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The Kelpie by Herbert James Draper
Mythology Celtic mythology
Grouping Mythological
Sub grouping Water spirit
Country Scotland
Habitat Rivers
Similar creatures Each uisge

The kelpie is a supernatural water horse from Celtic folklore that is believed to haunt the rivers and lochs of Scotland and Ireland; the name may be from Scottish Gaelic cailpeach or colpach 'heifer, colt.'[1]


Description and behavior

Its hide was supposed to be black (though in some stories it was white), and will appear to be a lost pony, but can be identified by its constantly dripping mane. Its skin is like that of a seal, smooth, but is as cold as death when touched. The horse's appearance is strong, powerful, and breathtaking. Water horses are also known to transform into beautiful women in order to lure men into their traps, and vice versa. It is understood that the nostril of the horse is what creates the illusion of grandeur. The water horse also creates illusions to keep itself hidden, keeping only its eye above water to scout the surface, much like the illusion of a fish's pupil. It is wise to keep away from them.

As the fable of the kelpie differs depending on the region in which it is told, other versions of the story saying that the kelpie is "green as glass with a black mane and tail that curves over its back like a wheel" or that even in human form they are always dripping wet and/or have water weeds in their hair.

The water horse is also a common form of the kelpie, said to lure humans, especially children, into the water to drown and eat them. It performs this act by encouraging children to ride on its back. Once its victims fall into its trap, the kelpie's skin becomes adhesive and it bears them into the river, dragging them to the bottom of the water and devouring them - except the heart or liver. A common Scottish tale is the story of nine children lured onto a kelpie's back, while a tenth keeps his distance. The kelpie chases him and tries to catch him, but he escapes. A variation on this is that the tenth child simply strokes the kelpie's nose, but when his finger becomes stuck to it he takes a knife from his pocket and cuts his own finger off. He saves himself, but is unable to help his friends as they are pulled underwater with the kelpie. Commonly known as spirits of the dead, kelpies are not benevolent creatures.

An exception is an Irish tale in which, towards the end of the mystical period of Ireland, a water horse fails to travel to Tír na nÓg with its fellow mystic folk, and instead rises above water, seeking a wife. However, after attempting to court a clever girl, who consults the wiseman about the situation, he is captured and forced to work in order to be taught compassion. After learning his lesson, he is given the choice of departing to Tír na nÓg, or drinking a magic potion that will make him a real man. The water horse, now full of love decides to drink the potion which erases the memories of his life as a water horse and gives him the chance to live with the clever girl with whom he has fallen in love.

Similar creatures

File:Gutt på hvit hest.jpg
Boy on White Horse by Theodor Kittelsen.

In Orkney a similar creature was called the nuggle, and in Shetland a similar creature was called the shoopiltee, the njogel, or the tangi. On the Isle of Man it is known as the cabbyl-ushtey (Manx Gaelic for "water horse," compare to Irish capall uisge) or the glashtin. In Wales, a similar creature is known as the Ceffyl Dŵr. It also appears in Scandinavian folklore where in Sweden it is known by the name Bäckahästen, the brook horse. In Norway it is called nøkken, where the horse shape is often used, but is not its true form. In the Faroe Islands it is called Nykur and in Iceland it is called nykur or nennir. Another similar Scottish water horse is the each uisge, which also appears in Ireland.

Gun Running Vessel

Following the prohibition on the import of arms into Ireland (Dec 1913), in the aftermath of the introduction of the Home Rule Bill for Ireland in 1912, a yacht named Kelpie was involved in the smuggling of rifles in July and August 1914 for the Nationalist organisation the Irish Volunteers. The Kelpie was skippered by Conor O’Brien (1880–1952), a Limerickman.

See also

  • Vodyanoy — a water sprite in Slavic mythology
  • Nix - Also in Scandinavian lore
  • Scottish Folk Tales by Ruth Manning-Sanders
  • Pictish Beast
  • Ceffyl Dŵr
  • Loch Ness Monster


  1. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., p. 683.


External links


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