by Ben Johnson
Falkirk in Scotland is home to The Kelpies, the largest equine sculpture in the world. Unveiled in April 2014, these 30-metre high horse-head sculptures are situated in Helix Park near the M9 Motorway and are a monument to Scotland’s horse-powered industrial heritage.
But what are ‘kelpies’?
A kelpie is a shape-changing aquatic spirit of Scottish legend. Its name may derive from the Scottish Gaelic words ‘cailpeach’ or ‘colpach’, meaning heifer or colt. Kelpies are said to haunt rivers and streams, usually in the shape of a horse.
The Kelpies in Falkirk (photo © Beninjam200, WikiCommons)
But beware…these are malevolent spirits! The kelpie may appear as a tame pony beside a river. It is particularly attractive to children – but they should take care, for once on its back, its sticky magical hide will not allow them to dismount! Once trapped in this way, the kelpie will drag the child into the river and then eat him.
These water horses can also appear in human form. They may materialize as a beautiful young woman, hoping to lure young men to their death. Or they might take on the form of a hairy human lurking by the river, ready to jump out at unsuspecting travellers and crush them to death in a vice-like grip.
Kelpies can also use their magical powers to summon up a flood in order to sweep a traveller away to a watery grave.
The sound of a kelpie’s tail entering the water is said to resemble that of thunder. And if you are passing by a river and hear an unearthly wailing or howling, take care: it could be a kelpie warning of an approaching storm.
But there is some good news: a kelpie has a weak spot – its bridle. Anyone who can get hold of a kelpie’s bridle will have command over it and any other kelpie. A captive kelpie is said to have the strength of at least 10 horses and the stamina of many more, and is highly prized. It is rumoured that the MacGregor clan have a kelpies bridle, passed down through the generations and said to have come from an ancestor who took it from a kelpie near Loch Slochd.
The kelpie is even mentioned in Robert Burns’ poem, ‘Address to the Deil’:
“…When thowes dissolve the snawy hoord
An’ float the jinglin’ icy boord
Then, water-kelpies haunt the foord
By your direction
And ‘nighted trav’llers are allur’d
To their destruction…”
A common Scottish folk tale is that of the kelpie and the ten children. Having lured nine children onto its back, it chases after the tenth. The child strokes its nose and his finger becomes stuck fast. He manages to cut off his finger and escapes. The other nine children are dragged into the water, never to be seen again.
There are many similar tales of water horses in mythology. In Orkney there is the nuggle, in Shetland the shoopiltee and in the Isle of Man, the ‘Cabbyl-ushtey’. In Welsh folklore there are tales of the ‘Ceffyl Dŵr’. And in Scotland there is another water horse, the ‘Each-uisge’, which lurks in lochs and is reputed to be even more vicious than the kelpie.
So next time you are strolling by a pretty river or stream, be vigilant; you may be being watched from the water by a malevolent kelpie…