Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Nuckelavee

Off of the northernmost coast of Scotland lies the Orkney Islands, an archipelago of seventy islands that has been continuously inhabited by humans for the last 8,500 years. The islands have been inhabited by a number of peoples: Old and Middle Stone Age tribesmen, the Picts, the Vikings, and the Norwegians. The islands themselves were given to Scotland in the year 1472 A.D. by Denmark. The land is a captive in that it is surrounded by water, both from the ocean and deep freshwater lakes further inland. Monsters and mysteries hide in these murky waters, and one of the most horrifying and the most vile of these creatures calls the seas surrounding the Orkneys home. At night, the beast emerges from the sea to hunt, and its only purpose is to torment and kill humans. The monster is greatly feared throughout the islands, and the people will never speak its name without uttering a prayer afterwards. The Orcadians know this monster as the Nuckelavee, the Devil of the Sea.

According to Orcadian legend, the Nuckelavee (pronounced nuh-kel-ah-vee) is a horrible sea faery or a demon that comes out of the sea when darkness falls to bring sickness and death to humans, animals, and the very land itself. The beast then feeds upon the lifeforce of everything it has killed (Bane 220). The Nuckelavee is thought to be a member of the Unseelie Court, which is a court of evil faeries in Scottish folklore. These faeries are said to be the evil souls of the damned, and actively seek to do as much harm as they possibly can to humans, rather than just causing random mischief like other faeries (Franklin 260; “Nuckelavee”, Monstropedia). The beast is also thought to belong to the Fuath, a collective term for a wide variety of malevolent water faeries in Scottish and Irish folklore (Franklin 102). The name nuckelavee is thought to be derived from a corruption of the Orcadian word knoggelvi which, according to Orkney resident and folklorist Walter Traill Dennison, means “Devil of the Sea” (“Nuckelavee”, Wikipedia; “The Nightmarish Nuckelavee”, EsoterX). In Shetland, the same creature is known as a mukkelevi (“Nuckelavee”, Wikipedia). The word itself may very well be a variation of the Norse word nokk or the Icelandic word nykur (“The Nightmarish Nuckelavee”, EsoterX). But wherever the name comes from, they all more or less describe the same terrible creature.

The Nuckelavee has been described as looking more or less like a centaur, but there are some significant differences. The monster’s main body is essentially that of a horse. However, growing out of the horse’s back is the head, the torso, and the arms of a man. This “man” is said to be large in stature and appears to be riding the horse, but in actuality he has no legs and is in fact part of the horse (“Nuckelavee”, Monstropedia). In other descriptions of the monster, the head, the torso, and the arms of a man are said to be growing out from where the horse’s head should be. In both descriptions, the head is said to be huge – about three feet in diameter – and has a very large mouth, filled with sharp, jagged teeth. The head rolls back and forth, as if the beast’s neck is too weak to support the weight (“Nuckelavee”, Wikipedia; “Nuckelavee”, Monstropedia). On that same head is a protruding, piglike nose and a single large eye, which is bloodshot and glows a fiery red color in the dark. The manlike portion of the monster has very long arms that nearly touch the ground. The beast has large hands, and its fingers are tipped with very sharp, rending claws. But the one thing that makes the Nuckelavee so unique is the fact that the monster has no skin whatsoever! Thick black blood can be seen coursing through sickly yellow veins and arteries, which stand out amid the beast’s blood-red muscles and white sinews (Bane 220; Mack and Mack 57; Franklin 194; “Nuckelavee”, Wikipedia). Some people say that the creature has fins or flippers, and that the horrid thing smells like putrid, decomposing fish and a pile of rotten eggs (Franklin 194). In other words, the Nuckelavee is terrifying to behold, and smells even worse!

Although many monsters have a dual purpose, this is not the case with the Nuckelavee. The monster is pure, unrestrained evil that only seeks to plague the inhabitants of the Orkneys with sickness and death, a task from which it rarely (if ever) rests (“Nuckelavee”, Orkneyjar). Although the monster is more than capable of wreaking all kinds of death and destruction with its sheer size and strength alone, the beast prefers to use its deadly breath for that purpose. The creature absorbs and feeds upon the lifeforce of anything that dies from its vile breath (Bane 220). But judging from the only recorded encounter with the Nuckelavee, one can surmise that the monster wouldn’t be adverse to slaughtering and eating livestock and humans as well (“Nuckelavee”, Monstropedia). Tearing its prey apart with its vicious claws or trampling them to pieces with its hooves wouldn’t be out of the question, either.

The Nuckelavee is said to be one of the most fearsome of all faeries, and its powers are formidable. The monster has enormous strength, and can gallop faster than any human can run (or any other horse, for that matter). Nobody seems to be sure if the Nuckelavee takes on another form when it enter the sea, or if indeed it changes form at all (“Nuckelavee”, Wikipedia), so shapeshifting may or may not be out of the question. But it is the Nuckelavee’s breath that is its most formidable weapon. It has been described as a “foul, black reek” that spews forth from the beast’s mouth (“Nuckelavee”, Orkneyjar) and causes plants and crops to wither, animals to sicken and die on the spot, and infects humans with a deadly wasting disease, which is known as Mortasheen. The Nuckelavee’s breath is so deadly that it can ruin crops, create epidemics in both humans and animals, and can cause long periods of little to no rainfall. This leads to drought, which in turn makes for poor harvests and eventually leads to famine. However, this could be more readily attributed to the Nuckelavee itself, rather than the creature’s breath. The dreadful smell can also drive entire herds of animals off of cliffs and to their deaths in the sea below (Bane 220; Mack and Mack 58; “Nuckelavee”, Wikipedia). Unfortunately, the beast’s horrible breath isn’t something that can be fought with Tic-Tacs® or a pack of Mentos®. It must be killed or driven away to stop the devastation.

Despite the Nuckelavee’s notoriety, there is only one recorded encounter with the monster. It appears that there isn’t any given date or year to indicate when the event took place, but it is still regarded as being a true story by some Orkney natives. But please bear in mind that the story given here has been cobbled together from half a dozen different sources, and is retold here from this blogger’s point of view. It was originally told by Orkney folklorist Walter Traill Dennison, who lived on Sanday in the 1800s and claimed to have actually met the man that encountered the beast. The man was extremely reluctant to speak of it, and it was only after a lot of cajoling and persuasion on Dennison’s part (“Nuckelavee”, Wikipedia) that this man agreed to tell his tale.

On one moonless, starlit night, a man by the name of Tammas Taylor was walking home (perhaps from work or a tavern). The road he was walking on was close to the seashore, and as he moved forward, he came to a narrow section of road “that was hemmed in on one side by the sea, and on the other by a deep freshwater loch”, of which there are many on Sanday (“Tammas and the Nuckelavee”, Orkneyjar; Fleming 125). Then, it suddenly dawned on Tammas that there was something huge on the road in front of him. And worse yet, it was moving towards him. What was he to do?

Tammas immediately knew that the lumbering thing in front of him was no earthly beast. He couldn’t leap to either side, but could only go forward or turn back. Tammas had been taught that a person should never turn their back on any supernatural beast, and that to do so was to invite immediate destruction (“The Nightmarish Nuckelavee”, EsoterX; Fleming 125). But then again, Tammas had always been regarded as being “rough and foolhardy” by others (“Tammas and the Nuckelavee”, Orkneyjar). With nothing to lose, Tammas said to himself, “The Lord be aboot me, an’ take care o’ me, as I am oot on no evil intent this night!” He knew what he had to do…

Determined to face his foe, as the lesser of two evils, Tammas began to slowly walk forward. Yet as he drew closer, the man realized that it wasn’t just any monster that he was facing: it was the dreaded Nuckelavee, the Devil of the Sea. He saw just how gruesome the creature was up close: the lower part of the body was that of “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” (Fleming 125; “Nuckelavee”, Monstropedia). The creature had a single eye, which burned like hot coals in a fire (Fleming 125). “On the monster’s back was what looked to him like a huge man, though to Tammas he seemed as if he might be part of the ‘horse’, for he appeared to have no legs. He did though have long arms stretching nearly to the ground. His head lolled about on his shoulders as if at any moment it might topple to the ground” (Fleming 125). In addition, the man’s head had “a mouth projected like that of a pig” (“Nuckelavee”, Wikipedia). However, what terrified Tammas the most about the creature “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 as black as tar, running through yellow veins, and great white sinews thick as horse tethers, twisting, stretching, and contracting as the monster moved” (Fleming 125; “Nuckelavee”, Monstropedia). But in spite of his horror, Tammas kept moving forward.

If Tammas had been frightened before, he was utterly terrified now. His hair was standing on end, which he described as “a cold sensation like a film of ice between his scalp and his skull”, and he was breaking into cold sweats on top of that (“Nuckelavee”, Monstropedia). But Tammas knew that it was useless trying to run away, and if it was his fate to die that night, he would rather face his enemy head-on than die with his back to the creature. But despite how scared he was, something came to Tammas, and he suddenly remembered that the Nuckelavee absolutely hated fresh water. He now knew that he had only one chance to escape, or else he would die in the monster’s enormous jaws.

Slowly, Tammas began to move to the edge of the road closest to the loch. But then the monster’s horselike lower head caught on to what the man was doing, and it moved itself accordingly. The beast opened its mouth, and inside was a bottomless, teeth-filled abyss. Tammas could feel the Nuckelavee’s disgusting breath on his face, which was hot like a fire (“Nuckelavee”, Monstropedia). The beast raised its long arms and reached out to grab the poor man, but Tammas narrowly managed to duck and evaded the attack! In the process, however, the man momentarily lost his footing, and one of his feet accidentally slipped into the loch. This made a splash of water, some of which hit one of the monster’s forelegs. The Nuckelavee reared up on its hind legs and let out “a thunderous snort” (Fleming 125). Tammas saw his chance, and began to run as fast as he could! And it was a good thing he did, because the Nuckelavee was right behind him, bellowing with anger (“Nuckelavee”, Monstropedia; Fleming 125).

Tammas had never run so fast or so hard before, nor had he ever been so scared. But then again, he hadn’t ever encountered a monster before, either. But then he saw the rivulet, a small stream through which excess water from the loch made its way into the ocean. He knew that a great many supernatural beings were afraid of or otherwise despised running water, and the Nuckelavee was no exception. If he could get across the stream, he would be safe from the beast’s grasp. As he closed in on the bank, the monster extended its arms again to grab its prey. Tammas made one last desperate leap and landed on the opposite bank, leaving only his bonnet in the monster’s clawed hands. The Nuckelavee let out “a wild unearthly yell of disappointed rage”, and disappeared into the night. Utterly exhausted, Tammas collapsed on the other side of the bank, unconscious but safe (Fleming 125-126; “Nuckelavee”, Wikipedia; “Nuckelavee”, Monstropedia; Mack and Mack 58; “The Nightmarish Nuckelavee”, EsoterX; “Tammas and the Nuckelavee”, Orkneyjar).

As powerful as the Nuckelavee is, the beast is not without its weaknesses. As the story above states, the Nuckelavee is deathly afraid of fresh water, nor is it able to wade across running water. Furthermore, the beast will never come ashore during a rainstorm (“Nuckelavee”, Monstropedia). Exactly why the Nuckelavee despises fresh water so much is something of a mystery, but what’s important is that it works. In their book A Field Guide to Demons, Vampires, Fallen Angels, and Other Subversive Spirits (Arcade Publishing, 2011), Carol and Dinah Mack state that anyone who takes it upon themselves to go traveling through the Scottish Isles (i.e. on a backpacking trip) should, as a general rule, pack a number of bottles of fresh spring water with them (Mack and Mack 59). Not only is water essential for staying hydrated and alive, but it will also keep the Nuckelavee at bay (Mack and Mack 59). And like most faeries (there are some exceptions), the Nuckelavee is vulnerable to iron and steel, and can be wounded or even slain by these metals (Bane 220; Mack and Mack 59). If a physical confrontation becomes necessary, use the bottled water to repeatedly splash the monster, while simultaneously slashing at it with a steel blade or beating the beast with a rusty metal rod. If this assault doesn’t drive the Nuckelavee away, then nothing will.

Another thing that the Nuckelavee hates is the old Orkney practice of burning gathered seaweed, which is known as kelp-burning. The smell is extremely offensive to the Nuckelavee, but it doesn’t actually have any apotropaic qualities. Instead, the pungent smoke sends the beast into a foaming, extremely violent rage that can cause plagues, the destruction of private property, the ruination of crops, and widespread livestock slaughter (“Nuckelavee”, Wikipedia). Furthermore, the Nuckelavee would “visit” the island of Stronsay and strike down all of the horses on the entire island with a fatal disease, which again is known as Mortasheen. Stronsay was the first island in the Orkneys to adopt the practice of kelp-burning in the early 1700s, where seaweed was gathered up from the beaches, dried, and burned in large stone-lined pits for up to eight hours. During this time, dried seaweed would be added to the pits continuously. The ash that remained was rich in potash and soda, which was initially used for treating acidic soil, but was eventually sought after by glass and soap manufacturers. Eventually, this practice spread across the Orkneys, but went into decline in the early 1800s, when deposits of the needed minerals were found in Germany. This made kelp-burning both unnecessary and obsolete (“Kelp-Burning”, Orkneyjar; “Nuckelavee”, Wikipedia; “Nuckelavee”, Monstropedia). In this regard, it’s no wonder that the Nuckelavee targets this island in its rage.

In Orcadian folklore, it is believed that there is only one other supernatural force that is capable of stopping the Nuckelavee, and the people of the Orkneys call her the Mither o’ the Sea (Mother of the Sea), or Sea Mither for short. It is thought to be her great power that controls the beast and keeps it restrained during the dryer summer months, while the monster’s fear of fresh water and rainstorms ensures that it stays under the sea during the wet winter months (“Nuckelavee”, Orkneyjar). The Sea Mither is the benevolent personification of the sea, granting the gift of life to every single living thing and dispelling the frightful storms that plague the Orkney natives so frequently. In other words, she is a kind, loving goddess that fiercely protects the inhabitants of the Orkneys, as a mother does for her children. She is one of the oldest surviving traditions from Orcadian folklore to date (“Mither o’ the Sea”, Orkneyjar).

The Mither o’ the Sea is not without enemies of her own. As well as having to deal with the dreadful Nuckelavee, her rival is the spirit of the winter, Teran. This spirit is believed to be very powerful and extremely hostile, and it is said that Teran’s awful voice could be heard “in the fury of the winter gales and his anger seen in the mountainous waves that crashed against the coastline” (“The Mither o’ the Sea”, Orkneyjar). Every spring during the vernal equinox, the Sea Mither would come back to the Orkneys to settle into her summer home. But in order to claim the seas for herself, she had to defeat and imprison Teran first. The Orcadian people called this event the Vore Tullye, the Spring Struggle. This is believed to be a fearsome battle that could last for several weeks and resulted in devastating storms which “churned the sea into a boiling froth”. And yet the Sea Mither was always victorious, her powers and strength fully restored by her winter’s rest. In other words, it was no contest. Teran would be imprisoned and bound in chains to the ocean floor, and the Mither o’ the Sea would immediately go about undoing any damage that Teran had caused during the winter, calming the angry sea and dispelling the storms. And except for an occasional storm (caused by Teran’s struggling at the bottom of the sea), the Sea Mither ruled her domain uncontested (“The Mither o’ the Sea”, Orkneyjar). During this time, the Sea Mither kept her eyes on and restrained the Nuckelavee.

But the Sea Mither isn’t able to rule forever. As the months went by and summer turned into fall, the Mither o’ the Sea grew weak and tired from her exertions during the warmer months. And as her powers waned, the magical shackles that held Teran to the ocean floor weakened as well. Eventually, Teran broke free and ascended to the surface, ready to do battle once again. This battle is known as the Gore Vellye, the Autumn Tumult. And this time, Teran would be triumphant, and the islands would tremble at his power and his tyrannical rule. The Mither o’ the Sea would retreat, beaten but not defeated. It is said that the Sea Mither is able to hear the desperate cries of every man, woman, and child that drowns, and she weeps for them. But she is able to comfort herself in the knowledge that, when spring finally comes, she will be refreshed and stronger than ever before, with her powers fully restored. And she will once again send Teran to the bottom of the sea, and the Mither o’ the Sea will once again resume her throne as the rightful ruler of the seas (“The Mither o’ the Sea”, Orkneyjar).

Although keeping the Nuckelavee away is a fairly simple matter (although it is still far easier said than done), killing the beast is a far more complicated task. To make matters worse, none of the resources consulted for this entry give any clues as to how this can be accomplished, if indeed it is even remotely possible. Since no real details are given, speculation comes into play. One idea that comes to mind involves literally pushing the beast into a lake. Since the Nuckelavee hates fresh water so much, immersing the monster may actually kill it, if only from sheer shock or drowning. And since no mere mortal can actually push such a heavy creature into a loch, a resourceful hunter must trick the beast into the water. Exactly how this can be done is up to the hunter, although being reckless or stupid about it is not recommended.

If immersing the Nuckelavee in fresh water doesn’t kill the beast, there are other methods that a resourceful monster hunter can fall back on. Piercing the heart with an iron blade or a stake and cutting off the head should prove to be highly effective. However, the fact that the Nuckelavee has two heads and (presumably) two hearts presents a unique problem. For the decapitation, an extremely sharp blade that is long enough to put some distance between oneself and the monster and also to take off both heads cleanly is recommended. To pierce the hearts, a little digging into horse anatomy is needed. But one should try to pierce both of the hearts simultaneously for maximum effect, or otherwise the beast may not fall right away. But once the creature is dead, the body should be dismembered and burned. It will require a few hundred pounds of wood and at least twenty (or more) gallons of gasoline or oil to burn the corpse to cinders. Furthermore, it will require several hours or even a few days of work and burning to reduce the body to ashes. About twelve people should take shifts of watching and adding fuel to the fire until there’s nothing left of the Nuckelavee but cinders and ashes. In this way, the Nuckelavee cannot regenerate and resurrect itself. If such a thing were to happen, the beast would undoubtedly be quick to wreak its horrible, bloody revenge on its would-be killers.

Today, the Nuckelavee has been all but forgotten. Legends say that the beast hasn’t been seen since Tammas Taylor encountered the beast so long ago. Has it simply disappeared due to its humiliation? Nobody knows for sure. But despite this, the Nuckelavee is remembered through its many appearances in popular culture, having appeared in a number of video games and in literature. But is the Nuckelavee truly gone? The people of the Orkneys don’t seem to think so, and they have every reason to believe that the Nuckelavee is still out there, emerging from the sea at night to hunt on dry land in search of a meal of human flesh…


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Fleming, Maurice. Not of This World: Creatures of the Supernatural in Scotland. Edinburgh, Scotland: Mercat Press Ltd., 2002.

Franklin, Anna. The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies. London, England: Anova Books Company Ltd., 2004.

Mack, Carol K. & Dinah. A Field Guide to Demons, Vampires, Fallen Angels, and Other Subversive Spirits. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2011.

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“Nuckelavee”. Monstropedia. Last updated May 23, 2011. Accessed on December 29, 2015. <>

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“The Nightmarish Nuckelavee: A Homicidal Orkney Unseelie”. EsoterX ~ If Monsters Don’t Exist,Why Are They Out To Get Me? April 25, 2013. Accessed on December 29, 2015. <>