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The nuckelavee, or nuckalavee, is a horse-like demon frae Orcadian meethologie that combines equine an human elements. Oreeginatin in Norse meethologie an the maist horrible o aw the demons o the Scots islands, its name mey be a progenitor o that bi which the Deil is sometimes kent, Auld Nick. The nuckelavee's breath can wilt crops an sicken livestock, an the craitur wis held responsible for drochts an epidemics on laund despite its bein predominantly a sea-dweller.

A graphic first-haund description o the nuckelavee as it appears on laund wis gien b an islander who claimit tae hae haed a confrontation wi it, but accoonts describing the details o the craitur's appearance are inconsistent. In common wi mony ither sea monsters it is unable tae tolerate fresh watter, tharefore those it is pursuin hae anerly tae cross a river or stream tae be rid o it. The nuckelavee is kept in confinement durin the simmer months bi the Mither o' the Sea, an auncient Orcadian divine an the anerly ane able tae control it.

Orcadian fowklair haed a strang Scandinavie influence, an it mey be that the nuckelavee is a composite o a watter horse frae Celtic meethologie an a craitur importit bi the Norsemen. As wi similar malevolent entities such as the kelpie, it affert an explanation for incidents that simple islanders coud no itherwise unnerstaund.

Etymologie[eedit | eedit soorce]

The late 19t century saw an upsurge o interest in transcribin fowklair, but the recorders uised inconsistent spellin an frequently anglicisit wirds, thus the same entity coud be gien different names.[1] The term nuckelavee is a corruption o the Orcadian knoggelvi,[2] but the same demon is cried a mukkelevi in Shetland, whaur it wis considered a nasty sea trow or sea deil.[3] Derivatives mey hae been the progenitors o the name Auld Nick gien tae the Deil.[4] Accordin tae Walter Traill Dennison, an Orcadian resident an fowklairist, nuckelavee means "Deil o the Sea".[5]

Fowk beliefs[eedit | eedit soorce]

Rough seas
The tempestuous seas o Orkney are hame tae the nuckelavee.

Description an common attributes[eedit | eedit soorce]

Stories o meethical Orcadian demons are recordit in the 16t-century Laitin manuscripts o Jo Ben,[lower-alpha 1] who mey hae been referrin tae the nuckelavee in his description o the Orkney island o Stronsay.[9] Dennison transcribit hintle o the information available aboot tradeetional tales tauld on Orkney, but tae extent romanticisit an seestematically altert certain elements o the stories in the process o transformin thaim intae prose.[10][lower-alpha 2]

The nuckelavee is a meethical sea craitur that appears as a horse-like demon when it venturs ontae laund.[12] Writer an fowklairist Ernest Marwick considered it vera similar tae the Norse nøkk, the nuggle o the Shetlands an the kelpie. A unique an solitar craitur possessin extensive evil pouers, its malevolent behaviour can influence events throuoot the islands.[3] Islanders wur terrifee'd o the craitur an wad no speak its name athoot immediately sayin a prayer.[13] It wis aften foond in the vicinity o a beach, but wad niver come ashore if it wis rainin.[14]

Nae tales describe wha form the nuckelavee taks when in the sea,[5] but its appearance on laund haes been recoontit in graphic detail.[15] An islander, Tammas, survivit a confrontation wi the beast an, efter hintle cajolin frae Dennison, reluctantly gae his description o the monster, the anerly kent first-haund accoont.[lower-alpha 3] Accordin tae Tammas, the nuckelavee haes a man's torso attached tae a horse's back as if it were a rider.[5] The male torso has no legs, but its arms can reach the ground from its poseetion on tap o the equine bouk, the legs o which hae fin like appendages.[13] The torso haes a lairge heid – possibly as hintle as 3 feet (0.91 m) in diameter – that rolls back an fort.[14] The monster describit bi Tammas haes twa heids;[17] the equine head haes an enormous gapin mooth that exudes a smelly toxic vapour, an a single giant eye like a burnin reid flame. A pairticularly gruesome detail is that the nuckelavee haes nae skin;[18] black blood courses throu yellae veins, an the pale sinews an pouerful muscles are visible as a pulsatin mass.[13] Ither reports state that the craitur resembles a centaur;[19] narratives are inconsistent in the finer details o the demon's description housomeivver.[2] Traill Dennison anerly describes a man's heid wi a "mooth projectit like that o a pig".[13] Marwick anerly mentions ane heid wi a single red eye an aw, an he borraes some o Tammas's characterisation bi recordin the craitur's mooth as "like a whale's".[14]

The nuckelavee's breath can wilt crops an sicken livestock, an it wis considered responsible for epidemics an drocht.[13] Seaweed burnin tae create wha wis kent at the time as kelp began on Stronsay in 1722. The product – soda ash – wis an alkali mainly uised tae treat acidic soil,[3][13] awtho as time went on its commercial importance in soap an glass manufactur increased. The pungent smoke emittit durin the process can enrage the nuckelavee,[3] resultin in a wild rampage o plague, the daiths o cattle an the destruction o crops.[20][21] The nuckelavee infectit horse on Stronsay wi the deidly disease kent as mortasheen,[lower-alpha 4] tae demonstrate its fury an exact its revenge against the islanders for burnin seaweed; the infection subsequently spread tae aw the ither islands involvit in the industry.[3][23] The craitur can impose prolanged periods o abnormally law rainfaw, leadin tae watter shortages an poor harvests.[3]

Confinement[eedit | eedit soorce]

The nuckelavee is the maist malevolent o the demons in an aroond the Scots islands, athoot ony redeemin characteristics.[24] The anerly entity able tae control it is the Mither o' the Sea, an auncient divine in Orcadian meethologie who keeps the nuckelavee confined durin the simmer months.[25] In common wi ither meethical sea monsters, wi the possible exception o kelpies an the nuggle o Shetland, it is unable tae wade throu fresh flowin watter,[18] tharefore those it is chasin hae anerly tae cross a stream tae be rid o it.[26] Tammas managit tae escape frae the nuckelavee efter he inadvertently splashed it wi watter frae the loch he wis alangside; this briefly distractit the monster, allouin Tammas tae run ower tae a nearbi channel o fresh watter an jump tae safety on the opposite bank.[17]

Oreegins[eedit | eedit soorce]

Malevolent craiturs servit tae provide explanations for incidents that simple islanders wur itherwise unable tae accoont for; mony auncient meeths wur based upon the natural elements o the turbulent an iver chygin sea aroond Orkney.[27] Established Orcadian tales wur strangly influencit bi Scandinavie meethologie wi a blendin o tradeetional Celtic stories,[28] so the nuckelavee mey hae its ruits in a meethical craitur importit bi the Norsemen fusit wi a tradeetional Celtic watter horse.[2]

References[eedit | eedit soorce]


  1. It is uncertain why Jo Ben compilt the manuscript Descriptions of Orkney, which provides a sequential accoont o the Orkney Islands recordin details o tradeetions an development. Various suggestions hae been made as tae his identity: Scran states he wis John Ballender an haed been sent tae carry oot a survey o the islands;[6] historical geographer Charles W. J. Withers suggests he wis John Benston or Beinston, an Orkney bishop's clerk;[7] an local historian Sigurd Towrie indicates he mey hae been John Bellenden or Ballendon, attributin the manuscript tae be "the auldest survivin accoont o the Orkney Islands, efter they transferred tae Scotland in 1468".[8]
  2. Specific dates are no gien for exactly when Traill Dennison gathered the tales but his various transcripts wur published atween 1880 an 1894.[11]
  3. As alludit tae bi Walter Traill Dennison, tae whom the story wis tauld, Tammas's accoont bears a certain resemblance tae the events in Robert Burns's poem Tam o' Shanter (1790).[16]
  4. This is nou commonly kent as glanders.[22]


  1. Monaghan (2009), pp. ix, xi, xv
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "The Nuckelavee – Devil o' the Sea",, archived frae the oreeginal on 27 Juin 2014, retrieved 14 Juin 2014 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Marwick (2000), p. 23
  4. Hibbert (1891), p. 233
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Traill Dennison (1891), p. 131
  6. "Jo Benn's 1529 Description of North Ronaldsay", Scran, archived frae the oreeginal on 2 Juin 2015, retrieved 2 Juin 2015 
  7. Withers (2001), p. 48
  8. "Jo Ben's "Descriptions of Orkney"",, archived frae the oreeginal on 2 Juin 2015, retrieved 2 Juin 2015 
  9. "Jo Ben's 1529 "Descriptions of Orkney"",, archived frae the oreeginal on 22 Juin 2014, retrieved 22 Juin 2014 
  10. Jennings, Andrew, "The Finnfolk", University of the Highlands and Islands, archived frae the oreeginal on 21 Juin 2014, retrieved 21 Juin 2014 
  11. Marwick (2000), p. 205
  12. Westwood & Kingshill (2012), p. 387
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 Traill Dennison (1891), p. 132
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Marwick (2000), p. 22
  15. Briggs (2002), p. 67
  16. Douglas (2010), p. 125
  17. 17.0 17.1 Traill Dennison (1891), p. 133
  18. 18.0 18.1 Westwood & Kingshill (2012), p. 388
  19. Mack & Mack (2010), p. 57
  20. "The kelp industry", Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme, archived frae the oreeginal on 24 Juin 2014, retrieved 24 Juin 2014 
  21. "Whale oil uses", Scran, archived frae the oreeginal on 24 Juin 2014, retrieved 24 Juin 2014 
  22. "mortercheyn", Dictionary of the Scots Language, Scottish Language Dictionaries, 2004, retrieved 24 Juin 2014 
  23. Fenton (1997), p. 61
  24. Briggs (2002), p. 68
  25. Bane (2013), p. 252
  26. Briggs (2002), p. 53
  27. "The Sea in Orkney Folklore",, archived frae the oreeginal on 26 Juin 2014, retrieved 26 Juin 2014 
  28. Muir (2014), p. 10