Typically residing near water, and taking the form of a black horse, the kelpie would lure travellers to their death.
Words by Liana Paraschaki, Illustration by Linley Barba
Folklore and mythology are filled with tales of spirits and magical creatures, benevolent and evil alike. But, perhaps none is more vengeful than the kelpies of Scotland. It seems as though the kelpie was made to be an enemy, to man and other magical creatures alike. Typically residing near water, and taking the form of a black horse, the kelpie would lure travellers to their death. Initially appearing peaceful, even docile, travellers would be tempted to ride the quiet horse, in order to cross a body of water. Once atop the horse’s back, the kelpie would gallop to the deepest end, luring its victims to their death and dragging them below water.
The kelpie is perhaps better understood as a personification of the flood itself, an animal-like – or even anthropomorphised, on occasion – version of the reverence and fear the Celts held for water, rivers, lakes, and seas alike. It seems likely that, in Scotland, with all its isles and storms and restless seas, the water (and its spirits) would be seen as largely dangerous, evil even. The stories of the kelpie were, perhaps, especially useful in warning children away from riverbanks and strange horses alike. All sorts of trouble could ensue if one were to enter an unknown body of water, much less on top of someone else’s animal. A common identifying characteristic of the kelpie is said to be its hooves, hooves that are reversed when compared to those of a regular horse.
Kelpies could also take on a human form, typically that of a man. The anthropomorphised water spirit could also be recognised, like its animal counterpart, not by its legs this time, but by its hair, where algae and seaweed could be found among locks of hair.
Most of the myths surrounding the kelpies are tales meant to inspire terror and fear, warning people off riverbanks and lochs. Only a few ever mention a friendly, eager to help kelpie. We are told that once upon a time, near Peterhead, at Inverugie Castle, a man stumbled across a great black horse. Realising the beast’s true nature, the man carefully threw a bridle over the horse’s head, managing to capture and subdue the kelpie. Now, under the man’s command, the kelpie was set to work, carrying stones for the building of a bridge nearby. Once the job was finished, the kelpie was set free, and the man reminded his sons of the kelpie’s hard work and dedication, if they were ever to complain after a day’s hard work.
Illustration by Linley Barba