Kelpies, Each-Uisge, and Water Horses
Scottish and Celtic folklore is rich with stories of various shape-shifting water horses, from the kelpie to the Gaelic each-uisge. They all share some similarities, but there are some differences, though often, these subtleties are lost in translation or get a little mixed up. The tales have been mostly passed down by word of mouth, so there is always a little wiggle room. In this entry on Paranormal Papers, I have decided to combine them, as the stories are inconsistent, and many of them bear a canny resemblance to each other.
The kelpie is a legendary shape-shifting spirit that dwells in the rivers of Scotland and is said to lure people into the murky depths to their deaths. It also sometimes ascribed the gift of foresight, being able to foretell when someone will meet their end. On the other hand, the each-uisge tends to make its home in the sea and lochs, and indeed in Scotland, many of the lochs are salt water. It also tends to be far more powerful and often far more malevolent.
The creature most often takes the form of a beautiful horse, usually a dramatic deep black or a brilliant bright white. In some tales, it is also a horse with aquatic features such as having webbed hooves or ears and even reversed hooves. Others say its mane is slimy or made of seaweed. The wildest stories tell of a gorgon-like mane that can transform into a seething mass of snakes. Their skin is said to be smooth, icy cold, and very sticky….almost like glue!
They can also transform into a handsome man or beautiful woman, seducing their victim and either enslaving them as a lover or dragging them down to an untimely death. Some kelpies eat their victims, only leaving some entrails or choice organs by the riverbank as evidence of their feasting.
Another form the kelpie takes is that of a large hairy man. In this form, the kelpie can rush out of the water and grab passersby, and crush them in its vice-like grip.
As a kelpie’s tail hits the water, it is said to make a sound like thunder.
Like many other water-dwelling mythical monsters, the kelpie has the ability to summon up a storm or, at the very least, predict one. With some said to howl and wail just before the onset of a tempest.
The each-uisge runs across the water as if it were firm ground, and the tear of a water horse can make a mortal fall in love with them.
There is some debate over whether or not the Kelpie is a malevolent beast. Some stories portray the Kelpie as being a mischievous but ultimately harmless creature, while others paint a picture of a vicious, murderous entity. Some tales attach this more violent behavior to the each-uisge (Scottish Gaelic for Water Horse), which is said to inhabit lochs and the sea rather than rivers. The each-uisge is usually far more dangerous than the kelpie, with a wide range of magical powers.
The darkest version of the legend presents the Kelpie as a terrifying black beast connected to the Devil. It is supposed to have two very sharp horns growing out of its head. Indeed Scottish poet Robert Burns mentions them in his poem Address to the Devil:
When thowes dissolve the snawy hoord,An’ float the jinglin icy-boord,Then water-kelpies haunt the foordBy your direction,An’ nighted trav’lers are allur’dTo their destruction.
One of the few ways of defeating or taming a kelpie is to remove its magical bridle o, if you can manage it, put a human bridle on the beast. If you can do that, the kelpie will submit to your will. These kelpies were historically said to be held in high regard, not least because they were meant to have the strength of ten horses. Enslaved kelpies were then used to aid in the building of castles or even plough fields…though there is usually a cost to this humiliation.
There are rumors that the MacGregor clan are the holders of a Kelpie bridle to this very day.
Kelpies have been said to mate with normal horses. The product of these unions is always a black horse that cannot drown. This offspring cannot transform their appearance, and thankfully for you and I do not have the desire to eat human beings.
The legends themselves are hundreds or maybe thousands of years ago. Many people in the past could not swim, so it is thought that the tales may have been told in order to try to keep children away from the water.
The kelpie were immortalized in statues recently erected near Falkirk, Scotland. At 100ft tall and weighing 300 tonnes each, these are the biggest equine sculptures in the world.
They were built in just 90 days and are made from stainless steel with steel-reinforced concrete foundations.
Kelpies in Yorkshire, England
The legend of the kelpie has also traveled south of the border to the Yorkshire Dales in northern England, where two kelpies allegedly took up residence, one by the River Ure and the other by the River Strid.
These kelpies reportedly emerge from the river at nighttime, hoping to find a weary traveler or child that will jump onto their back.
Once the kelpie has snared a victim, it will then jump back into the river, where it will drown and eat its victim. The beast will then throw its victim’s entrails onto the river bank.
This English kelpie can be black or white and seems less likely to assume human form, but skeptical travelers should check out the feet, as this kelpie’s feet appear human.
Sightings and Tales
The Conon River Kelpie and the Doomed Rider
This tale is taken from the 1889 publication Folk-Lore and Legends: Scotland. It takes place deep in the Scottish highlands where some men busy with farm work heard a voice coming from the nearby River Conon, which starts at Loch Luichart and flows down into the Cromarty Firth. When they looked around, they spotted a kelpie in the form of a black horse standing in the water close to where the river was forded. The kelpie said, “The hour but not the man has come.” The creature then disappeared under the water and left the men scratching their heads.
“the middle o that in a place where a horse might swim stood the kelpie An it again repeated its words The hour but not the man has come an then flashing through the water like a drake it disappeared in the lower pool When the folk stood “
However, shortly afterward, they spotted a man riding towards the ford and tried to warn him that a kelpie was close by. But the man was not for turning, so they locked him up in the nearby abandoned Kirk, for his own good you understand, until the hour of the Kelpie was passed. The next day they returned to release him but found he’d been drowned in the font that once held the holy water of the church.
It is worth noting that a version of this water spirit tale also appears in the folklore of Denmark, Germany, and Wales.
The Water Horse and the Bull
Another story, this time from the Monach Islands, also known as Heisker (Scottish Gaelic: Eilean Heisgeir), is that of the water horse and the bull. This tale was actually recorded on tape in 1956 by Donald MacDougall as he told it to his cousin in Gaelic. It was later translated and published in Lisa Schneidau’s River Folks tales of Britain and Ireland.
These islands lie to the west of North Uist and are some of the most remote in Scotland. They have been uninhabited since the middle of the Second World War, but previously, around 100 people lived there and had done for many generations.
Being a small set of islands, one of the big problems the locals had was a shortage of fresh water. They had to rely on a loch where the women of the village would go in pairs to wash clothes and perform other chores. However, they knew that the loch contained a deadly secret in the form of a water horse. Not without wit, the canny villagers bred a large bull for the very purpose of fending off the kelpie. They never allowed the bull out, and it was said to be a scary beast indeed.
One day by chance, a woman visited the loch on her own, it was a hot day, and she soon found herself fast asleep. She was woken by the sound of someone approaching, and a tall, handsome man came and sat next to her. He made some pleasant small talk and then told her how tired he was, asking if he could sit in the sun with her. She’d never seen him before on the island, but she agreed to let him place his head on her lap and take a nap. However, she could not sleep, and as she studied the man, she noticed his feet were cloven, and his hair was full of sand.
Realizing he was the water horse, the woman used some scissors to cut around her dress where his head lay, and then she ran as fast as she could back towards the village. Looking back, she saw a huge black horse galloping after her as she screamed for the farmer to release the captive bull. The two massive beasts met with a titanic clash which saw them push each other back and forth. Eventually, the bull got the better of the water horse, and both of them disappeared under the sea.
It was said that many years later, one of the gigantic bull’s horns washed up on the shore, though of the water horse no more is said.
The Crofter and the Kelpie
A crofter in the far north of Scotland had recently taken over his late parents’ land and was determined to do a good job of farming it. Tragically his own horse died, and he had little enough money to get by never mind purchasing another expensive horse. It was winter, but when the spring came, he’d have to plough the fields, or there would be no crops, and the land would remain barren.
The man often stared at his fire late into the night, worrying about what he would do come the ploughing season. One day his feet wandered along with his mind, he found himself at a remote loch where nobody usually went. The dark pool was said to be home to a water horse, and local people avoided it.
As he stared across the inky water, an old woman walked by. The pair chatted, and he offered her some of his bannock cake (a sort of oatcake), which she accepted. As the day drew to a close, the pair said her goodbyes, and the woman gave the crofter a parting gift in thanks for him sharing his food. Her gift was a woolen shawl which she told him could cover more than skin.
The days turned into weeks, and the winter sunk its icy teeth into the land. The crofter continued to fret about the coming season and once again went for a long walk. By chance, he happened upon the same woman, and the pair exchanged stories and tales until the day grew long. Again the woman gave the man a parting gift, this time a small pot of salt. She told him to remember that salt can harm as well as heal.
Winter drew to an end, and the first spring flowers were budding when the crofter once again went for a wander to the loch. For a third time, he ran into the old woman, and this time she was struggling under the burden of carrying some lobster pots. He offered to help, and together they carried the pots to the woman’s house. Again she thanked him and this time gifted the man a leather bridle, telling him it could harness more than just a horse.
That night the man pondered the gifts given to him and realized what they were for and what he had to do.
The following day the crofter headed to the loch and sat down, closing his eyes. As the sun lowered in the sky, he was roused by the sound of a horse. Before him was a beautiful dark horse, and it had lowered its hindquarters so that he might easily jump on. He asked the kelpie if he could mount, and the creature whinnied in agreement. The man threw the shawl the woman had given him on the kelpie’s back and jumped on. The creature was furious he was not stuck to its back and began galloping about to dislodge him. He held tight, but next the water horse’s mane turned into a pile of seething snakes. The crofter threw the salt on them, turning them back to hair. However, they were still speeding towards the murky loch, and he knew that if he did not add quickly, he’d be drowned in the icy water. He grabbed the bridle and threw it over the kelpie’s head just as it reared up. The bit ended up in the creature’s mouth, taming it instantly.
The crofter took the kelpie home, and when the spring came, he used it to plough his fields, ensuring he could plant his seeds and grow a bumper crop. Later in the year, the crofter led the kelpie to the edge of his land and let it go back to its watery home.
The Kelpie and Daianaimh
This tale takes place in the western isles of Scotland when the great chieftains of the Isles held sway and when travel by water was a way of life and the sea was the giver of substance.
One day the sons of all the chieftains went on a fishing expedition to the Sound of Barra, a stretch of water lying between Barra and South Uist. After seven days, the boys had failed to return except for one of the shield bearers, a young man called Donall. The king of one of the islands summoned all the chieftains to hear the grim tale the boy had to tell.
Donall told the worried fathers how the group had come across a beautiful horse on the shore. It had a stunning white coat and mane that was as wild as the sea itself. The boys approached the creature and decided to lay hands on it. They had all been warned about the legend of the kelpie, but they paid no heed to tales they thought were told to frighten children to bed at night.
Soon one of the young men decided to mount the beast, and it waited patiently until all of them were on its back. Amazingly they all fitted on, even lowly Donall, who got on last on account of him being a mere shield bearer. Suddenly, the kelpie bolted across the water, galloping over the choppy sea as if it were firm ground. It was as the kelpie ran wild through the troughs and across whirlpools that the young men realized they were stuck to the animal; even those touching their friends were stuck to them as well!
In desperation, Donall decided to cut off his own fingers, breaking the spell and allowing him to leap into the sea. The other lads were less lucky and were stuck fast as the kelpie plunged headlong into the whirlpool known as Corrievreckan. From the Gaelic meaning cauldron of the speckled seas, that maelstrom lies between the islands of Jura and Scarba, and the Celts believed this was the entrance to the Otherworld.
The kings turned to their priests and druids, but they said the kelpie’s magic was just too strong. However, Donall was not keen to give up, so he went on his own to consult an oracle known as the Blind One. As an act of faith the old man, who was called Dall, asked Donall to put his wounded hand in a boiling cauldron; this he did and was amazed to find his hand whole again.
He then told Donall that their once chance was to perform a ceremony at midnight on Samhuinn (our Halloween). On this night, the veils between this world and the Otherworld thinned, and souls might be brought back across.
Donall returned home and told the king what was to be done.
This is where the tale takes a romantic turn, and, as ever with tales of the heart, gets a little complicated.
Donall was not only the shield bearer to the king’s son but also his friend, and he was, therefore, also friendly with the king’s daughter, Daianaimh. She was accounted the most beautiful girl in the islands, but the pair were only friends as Donall had his eye on her cousin, Faoineis.
After the news of her lost brother Daianaimh was wandering on the seashore near her home singing a sad song of mourning. As she did so a handsome young man with sea-green eyes happened across her. He also looked sad and had a tear in his eye as he listened to her song. He had pale skin and wore a brilliant white shirt along with a green kilt. The young man asked the princess to wipe the tear from his eye, promising her all would be well.
As she pulled her finger away from his face, the tear fell onto her chest and landed just near her heart. Immediately she felt a warm glow of love and looked at the young man with longing and adoration. Daianaimh asked his name, and he told her he was Eich-Uisge and lord of the deeps. She told him that she was not afraid but deep down felt an unease.
After that day the pair would meet each morning by the sea, but the kelpie would always be strict about leaving before the sun went down. He even asked Daianaimh to wake him if he ever overslept. By chance one day he did oversleep, but the princess thought he looked so peaceful that she would let him doze a little longer. However, as she stroked his hair she became aware that it was slimy and as she looked down realized she was now entwined not with a man but with a pale and slimy horse. She was forced to cut away some of her hair that was caught up in the kelpie but managed to slip away before he woke. After this, the spell was broken, and she realized what had happened to all the chieftain’s sons, including her own brother.
Each day she would hear the kelpie calling for her but she ignore his lovesick pleas, until one day she decided to confront him about her brother and his friends. She asked her former lover to return the young princes to the living world, to prove that he really loved her. The kelpie agreed and told her to look for them on Samhuinn.
Donall meantime was in love with the flirty Faoineis, who delighted in playing her various suitors off each other. In her vanity, she hoped only to marry a king or some other mighty lord. It was close to Samhuinn when Daianaimh interceded on Donall’s behalf with her cousin, but she was having none of it and said she would never wed someone as lowly as Donall. He later asked her directly, but she only laughed in his face.
As the sun went down, the kelpie sat on his coral throne beneath the whirlpool and discussed what to do with his friend the Great Grey Seal. He spoke of his love for Daianaimh and what he’d agreed to do. He headed up to the mortal world and visited the castle where everyone was feasting for the festival of Samhuinn. Donall had been about to dance with Faoineis, but when the handsome stranger came into the hall, she was immediately smitten and dropped Donald like a hot coal. The kelpie danced with Faoineis and then told her to meet him on the beach after midnight so they could journey to his realm.
Donall tried to warn the girl he loved, but she just thought him jealous and scolded him for lying to her. She met the handsome stranger on the shore and under the moonlight he placed a coral ring on her finger, telling her she was now his forever. Even as she took his hand she was on the back of a wild horse, and it galloped across the sea towards the dark whirlpool where his realm lay; her screams were mixed with that of the gulls as she plunged into the icy blackness.
Meantime the old blind man Dall was performing his magic to bring the young men back. Just as he did so, the kelpie was back on his throne and ordered that the chieftain’s sons be released. The great whirlpool began to spin, a storm ranged across the sea, and then a great wave threw the young men back up on the shore of the living, alive and well.
Dall gained great honor from this feat, even though really it was the kelpie’s promise to his lost love that brought about the miracle.
Faoineis was not so lucky, and she still toils to this very day polishing the coral throne for eternity.
More recent sightings
Accounts of kelpie sightings are very hard to come by, and modern-day sightings seem to be non-existent. However, we did find a record from the 19th century.
Father Allan McDonald, a priest in South Uist (very close to the Monach Islands) in Scotland, recorded an account by one of his parishioners. It was June 1893, and Ewan MacMillan was out looking for a mare and foal that belonged to him.
Walking over to a nearby loch, he saw an animal that he assumed to be the mare. As he got closer to it, it appeared to him to be larger than a normal horse.
When he was within 20 yards, the beast emitted a hideous, bone-chilling scream that terrified not only Ewan but also the nearby horses. The horses fled, as did Ewan, not stopping until he returned home.
|Other Name/s||Water Kelpie, Water Horse, Each-Uisge|
Where to find
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thegoatseries.com, “Greatest Cryptid of All Time”, accessed August 22, 2017,
unknownexplorers.com, “Kelpie,” accessed August 22, 2017,
cryptidsuk.tumblr.com, “British and Irish Folklore – The Kelpie,” accessed August 22, 2017,
exemplore.com, “Merrows, Selkies, and Kelpies: Irish and Scottish Underwater Creatures Like the Mermaid,” accessed August 22, 2017,
hubpages.com, “Mythical Creatures – Kelpie,” accessed August 22, 2017,
dickraynor.co.uk, “The Water-Horse: More than a Myth?”, accessed August 22, 2017,
pinebarrensinstitute.com, “Quick Cryptid Snippet: The Kelpie,” accessed August 22 2017,
thehelix.co.uk, “Constructing The Kelpies,” accessed August 22 2017,
https://www.examinerlive.co.uk/news/local-news/legend-a-hauntingly-beautiful-deadly-25820952, “The legend of ‘a hauntingly beautiful but deadly creature that stalks Yorkshire’s riverbanks,’” accessed February 8, 2023,
https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/The-Kelpie/, “The Kelpie,” accessed February 8, 2023,
https://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/track/7936?l=gd, “An t-each-uisge agus Tarbh na Leòid a’ sabaid ann an Heisgeir“, accessed February 22, 2023,
Scottish Myths and Legends, Daniel Allison, 2020
River Folk tales of Brtiain and Ireland, Lisa Schneidau, 2022
The Mammoth Book of Celtic Myths and Legends, Peter Berresford Ellis, 1999
British Folk-Tales and Legends, Katherine Briggs, 1977
- The Kelpie often takes the form of a human woman. Pic credit: Thomas Millie Dow/Public domain
Last modified on April 7th, 2023 at 8:27 pm