Kelpies, Water-horses, Water-bulls, &c.

[Newspaper Research Contents]

“SCOTTISH CUSTOMS AND FOLK-LORE. 

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SHIRES OF ABERDEEN, KINCARDINE, AND FORFAR. 

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   … A pool on the North Esk, called the Ponage, or Pontage Pool, was at one time the home of a water kelpie. This creature was captured, and made to do duty for the laird of Morphie, who was then building a castle. The special work laid upon the kelpie was to carry stones for the building. The task was irksome enough, if one may judge from a popular rhyme – 

‘Sair back and sair banes, 

Carrying the Laird o’ Morphie’s stanes.’ 

One day his bridle was incautiously removed, and the water spirit was agin free.” 

– Glasgow Herald, Saturday 20th June, 1891, p.4. 

“A KELPIE’S STORY. 

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   The following story appears in the last issue of the ‘Folk-Lore Journal;’’the facts were related to the writer by a Mr T. Farquharson, a mason of Corgarff, said to be a man of great intelligence and a mine of folk-lore:- A kelpie in Braemar, on Deeside, had taken a liking for a woman that dwelt not far from the Mill of Quoich. This woman fell out of meal, and had not very good means of supplying her want. Kelpie resolved to come to her help. So one night, on which he knew corn was being ground at the mill, he went to it after the miller had left it. In those old days mills ground very slowly, and it was not unusual for the miller to put as much grain into the hopper as would keep the mill at work till he got up next morning. So it was in this case. Kelpie entered the mill and patiently waited till the sack that received the ground grain was full. He then lifted the sack on his back and left the mill. It was “the grey of the morning,” and the miller had left his bed and was coming to the mill to see that all was going well. He spied a tall man coming round the corner of the mill, carrying a sackful of meal on his back. Seizing the “fairy-whorl” that was lying at one of the mill corners, he hurled it at the man with the oath and threat, ‘Kelpie or nae kelpie, G-d d— you, a’ll brack your leg.’ The stone took effect and broke the leg. The kelpie made for the “mill-lead” (mill-race), tumbled into it, was carried by it into the river Dee, and drowned. This was the last kelpie that lived in the Braes o’ Mar.” 

– Aberdeen Evening Express, Thursday 1st August, 1889, p.4. 

“WATER KELPIE. 

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AFT, owre the bent, with heather blent, 

And throw the forest brown, 

I tread the path to yon green strath, 

Quhare brae-born Esk rins down. 

Its banks alang, quhilk hazels thrang, 

Quhare sweet-saair’d hawthorns blow, 

I lufe to stray, and view the play 

Of fleckit scules below. 

Ae summer e’en, upon the green, 

I laid me down to gaze; 

The place right nigh, quhare Carity 

His humble tribute pays; 

And Prosen proud, with rippet loud, 

Cums ravin’ frae his glen; 

As gin he micht auld Esk affricht 

And drive him back agen. 

An ancient tour appear’t to lour 

Athort the neibourin plain, 

Quhais chieftain bauld, in times of auld, 

The kintrie call’t his ain. 

Its honours cow’t, its now forhow’t, 

And left the houlat’s prey? 

Its skuggin’ wude, aboon the flude, 

With gloom owrespreads the day. 

A dreary shade the castle spread, 

And mirker grew the lift; 

The vroonin’ kye the byre drew nigh, 

The darger left his thrift. 

The laverock shill on erd was still, 

The westlin wind fell loun; 

The fisher’s houp forgat to loup, 

And aw for rest made boun. 

I seem’t to sloom, quhan throw the gloom 

I saw the river shak, 

And beard a whush alangis it rush, 

Gart aw my members quak; 

Syne, in a stound, the pool profound 

To cleave in twain appear’d; 

And huly throw the frichtsom how 

His form a gaist uprear’d. 

He rashes bare, and seggs, for hair, 

Quhare ramper-eels entwin’d; 

Of filthy gar his ee-brees war, 

With esks and horse-gells lin’d. 

And for his een, with dowie sheen, 

Twa huge horse-mussels glar’d: 

From his wide mow a torrent flew, 

And soupt his reedy beard. 

Twa slauky stanes seemit his spule-banes; 

His briskit braid, a whin; 

Ilk rib sae bare, a skelvy skair; 

Ilk arm a monstrous fin. 

He frae the wame a fish became, 

With shells aw coverit owre; 

And for his tail, the grislie whale 

Could nevir match its pow’r. 

With dreddour I, quhan he drew nigh, 

Had maistly swarfit outricht: 

Less fleyit at lenth I gatherit strenth, 

And speirit quhat was this wicht. 

Syne thrice he shook his fearsum book, 

And thrice he snockerit loud; 

From ilka ee the fire-flauchts flee, 

And flash alangis the flude. 

Quhan words he found, their elritch sound 

Was like the norlan blast, 

Frae yon deep glack, at Catla’s back, 

That skeegs the dark-brown waste. 

The troublit pool conveyit the gowl 

Down to yon echoin rock; 

And to his maik, with wilsum skraik, 

Ilk bird its terror spoke. 

The trout, the par, now here, now thare, 

As in a widdrim bang; 

The gerron gend gaif sic a stend, 

As on the yird him flang; 

And down the stream, like levin’s gleam, 

The fleggit salmond flew; 

The ottar yap his prey let drap, 

And to his hiddils drew. 

‘Vile droich,’ he said, ‘art nocht afraid 

Thy mortal life to tyne? 

How dar’st thou seik with me till speik, 

Sae far aboon thy line? 

Yet sen thou hast thai limits past, 

that sinder sprites frae men, 

Thy life I’ll spare, and aw declare, 

That worms like thee may ken. 

‘In kintries nar, and distant far, 

Is my renoun propall’t; 

As is the leid, my name ye’ll reid, 

The strypes and burns, throw aw their turns, 

As weel’s the waters wide, 

My laws obey, their spring-heads frae, 

Down till the salt sea tide. 

‘Like some wild staig, I aft stravaig, 

And scamper on the wave; 

Quha with a bit my mow can fit, 

May gar me be his slave. 

To him I’ll wirk, baith morn and mirk, 

Quhile he has wark to do; 

Gin tent he tak I do nae shak 

His bridle frae my mow. 

‘Quhan Morphie’s laird his biggin rear’d, 

I carryit aw the stanes; 

And mony a chiell has heard me squeal 

For sair-brizz’d back and banes. 

Within flude mark, I aft do wark 

Gudewillit, quhan I please; 

In quarries deep, quhile uthers sleep, 

Greit blocks I win with ease. 

‘Yon bonny brig quhan folk wald big, 

To gar my stream look braw; 

A sair toil’d wicht was I be nicht; 

I did mair than thaim aw. 

And weel thai kent quhat help I lent, 

For thai yon image fram’t, 

Aboon the pend whilk I defend; 

And it thair Kelpie nam’t. 

‘Quhan lads and lasses wauk the clais, 

Narby you whinny hicht, 

The sound of me their daffin lays; 

Thai dare na mudge for fricht. 

Now in the midst of them I scream, 

Quhan toozlin’ on the haugh; 

Than quhihher by thaim doun the stream, 

Loud nickerin in a laugh. 

‘Siclike’s my fun, of wark quhan run; 

But I do meikle mair; 

In pool or ford can nane be smur’d 

Gin Kelpie be nae there. 

Fow lang, I wat, I ken the spat, 

Quhair ane sell meet his deid; 

Nor wit nor pow’r put aff the hour, 

For his wanweird decreed. 

‘For oulks befoir, alangis the shoir, 

Or dancin’ down the stream, 

My lichts are seen to blaze at een, 

With wull wanerthly gleam. 

The hind cums in, gif haim he win, 

And crieds, as he war wod, –  

Sum ane sall soon be carryit down 

“By that wanchancy flude!” 

‘The taiken leil thai ken fou weel, 

On water sides quha won; 

And aw but thai, quha’s weird I spae, 

Fast frae the danger run. 

But fremmit fouk I thus provoke 

To meit the fate thai flee: 

To wilderit wichts thai’re waefow lichts, 

But lichts of joy to me. 

‘With ruefow cries, that rend the skies, 

Thair fate I seem to mourn, 

Like crocodile, on banks of Nile; 

For I still do the turn. 

Douce, cautious men aft fey are seen; 

Thai rin as thai war heyrt, 

Despise all rede, and court their dede: 

By me are thai inspir’t. 

‘Yestreen the water was in spate, 

The stanners aw war cur’d 

A man, nae stranger to the gate, 

Raid up to tak the ford. 

The haill town sware it wadna ride; 

And Kelpie had been heard: 

But nae a gliffin wad he bide, 

His shroud I had prepar’d. 

‘The human schaip I sometimes aip: 

As Prosenhaugh raid haim, 

Ae starnless nicht, he gat a fricht, 

Maist crackt his bustuous frame. 

I, in a glint, lap on ahint, 

And in my arms him fang’t; 

To his dore-cheik I kept the cleik: 

The carle was sair bemang’t. 

‘My name itsell wirks like a spell, 

And quiet the house can keep; 

Quhan greits the wean, the nurse in vain, 

Thoch tyke-tyrit, tries to sleip. 

But gin scho say, “Lie still, ye skrae, 

There’s Water-Kelpie’s chap;” 

It’s fleyit to wink, and in a blink 

It sleips as sound’s a tap.’ 

He said, and thrice he rais’t his voice, 

And gaif a horrid gowl: 

Thrice with his tail, as with a flail, 

He struck the flying pool. 

A thunderclap seem’t ilka wap, 

Resoundin’ throw the wude; 

The fire thrice flash’t; syne in he plash’t, 

And sunk beneath the flude.” 

– Forfar Herald, Friday 27th October, 1899, p.3. 

“WATER KELPIE. 

   The great spirit of the waters is said to have been called in Gaelic Neithe, which name the reverend author, [Rev. Mr. John Grant,] of the statistical account of the parish of [Kirkmichael] derives from the Celtic word to cleanse or purify. The same authority names other two spirits – viz., ‘the [Mariach] Shine, or rider of the storm,’ and Anvona. The former, from the description, would appear to be identified with hurricanes, and the latter with less furious tempests. 

   To this ‘angry spirit of the waters’ are assigned qualities essentially opposite to those beneficent attributes with which superstition endowed the genii of the fountains. From unrecorded ages to the present day, the virtues of the health-giving springs – the benefits of pilgrimages to their sites, the pure air, and the effects of imagination, heightened by the ceremonies practised at these wells – have in Scotland, prior to Christianity, been credited to local deities. Very different is the Water-kelpie, the name by which the spirit of the waters is now most generally known in Scotland. This demon seems to be a compound of various fiends possessing different forms. Sometimes it is described as wholly or partly human, as merman or mermaid; but more commonly the shape assigned to it is that of a horse or a bull. The sounds of the kelpie when heard in the storm, whether as the wild neighing or hoarse bellowing, is reckoned a sure presage of misfortunes. In form of a horse the kelpie is believed to emerge from the sea or a lake, and to tempt the unwary to mount on his back, that he may dash with his rider into the depths of the flood. Legends regarding the Bull of the Waters, in some districts called the Water cow, are less poetical, but the fiend is generally unamiable, whether he assumes the form of a handsome young man, of a horse, or of a bull. 

   In Scotland, the belief in the existence of the Water-kelpie was very general in the last century, and is by no means extinct in the present generation. There are few lakes regarding which there are not legends and traditions of the appearance of this fiend in its waters or on its banks, and many persons were asserted to have seen the Horse or Bull of the Waters.” 

– Banffshire Journal and General Advertiser, Tuesday 20th February, 1866, p.2. 

“SCOTTISH. SHETLANDIC, AND GERMANIC WATER TALES. 

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KARL BLIND IN THE ‘CONTEMPORARY REVIEW.’ 

II. 

   BOTH in its tales and its terminology, Shetland folk-lore has evidently preserved some striking relics which go far to supplement hitherto missing links of the Teutonic creed. Mythic Water-Horses and Water-Bulls, or Cows are to be found in the religious system of many nations of old. Ay, they still haunt the imagination of living men in the shape of Scotch Water-Kelpies, or of dapple-gray stallions and brown steers that rise from some mysterious German lake, such as the nix-haunted Mummel-See of the Black Forest. but nowhere in this country have I yet met with, after much personal enquiry among English and Scotch friends, the highly significant name of a Shetlandic water-horse, which deserves being rescued from oblivion. It is called the NUGGLE. 

   It was in in a somewhat casual way I, at first, heard of this remarkable name. I was told that there is, in the superstitious beliefs of the northern-most island group which historically bears so strong a Norse character, ‘an ideal existence, called the Nuggle, which is always regarded as a horse – never as a mare; the distinction being, however, that his tail is said to resemble a wheel.’ This Nuggle is ‘believed to be possessed of semi-acquatic properties, and used to play his pranks on water-mills while in the act of grinding the corn.’ My first informant, Mr Robert Sinclair, to whom, as well as to his son, I am greatly indebted for excellent communications, added – ‘When young, I saw the ruins of a water-mill which tradition said had been deserted because of the Nuggle.’ 

   Both the suggestive name and the qualities of this mythic horse deeply aroused my interest, for they seem to fit in wonderfully with the elaborate system of the Germanic Water-Cult – a form of worship which may have preceded, or for some time gone side by side, with the Asa Religion, and which was only fused into the latter after a hostile struggle dimly recorded in the Edda. I, therefore, continued inquiries about the connections of his gruesome phantom figure of the waves. In reply to various question – especially as to whether its name was connected with any Shetlandic word referring to water – I have received the following:- 

   ‘With regard to the legendary attributes of the Nuggle, he was believed to be more deceitful than courageous; and his sole bent seemed to be to play mischievous pranks on the human race. I am not aware of any Shetland word that connects the name with water, but the tradition is that the Nuggle was never found at any distance from the water; generally frequenting footpaths near a loch, was to offer his services to any unsuspecting wayfarer who might feel disposed to take advantage of them, in order to facilitate his progress, if likely to be benighted. In form he was exactly like a pony, with the exception of his tail, which was said to resemble the rim of a wheel, but which he cunningly kept concealed between his hind legs, when he meant to victimise any pedestrian; and woe be to the man who bestrode him without examining that appendage! It was not stated whether he used his tail as a means of locomotion or not; but no sooner had he felt the weight of his victim, than with lightning speed he flew into the water, and the equestrian found himself submerged beyond his depth, and is he ever gained the shore, it was no fault of the Nuggle. He did not, however, attempt attack; but it is said when the rider got his head above water, he saw him disappear in cloudy vapour or blue flame.’ 

   Mr Robert Sinclair further wrote:- 

   ‘This was one of his pranks; the other one was alleged to be played on people grinding corn at the water-mill. All of a sudden the mill would stand still, while the water was running on the wheel, or “tirl,” in full power. This was very unpleasant to an individual who was alone in the mill in the night – perhaps a mile from the nearest habitation. The cure for this was to throw a fire-brand down the “lighting-hole” in the “looder.”1 It appears the miscreant can’t stand fire, for no sooner is the cure applied than he lets go his hold of the “tirl,” and the machinery is again in motion. Numerous instances are recorded, illustrating both these phases of his propensity to work mischief.’ 

… 

   ‘… Like the Kelpie, he was never spiteful; that is, he would never resent an injury done him. Another, and more dangerous trick of his was, at twilight, to place himself close to a path near a loch in an inviting position to allure any unfortunate passer by on to his neck; and the very moment any fool took the advantage, he would find the advantage all on the other side – discover himself in the middle of the loch – and would see the track of the accommodating animal in a broad streak of blue fire across the water. There is not a single instance, so far as my knowledge goes, of any one losing their life in this way. His tricks were always seasoned with mercy.’ 

– Shetland Times, Saturday 10th September, 1881, p.3. 

1  Only a knowledge of the construction of the Shetland mill could make this fully intelligible. Be it enough to say that it is a hole of such a kind that anything dropped through must fall into the water-way, as it passes the vertical wheel, or ‘tirl,’ by which the mill is driven; which space, on such occasions, is supposed to be occupied by the cunning Nuggle.” 

“SCOTTISH, SHETLANDIC, AND GERMANIC WATER TALES. 

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KARL BLIND IN THE ‘CONTEMPORARY REVIEW.’ 

IV. 

   It is clear, from the foregoing, that the water stallion of this country’s outermost Thule is the same as the Icelandic and Scandinavian Nyk, or Nök, or Nökken – a water-spirit in horse-form, who appears in all Teutonic lands. He properly belongs to the pellucid stables of Nikar, a Germanic sea-god into whose shape All-Father has thrown himself – perhaps after Vana Cult had been replaced by the Asa system. Poseidon was called the Zeus of the Sea. Odin was a ruler of the deep through one of his incarnations, as we see from Eddic registers of his numerous aliases.1 Evidently in his quality as a chief water deity, he bore the name of Nikarr, and Nikuz, or Hnikar and Hnikudr, – variations which mark different Norse dialects. To the Icelandic Nikarr corresponds to an Anglo-Saxon Nicor; to Nikuz, an Old High German water-spirit Nichus. 

– Shetland Times, Saturday 1st October, 1881, p.3. 

1  In the ‘Lay of Grimnir’ forty-two names of Odin are given. In the Prose Edda, Gylfi’s Incantation first gives twelve names of his, as many as the year has months. Afterwards more than fifty names are mentioned; and Gylfi, the Inquirer, who learns them with astonishment in the Heavenly Hall of Asgard, is told that most of those names arose from the difference of tongues, others from the many journeys and wonderful undertakings of Odin, which are recorded in old sages. (‘Gylfaginning;’ 20.)” 

“SCOTTISH, SHETLANDIC, AND GERMANIC WATER TALES. 

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KARL BLIND IN THE ‘CONTEMPORARY REVIEW.’ 

VII. 

… 

   … ‘Scotland has also its water-spirit, called Kelpie, who very exactly corresponds to the Neck of the northern nations. This country is also the abode of Shellycoat, who haunts Shetland and the Orkneys.’ Mr John Hill Burton, in his ‘History of Scotland,’ writes:- ‘Whether as Picts, Saxons, or by any other name, however, we know that Scotland was inhabited by men of the Norse-race, who brought with them the Scandinavian mythology – the religion of the Eddas – retaining it until they were converted to Christianity.’ The same author, referring to the prevalence of Germanic myths in Scotland, observes:- ‘There were other powers to Work evil upon mankind. Chief of these are the Neck, whence comes our Old Nick, and perhaps the Nick Niven, who is the chief among the Scotch witches, holding something like the place that Shakespeare gives to Hecate… in later times he was in the northern nations a mischievous imp of the stream, like the Water-kelpie of Scotland.’ 

… 

   Under a Keltic garb, not a few Germanic myths are evidently hidden in the Highlands – even as the physical appearance of some of the men there, together with the names of several places, still points to that former Norse connection. Nearly every Scotch loch has a Water-horse, or a Water-bull story. Mr J. F. Campbell, in his ‘West Highland Tales,’ says, in regard to the Water-kelpie, that ‘ the tales of Norwegian sailors are similar in this respect.’ and that ‘the Celtic character has, in fact, much which savours of a tribe who are boatmen by compulsion, and would be horsemen if they could. Though the western islanders are fearless boatmen, and brave the terrible sea in very frail boats, very few of them are in the Royal Navy, and there are not many who are professed sailors.’ Speaking of the Dragon which haunts Highland sea-lochs, Mr Campbell observes that Gaelic stories surely had the same origin as the Norse sea-serpent and the great sea-snake in the Edda which encircled the whole earth. ‘The bodily shape might have been that of a survivor of an extinct-species, the attributes those of a sea-god.’ 

   Scotch fay-lore also shows stong traces of Germanic influence. Loch Nigdal boasts of a Nix ‘with long yellow hair, like ripe-corn;’1 and this same yellow Germanic hair is the mark of other Scotch and also Welsh nymphs, exactly as of the German ones. Nigdal itself – the name both of a lake and of a rock near it – is a significant word, apparently in connection with the tribe of the Nickers, Necks, or Nixes, as well as of the Nuggle. 

VIII. 

   It is noteworthy that in Welsh folklore the typical Water-Horse and Water-Bull should be wanting, whilst Scotland has them, and even Ireland has its Elf Bull. So far as I am aware, Welsh tales speak only, here and there, of water-cows, or of sheep mystically connected with the lakes. The fact is, Wales – barring its Flemish immigration – is a far more purely Keltic, or rather Kelt-Iberian, country than Ireland is. In wales, consequently, the remnants of a water-worship creed are less numerous. 

   In Ireland, as in Scotland, the Northmen were for centuries invaders or rulers under the name of Eastmen, Danes, Lochlanners, and so forth. these vikings ‘sea-swords’ and ‘scaly monsters’ from over the northern waters must have left a great deal of their wondrous water-tales in the countries they overran, and held for a while. Their blood, too, is still recognizable in some Irish types. In the Isle of Man, where the Northmen also ruled for centuries, we again come upon the Water-Horse under the name of Glashtin, Glashtan, or Glashan (glaise, glais, or glas also the sea). The Manx Water-Horse, furthermore, occurs under the name of the Eusch Skeibh, or Fairy Stallion. Of the Glashtan it is said, as of the Shetlandic Nuggle, and the Scotch kelpie, that he ‘attacks lonely women.’ 

– Shetland Times, Saturday 22nd October, 1881, p.3. 

1  He’d think: “Yes, yellow’s Freyja’s hair, 

A cornland sea, breese-waved, so fair:- 

Sure Ingbrog’s, that like gold-net trembles 

Round rose and lily, hers resembles. 

(Tegner’s “Fridthjofs Saga;” translated by George Stephens, i. 18.)” 

“SCOTTISH, SHETLANDIC, AND GERMANIC WATER TALES. 

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KARL BLIND IN THE ‘CONTEMPORARY REVIEW.’ 

IX. 

   … Upon the whole, the traces of the semi-divine fauna of the sea, as well as the romantic stories about the charmful Nix tribe, and their longing for the love of the human race, become fainter on the more Keltic or Kelt-Iberian ground of this country. One of these less distinct traces is to be found in the Irish Phooks,1 who plays pranks similar to the Neck, the Nuggle, or the Kelpie; but no aquatic nature specially characterizes him.2 Wales, Cornwall, Ireland, might, as countries powerfully washed or surrounded by the sea, be expected to yield a rich crop of those ocean-born tales. The reverse is, however, the fact. The tales there do not bear comparison with the Scotch, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, or German ones. ‘As the mermaid superstition,’ writes Mr Wirt Sikes, the last explorer of ‘Welsh fairy-lore,’ ‘is seemingly absent in Wales, so there are no fairy tales of maidens who lure mortals to their doom beneath the water, as the Dracae did women and children, and as the Nymph of the Lurley did marriageable young men. But it is believed that there are several old Welsh families who are the descendants of the Gwragedd Annwn (elfin dames who dwelt under the water), as in the case of the Meddygon Myddfair. The familiar Welsh name of Morgan is sometimes thought to signify “Born of the Sea.”’… 

   …Here and there, it is true, we find in Kelt-Iberian parts some mythical vestige of Nix-blood, as in the traditions of the O’Flaherty, O’Sullivan, and Macnamara families. These families, even like a considerable number of people in northern lands, are said to trace their descent from the amorous attachment of mer-men and mer-maids to human beings. But there are sporadic tales on Keltic soil. On the other hand, in the Germanic North, the water and the land swarm with wondrous creatures, either in the shape of bulls and horses, or in the guise of beautiful Nixes, who, unlike the southern ones generally, do not end in a fishy form, but are throughout of human shape, and longingly bent upon the intermixture with mankind. 

– Shetland Times, Saturday 29th October, 1881, p.3. 

1  Phooka, Pooka, and Puck are no doubt related to each other. In Germany (Schleswig-Holstein) there are Haus-Pucken, – Pucks of the House, domestic spirits. Puck is the servant of Oberon and Titania; and Oberon is but a Romanised form of the German Elfin-king Alberich. 

2  ‘Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders.’ By William Henderson.” 

“NEW FINDS IN SHETLANDIC AND WELSH FOLK-LORE. 

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KARL BLIND IN THE ‘GENTLEMAN’S MAGAZINE.’ 

VII. 

… 

   In two of the Shetland isles the Nuggle has disappeared, and the fairies have taken his place, as may be seen from the following:- 

   ‘In Fetlar and Yell there are several ruins of water-mills in very remote situations, when mills could have been built much nearer; and there are various legends of their having been deserted on account of Fairies disturbing them; of an old man being found dead in one; of an old woman being torn to pieces by spirits at Wenya dapla in Gyodinnah, in Fetlar, – a truly lonely spot.’ 

   From Unst, however, the northernmost island, several Nuggle stories are sent by the young Shetlander alluded to. He writes:- 

   ‘An ancestor of George Henderson, of Burravoe, who dwelt in Unst, was wont to rise early. One morning he rose early and went for a walk. On his way home, he was coming along the edge of a loch, and wished that he had something to ride on. And he soon came to a white mare, and he jumped on her, and rode her along the loch, and she always sought towards the loch, and he tried to keep her from it. But as they rode along, she grew so persistent that he came off, and she went on the loch and over the water in a blue “low”’ (flame; German: Lohe). 

   The only thing that calls for remark in this tale, which a descendant of the person mentioned in it gave to the writer, is the description of this particular Nuggle, or water-horse, as a mare. As a rule the mythic creature is, in other tales, described as a stallion or cob.1 A further story noted down from a Whalsay boy is this:- 

   ‘There was a man in Whalsay, who did not believe in Nyogles, or fairies, or spirits. And one night he was at the kreigs at Skura, and had drawn his büdi of piltaks (a catch of fishes). And ere long, on his way home, he came to a black horse, and he went on him. And the horse began to run, until he was going so fast that the man did not know whether he was on the earth or in the air. At last he took his knife and drove it into the horse, and he went from under him and went over the banks in a blue “low.”’ 

   This story accords with similar ones in Scottish, Scandinavian, and German folk-lore. Several weird and spectral sea-stories, full of local colour and Shetlandic expressions, I pass over, as they would require a separate treatment. In the letters before me, the following strikes me, however, as noteworthy:- ‘MANYOGLTI is an old Fetlar word still used for magic. An intelligent friend suggests its connection with Nyogle. GRAMIRI is another old word for magic.’ 

… 

   In regard to the Nuggle, another story, taken down by the young Shetlander in his country’s speech, may be of interest. He writes: – ‘I heard the following from an old Delting man the other day. The knife is a new thing here:- 

   “Dey wir great stories aboot da Nyugl whan I was young. Dey said ‘at da Nyugl wid stop da water-mills. He wid grip bed o’ da fedirs o’ da tirl2 an’ stop da mill. An dey wid slip tire doon da lightnrrn’ tree-hole, ir stik a knife ita da groti. (Da widen busheen i’ da understeen, ‘at da spindle kam up troo, dey caad dat da groti.) An as syun as da knife kem ita da groti, da Nyugl wid slip an’ flee. An’ dey wid see him too. He wiz lik a horse; gre, ir some colour lek dat. An’ dey wid see him upo da day-light. If dey wir gyain’ alang a loch, he wid come ta dem, gyain’ da sam way. An’ he wid come upo dem; an’ some wiz fül enough to ride him. An if dey did, he ran upo da loch wi’ dem, an dey got a dookin’. Ir if dey said da name o’ Gyüd, he wid vanish. He aye vanished in a fire.”’ 

   As a counterpart of those tales I will now mention what I heard a few weeks ago, at the sea-side, in a Scotch friend’s house, from a Scotch girl. She is from Aberdeenshire, and seems to know a great many folk-tales through her mother who was from another part of north-eastern Scotland. Her education, at the same time, is such that she can give the most intelligent account of everything she has heard. She told me Water-Kelpie stories in which the Kelpie has a humanised Nix shape – not the shape of a horse. She spoke of one of those Kelpies as luring men to the water’s edge, at a lake in Selkirkshire, twirling her arms round them, and drawing them to the precipice. Again, she spoke of a Nixie Man, who was in the habit of getting on people’s backs, and riding them to death. 

   The destructive power of the Water is thus personified in both male and female Nix forms in this bit of Scottish folk-lore. 

   In reply to my repeated inquiry as to whether the Nixies she heard of ended in a fish tail, she always firmly answered – ‘Oh, no!’ The Nixies she had been told of by her mother, were always wholly shaped like human beings. This fits in with the truly Germanic notion about Nixies. 

– Shetland Times, Saturday 27th May, 1882, p.3. 

1  A Descriptio Insularum Orchadiarum (1529) contains a most remarkable story of a water-stallion and a woman from Stronsay, in the Orkneys. 

2  The vertical wheel by which the mill is driven.” 

“STRANGE HIGHLAND SUPERSTITION. 

A WATER HORSE BRIDLE. 

   The reader must know that the Water Kelpy of the South of Scotland is also a prominent character in Highland superstition. The Kelpy, or uirisg, is generally represented as of the male sex; of a form rude, indeed, and grotesque, but, upon the whole, of human shape; cross and ill-tempered, delighted in foreboding and witnessing calamity, but to be propitiated and readily attached to such as have the courage to trust him with confidence and kindness. In the South the Kelpy is an inhabitant indifferently of rivers and lakes, while in the Highlands he is almost always associated with solitary rivers, where they wind their murmuring way through wild and uninhabited glens, or with those deep, dark, eddying cauldron-pools that mountain torrents so frequently scoop out for themselves as they plunge and roar adown the steep in their mad and headlong gallop to the sea. Thus the Kelpy of the South and the uirisg of the North are, upon the whole, identical; half human, half demoniac, to be shunned and avoided if possible; but, if accidentally encountered, to be conciliated and caressed, never to be openly challenged or defied. But while the waters of the South can only boast of their Kelpy, those of the North are the habitation not only of the uirisg, but of the water-horse and water-bull (An t’ Each Usige, ‘san Tarbh Usige) as well. These last are painted on that tablet of the popular mind consecrated to superstition, as, upon the whole, of the same shape and form as the more kind quadrupeds after whom they have been named, but larger, fiercer, and with an amount of ‘devilment’ and cunning about them, of which the latter fortunately manifest no trace. Calves and foals are the result of occasional intercourse between these animals and their more civilised domestic congeners, such calves bearing unmistakable proofs of their mixed descent in the unusual size and pendulousness of their ears, and the wide aquatic spread of their jet black hoofs; the foals in their clean limbs, large flashing eyes, red distended nostrils, and fiery spirit… she invited us to a seat by the ingle cheek, and in a low voice informed us that the secret of the success in the life of the man about whom we had been speaking in the forenoon was that he possessed a water-horse bridle, srian Eich-Uisge. ‘A water-horse bridle?’ we exclaimed, hiding, however, our astonishment and inclination to laugh outright, under an assumed air of simple curiosity. ‘Where in the world did he get hold of such a thing?’ ‘I can tell you all about it,’ she continued. ‘His grand-uncle, who was a drover, was once returning home from a cattle market at Pitlochry, in Perthshire. As he was coming through the Moor of Rannoch the night overtook him; but as it was in the autumn time, and the moon rose full and bright behind him, he continued his journey as easily as if it was the clear noonday; and he was, besides, perfectly acquainted with the way, having often travelled it at all seasons. With his stick in his hand, and his plaid over his shoulder, he walked along hastily, without stop or halt, till he reached Leachan-na Cuile, where he sat down to refresh himself with some bread and cheese, and a bottle of milk he had got at a shepherd’s house on the way; for Domhnull Mor Drobhair, as they called him, was a very sober man, and seldom drank whisky. As he sat on a stone by the side of a lake, he saw something glittering in the moonlight, which, on taking it up, he found to be a horse-bridle. Domhnull Mor carried the bridle home with him, and was surprised next morning to find that the bit and buckles were of pure silver, and the reins of soft and beautifully speckled sort of leather, such as he had never seen before. What astonished him most was that on touching the silver bit, it felt so hot as to be unbearable. He was very much frightened as well as astonished, and now wished that he had let it lie where he found it. It was only when a ‘wise-woman’ was sent for from a neighbouring glen that the truth became known. She declared it to be a water-horse’s bridle, the bit of deep down, subterranean silver still retaining part of the heat which belonged to it in its primeval molten state. The reins, she added, were the skin of Buarach-Baoibh, a sort of magical serpents, dreadfully poisonous, that frequent such rivers and lakes as are inhabited by the kelpy and water-horse. The ‘wise-woman’ directed the bridle to be hung up on a cromag or crook made of rowan tree, which, while permitting free escape for all its beneficial influences, would yet effectually check the radiation of any evil that might be inherent in it. This was done, and from that day forward Domhnull Mor was fortunate and successful in all his undertakings. At his death, having no family of his own, he bequeathed the magic bridle to his grandnephew, the present owner; and this man has been prosperous just because of the possession of a water-horse ‘bridle of luck!’ But how, we ask, do water-horses happen to have bridles? Who could ride or drive them? and if they can neither be driven or ridden, why should they have bridles? Thomas, the rhymer, the old lady replied, or some other magician and prophet of the olden time, now detained in Fairyland, is destined yet to reappear upon earth with some companions almost as powerful as himself; then shall the water-horses be bridled and saddled by a brave company of Scottishmen from Fairyland – some Highland, some Lowland, bridled and saddled, and fearlessly mounted; a great battle will be fought, all Englishmen and other foreigners will be driven out of the country; the crown will again revert to the rightful heirs, and Scotland once again become a free, independent, and happy kingdom! – (Nether Lochaber Correspondent of the Inverness Courier.)” 

– East of Fife Record, Friday 20th November, 1874, p.1. 

One story of a, now famous, kelpie-like cryptid as told to Mr W. Traill Dennison is absent from the pre-20th century papers. Nowhere is a similar story related. This leads me to believe the storyteller was either under the influence or had a frightening encounter in the dark that was transformed in his mind, creating this tale. 

This is the article from the one paper it can be found in; 

   “The Nuckelavee makes the Loch Ness monster look like a tame goldfish. 

   It has a huge lolling head, a vast stinking mouth and flippers instead of feet. 

   It lacks skin, so you can see black blood coursing through its yellow veins. 

   Mind you, unlike the Loch-Ness monster the Nuckelavee no longer pops up off the Orkney coast, which was its home territory. 

   There is still a chance that you might still see a Njuggle, a water spirit found in Shetland Lochs and streams. 

   The water reservoir at Scalloway is known as Njugal’s Water, commemorating a Njuggle which once live there. 

   If you did see a Njuggle you’d find it had literally moved with the times for it is said to have developed a wheel-like tail to increase its speed. 

   These monsters are found in Ralph Whitlock’s ‘Here be Dragons,’ which looks at 200 places in Britain where there is evidence of a dragon tradition. 

   Scotland, according to the distribution map published by Mr. Whitlock, is relatively free of dragons. – R.S.” 

– Aberdeen Evening Express, Saturday 3rd December, 1983, p.14. 

This is the original and, seemingly, only story; 

“W. Traill Dennison of Westbrough, who told the story of the Mester Stoorworm, recorded the legend of another monster, Nuckelavee, evidently yet another variation on the Noggle: 

   His home was the sea; and whatever his means of transit were in that element, when he moved on land he rode a horse as terrible in aspect as himself. Some thought that rider and horse were really one, and that this was the shape of the monster. 

One starlit night a man named Tammie was walking between the sea and a deep freshwater loch when he saw a huge shape before him, and was sure it was no earthly thing. He could not bypass it and was too frightened to turn his back on it, and so walked slowly forward. To his horror he found that it was the dreaded Nuckelavee: 

   The lower part of this terrible monster, as seen by Tammie, was like a great horse with flappers like fins about his legs, with a mouth as wide as a whale’s, from whence came breath like steam from a brewing-kettle. He had but one eye, and that as red as fire. On him sat, or rather seemed to grow from his back, a huge man with no legs, and arms that reached nearly to the ground. 

Most horrible of all, the creature was skinless: his surface was made up of raw red flesh, black blood running through yellow veins, and white sinews twisting and stretching as he moved his arm to grab for his prey. Tammie remembered that Nuckelavee was said to dislike fresh water, and ran as fast as he could towards the rivulet connecting the loch with the sea. 

   Tammie knew if he could only cross the running water, he was safe; so he strained every nerve. As he reached the near bank, another clutch was made at him by the long arms. Tammie made a desperate spring and reached the other side, leaving his bonnet in the monster’s clutches. Nuckelavee gave a wild unearthly yell of disappointed rage as Tammie fell senseless on the safe side of the water. 

Fresh running water was always a protection against the Kelpie; nor could it have been a bar to the Shetland Noggle, since this creature was sometimes seen in a burn. Nuckelavee is a sort of composite ogre, and Dennison’s detailed account is perhaps over-elaborate: other bogey beasts are sometimes said to be skinless, but their flayed appearance is not usually described in such graphic terms.” 

– J. Westwood & S. Kingshill (2011), ‘Lore of Scotland,’ pp.387-388.

2 thoughts on “Kelpies, Water-horses, Water-bulls, &c.

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