Kelpie Lore

The mythical story about the Kelpie

In gaelic folklore the most well know mythological animal is the kelpie, or the water horse. Kelpies were normally considered to be the guardian spirits of certain rivers, lochs and pools.  Today we still speak of  ‘mares tails’  to describe the foaming white waves on the sea.  Kelpies were once seen quite regularly by humans, who usually described such a being as a black, wild eyed horse that haunts the fords and pools.  An unsuspecting traveller that came upon it would make the fatal mistake of mounting the friendly and docile animal.  No sooner had they done so, when the kelpie would take off at an alarming speed, hurling itself straight into the depths of the nearby loch.  Here is one tale about a kelpie that lived in a loch on the west side of Sutherland:

One day the kelpie took his usual shape, and when the children came out of school they saw a fine horse quietly grazing by the roadside.  They admired the horse so much that they decided to jump on its back, as many of them as there was room for, until there was only one boy left. “Come you, Dougal”, the leader cried.  “There is room for one more – or are you a coward?” But something warned Dougal to keep away.  He touched the coat of the horse with just one finger and felt an uncanny power drawing him nearer, and he knew something was wrong.  He quickly slashed his finger with his knife but his finger stuck to the horses’ coat.

The kelpie then gave a snort and soared up into the air in the direction of the loch.  He poised himself above it for a moment and then with a great splash disappeared, along with all the children, below the surface of the loch.

The kelpie would also take the form of a man and lure young girls away.  One of these creatures that lived in Lochaber had admired a pretty girl for a long time.  She was Mhairi, the dairymaid,  finally his chance to speak to her came when the farmer built a shieling for her up Glen Maillie, for in the glen was the waterfall behind which the kelpie lived.

One night, when Mhairi was sitting at her wheel and winding her distaff in the firelight, there came a slow step to open door and a voice said: “Can I come in, Mhairi?”   Thinking it was one of the herd lads, she called out “of course, whoever you are, and sit by the fire”   A strange looking man stepped into the room, not speaking much, and sat down by the fire, staring at her.

Night after night he came, and always he brought some small trout with him, roasted them and ate them one after the other.  Mhairi felt a strange eerie feeling and wondered if he was putting a spell on her, so much did he stare at her.

At last Mhairi could stand it no longer and fled down the glen to tell her mother.   The farmer consulted with a wise woman who told them how to get rid of the kelpie.

      “The only thing that the kelpie is afraid of is the feel of boiling water on his feet.”

So the farmer took himself off up to the shieling and lit the fire, put a large pot of water on to boil.   Then he dressed himself in Mhairi’s clothes, sat down at the wheel and waited.

As dusk fell the usual footsteps came and the kelpie sat down to roast his trout.  The figure at the wheel was so silent and motionless that the kelpie became suspicious; he threw some sticks on the fire and as it blazed up he saw in the firelight that he had been tricked, and sprang angrily at his deceiver.

But the farmer was quicker.  He reached for the pot and swung its contents over the kelpie’s feet, which immediatly turned cloven.  The kelpie screamed “Whats is your name?’ and the farmer answered in Gaelic, “Tis me! tis me!”   Several of the nearby kelpies came to help him asking who had done such a thing. But when he replied “Tis me, tis me” the other kelpies said.  “Then if it was yourself that hurt yourself, let yourself help yourself” and they left.

And Mhairi came back to the shieling, and never again heard that footstep at her door.


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