The Nuckelavee

The terrifying Nuckelavee wasn’t just hairless, but completely skinless as well. Tammas watched as the red-raw flesh writhed…..

By Graeme Johncock

There are plenty of dangerous creatures in Scottish folklore. But nothing, and I mean nothing compares to the horrible, the terrifying, the downright evil Nuckelavee.

We should maybe count our blessings that this creature only haunts the Northern Isles since its mere description strikes fear into ordinary people. If the sight of the beast wasn’t enough to make you collapse, then its breath would. Out of its gaping mouth spewed a stench that wilted crops and sickened livestock. Almost every single problem that befell the islanders from droughts to blights was blamed on the Nuckelavee. It was a name that many wouldn’t even whisper.

Its name means Devil of the Sea although it’s only when the Nuckelavee is ashore that it spreads its terror. During the summer, it’s held back by the Mither of the Sea. As her strength wanes with the spread of Autumn, the monster can come ashore. The only thing that will drive off the Nuckelavee is fresh water, fortunately that includes Scottish rain. 

So, late one night and no doubt after a few shandys, an islander called Tammas was walking home by the light of a bright moon. He reached a section of the path with the sea on one side of him, and a little freshwater loch on the other, when he suddenly stopped in his tracks.

Something was moving towards him up ahead. Tammas thought it was somebody on horseback but as it got closer, he started to realise it was far, far too big. Whatever it was, he had that cold dread down his back that told him it wasn’t good. But with water on both sides of him, Tammas had nowhere to go but backwards and there was no chance he was turning his back to this monster.

He stood his ground and said a little prayer as he began to make out the horrible figure of the Nuckelavee before him. It was a strange hybrid of man and horse, seemingly fused together. The head of the man was enormous, with a mouth sticking out like the snout of a pig. It had arms so long, that it could reach the ground without even bending over.

The wide mouth of the horse’s head was sneering at him while steam belched out of it. Its single red eye stared right into him like fire. That wasn’t the worst part though. The terrifying Nuckelavee wasn’t just hairless, but completely skinless as well. Tammas watched as the red-raw flesh writhed as if this creature had been turned inside out. Even in the dim moonlight, he could make out the black blood pumping through its veins.

Tammas’s eyes kept moving over the beast, stuck fast with fear as it steadily walked towards him. The head of the human-esque part of the monster was rolling around like it was going to fall off at any moment. That cold dread down his back had turned to pure ice and Tammas was shaking like a leaf.

The only thing he knew was that the Nuckelavee couldn’t stand fresh water, so he forced his legs to back towards the loch. As Tammas stood awaiting his fate, the horse head lowered down in line with his. Its vast jaws opened up like a terrifying yawn and a hot stench filled his nose. Huge arms swung down to grab the terrified man, but he instinctively stepped back into the loch, splashing one of the horse’s legs.

The beast let out a horrible, thundering snort as it stepped away from the water. The swooping hands just missed dragging Tammas with them. He saw his chance. Darting past and with fear serving like a rocket up his backside, Tammas legged it along the edge of the Loch. He knew there was a little river ahead and if he could make it that far then the Nuckelavee wouldn’t dare follow.

But he wasn’t there yet, and the monster was hot on his heels. He could hear snorting and roaring behind him like a storm on his tail. Just as he reached the river, he felt more than saw the long swinging arms coming for him and he dove right into the water. Wading to the other side, Tammas looked back to see the Nuckelavee screeching on the other bank. As he panted for breath, he saw the only thing he had lost was his bonnet hanging from those enormous arms.

If you ever do visit the Northern Isles, especially Orkney then maybe you should wish for rain. One thing is for certain, don’t mention the Nuckelavee’s name out loud.