A kelpie is in Scottish folklore, a malevolent water spirit believed to inhabit every lake and stream, and a Death Omen if seen. According to lore, kelpies usually appear in the shape of a horse, but may also assume the form of a shaggy-looking man. They are invariably terrifying to humans.
As horses, they appear on lake and riverbanks, grazing peacefully, and lure travellers to mount them, only to plunge into the waters and drown the hapless victims. Or, the kelpies plunge the victims into the water, where they eat them, save for the livers, which float to the surface. Kelpies also jump on solitary riders and try to crush them in their grip.
They have even been said to tear people into pieces and eat them. They make sounds like thunder to frighten travellers. When in the form of a horse, a kelpie sometimes has a magic bridle. Anyone who forces a kelpie to do something against its will, however, risks being cursed by it and meeting with nothing but misfortune in the future.
To see a kelpie is a harbinger of death by drowning, and nothing will prevent the tragedy from coming to pass. In one Scottish legend called “The Hour is come but not the Man,” a kelpie took the form of a female nymph by a false ford in the River Conan in Rosshire.
A group of reapers in a nearby field saw the water spirit as it called out, “The hour is come but not the man,” and then plunged into the waters. Just then, a rider on a horse dashed up to the false ford as though to dive in after the kelpie, but the reapers interceded, stopped the horse and dragged the man, kicking and screaming, into a nearby church. They told him they would keep him locked there for an hour—the “Ill Hour,” they called it, as the kelpie was trying to work evil for that period of time.
When the hour was up, the reapers returned to the church, only to find their man dead—he had fallen into a stone trough of water and drowned himself. Other versions of this legend are found in Britain, Norway and Denmark.
- Briggs, Katherine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins – Brownies – Bogies and Other Supernatural Creatures. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.
- Leach, Maria, and Jerome Fried, eds. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979.