The Tale of the Kelpie

Nowadays everybody knows what a kelpie is - thanks to Andy Scott's magnificent sculptures just off the A9 at the Helix project. It was different back in 1991 when I was writing an article for the Scots magazine. 


I had been researching a book on the subject and had to keep explaining the features and habits of the 'each-uisge' (water horse in Gaelic.) The kelpie is a malignant water spirit - quite unique to Scotland - able to change its shape. Most often it appears in stories to warn young children away from water as a beautiful horse or a handsome young man . Encounters with this tricky beast - as strong as a cresting wave and as treacherous as a deep pool in river water - invariably end in the same way: the forcible abduction and drowning of the victim and subsequent devouring.


Arbroath is lucky to have its own kelpie story - the mound upon which St Vigeans church is built was reputed to be the lair of a kelpie. From 1699 to 1763 no sacrament of the Lord's supper was held here on account of the lack of suitably qualified agents. In 1794 the Reverend John Aitken noted in the Old Statistical Account of Scotland that "a tradition had long prevailed here that the water kelpie carried the stones for building the church, that the foundation of it was supported on large bars of iron; and that under the fabric there was a lake of great depth". It was said that the kelpie had put a curse upon the church: a minister would commit suicide and at the first communion held in the building following his death "the church would sink and the whole people would be carried down and drowned in the lake." On 15th November 1725 Thomas Watson, Minister of St. Vigeans for 23 years, did take his own life. When the first following communion was held "some hundreds of the parishioners sat on an eminence about 100 yards from the church expecting every moment the dreaded catastrophe.They were happily disappointed, and this spirit of credulity soon vanished like the baseless fabric of a vision."


If you enjoy 'kelpie tourism' then there are other monuments to this unlucky beast across Angus. 

Visit the yard of Morphie Farm north of Montrose and marvel at the prominent standing stone there. This bears the impression of the Pondage Pool kelpie's fingers from when he threw the rock javelin at the farmhouse in revenge for the hard labour he had been forced to do for the Laird of Morphie.

Or scramble down the banks of the South Esk where the elegant single arch of the old Shielhill Bridge spans the river with more grace than its modern concrete neighbour. This old bridge was constructed by a big-headed kelpie who was rather proud of his excellent work. On the east side of the bridhge parapet he set ba grotesque stone horse's head pilfered from the ruins of Shielhill Castle as a memorial, declaring:

And weel they kent quhat help I lent

For thai yon image fram't

Aboon the pend quhilk I defend

And it thai kelpie nam't

Below the ruins of Vayne Castle, near Fern, runs the Noran Water. In 1882 Andrew Jervise noted in Land of the Lindsays that here a "large sandstone has lain from time immemorial, bearing a deep indentation resembling the hoof of a collosal horse with the impress of one of the caulkers of the heel. This has been fashioned by the falling out of a pebble imbedded in the stone though at first it looks like an artificial work."

I have never been able to find the stone described by Jervise, but would encourage you to visit the area. The castle itself is reputed to be the hiding place of a vault of treasure guarded by a huge fire-breathing monster in the shape of a bull.


During my investigations, however, I found my own kelpie stone bearing the curious indentation of a horse's hoof in a stream in Crail. It is pictured here for your perusal. Within a year I had to abandon the stone in the Cruick Water at Afflochie as its discovery brought me nothing but ill luck. I strongly advise you never to search for this relic. Leave it be.


Sheilhill Kelpie

Written by Neil Paterson

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