The Helix: Home of the Kelpies

“No mortal ear could have heard the kelpie passing through the night, for the great black hooves of it were as soundless in their stride as feathers falling.” 

Mollie Hunter, The Kelpie’s Pearls

Capaill or Kelpie? On the 3rd January 2020 I awoke from a dream at 3.33am. I’d sleep through a hurricane and rarely remember my dreams. This one though came to me in the form of an amber eyed horse nuzzling me awake and given that the time was so peculiar, it got me to thinking that it might have a deeper meaning and something that Carl Jung would have had a field day with.

Some people believe that we all have a spirit guide that takes the form of an animal, a totem animal as it were. I sometimes think mine is a heron, more times a hare, often a raven, but, if I were to choose a spirit guide, mine would have to be that of a horse. Very few animals convey such majesty, power, pride, and nobility of spirit as the horse. In Irish myth there is a mare known as ‘fíorláir’ or ‘true mare’ – the seventh consecutive filly foal born to a dam, which was safe from all evil and its rider safe from all harm. My amber eyed dream horse was trying to tell me something. I firmly believe there is a little bit of truth in every myth, we just need to decipher it.

In fact, horses dominate myth. Enbarr of the Flowing Mane is a horse in Irish Myth which could traverse both land and sea. Owned by the sea-god Manannan Mac Lir but provided to Lugh Lamh-fada to use at his disposal. Epona the Great Mare is a fertility goddess and was revered by the Druids. In Welsh mythology Rhiannon is a figure from the Otherworld, she rides an uncatchable white mare. Liath Macha (‘grey of Macha’) and Dub Sainglend (‘black of Saingliu’) are the two chariot-horses of the hero Cúchulainn. One, the king of horses dies with his master, the other avenging his death. Niamh of the Golden Hair arrives from the Tir na nOg on a white horse, declares her love for Oisin, and they ride off into the sunset together. Similarly, when Cliodhna fell in love with Ciabhán, she appeared on a white horse from over the sea. Étaín, is identified as a horse goddess in some versions of Irish Mythology.

All images by Mawie Barrett

I flew in mid-afternoon, hired my car and made the first jaunt into my 2020 of trips. I was heading to Aberdeen to spend Nollaig na mBán with my favourite woman in the world. She is known as Freedom. I wasn’t long on the road when I got a phonecall from said woman informing me she was in Falkirk and could I go that way please. As I love the road less travelled by, I was happy to oblige. We met for dinner in a place called The Bruce and whiled away a pleasant evening reminiscing. I mentioned my horse dream and she exclaimed, ’Oh my Gawd you have got to see the Kelpies!’

A kelpie is a shape-changing aquatic spirit of Scottish legend. Its name may derive from the Scottish Gaelic word ‘capaill’ meaning horse. Kelpies are said to haunt rivers and streams, usually in the shape of a horse. They have been immortalised in steel in Falkirk. So, now the dream began to make sense. This was no coincidence, this was the universe and sychronisity.

In our folklore, the importance of horses is reflected by the otherworldly powers assigned to them. They are credited, for example, with the ability to see ghosts, and there are many stories of horses refusing to ride past a haunted spot despite the exhortations of the riders. Creatures that live in water, but can shape-shift into horse form, feature in the entire Celtic world. Pwca is such a horse creature in Welsh myth. It is a spirit that appears linked in origin to the Irish Púca and Cornish Bucca and the Scottish Kelpie. The Kelpie is decidedly malevolent. It most commonly appears as a beautiful horse near or in running water and can be identified by the mane that seems to represent seaweed.

Horses have been immortalised in sculpture too. The Gaelic Chieftain by Maurice Hannon on the Boyle Bypass in Co. Sligo, Ireland is particularly significant. While ‘An Capall Mór’ depicting a Gaelic warhorse wearing a unicorn like spear helmet by sculptors O Donoghue and Ross in Clonkeen in Co Kerry, is also particularly captivating. There are no sculptures though that can surpass the Kelpies in Falkirk in Scotland. I would say they stand head and shoulders above all others if that weren’t such a cliche.

Towering over a new canal extension which links the Forth & Clyde Canal to the North Sea. They stand 30 meters high, and are the largest equine sculptures in the world, as a monument to Scotland’s horse-powered industrial heritage. These works of art, created by artist Andy Scott, have become iconic on the landscape after being modelled on two Clydesdale horses, Duke and Baron. The Kelpies represent the lineage of the heavy horse of Scottish industry and economy, pulling the wagons, ploughs, barges and coal ships that shaped the geographical layout of Falkirk.

I have to say, hand on heart, they were mystifyingly alluring and standing beside them, walking between then and even entering the belly of the beast was almost like a religious experience. It was a rare day in January, when the sky was cloudless and blue and the sun cast shadows in the glint of steel and on the ripple of water and I was very captivated. I wonder which of them woke me up? What was the message, what was I to glean from this symbolic encounter with these two Kelpies?

The legend goes, the Kelpies are shapeshifting malevolent creatures from the other world. There is a Kelpie story associated with every body of water in Scotland, the most famous being the Loch Ness monster. They are black and their mane resembles seaweed or sea serpents and they wear their horseshoes backwards and a silver harness about their necks. They are said to have the gift of speech and their sole function is to lure you onto their backs from where upon there is no escape. They promptly dive beneath the waves and eat you.

There are three known ways to escape their clutches, the first is to cut your hand off where you first touch one, the second is to relieve him of his silver harness which gives you powers to change him into human form, though it is not known if he is any less dangerous as a man. The third way is to shoot him with a silver bullet.

I guess that says to believe in my own freedom, make my own choices. We are never really forced to do anything. Even though I did end up in the belly of the kelpie, I did so by choice, and I was utterly fascinated by the construction of his innards, thousands of pieces of steel, no two the same. Woman and beast enter a silent contract acknowledging mutual respect and awareness of responsibility to each other. I’m on a journey, his presence and pool of water is my ‘imbas’, my well spring of inspiration, the horse totem will guide me. And I have the means to best him, should he turn rogue.

One response to “The Helix: Home of the Kelpies”

  1. Wonderful! I and my wife visited the Kelpies during our honeymoon in Scotland back in 2020. We were mystified by their gigantic beauty and what appeared to be bird noises coming from them to scare away the crows!

    The freedom to make your own choices is a perfect lesson indeed.

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