Tuesday 21 May 2013

The Elf-Cattle of Caithness

I was going through some of my old emails when I came across this old newspaper clipping. I had found it as part of my earlier research into my book "The Water Horses of Loch Ness" but had not used it. So now is a good time a time as any to look at it. It is taken from the John O' Groats Journal dated the 31st December 1852.

Our story concerns a type of loch beast called the Water Bull of which Loch Ness itself was reputed to host one. However, this story is set in Caithness, the northernmost part of mainland Scotland (the green tip on our map below).

The lochs in question are not named, though my own research unearthed only one monster loch in Caithness and that is Loch Na Cloiche. Whether this was in mind or not, the elf-cattle pretty much follow the Water Bull type in inter breeding with land cattle but keep their abode in the waters of the loch. Other sources tell us that the hybrid product of land cows and water bulls were called "corcach" in the Gaelic whilst the aquatic beasts themselves were more docile than their more fearsome counterparts, the Water Horse and Kelpie.

The other interesting term is "elf-cattle" and one wonders if the locals were attempting to envisage a parallel world of creatures to those in the natural world. Just as there was the Cu-Sith or fairy-dog and the feline Cat Sith, was there also equivalent livestock in Scottish lochs?

Finally, you may wonder what the author means by the "much maligned development hypothesis"? It is in fact a precursor to Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection and pre-dates it by over ten years. You can read more about it here. As it turns out, the author of the article was arguing that the mythical beast may actually have some basis in the idea that a creature had developed in the Highland lochs from a more humble fish form.


  1. I do wonder if legendary creatures are entirely of the mind of the inhabitants, or are based on something real. I would certainly agree with you that the kelpie and water horse legends are probably based on real creatures. It is interesting that between Ness and Morar, at least 3 separate creature types have been reported in modern times. The long necked creature, the lizard type creature (reported at Morar and by the diver at Ness in the 1880s), and the 'Fordyce' creature. Maybe having at least 3 cryptids stretches things a little far, but maybe these, and other legends and apparitions, come from the same place.

  2. By council ordanance,lochs are limited to only 1 type of monster.