The Kelpie - deadly water spirit of Scottish myth

Myth and Legend

The Kelpie - deadly water spirit of Scottish myth

A kelpie is a malevolent shape-changing aquatic spirit of Scottish legend. They are fresh water monsters, said to haunt rivers and streams, usually in the shape of a horse.

Its name may derive from the Scottish Gaelic words ‘cailpeach’ or ‘colpach’, meaning heifer or colt.

The kelpie is said to potentially appear as a tame black pony beside a river. It is particularly attractive to children, but once someone gets on its back, they find that they can't dismount and the kelpie drags the unfortunate rider into the river and eats them, leaving only the entrails.

In many legends, nine children get on the back of a beautiful horse by the riverside, but the tenth does not. The nine are taken to their deaths under the water, and the tenth child survives. It's notable that many mythologies describe the spirits of nine waves of the sea, often the daughters of a sea god.

We are told that a horse that is really a kelpie can be distinguished by its backwards hooves.

Kelpies can also appear in human form, and like the Greek sirens, they may take the form of a beautiful young woman, hoping to lure young men to their death. Or they may appear as a hairy man 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 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 kelpie's bridle, passed down through the generations and said to have come from an ancestor who took it from a kelpie near Loch Slochd.

The myth of the kelpie is celebrated in two giant sculptures beside the Forth and Clyde Canal. The picture above is The Kelpie by Herbert James Draper, 1913.

Further reading

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