A Loch without a bottom and a lot of Bull

Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford is well worth a visit (when the current lockdown eventually ends!), for it’s fantastical architecture and antiquarian collections. It’s a place of romance and legend, showing the character of the author of Waverley, Ivanhoe and Red Gauntlet – the J. K. Rowling of his day.

Abbotsford

The estate that surrounds Scott’s conundrum castle is important for its pioneering landscape and beautiful walks.  It was only last year that I learned of Scott’s passion for forestry and his great planned arboretum.  Abbotsford became one of the first and largest re-imagined woodlands anywhere.   In its heyday, the estate reached some 1400 acres, as Scott bought farm after farm, creating the landscape visible today.  Bankruptcy would see the estate shrink back to the 120 acres looked after by the Abbotsford Trust today.  An army of volunteers help the Trust to restore and maintain a vast network of paths and the historic gardens.

Many dignitaries would call on Scott during his lifetime here – often to his annoyance – given his global fame as an author: the visiting book in his house notes such celebrities as Oscar Wilde among its pages.

The estates contain as much romance and history as the mansion.  At one point, the lands included an area promoted as being the haunt of the legendary Thomas the Rhymer.  Scott allowed and actively encouraged free access to his estate, except for the private gardens immediately next to the house, unlike many other landowners at the time, or since.

Another visitor hosted by Scott may be of interest to those of a slightly gloomy, supernatural disposition.  Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, visited Scott in 1817.  Paying homage to Scott, Irving would then travel to Newstead Abbey,  the gothic seat of the late Lord Byron.

His journal of the visit was published in 1835 and evokes a warm, image of the man and his house, his dogs and grimalkin, the cat:

The evening passed away delightfully in this quaint-looking apartment, half study, half drawing-room. Scott read several passages from the old romance of “Arthur,” with a fine, deep sonorous voice, and a gravity of tone that seemed to suit the antiquated, black-letter volume. It was a rich treat to hear such a work, read by such a person, and in such a place; and his appearance as he sat reading, in a large armed chair, with his favorite hound Maida at his feet, and surrounded by books and relics, and border trophies, would have formed an admirable and most characteristic picture.

While Scott was reading, the sage grimalkin, already mentioned, had taken his seat in a chair beside the fire, and remained with fixed eye and grave demeanor, as if listening to the reader. I observed to Scott that his cat seemed to have a black-letter taste in literature.

Scott accompanied Irving around his lands, including up a carriage route which travels uphill from Abbotsford towards a loch, Cauldshiels.  It is a very pleasant route – we walked it in the height of summer and did not see another soul!

Cauldhsiels

Cauldshiels Loch was known then – and now – as being a special place, because of the water spirit or bogle that lies within its depths.  It was also said to be bottomless!

The sprite that haunted this place was a fearsome and enormous Water Bull – a supernatural being that is now less well known that it’s cousins, the kelpies or selkies. Water Bulls – known in Gaelic Scotland as tarbh uisge – were widely believed to be real well into the nineteenth century.  Said to be malevolent – or benign! – these creatures lurked in the depths of lochs, but could shapeshift into human form and wander on land.  They were feared but also thought useful as they were less of a threat to humanity than their enemies, the terrifying Water Horses or Each Uisge.  Perhaps a remnant of pre-Christian, ancient animal worship, Water Bulls lingered in the popular imagination for centuries.

Scott mentioned the spirit to Irving, as they paddled across the loch in a small boat.   He recalled this in his book:

We had a pleasant row about the lake, which commanded some pretty scenery. The most interesting circumstance connected with it, however, according to Scott, was, that it was haunted by a bogle in the shape of a water bull, which lived in the deep parts, and now and then came forth upon dry land and made a tremendous roaring, that shook the very hills. This story had been current in the vicinity from time immemorial;—there was a man living who declared he had seen the bull,—and he was believed by many of his simple neighbors. “I don’t choose to contradict the tale,” said Scott, “for I am willing to have my lake stocked with any fish, flesh, or fowl that my neighbors think proper to put into it; and these old wives’ fables are a kind of property in Scotland that belongs to the estates and goes with the soil. Our streams and lochs are like the rivers and pools in Germany, that have all their Wasser Nixe, or water witches, and I have a fancy for these kind of amphibious bogles and hobgoblins.”

Whether Irving believed this tale or not, is not made clear.  What is certain is that Irving seems to have developed a genuine friendship with and admiration of Scott.  His journal is well worth reading and it’s still in print, or available free online.

The path that leads away from Cauldshiels is now part of the Borders Abbey Way – a trail we hope to follow when we can.

On the day we visited, we saw no sign of the Water Bull, although I do remember hearing a surprisingly loud Moo! at one point…

 

 

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