Best bloody place is bloody bed,
With bloody ice on bloody head,
You might as well be bloody dead,
In bloody Orkney.
–Captain Hamish Blair, Royal Navy (WW II)
The Orkneys are an archipelago of 70 islands north of northernmost mainland Scotland, occupied by humans for some 8500 years, first by Mesolithic and Paleolithic tribes, followed by Picts, used as a base for Viking raids on Scotland and Norway, annexed and settled by Norway in 875 A.D., and turned over to Scotland in 1472 A.D. after a default on a dowry payment by Denmark. Despite being pretty far north (enough to see the Aurora Borealis and experience “nightless summers”), the climate is fairly temperate, due to the warming effects of the Gulf Stream. Natives of the Orkney Islands (called Orcadians) are known to be a fairly agreeable bunch of folks. This makes it especially puzzling that they managed to come up with what is considered one of the most horrific representatives of the faerie species, with none of the ambivalent, friendly, or prankish attitudes towards humans common among other fairies. The Orkney Nuckelavee just plain hates us and wants us dead, by hook or by crook. The Nuckelavee is a hybrid monstrosity, combining the traditional Celtic “water horse” (a horse with fins for some of its legs) with a human torso grafted onto its back, seemingly not because it is two creatures, but because it makes it that much more horrible, all in one huge, pulsating, skinless mass of unbridled animosity towards humans. Pretty much Bill O’Reilly.
Nuckelavee—Without speculating on the derivation of this name, which will be pretty obvious to those acquainted with northern mythology, it may be said that in plain English the name means Devil of the Sea. While many of the supernatural beings were looked upon by the people with a kind of sympathetic regard, this being was looked upon with unutterable horror, was regarded with mortal terror, and spoken of with bated breath. He was a monster of unmixed malignity, never willingly resting from doing evil to mankind. He never played a trick for the mere love of fun. Indeed, if not restrained by the Mither of the Sea in summer and in winter by his terror of fresh water, he would long ago have made Orkney a manless desert. Nuckelavee was a spirit in flesh. His home was the sea; and whatever his means of transit were in that element, when he moved on land he rode a horse as terrible in aspect as himself. Some thought that rider and horse were really one, and that this was the shape of the monster. Nuckelavee’s head was like a man’s, only ten times larger, and his mouth projected like that of a pig and was enormously wide. There was not a hair on the monster’s body, for the very good reason that he had no skin. The whole surface of the monster appeared like raw and living flesh, from which the skin had been stripped. You could see the black blood flowing through his veins, and every movement of his muscles, when the horrid creature moved, showed white sinews in motion. What a study for an anatomist! If crops were blighted by sea-gust or mildew, if live stock 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. He was also blamed for long-continued droughts; for some unknown reason he had serious objections to fresh water, and was never known to visit the land during rain. The burning of sea-weed for kelp gave terrible offence to Nuckelavee, and filled him with diabolical rage. He vented his wrath by smiting with deadly disease horses in the island of Stronsay (for that was the island where kelp was first made in Orkney), and that disease spread over all the islands where kelp was made. That disease was called Mortasheen (Sir George Douglas, The Scottish Antiquary, 1891, p131-132).
The name Nuckelavee, in the original Orcadian dialect was “Knoggelvi”, itself thought to be a variant of the Norse/Teutonic “Nokk”, with an Icelandic variation in “Nykur”, but the Nykur is much more sedate (although still psychotically homicidal) creature, pretty much a literal “water horse”, who only makes the occasional half-hearted attempt to drown people.
Nykur lives both in rivers and lakes, and even in the sea. In shape he most resembles a horse, generally grey in colour, but sometimes black, all his hoofs point backwards, and the tuft on the pastern is reversed. He, however, not conﬁned to this one shape, but has the property of being able to change himself at once into other forms at his pleasure. When cracks come in the ice in winter, and cause loud noises, it is said that Nykur is neighing. He begets foals, just like stallions, but always in the water, although it has happened that he has got mares with foal. It is the mark of all horses that have sprung from Nykur that they lie down when they are ridden, or bear packs, over water that wets their belly. This property they have from Nykur, who haunts lakes and rivers that are difficult to cross; he then appears quite tame, and entices people to ride across on him When any happen to mount him he rushes out into the water, lies down there, and drags his rider down with him. He cannot bear to hear his own name, or any word resembling it; at that he changes shape, and springs into the water (Craigie, 2010, p233-234).
Most mythological critters find at least some redeeming quality in humans. Zombies think our brains are a tasty treat. Vampires find our blood particularly scrumptious. Typical faeries love pranking us. Even the average demon has a hankering for our souls. The Nuckelavee, on the other hand is exclusively concerned with ushering in our doom. It’s unclear what we ever did to merit such inconsiderate attention. There are stories regarding his hatred of burning kelp, but I’ve rarely heard of cooked seaweed inducing centuries of homicidal (and according to some legends, genocidal) rage. According to myth, the Nuckelavee’s distaste for the smell of burning kelp (a bit of an industry in the Orkneys until the 1800’s – the ash is rich in marketable products like potash and soda) has resulted in his attacking us with plagues, epidemics, killing all Orkney horses, and ruining entire season’s worth of crops . Seems a tad bit of an over-reaction. Consider the old Scottish folktale of Tammas Taylor, incidentally the only direct encounter with a Nuckelavee ever recorded.
Nuckelavee was a monster that hated mankind, and never rested from doing them harm. His home was the sea, but he often appeared on land, riding on a horse as terrible in appearance as himself. This was only in appearance, however, for the monster was the body of a man and the body of a horse united in one. He was the cause of every outbreak of disease among man and beast, cattle falling over the rocks, and of long-continued droughts. This last was explained by his hatred of fresh water, which had one advantage, that he never came ashore during rain; and it was the salvation of the poor man in the following tale: Late one moonless, though starlit night, as a man named Tammas Taylor was returning home by a narrow path between the sea-shore and a deep loch he saw a huge creature rushing towards him. Tammas was certain that it was no earthly creature that was upon him, but he knew that to turn his back to any evil thing meant destruction, and as he could not get away on either side for the sea and the loch, he kept steadily on breathing the prayer: “The Lord be about me, an’ tak care o’ me this nicht.” On came the monster, whom to his horror Tammas now recognised as the Nuckelavee, the lo’A’er part of which was the body of a giant horse, and the upper that of a skinless man, whose arms reached almost to the ground. His mouth was as wide as a whale’s, from which came breath like steam; and he had one eye, which flamed like fire. In spite of his terror, Tammas remembered that the monster was afraid of fresh water, so he sprang to the lochside, when his feet splashed up some water on the monster’s forelegs. With a snort like thunder it swerved to the other side of the road, whilst Tammas fled on like the wind. On, too, came the Nuckelavee, with a bellow like the roaring of the sea. In front now there was a burn running from the loch into the sea, and Tammas knew that if he could once cross the running water he was safe. With a desperate spring he reached the other side, leaving his bonnet only in the monster’s clutches. Giving a wild unearthly yell of disappointed rage, it disappeared just as Tammas fell senseless on the safe side of the burn (Blackwood, 1913, p144).
Suprisingly, monsters that just plain hate us are not all that common. Sure, sometimes we’re a food source, raw material, even an incidental inconvenience to larger monstrous concerns, but abject hatred doesn’t usually make for a good story when there isn’t a good back story. Celtic fairies are often classified into Seelie vs. Unseelie Courts. The Seelie Court of faeries enjoying messing with humans, but generally angry retribution only results from some kind of offense. Those faeries considered “Unseelie” are regarded as malicious, and don’t seem to need a reason to behave with extreme prejudice towards human. The Nuckelavee is considered an example of an Unseelie faerie, but has really stepped up his game, reaching beyond maliciousness and striving for a straight up malevolence. I suppose if you are a half-human, half-water horse with no skin, a certain amount of bitterness is to be expected, but really, even the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are just doing their job. Maybe the Nuckelavee just understands us a little too well and has embraced the words of Italian-born, English literary critic Giuseppe Marc’Antonio Baretti, “I hate mankind, for I think myself one of the best of them, and I know how bad I am”. Why shouldn’t a monster hate us? We’re kind of unpleasant as a species.
Blackwood, Isabella. “Scottish Fairy Tales, Part II”. From Dickson, Nicholas, 1830-1912, and William Sanderson. Border Magazine: an Illustrated Monthly v.18. Galashiels [etc.]: A. Walker & son, ltd. [etc.], 1913.
Craigie, William A. Sir, 1867-1957. Scandinavian Folk-lore: Illustrations of the Traditional Beliefs of the Northern Peoples. Charleston, SC: BiblioLife, 2010.
Douglas, George, 1856-1935. Scottish Fairy And Folk Tales. London: W. Scott, 189(?).
The Scottish Antiquary, Or, Northern Notes & Queries 1890-1891 Volume 5. Edinburgh: T. and A. Constable, 1891.