Saturday, April 5, 2014

E Is for An Each-Uisge (Kelpies)

#5 on the April 2014 A-to-Z Blog Challenge.

E: Eadha, Aspen in the Scottish Gaelic alphabet.

Aspens were the shield trees, because their lightweight wood (and possible magical properties) was favored for making them. A faery tree, it was forbidden to use their wood for farm implements or building, except for floors (thought to be slower to burn than other woods), or for fishing, although they were a favorite for paddles and oars.
Autumn Aspens
The whispering of the leaves of this kind of trembling poplar tree often induced a meditative state, and it was believed that if you placed a leaf under your tongue, it'd bestow eloquence. Heroes wore crowns of them. 

If you’re wondering why I’m not doing kelpies under K, there is no letter K in this alphabet. In Scottish Gaelic, the each-uisge [pronounced esk oos-geh] literally means “water horse,” considered the most dangerous faery water creature in the British Isles.

Imagine going along the shore of the sea or a loch, and seeing a black horse as beautiful as an Elven horse or a Mearh out of Tolkien’s Rohan. Once a kelpie looks you in the eyes, bespelling you, you can't resist going to it and climbing upon its back— then the glamor recedes, and you can see your danger as it races towards the water—but you can't get down; any part of you touching it adheres tightly. Only then can you see a red gleam in its eyes, and the flash of teeth, and know that it'll drown you and tear you apart for its meal underwater! 

Why would people tell tales of such a fell creature? As a warning to be careful of strangers and things that look too good to be true, for one thing. In that kind of tale, the doomed person usually exclaims that it'll be a good working horse on the croft (marginal tenant farm) and as a stray, if he can catch it, its his.
There's one example, in Teresa Breslin’s The Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk & Fairy Tales, of a clever lad who, even though no man can tame a kelpie, prvents his family from starving by managing to put one to work. 

The other reason is to tell how they can be overcome. In a revenge tale from Raasay, a blacksmith and his son set up a forge on the shore where their daughter/sister was taken, forge big hooks red-hot while roasting a sheep to lure the kelpie out of the loch, and then kill it with the hooks. 

"Beware of strangers" covers the fact that these are also shape-shifters, and can appear as handsome black-haired men, generally when looking for dalliance. In that form, they’re very fond of lying with their heads in the maiden’s lap, having her comb its hair—and if she sees water-weed and/or sand, she may realize her danger.

A version from the Isle of Barra (my own favorite) tells of a lass knitting while minding her father’s sheep, when a kelpie arrives. She enlists her clever dog to bring her a magical bridle after lulling him to sleep, and forces him to work for her family for a year and a day in horse-shape. Every evening, she grooms him, telling him stories about her family and people. By the end of his term, they’ve fallen in love, he becomes human, and they wed.

There are kelpie songs, too. I combined “Cuighal nan Maighdin,” a spinning/knitting song from South Uist, and a Manx tune, “Arrane Ghelbee / Song of the Kelpie” with the Barra tale when I did a harptelling for a Scottish harp competition at the Ligonier Highland Games in the Spoken Word portion several years ago. The following week, I found two Scottish ones, a milking song from South Uist, and a Skye lullaby. 

Dinna let a kelpie, in either form, lull you!


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