There is certainly something mystical about Scotland’s waters, and none more so than Loch Ness. Everybody has seen a depiction of Nessie – usually as a green, long necked dinosaur – but what if Nessie is more than a descendent of some prehistoric creature, what it she is something mythological? A Kelpie.
The Kelpie is a shape-shifting water spirit which resides in Scotland’s lochs and pools. It is usually described as a horse, but is able to adopt human form. Its hooves are often described as being the reverse of a normal horse, a trait also shared by the nykur of Iceland, and in some accounts it retains its hooves while in human form, leading to its association with the Christian idea of Satan.
In Scottish legend, the Kelpie is both strong and beautiful, and uses its powers to lure humans into the watery depths where it devours them, and throws the entrails to the water’s edge. In some cases the kelpie is equipped with a bridle or saddle, which they use to entice their prey. If the kelpie is already wearing a bridle, exorcism might be achieved by removing it.
Her eyes were wide and dark as a loch, with secrets moving, half seen, half sensed, under rippling water. A kelpie for sure. Each urisge, a water horse, mane flowing, skin glowing. And the man who touches such a creature is lost, bound to it forever, taken down and drowned in the loch that gives it home.” Drums of Autumn, Diana Gabaldon
In the early 19th-century a Kelpie reportedly haunted the shores of Loch Ness. It was tracked by a highlander called James MacGrigor, who took the creature by surprise and cut off its bridle, condemning it to death within the next twenty four hours.
The Kelpie followed MacGrigor to his home, and told MacGrigor that he would be unable to enter the house while in possession of the bridle, because of the presence of a cross above the entrance door. MacGrigor outwitted the creature by throwing the bridle through a window, leaving the Kelpie to accept its fate.
One folk tale from Barra tells a similar story, in which a lonely kelpie transforms himself into a handsome young man to convince a pretty young girl to marry him. The girl recognises the man as a kelpie and removes his silver necklace (his bridle) while he sleeps. The kelpie turns back into a horse, and is taken to a farm by the girl, who puts him to work for a year. After the year was up the girl rode the kelpie to a wise man, who tells her to return the silver necklace. Once returned the Kelpie is transformed into the handsome young man and the wise man asks the horse if he would prefer to be a kelpie or a mortal. The kelpie asks the girl if she would agree to be his wife if he was a man. She says that she would and the pair are married.