I thought a day or so ago about the Kelpie. Don’t ask me why, I suppose some beastly action of the powers that be here in Canada or back hame might have triggered it. But anyway I imagine some info and ruminations on the puir craitur might be of interest.

The kelpie is the tricky spirit of water (streams, fords) in Scottish folklore. The word probably comes from Gaelic colpach, “heifer, bullock, colt”; although there is a term for it, namely each-uisge, “water horse”. It appeared sometimes as an old wrinkled man, but most often as a beautiful white or black horse. It lured travellers to destruction, but could be caught and made to perform tasks. A rhyme featuring the beast runs:

                               Sair back and sair banes,
                               Drivin’ the laird o’ Morphie’s stanes!
                               The laird o’ Morphie’ll never thrive
                               As lang’s the kelpy is alive!

                    This is in Robert Chambers’s Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1847), 117; (1870), 335; Cheviot’s Proverbs (1896), 288, Montgomerie Sandy Candy 174, #328. Chambers explains:

                     The old family of the Grahams of Morphie was in former times very powerful, but at length they sunk in fortune, and finally the original male line became extinct. Among the old women of the Mearns, their decay is attributed to a supernatural cause. When one of the lairds, say they, built the old castle, he secured the assistance of the water-kelpy or river-horse, by the accredited means of throwing a pair of branks over his head. He then compelled the robust spirit to carry prodigious loads of stones [from the North Esk River] for the building, and did not relieve him till the whole was finished. The poor kelpy was glad of his deliverance, but at the same time felt himself so galled with the hard labour, that on being permitted to escape from the branks, he turned about, and expressed, in the [above] words, at once his own grievances and the destiny of his taskmaster’s family.

The lines are quoted in John o’ Arnha’, a poem by George Beattie (1786-1823), when the hapless hero meets the kelpie by the North Esk:

                               He heard a voice, wi’ muckle dool,
                               Croonin’ i’ the Ponnage-pool;
                               An’ this it said, or seemed to say,
                               ‘Ah, willawins! alack for aye!
                               O sair’s my back, an’ sair my banes,
                               Leadin’ the Laird o’ Marphie’s stanes;
                               The Laird o’ Marphie canna thrive
                               As lang’s the Kelpie is alive.’

Cf. a variant of the kelpie’s moan, from Mintlaw, Buchan: “I’ve a sair back and I’ve sair banes,/ Ca’in’ Millawaukie’s auld hoose stanes” (Rymour Club Misc. II [1912-19], 26). Yet another reference to the legend is in the poem “Water-Kelpie” by Robert Jamieson of dictionary fame, which was published by Sir Walter Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, mostly as an exercise in the Scots language:

                                          Quhan Murphy’s laird his biggin rear’d,
                                          I caryit aw the stanes;
                                          And mony a chiell has heard me squeal
                                          For sair-brizz’d back and banes.
Morphie is a little town about two-and-a-half miles (5 kilometers) north of Montrose, in Kincardineshire (now Grampian). The family of Graham of Morphie used to be distinguished; they got the lands by a charter of David I. Sir Robert Graham of Morphie was tutor to Montrose, and followed him through the civil war, nearly to the ruin of his estate. The mother of the last Graham of Morphie was a sister of Graham of Claverhouse, “Bonny Dundee”.


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One response to “Kelpie

  1. Nice stuff, Murray. I thought I knew a lot about Scotland and its history, but evidently not enough!

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