The Nuckelavee (or Nuckalavee) is an hybrid fairy creature from the Northern Scottish (Orkney) folklore from the Fuath family.
Nuckelavee was the most terrible and feared creature of the Scottish foklore. The creature's home was in the sea but it ventured on land often to feast upon humans. The Nuckelavee rode a horse on land, and its horse was sometimes indistinguishable with its own body. Some storytellers merged the two monsters so that rider and horse become one - a vile hybrid of man and beast.
From the few recorded descriptions of the Nuckelavee, we learn that his head was "ten times larger" than a man's with an incredibly wide mouth that jutted out like a pig's snout and a single fiery eye that burned with a red flame. His arms reached to the ground, his body was distorted and his huge head sways on a small neck, as if it is to weak to hold the head.
Hairless, his body was also skinless, its entire surface appearing like raw and living flesh. It was said that his thick, black blood could be seen coursing through his veins, as his sinewy muscles writhed with every movement he made.
The creature was armed with venomous breath and great strength and was held responsible for ruined crops, epidemics, and drought.
- "If crops were blighted by sea-gust or mildew, if livestock fell over high rocks that skirt the shores, or :if an epidemic raged among men, or among the lower animals, Nuckelavee was the cause of all. His breath was :venom, falling like blight on vegetable, and with deadly disease on animal life."
It did however have one weakness, an aversion to fresh water. In one tale a man called Tammy escapes the beast by jumping over running water, leaving his bonnet in the monsters clutches. This theme of a narrow escape often crops up in Scottish folklore. It is also noted that many supernatural creatures cannot cross fresh running water.
The old practice of burning gathered seaweed to make kelp was said to cause terrible offense to Nuckelavee. The creature could not stand the smell of the pungent smoke and would run into an extreme and destructive rage. In this state he would vent his wrath by smiting all the horses on the island of Stronsay - the island where kelp was first burned in Orkney - with a deadly disease known as "Mortasheen". At this time, the only entity to stop him was The Mither O' The Sea, another ancient God-like being of Celtic and Orkney Mythology.
Despite the fact that his home was considered to be the sea, the Nuckelavee was known to wander freely on land. It was during these landward excursions that he was most often encountered by mortals. However it was restrained by Mither O' The Sea in the summer and his terror of fresh rainwater kept him hiding in the winter
The Orkney folklorist Walter Traill Dennison, who lived in Sanday in the nineteenth century, claimed to know of a man who had actually encountered Nuckelavee and lived to tell the tale. According to Dennison, the man was very reticent to talk on the subject and only after much "higgling and persuasion" was a narrative forthcoming.
Tammas, like his namesake Tam o' Shanter, was out late one night. It was, though moonless, a fine starlit night. Tammas's road lay close by the seashore, and as he entered a part of the road that was hemmed in on one side by the sea, and on the other by a deep fresh-water loch, he saw some huge object in front of, and moving towards him. What was he to do? He was sure it was no earthly thing that was steadily coming towards him. He could not go to either side, and to turn his back to an evil thing he had heard was the most dangerous position of all; so Tammie said to himself, "The Lord be aboot me, any tak' care o' me, as I am oot on no evil intent this night!" Tammie was always regarded as rough and foolhardy. Anyway, he determined, as the best of two evils, to face the foe, and so walked resolutely yet slowly forward. He soon discovered to his horror that the gruesome creature approaching him was no other than the dreaded Nuckelavee.
The lower part of this terrible monster, as seen by Tammie, was like a great horse with flappers like fins about his legs, with a mouth as wide as a whale's, from whence came breath like steam from a brewing-kettle. He had but one eye, and that as red as fire. On him sat, or rather seemed to grow from his back, a huge man with no legs, and arms that reached nearly to the ground. His head was as big as a clue of simmons (a clue of straw ropes, generally about three feet in diameter), and this huge head kept rolling from one shoulder to the other as if it meant to tumble off. But what to Tammie appeared 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 Tammie 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. Tammie went slowly on in mortal terror, his hair on end, a cold sensation like a film of ice between his scalp and his skull, and a cold sweat bursting from every pore. But he knew it was useless to flee, and he said, if he had to die, he would rather see who killed him than die with his back to the foe. In all his terror Tammie remembered what he had heard of Nuckelavee's dislike to fresh water, and, therefore, took that side of the road nearest to the loch. The awful moment came when the lower part of the head of the monster got abreast of Tammie. The mouth of the monster yawned like a bottomless pit.
Tammie found its hot breath like fire on his face: the long arms were stretched out to seize the unhappy man. To avoid, if possible, the monster's clutch, Tammie swerved as near as he could to the loch; in doing so one of his feet went into the loch, splashing up some water on the foreleg of the monster, whereat the horse gave a snort like thunder and shied over to the other side of the road, and Tammie felt the wind of Nuckelavee's clutches as he narrowly escaped the monster's grip. Tammie saw his opportunity, and ran with all his might; and sore need had he to run, for Nuckelavee had turned and was galloping after him, and bellowing with a sound like the roaring of the sea. In front of Tammie lay a rivulet, through which the surplus water of the loch found its way to the sea, and Tammie knew, if he could only cross the running water, he was safe; so he strained every nerve. As he reached the near bank another clutch was made at him by the long arms. Tammie made a desperate spring and reached the other side, leaving his bonnet in the monster's clutches. Nuckelavee gave a wild unearthly yell of disappointed rage as Tammie fell senseless on the safe side of the water.
Art / Fiction
- The Bard's Tale (Video Game, 2004)
- The Stones Are Hatching, a Novel by Geraldine McCaughrean, features a description of the Nuckelavee as above, but with no legs.
- The Secret of Platform Thirteen, by Eva Ibbotson, has the Nuckelavee summoned out of a saltwater fountain for only once every century, and is treated with respect and awe, inspiring one character decide to study medicine.
- A particularly dangerous version of the Nuckelavee appears in Elizabeth Bear's 2007 novel Whiskey & Water
- The Nuckelavee, 1999, by Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola. A story included in the text novel Hellboy: Odd Jobs.
- The Nuchlavis is a monster in the Playstation 2 RPG Final Fantasy X.
- Nuckelavee is Monster in My Pocket #66.
- Orkney Island information on the Nuckelavee
- Account of the Only ever recorded Encounter with the Nuckelavee