In the Scottish highlands the water-horse, or Each Uisge, is a supernatural water spirit in mythology and folklore. There is a tradition of water horses in some sixty of the thousands of lochans and lochs of Scotland (Watson, 2011). The mythical water-horse is also known as the Capaill Uisce or the Manx Cabyll-ushtey, the Ceffyl dwr in Wales, as well as often being confused with the Kelpie. It is one considered opinion that such mythical creatures appear in Scottish tales because “…the fierceness of the sea is characterised as a powerful and preternatural hage whose form…embody aspects of a stormy sea.” (Harris, 2009), the female described as the Muileartach.
Some authors regard the kelpie as being synonymous with the water-horse. The name was bestowed originally on the kelpie which allegedly resembled the horse-like hippocamp of classical myth and antiquity. The confusion can be cleared by the fact that the water-horse haunts only lakes lochs and never rivers (Green, 1992), whereas the kelpie inhabits torrents, waterfalls, and fjords. The shores and banks are the home of the glaistigs whereas the raw’ga are the revenants of seals. Water-horses, kelpies, and glaistigs have a much greater folkloric ambiguity when compared to mermaids, sea hags and dragons.
Resembling a long-necked seal in appearance, the water-horse has a long neck supporting a small head, a horse’s mane, and two sets of flippers. It is always considered a dangerous encounter with a creature, apparently measuring some 50 to 60 feet in length, with a tail 70 feet long, despite the fact that mortals can achieve power over the animal (Harris, 2009).
Calling the Water-horse by Ida Sofia Foss.
The water-horse known as the Each-uisge in Scotland, each-uisce in Ireland, is often mistaken for the kelpie. In Ireland the term has been Anglicised ‘anghisky’. The mischievous or at worst malevolent Kelpie has its origin in the Scottish Gaelic tradition (Drever, H. 1937).The shape-shifting Each-uisge can appear as a horse, a pony, or as a handsome man. It is a mammal of acquatic habit resembling a horse that lives in fresh water lochs, sea lochs, and the sea itself.
Kelpie or Water-horse sculptures, Forth and Clyde Canal, Falkirk.
A nickname applied to the lake monsters of Scotland is the kelpie, such as the Each-uisge, the Morag of Loch Morar, and Lizzie of Loch Lomond. Another supernatural water-horse, or kelpie, is the glaistig which haunts Scottish waters and is “…associated mainly with domesticated animals and with the agricultural mode of life, and is attached to certin families, but has a similar sinister aspect as a river fury.” (Harris, 2009). The Kelpie is usually to be found beside or in isolated and fast moving streams where she, in common with the Ceffyn dwr, lures travellers to ride on her back into deep pools where they are drowned and consumed (McKillop, 1998; Coleman, 2007). In terms of mythology and folk-tale the kelpie is described as a sky-blue and white horse of strong physique that can shapeshift into beautiful women. Artists have portrayed the kelpie in this way as a seductive and languorous maiden seated on a riverside rock or beside a pool. However, the kelpie was also feared as a cannibalistic and foul-tempered water sprite with webbed feet and tail and mane of a horse.
The Kelpie (1913) by H. J. Draper
The Kelpie (1895) by Thomas Milke Dow.
There are a number of regional variations of the water-horse and the kelpie and similar mythological creatures. These include the Each uisge, the Neck (a water spirit) and the Nix. In Scandinavia the Norwegians have the brook horse other wise called the Backahasten, which is also called the nokken. For Faroe islanders there is the Nykur and in Iceland it is known as the Nykur or the nennir. In Orkney there is the Nuggle or Nuggie, with the Shetland Islands the home of Tangi, the Shoopiltee, and the Njogel. The Manx Gaelic for water-horse is the Cabbyl-ushtey and the Irish have their Capall uisce (also known as the Glashtin). The Irish had their Eisges or Fuath alongside the Shoney of Cornwall derived from the Norse name Sjofn meaning ‘Goddess of the Sea’.
The Ceffyl Dwr of Welsh folktale is a shape-shifting killer of travellers, with flying ability, that lives in mountain pools and pools, as well as capable of disappearing into the mists (Rose, 2001). In one form it leaps from the waters and kills travellers, but in another tale it gets the unwary to ride on its back. The Glashtyn, also known as the glashan, the glaistiyn, or the glastyn and believed derived from the old Irish Celtic words glais, glaise, or glas meaning the sea and also stream.
Hylas and the Nymphs. (1896). J. W. Waterhouse.
In the mythology of the British Isles the oldest Celtic goddesses and nymphs are those connected with rivers and waters. For example the glashtin is regarded as a goblin that is believed to appear of its watery habitat, and in other words a ‘water-horse’. Historically many pre-Christian names of rivers are named after female deities. Examples include Ness from the Picts and which is the name of the mother of Conchobar (Henderson, 2008). The term Nigra Dea means the Black Goddess of Adamnan with lochy or loch-diae the ‘lake of the black goddess’ (Hull, 1928). Affric, originally Aithbrecc means ‘nymph of the river and Aberdeen is derived from the goddess of the mouth of or river of Devona. Scottish glens are often believed inhabited by river spirits, river hags, and half horse half human water-horses. The Cuachag lives in Glen Cuachag and Etag inhabits Glen Etive.
References and Sources Consulted
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Coleman, J. A. (2007). The Dictionary of Mythology. Capella, London.
Craigie, W. A. (1898). Some Highland Folklore. Folklore. 9 (4).
Drever, H. (1937). The Lore of the Kelpie. Edinburgh.
Green, M. (1992). Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. Thames & Hudson, London.
Harris, J. M. (2009). Perilous Shores: the unfathomable supernaturalism of water in 19th century Scottish folklore. Mythlore, 28 (107-108). Alhambra, USA.
Henderson, W. (2008). Folklore of the Northern Counties. BiblioLife Books.
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MacKenzie, D. A. (1935). Scottish Folk-lore and Folk-life. Blackie, Edinburgh.
McKillop, J. (1998). Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. OUP, Oxford.
Rose, C. (2001). Giants, Monsters & Dragons. An Encyclopaedia of Folklore, Legend and Myth. Norton & Co.
Trevelyan, M. (1973). Folk-lore and folk stories of Wales. EP Publishing Ltd.
Watson, R. (2011). The Water Horses of Loch Ness.