Cave, a great hollow in Ben Venue, a mountain in the Trossachs just south of Loch Katrine.
“By many a bard, in Celtic tongue,
Has Coire-nan-Uriskin been sung;
A softer name the Saxons gave,
And call’d the grot the Goblin-cave,
Gray Superstition’s whisper dread
Debarr’d the spot to vulgar tread;
For there, she said, did fays resort,
And satyrs hold their sylvan court.”
–From Lady of the Lake, by Sir Walter Scott (1810)
The Scottish scholar William J. Watson states in The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland (1926) that Breadalbane was particularly known for its tribe of Ùruisgs. Their chief was Peallaidh, from the Gaelic peall, meaning shaggy hide, and whose name is preserved in the town of Aberfeldy, or Obar Pheallaidh, as it’s known in Scottish Gaelic.
Interestingly, the name Peallaidh has also been attributed to St Palladius, a Christian bishop who was sent from Rome to convert the Irish in 431 AD. He was not well received and soon left Ireland for Scotland, where his name becomes interchangeable with that of the Ùruisg Peallaidh in Glen Lyon and the surrounding areas.
Watson notes that there’s a rock in Glen Lyon bearing the indentation of the footprint of Peallaidh, known as Caslorg Pheallaidh (caslorg from the Gaelic cas, foot, and lorg, mark). Duncan Campbell, in The Lairds of Glen Lyon (1886), ascribes the same footprint and the origin of the name ‘Aberfeldy’ to St Palladius. This inversion happens repeatedly across countless works, suggesting that there must definitely be some crossover between the two.
In The Trossachs in Literature and Tradition (1908), compiled by William Wilson, a Mr Malcolm Ferguson suggests that the Ùruisgs are “remnants of the Druids, driven into the wilds and persecuted by a rival religion. The Ùruisg would be clothed in sheep or goat skins, hence their hairy appearance, having a figure between a goat and a man,” and I do wonder if that’s not too far from the truth.
Saint Palladius was known to have lived as an ascetic prior to joining the church. Perhaps, after an unsuccessful campaign in Ireland, Palladius sought refuge in Scotland, living the life of a hermit, clad in skins, in the caves in and around Glen Lyon, attracting a small band of followers, or court of Ùruisgs, and transforming into the dishevelled, kindly, hard-working creatures that have passed into myth today.