Jun 29, 2022 I Nick Redfern

Two Monsters and One Body of Water: Shape-Shifting in Loch Ness

For centuries, Scottish folklore and legend have both been filled with tales of a wild and deadly beast known as the Kelpie. The terrible beast, which has the ability to transform itself into numerous forms – even that of people – was greatly feared throughout the 1600s and 1700s, when reports of the Kelpie were at their height. As for its curious name, “Kelpie” is an ancient Scottish term meaning “water-horse.” There is a very good reason as to why that particular name was applied to the beast, as will soon become very clear. As its name strongly suggests, the water-horse spent much of its time lurking in the waters of Scottish lochs – specifically in the shallower, marshy areas of such locales. It would coldly and callously wait for an unwary passer-by to appear on the scene and then strike, mercilessly and without any hint of a warning. The beast’s mode of attack was, admittedly, ingenious, even if the end result for the victim was not a good one. In fact, it was almost always downright fatal.  

Very much creatures of the night, Kelpies were said to dwell in the waters of literally dozens of Scottish lochs. As creature-seeker Roland Watson demonstrated in his book The Water Horses of Loch Ness, however, the vast majority of reports of such beasts emanate from none other than Loch Ness; the home of what is arguably the world’s most famous lake monster, Nessie – to which we shall return shortly. We may never know, for sure, the real form of the Kelpie; only the guise that led to the creation of its name. But, what we can say for certain is that the small number of witnesses who encountered the beast, and who lived to tell the tale, described it as a large black or white horse. In most cases, the victim was a late-night traveler, walking along an old, well-known pathway near the water’s edge of the relevant loch. Suddenly, the huge horse would rise out of the water, dripping wet, and make its way to the shore, with its coat shining under the light of the Moon.

(Nick Redfern) Beware of the dreaded Kelpies of Loch Ness

Under such strange circumstances, many might be inclined to make a run for it immediately. There is, however, a very strange aspect to many of the Kelpie stories. Namely, that the people who crossed its path felt as if their free will had been taken from them and that they were deliberately prevented from fleeing the scene. Today, we might justifiably suggest that the beast had the power to control the minds of those in its deadly sights. Perhaps, even by a form of supernatural hypnosis. Those fortunate enough to escape the icy clutches of the Kelpie described how they felt driven to climb on the back of the horse and grab its reins. Despite having a sense of dread and a fear of doing so, that’s exactly what so many did – and, in the process, failed to survive and tell their tale. It was at that point that the Kelpie made its move – an incredibly fast move.

With the entranced person now atop the monster, it would suddenly launch itself into the deep and cold waters of the loch, with the poor soul unable to let go of the reins. Death by drowning was all but inevitable, aside from that very lucky, aforementioned body of people who were fortunate enough to have survived and who related their stories – hence why we know of the creature and its terrible modus operandi. As for the reason behind these deadly attacks, it was said that the creatures sought one thing more than any other: the human soul. When word of the murderous monster got out among the people of the small hamlets and villages of ancient Scotland, the Kelpie cunningly chose to take on another form, given that its cover – as a large horse – had now been blown, of course.

That form was a beautiful woman, with long hair, and dressed in a flowing robe. Her (or, rather, its) targets were always men, and again walking home late at night, perhaps after a few pints of beer at a local inn, or after toiling in the fields until dark. The she-devil would, just like its horse-based form, beckon the entranced man to the water’s edge. She would then take his hand, and slowly lead him into the loch; careful step by careful step. Then, when the man was around waist-deep she would violently drag him below the water, drowning him in seconds and mercilessly stealing his soul.

Legend also tells of the Kelpie taking on the form of a large, hairy, ape-like animal. Notably, Scotland has a long history of Bigfoot-type creatures in its midst – which may not be a coincidence, given what we know of the Kelpie, its shapeshifting skills, and its Scottish origins. All of which brings us back to the dark heart of Loch Ness. As I noted earlier, Nessie authority Roland Watson has determined that the vast majority of centuries-old sightings and reports of Kelpies emanated from Loch Ness. This, obviously, provokes an important question: could the Nessies of today, and the Kelpies of yesteryear, be one and the very same thing? It’s a highly valid question, since it would seem most unlikely for the loch to be populated by two different kinds of unknown animals. As for the answer, it is almost certainly the case that far from being the flesh and blood beasts that so many assume the Nessies to be, the creatures are indeed Kelpies, but in far more modern – and very different - incarnations.

The image that any mention of the Loch Ness Monster provokes is almost always that of a long-necked, hump-backed animal with four flippers and a powerful tail. Certainly, that’s how the media and movie-makers portray the Nessies, and even how numerous witnesses have described them. Such descriptions provoke images of long-extinct marine reptiles known as plesiosaurs – animals that became extinct around sixty-five million years ago. It is a little known fact, however, that the unknown animals of Loch Ness come in all shapes and sizes, something which adds even more weight to the theories that they are shapeshifting Kelpies, and not merely unknown animals or surviving relics from times long past.

Contrary to the popular assumption that the Nessies closely resemble plesiosaurs, more than a few eyewitnesses to the monsters have described them in an astonishing variety of different ways. Such as (take a deep breath) giant-sized frogs, as tusked, as camel-like, as crocodile-type entities, as beasts that completely lack the long neck that so many people have reported, as animals closely resembling salamanders, and as creatures with feet, rather than the so often reported flippers. In many of the cases, such descriptions were made by people who were able to see the monsters at very close quarters – strongly suggesting they were not mistaken in what it was they encountered. It is beyond absurd to try and assert that Loch Ness might harbor six or seven different types of amazing animals; never mind just one! There is only one reasonable conclusion available to us: the Nessies of today and the Kelpies of the past are one and the same. Constantly shifting their shapes, as they see fit, is the name of their ominous game. Their motivation: the stealing of the human soul. The story isn't over: there are other cases of two monsters having been seen in the very same stretch of water, something that suggests Kelpies are not just tied to Scottish lakes. Read on...

In the summer of 1976, an encounter with the much-feared, and legendary, Man-Monkey of Bridge 39 on the Shropshire Union Canal, U.K, took place. The witness was a man named Paul Bell, a keen fisherman and someone who, in July and August 1976, spent several Saturdays out at the canal with his rods, reels, bait, his cans of beer and his favourite beef and onion sandwiches, soaking in the intense heat. Bell told me that, on one particular Saturday afternoon, he was sat near the water’s edge on a small wooden stool that he always carried with him, when he was “literally frozen solid” by the sight of “what at first I thought was a big log floating down the cut, about sixty or seventy feet away.” According to Bell, however, it was no log; it was something else entirely. As it got closer, Bell was both astonished and horrified to see a large “dark brown and black-colored’ eel or snake-like creature – possibly ten feet in length or a little bit more – moving slowly in the water, with its head – that “looked like a black sheep” - flicking rapidly from side to side. Although he had an old Polaroid camera with him, said Bell, he never even thought to take a photograph. Instead, he merely stared in both awe and shock as the animal cruised leisurely and blissfully past him, before finally vanishing out of sight. Bell stressed that the creature apparently did not see him (“or, if it did, it never attacked me”), and did not appear to exhibit any outright hostile tendencies.

(Nick Redfern) Bridge 39 at England's Shropshire Union Canal, the lair of the hair-covered, ape-like "Man-Monkey"

What elevated Bell’s story to a far stranger level was the fact that he claimed, in quite matter of fact fashion, that the following Saturday he was fishing in practically the same spot when he had a sudden, out of the blue feeling of being watched. He was not wrong. Peering across the width of the canal, Bell was both horrified and petrified to see a dark, hairy, gorilla-like face staring intently at him out of the thick, green bushes. The head of the animal was somewhat human-like, too, said Bell, who added that “as soon as it saw me looking at it, up it went and ran right into the trees and I lost it.” He further explained: “That was it; a second or two was all at the most. But as it got up and ran I knew it was a big monkey. There’s nothing else it could have been. But what flummoxed me more than seeing it though, was what was it doing there?” A good question. So, in Loch Ness we have two types of monster: the Nessies and the Kelpies. And, we have a very similar story from Paul Bell. The Kelpies, it seems, have the ability to take on more than one kind of mysterious beast.

Nick Redfern

Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.

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