The terrifying myth of Orkney’s horse demon, Nuckelavee

The horse demon Nuckelavee lived in the rough seas off Orkney but would come ashore to create misery and havoc. PIC www.geograph.co.uk.

The horse demon Nuckelavee lived in the rough seas off Orkney but would come ashore to create misery and havoc. PIC www.geograph.co.uk.

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With a head ten times bigger than a man’s, breath like venom and a skinless body pumped full of black blood, there is perhaps no more fearsome beast in Scottish mythology as the Nuckelavee.

Also known as the Devil of the Sea, the horse-like demon from Orkney was recorded by 19th Century farmer and folklorist Walter Traill Dennison, of Sanday, who set down a terrifying description of the beast who roamed both land and sea.

The nuckelavee chasing an islander, painting by James Torrance (18591916). PIC: Creative Commons.

The nuckelavee chasing an islander, painting by James Torrance (18591916). PIC: Creative Commons.

“Nuckelavee was a monster of unmixed malignity, never willingly resting from doing evil to mankind,” Dennison wrote in the Scottish Antiquary in 1891, three years before his death.

The lower part of the creature’s body was like a great horse and, while in the water, he had fins and flappers around his legs. He had one eye “as red as fire”, according to one of Dennison’s accounts, with an enormously wide mouth that was “projected like a pig.”

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Nuckelavee was feared on Orkney for his bad spirit and was blamed for failed crops, droughts and cases of livestock that had fallen into the sea.

“If an epidemic raged among young men, or among the lower animals, Nuckelavee was the cause of it all,” Dennison added.

Perhaps the grimmest aspect of the beast was his lack of hair on his body.

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Dennison claimed to have met an Orkney farmer, Tammas, who encountered Nuckelavee late one night while wandering home.

Tammas saw a “huge object” coming towards him as he walked between the sea shore and the banks of a freshwater loch.

Sure it “was no earthling” on the approach, Tammas resorted to a quick prayer.

“The Lord be aboot me, any tak’ care o’ me. as I am oot on no evil intent this night,” he said.

The full beastliness of Nuckelavee was revealed to Tammas as the horse demon edged forward, with his flappers, wide mouth, one eye and his steam-like breath all on show.

Dennison wrote: “But what appeared to Tammas 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 Tammas 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.”

In all his fear, Tammas recalled the Nuckelavee’s dislike of fresh water and moved towards the loch, close to where he was standing.

His foot splashed in the water, wetting the foreleg of the horse.

“The horse gave a snort like thunder and shied over the other side of the road and Tammas felt the wind of Nuckelavee’s clutches, as he narrowly escaped the monster’s grip,” Dennison continued.

Tammas fled, jumping over a rivulet of running water to protect him from the roaring beast. He swept at Tammas once again - allegedly catching his bonnet - but the narrow strip of water was enough to protect him.

“Nuckelavee gave a wild unearthly yell of disappointed rage as Tammas fell senseless on the safeside of the water.”

A form of the Nuckelavee was first recorded in the 16th Century. Similar tales are also recorded on Shetland, where the creature is known as a mukkelevi.

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