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Was Nessie a Kelpie? December 22, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

kelpie loch ness

A post a couple of weeks ago on the kelpie of Loch-na-Bestie got Beach thinking about the most famous kelpie in Caledonia. Who else but that stalwart of Scottish tourism, that gift to fake photographers everywhere, the greatest floating log of them all, Nessie?  Yes, it is true that Nessie has been seen, photographed and sonared but that can also be said of ghosts, fairies and boggarts. Isn’t it possible that what we have here is not a ‘cryptoid’ at all, but a local kelpie legend (mythical Gaelic water beast) that caught the imagination of the world’s press before getting a little out of hand? Perhaps the single most impressive thing about Nessie is that prior to 1933 accounts are hard to come by: in fact, they are almost embarassing in terms of their absence (another post, another day). However, there are a handful of kelpie accounts from Ness.  In folklore terms they begin as stories not memorates: but their seems to be a physical artifact behind them. Long quotations are always a bit intimidating, but these are worth going through. Here first is a digest version from 1905: we are going backwards. Kelpies/Water Horses (often confused in tradition) leave the loch, wait for someone to mount them, then dive into the waters drowning their rider.

A beautiful black horse used to frequent a road near Loch Ness, till a resolute Highlander, meeting him one night, drew his sword in the name of the Trinity, and struck at his head, securing a small hook — by one account — or a bridle, which ended the supposed ‘kelpie’ or water-horse. This bridle, has also been termed ‘brang,’ a halter, which is the origin of the Scotch term for an instrument of old fastened round the jaws of a scolding woman.

And here is one of the longer accounts (1881):

The ‘Bridle’ is a small brass hook, said to have been cut from a kelpie’s bridle. This kelpie had been in the habit of appearing as a beautiful black horse, finely caparisoned, on a well-frequented road in the Highlands. By his winning ways he allured unwary travellers to mount him. No sooner had the weary, unsuspecting victim seated himself in the saddle than away darted the horse with more than the speed of the hurricane, and plunged into the deepest part of Loch Ness, and the rider was never more seen. For long had kelpie carried on this cruel game, bringing sorrow to many a household. His day however came to an end. A hardy Highlander was one night returning home,

Whiles crooning o’er some auld Scot’s sonnet-

Whiles glowering round wi’ prudent cares,

Lest bogles catch him unawares,

when he heard the footsteps of a horse. Shortly he found himself beside a beautiful horse. He knew what this horse was, and what he had done. The horse used all his wonted wiles to make the man mount him; he failed. Then he became enraged, and tried to bite the man and to trample him under his feet. The brave Highlander sprang from his enemy, drew his sword in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, and struck with strong arm at the creature’s head. The stroke took effect, and the small hook fell. It was observed, dark though it was, and picked up quick as lightning. Off rushed the man with his prize, for he knew that it was a prize, and fled for life. The kelpie followed, but somehow with greatly diminished speed. Diminished though kelpie’s speed was, it was a terrible race. The man reached his house, opened the door, threw the ‘bridle’ into the house, cried out to preserve it, and then fell exhausted on the threshold. It was too late for kelpie, and he disappeared for ever, leaving behind him what would be of so much use to man.

And lest you think that this was a lot of fuss about nothing:

The possessor of this ‘Ball and Bridle’ has but to take water, put first the ball into it, turn it through it three times, repeating the words, ‘In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,’ and then the bridle, doing the same thing, and repeating the same words, and a healing virtue is given to the water. The sword that did the good deed was sometimes waved over the water with the utterance of the same formula.

Here, instead, is a version from a novel from 1893. Don’t disregard it though, because it has, we will soon see, details that were based on fact (corr. tradition).

‘Poor man, he died in thirty-three. I mind him weel. Macgregor was his real name. And do ye ken what gave him power over spirits — ay, so that he could raise a storm on a loch and drown a boat ere ever warning could reach them? It was what they call a talisman that had been handed down to him; and this was the way of it. In former days there was a water-kelpie in Loch Ness, and he would linger on the road by the side of the loch in the shape of a fine horse all saddled and bridled, and when some tired traveller would come along; and fain get a ride for a mile or twa, no sooner was he in the saddle than down into the loch ran the kelpie and drowned him. But one o’ the Macgregors heard o’ the kelpie, and attacked him, and slashed at the head o’ the horse with his claymore, and cut away the end o’ the bridle and a piece o’ the bit; and it was this that was handed down to Willox the Warlock, as they called him, and many a strange thing he did wi’ it, as the folk will tell ye till this day. Awell, sir, ye hae been kind to two poor auld women; and I’m sure ye’re no in league with the police; and I’m just going to show ye that very talisman — that was well known in this countryside when I was a young lass.’ She opened her apron, and took up a piece of yellow metal, and held it out for him to look at. But he would not touch it; he did not know what subtle power it might yet possess — and perhaps for evil to the unwary.

Chilling stuff. Here, instead, is a newspaper report from 1833. Macgregor, it transpires, was a liver and breather. This passage in the novel, in other terms, was based on a real man:

The remains of Gregor Macgregor, alias Willox, and widely known as ‘Willox the Warlock,’ were laid to rest in the Church-yard of Kirkmichael, Strathdon, on the 5th inst. Gregor was the last of a line of ancestors, long the objects of awe and veneration, as the possessors of the only means ever known of prying into futurity [brilliant word], and’ of controlling and circumventing the works of both natural and supernatural agents. His tools consisted of a piece of yellow metal, resembling the bit of a horse’s bridle, which was said to have been taken from a water-kelpie; and a transparent stone, ‘resembling the nob of a crystal bottle,’ which was said to have been extorted from a mermaid.  Strange as it may appear to the enlightened reader, these credentials, transmitted from father to son, obtained for many ages implicit faith among the peasantry of Scotland from Perth to John o’ Groats.’ In recent years faith in Willox had fallen off, but he had a specious tongue and a fund of traditional lore which brought him many visitors.

Behind all this then there is a consistent legend and a relic associated with that legend: did plesiosaurs carry key rings you might ask? And more seriously is it possible that the kelpie legend of Ness – the kelpie it must be remembered was a mythic water creature – gave birth to the Nessie legend? Beach would put his money bang on the table (though perhaps not too much). However, it should also be noted that this is a well trodden field and there is a risk of reinventing the wheel. Roland Watson has looked down the telescope the other way round (be that the right or wrong end) and suggests that the kelpie legend is there because there was a cryptoid in the lake in his The Water Horses of Loch Ness.  (Not read Roland’s book yet but hope to for Christmas: along with a fun sounding sceptic account).  Of course, there is a third possibility: namely that pretty much every important or atmospheric body of water in Scotland  had a bogey (to repeat a word used in a quotation above). Given Ness’s size it was inevitable that there would be a kelpie associated with the loch, there may even have been several kelpies associated with the loch. Perhaps there is no link of any type between the legends, largely forgotten when Nessie emerged in 1933. Other thoughts? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

26 Dec 2013: The Count writes in: Short answer? No. Though as you correctly surmise, this is very well-trodden ground indeed, and many people have been over it in all possible directions. Some have dug deep holes for themselves in it and promptly fallen in, and a plucky few have hovered over it suspended from helium-filled balloon animals going “Fnibbit fnibbit fnibbit!” But more on that later. To understand the situation, you need to consider a brief timeline: 6th century AD (first known account written approximately 100 years later) – Fishermen in or near Loch Ness attacked by ferocious water monster (not described) which kills one of them. St Columba, who happens to be passing, orders one of his disciples to swim in the loch. When the monster reappears and moves in to attack, Columba prays, and the beast instantly flees before the power of God. The next 1,300 years – Not a sausage, apart from vague Kelpie legends identical to those attached to numerous other bodies of water in Scotland. Note that the Kelpie is a shape-shifting fairy trickster in no way resembling the creature described above! April 1933 – King Kong opens in the UK, and really captures the public’s imagination. It includes a dramatic scene where the heroes are attacked by a ferocious brontosaurus (???). July 1933 – George Spicer and his wife are driving along the banks of Loch Ness when a huge long-necked beast he describes as resembling ‘a dragon or prehistoric animal’ lumbers across the road in front of him in the direction of the loch with an animal, presumably a sheep, in its mouth. His wife agrees that this really did happen, honestly. This too captures the imagination of the British public. 1933-34 – Other people make similar claims to the press, describing the creature inconsistently, and sometimes claiming that it crossed the road in front of them just like the Spicers did. The first alleged photo is taken, but is so blurred it could be almost anything (one later analysis reached the conclusion that it probably shows an out-of-focus dog swimming towards the camera with a stick in its mouth). Luckily, the next attempt, the so-called ‘Surgeon’s Photo’, is an excellent picture clearly depicting the head and neck of plesiosaurus. Everyone henceforth agrees that this is what the monster looks like, and nobody sees it as having some other shape any more. The absurd claim that it regularly leaves the loch to prey on sheep without anybody noticing is quietly forgotten, despite being the cause of all the fuss in the first place. And the rest is history. 1975 – The bloke responsible for the ‘Surgeon’s Photo’ finally fesses up and explains in great detail how it was done; no plesiosaurs were involved, but a toy submarine was. Many of the True Believers refuse to accept this, despite increasing photographic evidence that the photo is much more consistent with this confession than the claim that it shows a huge dinosaur. Interestingly, several months previously, Nessie had been revealed on British TV to be a Skarasen, an indestructible cyborg from the planet Zygon. Fortunately, Tom Baker narrowly prevented her from eating London. As you can see, Nessie the Loch Ness Monster and the traditional evil shape-changing homicidal Kelpie have absolutely no connection with each other whatsoever! Obsessed Forteans have of course tried to retrofit them, but with extremely limited success. The only possible link is the 1,300-year-old St Columba myth. Many people have tried to read this as a true story of an encounter with a real creature, though exactly what that creature might have been is anybody’s guess (one author reckons it was a walrus). Since the monster in this story does not turn into a horse or exhibit any other supernatural qualities, merely attacks a swimmer as any normal predator might, if we assume that it coincidentally decided to leave while Columba was praying, then the entire tale could just about be true. However, the story was written a century after the alleged events, and it’s an extremely generic example of the sort of thing saints were meant to get up to back in the day. If you’re making up a tale like that and need a random Scottish loch to attach it to, the biggest loch in Scotland is quite likely to spring to mind. However, a special mention must go to the “Reverend” Donald Omand, who in his 1970 book Experiences of a Present Day Exorcist, claimed (amongst many other equally plausible things) to have permanently banished Nessie back to the Hell from whence she came by the power of prayer. So in all fairness there’s that to consider too. But as an afterthought, what about poor old Morag, the monster of Loch Morar? Although she did steal a little of Nessie’s thunder, the vestigial attention she was getting as a spin-off from a slightly-more-than-nine-day wonder that quickly went off the boil and settled down to a very gentle simmer seems to have fizzled out entirely in the 1970s. Which is a pity, because when you compare the credibility of the event that sparked off the Nessie flapdoodle in 1933 with that of the sighting by multiple witnesses of a 20-foot-long “sea-serpent” during a boating excursion on Loch Morar way back in 1887, Morag’s a lot more plausible as a real monster than Nessie ever was! Though still not very. Thanks Count for this tour de force. I hope to return to this question in the near future. I have now read Roland Watson’s book…