uckelavee. One of the most repulsive creatures which the Scottish imagination has conceived; and the Scots are expert in horrors. He was an Orcadian sea-monster, a kind of hideous centaur, for like a centaur he rose out of a horse's back and had no human legs. He came out of the sea and spread evil wherever he went, blighting crops, destroying livestock and killing every man whom he could encounter. Though he was a sea spirit he could not endure fresh water, and the only escape from him was to cross a running stream.
What follows are descriptions and tales from old sources:
Nuckelavee, was a monster of unmixed malignity, never willingly resting from doing evil to mankind. He 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. 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.
I knew an old man who was credited with having once encountered Nuckelavee, and with having made a narrow escape from the monster's clutches. This man was very reticent on the subject. However, after much higgling and persuasion, the following narrative was extracted:
ammas, like his namesake Tam o' Shanter, was out late one night. It was, though moonless, a fine starlit night. Tammas's road lay close by the seashore, and as he entered a part of the road that was hemmed in on one side by the sea, and on the other by a deep fresh-water loch, he saw some huge object in front of, and moving towards him. What was he to do? He was sure it was no earthly thing that was steadily coming towards him. He could not go to either side, and to turn his back to an evil thing he had heard was the most dangerous position of all; so Tammie said to himself, "The Lord be aboot me, any tak' care o' me, as I am oot on no evil intent this night!" Tammie was always regarded as rough and foolhardy. Anyway, he determined, as the best of two evils, to face the foe, and so walked resolutely yet slowly forward. He soon discovered to his horror that the gruesome creature approaching him was no other than the dreaded Nuckelavee. 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 whence 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 (a clue of straw ropes, generally about three feet in diameter), 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 creature's 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. But he knew it was useless to flee, and he said, if he had to die, he would rather see who killed him than die with his back to the foe. In all his terror Tammie remembered what he had heard of Nuckelavee's dislike to fresh water, and, therefore, took that side of the road nearest to the loch. The awful moment came when the lower part of the head of the monster got abreast of Tammie. The mouth of the monster yawned like a bottomless pit. Tammie found its hot breath like fire on his face: the long arms were stretched out to seize the unhappy man. To avoid, if possible, the monster's clutch, Tammie swerved as near as he could to the loch; in doing so one of his feet went into the loch, splashing up some water on the foreleg of the monster, whereat the horse gave a snort like thunder and shied over to the other side of the road, and Tammie felt the wind of Nuckelavee's clutches as he narrowly escaped the monster's grip. Tammie saw his opportunity, and ran with all his might; and sore need had he to run, for Nuckelavee had turned and was galloping after him, and bellowing with a sound like the roaring of the sea. In front of Tammie lay a rivulet, through which the surplus water of the loch found its way to the sea, and Tammie knew, if he could only cross the running water, he was safe; so he strained every nerve. As he reached the near bank another clutch was made at him by the long arms. Tammie made a desperate spring and reached the other side, leaving his bonnet in the monster's clutches. Nuckelavee gave a wild unearthly yell of disappointed rage as Tammie fell senseless on the safe side of the water.
Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales, by George Douglas, 1901
mile or two to the north -west of Hillswick, among the bills, is a very small pool named Helga Water, or the Water of Health. The reverence that was anciently paid to lakes or wells for their supposed sanative virtues, forms a striking feature of the early superstition of Orkney and Shetland. It was probably derived from the dry and parched countries of the east, being early perpetuated by the Asiatic followers of Odin, in connection with the bubbling streams that issue from the less arid soil in Europe; or probably the Scandinavians might have copied the supersition from the Celts, who paid homage to a peculiar god that presided over all the waters, under the name of Niord or Neith. In Shetland he was recognised by the name of the Shoopiltee. While the Romans confined the dominion of Neptune to the seas, and gave the guardianship of wells and fountains to Nymphs, in honour of whom they instituted certain festivals named Fontinalia, the water- god of the Celtic and Teutonic tribes had not only a controul over the sea, but over all rivers, lakes, brooks, and springs. Neckar (as the deity was named in the north of Europe) was wont to assume the form of various animals, also of a horseman, or of a man in a boat. In Orkney, the same spirit, under a different appellation, had something of a human shape, though inclined to the nature of a horse, and was decked with fuci and other productions of the sea: in Shetland, he took the decided form of a shelly, making his most frequent haunts near water-mills, but when observed, hastily withdrawing himself into a burn, or vanishing in a flash of fire. This deity, or water-trow, is the same to whom the Edda recommends the offering of a prayer for success in navigation, hunting and fishing, since he gives to his votaries treasures, and even kingdoms. The inhabitants of Lewis formerly sacrificed to him, in the hopes that he would send them plenty of sea-ware, for the purpose of enriching their ground. But although he figures away with the northern mythologists as the ruler of winds, of waves, and of fire, his goodness was ever considered no less uncertain than the deceitful elements over which he had command. The Scandinavians, therefore, denied that he was of the true lineage of the gods, but deemed it prudent that some token of submission, though it might be of the smallest value, should be made to him on account of his power. In St Kilda, it consisted of shells, pebbles, worn-out rags, pins, rusty nails, or some mean description of currency. The Lewismen, with more liberality, cast into the sea, at Hallowtide, a cup of good ale. In Unst, it was customary to repair to the head of a stream, named Yelaburn, or the Burn of Health, and to throw, as an acknowledgment to the water-god, three stones on an adjoining site of ground. The pool of Helga Water also appears to have been formerly visited by the natives with superstitious views, and with perhaps the same mysterious ceremonies that were used from time immemorial in Orkney, such as walking round it in the course of the sun, observing strict silence in their perambulations, taking up water in their hands, and casting it on their heads. But when Christianity was introduced into the country, and when the priests found it impossible to root from the people their ancient Pagan customs, it is not unlikely that they took away the government of this pool from a water-deity, and gave it to some favourite saint. Thus there is a rude stone, with a small cavity in it, probably a natural one, that held water, which might have been sanctified with Christian ceremony, in order to repay the pilgrimage made to it by the zealous imbiber. The water deity of the Celts and Teutones was ever regarded with great alarm. It was a popular superstition, that when a person fell into the water, the lips of this god were applied to his nostrils, and through such a conveyance his blood was sucked out; hence the redness that appears in the face of drowned persons. On account, therefore, of these destructive propensities, a Teutonic name was awarded to him of Nocka, Nickur, or Necker, answering to the Latin necare, and giving origin, as many profound antiquarians have supposed, to the name of Old Nick, that the English have so long applied to the devil. In Scotland, the appearance of this demoniacal Neptune is always considered as a prognostication of the swelling of rivers, and of deaths taking place from drowning; it is then that he comes under various shapes, such as the river-horse, (More on the water horse: Here) or the bull of the waters (More on the water bull: Here). In Shetland, the same deity, the Shoopiltee, assumes the form of a beautiful shelly, inviting some one to mount him, when he immediately runs into the sea and drowns his rider.
When the warlocks of Shetland communed with various demons, known by the name of Sea-trows and Land-trows, the beneficial acquaintance of an unearthly nature would be made with the Shoopiltee. John Sutherland, for instance, of Papa Stour, who, not half a century ago, was accustomed, at the distant haaf, to haul up, whenever he was hungry, a cod ready dressed, was perhaps indebted to his friendship with this water-trow, for his demoniacal repast.
A description of the Shetland Islands : comprising an account of their scenery, antiquities and superstitions, by Samuel Hibbert, 1822
ithout 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.
The Mither of the Sea.
he was a great and benign being, who gave vitality to every living creature in the sea. The Sea Mither did not, however, reside permanently in the watery element ; indeed, she was not allowed to do so. For in this, as in most of the Northern traditionary myths, the dualistic idea is strong. She had a powerful and black-hearted rival, with whom she maintained a periodical warfare. His name was Teran, which, in Orkney dialect, means furious anger. She took up her summer residence in the sea, generally about the middle of spring. No sooner did she take to the water than there ensued a violent conflict between her and Teran which continued for days, sometimes for weeks. This battle caused storm and great commotion in the sea, and was called the Vore tullye (spring struggle) of Teran and the Sea Mither. Of course this struggle always took place at the same time as the gales which generally accompany the vernal equinox. After a more or less violent conflict, Teran is conquered, bound, and laid in the bottom of the deep sea. Then began the Sea Mither's reign, and her benignant work. She stilled the wintry storms into summer calm ; hushed into soft song the wild raving of the waves; and brought a genial warmth into the sea. She gave power to all living creatures in the sea to propagate their kinds. Some of my old gossips went so far as to give her the power of creating new life. The Sea Mither's maternal cares were often interrupted by sharp gales, and angry commotion in the sea; and these were caused by the struggles of Teran to free himself. It was amusing to hear some of my old informers tell of the wonderful effects of the Sea Mither's rule on sea and weather. Their description of summer under her rule might have tempted one to believe that the Orkney archipelago had become the islands of the blessed. As the middle of autumn approached, and the autumnal equinox drew near, the Sea Mither began to be exhausted by her manifold labours in staying the tempests, in guarding her prisoner, and in her multifarious maternal duties. In an evil hour Teran breaks his bonds; a terrific battle ensues, called the Gore vellye (harvest destructive work). The Sea Mither is overcome, and has to take her flight from the ocean, leaving it for a time under the dominion of the wintry-faced Teran. It may be said in conclusion, that neither the Sea Mither nor her adversary were ever visible to mortal eye.
The Scottish antiquary, or, Northern notes & queries vol.5, W. Traill Dennison, 1890