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.
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.
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.
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.
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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!’
Photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.
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