Drivers on the M9 motorway in Scotland are greeted by a jaw-dropping monument to local legend: two 98-foot-tall sculptures depict kelpies -- or water horses -- that appear to rise out of the ground at The Helix, a park and recreation center in the Falkirk area. These strange statues were completed in November 2013 and represent a harmful water spirit that was said to have made its home in Scottish lochs and other bodies of water. The towering sculptures demonstrate just how persistent these mythical creatures are in the Scottish imagination.
In Scottish folklore, kelpies are described as malevolent shape-shifting spirits that live in lakes, rivers and other bodies of water -- any place where the pool is deep enough to cause drowning. It was believed that kelpies most commonly appeared as majestic horses, and those who attempted to ride them were plunged underwater to their deaths.
In some versions of the Scottish legend, kelpies also appeared as beautiful women or men who would charm their victims before leading them to their death. A more violent version of the kelpie was said to be the “each uisage” who, like the kelpie, dragged its victims into the water, where it would eat every part of them but the liver. Because of the each uisage, maidens were warned to be wary of men who had water weeds in their hair.
Kelpies in Scottish Literature
In his 1786 poem “Address to the Deil,” Robert Burns described how “nighted trav’llers are allur’d/To their destruction” by “water-kelpies.” Mention of the kelpie is also found in “Popular Rhymes, Fireside Stories, and Amusements, of Scotland,” published in 1842. The book includes the story of a kelpie imprisoned by Lord Graham of Morphie, who used the horse spirit as cheap labor to build his family castle. After the creature was released, it fled back to the water, but not before cursing the man and his family. “The Doomed Rider” from “Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales,” published in 1901, describes an incident that happened in the woods during a harvest. A kelpie was said to rise from a small pond to foretell the death of a traveler. When the doomed man appeared, the farmers attempted to save him by locking him in a church and away from the kelpie, but to no avail -- the traveler was later found drowned in a water trough inside.
Kelpie Legends Persist
As the kelpie sculptures demonstrate, the legendary creature has staying power. References to it continue to surface in popular culture, with author J.K. Rowling including the shape-shifters in her book "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," where she posits the Loch Ness monster is little more than an oversized kelpie who prefers to appear as a sea serpent, rather than a horse. Classic rock group Jethro Tull also recorded a song entitled "Kelpie," which describes a young woman being pursued by a kelpie in the form of a young man who wishes to steal her soul "to the deep."
- Sacred Texts: The Doomed Rider
- Encyclopedia Mythica: Kelpie
- Presscom: Popular Rhymes, Fireside Stories, and Amusements, of Scotland
- Paranormal Database: Outer Hebrides
- Encyclopedia Mythica: Each Uisage
- The Helix: The Kelpies -- Monuments to Equine History
- Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; J.K. Rowling
- Discogs: Jethro Tull -- Stormwatch
- Bartleby: Address to the Deil
- Medioimages/Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images