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Issue 60 - The Kelpie's Curse

Scotland Magazine Issue 60
December 2011


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The Kelpie's Curse

Annie Harrower Gray looks into the legend of the kelpie of St. Vigeans.

The kelpie in Celtic folklore is a confederate of The Evil One, Auld Nick or The Devil. Assuming the likeness of a black horse, this angry spirit has been known to entice humans onto its back before bolting into deep waters, drowning its rider and eating their remains.

All of those powerful beings haunt Scotland’s lochs and waterways, that is all except one. The villagers in the ancient hamlet of St. Vigeans believed such a spirit lived beneath their church.

St. Vigeans near Arbroath, takes its name from St Feachan who died in 664 and it appears there has been some sort of religious establishment in or near the village since at least the 9th Century. Various excavations at St. Vigeans have found bronze weapons, ornaments and other traces of early inhabitants.

In the 9th Century AD Arbroath was a small port attending to the needs of a more important settlement at St. Vigeans. A collection of 34 Pictish and medieval stones found in and around the village suggest the site was once an important Royal Monastery and possibly an important pilgrimage centre. These fine examples of Pictish and medieval art are now housed in St Vigeans Museum and include the Drosten Stone. This carved cross slab dating from before 843 bears fantastic beasts, a ornate cross and a Pictish as well as Latin inscription. – ‘Drosten ire vor et ett forcus’.

It was not unusual for masons to add Christian symbols to existing stones in order to ensure continuity of belief between the old Pagan religion and the new one.

These beautifully carved stones were in many cases memorials. The Drosten stone is thought to be the memorial stone of King Uuroid Mac and would originally have been one of the memorials, gravestones or boundary markers on Church Hill.

At least one cross-slab was used to build the present church the foundations of which, date back to the 12th Century. What would appear to be an early medieval cross-slab is built into the outer face of the south-side wall of St. Vigeans Parish Church.

The slab has been built into the wall horizontally and only an arm of a cross remains visible on the stones edge. This building work, parishioners were convinced was carried out by an enslaved kelpie.

There is one way to capture one of these supernatural horses, secure its head in a pair of brauks. Only when the kelpie’s head is constrained by the bridle, may it be useful to mankind. Residents of 18th Century St. Vigeans believed there was a deep loch hidden under the 40ft mound on which the church stands and this was the seahorse’s home. The holy man who built the church above captured the beast and put it to work dragging large stones up the hill. On being rescued from his constraints, this unwilling workhorse harboured a great resentment against his captor and laid a curse upon the church. He predicted a minister of St. Vigeans kirk would commit suicide. On the first communion after the minister’s death, the church would then crumble into the loch below, killing all those who attended.

If the building work referred to was the construction of the early 12th Century church then the curse lay a long time dormant. There were though major repairs to the walls and roof in the early 18th century. If it is to those the legend refers then the curse came into almost immediate effect. On 15th November 1725 Thomas Watson, Minister of St. Vigeans for 23 years, took his own life.

Watson, a graduate of the University of St. Andrews left a wife and a will. The testament is registered and recorded in the church records. Missing is the document itself.

It seems to be a mystery as to where the minister was buried, but the Burgh Constable would almost certainly have interred the body in a grave somewhere beyond the village boundaries. Watson was possibly given an unmarked grave at the junction where the lands of three lairds meet, as was the custom of the time. A crime of self-murder was not looked upon compassionately in 18th century Scotland.

Immediately after the minister’s suicide and for many years to come, the parishioners refused to take communion, and the service was discarded. Eventually, one minister insisted on celebrating the ordinance but as he began all but a few of the congregation rushed from the church and gathered outside.

The inside of St. Vigeans reveals some interesting features and their history. Of the 12 consecration crosses that would have been cut into the masonry when the chancel was first consecrated in 1242, seven can still be seen on the walls today.

On the walls of the north aisle are two of the church’s most historic monuments. A black marble plaque commemorates the life of Sir Peter Young of the nearby Seaton Estate. Sir Peter and George Buchannan were joint tutors to James VI in his minority. The inscription reads ‘dearly loved by his King at home, by the citizen and by foreigners.’ A white, 18th century marble memorial in the same aisle remembers John Dempster of Forfar who owned part of the Estate of Letham Grange in St. Vigeans Parish. Better known was his son, ‘Honest George’ Dempster. An advocate, member of the Edinburgh Poker Club, Select Club and an Independent Member of Parliament for 28 years, Sir Walter Scott praised him and Robert Burns described him as a ‘true blue Scot.’ Returned to Parliament in 1762, the seat cost George Dempster nearly £100,000 in bought votes. He was fined £30,000 for bribery and corruption.

Above a door on the South Aisle of the Church is a sundial dating from 1872. The dial known as a declining dial due to the orientation of the church carries the inscription ‘my days are like a shadow that declineth’. A Dr. Alexander Brown, a noted meteorologist from Grange of Conon, suggested the motto. Was his suggestion just a typical example of the Presbyterian cheerfulness of the times or was he perhaps thinking of a kelpie who laboured under a huge weight of stone whilst the sun rose and set.

Did the congregation cease to belief in the poor overworked horse when the church failed to slide into the mound? Or having accomplished one part of his curse did he move on, perhaps to another church that will one day need restoration?