Over the past year or so I have read various tales connected with Scotland’s highest village, both online and in a number of books. I have read about the lead mining heritage and about Robert Burns’ connection to the village, and of course I have read much about the history of the gold hidden in the hills. But it was only this week that I have come across perhaps the most intriguing story of them all.
Whilst at the Lead Mining Museum on Thursday, I picked up a booklet from a series of other slim editions all about Wanlockhead. I had previously bought ‘Wanlockhead in Verse’ (complied and edited by Gwen Smart), so this time I picked up ‘Religion In Wanlockhead’ (by Sandie Keggans MA), mainly to see if there were any Covenanters’ stories that I wasn’t already aware of. In the end it wasn’t a Covenanting tale which intrigued me; instead it was a single paragraph in the booklet about something altogether different which has inspired this blog post: The Cannibal Water-sheep.
Back in 1806 a dam in Wanlockhead was drained. At the bottom of the dam a sheep was discovered, alive. It was taken to Edinburgh but died en-route. ‘When a post-mortem was carried out on the animal it was found to have lungs fully adapted to breathe under water, with sacs attached which filled with oxygen allowing it to survive on land for short periods of time. The water-sheep was otherwise like a normal sheep. However, its stomach held fish bones and undigested sheep flesh…A report on the animal was presented to the Society of Physicians and Surgeons in Edinburgh at the time. It seems the whole incident was swept under the carpet as the members of the Society were reminded of the theories…that all life had begun in the sea or great lakes. They were warned that such ideas should be treated with great caution, as they were in opposition to Biblical teachings’. (‘Religion in Wanlockhead’, page 11) .
Upon reading this I immediately thought of the 2006 film, Black Sheep (which currently has a undeservedly low rating of 5.8 on IMDB – clearly some people don’t get the humor of a comedy horror B-movie). But I also thought about how strange it is that the businesses in Wanlockhead don’t milk this story – surely the Cannibal Water-sheep is Upper Nithsdale’s very own Loch Ness Monster?! Folk are really missing a trick here.
There are two main questions I have about this story. Firstly: is this the only account of such a creature? How could there be only one? And secondly, the book states that the sheep in question resembled a ‘normal sheep’, therefore we would assume that this means it was covered in wool. It’s not a theory I want to try out anytime soon, but I don’t think it would be easy to swim whilst wearing a full sheep’s fleece. Sheep really aren’t the most stream-line of creatures.
I have yet to find any other sources which relate to this tale but I will definitely do some digging. I’m not sure when the tourism in the Highlands surrounding Nessie actually began to take off, but I would guess that perhaps the Cannibal Water-sheep was a reaction to that. Maybe a group of miners got together on a Sunday afternoon and decided to make up a funny story to rival the big swimming dinosaur, as a way to draw people up to the village. Or perhaps there really was a sheep at the bottom of the dam, but one which had only just fallen in, hence why it was still alive – the whole yarn about the post-mortem could have been added later to raise the sense of mystery.
Of course I will now be looking in every deep stretch of the burns all around Wanlockhead for evidence of this mythical beast, along with starting a fund-raising campaign to commission a 20 ft high fiberglass sculpture of the C.W.S at the top of the Mennock Pass (joke?). Who knows where the story came from, or from what truth it grew from, but it is a tale I completely love. I just can’t believe that I have lived in the area for nearly 2 years and I have only just heard about the Cannibal Water-sheep!