Kelpies – Scotland’s Shapeshifting Water Horse

Various ‘drowners’ are one of the most common creatures in folklore worldwide, malicious water spirits that exist to drag the unwary down into their waters and drown them. One of the most well known is the scottish kelpie, although it employs a very different method of snaring its victims. While most drowners rely on a strong grasp and the element of surprise, kelpie’s instead use their two different forms (a horse or a person) to lure the unwary to their deaths

While some sources state that kelpies inhabit rivers, they are most commonly associated with Scotland’s many lochs. Usually appeared along the shoreline as an impressive black or white horse, a kelpie would attempt to lure humans, particularly children, to climb onto its back. Its skin would then become sticky, preventing them from dismounting. The kelpie would then drag them down to the deep pools at the bottom of the loch where they would be drowned and subsequently devoured. On occasion they would discard the victims entrails, tossing them to the water’s edge. They are capable of adopting human form, usually preferring that of a beautiful young woman to allow them to lure men.

A Kelpie in human form, painted in 1913 by Herbet James Draper

One of the most commonly recounted tales of a kelpie has been linked to a range of different bodies of water, and its origins are unknown. Ten children, playing by the side of a lake, were approached by a large white horse. Given its calm and friendly demeanour, nine of the children clambered up onto its back, which appeared to grow in length to allow them all room. The tenth was more timid, and hung back. Eventually he reached out to pet the horse’s neck, at which point his hand becomes stuck fast and the horse, revealed to be a kelpie, headed for the water. He is able to free himself, in some versions by cutting his finger off, and escapes, while his nine friends are carried down to the depths and drowned.

Kelpies are also said to be able to control water, using sudden floods to sweep potential victims into the water. They also shriek or wail to warn of a coming storm. When taking on human form, their hair is often matted with water weeds. A kelpie in its equine form can be captured and controlled through the use of a bridle marked with the sign of the cross, being highly prized as a powerful draft horse. The Laird of Morphie was said to have enslaved a kelpie using this method, using it to carry the foundation stones on which he constructed his castle. They were said to be extremely difficult to kill, although a well-placed silver bullet would reduce them to a pile of formless mass.

Accounts of kelpie sightings are rare, although one such encounter by one Patrick Canning was recorded by journalist and cryptozoologist Frederick William Holiday in his book The Dragon and the Disc in 1973, although in Ireland rather than Scotland. Taking place in 1944, Canning had walked down to the shore of Lough Shanakeever early in the morning to retrieve a pregnant mare. When he reached her she appeared to have given birth to a healthy foal. However, on approaching the two horses, the foal dashed to the water and disappeared. The mare would give birth to her actual foal several days later.

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