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Curious Tales of Mysterious Scottish Water Spirits

When people think of Scotland and strange things in the water, they are likely going to envision the famous Loch Ness Monster of Loch Ness. This is the common image of strange aquatic anomalies in the country, and it has been a mainstay of the world of the paranormal for a very long time. Yet, this is a country absulutely steeped in strange lore and accounts of wierd and often very vicious thing in its waters, and here we will look at a selection of some very strange and sometimes very malignant water spirits and monsters of Scottish lore, which may or may not have their basis in reality.

A very odd Scottish water creature that lurks somewhere in a realm between folklore and possible reality is the one called the eachy, which comes from the Middle English iker or eker, meaning “water sprite” or “hippopotamus.” They are supposedly large humanoid creatures native to Northern England and Scotland, in particular Bassenthwaite Lake and Windermere, reptilian in appearance and covered with slime, with wide, formidable mouths filled with needle-like teeth. These strange creatures don’t seem to be purely confined to folklore, as they have been spotted for centuries, particularly during the 19th century, but there have been witness accounts right up into much more modern times. The most well-known supposed modern sighting of an eachy was made in 1973, when witnesses Rudolf Staveness and Gunnar Jacobson were visiting Bassenthwaite Lake and claimed to have seen one of the creatures swimming in the water just off shore. They even managed to take two photographs of it, and Staveness would say of the encounter:

Resting near to the Lake I saw something that made me both exited and intrigued at the same time. Something strange was swimming in the lake. It ducked below the surface and reappeared some distance away. The speed that the animal moved was amazing. I have never been able to find out what it was I saw, and my story has been met with some ridicule.

Far more well-known and also more deeply rooted in the myths and legends of the area are the shape-shifting water spirits known as the kelpie, said to be a horse-like aquatic beast that inhabits the rivers and Lochs of Scotland. Although the appearance of these beings differs depending on the region or tradition, kelpies are usually said to look like beautiful black horses, only with the notable details that their hooves are backwards compared to a normal horse, and of course they can swim and submerge themselves effortlessly. They are attributed with having a range of magical powers that can vary on the region, including the ability to entrance human beings with their songs or gaze, and most commonly the ability to change sizes or to shapeshift into a human being, almost always a man, although they retain their hooves in this form and often are depicted as having hair entwined with water weeds, mud, and detritus.

Kelpies are almost always described as being malevolent, or at the very least mischievous, and are known as being extremely aggressive, attacking and eating anyone who comes near, only to discard of the entrails at the water’s edge. A very common story in kelpie lore is that of the creature riding children on its back as another on shore tries to pet it, only to find he cannot remove his hand as it tries to usher them all off to a watery grave. The gruesome tale usually ends with the boy having to cut off one or more of his fingers in order to escape as the fearsome demon drags the others into the depths. Indeed, in some traditions the kelpies actively encourage riders, to the point that they outfit themselves with a saddle and bridle, only to drown whoever is foolish enough to try. These bridles were said to be very powerful magical items, and that whoever was able to steal one from a kelpie would wield the power to turn others into horses or ponies, as well as various healing abilities.

For all of this grim and aggressive behavior, kelpies were also said to sometimes take human form in order to find a human mate, the product of these unions being children with shorter than normal ears who were impossible to drown. In fact, kelpies themselves are nearly impossible to kill by any normal means, requiring either a silver weapon or iron that has been heated in a fire. In some traditions one could actually kill the monster by removing its bridle, after which it would wither away and die within 24 hours. They can also traditionally be captured and kept as slaves for hard labor if one is able to outfit them with a special halter engraved with a cross, and exorcisms were sometimes said to be effective in banishing them.

Interestingly, although this sounds like it must purely be pure folklore and myth, there are sometimes actual real sightings reports of these creatures, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Loch Ness just happens to be ground zero for intense kelpie traditions. This is intriguing in that some of the alleged lake monsters supposedly lurking within Loch Ness and other lochs might be connected somehow with the kelpie legends, a blurring between the lines of myth and reality.

Speaking of horse-like water spirits, there is another creature of Scottish lore that is closely tied with and sometimes even considered synonymous with the kelpie, and this is the each-uisge, which literally translates to “water horse.” Unlike the kelpie, which is said to dwell only in the freshwater rivers, streams, pools, and lochs, the each-uisge traditionally inhabits these and the seas as well, with stories particularly common in the Scottish Highlands. In appearance it is very similar to the kelpie, resembling a fine stallion, sometimes with a parrot-like beak, and it also has the power to shapeshift into either a human or an enormous bird, with their human form readily distinguished by the weeds, mud, and sand caked into the hair. One key difference between the kelpie and each-uisge is that while the former rarely ventures far from water, the latter can travel long distances inland and can survive out of the water for very long periods in search of prey all over the countryside.

The each-uisge is also described as being even more wicked and vicious than the sinister kelpie, attacking and killing intruders on sight, and like the kelpie they also have the ability to adhere people to their flesh in order to drag them screaming into the depths. Although they prefer to eat people, they are also known to take livestock, and eat everything from their prey except the livers, which they will discard. The only time they are known to not kill and eat humans is when one wishes to attract human women, for which they have an infatuation with, although they are fickle and will readily devour their mates or objects of affection if displeased with them or particularly hungry. Similar to the kelpie, the each-uisge can only be killed by using silver or heated iron, and one account of such a kill was published in John McKay’s More West Highland Tales, in which it is written:

A blacksmith from Raasay lost his daughter to the each-uisge. In revenge the blacksmith and his son made a set of large hooks, in a forge they set up by the loch side. They then roasted a sheep and heated the hooks until they were red hot. At last a great mist appeared from the water and the each-uisge rose from the depths and seized the sheep. The blacksmith and his son rammed the red-hot hooks into its flesh and after a short struggle dispatched it. In the morning there was nothing left of the creature apart from a jelly-like substance.

Yet another variant of the water-horse is a demonic entity from the northern island of Orkney called the Nuckelavee, sometimes spelled Nuckalavee, said to be the vilest of all, earning its nickname “Devil of the Sea.” A horse-like aquatic fiend like the kelpie and each-uisge, the Nuckelavee prefers the cold, tumultuous seas around the island, and has the added horrific power to cause death, sickness, and decay simply by breathing on crops, livestock, or people. It was widely blamed for causing storms on the coast or even droughts, epidemics, or famine inland, and such was its fearsome power that fishermen and sailors stayed well away from its favored haunts, daring not to even speak of the foul beast.

In appearance it is depicted as rather almost like a twisted centaur, with a human torso upon a horse’s body, with fins upon the legs, and there is another head for the horse portion of the body, which is where its toxic breath is exuded from and which holds only a single, baleful eye. It has no skin, but rather a hideous pulsating mass of muscled flesh, through which meander yellow veins full of black blood. The Nuckelavee is supposedly kept imprisoned during the summer months by its master, the powerful ocean spirit called the Mither o’ the Sea, but during the winter months it is free to wreak havoc along the coasts. When fully enraged, the Nuckelavee was said to cause great scourges of disease and drought, and to mercilessly destroy crops and slaughter cattle or anyone who it could find, the only way to escape its wrath being to cross a flowing stream of fresh water, which it supposedly cannot cross. While this particular evil spirit is almost certainly purely mythical, it would certainly seem to be something you would not want to mess around with.

Besides these evil water horses and humanoids there is also a creature from Scottish lore, particularly the northern islands of Orkney and Shetland, that is somewhat similar in some respects to the traditions of mermaids, in this case another shapeshifter known as the selkie. Although the word itself basically just means “grey seal,” it has also long been used to denote a race of water spirits that can change form between an enormous seal and human by shedding their skins. Depending on the tradition, they could either transform at will or only when certain conditions were met, such as the state of the tides, or in other tales they are only able to change once every 7 years, although they lose this ability altogether if they lose their magical seal skins.

The selkie seal folk come in both male and female variations, and in either case they are described as being extremely physically attractive and seductive in their human forms. A common folktale is of a human male coming across one of the comely selkie woman bathing in her human form, and he decides to steal her unattended seal skin in order to persuade her to become his wife. In this tale the selkie woman is forced to remain in her human form and have children with the man, the whole time longing to return to the sea and finally doing so when she discovers her skin, leaving her children and life in the world of humans behind, although in some versions she returns once a year to visit them. The hybrid children of selkie and human relationships are usually described as having skin that is cracked and greenish white in color and possessing webbed hands and feet, sometimes with seal-like facial features as well, and to this day there have been people with pronounced webbing on their extremities or scaly skin who claim to be actual descendants of the selkie.

The selkie legends span beyond just Scottish lore, and very similar tales of seal folk are told in the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Ireland, Sweden, and even among the North American Chinook tribe. Where did such tales spring up from and do they have their origins in just regular seals, misidentifications of outsiders wearing sealskin clothing, or perhaps even some unknown animal or even some form of nefarious spirit? Interestingly there are areas of Orkney and Shetland where the locals still strongly believe in the selkie and even claim to encounter them or be related to them, which along with the widespread nature of the myths make it an intriguing bit of lore.

Besides its most famous mystery, the Loch Ness Monster, as we have seen here Scotland is permeated by various oddities and legends throughout its long history. From where did such stories originate and how did they become so firmly entrenched within the lore of this place? Was there ever anything supernatural going on here or is it all based on misidentifications and an improper understanding of how the natural world works, the building of myths to find meaning in the universe? Wherever the answers may lie, it certainly adds an alluring mystique to Scotland, and gives one something to think about when looking out over the waters of this scenic land.