Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:26 am
Any self-respecting student of folklore will tell you that, in Britain, a kelpie (or kelpy) is a Scottish water spirit, a waterwraith. Kelpies are shape-shifters, but usually appear in the form of a horse and are malignant, deriving pleasure from the drowning of travellers. They are immensely strong and have been known to take human form, perhaps appearing as beautiful maidens luring gullible young men, or even children, to their deaths – though are often given away by their hooves, or rushes in their hair.
“Every lake has its kelpie or water-horse, often seen by the shepherd sitting upon the brow of a rock, dashing along the surface of the deep, or browsing upon the pasture on its verge.”
Rev Patrick Graham (1750-1835): Sketches of Perthshire – quoted in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.
Passing along the M9 between Edinburgh and Stirling, you will spot the heads of two massive steel horses, towering over the motorway’s northbound carriageway. They are certainly hard to miss. One head is tossed disdainfully back in the air, nostrils flaring, the other gazes serenely downward. These are the 21st century Kelpies, a local landmark claimed to be the largest equine sculptures in the world and the brainchild of talented artist Andy Scott.
In fact, just like their mythical namesakes, there is more to Scotland’s Kelpies than first meets the eye. They are the drawing feature within an extensive 865-acre (350 hectares) community recreation area, Helix Park, situated between the towns of Falkirk and Grangemouth and bisected by a section of the Forth and Clyde Canal. Helix Park, named for its shape, includes miles of cycle paths and walkways, a lake, wetland areas, play park, cafés and a friendly visitor centre with a gift shop. It was a joint regeneration project undertaken by Scottish Canals and Falkirk Council, funded by the National Lottery, on derelict scrubland, with the aim of creating something of benefit to local communities. In average Scottish weather, it is a fairly windswept, even bleak, post-industrial location, flanked by modern retail and industrial estates. In my view, it desperately needs more mature trees, but it is easy to see that millions of pounds have been spent on it; fortunately, the facilities seem to be well-frequented by humans and wildlife alike. The Kelpies, however, are an attraction of international significance, sitting astride a new link between the Forth and Clyde Canal and the River Carron, a colossal, gleaming, gateway reminiscent of some ancient mythical harbour entrance, with the equally magnificent backdrop of the Ochil Hills to the north. Beneath the Kelpies, a new canal turning pool has been created, known as the Kelpies Hub, and colourful watercraft moor up on the other side of the lock gates. In the sunshine, it must be a pretty sight; but the Kelpies surely ensure drama in all conditions.
The Kelpies were actually inspired by, and are a monument to, industrial heavy horse power and modelled on two Clydesdale horses named Duke and Baron. The Forth and Clyde Canal, which was reopened in 2001 having been closed in 1963, connected the east and west coasts of Scotland when it first opened in 1790. Back in the day, horses would have been a constant sight on its towpaths, pulling the barges containing raw materials such as iron ore and coal, and the products of Falkirk’s nearby famous iron works. What a different scene it would have been a couple of short centuries ago.
Up close, the Kelpies appear even more colossal than they seem from a distance. Each one is almost a 100 feet (30 metres) high, weighs more than 300 tonnes, rests on massive 1,200 tonne foundations and is formed from a complex skeleton of steel bars with hundreds of steel plates (464, to be precise) mounted on top. The artistic concept and the engineering that turned it into reality are equally impressive. Possibly even more astonishing is the fact that construction only took 90 days. The Helix Park project was ten years in the making, including design and planning, with work commencing in 2011 and the official opening in 2013. The erection of the Kelpies began in late 2013. They and their hub were opened to the public (you can actually go inside the Kelpies) on 21 April 2014. Anne, the Princess Royal, declared them officially open on 8 July 2015.
The Helix is a fabulous, well-conceived, high quality public facility that any urban area should be proud and delighted to have on its doorstep. The presence of the Kelpies, of course, makes it special. When the ABAB team visited, cyclists, walkers and families were all enthusiastically using it, though I was puzzled by the instruction for random cyclists to dismount and supervise children. In any event, if you live in Scotland’s Central Belt and have not visited Helix Park and its Kelpies yet – why not? And, if you are heading between Edinburgh and Stirling and have not been, you may want to make a point of dropping in. Certainly, as we sat there on a bench in the drizzle munching our soggy sandwiches, I had to admit that I could not think of a better spot next to the thundering M9 in which to enjoy a picnic.