Heritage and Culture

Folklore Thursday: The Boobrie

Folklore Thursday: The Boobrie
By Kirsty McIntyre

If you're ever in Scotland and spot a bird of unusual size, it could be a heron or a capercaillie, two of the most distinctive birds found in the Scottish countryside.

Or it could be the Boobrie.

The Boobrie is a mythical, shapeshifting creature native to the lochs on the west coast of Scotland. It's speculated that the name comes from the Gaelic boibhre, which translates as "cow giver". It has also been noted as tarbh-boidhre, which translates literally as "bull hearth" but is more commonly taken to mean a monster or demon. It favours the form of a large bird, although it can also appear as a water horse or a large bloodsucking insect.

Despite these seemingly innocuous appearances, the boobrie is a malicious creature. Its diet is mostly cattle, and it is not above killing farm workers who attempt to protect the livestock. It also eats sheep and lambs, as well as large quantities of otters.

Although the bird form is the most famous appearance of the Boobrie, it seems to be the most difficult to spot in the wild. One of the most famous accounts comes from Campbell of Islay, who noted the story as boobrie as tarbh uisge. (Tarbh-uisge translates as "water bull"). He tells the story of a young man who came across a wounded bull by the side of Loch nan Dobhran in Argyll and nursed it back to health. A few months later, his girlfriend Phemie was attacked by her former lover by the side of the loch and rescued by a water-bull that knocked down her attacker. The bull then allowed Phemie to get onto its back and carried her back to safety before disappearing into the night. The story was noted in verse, translated from the Gaelic:

"I was assisted by a young man

And I aided a maid in distress;

Then after three hundred years of bondage

Relieve me quickly."

The legend of the boobrie may stem from a number of the wild bird life around the lochs it makes its home in. The great auk, extinct by the mid 19th Century, is rumoured to be the source of a number of boobrie sightings due to similarities in size and colouring.

The distinctive noise of the boobrie, described by many alleged eyewitnesses as a roar like a bull, has been attributed to the common bittern, a migratory visitor to Scotland.

The legend of the Boobrie has travelled across the world from its humble Scottish beginnings, and it was one of the monsters included in the Second Edition of Dungeons and Dragons in 1989.

Tim Timmons 8 months ago at 01:33
Thank you so much for these folklore articles. They are entertaining and educational.
Monica 8 months ago at 08:55
Hi Tim, you are most welcome! We're glad you enjoy them.