The Witch, The Water Bull & The Gypsy: A Tale of Loch Katrine

"Long afore ony steamer was put on Loch Katrine, there was a ferry-boat, the "Water-Witch", a bonnie muckle thing it was, rowed by eight bonnie kilted lads like mysel', that brought a blush tae the cheek o’ many a fine city lady takin’ in the sights. There being nae road twixt Coalbarns, where the galley moored, an’ Inversnaid, where oor guests wad bide, the boatmen had tae carry their luggage five full miles on their backs. The lassies, sittin on’ ony o’ thirty ponies set aside for comfort, smiled at that, too. Wae thistles, nettles an’ midgies infestin’ the flutterin’ folds o’ their filibegs, I’m no’ sure the boys were smilin’ back.

Loch Katrine, Water Bull, GypsyAh, but it wasna those vampires o’ the Caledonian night that were oor bane. Oh no. ‘Twas a Gypsy. No’ some travellin’ tyke, ye understand – we’d nae prejudice against such folk, here - but a stranger tae these waters, still

'Twas ‘Gypsy’ – the iron steamer that turned up here in the summer o’ 1843. Eight horse-power it’ a’ that might dedicated tae gie us an’ our thirty ponies a run for oor money!

Sure, I’ve nae truck wae this modern steam. Steam! I ask ye! They’ll be runnin’ on sunshine, next. An’, mind, I’m no alone. First time we saw it – carted on cradlewagons ower-land frae Stirling – we knew it was on a hidin’ tae nothing. It was doomed frae the start. Doomed, I tell ye

Jamie Stewart, oot Callander way, he had the worth o’ it.

'Twas some droll chap said in a whim,

"I'll get a boat to go by steam,

Which to Loch Katrine I'll send,

To run from Coalbarns to Lochend."

A job, began at Stirling Shore,

The boat had thirty miles or more

From there to sail upon dry land.

But somehow, by ingenious arts,

They got the boat put up on carts.

'Twas drawn by able horses ten,

Surrounded by a host of men.

On they went through thick and thin,

And seldom was there heard sic din.'

Two days frae Stirling tae Callander. Good goin’, I’m sure ye’ll agree. After took a wee bit longer than they expected. ‘Twixt the Tollhouse an’ Kilmahog a wagon-wheel splintered an’ sank intae the bog – carriages an’ carts clutterin’ up the road behin’ them.

An’ you thought traffic-jams an 'congestion' were modern inventions!

At Coilantogle the wheels split an’ sank again, right up tae to the’ again, but half a mile frae the Loch. ‘Twas, a’most as though someone was deliberately churnin’ up the earth o’ the highways tae make their journey difficult. But who wou’d dae such a thing? Then, restin’ on the road – but hauf-a-mile frae the Loch – the horses ran awa. Four days it took tae catch the last o’ them

That was unlucky! An' some started sayin' as how the great iron beast was curs'd!

Next mornin’ though she was paddling slowly up the loch, round Ellen's Isle, and back to the landing-place, the crew smug an’ smiling on the bonnie boys o’ the ‘Water Witch’. An’ I’m happy tae say that maist o’ the travellers tae Coalbarns favoured tradition ower technology:

'By seventeen the old was chosen.

The new by only half-a-dozen.

And having got their boats untied,

They left the harbour side by side.

But indications of a race

Were seen in every rower's face.

And as with might their oars they drew

Their little vessel onward flew.

And when they got to Ellen's Isle -

The panting steamer half a mile

Behind them coming, as they spied -

They thought upon their oars with pride.

With cheerful glee they tell their news

Their passengers for to amuse.

But all along they kept in mind

The vessel that they left behind.

Their long, light oars elastic spring

As from their blades the spray they fling.

And soon they reached the landing-place,

Having by two miles gained the race.'

That said...the boys were knackered. I’m no’ sure they cou’d hae kept up the pace for long. But, after a week or so, the strangest thing happened.

The ‘Gypsy’ disappeared in the middle o’ the night.

A mystery, sure enough. Perhaps a that talk o' a Curse was true, after a'!

His honour the Fiscal – a fine gentleman – oh, he was havin none o' that superstitious talk. He paid several visits tae the Loch, but failed tae procure any reliable information as tae what had befallen the poor 'Gypsy'. One by one the crew o’ the ‘Water Witch’ were summoned, but – an’ here’s a funny thing – while each cou’d converse in tolerably good English wae their passengers , as soon they entered the Court-house at Dunblane, an’ were asked afore God if they had scuttled the steamer they cou’d only speak in Gaelic. is an honest language, after a’. An’ was it no’ a shame that the interpreter the Sheriff hired tae take their testimony struggled tae understand them.

‘Course, while they pointed fingers at the crew o’ the ‘Water Witch’, the owners o’ the ‘Gypsy’ mocked the quite reasonable explanation offered by the boatmen: that it was the magical Water Bull, that swims these waters – and, they say, sires the hardiest calves amongst the local herds – which had holed the steamer wae its mighty horns. The beastie, after a’ was protective o’ the galleys, an’ may hae ta’en fright at the clatter an’ clamour o’ the ‘Gypsy’s engines.

The story was ‘bull’, right enough, the Fiscal said...just no’ in the way the boatmen claimed.

‘Course, the followin’ year the ‘Rob Roy’ arrived – a’ thirty tonnes o’ her – an’ the Witch’s days were numbered. Then came this pretty wee boat. Sure, it would be an awfy shame if someone sawed a hole in her keel... Still, accidents do happen."


Taken from An Evening on Loch Katrine, performed in 2013

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