What Is A Kelpie, Anyway?

The Kelpies

The Kelpies

Well, nowadays it’s one of these magnificent things. See my post Two Huge Horses And A Walk In The Park for more on these amazing sculptures, which were modelled on two Clydesdale horses. But where does the name ‘Kelpie’ come from?

The kelpie, or water horse, is a shape-changing aquatic spirit of Scottish legend. They are said to haunt rivers and streams. Not lochs, so that calls J.K. Rowling’s story that the Loch Ness Monster is a kelpie into question. (There is another water horse, the each uisge, which lurks in lochs. Maybe Nessie is one of those..?)

The kelpie is a malevolent spirit. It may appear as a tame pony beside a river, to attract children – but once on its back, its sticky magical hide will not allow them to dismount. The kelpie will drag the trapped child into the river and then eat him. Nice.

These water horses can also appear as human. They may materialize as a beautiful young woman, to lure young men (or, indeed, other young women) to their doom. There are stories from all over Scotland of them appearing in various human forms, young and old, fair and ugly, to wreak havoc on us mere mortals.

Kelpies can also use their magical powers to summon up a flood and sweep a traveller away to a watery grave.

The sound of a kelpie’s tail entering the water is said to resemble that of thunder. And if you are passing by a river and hear an unearthly wailing or howling, take care: it could be a kelpie warning of an approaching storm.

But there is some good news: a 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 Slochd, in the Scottish Highlands.

One tale from the Hebridean island of Barra has the kelpie appear as a handsome young man, but his canny female victim steals his bridle and puts him to work in his equine form, on her farm. In the end, the kelpie chooses to remain as a mortal man if the lady agrees to be his wife, and they are married.

The offspring of a kelpie and a normal horse are impossible to drown, and therefore also highly prized.

There are legends all over the world of creatures similar to the kelpie: the Welsh ceffyl dŵr, the Germanic neck, and the wihwin of Central America.

So next time you are strolling by a pretty Scottish river or stream, be vigilant; you may be being watched from the water… 😉


11 thoughts on “What Is A Kelpie, Anyway?

  1. Great post. Perhaps its the Teuchter blood in my veins but I’ve always loved kelpies ever since my P3 teacher read us Mollie Hunter’s book The Kelpie’s Pearls. Great wee story.

    • That’s a selkie. They appear as seals, but can shed their seal skin and walk around in human form. If you steal their skin while they are human, they must follow you and stay with you until you give the skin back. Lots of great stories about these, too! I will do a blog post on them one day… 😉

      • Thanks. I read a book and then a short story about selkies, and they really intrigued me. Kelpies intrigued me, too, but I guess I’d better be more careful around any kind of water:)

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