Of all the supernatural beings once believed to roam Orkney, none was as feared as the creature known as the Nuckelavee.
The Nuckelavee was a creature of abject terror, and spoken of with bated breath until comparatively recent times.
Although many folklore creatures had a dualistic nature, the Nuckelavee was a creature of sheer evil. His sole purpose was to plague the islanders – a task from which he rarely rested.
According to the old Orcadians, who lived in constant fear of the Nuckelavee, only the power of the Mither o’ the Sea kept the beast in check. Were it not for the fact that she restrained him in the summer, and that his terror of fresh rainwater kept him hiding in the winter, they were sure that the Nuckelavee would have driven mankind from the Northern Isles long ago.
Despite the fact that his home was considered to be the sea, the Nuckelavee was known to wander freely on land. It was during these landward excursions that he was most often encountered by mortals – usually seen riding a steed as monstrous as himself.
The surviving accounts vary, with some storytellers merging the two monsters so that rider and horse become one – a vile hybrid of man and beast that, they swore, was Nuckelavee’s true shape.
From the few recorded descriptions of the Nuckelavee, we learn that his head was similar to that of a man only “ten times larger”. He had an incredibly wide mouth that jutted out like a pig’s snout and a single red eye that burned with a red flame.
Hairless, his body was also skinless, its entire surface appearing like raw and living flesh. It was said that his thick, black blood could be seen coursing through his veins, as his sinewy muscles writhed with every movement he made. His long ape-like arms hung down to the ground and from his gaping mouth spewed a foul, black reek.
All in all, not a pleasant sight to encounter on some lonely stretch of coastline.
The Nuckelavee was often blamed for numerous disasters that were known to afflict the hardworking folk of Orkney:
“If crops were blighted by sea-gust or mildew, if livestock fell over high rocks that skirt the shores, or if an epidemic raged among men, or among the lower animals, Nuckelavee was the cause of all. His breath was venom, falling like blight on vegetable, and with deadly disease on animal life.”
Were this catalogue of misery not enough, the Nuckelavee was also blamed for any droughts that could seriously ruin a harvest.
From this, we are left in no doubt that the old Orcadians regarded the Nuckelavee an incredibly powerful and dangerous creature – perhaps more powerful than the surviving accounts would indicate. How else could an earthbound entity affect the weather to such an extent?
Mortasheen – Nuckelavee’s legacy
The old practice of burning gathered seaweed to make kelp was said to cause terrible offense to Nuckelavee.
The creature could not stand the smell of the pungent smoke and it drove him into an extreme and diabolical rage. In this state he would vent his wrath by smitting all the horses on the island of Stronsay – the island where kelp was first burned in Orkney – with a deadly disease known as “Mortasheen”.
Once propagated, Mortasheen would soon spread throughout the islands where kelp was burned. Nuckelavee’s revenge was terrible and complete.
The Orkney folklorist Walter Traill Dennison, who lived in Sanday in the nineteenth century, claimed to know of a man who had actually encountered Nuckelavee and lived to tell the tale.
According to Dennison, the man was very reticent to talk on the subject and only after much “higgling and persuasion” was a narrative forthcoming.
Until fairly recent times, the Nuckelavee was extremely feared and, like many other creature of Orcadian folklore, it was generally thought unsafe to mention the monster’s name for fear of attracting his attention.
As you may have already read, the following is an allegedly true account of an encounter with Nuckelavee recorded by the Orkney Folklorist Walter Traill Dennison:
“Tammas, like his namesake Tam o’ Shanter, was out late one night. It was, though moonless, a fine starlit night. Tammas’s road lay close by the seashore, and as he entered a part of the road that was hemmed in on one side by the sea, and on the other by a deep freshwater loch, he saw some huge object in front of, and moving towards him.
What was he to do?
He was sure it was no earthly thing that was steadily coming towards him. He could not go to either side, and to turn his back to an evil thing, he had heard, was the most dangerous position of all; so Tammie said to himself, “The Lord be aboot me, an tak care o me, as I am oot on no evil intent this night!” Tammie was always regarded as rough and foolhardy.
Anyway, he determined, as the best of two evils, to face the foe, and so walked resolutely yet slowly forward. He soon discovered to his horror that the gruesome creature approaching him was no other than the dreaded Nuckelavee – the most cruel and malignant of all uncanny beings that trouble mankind.
The lower part of this terrible monster, as seen by Tammie, was like a great horse, with flappers like fins about his legs, with a mouth as wide as a whales, from which came breath like steam from a brewing-kettle. He had but one eye, and that as red as fire.
On him sat, or rather seemed to grow from his back, a huge man with no legs, and arms that reached nearly to the ground. His head was as big as a clue of simmons*, and this huge head kept rolling from one shoulder to the other as if it meant to tumble off.
But what to Tammie appeared most horrible of all, was that the monster was skinless; this utter want of skin adding much to the terrific appearance of the creatures naked body.
The whole surface of it showing only red, raw flesh, in which Tammie saw blood, black as tar, running through yellow veins, and great white sinews, thick as horse tethers, twisting, stretching, and contracting, as the monster moved. Tammie went slowly on in mortal terror, his hair on end, a cold sensation like a film of ice between his scalp and his skull, and a cold sweat bursting from every pore.
But he knew it was useless to flee, and he said, if he had to die, he would rather see who killed him than die with his back to the foe.
In all his terror Tammie remembered what he had heard of Nuckelavee’s dislike of fresh water, and, therefore, took that side of the road nearest to the loch. The awful moment came when the lower head of the monster got abreast of Tammie.
The mouth of the monster yawned like a bottomless pit.
Tammie found its hot breath like fire on his face; the long arms were stretched out to seize the unhappy man. To avoid, if possible, the monsters clutch Tammie swerved as near as he could to the loch; in doing so one of his feet went into the loch, splashing up some water on the foreleg of the monster, whereat the horse gave a snort like thunder and shied over to the other side of the road, and Tammie felt the wind of Nuckelavee’s clutches as he narrowly escaped the monsters grip.
Tammie saw his opportunity, and ran with all his might; and sore need had he to run, for Nuckelavee had turned and was galloping after him, and bellowing with a sound like the roaring of the sea.
In front of Tammie lay a rivulet, through which the surplus water of the loch found its way to the sea, and Tammie knew, if he could only cross the running water, he was safe; so he strained every nerve.
As he reached the near bank another clutch was made at him by the long arms. Tammie made a desperate spring and reached the other side, leaving his bonnet in the monsters clutches.
Nuckelavee gave a wild unearthly yell of disappointed rage as Tammie fell senseless on the safe side of the water.”