The folklore of the British isles is filled with tales of spirits, fairies and other strange creatures, but beings referred to as demons are few and far between. The name carries with it images of malevolent, violent beings that actively prey on humans, consuming or corrupting them for their own ends. One of these rare examples is a sea creature said to frequent the rocky shores and remote beaches of the Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland.
The location of the Orkney archipelago has led to a distinct Orcadian culture and mythos to develop, bearing similarities to contemporary Celtic folklore but kept separate by rough and frequently stormy seas that limited the islander’s contact with mainland Scotland. Much of the traditional folklore of the Northern Isles of Scotland, including Orkney and nearby Shetland, also draws heavily from Scandinavian mythology.
By far the most feared of these tales of mysterious creatures and spirits is that of the Nuckelavee, a strange mixture of horse and humanoid said to lurk in the sea close to the island, occasionally venturing ashore to prey on the islanders or otherwise taint the land with its malign presence. Orcadians would only speak the fiend’s name when followed with a prayer of protection, blaming his poisonous breath during his on-land incursions for crop blights, missing livestock and droughts.
Descriptions of the Nuckelavee vary widely, and most accounts acknowledge that its form when in the water is completely unknown. It is thought to adopt a new guise when venturing ashore, variously described as a foul daemonic horse, a strange human-equine hybrid or as a huge, frightful being in the vague form of a man, sometimes riding a strange water horse. Said to be ten times the size of a man, the small number of claimed eyewitness accounts include a hairless body, sometimes even skinless, the musculature and skeleton beneath clearly visible alongside thick, black blood flowing through yellowish veins. Other frequent features include a wide, gaping mouth, long ape-like arms, a pig’s snout and in some versions a single, red-glowing eye. Generally encountered on beaches at night, the Nuckelavee appears to have a severe intolerance for fresh water, never coming ashore when it was raining and being unwilling or unable to pursue intended victims that were able to flee across a river or stream.
Much of the written records of the creature derive from the work of 19th century folkloreist Walter Traill Dennison, who believes that the name Nuckelavee originates with the Orcadian word knoggelevi, which translates to ‘devil of the sea’. A similar creature is described by Shetland islanders, known as the mukkelevi, where it was considered the most dangerous and outright evil of the trow that are common to islander legends; short, ugly spirits or small folk fond of mischief, as well as some far darker activities.