Quarterly Bestiary: Kelpies: A Dive into Scottish Water Horses

Many dangerous creatures haunt the mythical landscape of Scotland. Kelpies, horse-shaped water spirits, are among the better known, and they even have connections to one of Scotland’s most famous monsters. They are fairy horses, though if you’re thinking of innocent winged ponies, you’d best think again. Kelpies are fierce flesh-eaters. Yet like many fairy beings, kelpies are more than mere monsters up close. They are wild, it’s true, but they still have a complex intelligence hidden deep within their shifting appearance. So today, let’s take a breath and dare to swim with the kelpie.

A Note on “Fairies”

I’ve used the term “fairy” in several posts up to now, but since this is my first deep dive into a creature of that ilk, it’s time I explained my views on that word. The word “fairy” often conjures up images of tiny, winged, Tinkerbell-like creatures who are generally sweet, mildly mischievous, and helpful to human beings. Yet it originally covered a wide range of creatures and cultures from a world just sideways from our own. These beings weren’t necessarily good or evil. They were simply wild and had their own agendas, not always in line with those of humans. For this reason, some prefer to use alternate terms. My personal favorite is “fae,” the root of the original French “faerie.”1 However, after several posts brushed past the subject, I decided to use something quickly recognizable rather than pausing to explain “fae” every time. It may confuse for those expecting Tinkerbell and disappoint those who prefer other terms, but I hope it works well enough.

KelpieDark
Artwork by Bridget Sarsen.

Beware of Kelpie

Now, onto to the kelpie. Most legends of the kelpie carry a clear warning: don’t go near. Kelpies are shape-shifters, so it’s hard to say what their true form looks like. They generally take the form of a white, black, or gray horse,2 sometimes with a dripping mane.3 If a human, especially a child, is unwise enough to get on their backs, they bolt for the nearest river or pool, dragging their rider under to drown or even eat them. Just touching them can spell your doom, as some people stroke the kelpie’s coat only to find their hands stuck.4 This doesn’t mean there’s no hope if you encounter a kelpie. The most obvious escape is cutting off your hand.5 In one tale, a man tricked by a kelpie simply wrestles the creature until they happen into shallow water.6 And one tale has a young woman talk a kelpie into releasing her so she can finish her knitting.7 Generally, though, the best course of action is to leave any strange horses near water alone.

Kelpies also took human form. Those appearing as beautiful women might lure men into the water siren-style, while others transformed into hairy men who took the more direct approach of pouncing and crushing victims on land.8 Young women were targeted by kelpies who took the form of tall young men looking to steal them away. A classic tale has a young woman confronted by a kelpie at evening. Advice from a talking dog helps her outwit the kelpie by asking him to first bring her a drink in a sieve.9 The kelpie in the form of “a grey wrinkled old man” doesn’t seem that dangerous.10 He just mutters repetitively while mending trousers before a passerby hits him in the head, making him revert and run off.11

Kelpies may be dangerous to humans, but sometimes humans are nearly as dangerous for kelpies. Some kelpies are described wearing a “magic bridle.”12 Women might steal these bridles to force a kelpie to stay in human form as their groom.13 “[C]utting” the bridle off could even kill a kelpie if it was not returned in a day. Alternately, placing a human-made bridle on a kelpie,14 especially one with an iron bit, trapped them in horse form and forced them to serve the bridle’s owner.15 Many stories tell of humans using bound kelpies for labor, as they were much stronger than a normal horse. A patriarch of the Grahams of Morphie famously made a kelpie haul stone for his castle, who on release from the back-breaking work cursed the laird and his line. Tools used against fairy folk in general can also harm kelpies. A miller in one story catches a kelpie making off with some grain and throws a “fairy whorl” stone with a curse that breaks the kelpie’s leg and causes him to drown in the river.16

Not all kelpie encounters are hostile, however. The young woman who got the kelpie to let her finish her knitting quickly turned the tables by capturing and keeping him as a horse for a year. After she releases him, the kelpie tells her he “has learned to love” and chooses to live as her human husband rather than abducting her as originally planned.17 Also, remember the kelpie the miller killed? He stole the grain intending to help a human woman he was fond of who had fallen on hard times.18 It isn’t clear if the woman reciprocated or even knew a kelpie had feelings for her. Kelpies will even occasionally help out a human for no apparent reward. A farmer who discovers his horse has run off, stranding him at the mill with food his family needs, begs for a horse to appear, even “a water kelpie.”19 A horse-form kelpie then appears, bringing him and his grain home with no attempt to harm either before splashing off into the pool of Don. Wild and unpredictable though they may be, at times kelpies show they have hearts as well.

Kelpie or Water Horse?

If you look into kelpies, you will often see “water horse” given as an alternate name. “Kelpie” doesn’t mean “water horse.” It’s derived from a Scottish Gaelic word, probably “cailpeach” or “colpach” meaning “colt” or “heifer.”20 There is, however, a very similar creature whose name does directly translate into “water-horse:” the each uisge (pronounced yahk-OOSH-keh). Some sources treat them as the same creature while others insist they are different. I see “water horse” as an English term that can describe a whole category of horse-like water spirits from various cultures (which I’ll cover next time), but the each uisge is still the water-horse of Scotland. For this article, I’ll use “each uisge” when referring specifically to the mythic Scottish water-horse and “water-horse” when the distinction in the original source isn’t clear.

The each uisge is very similar to the kelpie, though generally more malevolent. It’s true form is said to measure up to 60 feet with a 70-foot tail, a long neck leading to a small head, and flippers instead of legs.21 It can shape-shift into a horse, a human, a bird, or even a ring or wool tuft.22 It has the same “adhesive” skin as the kelpie,23 as well as a taste for children. In one story, a each uisge manages to lure seven girls onto its ever-lengthening back and attempts to chase down a more wary boy, yelling at him to “get on” before giving up and diving with the girls. A specific feature of the each uisge is eating everything but the liver of its victims, which float to shore later. Exactly what divides kelpie and each uisge territory varies. Some say the each uisge lives in lochs while kelpies live in “torrents, waterfalls, and fjords,”24 others that the each uisge lives in salt water and the kelpie in fresh,25 and others consider “running water” the marker of kelpie habitat.26 All agree that kelpies tend toward rivers while the each uisge tend toward lochs, however.

The Cryptid Connection

The blurry distinction of kelpie and each uisge persists, especially as they have been reinterpreted as cryptids. Several other types of mythical creatures have been claimed as cryptids, those creatures unexplained by current science yet encountered and reported by various people. However, the kelpie has managed a link to one of the most iconic, the Loch Ness Monster. As the description of the each uisge’s true form and habitats show, any water horse in a loch should technically be an each uisge, not a kelpie. Yet while some sites discussing Nessie’s history differentiate between the water-horse and the kelpie, others lump them together. I even ran into this in an academic thesis: “The black horse of Loch Ness is one example of the kelpie, also known as the water horse or ‘each uisge,’”27 And then one contributor to a Narkive discussion counters that Nessie is not a water-horse but an “uilebheist,”28 a general monster.

Either way, the modern sightings have little in common with any mythical water horse. The general image of Nessie skews more toward the plesiosaur than the equine, and the majority of sightings are water-based. There are a handful of land-based Ness sightings, some more plesiosaur-like and some with features of horses, camels, or elephants.29 A few people have reported horse-like creatures near other bodies of water, such as a “horse dog” glimpsed near the Inglewood Pond of Alloa in 1975 and 1997,30 or a 1938 sighting where a woman claimed to see 13 each uisge dive into Loch Garget Beag.31 However, like most cryptid sightings, no one reported any harm in these encounters, and as far as I can tell, no one has found any human livers washing up on the shores of Loch Ness. Whatever the source of these sightings, it isn’t as dangerous as the creatures in mythology.

LochHead
Horsie or Nessie? Artwork by Bridget Sarsen.

Kelpies and Water-Horses in Media

Kelpies appear in many books and a handful of movies, including major fantasy worlds like the Potter-verse. The latest Fantastic Beasts movie includes some very kelp-y kelpies. Again, the terms “kelpie,” “water horse,” and “each-uisge” are often confused inside and outside of the books. Goodreads’ list of “Best Kelpie Books” includes Maggie Stiefvater’s Scorpio Races, featuring teens who ride eich uisce (the Irish each uisge) plus Molly Hunter’s The Kelpie’s Pearls that involves summoning Nessie.

I think the only place I’ve seen kelpies and each uisge clearly distinguished is Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series. The cast includes two fairy women, Poppy and Viridia who are identified as each uisge, which are “[l]ike kelpies, only more so. Kelpies like to drown victims but Each Uisge are the kind who eat everything but your liver afterward.”32 Poppy and Viridia spend most of their time as literally buoyant jewel-green background singers in an elf’s rock band, a form that has more to do with the novel’s overall concept of fairies than traditional mythology. However, their transformation into dark horses that “remember nothing but the hunger” in deep water is spot-on with Scottish legend.33

Probably the biggest contribution to kelpie/water-horse media is The Water Horse, a book by Dick King-Smith and a 2007 film. Book and film have little in common besides Crusoe (as in Robinson), a water-horse with the body of a flippered dragon and the personality of a clever puppy. In the book, a little girl named Kirstie raises Crusoe with her younger brother Angus, her mother, her grandfather Grumble, and eventually her sailor father. Grumble supplies the mythology, excitedly about seeing “the kelpie” or as “[m]ost folk call it the Water Horse.”34 In the movie, a mysterious handyman named Lewis Mowbray plays that role for Angus, a lonely boy who raises Crusoe with his older sister Kirstie and Lewis’ help while dodging attention from his mother and British World War II soldiers. Both have Crusoe growing up to become the Loch Ness Monster.

The movie is a fun adventure, but it really doesn’t fit well with either Scottish mythology or Nessie history. Lewis claims the water-horse is so rare, “There can be only one in the world at a time.”35 That’s more of a phoenix thing. Then there’s the fact the movie is set during 1942 and acts as if Crusoe is the start of all Loch Ness lore, even cramming in the famously faked Surgeon’s Photo that was actually snapped in 1934. By contrast, the book fits perfectly into the Loch Ness timeline, ending with Crusoe being transferred to the Loch, where, despite being trained to hide unless called, he splashes around causing the 1933 report that is generally considered the first Nessie sighting.36 Crusoe is definitely not the traditional human-eating kelpie either way, but he is a charming creature that draws the various Scottish water horse threads together.

Kelpieface
Artwork by Bridget Sarsen.

I enjoy both cryptids and mythology, so the kelpie is a treat for me. The distinction between them and each uisge was a surprise, though. What’s your stance on the matter? Should we care whether it’s a water-horse, a kelpie, or an each uisge? What about the whole Loch Ness Monster connection? Also, for fantasy readers out there, have you ever found another book or movie that talks about the kelpie and the each uisge as different? Please share in comments!

Sources
  1. Edwards, Eric, “The Origins and Lore of Fairies and Fairy Land,” Eric Edwards Collected Works, posted Aug. 14, 2015, accessed Mar. 20, 2020, https://ericwedwards.wordpress.com/2015/08/14/the-origin-and-lore-of-fairies-and-fairy-land/.
  2. MacQueen, Douglas, “Kelpie (Mythical ‘Water Horse’ in Folklore of Scotland),” Transceltic, Jan. 16, 2013, accessed Mar. 14, 2020, https://www.transceltic.com/scottish/kelpie-mythical-water-horse-folklore-scotland.
  3. Sedgwick, Icy, “Why Are Kelpies So Feared in Scottish Folklore?,” Icy Sedgwick, posted Mar. 29, 2018, accessed Mar. 14, 2020, http://www.icysedgwick.com/kelpies-folklore/.
  4. Harkavy, Victoria, “Horse Motifs in Folk Narrative of the Spiritual,” MA diss., George Mason University, Fairfax, 2014, http://mars.gmu.edu/bitstream/handle/1920/9033/Harkavy_thesis_2014.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y, 54.
  5. Harkavy, 49.
  6. “Kelpie Stories,” The Folk-Lore Journal 7, no. 3 (1889): 199-201. JSTOR (1252766), 200.
  7. Harvasky, 54.
  8. Sedgwick.
  9. Gregor, Walter, “Kelpie Stories from the North of Scotland,” The Folk-Lore Journal 1, no. 9 (1883): 292-294. JSTOR (1252794), 294.
  10. Gregor, 293.
  11. Gregor, 294.
  12. Briggs, Katherine Mary, A Dictionary of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976), 246, https://archive.org/details/BriggsKatharineMaryAnEncyclopediaOfFairies/page/n267/mode/2up.
  13. Sedgwick.
  14. Briggs, 246.
  15. Harvasky, 51.
  16. “Kelpie Stories,” 201.
  17. Harvasky, 55.
  18. “Kelpie Stories,” 201.
  19. “Kelpie Stories,” 199.
  20. Sedgwick.
  21. Edwards, Eric, “The Water-horse and the Kelpie,” posted Apr. 11, 2014, accessed Mar. 14, 2020, https://ericwedwards.wordpress.com/2014/04/11/the-waterhorse-and-the-kelpie/.
  22. “Each Uisge,” Encyclopedia Mythica, last modified Feb. 17, 2019, accessed Mar. 19, 2020, https://pantheon.org/articles/e/each_uisge.html.
  23. Briggs, 116.
  24. Edwards, “The Water-horse.”
  25. “‘Something in That Witching Face’- Kelpies and Mermaids,” British Fairies, posted Mar 25, 2018, accessed Mar. 19, 2020, https://britishfairies.wordpress.com/2018/03/25/something-in-that-witching-face-kelpies-and-mermaids/.
  26. Briggs, 115.
  27. Harvasky, 50.
  28. Michilín, 2005, answer on the question, “Which is correct: ‘Eioch Uisge’ or ‘Each Uisge’?,” Narkive, accessed Mar. 19, 2020, https://soc.culture.scottish.narkive.com/d7Kib3d6/which-is-correct-eioch-uisge-or-each-uisge.
  29. Coleman, Loren, “The Water Horse Land Sightings at Loch Ness,” Cryptomundo, posted Dec. 22, 2007, accessed Mar. 21, 2020, https://cryptomundo.com/cryptozoo-news/ness-land/.
  30. “Horse Dog” under “Cryptozoology Reports from the Paranormal Database,” Paranormal Database, accessed Mar. 22, 2020, https://www.paranormaldatabase.com/reports/cryptodata.php.
  31. “The Water-Horses of Loch a Gharbh-bhaid Beag,” The Faery Folklorist, posted May 19, 2016, accessed Mar. 22, 2020, http://faeryfolklorist.blogspot.com/2016/05/the-water-horses-of-loch-gharbh-bhaid.html.
  32. Robson, Justina, Keeping It Real (London: Gollancz, 2006), 45.
  33. Robson, 134.
  34. King-Smith, Dick, The Water Horse (New York: Random House, 1990), 25.
  35. The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep, directed by Jay Russell, Los Angeles: Revolution Studios, 2007.
  36. King-Smith, 120.

20 thoughts on “Quarterly Bestiary: Kelpies: A Dive into Scottish Water Horses

  1. Interesting read as always! After reading this, I realize there are so many folklore inspired by horses. I haven’t read any English book that featured the kelpie though but in my country we have the equivalent, ‘Tikbalang.’ Also, that last artwork is scary!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks! Yes, there are a lot of horse creatures out there in myth land! 😁 I’ve been researching more for a list-type post. Is the Tikbalang something that hangs out in water or only the forest? The sources I’ve found so far aren’t very clear.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Horses are magnificent animals so it’s no wonder I guess. But it’s also amazing we’re constantly reinventing these mythical creatures from scary kelpies to cute unicorns.

        And on the topic of Tikbalang, as far as I know, it’s only found in forests but I never really took the time to more know about this lore.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. There are so many horse creatures out there! I got a bit dizzy trying to figure out which ones to categorize as water horses and which to leave out. 😵

          I’ll do some more research on the Tikbalang. Even if I don’t end up having room for it on the water horse list, maybe I can do a Quarterly Bestiary focused on that sometime. They sure sound scary! 😬

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Imagine who scared people has been for these in the past, and still are in some countries.
    In Sweden we have “näcken” , a nude man playing the violin by the river luring people into the water with his magical music.
    Näcken, näck means nude.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. So “nude” is an accurate translation! I was researching the näck and I thought Google Translate was messing with me. 😅

      Yeah, it’s very interesting to think about how many dangerous water creatures there are in mythology. I suppose I can understand that love/hate relationship with water they show. It’s so beautiful and essential, yet one misstep can kill.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Now I finally know what a Kelpie is! I’ve listened to some spooky stories on YouTube and there was a series about ‘Uber for the paranormal’ I don’t remember the correct title anymore. The series is also gone from YT I think because of copyright. But a human drove for some sort of Uber and he met all sorts of creatures and also a Kelpie! It was a dangerous creature, I remember that much. I’ve never heard about water-horses or water creatures except Nessie 🙂 It is such a fairy (not only in the cute way) creature to think about, love it 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ah, too bad that series isn’t available anymore! It sounds hilarious. 😂 I find it interesting how many places I’ve found mentions of kelpies, yet I discovered so much while researching them. I had no idea there was another water horse!

      The Nessie connection has always puzzled me. No matter how I look at it, the modern image of Nessie bears no resemblance to a horse. However, in The Water Horse, they describe Crusoe’s head as “horse-like,” something I’ve seen used with several dragon-ish creatures, so maybe that’s it. 😅

      Liked by 1 person

  4. An interesting story because the horses have always caught my attention for their stamp. Now reading about them in this story, you see that there is much more material about them and the role they play in the customs of the peoples.
    I have enjoyed your reading.
    Cheers
    Manuel

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very true! It fascinates me how humans have used horse imagery for so many things through the years. I suppose it’s partly because they have been part of our history and culture for so long. Thanks for reading!

      Like

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