Entry from the #WhitworthBestiary: Kelpies

Sometimes you definitely should look a gift horse in the mouth! In this entry from the #WhitworthBestiary, Lucy tells you exactly why you ought to be wary of friendly-looking horses that hang around bodies of water and try to tempt you for a ride. There’s more than meets the eye with these water horses!

Walter Crane (1845-1915), Photographic Reproduction of ‘Neptune’s Horses’. WCA. Source: the Whitworth

In Walter Crane’s Neptune’s Horses, note that the very forms of the horses themselves merge fluidly with the crests of the waves. With Neptune as their master, they may be the mythical sea-horses, hippocampos. Scottish legend calls water spirits that appear as horses ‘kelpies’; malevolent shape-shifting aquatic spirits possessing dripping manes and sticky hides. Kelpies are often described as a black or sometimes white coloured horse-like creature and are said to haunt Scotland’s lochs and lonely rivers. They appear under the guise of a tame horse standing beside a body of water, enticing humans to climb onto its back for a ride, but beware all who approach them; particularly children, as a kelpie’s intentions are to lure, drown and devour its victim. Once a child mounts its back, its horse hide turns sticky, preventing any form of escape and then down it goes, dragging its victim into the watery depths to meet their demise.   

A common Scottish folktale tells of the kelpie and the ten children. Having lured nine children onto its back the kelpie chases after the tenth but he escapes. The other nine children are dragged into the water and are never seen again. In another, more embellished version the tenth child strokes the kelpie’s nose. His hand is stuck fast and so the child resorts to cutting it off with a knife from his pocket. He saves himself but is unable to save his friends as they are pulled underwater with the kelpie. 

Walter Crane (1845-1915), Study of a River with Boat

These water horses are also able to appear human. As seen in Herbert James Draper’s 1913 painting ‘The Kelpie’, it appears as a beautiful young woman, seductive and nymph – like.  Under this guise the kelpie’s intention would be to lure young men to their deaths.   

Some stories suggest that the kelpie retains its hooves when in human form, an image which drums up demonic connotations, and the Christian idea of Satan. Robert Burns mentions the kelpie in his 1786 poem ‘Address to the Devil’:

“…When thowes dissolve the snawy hoord 

An’ float the jinglin’ icy boord 

Then, water-kelpies haunt the foord 

By your direction 

And ‘nighted trav’llers are allur’d  

To their destruction…” 

Photograph of ‘The Kelpies’ createdby artist Andy Scott. Photo taken by Rosstheamazing in 2014. Source: WikiCommons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

The fable of the kelpie may be of Scottish origin, but the unified relationship of water and horses can be found in many types of mythology and throughout art, film and literature. There’s a prominent scene in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first instalment of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, where Arwen summons up the power of the river to enforce a flood of waves to bear down upon the Ringwraiths, enabling her and Frodo to escape. As the water rises, a row of foamy white horses appear, strongly resembling Walter Crane’s Neptune’s Horses painting.  Arwen was given a more prominent role in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring, which has her rather than Glorfindel take Frodo to Rivendell. In the book, it is Elrond who makes the River Bruinen rise up and sweep away the Ringwraiths.

‘At that moment there came a roaring and a rushing: a noise of loud waters rolling many stones. Dimly Frodo saw the river below him rise, and down along its course there came a plumed cavalry of waves. White flames seemed to Frodo to flicker on their crests and he half fancied that he saw amid the water white riders upon white horses with frothing manes.  The three Riders that were still in the midst of the Ford were overwhelmed: they disappeared, buried suddenly under angry foam.’ – The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 12, Flight to the Ford 

‘The Kelpies’, created by artist Andrew Scott and completed in 2013 are 30m tall sculptures located near the Forth and Clyde Canal, close to Falkirk. Although the sculptures are named after the mythical water horses, Scott also drew on the Clydesdale horse as inspiration; the horse once worked along canals. Its immense power and good temperament made it extremely useful as a draught horse in agriculture and other areas. The breed’s name originates from Clydesdale, an old term for Lanarkshire, which is located near the River Clyde. The strong, arched necks of both sculptures and the appearance one has of tossing its head brings to mind the power of both horses; one real, one mythical, onea gentle giant and the other wildly dangerous, both tied to water

William Mulready (1786-1863), Three Studies of Waves. c.1845. D.1895.58 Source: the Whitworth

More recently the ‘water horse’ entity takes the form of the Nokk in Disney’s 2019 animated feature film Frozen 2. The studio describes the Nokk as “a mythical water spirit that takes the form of a horse and uses the power of the ocean to guard the secrets of the forest.” The Nokk or water stallion has deep roots in Scandinavian mythology and is also popular in tales in Germanic countries (known as Nix in Germany, Nicor in Dutch and Nock in Sweden)    

A Norwegian version of the Nokk (Fossegrim) adopts the form of a musically gifted, handsome young man, who if approached in the correct manner, will teach a human to play its beautiful music. Earlier stories depict the Nokk as a darker spirit, in which it more closely resembled the Kelpie, where it would lure and drown children with its hypnotic music.   

So can you survive a kelpie encounter?! Well, there are warning signs…the sound of a kelpie’s tail entering the water is said to resemble that of thunder, and if you are in close proximity of a loch or river and hear a howling or a wailing, then be on your guard as it could very well be a kelpie warning of an approaching storm. Some stories say that if you strike a suspected kelpie whilst human this would make it regain its horse form and flee.   

James Ward (1769-1859), Study of a Shire Horse. c.1821. D.1908.14 The Shire, being a heavy horse breed, looks somewhat similar to the Clydesdale. The two are distinct breeds which have been crossbred in the past. Source: the Whitworth

A bridle is a kelpie’s weak spot. Cutting it off was thought to remove its power and it would die within a day if not returned. Other tales make out that if you manage to steal its bridle you gained mastery over it and any other kelpie. A captive kelpie is said to have the strength of 10 horses so is highly prized. There’s also the notion of women stealing the bridles from male kelpies, enslaving the male kelpie into marriage. This idea is very similar to other stories in Scottish folklore; of stealing the seal skin of a selkie, coercing it into wedded union.   

There’s something very unsettling when I think back now to my Brownie Girl Guide Days, recalling I was put into the ‘Kelpies’. I can still remember the investiture ceremony and the words “Twist me and turn me and show me the elf. I look into the water and there I saw myself.” When I think about it this should’ve instead read “I look into the water and there I saw a malevolent horse spirit with a serious taste for children.” I had no idea what a kelpie was back then, I just assumed like the pixies it was something quite pleasant and jovial – how wrong I was! Maybe they were trying to tell me something? Without sounding too girlish I guess my love of the sea and horses fits quite nicely, I’ll just go with that!


BBC News UK, ‘The Kelpies horse sculpture completed’, 27th November 2013 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-tayside-central-25124730

Steven Brocklehurst, ‘The man who created The Kelpies’. BBC Scotland News, 5th May 2014. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-27192965

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