Located within the new Helix park in the Falkirk area, the Kelpies are ancient mythical Celtic sea creatures- and they have been paid tribute to in the most extravagant of ways, the largest equine sculptures in the world.
The Celtic Myth
A kelpie is a mythical demon from Celtic folklore, predominantly connected to Scotland’s lochs and rivers. The word Kelpie comes from the Gaelic term ‘cailpeach’ which means something along the lines of a heifer. It is described predominantly as a water horse, that has the ability to morph into human form if required. They are noticable when morphed into human form as their hooves remain, leading to comparisons to the christian devil. They are powerful beasts- boasting strength more powerful than 100 normal horses combined they say. This strength allows them the ability to cause storms and flood entire towns.
In terms of their characteristics, there is many different descriptions of a Kelpie though they are generally regarded as having similar features to a black horse, though with hooves that are backwards facing. Water based, the kelpies hunt humans, and will often tempt them in the water by making noises similar to a man/women drowning- thus enticing the individual to enter the water as the hero. Some kelpies have even been known to wear a saddle seat, to lure people onto their back before trapping them on it and running off.
Amongst the many stories of the Kelpies there is the common tale of one sitting on a bridge in the form of an elderly man. He/it was talking away to himself while knitting a jumper, but a passerby was not fooled (probably having seen the hooves) and smashed the creature over the head with a rock- causing the kelpie to transform back into a horse and flee back into the water. Another commonly told tale sees the Kelpie appear in female form. Wearing a red dress and holding a stick, she enticed a mother and her child to the lakeside- before dragging them into the water, drowning and eating them.
Many stories surrounding the kelpie involves children. The creatures seem to have been used by parents to scare the boys into not wandering down to the lochs, and for making girls more cautious when approaching good-looking individuals (a form in which the Kelpies was said to often appear in). Subsequently almost every loch in Scotland has stories associated with Kelpies, while if there was any person reported missing and wasn’t found, the finger of blame would often be pointed at the sea creatures.
In terms of defence, its said the beast could only be killed if its bridle was cut- at which point it would decline rapidly as the bridle provides the kelpie with its source of power. This was demonstrated during an encounter in the West Highlands, taking place between a Kelpie and Jacobite fighter James MacGregor. The Kelpie had been terrirosing the area for several months, and the locals were well on guard looking for signs- thus when the Kelpie attempetd to fool MacGregor, having crossed paths while the Jacobite was heading home from the pub near Lochaber, the clansman didn’t fall for the old sadle trick the creature had attempted, and instead mounted a surprise attack- cutting and stealing the Kelpies bridle.
The Kelpie ran off and was never heard of in the area again, and the previously troubled towns and villages were all of a sudden peaceful- further adding fire to the Kelpie myth. Its said that the bridle MacGregor had stolen was later thrown into Loch Ness, leading locals to wash their hands with the lochs water for good luck. Its a tradition still carried out in some areas today.
It has long been debated as to whether the Loch Ness Monster, Nessie, is a Kelpie. Most believe the legendary creature to be some sort of water-based dinosaur. The stories between a kelpie and Nessie are similar, but Nessie has never been described as a horse- nor as ever having the ability to morph into human form. Furthermore a kelpie has never been proven to even have existed, while Nessie on the other hand has been close to being captured a few times (such as in the photo, courtesy of abc.net.au)
An Unusual Project
It was back on 2008 when the sculptor Andy Scott created miniature versions of the horse sculptures in his Glasgow art studio. Using modern technology, engineers were able to create what is the largest equine sculptures in the world. Sitting by the Forth and Clyde Canal, these 30 metres high horse-head sculptures are known simply as the Kelpies. As well as the famous mythical creatures, the sculptures are also a tribute to the unsung hero of Scottish history- the horse.
It is around 30,000 pieces of metal that make up the giant horse-heads, with costs running at about £5million overall. The sculptors, along-with a visitor centre, opened to the public in 17th October 2013, with the guided tours of the Kelpies, where visitors can go inside of the sculptures, providing the predominant source of income from the statues themselves.
This artwork of Andy Scott was completed in a very short time frame, with heads Duke and Baron welcoming visitors just 90 days after their construction began. Though it should be noted that Andy Scott was working on the project for several years prior to this.
Who is Andy Scott? A sculptor from Glasgow, he was educated at the Glasgow School of Art- where he earned a BA Hons in Art. He had largely worked in the city of Glasgow up until his Kelpie opportunity. He had began making drawings of the famous Celtic creature, before some inspiration from the Angel of the North in North England would lead him to the idea of the Kelpies today. The giant sculptures are his masterpiece and he was little known beforehand nationally. Rangers fans may know him as he is the sculptor behind the Ibrox disaster memorial stature of the then Rangers player John Greig (right, courtesy of unknown), who was the club captain of the day of the disaster in January 1971. Andy Scott is married to a dutch art teacher and today is based and lives in the United States.
Acclaimed by many, despised by others- the Kelpies opened to a mixed local and general public reception. Labeled a national treasure, that attracted nearly a million visitors in its first year, the pro-kelpies party believe it to be an undisputable positive for the Scottish landscape. The anti-kelpie party, however, deem the sculputes to be an eyesore, inappropriate and over-the-top.
In terms of that criticism then, the necessity and said appropriateness of the horse heads have been called into question and widely disputed, aswell as its features and general attractiveness. The appropriateness of the size of the artwork has been a key issue- critics will point to other tributes of the kelpies, more human-sized ones, which they deem to be far more appropriate. The unimpressed voice further disapproval at the blandness of the horse-heads, its use of plain metal (recycled plastic has been suggested), aswell as the questionable location- where there is a busy motorway on one side and a bustling industrial estate on the other. All this why scoffing at the prospect of the piece being considered an engineering feat.
The enthusiasts, meanwhile, claim it to be an engineering masterpiece fit to feature in the Queen herselfs garden. Regarding it to significantly brighten up an otherwise dull area- it has recovered its own costs quickly, while nevertheless providing excellent infrastructure and facilities. The obvious benefits to the areas economy, with the substantially increased tourism, cannot be disputed either. The impressed continue to voice optimism about the future of the bold Kelpies tribute.
Despite the mixed reaction, her Majesty the Queen would pay the sculptures a visit. Her royal presence was in honour of the neighbouring stretch of canal, the Elizabeth II canal, opening- having been named after the current monarch. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh would cruise up the canal, on a boat known as the Wooden Spoon, where Andy Scott would be presented to them at the sculptures. The Queen and husband prince Phillip had been on a trip to Scotland to celebrate the 70th anniversary of her majesty reigning as Colonel Chief of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders regiment- also later visiting the regiments British army units headquarters, Stirling Castle.
The sculptures are located within The Helix– a modern rejuvenation project aimed at connecting around 18 local communities in the Falkirk area. Costing around £50million in total to complete, it will be done so over a 25 year period, transforming a disused local area into an extensive parkland- from wooded nature-walks to cycle and waterways, aswell of course as the Falkirk Wheel and the Kelpies.
The Kelpies sits then alongside one of Scotland’s most famous canals- the Forth and Clyde. The canal runs for an incredible 35 miles- from the outskirts of Glasgow, to just past Falkirk. It was built in the late 18th century, primarily for commercial seagoing cargos, and passenger boats. It served the country well up until its death in the mid 1960s. With many roads, motorways, and railroads being built since its creation, it became disused, and somewhat abandoned.
It wasn’t until the late 90s that plans were put in place to reinvent and restore the canal as a fully operating waterway. British Waterways were the organisation behind the project, known as the Millennium Project, which got underway in 1998. This project was responsible for the nearby Falkirk Wheel- which connects the Forth& Clyde with the Union Canal (running to Edinburgh). However the landscape today, although continuously improving, clearly still feels the effects of the near 40 years of neglect.
Like them or loathe them, the Kelpie sculptures has become a big part of this rejuvenation- and won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.