#AtoZChallenge, #FolkloreThursday, A-Z Blogging Challenge, Celtic folklore, Faerie, Faeries, folklore, folklore creatures, Kelpie, Origin of the Fae, preview of work, Ronel Janse van Vuuren, short story, Theresa Bane, writing
K is for Kelpie
Of all the shape-shifting Fae, this one embodies the capricious nature of the Fae the most. At least in my opinion.
Caprice [kap-reess] n sudden change in attitude capricious adj tending to have sudden changes in attitude (Collins English Dictionary).
‘Cause you’re hot then you’re cold
You’re yes then you’re no
You’re in then you’re out
You’re up then you’re down – Hot N Cold, Katy Perry
Which, of course, makes this creature a lot of fun to write about. But let us first look at the folklore behind this Fae.
Folklore of the Kelpie
Lost little pony standing there
So handsome, black and sleek
But you my dear must beware
His interest your flesh will pique
He’ll drag you down to waters deep
And then drown you for his dinner
Those left on land will start to weep
When he leaves nothing but your liver
~ Morrigan Aoife
Encyclopedia of Beasts and Monsters in Myth, Legend and Folklore By Theresa Bane
Kelpies are probably one of Scotland’s best-known and most distinctive magical creatures. Kelpies are water-horses, who can shape-shift from underwater monsters to beautiful horses or humans on land, and who lure young women and men under the water to drown them and eat them. It’s a striking image, and a terrifying end.
Kelpie, or water kelpie, is the Scots name given to a shape-shifting water spirit inhabiting the lochs and pools of Scotland. It has usually been described as appearing as a horse, but is able to adopt human form.
Almost every sizeable body of water in Scotland has an associated kelpie story, but the most extensively reported is that of Loch Ness. The origin of the belief in malevolent water horses has been proposed as originating in human sacrifices once made to appease gods associated with water, but narratives about the kelpie also served a practical purpose in keeping children away from dangerous stretches of water, and warning young women to be wary of handsome strangers.
Douglas Harper, historian and founder of the Online Etymology Dictionary, defines kelpie as “the Lowland name of a demon in the shape of a horse”. It is the most common water spirit in Scottish folklore, but the name is attributed to several different forms in narratives recorded throughout the country. The late 19th century saw the onset of an interest in transcribing folklore, but the recorders were inconsistent in spelling and frequently anglicised words, which could result in differing names for the same spirit.
Commentators have disagreed over the kelpie’s aquatic habitat. Folklorists who define kelpies as spirits living beside rivers, as distinguished from the Celtic lakeside-dwelling water horse (each-uisge), include 19th-century minister of Tiree John Gregorson Campbell and 20th-century writers Lewis Spence and Katharine Briggs. This distinction is not universally applied however; Sir Walter Scott for instance claims that the kelpie’s range may extend to lochs. Mackillop’s dictionary reconciles the discrepancy, stating that the kelpie was “initially thought to inhabit … streams, and later any body of water.” But the distinction should stand argues one annotator, who suggests that people are led astray when an each uisge in a “common practice of translating” are referred to as kelpies in English accounts, and thus mistakenly attribute lake-dwelling habits to the latter.
The mythological kelpie is usually described as a powerful and beautiful black horse inhabiting the deep pools of rivers and streams of Scotland, preying on any humans it encounters, One of the water-kelpie’s common identifying characteristics is that its hooves are reversed as compared to those of a normal horse, a trait also shared by the nykur of Iceland. An Aberdeenshire variation portrays the kelpie as a horse with a mane of serpents, whereas the resident equine spirit of the River Spey was white and could entice victims onto its back by singing.
The creature’s nature was described by Walter Gregor, a folklorist and one of the first members of the Folklore Society, as “useful”, “hurtful”, or seeking “human companionship”; in some cases, kelpies take their victims into the water, devour them, and throw the entrails to the water’s edge. In its equine form the kelpie is able to extend the length of its back to carry many riders together into the depths, a common theme in the tales is of several children clambering onto the creature’s back while one remains on the shore. Usually a little boy, he then pets the horse but his hand sticks to its neck. In some variations the lad cuts off his fingers or hand to free himself; he survives but the other children are carried off and drowned, with only some of their entrails being found later.
Kelpies have the ability to transform themselves into non-equine forms, and can take on the outward appearance of human figures, in which guise they may betray themselves by the presence of water weeds in their hair. In their human form, kelpies are almost invariably male.
But beware…these are malevolent spirits! The kelpie may appear as a tame pony beside a river. It is particularly attractive to children – but they should take care, for once on its back, its sticky magical hide will not allow them to dismount! Once trapped in this way, the kelpie will drag the child into the river and then eat him.
These water horses can also appear in human form. They may materialize as a beautiful young woman, hoping to lure young men to their death. Or they might take on the form of a hairy human 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 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.
A common Scottish folk tale is that of the kelpie and the ten children. Having lured nine children onto its back, it chases after the tenth. The child strokes its nose and his finger becomes stuck fast. He manages to cut off his finger and escapes. The other nine children are dragged into the water, never to be seen again.
So next time you are strolling by a pretty river or stream, be vigilant; you may be being watched from the water by a malevolent kelpie…
A Kelpie in the Celtic mythology of Scotland was originally a name given to a ‘Water Horse’. This supernatural entity could be found in the lochs and rivers of Scotland and also has a place in Irish folklore. The description of their appearance can vary in different tales. Sometimes white with smooth cold skin, or black and grey. Some of these variations and the stories associated with the Kelpie are regional in origin.
In some stories they are described as ‘shape shifters’. They are able to transfer themselves into beautiful women who can lure men and trap them. However, the Kelpie does not always take a female form and are mostly male. They are also described as posing a particular danger to children when in the shape of a horse. Attracting their victims to ride them they are taken under the water and then eaten.
In Scotland, the kelpie is a shape-shifting water spirit which resides in lakes and pools. The historian Douglas Harper defined kelpies as demons appearing specifically in the shape of horses. However, some legends say that it can also assume human form.
While appearing as a human, the kelpie will still have its hooves. For this reason, the kelpie is seen as a malefic entity. In Scotland, almost every lake has a story about a kelpie. Probably the most well-known of these stories is the one about the kelpie of Loch Ness.
In the past, human sacrifices were made to appease the gods and spirits of the waters. In time, this practice led to the appearance of the belief in evil water horses. There are some stories, however, in which kelpies are seen in a more positive light and are said to protect small children from drowning in lakes. Kelpies also apparently warned young women to be wary of handsome strangers.
Kelpies are the most common water spirits in Scottish folklore and they can live both in water as well as on land. They often appear in legends as strong and beautiful black horses which live in the deep pools of rivers and streams in Scotland.
The each-uisge of Scotland is known as “Ech-Ushkya” or as the “each-uisce” in Ireland. Literally meaning “water horse” it is a water spirit resembling the kelpie, but is far more vicious. Folklorist Katharine Briggs described the mythical being as “perhaps the fiercest and most dangerous of all the water-horses”.
While the kelpie inhabits rivers and streams, the each-uisge lives in the sea and in lakes. It is a shape shifter disguised as a beautiful horse, a pony, a giant bird or as a handsome man. While it is in its horse form, should a person mount it, then the individual is only safe while the each-uisge is on land. However, as soon as the horse smells water it is the end for the rider. The horse’s skin will become adhesive and the horse creature will immediately take its rider into the deepest part of the lake, drowning him. Once the victim has drowned, the each-uisge rips the corpse apart and devours it, leaving only the liver to float to the surface. For this reason, people in the Highlands were often wary of lone animals and strangers they encountered near the water’s edge.
Commonly known as spirits of the dead, Kelpies are not benevolent creatures and some folklore even says that they will not come unless summoned, or to eat.
There was one way in which a Kelpie could be defeated and tamed – the Kelpies’ power of shape shifting was said to reside in its bridle, and anyone who could claim possession of it could force the Kelpie to submit to his or her will. A Kelpie in subjugation was highly prized, it had the strength of at least 10 horses and the endurance of many more, but the fairy races were always dangerous captives, especially those as malignant as the Kelpie. It was said that the MacGregor clan were in possession of a Kelpie’s bridle, passed down through the generations from when one of their clan managed to save himself from a Kelpie near Loch Slochd.
Appearance In different stories, the kelpie is described as black, grey or green with seal-like skin. They cannot completely escape the water so are often said to have seaweed in their hair. Using their magical powers over water, kelpies can cause streams and lochs to flood and overwhelm passers-by.
The Kelpie is a mythical water-beast from Scotland which is supposed to take the appearance of a gray or white horse, notable because, unlike a real horse which would likely not be found near water or at least swimming in it, the Kelpie’s mane and tail are always dripping wet. The Kelpie was said to drag people underwater, drown them and eat them. Some versions of the story have it that the skin of the Kelpie is an adhesive and anyone who touches it will be stuck to it, hence being dragged underwater; therefore, the only way to escape a Kelpie is to cut off one’s own limb that is attached to it and then–if one makes it back to shore– to quickly find a surgeon before blood loss leads to death.
Legend has it that the kelpie emits a plaintive cry eerily reminiscent of a drowning man or women to attract its prey. Others say it will sometimes appear at the water’s edge appearing gentle and bereft, urging onlookers to join it for a ride on its back before violently plunging them down to a watery grave. The secret to taming the kelpie is its bridle – if you can manage to tear it off, the horse is subject to your command.
For proof of their existence look no further than the grounds of the ruined Vayne Castle in Angus. Here you will find a hoof-shaped imprint on sandstone near the river bank left behind by this supernatural predator. It is said that in the early morning or at dusk, if you are still and listen carefully enough, you might just catch its mournful song floating along.nture no further than that, unless you wish to meet your doom.
The mythical kelpie is a supernatural water horse that was said to haunt Scotland’s lochs and lonely rivers. The kelpie would appear to victims as a lost dark grey or white pony but could be identified by its constantly dripping mane. It would entice people to ride on its back, before taking them down to a watery grave.
The Loch Ness Monster (‘Nessie’)
One of Scotland’s most famous unsolved mysteries is that of the Loch Ness Monster (or ‘Nessie’ as it has affectionately come to be known). The large dinosaur-like creature is reputed to inhabit Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. The first recorded sighting of the monster was nearly 1,500 years ago when a giant beast is said to have leaped out of a lake near Inverness and ate a local farmer. Since then the myth of the Loch Ness Monster has magnified.
Kelpies in Modern Culture
In Annemarie Allan’s Ushig the Kelpie (titular character) both helps the children in their quest and offers them up as prey to the queen of the night. He starts in the form of a boy, yet very different with his odd eyes and strange hair, before he turns into a horse and gallops away…
In Holly Black’s Tithe the Kelpie lives in a pool of water in a copse of woods. In exchange for a price (or prize) he’ll help. In the case of saving a knight’s life, he wishes for blood. To help a Fae girl learn magic, a broken carousel horse (more beautiful in its almost useless state) will do. This Kelpie can also shift between the form of a horse and that of a human (though still inhuman).
There are others too (think the awesome show of Kelpies running on waves in The Secret of Moonacre), but these two formed my idea of what a Kelpie should be the most.
Even in the Harry Potter Wikia Kelpies are mentioned.
A Kelpie is a shapeshifting water demon native to Great Britain and Ireland. Able to take any form, they usually take the form of a horse with a bullrush mane. After luring unwary travellers onto their backs, they drag them underwater and eat them, allowing the entrails to float to the surface of the water.
So how do Kelpies act in my Fae world?
Kelpie (Origin of the Fae Page)
Kelpies use the connection they have to the water they live in to find out everything that goes on in the world around them.
Kelpies can live in any lake, river or stream. Even a murky pool will do if there’s enough glamour to fuel the Kelpie. Part of their magic is to make themselves irresistible – humans and Fae want to touch them, no matter the cost.
Mist surrounds a Kelpie as it shifts form. They have the power to change their appearance at will. Kelpies prefer the form of a horse when on land. Though they can turn into pine martens, stoats, goats, etc. They can even take on a human form.
Kelpies will eat any human or Fae it wants to. They especially like to play with their prey. Though, there are a few who stick to eating fish.
Kelpies only appear outside water when they are summoned, hungry or have to go to a mandatory Fae gathering (like the Tithe every seven years). It usually shape-shifts from an underwater monster to something alluring – like a horse – before enticing humans/Fae to touch it, at which point its skin will become adhesive and it will take its prey down to a watery grave (and the Kelpie will have lunch).
Though it is said that only the liver or entrails are left over from a Kelpie’s meal (seen floating on the surface), that’s just the personal preference of some. Not all Kelpies have the same taste in food (just like everyone else).
Kelpies have power over the water they live in: they can cause floods to hinder or drown pursuers/victims.
They have an odd sense of humour (e.g. laughing when someone nearly dies in a bog).
Kelpies are good in a fight. They change into water as soon as an opponent tries to punch/curse/suck the life out of them.
Kelpies do whatever they wish, whatever whim takes them. Even the supposedly bad ones who feast on humans and Fae can be a trusted ally – just like the supposedly good Kelpies who only eat fish can be your worst enemy.
Kelpies are always dripping wet. Once they start to dry out, they need to return to the water or risk death from dehydration.
How to summon Kelpies:
- A rhyme (if you know the right one) will call the Kelpie from the depths.
- A Cù Sìth can summon one by simply barking.
- A blood offering – a bit of blood on a leaf placed on the water – along with calling: ‘Kelpie, I bid thee forth.’ will summon the Kelpie to your presence.
Though, beware: the Kelpie will demand more, depending on what you want from it.
Like all capricious Fae, it depends on the individual Kelpie whether it will be friend or foe.
“She heard the Grey Guard arrive on the shore. Looking back, she couldn’t see the man at all. Instead, a large horse with a fin for a mane watched the Guardians. Daphne immediately turned away and walked faster. She’d heard of this creature and she wasn’t about to fall under its spell.”
– Fleeing from Grey, Tales of the Onyx Labyrinth, Ronel Janse van Vuuren
What was your first experience with Kelpies? Do you think that the Loch Ness Monster is a Kelpie? Anything about Kelpies you’d like to add? For more about Kelpies, check out the Pinterest board I made about them. Did you enjoy the story? Comments can be left here or on Wattpad.
If you love Kelpies, you’ll enjoy my tale “The Fae of Bremen” in my short story collection “Once…“.
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