Once described as the nastiest demon in Scottish folklore, the Nuckelavee is a horse demon shrouded in the mists of Orkney legend. Blamed for everything from blighted livestock to drought and epidemics, the creature is said to rise from the unforgiving seas around the island to bring havoc to all those who would cross its path. Such was the fearsome reputation of the beast that those in Orkney once refused to say its name, recanting a prayer every time it was spoken.
With its origins in Celtic and Norse myth, some of the earliest accounts of the Nuckelavee are attributed to the mysterious Jo Ben, writing the Descriptions of Orkney in the 16th century. The manuscript gives a sequential recording of the Orkney Islands, including details on their traditions and history. Nobody quite knows who Ben was, yet his description of the islands would linger. On Stronsay, for example, he wrote that the locals maintained some of their pagan ways, saying that only “some here worship God purely, others not.” Ben meanwhile told how the local population believed in nymphs and “great monsters” by the name of troicis who would torment the local community. The given description links the creature to the Nuckelavee.
“Great monsters, called Troicis, often associates with women living here, which when I resided there a beautiful woman, married to an able-bodied farmer, was much tormented by a great spirit, and were seen, against the husband’s will, lying on one bed.
The woman, at last, became emaciated through sorrow. I advised that she might get freedom by prayer, almsgiving, and fasting, which she performed; the duration of her trouble lasted a year.
The description of the monster is this. It was covered with seaweed over its whole body and resembled a dark horse with wrinkled skin, a member like a horse and large testicles.”
Jo Bell, Descriptions of Orkney