Long before modern-day cryptozoologists speculated that Ness and various other Scottish lochs may harbour elusive plesiosaurs, long-necked seals, giant eels, and/or sundry other exotic fauna of the corporeal kind, traditional Highland folklore claimed that these brooding bodies of freshwater were home to fearsome supernatural entities known as water-horses.
Various types of water-horse have been delineated and named, based primarily upon their geographical location and the type of freshwater abode that they reputedly frequent. Of these types, the most formidable and feared is undoubtedly the each uisge (pronounced 'eck ooshkya'), which haunts the Highlands' lochs and the sea. In contrast, the Scottish kelpie is linked to rivers, streams, fords, waterfalls, and other sources of running water. The Isle of Man has its very own, unique type of water-horse, called the cabyll-ushtey.
Nor are these malevolent beings limited to Scotland and the Isle of Man within the British Isles. Ireland also has an equivalent entity, known as the pooka.
As their name indicates, the most common guise assumed by water-horses and also the pooka is that of a horse or pony, usually black in colour (but pale grey in the case of the Manx cabyll-ushtey), with rough, shaggy, unkempt hair and mane usually wet or damp to the touch, plus a faintly stagnant odour, and glowing, demonic eyes. In addition, if observed closely its hooves will be seen to be reversed. Such a steed will attempt to entice unwary humans, especially children, to mount it and be taken for a ride. But if they are reckless enough to do so, they find themselves unable to dismount, having instantly become stuck fast to its back (which magically lengthens to accommodate any number of persons riding it). They can then do nothing other than watch in abject, impotent horror as the predatory water-horse immediately races directly into its watery domain and plunges down into the depths, promptly drowning and then greedily devouring its hapless, helpless riders.
Sometimes, a water-horse will be ensnared by a farmer using a halter stamped with the Sign of the Cross, and is then harnessed to a plough alongside a team of mortal horses. However, its supernatural strength is such that it will readily haul plough and horses alike along with it as it races into its welcoming loch or river, where it soon shakes off the plough and tears apart the doomed horses.
Having said that, there are folk stories of water-horses mating with normal horses. Their resulting hybrid progeny can never drown, and can be physically distinguished from pure-bred normal horses by their extremely short ears.
Very occasionally, a water-horse is actually killed, by being shot with a silver bullet or stabbed with fire-heated spears forged out of iron, but no corpse or carcase is ever left behind. Nothing remains at all, in fact, other than a pool of water, or a jelly-like substance very reminiscent of so-called star rot or pwdre ser.
If chased by a kelpie, one certain means of eluding it is to jump over a stretch of river or stream. Even if it is only very narrow, this will still be sufficient to hold back the kelpie, because it is unable to cross any stretch of running water.
Although it occurs more commonly in its equine guise, the shape-shifting water-horse will sometimes assume human form. It usually appears as a tall, thin youth or young man, whose clothes seem damp, as does his long black hair – which if observed very closely can be seen to contain strands of water weed and grains of sand. He usually wears boots, to conceal the fact that even when he is adopting a human guise, his feet remain hoofed. By contrast, the human form of the pooka is usually a wizened, toothless old man, with evil leer and flashing eyes.
As a child, I was lucky enough to receive as gifts from my family a series of large-format hardback books of world myths, legends, and folktales vividly retold by eminent folklorist Roger Lancelyn Green, beautifully illustrated by Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone, and published by Purnell. One of these volumes, Myths From Many Lands (1965), included Green’s retelling of a traditional Breton folktale, which he entitled ‘The Goblin Pony’. Years later, I discovered that in both appearance and behaviour this folktale’s eponymous supernatural entity was identical to the Irish pooka, and so fascinated me that a few years ago I penned my own, greatly-expanded version of it, which I reset in Ireland (click here to read it on ShukerNature). In my forthcoming book Here's Nessie! – A Monstrous Compendium From Loch Ness, however, I have relocated it to Scotland, and have replaced the pooka with one of its equally dangerous Caledonian counterparts, the kelpie
As noted above, the kelpie's most innocuous yet deadliest guise is a dark shaggy-coated colt or pony of deceptively playful, harmless demeanour. On first sight, it is easy to mistake a kelpie for a genuine animal - until you see its eyes, which betray its true identity by blazing with a scorching, unholy fire. Consequently, it is always best to avoid anything that might be a kelpie – otherwise you may not live to regret your mistake!
This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted exclusively from my forthcoming book Here's Nessie! – A Monstrous Compendium From Loch Ness.
The eyes have it - how to recognise a fiendish water-horse (photograph's copyright owner unknown to me/photo-manipulation effects © Dr Karl Shuker)