Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Land Sightings: The Basis of the Kelpie Myth







An account of the way it was in days long past.

On a summer afternoon when silence brooded over the hills, and the waters of Loch Chrois were motionless, two lovers sat on a sand-dune at the end of the loch. "sweet is the water out of the cup when stolen", says a proverb of the Gael, and sweet to the lovers was this time because none knew of their meeting, least of all their fathers and mothers, for between the two families was a great feud.

As they talked, the sun sank behind the mountain; still they sat side by side when the afterglow suffused the western sky. The silence of a summer afternoon passed into the peace of a summer evening, and dark shadows gathered in the hollows around them ere the lovers bethought them of their homes. "The game 1 came out to snare is still on the wing," the youth said; "the kye are on their way to the homestead," was her answer. 

As they spoke, their eyes lighted on a black horse which pastured beside the loch. Thinking that it belonged to the clachan whence they came, the lovers led it towards a boulder, and there sprang on its back. Hardly were they seated, than the horse headed lochwards, and when they tried to slip from his back, they found that an invisible power gripped them. Then they knew that their steed was the Each-uisge of Loch Chrois.

On the further side of the water, men and women were returning from Fuaran-Gearradh, the cool well, whose waters, blessed by a passing saint, cured sick folk of many diseases. To them the lovers shouted for help, but it was in vain, for already the kelpie had gained the edge of the loch. Louder than the cries of the unwilling riders, rose the wild neighing of the black horse, as with unwonted fierceness he reared and plunged into the loch. 

On either side of him as he fought his way to the centre, vast clouds of vapour were seen to rise from the water; and the people fled affrighted at the weird sounds that broke the stillness, and the strange sight on the loch. The bodies of the lovers were never found, and in every clachan and strath for miles around it is held that the demon carried them to the loch-depths where he dwells, there to await the call of the pibroch on the day of days."
  
Source:  The Scottish Review Vol.28 July-October 1896

Thus runs the tale of the Scottish Water Kelpie, or to be more precise, the Each Uisge or Water Horse. The telling of the tale takes on many forms across the ages encompassing all manner of scenarios, the vast bulk of which are now lost. The aforementioned Loch Chrois in Ross-shire is but one example.

But what was the purpose of such a story and to whom was it directed? If you read the anthropologists of the time and those sceptics who parrot their words today, we are told it is a story manufactured to warn vulnerable children away from the shores of dangerous waters where death by drowning may await.

A plausible theory, but an improbable one that does not reflect the narrative that was recorded by the same Victorian anthropologists before the arrival of science and industry wiped away the oral tradition of many generations.

To wit, the Water Horse was portrayed as a predator that cared not for the age of its victim and whose mere concern lay rather in whether warm blood flowed through their veins. So, adults and children are likewise victims. Moreover, the dangers of water seems not to be the moral of the tale as Sabbath breaking is also featured as a caution to the indolent and, as noted above, no cause at all as lovers merely enjoy each others' company.

Which brings me to the contradiction in these tales. Why would a creature which is most definitely portrayed as a creature of the deep waters always have a land based narrative? Indeed, sometimes it is nowhere near the loch as the Loch Ness Kelpie of the Warlock would patrol the dark roads of the Slochd Muichd, miles away from Loch Ness (near the modern A9 road).

If one was intent on warding children away from dangerous shorelines, why not present the Water Horse as a fearsome beast that lies just under the water waiting to drag away any unwitting child who foolishly wades into its waters? Indeed, even a monster that could break forth from the waters and gallop after its errant victims would suffice. But a Water Horse in a field or on a distant road? Just what exactly is the deterrent value there?
 
There is none in that respect and one is rather left wondering what small grit of truth initially arose to allow these pearls of folklore to form around it and eventually hide it from modern eyes? What was it these ancient people perceived in these creatures that warranted it spending more time on land in these stories than actually in its native waters?

My suggestion is that though these creatures were evidently seen in the waters of Loch Ness, they were seen on land as well and this created a greater impact on the people than if they stayed in the water. The psychology of this should be evident because if the creature stays in the loch, then the natives can feel more secure on land. Water Horses are only an issue if you go out on a boat or go for a swim.

But bring them into the natural territory of humans and the perceived threat level of the Each Uisge rises significantly. So, just as people over the 84 years of the Loch Ness Monster have logged a noticeable number of land sightings, one may conclude that people centuries back were seeing these creatures on land and this eventually weaved its way into the fabric of their folklore.

Now just as we today are also fascinated by these tales, we seek an explanation as to why they come ashore. We think of such things as food, breeding, basking or some other less obvious reason. The old Highlanders similarly sought an explanation and theirs was food. Now why they would suggest that may be purely down to the fact that they feared these unknown creatures and so defaulted to the worst possible outcome to deter people from approaching them.

One suspects it is more than certain the death of any person was attributed to such creatures across the hills and glens of Scotland, whether the beast was responsible for it or not. That would seem to suggest their deadly role in folklore was assured for generations to come.

The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com


 

 


27 comments:

  1. Fascinating once again. I would agree with your overall conclusion that the kelpie myth probably was inspired by real sightings on land and in the water. I've seen it suggested that the waterhorse myth was created to stop children from going near deep water, but I think you've put an end to such nonsense with this fine article, Roland.

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    1. Apologies John, I should've used the word 'legend' rather than myth. Good point.

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  2. Each Uisge is always a horse though, usually black, not a monster. If people were seeing strange looking, or even hideous, creatures prowling the fields and roads surrounding the Loch, don't you think we would have tales about these creatures and the danger they possess? What would be the point of cautionary tales about large, black, horses when the real danger is an ugly, carniverous, beast that has just crawled out of the Loch? Unless WS is now going to suggest that Nessie's are shape shifters too...

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    1. Usually a horse, but they are also portrayed as human-like or even a bird. The representation of the creature as a horse was an accretion over time. I suspect actual land sightings were rare back then as well especially given the lack of access aorund the loch and the smaller population (especially after the Clearances). So getting actual descriptions from live witnesses would prove challenging and so descriptions handed down over time may have proved to be the main source of information.

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    2. I'd concur with Roland. "Horse" is simply a name applied to a concept which arose from the real creatures seen on rare occasions. The word horse shouldn't be taken literally. All in all the legend of the waterhorse does bolster the case for the animals being known to locals for a very long time.

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    3. waterhores,waterbull,kelpie,horse eel.
      Who said there's only one creature im the loch?

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    4. And,if you take a look at Arlene Gaals book on ogopogo,on the cover is an illustration of ogopogo,based on witnesses.Its head looks like a horse,camel.

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    5. I think the water horse, bull, kelpie, eel labels are more down to Victorian authors than locals making distinctions. To these non-local authors, they usually regarded these names as almost interchangeable.

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  3. In the interests of your forthcoming book, may I point out that the sentence beginning "Why is a creature..." appears to have lost its way? It should be "Why would a creature..." or something similar.

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  4. is the tale of loch chrois to be regarded as a true event, that two real people mysteriously vanished or is it, in the grand tradition of highland storytelling a work of complete fiction designed to give gaels the willies during the long dark winter nights before electrickery and twitter.

    One should tread carefully in connecting folklore to reality, trolls are an imporatnt part of scandinavian folklore and mythology but no-one really proposes there are breeding packs of trolls in the Norwegian forests.

    Hopefully GB will tire of this kelpie sideshow stuff and get back to serious LNM investigations.

    Remember what happened to Ted Holiday, he went to pot down the road of UFOs Aliens, Pixies and Dragons. What was he smoking in that pipe ?

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    1. I thought it was clear from the article that I don't regards demonic steeds carrying off hapless riders to their deaths as real events.

      I am looking into whether there is a kernel of truth in these tales, i.e. that some real creature was the catalyst for them. That is a valid part of folklore research.

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    2. I think it's rather unfair to make comparisons between Roland exploring a kernel of truth within the waterhorse legend to the eccentric ramblings of Mr Holiday who was a product of an era that embraced mysticism more readily. Roland is a logical man, not prone to flights of fancy.

      I too believe that the kelpie/water horse legend almost definitely arose from a number of real life sightings of these wondrous but daunting animals of Loch Ness

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  5. Three factors may be why the pre-industrial age eyewitnesses associated the LNM with horses: a.) The wedge-shaped head (longish tapered muzzle or snout). b.) The elongated, muscular neck. c.) The mane-like dorsal fin. The eyewitnesses of this period, when describing the physical characteristics of the creature they'd seen, would use as a basis of comparison an animal with which they were familiar: a horse, which has a wedge-shaped head, an elongated muscular neck and a mane.

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  6. I tend to agree with Paddy...the horsehead configuration is widely regarded as 'classic', though I'm struggling to recall any actual horsehead sightings!.

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    1. Riita, can you PM me the name of the Spicers' grand-daughter?

      Thanks.

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    2. Afraid not Roland...she introduced herself as the Spicers granddaughter but didn't leave any other name...Soz. Since she was looking for Adrian, he may know...I kind of got the impression they had met before..I'll ask him.

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    3. Thanks, hopefully Adrian won't cite the data protection stuff he pulls on the old LNIB files!

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    4. Not sure how to PM you Roland, so thought I could just reply here...obviously you don't have to publish it. Spoke to Adrian, but unfortunately he is not in contact with the Spicer granddaughter and has no contact details...though he does say that she has no idea where the incident took place and neither did her grandfather!...he had returned to the area (at some unspecified time) but could not find the spot...thought that was quite interesting. Regards.

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    5. Thanks Ritta. I can actually sympathise with George Spicer getting lost, I have lost one or two trap cameras because I installed them in lush August and could not trace them in bare April. The undergrowth had changed too much!

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    6. Also it has to be borne in mind that the witnesses are usually transfixed and mesmerised when they see these animals. Many have described the feeling. The last thing an eyewitness would be likely to do is note down exact location. They'd be too busy mentally processing the awe-inspiring creature they're looking at! For some reason sceptics seem to think eyewitnesses would be as relaxed and composed as if they were looking at a cow in a field. No chance I'm afraid.

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  7. Ted Holiday might have rambled a bit towards the end but he was at first a serious nessie hunter ! His first book the great orm is a very good book actually and of course he had something more than most other hunters did......a sighting of something large and mysterious in the loch and 8 other witnesses to clarify it!! Perhaps he ended up drinking too many tennents and whisky on his trips and made him talk a bit daft towards the end lol who doesnt????? Anyway for me Ted goes down as part of this wonderful mystery ....Roy

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    1. Ted was one of the most original thinkers on the scene while others couldn't get out of plesiosaur mode or defaulted to sceptic when they did, he was thinking out the box.

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  8. Totally agree GB! I have always felt that one of the downfalls of the mystery was people putting all their eggs jn one basket with the pleisiosaur.everyone seemed to assume it had to be one because of the witness reports of humped body and long necks! But if Ted did one thing he prooved that there are creatures of the past and maybe present that can look like a ' nessie' ...ok the tullimunstrem wasnt that big but if there was a bigger one it would fit in nicely with the witness reports. We didnt know the squid had a giant version till not long ago! Im sure there are a few more suprises to be found in the fossil world in the not too distant future! We have had some great nessie hunters over the years with dinsdale and rines leaning towards the pleisiosaur and Mackal leaning towards an evolved amphibian with a neck and now Feltham leaning towards catfish...For me Ted holiday was closest to the truth. In my humble a top man in this great mystery......Roy

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  9. It's his lofty tome the Great Orm that sparked my interest in the late 1970s and it is Ted's fault I spent more hours on Loch Ness shores as a 20 something looking for a monster when I should have been having fun getting drunk and getting laid.

    On the other hand maybe I have Ted to thank.

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