Kelpie of Scotland and Northern Europe: Mythical Shapeshifter

Written By Jason Kim

Writing stories of mythical proportions.

The kelpie is a mythical spirit that changes its shape. It lives in the lochs of Ireland and Scotland. Usually, people talk about it as a grey or white horse that can look like a person. Many stories about the kelpie come from Scotland, especially around Loch Ness.

There are similar spirits around the world. For instance, in Germany, there’s the nixie. In Central America, there’s the wihwin, and in Australia, the bunyip. The word “kelpie” comes from Scottish Gaelic. It might relate to words that mean “heifer” or “colt”. The first time anyone wrote about a kelpie was in the 18th century.

Key Takeaways

  • The kelpie is a shape-shifting water spirit in Scottish and Irish folklore.
  • Kelpies are often described as grey or white horse-like creatures that can take human form.
  • Almost every major body of water in Scotland has an associated kelpie story.
  • The etymology of the word “kelpie” is uncertain but may be derived from Gaelic terms for “heifer” or “colt”.
  • Kelpies have counterparts in other mythologies, such as the Germanic nixie and the Australian bunyip.

Introduction to the Kelpie

The kelpie tops the list as the most seen water spirit in Scottish folklore. It’s often a black horse, strong and stunning, that lives in the deep waters Scotland offers. This creature looks to harm any person it comes across. Interestingly, its hooves are the opposite of what normal horses have.

Description and Common Attributes

Stories describe the kelpie as a big, supernatural equine that can change how it looks. Its usual form is that of a shiny, powerful black horse. It hides in the waters all over Scotland. What truly sets it apart are its backward hooves, unlike those of regular horses.

Etymology of the Term “Kelpie”

The exact meaning of the Scots word “kelpie” isn’t clear. But some say it might come from the Gaelic calpa or cailpeach, which mean “heifer” or “colt”. The first time this term was used for a mythological creature was in a poem by William Collins, written before 1759. This piece was later published in 1788 by the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Kelpie Folk Beliefs

The kelpie’s aquatic habitat topic is still hot among experts. Some say these water spirits live in rivers, unlike the each-uisge. The each-uisge is a Celtic water horse found in lochs. This idea is backed by historical figures like John Gregorson Campbell. He was a minister on Tiree. And 20th-century authors, Lewis Spence and Katharine Briggs.

On the other hand, Sir Walter Scott thought kelpies could live in lochs too.

Kelpie’s Aquatic Habitat

Kelpies are known for their link to the water in Scottish folklore. They are seen as strong and sometimes harmful water spirits. People believe they live in the deep parts of rivers and streams all over Scotland.

Kelpie’s Shapeshifting Abilities

Besides living in water, kelpies can transform into other shapes. They can look like human figures, like a “rough, shaggy man who jumps out on riders, grabs and crushes them.” Or, they can look like they are attacking and eating people. It’s interesting that stories usually tell of male kelpies pretending to be humans. But there’s one tale from Conon House in Ross and Cromarty where a female kelpie is the main character.

Kelpie of Scotland and Northern Europe: Mythical Shapeshifter

Kelpies appear in Kelpie Mythology with numerous representations in both art and literature. For example, in Falkirk, Scotland, there are two huge steel statues known as “The Kelpies,” standing at 30 meters high. They were finished in 2013. The Scottish Folklore kelpie is known as a common water spirit in Northern European Legends. Stories about kelpies can be found in many countries. Other similar spirits can be seen in Northern Europe and different parts of the world. These include the Germanic nixie, Central America’s wihwin, and Australia’s bunyip.

Kelpie Counterparts Across the World Origins Descriptions
Germanic Nixie Northern Europe Water spirits in Germanic folklore, similar in appearance and behavior to kelpies
Wihwin Central America Supernatural Shapeshifters that can take the form of horses, similar to kelpie mythology
Australian Bunyip Australia Fearsome water creature in Aboriginal legends, with some parallels to the kelpie

“The kelpie is a central figure in Scottish and Northern European folklore, a shape-shifting water spirit that has captivated the imaginations of people for centuries.”

Kelpie Encounters and Stories

Kelpie myths often tell of the creature’s evil nature and how it targets those who cross its path. One theme in these stories is where children climb onto its back, thinking it’s a friendly horse. But the Kelpie betrays them, taking them into the water to drown, leaving only a few remains behind.

Kelpie Preying on Humans

Stories of the Kelpie highlight its power over humans and its intent to harm. These Kelpie attacks and their victims are terrifying tales that have been shared for centuries. They are a key part of Scotland’s folklore and its mythical history.

Infamous Kelpie Tales

In Aberfeldy, a chilling Kelpie encounter occurred when a white pony appeared to eight children near a river. The kids climbed on its back, not realizing it was a Kelpie. As they did, its back grew longer. The youngest sensed something was wrong and fled as the Kelpie revealed its true self, killing seven of them.

Kelpie Folklore Stories

Kelpie in Art and Literature

The kelpie is a shape-shifting creature from Scottish and Northern European tales. It has inspired many artists through the years. The most famous kelpie art today is arguably The Kelpies. These are two huge steel horses in Falkirk, Scotland, designed by Andy Scott.

The Kelpies Steel Sculptures

The construction finished in October 2013. Andy Scott’s design perfectly captures the kelpie‘s mystery and beauty. Now, The Kelpies are a top spot to visit, symbolizing the rich kelpie folklore of Scotland.

Kelpie Artistic Depictions

The The Kelpies are awe-inspiring. They mix ancient myth with modern art beautifully. These sculptures are more than art; they’re a celebration of the legendary kelpie creature’s continued impact on Scotland’s culture.


The kelpie is a key figure in Scottish and Northern European folklore. It’s a shape-shifting water spirit that intrigues people worldwide. It began in Gaelic and Celtic mythology. Today, it is vividly portrayed in art. The kelpie stands as a symbol of the natural world’s power and mystery. It warns those near its dangerous waters.

The kelpie’s legacy deeply influences the arts and culture of Scotland and more. It appears in books, artwork, and the famous steel sculptures of “The Kelpies” in Falkirk. The kelpie shows the ongoing connection between Scotland’s people and its unique, yet perilous, waters.

Exploring the kelpie’s intriguing stories reminds us of the vast world of Scottish and Northern European folklore. These tales still interest and inspire people worldwide. The kelpie illustrates the lasting fascination with supernatural stories. It shows how these stories help us understand the natural world.


What is a kelpie?

The kelpie is a shape-shifting spirit seen around Irish and Scottish waters. It looks like a grey or white horse or a person. People have told stories about it for a long time.

Where do kelpies originate from?

Kelpies come from Scottish and Northern European stories. They are a known part of Scotland’s folklore. Other myths around the world talk about similar creatures like the German nixie and the Australian bunyip.

What are the common characteristics of kelpies?

Kelpies are strong and striking black horses. Their hooves point backwards, not forwards like normal horses. They are seen as dangerous, targeting people near water.

How do kelpies use their shape-shifting abilities?

Kelpies can change into things other than horses, like people. They might look like a “rough, shaggy man” to harm humans or carry off riders into water.

What are some famous kelpie stories or encounters?

In Aberfeldy, a group of eight children got on a white pony. It turned out to be a kelpie who drowned and ate them. This is one of the most chilling kelpie stories.

How have kelpies been portrayed in art and literature?

Artists and writers have shown kelpies in many forms. “The Kelpies” in Falkirk, Scotland, are huge steel sculptures that stand 30 meters tall. They are now a famous site.

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