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
While there are no accounts of the creature’s form in the sea, the demon appears in a horse-like incarnation when on land. Some accounts tell of a centaur-like creature, with the top half of a man replacing the horses head and trunk. Others, however, say that the man’s torso took the location of a rider, being central. More accounts even separate the horse and rider. The head of the man was said to be giant and not human, its mouth jutting out like the snout of a pig. A single red eye burned with fire. The frightening image was only compounded by the lack of hair and skin, the creature’s muscle exposed as if it had been flayed. The black blood could be seen pumping in its veins.
The description alone is enough to insight terror, and the Nuckelavee is said to be one of the most fearsome creatures in folklore, with immense powers and the ability to influence events throughout the Orkney Islands. It is a solitary creature, yet malevolent. The breath of the beast can wilt crops and sicken livestock, it can cause plague and famine. Some say it can even control the rain.
“If crops were blighted by sea-gust or mildew, if livestock fell over high rocks that skirt the shores, or if an epidemic raged among men, or among the lower animals, Nuckelavee was the cause of all. His breath was venom, falling like blight on vegetable, and with deadly disease on animal life.”
Walter Traill Dennison, Farmer and Folklorist
Despite its unnatural abilities, there are some protections offered against the creature. It will never come ashore while raining and cannot tolerate freshwater, only saltwater. The Nuckelavee can therefore never cross a stream or river. However, no matter what the islanders did, they should have avoided burning seaweed to make kelp. The smoke from burning seaweed drove the creature into a rage and it would often go on a rampage if he smelt even the slightest hint. On one occasion, every horse on Stronsay was blighted by a disease known as Mortasheen. The plague quickly spread throughout the entire islands.
In the summer, the beast is kept confined by the Mither o’ the Sea, and she is the only one who has any measure of control over the demon.
The Sea Mither is a summer spirit that calms the seas around the Scottish Isles. In the winter, Teran is the one who controls the waters, the two doing battle for weeks to gain control and the upper hand. While both are invisible, this battle between the spirits is visible to humans in the form of gales and heavy seas, the screeching wind being the screeches of Teran as he tries to cling onto his winter powers.
In the local dialects, Teran means “furious anger” and has a possible origin in the Norse word “tyrren” or “angry”. Mither, meanwhile, is a variant of “mother” and the protective aspect of motherhood is seen in the spirit. Not only does she usher away the threats of Teran and winter and ensure that Nuckelavee is locked away for the summer months, but fisherman have long also sought her protection against Satan himself.
Ernest Walker Marwick, the Orcadian writer, noted for his writings on Orkney folklore and history, believed that the Nuckelavee closely resembled water spirits such as the Norwegian nøkk or the Celtic Kelpie. This shape-shifting water spirit inhabited the Scottish lochs.
By the 1800s, there was an upswing in interest in folklore and mysticism throughout Victorian Britain. This lead to some of the legends of Nuckelavee to be recorded. Walter Traill Dennison, an Orkney native, was one of those transcribing the tales. And while Dennison “relied almost exclusively on the peasantry of his native island for the raw materials of his literary work” he “provided us with some authentic traditions” and “he got these, as he always claimed, directly from the Orkney peasantry”.
It was Dennison who first claimed that the word Nuckelavee meant “Devil of the Sea”, his accounts standing as the basis for most tellings of the legend that have followed. After much persuasion by Dennison, one islander, Tammas, gave the definitive description of the beast that serves as the only first-hand account of an encounter with the demon.
Out late at night, Tammas had taken the path by the shore, hemmed in on one side by the sea, and the other a freshwater loch. Tammas soon spotted something in the water and was suddenly taken by fright, realising that “no earthly thing” was approaching. The islander did not know which way to turn but feared turning his back on the creature may be the unwisest choice. Described as “rough and foolhardy” Tammas decided to make a brave stand and walked forward with determination. His minute of bravado disappeared as he realised that the monster approaching was Nuckelavee, “the most cruel and malignant of all uncanny beings that trouble mankind.”
“The lower part of this terrible monster, as seen by Tammie, was like a great horse, with flappers like fins about his legs, with a mouth as wide as a whale’s, from which came breath like steam from a brewing-kettle. He had but one eye, and that as red as fire.
On him sat, or rather seemed to grow from his back, a huge man with no legs, and arms that reached nearly to the ground. His head was as big as a clue of simmons, and this huge head kept rolling from one shoulder to the other as if it meant to tumble off.
But what to Tammie appeared most horrible of all, was that the monster was skinless; this utter want of skin adding much to the terrific appearance of the creatures naked body.
The whole surface of it showing only red, raw flesh, in which Tammie saw blood, black as tar, running through yellow veins, and great white sinews, thick as horse tethers, twisting, stretching, and contracting, as the monster moved. Tammie went slowly on in mortal terror, his hair on end, a cold sensation like a film of ice between his scalp and his skull, and a cold sweat bursting from every pore.”
Walter Traill Dennison, Farmer and Folklorist
Tammas knew immediately that fleeing was not an option, the creature could outrun him with ease. However, he remembered the stories that the Nuckelavee couldn’t stand freshwater. As the creature reached out to grab him, his hot breath like fire on his face, Tammas dodged his grasp and stumbled for the loch. He barely got one foot in, but it was enough. The freshwater splashed up on Nuckelavee who was giving chase, and the creature let out a snort of thunder, backing away to the other side of the path.
Now Tammas ran. Bolting along the banks of the loch as the recovered Nuckelavee gave chase. The islander ran for his life, pumping every last reserve of energy out of his body as he made for the rivulet that took the loch’s water out to sea. If he could cross it, he would be safe. The creature was nearly upon him and making another grab. It was now or never. Tammas leapt over the water just as Nuckelavee swiped at his head. Hitting the ground hard, Tammas looked back to see the monster on the other side of the loch, Tammas’ bonnet in its evil hands.
While Tammas’ tale is as tall as Nuckelavee itself, it is one of many amongst the rich folklore and history of the Scottish islands. Likely devised initially as a way to explain the harsh conditions and frequent failure of crops, the legend of the Nuckelavee is a combination of Celtic and Norse mythology with a unique local flavour. While modern-day sensibilities have mostly left superstition behind, readers would still be well advised to always know where the freshwater resides should they find themselves in the ancient world of the Orkneys.
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