As a child I was fascinated by myths and legends. I used to wish that they were real.
But while the likes of Anubis, Medusa and Pan captured my imagination, imprisoning it in a Minotaur-guarded labyrinth from which it has still yet to truly escape, the legends of my own native Scotland proved rather less arresting.
There was Nessie, of course — oh how I longed to see Nessie (rumoured variously as both a new cryptid and a very old Plesiosaur it ticked all of the boxes) — but otherwise there didn’t seem to be much of interest roaming the Scottish Highlands, at least not to the same degree as elsewhere.
At the age of six I left Scotland for Australia, where I delighted in stories of Aboriginal Dreamtime and the Rainbow Serpent. I drank in the mythology with a thirst almost as unquenchable as that of the infamous Tiddalik, and began collecting Indonesian masks, each more grotesque than the last.
Years later I found myself in Germany, where my school’s emblem just happened to be a griffin. While on the continent I visited a number of museums of Egyptian mummies, Byzantine art and Grimm fairytales, and grew my mask collection with a trip to the storied city of Venice.
I obsessed over fantasy and science fiction in popular culture, fawning over Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Harry Potter and, most recently, Game Of Thrones. Basically anything featuring vampires, witches or dragons, which included DreamWorks Animations adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon series.
I even broached the subject academically. At school I took my Religious Studies GCSE a year early, drew monsters of my own in Art and — at the behest of my English teacher — applied a psychoanalytical framework to Frankenstein, while at University I studied Philosophy, read up on Parapsychology and took courses in Anthropology.
But for all I learnt about Ancient Greece, Westeros and cannibalistic rites among the Wari’ Indians of the Western Amazonian Rainforest, I still knew next to nothing about Scottish folklore. Real Scottish folklore, not just the tourist stuff. That is, at least, until I happened across a couple of kelpies outside the Caird Hall in Dundee.
You see, sculptor Andy Scott was touring Scotland with a pair of maquettes, aiming to raise awareness for an ambitious work-in-progress: two 30-metre high horse-head monuments, celebrating both the legend of the kelpie and the horse’s important role in the country’s long and illustrious history.
A kelpie, for the uninitiated, was a malevolent water spirit once said to inhabit lochs and other such waterways in Scotland. Also known as the waterhorse, it was believed to be able to take the shape of either a horse (often with inverted hooves) or a man (often with telling weeds in his hair). Not dissimilar, then, to the Australian bunyip or the American wihwin.
Almost every body of water in Scotland was at one point attributed its own kelpie, including Loch Ness long before it evolved into a rather less equine serpent. Although not as iconic as its world-famous cousin, the kelpie is arguably just as prolific. They have inspired poems, books and movies, and now a pair of sculptures too.
Although The Kelpies were officially opened in April, I never got around to visiting the finished attraction until last weekend. Marking the gateway to the eastern entrance of the Forth and Clyde canal, The Kelpies are centrepieces of The Helix, a newly regenerated area of parkland on the outskirts of Falkirk — just a few miles along the canal from the Falkirk Wheel.
At almost a hundred feet high it goes without saying that the sculpures are an impressive sight. Overlooking the canal, their stunning reflections have the effect of almost doubling the spectacle. It’s not just the scale of them, but the level of detail that has gone into each section of steel plating. The overall shape is incredibly lifelike, while the gaps between plates add to the drama of it.
Unfortunately, the setting it’s quite as enchanting. Located between electricity pylons and a main road, and with apartment blocks and industrial estates visible through the recently planted trees, the effect is somewhat diminished every time you take a step back and soak in your surroundings. When the trees have grown and the visitor’s centre has been completed things might be different, but you can’t help but picture what The Kelpies might have looked like on Rannock Moor or in the Cairngorms.
That said, there’s no denying that the sculptures are worth seeing (entrance is free, which always helps), and whether you’re interested in kelpies, water myths in general or simply whopping big horse-heads they are guaranteed to impress.
It’s always nice when something lives up to the legend.