It’s All Hallows’ Eve! A time of superstition that marks the end of harvest and the beginning of winter. A time when the boundary between this world and the otherworld thins, allowing spirits to pass more easily into our world and, for many centuries, a time when people have lit bonfires and worn costumes to ward off roaming ghosts.
Local folklore confirms that belief in the spirit world was strong in Breadalbane, and in ancient times people were as sure of the existence of fairies, sprites and witches as they were of the fact that they were alive themselves.
Among the various supernatural beings that the people of Breadalbane believed to exist, the urisk was one of the most potent. Urisks were water spirits that haunted pools, waterfalls and lonely moorland lochs (the name is derived from the Gaelic word uisge meaning water). Only visible to those who possessed second sight (unless they themselves chose to be visible), urisks were solitary creatures, bigger and stronger than humans, and inclined to be very mischievous.
At the end of harvest-time (Hallowe’en), they left their lonely dens and would hover near farmyards, stables and cattle houses. They had a particular weakness for dairy products and were known to pester milkmaids who had to make regular gifts of milk or cream to charm them off.
Around the end of the 19th century, Mr James Macdiarmid from Morenish collected a number of folklore tales which he contributed in the form of papers to the Gaelic Society of Inverness. These papers were subsequently published in the Society’s Transactions, and have helped to preserve information about some of the old customs and superstitions of our area.
Two of the old tales tell the story of the urisks who lived near Fearnan – Caobarlan, who lived in Drummond Hill Wood, and Paderlan, who lived in the burn at the far side of Boreland Wood between Lawers and Fearnan. Although we know it as Chapel Burn, in the old days it was called after the urisk that lived there – Allt Coire Phadairlidh. Even today, it appears on modern maps under that old name.
The first old tale is about Caobarlan – so named because he amused himself at night by throwing stones and mud balls (caoban) at late-night travellers on the road between Fearnan and Kenmore. He seemed to particularly target those who found themselves a little unsteady on their feet.
These old tales are very much in the oral tradition of story telling and would have been told countless times around the hearth on a winter’s evening.
So, are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
Long ago there was a clever, hard-working woman who lived in Fearnan but who had the misfortune to have married a rude and lazy man. She had a cow that grazed on the pasture below Drummond Hill by day, and which would return of its own accord in the late afternoon. One evening the cow had not returned by twilight and the woman asked her husband to go with her to look for the cow which had probably strayed into Drummond Hill Wood, but the sullen and lazy man would not even get out of his chair; indeed, he utterly refused to search for the animal and told her she would have to go on her own.
So, the good woman had to pluck up her courage and go into the wood to find the animal by herself, knowing that in the dark the wood echoed with the frightening and unearthly noises made by Caobarlan.
She searched without success for some time then, as she made her way through the wood in the pitch black, she realised to her horror that she had arrived at the very spot where Caobarlan had his den. Trembling with fear, she decided that kindness was probably the best weapon she had at her disposal and offered Caobarlan a friendly blessing, saying aloud:
“A blessing on thy name, Caobarlan.” Then, for good measure, she added, “I am not afraid of you even at this late time of day.”
On hearing these words, who should appear from his hollow but Caobarlan – and he was delighted with her words.
“Do you know,” he said, “all my life I have longed to receive a blessing from a mortal being. You have done me a great favour. ”
He asked if he could do anything to help her in return, and she explained her errand at that time of night on the hill. He immediately joined her in her search, and they found the cow in a nearby hollow. Alongside it was the reason for its failure to return to the byre. It had just given birth to a fine bull-calf.
Together, they drove the cow and calf home but when they arrived at the croft, Caobarlan was incensed to find the husband still sleeping by the fire when his wife had been out on the hill alone. He decided to help the man see the error of his ways and, in the words of the old tale, gave him ‘a good trouncing’.
So, at the end of this little tale, the hardworking wife is happy to have found her precious cow and its valuable calf; the lazy husband has been taught a lesson that he will never forget; and Caobarlan, who has achieved his aim of being blessed by a mortal being, was never more seen in the land of the living.
The second story is about Paderlan, who was well known for playing mischievous pranks, but this surviving story tells us how he, too, came to leave the district. It is also about the ability of mortals under pressure to outsmart supernatural beings.
Late one autumn evening, we are told, an old farmer from Lawers was making his way home from the Kenmore market. He hurried on at a brisk trot in order to get over the urisk’s burn, Allt Coire Phadairlidh, before it was too late; but just as he rode his horse past the burn he felt a small creature, very light and very lithe, jump up on the horse behind him and shout “Boo!” very loudly in his ear. He guessed immediately that it must be a young urisk. The old farmer was not afraid and, with a quick sweep of his arm, he wrapped his plaid round the creature and then knotted it in front of himself, thereby strapping the urisk tightly to his back. Then he rode home as fast as his horse could carry him.
On arriving at his house, he unfolded his strange bundle and showed the young urisk to his sons. He told them to bar the door and windows and, as an afterthought, told them to put more peats on the fire and to place the end of the old coulter of the plough in the fire. Then they all settled down quietly to wait for the arrival of Paderlan.
They did not have to wait long.
Suddenly there was a terrible noise outside, so loud that the house shook and the doors and windows rattled, as Paderlan demanded his son back. At first, those inside did not answer but then Paderlan put his head to the barred window and roared,
“GIVE ME BACK MY SON.”
“I will give you back your son,” said the old farmer, “but first you must promise me that you will leave Breadalbane and never again return.”
After some thought Paderlan said, “Very well. I will go to Carn-dearg, above Ardeonaig.”
“Not far enough,” replied the farmer. “You must leave Breadalbane, or you will not get your son.”
Eventually Paderlan agreed to leave, and the old farmer handed the little urisk out of the window and, as he did so, Paderlan said slyly, “Old man, I should like to shake your hand.”
”Of course,” said the farmer, and with that he took the coulter from the fire and pushed the hot end through the window. Paderlan took hold of it in his hand and twisted, and twisted, and twisted, until the coulter looked like a corkscrew.
“Good-bye, old man,” said Paderlan, “but I must say your grip is hard and dry.”
The farmer laughed quietly to himself. True to his word, from that date Paderlan was never seen again in Breadalbane.
So Caobarlan has gone. Paderlan has gone. Does this mean that we can sleep easy in our beds this Hallowe’en?
I’m afraid not – I forgot to mention Cas Luath (Fleet Foot) who used to haunt the old wood above Letterellan. Unfortunately, no tales of his deeds or of his departure have survived so, for all we know, he may still be there ……………………….!