If you ever take a tour out of Edinburgh, there will come a moment when you’re driving down the M9 when the tour guide will interrupt themselves mid-sentence and shout, “Get your cameras ready – look over here to the left!” Then, while you’re zooming by at 60 miles an hour, you’ll catch a glimpse of them between a gap in the trees: the Kelpies.
I’ve said before that the Scottish people love their stories. Along with their stories, they have all sorts of mythical creatures: fairies, Nessie, and, of course, kelpies.
In the Scottish tradition, kelpies are dangerous creatures. They live at the bottom of rivers and lochs – of which Scotland is full – and only come out when they’re hungry. No one knows what they look like in their watery homes, but when they’re on land, they take the form of great, big, beautiful horses with long, thick, fanciful manes. Weary travelers wandering down a lonely Scottish highway might chance across one of these gorgeous creatures and think to themselves, “Aye, that looks like a bonnie way to hasten hame,” and they’d climb up on the kelpie’s back. That’s when the trouble would start.
Once upon the kelpie’s back, the weary traveler wouldn’t be able to get down again. That luscious mane would wrap around the traveler, trapping them in place. The kelpie would then run with its prisoner right back into its loch, and prisoner would become dinner.
Now, this was probably an old wives’ tale, meant to keep the wee bairns at a safe and respectful distance from lochs and rivers and their potential dangers. That being said, the kelpies represent important aspects of Scottish culture: the storytelling, the magic, and the danger that all come along with the Highland landscape. So, when the Scottish people were looking for something to represent their culture in monumental form, the mythical kelpies came to mind.
The Scottish people turned to the artist Andy Scott to create this monument. Once the idea of the kelpie was in his head, he needed a location. It needed to be someplace of significance, both to the legend of the kelpies and to Scotland as a nation. That place was Falkirk: midway along the Forth and Clyde Canal, a major shipping path between Edinburgh and Glasgow. In the canal at Falkirk, there is a series of locks, through which the barges would be pulled by teams of Clydesdale horses. Waterways with a tradition of important Scottish industry and horsey behavior – a perfect place for a monument to Scottish culture, and an even better one for a monument to the Scottish kelpies.
In 2014, two 90-foot-high horse heads were unveiled on the canal at Falkirk, and have come to be an iconic part of the Lowlands landscape. They’ve even earned themselves a place in Scottish hearts – affectionately known just as the Kelpies, if you ask any Scot about them, they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. Not only that, they’ll tell you to wander on over and give them a visit.
Just don’t jump up on their backs.
Visiting the Kelpies
Getting There Falkirk is a 25-minute train ride from Edinburgh. Take the train from Edinburgh Waverley toward Glasgow, getting off at Falkirk High Station. From Falkirk High, there’s a bus that runs out to the Helix, the park that’s home to the Kelpies.
Admission Walking around the Helix and the base of the Kelpies is free, but you can take a tour for £7.50 which gives you the history of the Kelpies and allows you into the base of one of the Kelpies. Tickets can be purchased ahead of time online.