— contributed by Marilyn McPhie
Many, many years ago the people who lived near a loch by the River Spey were plagued with a terrible water horse. He was most often seen in the spring, when he seemed to be grazing along with the cattle who were by the loch. All who saw the water horse said that he was – or at least appeared to be – the most beautiful horse they had ever seen. He was large and strong, and his coat was as black and glossy as a raven’s wing. Strangely, although the water horse was never seen with a rider or an attendant of any kind, the horse wore a shining bridle and a silver saddle with silver stirrups. So beautiful was the water horse that everyone who saw it admired it and wished they had a horse as fine as that.
However, there was danger in that horse. For from time to time, a young man would think to make the horse his own. When he approached the horse, it seemed gentle and calm, and often rubbed his head on the young man’s arm. And in this way, the brave – or foolish – young man was encouraged. And often, so confident was the man that he failed to cross himself, as he knew full well would be prudent.
He would leap into the saddle, grasp the reins—and then faster than an arrow, the water horse would dash across the field and plunge into the pool. The man would disappear beneath the surface and never be seen again. But the water horse would reappear in a year and a day.
Near the loch lived a man whose name was John. He was called Little John, Little John of the Yellow Moss — for he was not a tall man and he made his living, such as it was, by cutting peats of Yellow Moss. Despite his small stature, John was bold and brave and fearless — and once he saw from a far distance, the coal black water horse, he could think of nothing else.
He devised many plans to tame or to destroy the water horse, but John was a practical man, and none seemed likely to be successful. And because he was a practical man, he sought advice from one wiser than himself. And that person was a wise woman who lived not far away. One day John made his way to the little cottage of the wise woman. To his great surprise, even before he had a chance to knock on her door, the door flew open. There was the wise woman. “Ah, John, you are well met. I knew that you would come, and I know what your desire is. Tis the water horse, is it not?”
John confirmed that it was so. “I would rid the land of this menace,” he said. “But if there is a way to tame the water horse rather than destroy it, I would fain take that chance.” The wise woman squinted in the sunlight, looking deep into John’s eyes. “Yes,” she said at last, “There may be a way, and you may be the man who can accomplish this. But you must take care.”
“What must I do?” John asked.
“This must happen on Beltane-eve, for this is the time when the water horse is most biddable. You must slaughter your red spotted ox and put the skin around you so that you appear to be an ox. Then you must go on all fours to the field by the loch and mingle with the cows. The water horse will come, as it is wont to do. If you can insert yourself between the pool and the horse, you will have a brief moment to spring at the bridle and pull it off. Then the water horse will be under your command. You may ride him or work him as you will for as long as you will, but take care that the silver bridle is never put on the horse again, for then your power over the water horse will be at an end, and it will surely be the worse for you. And take care that you show no fear, for if you do, the horse will sense it, and your wife will look for your return in vain.”
John thanked the wise woman and went home. The day before Beltane, he killed the red-speckled ox and skinned it. His wife draped the ox skin over John and with a few tucks and stitches – for she was an excellent seamstress, although she had never done anything like this before — John looked for all the world like the speckled ox. She led him, scrabbling as best he could on all fours down to the loch. There he mingled with the cows, head down, pretending to graze on the grass.
Sure enough, soon the water horse emerged from the river and joined the cows as well. Slowly John maneuvered himself so that he was between the water horse and the loch. John steeled himself for the task at hand. He reminded himself that he was brave and fearless. And at the right moment, he sprang at the water horse, slipped off his bridle – for it had neither chin strap nor bit. He held the horse by the fore-lock and said, “Now you are mine.”
And the water horse spoke. “Indeed I am, Little John of the Yellow Moss. If you treat me well, I will serve you faithfully.”
“Forever?” asked John.
“Until my time is at an end.”
“And when will that be?”
“When I receive my bridle back by the hand of a maiden. Then I will go and will trouble this land no more.”
When John’s wife and daughter saw him return with the water horse, they were relieved to see him alive at all, but the horse looked so large and strong and fierce that they were frightened. John reassured them that the horse would work for them, as long as he did not have his bridle. They hid the bridle in the thatch above the kitchen, and John began to work with the horse the very next day.
What a treasure the water horse proved to be. Of course, its fine good looks were the envy of everyone. But the work the horse could do. No load was to heavy. No path too steep or rocky. John still gathered peats of yellow moss, but with the help of the water horse, he could gather more and faster, and soon John and his wife and their daughter were – if not rich – at least well off. They knew that they owed their good fortune to the water horse, so they made sure to treat him well. They fed him as well as they fed themselves, and their young daughter Sheena Vane, brushed his coat and daily led him to the water. Years passed in this way.
Seeing the strength and the usefulness of the black horse, many came to buy him, but John refused every offer.
Finally, John was well enough off that he didn’t need to work from dawn until dusk every day as before, so one day John and his wife decided to go to a nearby fair. They planned to stay until very late in the evening, so they gave instructions to Sheena Vane to feed and water the horse in their absence.
It happened that very day, as Sheena Vane was doing her chores, she discovered the silver saddle and bridle in its hiding place. “Ah,” she thought, “with such a saddle and bridle, I can finally have a long, pleasant ride across the fields.” But as soon as she placed the saddle and bridle on the water- horse and seated herself in the saddle, the horse took off at a great speed. As the horse dashed through the town, he came to the fair. Seeing John and his wife, the horse said, “I have served you these many years, but now that I have my saddle and bridle back – and that at the hand of a maiden – you will see me no more.”
John and his wife called out in despair for their daughter, but the horse with Sheena Vane astride it clattered out of the town, across the field, and plunged into the river.
John and his wife were inconsolable – and even more so when winter came. It was observed that even when the loch froze solid, the spot where the water horse and Sheena Vane had disappeared refused to freeze. But on the coldest winter nights, a ghostly voice could be heard in that spot. “I’m cold. I’m cold.” It nearly drove John’s wife mad to hear her daughter’s pitiful voice. Finally, she could bear it no longer, and she made her way to the cottage of the wise women to ask for advice. The wise women advised her that if seven masses were said for the young woman, her spirit would be at peace. Accordingly, the masses were said, and the plaintive voice was heard no more.
And some say that this is the end of the story, for both the water horse and Sheena Vane were never seen again. But others say that seven years later a pale and dripping Sheena Vane emerged from the loch and made her way home at last. She said that the water horse had taken pity on her and let her go because of the kind treatment he had received from John and his wife.