Kelpie, or water kelpie, is the Lowland Scottish name given to a water being inhabiting the lochs and pools of Scotland. It has usually been described as appearing as a horse, but is able to adopt human form. Some accounts state that the kelpie retains its hooves when appears as a human, leading to its association with the Christian idea of Satan as alluded to by Robert Burns in his 1786 poem “Address to the Deil”.
Almost every sizeable body of water in Scotland has an associated kelpie story, but the most extensively reported is that of Loch Ness, first recorded in the 6th century. Parallels to the general Germanic neck and the Scandinavian bäckahäst have been observed. More widely, the wihwin of South America and the Australian bunyip have been seen as counterparts. The origin of the belief in malevolent water horses has been proposed as originating in human sacrifices once made to appease gods associated with water, but narratives about the kelpie also served a practical purpose in keeping children away from dangerous stretches of water, and warning young women to be wary of handsome strangers.
Kelpies have been portrayed in their various forms in art and literature, most recently in two 30-metre (98 ft) high steel sculptures in Falkirk, The Kelpies. The name of the mythical creature was chosen in reference to the horse’s strength and endurance, a monument to Scotland’s horse-powered industrial heritage.
The etymology of the Lowland Scottish noun kelpie is uncertain, but it may be derived from the Scottish Gaelic calpa or cailpeach, meaning “heifer” or “colt”. The first recorded use of the term to describe a creature from folklore, then spelled kaelpie, appears in the manuscript of a poem by William Collins from around 1759, and reproduced in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh of 1788. The place names Kelpie hoall and Kelpie Hooll are reported in A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (1993) as appearing in the 1674 burgh records for Kirkcudbright. Douglas Harper, historian and founder of the Online Etymology Dictionary, defines kelpie as “the Lowland name of a demon in the shape of a horse”.
Description and common attributes
The kelpie is the most common water spirit in Scottish folklore, but the name is attributed to several different forms and fables throughout the country. The late 19th century saw the onset of an interest in transcribing folklore, but the recorders were inconsistent in spelling and frequently anglicised words, which could result in differing names for the same spirits. Writers including Lewis Spence define kelpies as spirits living beside rivers and those living beside lochs as water horses, a distinction not universally applied. Others ascribe the term kelpie to a wide variety of mythical creatures. Counterparts in some regions of Scotland include the shoopiltee and nuggle of Shetland and the tangie of Orkney; in other parts of the United Kingdom they include the Welsh ceffyl dŵr and the Manx cabbyl-ushtey. Parallels to the general Germanic neck and the Scandinavian bäckahäst have been observed; Nick Middleton observes that “the kelpie of Scottish folklore is a direct parallel of the [sic] bäckahästen [of Scandinavian folklore]”. The wihwin of South America, the Iara and the Australian bunyip are similar creatures in other parts of the world.
In folklore, the kelpie is usually described as a powerful and beautiful black horse inhabiting the lochs and pools of Scotland, preying on any humans it encounters, similar to the water horse of Scottish and Irish Gaelic mythology known as the each-uisge. Alternatively, folklorist and 19th-century minister of Tiree John Gregorson Campbell considered kelpies, unlike water horses in general, as relatively benign creatures which only inhabit running water, and though they may perhaps mischievously stop a mill’s water wheel would rarely harm humans. One of the kelpie’s common identifying characteristics is that its hooves are reversed as compared to those of a normal horse. An Aberdeenshire variation portrays the kelpie as a horse with a mane of serpents, whereas the resident equine spirit of the River Spey was white and capable of singing to entice victims onto its back.
The creature’s nature was described by Walter Gregor, a folklorist and one of the first members of the Folklore Society, as “useful”, “hurtful” or seeking “human companionship”; in some cases kelpies take their victims into the water, devour them and throw the entrails to the water’s edge. In its equine form the kelpie is able to extend the length of its back to carry many riders together into the depths, a common theme in the tales is of several children clambering onto the creature’s back while one remains on the shore. Usually a little boy, he then pets the horse but his hand sticks to its neck. In some variations the lad cuts off his fingers or hand to free himself; he survives but the other children are carried off and drowned, with only some of their entrails being found later. Such a creature said to inhabit Glen Keltney in Perthshire is considered to be a kelpie by 20th-century folklorist Katherine Briggs, but a similar tale also set in Perthshire has an each uisge as the culprit and omits the embellishment of the young boy. The lad does cut his finger off when the event takes place in Thurso, where a water kelpie is identified as the culprit. The same tale set at Sunart in the Highlands gives a specific figure of nine children lost, of whom only the innards of one are recovered. The surviving boy is again saved by cutting off his finger, and the additional information is given that he had a Bible in his pocket. Gregorson Campbell considers the creature responsible to have been a water horse rather than a kelpie, and the tale an “obviously a pious fraud to keep children from wandering on Sundays”.
Kelpie narratives usually describe a solitary creature, but a fairy story recorded by John F. Campbell in Popular Tales of the West Highlands (1860) has a different perspective. Entitled Of the Drocht na Vougha or Fuoah, which is given the translation of the bridge of the fairies or kelpies, it features a group of Voughas. The spirits had set about constructing a bridge over the Dornoch Firth after becoming tired of travelling across the water in cockleshells. It was a magnificent piece of work resplendent with gold piers and posts, but sank into the water to become a treacherous area of quicksand after a grateful onlooker tried to bless the kelpies for their work. The same story is recorded by Folklore Society member and folklore collector Charlotte Dempster simply as The Kelpie’s Bridge (1888) with no mention of Voughas or Fuoah. Quoting the same narrative, Jennifer Westwood, author and folklorist, uses the descriptor water kelpies, adding that in her opinion “Kelpies, here and in a few other instances, is used in a loose sense to mean something like ‘imps'”.
Progeny resulting from a mating between a kelpie and a normal horse were impossible to drown, and could be recognised by their shorter than normal ears, a characteristic shared by the mythical water bull or tarbh uisge in Scottish Gaelic, similar to the Manx tarroo ushtey.
Kelpies have the ability to transform themselves into non-equine forms, and can take on the outward appearance of human figures, in which guise they may betray themselves by the presence of water weeds in their hair. In their human form, kelpies are almost invariably male. One of the few stories describing the creature in female form is set at Conon House in Ross and Cromarty. It tells of a “tall woman dressed in green”, with a “withered, meagre countenance, ever distorted by a malignant scowl”, who overpowered and drowned a man and a boy after she jumped out of a stream. Gregor described a kelpie adopting the guise of a wizened old man continually muttering to himself while sitting on a bridge stitching a pair of trousers. Believing it to be a kelpie, a passing local struck it on the head, causing it to revert to its equine form and scamper back to its lair in a nearby pond. Other accounts describe the kelpie when appearing in human form as a “rough, shaggy man who leaps behind a solitary rider, gripping and crushing him”, or as tearing apart and devouring humans.
A folktale from Barra tells of a lonely kelpie that transforms itself into a handsome young man to woo a pretty young girl it was determined to take for its wife. But the girl recognises the young man as a kelpie and removes his silver necklace (his bridle) while he sleeps. The kelpie immediately reverts to its equine form, and the girl takes it home to her father’s farm, where it is put to work for a year. At the end of that time the girl rides the kelpie to consult a wise man, who tells her to return the silver necklace. Once again transformed into the handsome young man she had first met the wise man asks the kelpie whether if given the choice it would choose to be a kelpie or a mortal. The kelpie in turn asks the girl whether, if he were a man, she would agree to be his wife. She confirms that she would, after which the kelpie chooses to become a mortal man, and the pair are married.
The arrival of Christianity in Scotland in the 6th century resulted in some folk stories and beliefs being recorded by scribes, usually Christian monks, instead of being perpetuated by word of mouth. Some accounts state that the kelpie retains its hooves even in human form, leading to its association with the Christian notion of Satan, just as with the Greek god Pan. Robert Burns refers to such a Satanic association in his “Address to the Deil” (1786):
When thowes dissolve the snawy hoord
An’ float the jinglin icy boord
Then, water-kelpies haunt the foord
By your direction
An’ nighted trav’llers are allur’d
To their destruction.
Capture and killing
When a kelpie appeared in its equine persona without any tack, it could be captured using a halter stamped with the sign of a cross, and its strength could then be harnessed in tasks such as the transportation of heavy mill stones. One folk tale describes how the Laird of Morphie captured a kelpie and used it to carry stones to build his castle. Once the work was complete, the laird released the kelpie, which was evidently unhappy about its treatment. The curse it issued before leaving – “Sair back and sair banes/ Drivin’ the Laird o’ Morphies’s stanes,/ The Laird o’ Morphie’ll never thrive/ As lang’s the kelpy is alive” – was popularly believed to have resulted in the extinction of the laird’s family. Some kelpies were said to be equipped with a bridle and sometimes a saddle, and appeared invitingly ready to ride, but if mounted they would run off and drown their riders. If the kelpie was already wearing a bridle, exorcism might be achieved by removing it. A bridle taken from a kelpie was endowed with magical properties, and if brandished towards someone, was able to transform that person into a horse or pony.
According to an account published by Spence, a kelpie can be killed by being shot with a silver bullet, after which it is seen to consist of nothing more than “turf and a soft mass like jelly-fish”. In another account, when a blacksmith’s family were being frightened by the repeated appearances of a water kelpie at their summer cottage, the blacksmith managed to render it into a “heap of starch, or something like it” by penetrating the spirit’s flanks with two sharp iron spears that had been heated in a fire.
Almost every sizeable Scottish body of water has a kelpie story associated with it, but the most widely reported is the kelpie of Loch Ness. Several stories of mythical spirits and monsters are attached to the loch dating back to 6th-century reports of Saint Columba defeating a monster there. The early 19th-century kelpie that haunted the woods and shores of Loch Ness was tacked up with its own saddle and bridle. A narrative attached to the notoriously nasty creature has the Highlander James MacGrigor taking it by surprise and cutting off its bridle, the source of its power and life, without which it would die within twenty-four hours. As the kelpie had the power of speech, it attempted unsuccessfully to bargain with MacGrigor for the return of its bridle. After following MacGrigor to his home, the kelpie asserted that MacGrigor would be unable to enter his house while in possession of the bridle, because of the presence of a cross above the entrance door. But MacGrigor outwitted the creature by tossing the bridle through a window, so the kelpie accepted its fate and left, cursing and swearing. The narrative is perpetuated with further tales of the bridle as it is passed down through the family. Referred to as “Willox’s Ball and Bridle”, it had magical powers of healing; a spell was made by placing the items in water while chanting “In the name of the Father the son and of the Holy Ghost”; the water could then be used as a cure.
A popular and more recent explanation for the Loch Ness monster among believers is that it belongs to a line of long-surviving plesiosaurs,, but the traditional kelpie narrative continues into children’s books such as Mollie Hunter’s The Kelpie’s Pearls (1966) and Dick King-Smith’s The Water Horse (1990).
Folklorist Gary R. Varner has suggested that the origin of the belief in water horses that preyed on and devoured humans may be a reflection of the human sacrifices once made to appease the gods of water. The association with horses may have its roots in the horse sacrifices performed in Scandinavia. Stories of malevolent water spirits served the practical purpose of keeping children away from perilous areas of water, and of warning adolescent women to be wary of attractive young strangers. The stories were also used to enforce moral standards, as they implied that the creatures took retribution for bad behaviour carried out on Sundays. The intervention of demons and spirits was possibly a way to rationalise the drowning of children and adults who had accidentally fallen into deep, fast flowing or turbulent water.
Historian and symbologist Charles Milton Smith has hypothesised that the kelpie myth might originate with the water spouts that can form over the surface of Scottish lochs, giving the impression of a living form as they move across the water. Walter Scott alludes to a similar explanation in his epic poem The Lady of the Lake (1810), which contains the lines
He watched the wheeling eddies boil,
Jill from their foam his dazzled eyes
Beheld the River Demon rise:
Scott may also have hinted at an alternative rational explanation by naming a treacherous area of quicksand “Kelpie’s Flow” in his novel The Bride of Lammermoor (1818).
Pictish stones dating from the 6th to 9th centuries featuring what has been dubbed the Pictish Beast may be the earliest representations of a kelpie or kelpie-like creature. Other depictions show kelpies as poolside maidens, as in Draper’s 1913 oil on canvas. Thomas Millie Dow had also sketched the kelpie in 1895 as a melancholy dark-haired maiden balanced on a rock, a common depiction for artists of the period. Folklorist Nicola Bown has suggested that painters such as Millie Dow and Draper deliberately ignored earlier accounts of the kelpie and reinvented it by altering its sex and nature.
Two 30-metre (98 ft) high steel sculptures in Falkirk on the Forth and Clyde Canal, named The Kelpies, borrow the name of the mythical creature to associate with the strength and endurance of the horse; designed by sculptor Andy Scott, they were built as monuments to Scotland’s horse-powered industrial heritage. Construction was completed in October 2013 and the sculptures were opened for public access from April 2014.