The Germanic neck, Scandinavian bäckahäst, the Australian bunyip, the wihwin of Central America, the Shetland tangi, the Orkney nuggle, the Welsh ceffyl dŵr, the Icelandic nykur, Norwegian nøkken, Scottish each uisage, and the Manx cabbyl-ushtey—what do all of these have in common? For one, they are fantastical creatures. They are all associated with folk tales and legends in their areas.
They are also all some form of kelpie.
The etymology of the word kelpie is uncertain but could have come from the Scots Gaelic word calpa or calipeach, meaning ‘heifer’ or ‘colt’. Scots Gaelic came from Old Gaelic, which is generally also known as Old Irish. This suggests that the kelpie legend as we know it may have originated in Ireland.
But what is the legend of the kelpie?
A kelpie is a type of water horse. Considered to be a shapeshifting spirit—a kelpie can take on human form, it inhabits lochs, rivers, pools, and lakes. Every sizable body of water is said to have its own kelpie. The physical features change from story to story as well as their names. They could have seal-like skin in black, green, or grey. They could have hooves, hooves that are backwards, hooves that remain even when they are in human form. They could have a mane composed of serpents, wet water weeds in their hair, a constantly dripping mane, or be cold to the touch. They could be only male or both male and female. The only consistency is that they are horses.
Stories paint the kelpies as malevolent creatures. Many are the tales of how a kelpie lured humans to drown. It is said that a kelpie will appear to a weary traveler or curious child as a magnificent horse, ready to be ridden. Upon being touched, or mounted, the victim is stuck to the kelpie and the kelpie will run to its water source and drown the victim. Then the kelpie will devour the human and leave the entrails behind at the edge of the water. A common theme throughout many stories is of a little boy and his friends who find a kelpie. Thinking it is only a horse, they jump on to the kelpie’s back, which can elongate to accommodate everyone. Before getting on, the boy pets the horse’s neck and finds his hand is stuck. He frees himself by cutting off his fingers or hands and the other children drown and are eaten by the kelpie.
Sir Walter Scott, in his epic poem The Lady of the Lake (1810), describes the first moment a character lays eyes on a kelpie:
He watched the wheeling eddies boil,
Jill from their foam his dazzled eyes
Beheld the River Demon rise
Most folktales come to us as fables or explanations for events and disasters that otherwise seemed impossible. Possibly the kelpie was used to explain why people drowned in deceptively calm waters. It could also have been a practical story, used to keep children away from dangerous waters or be wary of strangers as the kelpie can shift from horse to human. But the belief in malevolent water horses could have originated in human sacrifices once made to appease water gods. The famous Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote of the kelpie in his poem 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.
But all was not always lost if one encountered a kelpie. Sometimes a kelpie appeared with a bridle on, so as to look as appealing a ride as possible. This bridle was the source of the kelpie’s magic. If one managed to obtain the bridle, one would be able to control the kelpie.
One such tale is of the Scots Highlander James MacGrigor. He surprised a kelpie and cut off its bridle. Without the bridle, the kelpie would die within the day. This particular kelpie had the power of speech and tried to bargain with MacGrigor. It followed MacGrigor home and told him that he would be unable to enter his house with the bridle in hand. MacGrigor outwitted the kelpie by throwing the bridle through the window. The kelpie left, cursing and swearing at its fate. The bridle became known as the mythical Willox’s Ball and Bridle, which was said to have powers of healing.
Another laird attempted to control a kelpie, the Laird of Morphie. But this laird was not as clever. He captured a kelpie and used its superhuman strength to carry the stones to build his castle. One the castle was finished, the laird release the kelpie. Unhappy by its treatment, the kelpie cursed the laird and his family, now popularly believed to be the reason for the extinction of the whole family. Legend has it these are the words the kelpie spoke, though with the whole family dead, it’s unclear how anyone would have known:
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”
THE CULTURAL IMPACT
The kelpie has made its way into popular culture in various ways. The Loch Ness monster is theorized to be a kelpie, a story kept alive in various books such as Mollie Hunter’s The Kelpie’s Pearls (1966) and Dick King-Smith’s The Water Horse (1990). But folktale is played with and changed in Holly Black’s books Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside, the kelpie remains a water horse but can grant a boon or wish for something in return. The popular children’s series, The Spiderwick Chronicles, keeps kelpies much the same in Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You except that water horse become more of a water dog-horse, with toed feet instead of hooves, and a dog’s tail.
Perhaps the biggest kelpie retelling is in Andy Scott’s sculpture titled The Kelpies. Standing at 30 meters (100 feet) tall, The Kelpies are colossal horse heads situated in Helix Park, between Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland. Modeled after Clydesdale heads, they are made of laser cut steel. The combination of steel and Clydesdale are meant to symbolize the heart of Scotland’s industrial history.
The Clydesdale is the horse that kept the foundries, fields, and farms in business and the steel recalls the industrial revolution that helped create Scotland’s present. However, Scott has taken the folk tale of the malevolent kelpie and turned it into a more benign character. The legend of the kelpie is strong in Scotland and Scott often inserts cultural context into his work but these kelpies are meant to be more of a symbol of peace and cooperation on a waterway than a man-eating water horse. An excerpt from Glasgow’s poet laureate Jim Carruth’s poem, Kelpies, is inlaid into stone around the statues:
Bow down your strong heads to taste the water
Stretch up your long necks to face the sun
THE HISTORICAL EVIDENCE
The earliest depictions we have of kelpies come from Pictish stones from the 6th to 9th centuries. On those, the kelpie is depicted as a half horse, half fish in various levels of complexity. Associated with water, the kelpies also represented storms. It was said that an entrance into water from a kelpie’s back sounded like thunder. But we humans are a clever bunch and have discovered a way to stop the kelpie. Being a creature of moving water, a kelpie cannot stand still water. So wise travelers, lend your ear. Carry with you a flask of water from the well or spout and you’ll be safe from a kelpie’s hunger.