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Scottish National Dictionary (1700–)

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First published 1960 (SND Vol. V). Includes material from the 2005 supplement.
This entry has not been updated since then but may contain minor corrections and revisions.

KELPIE, n. Also kelpy. A water demon haunting rivers and fords, gen. in the form of a black (or white) horse, which lured unwary human beings to death by drowning, but which might also be harnessed to drive a mill or perform other work, a nicker. Gen.Sc. Also attrib. Combs. kelpie's foot, see 1837 quot.; the red kelpies, St. Elmo's fire; water-kelpie. [′kɛlpi]Sc. 1747 W. Collins Odes (1789) 18:
While I lie welt'ring on the osier'd shore Drowned by the Kelpie's wrath.
Ayr. 1786 Burns To the Deil xii.:
Then, water-kelpies haunt the foord, By your direction, An' nighted trav'llers are allur'd To their destruction.
Ags. 1813 J. Headrick Agric. Ags. 218:
The water kelpie, a mischievous being, who was supposed to frequent the rivers, and who first seduced the unwary into the stream, and then carried them off to sea, has fallen into oblivion, since bridges were constructed in all convenient places.
Sc. 1815 Scott Guy M. xxvi.:
Now the light diminished to a distant star that seemed to twinkle on the waters, like those which, according to the legends of the country, the water-kelpy sends for the purpose of indicating the watery grave of his victims.
Ags. 1837 Chambers's Jnl. (8 April) 81:
In the parish of Carmylie . . . in the pavement strata; hollows resembling the foot-prints of animals sometimes occur, and are called the Kelpie's foot . . . the Kelpie being a supposed fiend in the shape of a horse, who takes a pleasure in misleading and drowning unwary travellers.
Fif. 1844 J. Jack St Monance 94:
I've seen when laying to under close-reefed topsails, the sea running higher than that there steeple of yours, the hale sky as black's a grave, and the red kelpies dancing aloft in gleams of fire.
ne.Sc. 1881 W. Gregor Folk-Lore 38:
This kelpie had been in the habit of appearing as a beautiful black horse, finely caparisoned.
Abd. 1883 Folk-Lore Jnl. I. 293:
Kelpie sometimes takes the form of a grey wrinkled old man . . . [A traveller] saw an old man mending his trousers, and, as he was mending, he kept saying “That clout'ill dee here; and this ane'll dee here” . . . At last he inflicted a blow on the old man's head, saying, “An this clout'ill dee here.” In a moment the kelpie was in his true form, and off with loud neighing to his deep pool.
Abd. 1894 Trans. Bch. Field Club III. 129:
Three handfuls of “groats”, i.e. shelled grain, thrown into the hopper of a mill at night, keep water-kelpie from interfering with the mill.
Ayr. 1913 J. Service Memorables xxiii.:
The only answer, gullering frae the dam, was the Water Kelpie's roar.
ne.Sc. 1929 J. M. McPherson Primitive Beliefs 61:
Sometimes [kelpie's] sleek coat was white as in the case of the white horse of Spey which invited a couple returning from market to mount.
Slg. 1932 W. D. Cocker Poems 101:
Adventure, like the luring licht That kelpies wave ower bogs at nicht.
ne.Sc. 1952 John R. Allan North-East Lowlands of Scotland (1974) 194:
The larger pieces of water such as lochs, rivers and the ocean were not actively evil but they were certainly dangerous. The kelpie lived in the river and appeared to human eyes as a horse. He was a beast with a primitive sense of humour, for he often appeared to a foot traveller faced by a river in spate.
Abd.31 1956 from a letter:
I mind fine on hearing Auld J — M — in Drumblade speaking about kelpies. He used to tell the boys going to school, if they went near his dam, the water kelpies would take them.
sm.Sc. 1979 Alan Temperley Tales of Galloway (1986) 61:
For a moment he listened, and spoke to the kelpie, but there was no reply save the ripple and splash of the brimming river.
Sc. 1979 Maurice Lindsay Collected Poems 41:
a fantice o faem,
it loups at the air,
and streams like the mane
o a white kelpie-mair.
Fif. 1985 Christopher Rush A Twelvemonth and a Day 241:
She may not have believed in mermaids herself, though she talked of them, but she was a strong believer in the kelpies whose cry had often struck terror into the hearts of the oldest fishermen who sat round our fire.
Cai. 1992 James Miller A Fine White Stoor 108:
Every mouthful slid down his throat with a silken smoothness and in his brain all the dragons, kelpies, slithering beasties, bogles, warlocks, dinosaurs and brownies stirred and awakened, flashed their red eyes and girned, plotting mischief.
Abd. 1996 Sheena Blackhall Wittgenstein's Web iii:
A puil, fit o the Darroch, keepit me drawin fur oors, fur I wis certain a kelpie bedd in its founs, an the cheengin lichts an sweels an birls in the watter wis like a warlock's witchins, reistin me tae yon airt.
Sc. 2000 Herald 14 Nov 17:
So where does the kelpie come in? A kelpie is a mythical water sprite - half-man, half-horse - which, says Mr Graham, "pulls you in and drowns you". Sounds like an average pub-crawl in Cathcart.

[In O.Sc., found in place-name, 1674, Kelpie hoall, in Kirkcudbrightshire. Prob. ad. Gael. cailpeach, colpach, a bullock, colt. Cf. Ir. each uisce, water horse, id.]

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"Kelpie n.". Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. Accessed 23 Jun 2024 <>



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