Nuckelavee, Devil of the Sea

He was the cause of all misery in Orkney

Orkney is a cluster of small islands nestled between the coast of Scotland and Norway. Vikings used the islands for pirating purposes and the Celts built the famous broch towers during the Iron Age. As such, their folklore has been influenced by both the dark nordic stories of witches and monsters, and the richness of Celtic Fae and magic. In this mixing pot, one of the most terrifying creatures in folklore was born: the Nuckelavee.

"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."

 

This quote by Walter Traill Dennison (folklorist: 1800s), perfectly describes how the people of Orkney islands perceived the monster. Even to mention its name is said to bring misery upon men. Described by the locals as a sort of faerie, the Nuckelavee is cruel and vicious, and when it scrambles out of the waves and onto the shores of Orkney, it brings with it plague and failed harvests. Its sole purpose: to bring misery upon the world.

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It resembles a horse with a torso of a man growing up from its back. It has a single burning eye and a horses’ maw filled with sharpened razor teeth. The Nuckelavee has no skin, and putrid yellow veins pulse black blood through its pale-red body, and its organs are on display for all to see. The creature towers above men, above trees, the very sound of his thundering hooves enough to send the bravest of warriors screaming into the night.

Mostly though, the monster spends its time at sea, hence the name Nuckelavee, deriving from the Orkney word, knoggelvi meaning ‘Devil of the Sea’. When it comes onto land it usually wanders aimlessly, searching for prey or simply to spread the plague. Its breath is equally dangerous. Spewing toxic clouds that kill everything in a 20-meter radius. To even come in contact with the Nuckelavee is enough to seal your fate.

But despite its cruelty and viciousness, the only thing that can truly anger the Nuckelavee is kelp. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the villagers on the islands started to burn seaweed. This ash was then used to help make soap, glass and bleach. The Nuckelavee despised this practice. Whether it was the smell or the action itself, burning seaweed could bring down the wrath of the Sea Devil.

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The monster would come galloping out of the ocean, tearing across the island, destroying all who dared make the wretched kelp with Plague and disease before returning back to the waves. His anger satisfied.

Only one man ever survived an encounter with the monster, Tam o' Shanter. Dennison recorded this story in his book The Orcadian Sketch-Book, which collects a wide range of Orkney folklore and traditions. Tam, or Tammie as he preferred, claimed that he came across the beast one night while walking home. He spotted something in the road before him.

"He soon discovered to his horror that the gruesome creature approaching him was no other than the dreaded Nuckelavee – the most cruel and malignant of all uncanny beings that trouble mankind.

As Tammie walked by the terrifying beast, he recalled from the dredges of memory their fear of freshwater. He had but one chance, run and hope to reach the stream before the creature did."

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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.

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He would survive the encounter, leaving the Nuckelavee screeching and roaring on the other side of the river, bereft of its prey.

At the core of the Nuckelavee is pure evil. Unlike many other dark Fae from the Celtic stories, there is no redeemable quality to the creature, nor its existence. It is there to destroy, to bring death and hate and misery upon mankind like a blight.

But thankfully the creature is kept locked up by the Mither o’ the sea. A sea goddess in the Orkney folklore who battles her counterpart Terran every year, creating dangerous storms and restless seas. She is the only one who has control over the Nuckelavee, and she keeps him sealed in a stable under the wild ocean.

But when her attention is diverted in Spring, the creature breaks loose and wreaks havoc across the islands, its anger and bloodlust tenfold for being imprisoned. She will of course drag him back to his prison, but not after the damage has been done.

The origin of the Nuckelavee tale could possibly be a mix of Norway and Celtic stories. A combination of, for example, of the Dullahan and Pesta. Dullahan is also a Fae, a headless horseman that rides across Scotland bringing death, a sort of grim-reaper figure. Pesta in turn is a creature of ill-repute in the folkloric tales from Norway. Born from the Black Death pandemic of the 12th century, she, much like the Nuckelavee, wanders through the country spreading the disease

Furthermore, the Nuckelavee might be a sort of representation of the Apocalypse. The colours of the Nuckelavee is very reminiscent of the four horsemen, and it does bring plague and famine. The Nuckelavee could then have been the destruction of man in a single horseman.

But wherever the Nuckelavee came from, from the bible, plague, or simple tall-tale, it is a force of unbridled terror and horror. A creature we can all hope is now sealed away for all eternity.

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