Scottish folklore often tells
Of cruel kelpies casting spells,
Down in deep, dark lochs they dwell,
Beware their wicked ways!
Weary traveller I inform,
These sprites adopt a horse's form,
On country walks it is the norm
To see them gently graze.
Folk alone in lonely lanes
Gladly take the horse's reins,
Innocence the creature feigns
Then takes the rider down
To the loch-side so remote;
The rider who the Kelpie caught
Is murdered now without a thought;
In icy loch they drown.
Graham Morphie, big and bold,
Down the quiet lane he strolled,
Saw a horse, but he'd been told
Of cunning Keplie charms.
He didn't try to mount it but
He took a knife and then he cut
The bridle rein and then he put
It somewhere safe from harm.
Matters took a different course
For the Kelpie now was forced
To live life as a normal horse,
Carting heavy loads.
Graham Morphie, so conceited
Saw his building work completed,
The Kelpie now was quite defeated;
No mercy Graham showed.
Graham broke a Kelpie spell
But misfortune soon befell
This errant knave, so listen well
To what I have to say.
Never, ever persecute
Kelpie, cat nor common newt
Or bad luck will follow suit
And ill will come your way!
The Kelpie by Nick Baker at AllPoetry.com
In Scotland, you would be hard-pressed to find a body of water that was not home to a kelpie. The most famous being Loch Ness and its monster. But kelpies are not completely unique to Scotland and have counterparts in The United States, Australia, France, and Scandinavia. At its most simple, a kelpie is a creature that lures people into a body of water to drown them. Therefore, they are often considered malevolent fairies.
The Scottish kelpie is also called the water horse and, as you would expect, resembles a horse. The kelpie appears to be a tame horse and is said to be particularly attractive to children. Most commonly, the kelpie entices the child to climb upon its back, where the child becomes stuck fast. Then, with its prey stuck, the kelpie plunges into the water, drowning and eating its victim.
One story tells of ten children, nine drowned by the kelpie, and one who escaped. The story goes that ten children were playing by the loch one day when they spotted a magnificent black horse. One by one, the children climbed on its back, which grew longer and longer to accommodate the children. Once upon the kelpie’s back, the children found themselves to be stuck. But the kelpie wasn’t able to entice the last child and chased him around for hours. Finally, the little boy reached out one finger to pet the kelpie and became stuck. The kelpie raced to the water, dragging its prey along with it. The little boy though, stuck by only a finger, pulled a knife from his pocket and sliced his own finger off to avoid drowning. All the other children were drowned and eaten by the kelpie; their entrails thrown upon the shore.
Kelpies are also shapeshifters and may take a form other than a horse. Many stories have kelpies appearing as humans, but they may be identified by the water weeds in their hair. Other legends say the kelpie appears as a hairy man, who leaps upon travelers and squeezes them to death or tears them apart to eat.
In horse form, the kelpie does have a weak spot—its bridle. If you were to remove a kelpie’s bridle, you could work magic with it. Conversely, if you placed a bridle on the kelpie you could control it. The other weak spot for a kelpie is identical to that of the werewolf—a silver bullet.
Another tale tells of the kelpie captured by the Laird Graham of Morphie. This tale was mentioned in the poem at the beginning of the episode. The Laird was a rich man and also believed himself clever. He wished to build himself a castle to show off his wealth and position. After seeking advice from a witch, he set about to capture the kelpie and force it to do his bidding. He was told to cut off the kelpie’s magic bridle and hide it away, while protecting his home with the boughs of a rowan tree. In doing this, he was able to control the kelpie and bid it to do the work of building his castle. The Laird forced the kelpie to carry heavy stones with which to build his castle and treated the kelpie cruelly. When the work was done, he freed the kelpie. But this turned out to be to his detriment as the kelpie, angered by its treatment, cursed the Laird and his family. It is said this is why the Laird’s family has now died out.
The most famous kelpie is, of course, the Loch Ness Monster or Nessie. Interestingly, other lake monsters are not typically theorized to be kelpies. This is likely due to Loch Ness’ location in Scotland. Tales of the monster go back as early as the 6th century, but the most recent uproar started in 1933 with an article in the Inverness Courier by Alexander Campbell.
Alexander Campbell was in charge of regulating salmon fishing in the loch and first heard of the creature from a local family called the MacKays. After hearing their story, he decided to investigate on his own. According to his reports, he was able to observe the creature multiple times. Campbell described the creature he saw as having “a long, tapering neck, about 6 feet long, and a smallish head with a serpentine look about it, and a huge hump behind…” and estimated the creature to be about 30 feet or 9 meters long in total.
Another famous sighting of Nessie was that same year. George Spicer and his wife witnessed a “most extraordinary form of animal” crossing the road in front of their car. They were about a mile from the loch shoreline. This sighting is said to be the one that sparked the craze and solidified the name Loch Ness Monster.
The Surgeon's Photo
The last famous sighting of Nessie I want to discuss is actually a confirmed hoax. You’ve probably seen the photo that is often called “The Surgeon’s Photo”. If you aren't sure, Google it and you’ll probably recognize it. This photo was supposedly taken of the Loch Ness monster by Robert Wilson in 1934. For decades, the photo was thought to be proof (though dismissed by skeptics as all manner of things). Modern analysis and then a confession by Christian Spurling confirmed it to be a hoax. Spurling stated that he had in fact built the model himself.
Similar to the kelpie is a sticky water spirit from Appalachia known as Sticky Dog. The story goes that Sticky Dog resides deep in the Appalachian mountains and is a children’s monster. Sticky Dog will appear as any type of dog and be very friendly. Of course, when presented with a friendly dog children and no few adults are tempted to pet it. But anyone attempting to pet Sticky Dog should beware, as their hand will stick fast to the monster’s coat. The Sticky Dog will then drag them into a body of water to drown. Since the Appalachians were settled by many Scotch-Irish immigrants, it makes sense that a nearly identical story to the kelpie can be found there. Sticky Dog, however, is thought to be a deterrent for children to pet wild or rabid dogs, rather than to avoid getting close to the water.
The French fairy-tale The Goblin Pony appears to describe some type of horse-shaped water spirit as well. Here, goblin is used as an all-encompassing term for a malicious fairy. The story says that on Halloween night, a grandmother named Peggy warned her grandchildren not to go out, for there were witches and goblins about. The children did not heed her warning and went outdoors. Immediately they saw a little black pony and all six of them mounted for a ride. They rode all across the countryside until they came to the ocean. As soon as the pony saw the water it charged in and drowned its riders.
Australia has its own counterpart to the kelpie too. While not directly related to the Scottish version, you can see some similarities in the stories and myths surrounding the Aboriginal bunyip. There is a theory that the folklore of European colonizers, such as that of the kelpie, reinforced and helped spread the tales of the bunyip in the 1800s. In fact, many colonizers thought the bunyip was a real animal as yet undiscovered by them.
The bunyip is said to inhabit bodies of water like swamps, billabongs, rivers, and creeks. Most stories describe it as looking like a dog or a seal, but some say it is amphibious. Bunyips, according to mythology, can swim swiftly with fins or flippers and have a loud, roaring call. Some legends say they feed on crayfish, but others say they are predators, preying on humans and especially children who wander too close to the water. Another cool detail is that bunyips are said to lay their eggs in platypus nests.
Trevi Fountain in Rome
First appearing in Etruscan mythology, the Hippocampus appears in Phoenician, Roman, and Greek mythology. Hippocampus itself is a Greek word that translates simply to “horse-monster” or “sea-horse”. The Hippocampus can be found in the ocean or sea and is described as having the upper body of a horse and the tail of a fish. It is often associated with Poseidon (or Neptune), the god of horses, earthquakes, and the sea and in fact, there are stories of Poseidon riding a horse out of the waves or transforming into a horse himself.
Scandinavian folklore gives us the nøkk. This particular creature goes by several other names as well such as näcken and näkki. The nøkk is described as a water spirit that shapeshifts, sometimes into a “brook horse”. Like the kelpie, the nøkk could also appear in human form. The modern Scandinavian names are derived from nykr, meaning "river horse". Therefore it is more likely that the personification of the nøkk as a horse came before that of the nøkk as a man.
Music was associated strongly with the nøkk, which when depicted as a man is typically playing enchanting music to lure people away to drown, particularly women and children. Especially pregnant women and unbaptized children. Though men were sometimes said to be drawn in by the music as well. The nøkk was said to be most active on Midsummer’s night, Christmas Eve, and Thursdays, so these were the most dangerous times. In other stories, the nøkk was said to be an omen for drownings. It would scream in a particular spot in a body of water and in this spot a fatality would later occur.
There are some stories which tell of a nøkk leaving its watery home to marry a mortal, similarly to selkies, which we’ll cover in another episode. Most of these stories end with the nøkk returning to their watery homes, as they are said to grow depressed away from a water source. One story tells of a fisherman who promised his daughter to a nøkk in exchange for great hauls of fish from the lake. The daughter refused and stabbed herself, her blood covering the water lilies and staining them red. In Scandinavia, water lilies are called “nøkk roses” or nøkkeroser.
One text in Faroese describes the horse form of the nøkk or nykur:
“The nykur dwells in water; at the bottom, down in the depths, he has his lair; from here he often goes onto land and it is not good to meet him.
Sometimes he is like a beautiful little horse which seems to be good and tame, and thus he lures people to draw near to him to pat him and stroke him along the back. But when they come to touch the tail, they become stuck fast to him and then he releases no-one, but he drags them with him to the bottom of the water.”
A much kinder version of the nøkk is featured in Disney’s Frozen II. It appears as a horse-shaped elemental who serves as the guardian of the Dark Sea. In the movie, the Nokk withdraws all the water in the kingdom's plumbing and fountains to force Arendelle’s citizens to evacuate. The Nokk later tries to drown Elsa, but she uses her powers to create reins and rides it.
Look at my knees,
That island rising from the steamy seas!
The candle's a tall lightship; my two hands
Are boats and barges anchored to the sands,
With mighty cliffs all round;
They're full of wine and riches from far lands....
I wonder what it feels like to be drowned?
I can make caves,
By lifting up the island and huge waves
And storms, and then with head and ears well under
Blow bubbles with a monstrous roar like thunder,
A bull-of-Bashan sound.
The seas run high and the boats split asunder....
I wonder what it feels like to be drowned?
The thin soap slips
And slithers like a shark under the ships.
My toes are on the soap-dish—that's the effect
Of my huge storms; an iron steamer's wrecked.
The soap slides round and round;
He's biting the old sailors, I expect....
I wonder what it feels like to be drowned?
I Wonder What It Feels Like to Be Drowned by Robert Graves
One of my favorite books, Tithe by Holly Black, features a kelpie as well as many other fairies. I highly recommend it to all of my listeners. I’ll actually be doing a future episode specifically on Holly Black and her work.
Goodreads summary: Sixteen-year-old Kaye is a modern nomad. Fierce and independent, she travels from city to city with her mother's rock band until an ominous attack forces Kaye back to her childhood home. There, amid the industrial, blue-collar New Jersey backdrop, Kaye soon finds herself an unwilling pawn in an ancient power struggle between two rival faerie kingdoms - a struggle that could very well mean her death