Ech-Uisge, Kelpies, and Water-Horses (general sources)

MHTv1 Sources:



1905, Kelpie:

Kelpie.—In the "Statistical Account of Scotland," under Parish of St. Vigeans, co. Caithness, we are told : "A tradition had long prevailed here, that the Water-Kelpy (called in Home's 'Douglas' the angry Spirit of the Water), carried the stones for building the church, under the fabrick of which there was a lake of great depth." Mr. Campbell, in Popular Tales of the West Highlands, 1860, ii 193-4 says very little about this spectre, and what he does say, I confess that I do not perfectly follow. But in Mr. George Macdonald's Ronald Bannerman's Boyhood, 1871, there is a curious and rather thrilling account, which seems worth copying hither. It occurs in one of the tales which Kirsty, the female farm-servant, used to relate to the children—not, one hopes towards bedtime, if they partook of the same character as this. The kelpie is described as an awful aquatic creature, emerging from its native element only to pursue human prey. One afternoon it appears that a shepherd's daughter, remarkable for her beauty, went to the glen to meet her lover, and after staying with him till it was dark, returned home, passing on the way the kelpie's lair, lie had seen her, and because she was so fair, he desired to eat her. She heard a great whish of water behind her. That was the water tumbling off the beasts's back as he came up from the bottom. If she ran before, she flew now. And the worst of it was that she could not hear him behind her, so as to tell whereabouts he was. He might be just opening his mouth to take her every moment. At last she reached the door, which her father, who had gone out to look for her, had set wide open that she might run in at once; but all the breath was out of her body, and she fell down flat just as she got inside. "Here Allister jumped up from his seat, clapping his hands, and crying 'Then the kelpie didn't eat her!—Kirsty! Kirsty!' 'No, but as she fell, one foot was left outside the threshold, so that the rowan branch (which the shepherd kept over the door to prevent the kelpie from ever entering) would not take care of it. And the beast laid hold of the foot with his great mouth, to drag her out of the cottage and eat her at his leisure.' Here Alfister's face was a picture to behold! His hair was almost standing on end, his mouth was open, and his face as white as my paper. 'Make haste, Kirsty,' said Turkey, 'or Allister will go in a fit.' 'But her shoe came off in his mouth, and she drew in her foot, and was safe.'" But the more natural solution of the difficulty may be that the kelpie was a creature supposed or alleged to lurk among the kelp or sea-weed, which in some coasts not only grows to an incredible height and size, but disposes itself in all sorts of fantastic and weird forms. The kelp manufacture used in the eighteenth century to be a staple industry in the Orkneys and Hebrides, and during the Peninsular War became for a time enormously lucrative. Superstition made the Scotish spirit oneeyed, as an imperfectly authorized tradition makes Polyphemus and his countrymen, or rather Polyphemus, for of the rest no description is given in the Odyssey. Mr. Campbell says the Cyclops was a water-spirit, as well as the kelpie, for no better reason apparently than because he was sometimes fabled to be the son of Neptune. There is surely no hint of such an idea in Homer. There is a good deal of uncertainty and confusion about the Cyclopes, which it might be both practicable and profitable to remove. But the connection between them and the kelpie is not manifest, since Polyphemus at least was one-eyed, and nowhere appears as a marine monster. Kelpie is supposed to owe itself to kelp, its lurking-place, although the word is also traced to the German chalp or kalb, from the roar which the monster utters: and the kelpie is elsewhere described as a horse-fiend which lures riders by its attractive aspect, and then bears them off, where it may devour them at its leisure. Allies' Antiquities of Worcestershire, 2nd ed. 1856, p. 468. The more probable etymology, however, seems to be that first suggested. The legend is easily explained by the constant howling of the ocean on a wild shore and the fantastic forms assumed by the sea-weed, especially if seen after dusk.