Kelpies

Kelpies Falkirk Helix
Old Scottish legends speak of malevolent spirits lurking in streams and pools, waiting to catch and devour unwary travellers. These dangerous beings are often shape-shifters who adopt various human or animal forms. Perhaps the most feared of all are those that appear as beautiful horses: the each uisge (Gaelic ‘water horse’) of the sea-loch and the kelpie of the riverbank. Woe betide anyone who dares to approach a sleek, dark mare grazing peacefully at the waterside. In the blink of an eye, the victim is dragged beneath the surface to be drowned and eaten.

The origin of these mythical creatures is shrouded in mystery. One theory sees them as later versions of gods and goddesses who in ancient times were associated with particular lochs and rivers. Another sees them as symbols of the real danger posed by deep or fast-flowing water. ‘Don’t go too near the loch, or the kelpie will get you!’ was no doubt a warning issued to countless generations of inquisitive children in the Highlands.

It has been suggested that the enigmatic Pictish symbol known as the ‘swimming elephant’ or ‘Pictish beast’ might represent a kelpie or each uisge. Other explanations have been put forward but, on a personal note, I quite like this one. I’m sure the Picts had their own dark tales of deadly water-spirits in equine form, and maybe these were in some way ancestral to the creatures of later folklore. The strange ‘beastie’ carved with remarkable consistency on more than fifty Pictish stones does indeed resemble a horse.

Pictish Largo stone

Pictish beast carved on a stone at Largo in Fife.

On the Pictish cross-slab in the kirkyard at Aberlemno in Angus, a pair of creatures with horse heads and fish tails intertwine in the lower right-hand corner. Although usually identified as seahorses they bear a striking resemblance to how kelpies are sometimes portrayed in later art. Many present-day artists, for example, depict the kelpie as an aquatic creature with the tail of a dolphin.

Pictish Aberlemno stone

Seahorses on the Pictish cross-slab in Aberlemno kirkyard.

In 2014, no discussion of the mythical kelpie can ignore the two magnificent examples of the species that now reside near Falkirk. These enormous steel sculptures soar into the sky, completely dominating the local landscape and dwarfing the human visitors who teem like tiny ants on the ground below. The giant Kelpies stand beside the Forth and Clyde Canal in the new Helix Park – an extensive recreation area with playgrounds, walking paths and a lagoon. Andy Scott, the sculptor who designed the Kelpies, drew inspiration not only from the water-spirits of legend but also from the powerful horses who once served heavy industry in the area. The two gigantic heads are 30 metres high and certainly exude an aura of strength and vigour, just like the Clydesdale horses on which they are modelled.

Kelpies Falkirk Helix

I’d been keen to visit the Kelpies since April, when they were officially unveiled to the public. I eventually managed to see them at the end of August. Needless to say, the experience far exceeded all my expectations. To say I was lost for words would be an understatement. Descriptions such as impressive, imposing and awesome fail to reflect the majesty and energy of these sculptures when you’re walking beneath them. Like the ancient water-spirits that inspired their making, they exude a magical aura which – judging from the faces I saw during my visit – leaves most human visitors utterly spellbound.

Kelpies Falkirk Helix

Kelpies Falkirk Helix

Kelpies Falkirk Helix

Kelpies Falkirk Helix

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Notes & links

Archaeologist Sally Foster suggested that the mysterious ‘Pictish beast’ of the symbol stones is ‘apparently a dolphin or perhaps the fantastic kelpie or water-horse of later Scottish folklore.’ (Picts, Gaels and Scots, p.74 of the 1996 edition)

One of the most famous kelpie legends tells of the snaring of one of these creatures by the lord of Morphie (near Montrose) who forced it to drag stones for the construction of his new castle. After toiling hard with ‘sore back and sore bones’, the kelpie managed to escape, laying a curse on its cruel captor as it fled back to its pool:
‘Sair back and sair banes,
drivin’ the Laird o’Morphie’s stanes.
The Laird o’Morphie’ll never thrive
sae lang as the Kelpie is alive!’

[Link] The Kelpies sculpture website
[Link] Sculptor Andy Scott’s website

Photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.

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18 comments on “Kelpies

  1. Howard says:

    lots of strange spooky ‘things’ in Scotland…couple of photos from Skye this summer…[Photo]

  2. Wm Gilbreath says:

    Tim:
    Love your Kelpie Horses. Are they located near the Falkirk wheel? I think it said on the Clyde-Forth canal.

  3. diaspora52 says:

    I hadn’t thought about a Pictish connection with the legend. Loved these kelpie statues when I saw them rise up beside the highway. Great photos!

  4. Susan Abernethy says:

    Tim, I saw this today and you are right, it is spectacular!

  5. Jo Woolf says:

    I’m endlessly fascinated with the Pictish ‘beast’ carvings, and I agree with you about the possible connection with kelpies. There has got to be some important legend or belief (or perception) that has been lost. I can’t tell you how long I have gazed at those carvings, willing the answer to come out! 🙂 Love your pics of the Falkirk kelpies, too. Aren’t they magnificent?! But pretty challenging to photograph from the motorway!

    • Tim says:

      I would have quite liked a view from the motorway because it was my first sight of the Kelpies, but the main thing was the weather staying fine, which made it an ideal day for photography. Given a bit more time it would have been good to see the sculptures after dark, when the spotlights are switched on. So I think a return visit is on the cards, just to see them lit up at night.

  6. David says:

    Hello,

    Thanks for posting this passage, and also, thanks for attaching these photos to it.

    However, are there no surviving legends which relate to kind Kelpies ?

    Because I find it worrying, then I wanted to say that I also find leaving at least some of Falkirk as forested, to be of importance, for even when approaching this quite selfishly, then the existence of forests can have a positive effect on human health, whilst when humans change their environment, they may also come to harm their own health, as a consequence of making such changes.

    Aside of that, although there might be no relation between those following things, and also, that the view which I’m going to relate to below may have no relevance to the matter at hand, then I personally do wonder whether there could be something in common between carvings of Pictish Beasts, and legends of Wulvers, such as those which are considered to form part of the folklore of Shetland.

    However, I have no particular wish to involve one with another, especially for no reason, and therefore, I apologize if that is the impression which might be given here ; I merely wish to offer this as an option of sorts, that is all.

    On a different matter : Does anyone happen to know whether any research has been done about the presence of horses in Scotland during its past, meaning, of their possible presence during various prehistoric times ?

    • Tim says:

      Andrew Fraser’s 1987 book The Native Horses of Scotland might be a good place to start, although I’ve not seen it myself. The best-known native Scottish horse is the Eriskay pony, from the Hebridean islands.

  7. I wish we had more storytellers today. They were the early radio/TV. I don’t know if they created kelpies, but I’m sure they were integral to many of their tales?

    • Tim says:

      Yes, the storytellers would have kept the kelpie legends alive. The art of storytelling seems to be making a comeback, which is quite a positive sign in our modern techno age.

  8. Maggie Craig says:

    I saw the Falkirk kelpies this summer too. Wonderful. I also did some research into the old kelpie legends. Primitive Beliefs in the North-East of Scotland by JM McPherson (1913, Longmans, Green & Co) quotes the story from the Cairnie burn (near Huntly, burn flows into the Isla near where that joins with the Deveron near Rothiemay. In 1884, a local person recalled the bonnie black horse enticing you into the burn version of the legend. This kelpie would sing: “Sit weel, Janety, or ride weel, Davie/For this time the morn, ye’ll be in Pot Cravie.”

    Not clear where Pot Cravie was or is but presumably a deep pool within the burn.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for sharing this tale, Maggie. I ought to track down the McPherson book as it’s clearly a good source of old Scottish folklore. The kelpie song in this blogpost came from A Dictionary of Fairies by Katharine Briggs which covers the whole of the British Isles. Briggs included a few Scottish legends but her survey was fairly wide so she had to be quite selective.

  9. David says:

    Thanks for you reply, and also for the information which you included in it.

    Sorry for being so belated with my own response.

    By the way, in regard of the rock carvings of a Pictish beast, then could they be somehow related also to boobries, although boobries are more commonly associated with the western coast of Scotland, rather than its eastern, or north-easternly parts ?

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