The Kelpies: Supernatural Shapeshifters to Spectacular Sculptures
Written by: Caitlin
Published: 15th July 2021, last updated: 22nd September 2021
The Mythical Kelpie
If you grew up in Scotland it is likely that you have heard of these legendary creatures. They are the subject of many fables, folklores and much curiosity, and almost impossible to describe! According to Scottish legend, a kelpie is a shape-shifting aquatic spirit, believed to haunt rivers and streams, and often, but not exclusively, taking the form of a horse.
Water Kelpie spirits most commonly appear in the form of a horse.
What are Kelpies?
It is believed that the word kelpie may be derived from the Gaelic ‘calpa’ or ‘cailpeach’, meaning “heifer” or “colt”. The first recorded use of the term to describe a mythological creature, then spelled kaelpie, appears in the manuscript of an ode by William Collins, composed some time before 1759.
A magical horse sounds just like the kind of creature most children fantasise about discovering doesn’t it? But you should be warned, a kelpie is a malevolent spirit, and are said to lure children into the rivers in order to eat them! Whilst the kelpie is said to appear as a pretty, tame pony whilst on the land, it does this in order to trick the children into mounting it, at which point its sticky magical hide will not allow them to dismount.
Shown in the picture below is a another form that the kelpie spirit is rumoured to take. These water horses can also appear in human form, materialising as a beautiful young woman, hoping to lure young men to their death. Or they might take on the less visually appealing form of a hairy human, and be found lurking by the river, ready to jump out at unsuspecting travellers.
A Kelpie spirit taking on the form of a beautiful young woman.
It is said that kelpies can use their special form of magic to summon up a flood to sweep unsuspecting travellers away. And that the sound of their tails hitting the water sounds like thunder. But fortunately these dark creatures do have a weak point- their bridles. If you can mange to get close enough and get hold of a kelpie’s bridle then the creature will become under your command.
A captive kelpie is said to have the strength of at least 10 horses and the stamina of many more, and is highly prized. It is rumoured that the MacGregor clan have a kelpies bridle, passed down through the generations and said to have come from an ancestor who took it from a kelpie near Loch Slochd.
Top Kelpie Fables
Pretty much every sizeable body of water in Scotland has an associated kelpie story. Go and ask any person of Scot’s origin and I am certain they will have a different tale to tell you. But here are 3 of my favourite, most well renown kelpie stories.
1) A folk tale from Barra tells of a lonely kelpie that transforms itself into a handsome young man to woo a pretty young girl it was determined to take for its wife. But the girl recognises the young man as a kelpie and removes his silver necklace (his bridle) while he sleeps. The kelpie immediately reverts to its equine form, and the girl takes it home to her father’s farm, where it is put to work for a year.
At the end of that time the girl rides the kelpie to consult a wise man, who tells her to return the silver necklace.
Once again transformed into the handsome young man she had first met the wise man asks the kelpie whether if given the choice it would choose to be a kelpie or a mortal. The kelpie in turn asks the girl whether, if he were a man, she would agree to be his wife. She confirms that she would, after which the kelpie chooses to become a mortal man, and the pair are married.
A Kelpie which has taken on the form of a man.
2) Another specific story talks of a Kelpie captured by the Laird of Morphie. The Laird harnessed the strength of the horse-form Kelpie by using halter stamped with the sign of a cross. The captor forced the kelpie to carry heavy stones to build his castle and when the work was complete, the laird released the kelpie who was understandably unhappy in its treatment. The kelpie cursed the Laird of Morphie, a reason popularly believed to explain the extinction of the Laird family.
Kelpies are said to harness the strength of ten horses.
3) The early 19th-century kelpie that haunted the woods and shores of Loch Ness was tacked up with its own saddle and bridle. The Highlander James MacGrigor took it by surprise and cut off its bridle, the source of its power and life, without which it would die within twenty-four hours. As the kelpie had the power of speech, it attempted unsuccessfully to bargain with MacGrigor for the return of its bridle.
After following MacGrigor to his home, the kelpie asserted that MacGrigor would be unable to enter his house while in possession of the bridle, because of the presence of a cross above the entrance door. But MacGrigor outwitted the creature by tossing the bridle through a window, so the kelpie accepted its fate and left, cursing and swearing.
The myth is perpetuated with further tales of the bridle as it is passed down through the family. Referred to as “Willox’s Ball and Bridle”, it had magical powers of healing.
If you’d like to read more about the kelpie of Loch Ness you can do so HERE.
And if you’re interest in mythical beasts has been spiked and you’d like to know more about another legend, try our article about the Loch Ness Monster here.
The Kelpies Sculpture
The Kelpies Statues in Falkirk
The Kelpies are stunning 30-metre-high horse-head sculptures which are located in The Helix Park between Falkirk and Grangemouth. They are the largest equine sculptures in the whole world and have become a massive tourist attraction in Scotland. Standing at 100ft tall and weighing more than 300 tonnes each, the magical Kelpies are a man-made wonder and a feat of engineering.
As part of The Kelpies project, the horse sculptures also have their own visitor centre, and they sit beside a newly developed canal turning pool and extension. This canal extension reconnects the Forth and Clyde Canal with the River Forth, and improves navigation between the East and West of Scotland.
Who designed The Kelpies?
The Kelpies sculptures were designed by Scottish sculptor Andy Scott. He specialises in galvanised steel and has produced a number of notable pieces internationally, but The Kelpies is his most well known work. He graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 1986 with a Bachelor of Arts in Fine Art Sculpture, and in 1987 with a diploma in Postgraduate Studies.
Speaking about his creation, Andy Scott said, “The original concept of mythical water horses was a valid starting point for the artistic development of the structures.” He also said that he “took that concept and moved with it towards a more equine and contemporary response, shifting from any mythological references towards a socio-historical monument intended to celebrate the horse’s role in industry and agriculture as well as the obvious association with the canals as tow horses”.
Artist Andy Scott with his creation The Kelpies
When were The Kelpies built?
Construction of these fantastic sculptures began in June 2013 and was fully completed by October 2013. It wasn’t until April 2014 that The Kelpies were opened to the public, and have been a popular tourist attraction ever since.
Design of The Kelpies started around 5 years prior to construction though. In 2008, Andy Scott created three miniature versions in his Glasgow studio, each one just a metre high. These were then scanned by lasers to help the steel fabricators create accurate full-scale components.
Duke and Baron
Despite the initial inspiration for The Kelpies sculptures clearly being the supernatural shape-shifters who haunted Scotland’s rivers, burns and lochs, the creator needed a more tangible point of reference for his design too.
Andy, who claims to have always been fascinated by horses, used Clydesdales Duke and Baron as the life models for his sculptures.
Duke is a humble heavy horse who pulls a dray in a park in Glasgow for a day job. Many will see him at work every day but few will realise he is also the inspiration for the largest equine sculpture in the world.
Baron came from humble beginnings also. When a heavy horse sanctuary closed in 2000, the 17.1hh Clydesdale was signed over to World Horse Welfare as part of a large group. After a long period of rehabilitation and treatment, Baron was rehomed by Glasgow City Council and in his day job he pulls a dray in a pair in the city’s Pollok Park.
Andy Scott recalls: “When I asked Glasgow City if I could use two of their horses, it was Baron and his pal Duke from Pollok Park that they brought to my studio. I guess Pollok thought they were fine examples and they, indeed, turned out to be perfect models. They were patient and well-mannered – the perfect gentlemen.”
The Kelpies life models, Baron, left, and Duke, right, at the unveiling of the sculptures
Where are the Kelpies located?
The Kelpies form a dramatic gateway to the canal entrance on the East Coast of Scotland, and the Helix Park is The Home of the Kelpies. Located between Falkirk and Grangemouth, at the side of the M9, it was created as a space for the communities in the Falkirk area to come together. The parkland project was created next to a new extension to the Forth and Clyde Canal, and near the River Carron.
Helix Park is made up of 350 hectares of recreational green land and contains features such as includes a cafe,gift shop and exhbition space, adventure play park, splash play fountains, lagoon and miles of cycle paths.
The Helix is linked by two National Cycle Routes as well as the new John Muir Trail making it incredibly accessible and the ideal base to explore from.
Arial View of The Helix Park
Visit The Kelpies
Anyone can view The Kelpies totally free of charge and at any time of the day, 365 days of the year, due to their open location in The Helix community park. The area around the massive sculptures has been designed to give access for all, meaning everyone can come and see them up close. You can even go inside a Kelpie on a tour for an exclusive look at their engineering and ingenuity, but this comes with a small ticket fee.
Don’t forget to round off your trip at the visitor centre for souvenirs and a tasty lunch.
The park itself features plenty to be explored, including around 500km of connected cycle paths. You can discover one of many routes including the 16-mile core route, Helix Around Town Tour (HArTT) starting at The Helix and heading to The Falkirk Wheel, Callendar Park and back to The Helix using cycle ways, towpaths and parkland. The paths are multi-use if you prefer to explore by foot.
Take a tour of the Kelpies
Fancy the opportunity to get up close and personal inside The Kelpies?
You can do exactly that by taking part in The Kelpies tour. Find out more here.
By joining one of the guided tours you can experience Andy Scott’s vision and marvel at the complexity and engineering which created these fantastic pieces of art. Obviously the outside of the sculptures can be viewed by anyone at any time for free, but the guided internal tours do require a small admission fee- but any previous visitor will report that it is well worth it!
Facts and Figures about The Kelpies
- Each of the horse’s heads has a whopping 1200 tonnes of steel-enforced concrete foundations, is made up of 900 stainless steel scales and weighs 300 tonnes.
- Despite the many years of planning proceeding their construction, the onsite building of The Kelpies only took 90 days!
- The project was awarded £25 million from the Big Lottery Fund’s Living Landmarks funding.
- Each separate structure contains approximately 18,000 individual pieces.
- If you were to stretch out the steel in each structure it would reach to over 1.5 miles
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