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.......Curiosity Corner .......

THE KELPIE

When Mary Queen of Scots escaped in a small boat from the Castle of Lochleven, her saviour, a youngster named William Douglas, having locked the castle gates behind them, threw the keys into the loch’s waters, an action celebrated by the poet Robert Adams ~

Those pond’rous keys
. . . shall the kelpies keep,
And lodge in their caverns
. . . dark and deep.

But what are the kelpies?

water kelpie
kelpie
The each uisge, as it is in the Gaelic tongue, is a water horse, and is often pictured as such, but as in reality it can assume any shape appropriate to its immediate purpose, identification is difficult. The 18th century picture on the left shows one in the actual process of metamorphosis to, if we judge by its hands, a human shape.

The origins of the kelpie are contentious. As their Master is claimed to be the Devil, they are sometimes said to have been “spawned in Hell”, but there is no evidence to support this. On the other hand their habitat is certain ~ they live in lochs and the deep pools of Scottish rivers.

It is said by some writers that kelpies are merely quarrelsome women in disguise, and that they pull fishermen from boats and drown them, but others believe they are more than this.

alleged kelpie
In Badenoch, it is reliably reported, a young man was courted by an extremely beautiful but strange woman who permitted him whatever he desired. Night after night she entranced him until once, in her ecstasy, she neighed like a horse. In a flash he drew his sgian dubh from his stocking top and then stabbed her repeatedly until, as she expired, her beautiful body was transformed into that of a grey kelpie covered in green slime. (Young people everywhere should take heed of this cautionary tale, but, sadly, they won’t.)

There have been many such incidents. A loch near the church of Cill Chriosd on the Isle of Skye was the haunt of a kelpie that adopted the shape of a young man to abduct and seduce young women before galloping off with them into the loch. It is claimed locally that this stopped only on the day, misled by his cassock and billowing surplice, it seized a priest by mistake and was converted to Christianity.

The picture above right is said to be that of the kelpie cited in a famous divorce case at the end of the 19th century. It is included here in case any reader might doubt that kelpies can make themselves appear as extraordinarily beautiful as the many stories about them claim. (Perceptive readers will note the long curling mane and slender fetlocks, and that the kelpie casts no shadow on the ground!)

Although most stories concern kelpies in human form, they will occasionally take the shape of beautiful horses both on land and in the water. When so, they are richly accoutred, and this is how they are displayed in heraldry as the picture at the top of this page shows. The matriculation from which this was copied is that of the late Harry Pirie-Gordon of Buthlaw and is featured on a separate page.

The most famous kelpie is probably the one in Loch Ness that amuses itself by metamorphosising into an imitation “monster”, much to the benefit of the local tourist industry. True to the modus operandi of kelpies seducing young men and women, it appears to only one person at a time. There is no instance of any kelpie being seen by more than one surviving witness.

We look forward to the Lord Lyon allowing “Nessie” to be borne as a charge in Scottish arms.

Nessie
Loch Ness "monster"
Early photograph of a kelpie promoting Scottish tourism

martlet icon
The Martlet featured in Curiosity Corner ~ 1
gryphon icon
The Gryphon (or Griffin) featured in Curiosity Corner ~ 2
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The Cockatrice (and Basilisk) featured in Curiosity Corner ~ 3
dragon icon
The Dragon featured in Curiosity Corner ~ 4
The Raven featured in Curiosity Corner ~ 5
The Chimera featured in Curiosity Corner ~ 6
The Pegasus featured in Curiosity Corner ~ 7
The Harpy featured in Curiosity Corner ~ 8
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© 2002 The Baronage Press and Pegasus Associates Ltd