Hoofprints in the Loch: Scotland’s Water-Horses

Hoofprints in the Loch: Scotland’s Water-Horses


Scotland is home to a rich history of legends. One of the most famous and well known legends is that of the Water-Horse.

Tales of the Water-Horse can vary drastically in nature. Some stories depict the horse-like being as a malicious creature which stalks local shorelines in attempts to drown unsuspecting victims. Other stories showcase the Water-Horse as a much more nuanced character. Over time, entities like these have earned themselves a multitude of different names. Some of the most popular names include Water-Horse, Ech Uisque/Each-Uisge, or Kelpie. 

Pictish Origins 

The earliest known reports of an aquatic horse in Scotland can be dated back to the Pictish people. The Picts are ancestors of the Scottish. They inhabited what is now known as modern day north-eastern Scotland during the 3rd and 10th century. While Pictish history and culture is scarce when it comes to official records, their presence can still be felt today. The Pictish people are known for their use of symbols carved into monuments or steles called Pictish Stones. 

One of these symbols is known as The Pictish Beast.

The Pictish Beast, while cryptic in nature, is one of the most commonly used symbols in Pictish Stones. The symbol depicts a long-snouted creature with spiraled limbs and tail. While the Pictish Beast is present in a multitude of Pictish Stones, the use of the symbol is thought to predate the use of stones. 

Many people believe that the Pictish Beast represents the legend of The Water-Horse. While the meaning of the stones remains a mystery, some have compared the physical similarities of the Pictish Beast to that of a horse. Many also suggest the usage of the Pictish Beast was as a warning. Either from the dangers of the water, or the beast itself. 

The current leading theory as to what the Pictish Beast depicts is that it represents a dolphin. In her book, Animals in Early Medieval Art, British art historian Carola Hicks highlights key details such as how the Pictish Beast is often depicted at an angle, implying a leaping movement. Much like how a dolphin leaps through the water  The limbs on the beast also end in spirals, not feet or hooves, which implies a fin-like appendage. 

Water-Horse or Kelpie?

The name of this entity has been a source of constant debate between historians, folklorists, and enthusiasts alike. Some believe the terms Water-Horse and Kelpie to be interchangeable. Others believe that they refer to two different entities. This disagreement has caused confusion for many when it comes to classifying the many different stories.

Defining the Entity 

In his book The Popular Superstitions and Festive Amusements of the Highlanders of Scotland, published in 1823, author William Grant Stewart describes the relation between the different names, stating that “the ‘Ech Uisque,’ or Water-Horse, as the Kelpie is commonly called” (Stewart 101). Stewart believed the Water-Horse, Ech Uisque (more commonly called Each-Uisge), and Kelpie to be the same entity. He designated them the same “infernal agent” of Satan. From his work, one could use any one of these names in reference to the entity.

However, not everyone agrees with Stewart’s definition. Folklorist John Gregorson Campbell writes that the Water-Horse and Kelpie are two distinct entities. In his book Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, published in 1900, Campbell agrees that the name Ech Uisque/Each-Uisge is synonymous with Water-Horse, but it is not the same as a Kelpie. Campbell states that “Some writers speak as if the Water-horse were to be identified with it, but the two animals are distinctly separate” (Campbell 216). Campbell distinguishes Water-Horse from Kelpie by stating their location as the determining factor—the former inhabiting lochs, the later inhabiting torrents and streams. 

Another different method of classification comes from Katharine Mary Briggs, British Folklorist and author. Her book, A Dictionary of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, published in 1976, suggests that the term Water-Horse isn’t in reference to a singular entity. Rather, the term Water-Horse should be used to reference a species. Briggs mentions that the Each-Uisge is “perhaps the fiercest and most dangerous of all of the Water-Horses” (Briggs 136). Briggs’ analysis of the Each-Uisge suggests there is a hierarchy of power when it comes to the Water-Horse species. 

Debate Conclusion

Modern documentarians and folklorists would agree with Campbell’s and Briggs’ idea of there being multiple different identities and variations of Water-Horse. But if one were to use the term Water-Horse or Kelpie as an umbrella term for all of the entities in Scotland’s legends, that would be accepted as well. 

Connections to Other legends

Due to the legend of the Water-Horse being around for hundreds of years, the legend itself has seen a rich history of adaptations and variations. 

While the depiction of this entity being in the form of a horse is without a doubt the most popular, it is not the only shape Water-Horses have been depicted as. Author J. M McPherson in his 1929 book Primitive Beliefs in the Northeast of Scotland describes the Kelpie’s ability of shapeshifting. McPherson states that the Kelpie (McPherson uses Briggs’ definition of Water-Horses) has an inherent ability to shapeshift. One of the more common forms Kelpies have taken include that of beautiful women. In this form, the Kelpie will act as a siren, luring unsuspecting victims to the water. 

While imitating a human is the most popular alternative representation of Kelpies, they are not limited to only human/horse forms. Local legend around Loch Ness provides a theory that the legendary Loch Ness Monster is in fact a Kelpie assuming a more monstrous form. However, in recent years this theory has lost support in favor of the Loch Ness Monster being a surviving plesiosaur.

Works cited:

Briggs, Katharine. “A Dictionary of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creautres.” Pantheon Books, 1976, p. 136.

Campbell, John. “Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.” J. Maclehose & Sons, 1900, p. 216.

Hicks, Carola. “Animals in Early Medieval Art.” Edinburgh University Press, 1996. 

McPherson, Joseph. “Primitive Beliefs in the Northeast of Scotland.” Logmans, Green and CO, Ltd, 1929.

Stewart, William. “The Popular Superstitions and Festive Amusements of the Highlanders of Scotland.” United Kingdom: Aylott and Jones, 1823, p. 101



1 thought on “Hoofprints in the Loch: Scotland’s Water-Horses

  1. AngelicaD says:

    Good Article!Legends and myths of the Highlands are a fascinating topic


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