The boobrie is a mythological shapeshifting entity inhabiting the lochs of the west coast of Scotland. It commonly adopts the appearance of a gigantic water bird resembling a cormorant or great northern diver, but it can also materialise as a water bull, a water horse or a very large insect.
Boobrie may derive from boibhre meaning cow giver or cow bestowing. Edward Dwelly, a Scottish lexicographer, lists tarbh-boidhre as "Monster, demon" and "God capable of changing himself into many forms"; tarbh-aoidhre is given as a northern counties variation.
Description and common attributes
The boobrie is a generally malevolent entity with the ability to materialise in the form of various mythical creatures. It commonly preys on animals being transported on ships, preferably calves, but will also happily eat lambs and sheep, carrying its prey away to the deepest water before consuming it. It is also extremely fond of otters, which it consumes in large quantities.
In its favoured bird manifestation the boobrie resembles a gigantic great northern diver or cormorant, but with white markings. According to folklorist Campbell of Islay, a detailed account of its dimensions provided by an authoritative source claims that it is "larger than seventeen of the biggest eagles put together". It has a strong black beak about 11 inches (280 mm) wide and 17 inches (430 mm) in length, the final 5 inches (130 mm) of which taper like that of an eagle. The creature's neck is almost 3 feet (0.91 m) long with a girth of a little under 2 feet (0.61 m). Short black powerful legs lead to webbed feet with gigantic claws. An imprint of a boobrie's foot left in some lakeside mud equalled "the span of a large wide-spreading pair of red deer's horns". It bellows noisily with displeasure, sounding more like a bull than a bird. The design of its wings is more conducive to swimming rather than for flight.
Although sea lochs are the boobries' natural home they will shelter on land in overgrown heather. Accounts are inconsistent as to the extent of the boobrie's habitat. Campbell of Islay claims that it is specific to the lochs of Argyllshire, as does Emeritus Professor of English James MacKillop. The writers Katharine Briggs and Patricia Monaghan on the other hand consider the creature's range to be the broader Scottish Highlands.
As a water horse
An incident involving a boobrie assuming the form of a water horse (or each uisge) occurred on the Isle of Mull. A farmer and his son were ploughing a field using a team of horses beside Loch Freisa. Work stalled after one of the horses lost a shoe and was unable to continue; however, noticing a horse grazing nearby they decided to try using it as a replacement. Once harnessed into the wooden plough, the horse appeared familiar with the requirements and initially worked steadily. As it began to work towards an area closest to the loch, it became restless and the farmer gently used a whip on the horse to encourage it to continue. The horse reacted by immediately transforming into a gigantic boobrie, giving out a loud bellow and diving into the loch pulling the plough and the other three horses with it. The frightened farmer and his son watched as the creature swam to the centre of the loch then dived underwater taking the other horses and plough under the surface as well. Seven hours later there was still no sign of the other horses coming back to shore.
As a water bull
George Henderson, a folklorist and Celtic scholar, reproduced parts of Campbell of Islay's manuscripts when writing Survivals in belief among the Celts (1911). Among these is a story listed as "boobrie as tarbh uisge". The tale starts by detailing how a man named Eachann fed a colossal black bull when he discovered it writhing in pain and possibly nearing death at the side of Loch nan Dobhran on the west coast of Argyll. Some months later, Phemie, Eachann’s girlfriend, is occasionally disturbed by elusive shadows she senses on the loch, which make her think of Murdoch, her former paramour. While she sat dreaming of Eachann one evening when staying at a sheiling near the loch, she sensed the flicker of a shadow behind her, except this time it was Murdoch. He promptly overpowered her by enveloping her in a blanket and tying her hands. At that point, a water bull came to Phemie’s rescue by knocking Murdoch to the ground. The bull then knelt down allowing Phemie to get on its back and it then transported her at the speed of light back to the home of her mother. The bull disappeared never to be seen again but a "voice was heard in the air calling out loudly". The verse heard was in Gaelic but translates as:
I was assisted by a young man
And I aided a maid in distress;
Then after three hundred years of bondage
Relieve me quickly.
It is then asserted that the tale "reveals the persistence in folk-belief of the idea of transformation, the boobrie being the abode of a spirit".
As an insect
The boobrie can also manifest itself in the form of a large insect that sucks on the blood of horses. Henderson refers to it as a "big stripped brown gobhlachan or ear-wig"[a] with "lots of tentacles or feelers". It was infrequently seen in this form and usually only at the height of the summer during August and September.
Capture and killing
A detailed description of a boobrie was given by a man who attempted to shoot one with a gun after he spotted it in its bird-like manifestation. On a chilly February day the man paddled into a sea loch until the water was up to his shoulders. When he was about 85 yards (78 m) from the creature it dived under the water. The hunter maintained his position for 45 minutes, but when the boobrie failed to resurface after that time he returned to land. The man stayed on the shore watching for the creature for almost six hours, but it remained under water. The transcription of the story was undertaken by John Campbell of Kilberry.
Campbell of Islay speculates that the creature may have originated from sightings of the great auk. He noted he had been told stories of boobrie from various people and he considered it had "a real existence in the popular mind." Investigation into folklore, especially Celtic oral traditions, was initiated in the 19th-century and several "bizarre" and less familiar beasts were identified, including the boobrie. Referring to Forbes' 1905 dictionary of "Gaelic names of beasts" in which bubaire is defined as a common bittern, and a detailed description given by scholar James Logie Robertson of the bull o' the bog (an alternative name for a bittern) in The Scotsman in 1908, Henderson hypothesises the boobrie may stem from it.
- Dwelly defines gobhlachan as, among other things, daddy long legs, crane-fly and various fish, etc.
- Gregorson Campbell (2005), p. 373
- Dwelly (1902a), p. 934
- Campbell (1860), p. xcvii
- Henderson (1911), p. 135
- Bane (2013), p. 64
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- Rose (2001), p. 56
- MacKillop, James (2004), "Boobrie", A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (online ed.), Oxford University Press, retrieved 8 July 2014, (subscription required ())
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- Monaghan (2009), p. 53
- Henderson (1911), p. 138
- Henderson (1911), p. 139
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- Henderson (1911), pp. 140-141
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- Robinson (1965), p. 285
- Forbes (1905), p. 21
- Robertson, J. Logie (1 March 1910), "Science and nature; the bull o' the bog", The Scotsman: 11
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