Cailleach nan Cruachan

The Witch of Ben Cruachan.

On the top of Ben Cruachan is the spring from which Loch Awe was filled, and this is how they say the event happened:–Aged Bera lived in the cave of the Great Rock. She was a daughter of Grenan the Wise. For many ages her ancestors inhabited that country–a princely family, hospitable and powerful. Bera was the last of that renowned family. She owned as her inheritance each fair grassy glen all around Ben Cruachan, and the many flocks that fed in every dell and strath around. To Bera was entrusted that secret spring of many virtues, hid from the knowledge, and beyond the ken of the world. That became the spring of woe to Bera, and to her father’s race! There was a great flagstone on the mouth of the spring, and it was Bera’s duty to place the flagstone over the spring about sundown and to lift the same stone away as soon as the beams of the morning light began to gild the horizon. There were words graven on this flagstone, like ancient writing, but no eye ever beheld the stone that could read the secret letters. One of those days, Bera happened to be out hunting the deer among the rugged steeps of Ben Cruachan, and, being faint with the weariness of the chase, she no sooner returned home at night, and set herself on her bed of rashes under the leafy shade, then she fell asleep and neglected to place the flagstone over the mouth of the spring! The water quickly poured forth like a great river which could not be stayed! Swiftly streamed the flood, like a torrent or great waterfall, down the side of the mountain, from rock to rock, till the waters filled the glen, which from that time is called Loch Awe. On the third day poor Bera awoke. She looked down the glen, but instead of that green and most beautiful and lovely glen, nothing could be seen but water. Bera gave forth a dreadful scream which was echoed by every crag and grove and dell, and Ben Cruachan quivered to its centre! Bera left this poor world! She ascended to the lofty halls of the great princes from whom she sprung–far far up beyond the vision of created eyes, among the thin white clouds of heaven. Up there her scream may still be heard, and is the dread of the shepherds and hunters of Ben Cruachan. On dark clouds she is seen hovering around the top of the Ben; there oft-times may be heard her song of sorrow, and often she is abroad amid the roar of the tempest. On the dark skirts of the black clouds of the sky she is often seen sporting in wild fury. Like a tall pillar of the whitest mist she is seen hunting the deer on the hill, with her bow and her quiver of arrows! In white foam she is seen on the flood ; from cascade to cascade, from pool to pool, till at length she reaches Loch Awe, on which she may be seen swimming like a calm, white swan from island to island. From the broken ruins of Kilchurn, from the old abbey of Innisfail and of Inniswraith, are often heard her dismal wail. And on the peaks of Ben Cruachan she is often seen on a summer’s morning rising in her airy robes of mist to welcome the sun, till she is quickly lost from view amid bright and joyful birds of the air.

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Christ Was Victor in the North

A fanciful, 19th century depiction of St. Columba converting the Pictish King Bridei, a mural painting by William Brassey Hole, in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
A fanciful, 19th century depiction of St. Columba converting the Pictish King Bridei, a mural painting by William Brassey Hole, in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Of the manner in which St. Columba overcame Broichan the Druid and sailed against the wind.

On a certain day after the events recorded in the foregoing chapters, Broichan, whilst conversing with the saint, said to him: “Tell me, Columba, when dost thou propose to set sail?” The saint replied, “I intend to begin my voyage after three days, if God permits me, and preserves my life.” Broichan said, “On the contrary, thou shalt not be able, for I can make the winds unfavourable to thy voyage, and cause a great darkness to envelop you in its shade.” Upon this the saint observed: “The almighty power of God ruleth all things, and in His name and under His guiding providence all our movements are directed.” What more need I say? That same day, the saint, accompanied by a large number of followers, went to the long lake of the river Nesa (Loch Ness), as he had determined. Then the Druids began to exult, seeing that it had become very dark, and that the wind was very violent and contrary. Nor should we wonder, that God sometimes allows them, with the aid of evil spirits, to raise tempests and agitate the sea. For thus legions of demons once met in the midst of the sea the holy bishop Germanus, whilst on his voyage through the Gallican channel to Britain, whither he was going from zeal for the salvation of souls, and exposed him to great dangers, by raising a violent storm and causing great darkness whilst it was yet day. But all these things were dissipated by the prayers of St. Germanus more rapidly than his words were uttered, and the darkness passed away.

Our Columba, therefore, seeing that the sea was violently agitated, and that the wind was most unfavourable for his voyage, called on Christ the Lord and embarked in his small boat; and whilst the sailors hesitated, he the more confidently ordered them to raise the sails against the wind. No sooner was this order executed, while the whole crowd was looking on, than the vessel ran against the wind with extraordinary speed. And after a short time, the wind, which hitherto had been against them, veered round to help them on their voyage, to the intense astonishment of all. And thus throughout the remainder of that day the light breeze continued most favourable, and the skiff of blessed man was carried safely to the wished-for haven.

Let the reader therefore consider how great and eminent this venerable man must have been, upon whom God Almighty, for the purpose of manifesting His illustrious name before a heathen people, bestowed the gift of working such miracles as those we have recorded.

Vita Columbæ, Lib. II., Cap. xxxv.

THE DRUID.

Our Colum’s bark was in the bay,
But sore our oarsmen were dismayed,
The Druid Brochan barred our way,
And shouted to his gods for aid;
And swore by earth and sea and sun
No Christian hound should sail upon
The lake that he forbade.

His old grey hair hung loose and long
About his shoulders bowed with age,
He poured to heaven the piercing song
(Men said) of some old Pictish sage.
His eyeballs gleamed unearthly fire,
And, as his song rose ever higher,
He shook with palsied rage.

I swear his mountain demon heard,
Who knew not that our Saint was nigh,
Nor that a bearer of the Word
Was come beneath his own wild sky,
Where, king of all men’s hopes and fears,
Himself, they said, a thousand years,
Had ruled as God on high.

He heard, I swear, his priest’s distress,
And launched himself in one black cloud
Upon the bosom of Loch Ness,
While Pict and Scot in terror bowed,
And like a fiery thunder-snake
Came tearing down the long dark lake,
We heard him roar aloud.

Upon the wings of one wild storm,
Rushing with furious haste, he came;
I hardly saw his dragon form,
Through sheets and tongues of forkèd flame.
Unceasing thunder crashed behind
The rushing of the mighty wind,
Men trembled at his name.

But through the howling of the gale
More shrill arose the Druid’s cry,
“Now wretched Christian wilt thou sail?
Down on thy knees, adore and die,
And thinkest thou to cope with me?
Ye Picts and Scots, at last ye see
I am his master, I.”

And all men on their faces fell,
Only St. Colum, meek and pale,
Rising against the Druid’s spell,
Passed in the teeth of that wild gale,
Down to his bark, nor blenched with fear,
But bade us cross ourselves and rear
His mast and span his sail.

We strained the aching mast on high,
The raving sail we scarcely reared,
The screaming cordage lashed the sky,
We trembled while the Pagans jeered,
For there was never human oar
Could push that wind-caught bark from shore,
When such a tempest neared.

While Colum signed the cross above
Our floundering boat with outstretched hand,
The howling whirlwind burst and drove
Enormous breakers roods on land.
Yet, lo, our vessel put about,
And through the storm went up their shout,
“His boat has left the land.”

There in the teeth of that great wind,
Through blinding clouds of driving spray,
They saw us sail and leave behind
Themselves and their accursèd bay.
Our boat sailed on with even keel,
The billows could not make us reel,
The tempest could not stay.

Old Brochan cursed his powerless god,
His starting eyeballs wild with fear,
His demon, like a monstrous clod,
Dropped in the lake to disappear.
But far and wide the word went forth
That Christ was victor in the north,
And Colum was His seer.

— Douglas Hyde (ed.), The Three Sorrows of Storytelling and Ballads of St. Columkille, London, 1895.

A Wretched Little Hovel of Earth

This entry in Boswell’s Diary is demonstrative of the abject poverty among the common folk of the Scottish Highlands after the final defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden in 1745 and the subsequent terrors and hardships placed on the people whose clans were all but destroyed as the Government tried to blot out even their very culture and distinctiveness.

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Loch Ness.

It was a delightful day. Lochness, and the road upon the side of it, shaded with birch trees, and the hills above it, pleased us much. The scene was as sequestered and agreeably wild as could be desired, and for a time engrossed all our attention.

To see Dr Johnson in any new situation is always an interesting object to me; and, as I saw him now for the first time on horseback, jaunting about at his ease in quest of pleasure and novelty, the very different occupations of his former laborious life, his admirable productions, his London, his Rambler, &c. &c. immediately presented themselves to my mind, and the contrast made a strong impression on my imagination.

When we had advanced a good way by the side of Lochness, I perceived a little hut, with an old looking woman at the door of it. I thought here might be a scene that would amuse Dr Johnson: so I mentioned it to him. ‘Let’s go in,’ said he. We dismounted, and we and our guides entered the hut. It was a wretched little hovel of earth only, I think, and for a window had only a small hole, which was stopped with a piece of turf, that was taken out occasionally to let in light. In the middle of the room or space which we entered, was a fire of peat, the smoke going out at a hole in the roof. She had a pot upon it, with goat’s flesh, boiling. There was at one end under the same roof, but divided by a kind of partition made of wattles, a pen or fold in which we saw a good many kids.

Dr Johnson was curious to know where she slept. I asked one of the guides, who questioned her in Erse. She answered with a tone of emotion, saying (as he told us) she was afraid we wanted to go to bed to her. This coquetry, or whatever it may be called, of so wretched a being, was truly ludicrous. Dr Johnson and I afterwards were merry upon it. I said, it was he who alarmed the poor woman’s virtue. ‘No, sir,’ said he, ‘she’ll say, ‘”There came a wicked young fellow, a wild dog, who I believe would have ravished me, had there not been with him a grave old gentleman, who repressed him: but when he gets out of the sight of his tutor, I’ll warrant you he’ll spare no woman he meets, young or old.”‘ ‘No, sir,’ I replied, ‘she’ll say, “There was a terrible ruffian who would have forced me, had it not been for a civil decent young man who, I take it, was an angel sent from heaven to protect me.”‘

Dr Johnson would not hurt her delicacy, by insisting on ‘seeing her bedchamber’, like Archer in The Beaux’ Stratagem. But my curiosity was more ardent; I lighted a piece of paper, and went into the place where the bed was. There was a little partition of wicker, rather more neatly done than that for the fold, and close by the wall was a kind of bedstead of wood with heath upon it by way of bed; at the foot of which I saw some sort of blankets or covering rolled up in a heap. The woman’s name was Fraser; so was her husband’s. He was a man of eighty. Mr Fraser of Balnain allows him to live in this hut, and keep sixty goats, for taking care of his woods, where he then was. They had five children, the eldest only thirteen. Two were gone to Inverness to buy meal; the rest were looking after the goats. This contented family had four stacks of barley, twenty-four sheaves in each. They had a few fowls. We were informed that they lived all the spring without meal, upon milk and curds and whey alone. What they get for their goats, kids, and fowls, maintains them during the rest of the year.

She asked us to sit down and take a dram. I saw one chair. She said she was as happy as any woman in Scotland. She could hardly speak any English except a few detached words. Dr Johnson was pleased at seeing, for the first time, such a state of human life. She asked for snuff. It is her luxury, and she uses a great deal. We had none; but gave her six pence a piece. She then brought out her whisky bottle. I tasted it; as did Joseph and our guides: so I gave her sixpence more. She sent us away with many prayers in Erse.

— The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides by James Boswell; Monday, 30th August 1773: Inverness, Fort Augustus.

 

The Barbarous Heathens Magnified the God of the Christians

Book II, Chapter XXVII of the Vita Columbae of St. Adomnán (627/8–704), abbot of Iona (679–704), contains an account which has been interpreted by many to be the first historic reference to the Loch Ness Monster.

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Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness.

At another time again, when the blessed man was staying for some days in the province of the Picts, he found it necessary to cross the river Ness; and, when he came to the bank thereof, he sees some of the inhabitants burying a poor unfortunate little fellow, whom, as those who were burying him themselves reported, some water monster had a little before snatched at as he was swimming, and bitten with a most savage bite, and whose hapless corpse some men who came in a boat to give assistance, though too late, caught hold of by putting out hooks. The blessed man however, on hearing this, directs that some one of his companions shall swim out and bring to him the cable that is on the other bank, sailing it across. On hearing this direction of the holy and famous man, Lugne Mocumin, obeying without delay, throws off all his clothes except his under-garment, and casts himself into the water. Now the monster, which before was not so much satiated as made eager for prey, was lying hid in the bottom of the river; but perceiving that the water above was disturbed by him who was crossing, suddenly emerged, and, swimming to the man as he was crossing in the middle of the stream, rushed up with a great roar and open mouth. Then the blessed man looked on, while all who were there, as well the heathen as even the brethren, were stricken with very great terror; and, with his holy hand raised on high, he formed the saving sign of the cross in the empty air, invoked the Name of God, and commanded the fierce monster, saying, ‘Think not to go further, nor touch thou the man. Quick! go back!’ Then the beast, on hearing this voice of the Saint, was terrified and ‘fled backward more rapidly than he came, as if dragged by cords, although before it had come so near to Lugne as he swam, that there was not more than the length of one punt-pole between the man and the beast. Then the brethren, seeing that the beast had gone away, and that their comrade Lugne was returned to them safe and sound in the boat, glorified God in the blessed man, greatly marvelling. Moreover also the barbarous heathens who were there present, constrained by the greatness of that miracle, which they themselves had seen, magnified the God of the Christians.