Many of the lochs and ponds of Scotland feature tales of kelpies. Unlike the gentle selkies we looked at last week, kelpies are altogether more dangerous beings.
Most accounts describe the kelpie as taking the form of a horse. Its name come from the words ‘cailpeach’ or ‘colpach’. Both are Scottish Gaelic words meaning ‘colt’ or ‘heifer’.
But what are they and are they dangerous? Read on to find out!
Are they shapeshifters?
Yep. While they usually take equine form in stories, though some tales have then take human form. These accounts often have the kelpie become a human with hooves, though you’d imagine people might have noticed that.
When they appear in male form, they’re often very hairy. They jump out at lone travellers on deserted roads to crush them to death. Female kelpies behave more like sirens. They take the form of beautiful women and lure men to their deaths in the water.
It’s possible kelpies date to times when villages appeased water gods with human sacrifices. After a while, the water gods became evil water horses. Given the traditional association of horses with power (and white horses with fertility) it’s unclear where the belief came from.
Some people prefer to only use the term ‘kelpie’ since ‘water horse’ can refer to a wider range of creatures. Not all water horses are malevolent, hence the confusion.
Why are kelpies so dangerous?
In horse form, kelpies enticed people to climb on their back for a ride, only to drown them. They target children in particular.
People learned to be wary of dark grey or white ponies that appeared lost. A dripping mane often gave kelpies away.
Some thought the noise a kelpie’s tail made when it entered water sounded like thunder. It made good sense to avoid rivers or lakes if you heard that. (I’m guessing it was also a good idea to avoid standing under any trees in case it was thunder).
Howling or wailing also gave them away, as they warned of approaching storms.
According to Lizanne Henderson, the kelpie reflects the fears of a coastal population that couldn’t swim. Rowena Foxelle agrees, noting that kelpie stories helped keep children away from dangerous children. They also warned young women not to trust handsome male strangers.
Can You Survive An Encounter?
Yes. In the tales, striking the suspected kelpie made it regain its horse form and run away. Otherwise, if you stole its bridle while it was in human form, you gained mastery over it. Kelpies had the strength of ten horses so they made good additions to the household.
In some stories, women stole the bridles from male kelpies. This had a similar effect to stealing a selkie skin, forcing the male kelpies to marry the women. It sounds extreme but infinitely preferable to using Tinder.
In some stories, cutting off the bridle while it was in kelpie form removed its source of power. If you didn’t return it, the kelpie would die within a day. As ever, stories vary from place to place.
But basically, don’t touch them. Their magical hide prevents you from getting free and they’ll drag you to your death.
The ruined Vayne Castle stands north of Forfar. The sandstone near the river bears a hoof imprint that many say comes from a kelpie. It’s dangerous to venture near here at dawn or dusk, particularly if you hear it singing.
The Kelpie and the Loch Ness Monster
Some believe sightings of the Loch Ness Monster can be explained using kelpie stories. Sightings date back to the 6th century when St. Columba apparently defeating a monster in the area.
The Highlander James MacGrigor took on the kelpie in the early 19th century, cutting off his bridle. The kelpie tried to beg for its return, before following MacGrigor home. The Highlander couldn’t cross the threshold of his house due to the cross above the door. This isn’t the first story to link the kelpie with demonic forces. MacGrigor shrugged and dropped the bridle through a window before walking inside through the door.
Presumably the kelpie died within the stated 24 hour period. Further tales followed the bridle through the family, giving it healing powers throughout the ages.
‘The Kelpies’ near Falkirk
These water horses were immortalised as sculptures near Falkirk. Designed by Andy Scott, they were installed in 2013. Scott chose the form of horses to reference the legendary strength of the kelpie.
It also reflects Scotland’s horse-powered industrial heritage.
I’m going to assume these kelpies come from the more benevolent side of the family.
As with any other folklore story, variations occur and make finding ‘truth’ difficult. But the stories served a purpose in their specific place and time, and we can still learn from them now.
For the kelpie story, you can learn not to ride unattended horses. And avoid lonely stretches of water at dawn or dusk.
Over to you! Do you think kelpies were dangerous, or just misunderstood?
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