Last Updated on 9th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
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.
I love those sculptures. Thank you for showing them in their context by the canal. I had not idea they were situated next to a canal, all previous photos I have seen do not show them in the context of their surroundings.
I’ve never heard of a kelpie. Those are quite magnificent — and pretty amazing, considering their construction time. You learn something new every day!
I must admit I was impressed!
Another wonderful post, Mike! I am astounded to read that such a canal was constructed in 1790 using only horse and human power. What a different time — before our addiction to fossil fuels became full-blown and crisis-provoking! Hurrah for these wonderful statues which honor so many different things — mystical, legendary, and historical…
Thanks, Will; different times indeed!
Impressive! I had not heard of the kelpie legend but I did grow up hearing about selkies. My great granddad was very dark haired and dark eyed and my grandmother told me they’d say he descended from a selkie woman.
Fascinating! I confess I had to look selkie up.
those are quite magnificent! and what a fascinating story abou the kelpys…
They’re wonderful up close, Jim.
Wow! What an experience it must be to see these in person. They’re stunning.
Having only seen them from the motorway previously, they certainly looked even more impressive close up.
I bet they did!
At first I thought your post might about the dog breed called kelpie but that is because I am a mad dog woman! Having read your post, I am blown away by those statues; they are stunning. I would love to see them in the ‘flesh’. Great post, Mike.
They are just as stunning in the flesh (or steel), June!
A wonderful post on such a splendid sculptural work
Thanks, Derrick. An artistic and engineering triumph, I reckon.
I’m pleased that you’ve done this post Mike. It’s something that’s been on my radar for a long time along with the Falkirk Wheel but have never got round to it.. A great post as usual.
The Falkirk Wheel is amazing, Malc. I need to go back for some better photos!
Sorry we did not give you a better day for your visit. The Kelpies are indeed impressive.
A very short distance away on the canal is the equally impressive Falkirk Wheel boat lift. The Wheel only uses 1.5kWh of energy to turn, the same amount as it would take to boil 8 household kettles.
In nearby Bonnybridge, the remains of the roman Antonines Wall are also worth a visit.
All can be done in one day.
Thanks, Brian. I hold you personally responsible for the weather – always a constant uncertainty in this island of ours!
It s rare that something of that dimension is so elegant – every aspect of the design certainly seems to add to the mysticism.
I love the reflections in your header shot, Mike
Thanks, Emma – lucky shot. You’re right, they are elegant.
I found this very interesting
We do our best, Joanne… 🙂
A community recreation area in a fairly ordinary area is a great idea… the horse sculptures even better. But a kelpie is an Australian sheep dog that came from Scotland in the later part of the 19th century. This brilliant dog climbs on the sheep’s back and orders the pack of sheep around from above their heads.
Yes, I’d heard something about that, but didn’t know anything about it.
Now that’s something I have never heard of..a water spirit !
I thought water spirits were international?!
What a wonderful place – and those sculptures are amazing!
They are quite something, that’s for sure, Clare!
Those Kelpies are simply amazing!
Yes, Stu – I’m glad we got the chance to see them up close.
I really admire the foresight of those who dream of such iconic features, and the drive of those who see them completed.
Me too, Peter; I don’t have the vision.
I really want to see these. Your pictures are amazing.
Thanks, Darlene. They are certainly impressive; at night they are often lit in various colours – I’ve never seen that, but the photos are amazing.
They are quite impressive.
Can’t disagree, William!
I’d love to see these, brill photo’s of them Mike!
You would take some wonderful photos of them, Fraggle.
There was supposed to be a kelpie in a stream near where I grew up, but I never came across it, even though that area was one I played in often.
But there is no way it could have been as magnificent as these two. Next week I’m going to Scotland for a couple of weeks. We plan to visit Stirling. I hope we can get to see these magnificent beasts.
We have certainly been, and the first time we took the tour inside one of the heads. Last time, we walked between the Kelpies and the Falkirk Wheel and back.
We should have done that, but were a bit pushed for time.
Oops, sorry, comment went in wrong place.
You could pop in on the way there or back. I want to know a bit more about your kelpie!
Wow! I live in Northern California, and along Interstate 5 to the north of us as you drive through some very desolate areas on you way to Oregon there are two sculptures on hillsides beside the road a few miles apart from each other. One is a dragon and the other has been named by our children “The Mad Cow.” They seem to have been made of metal odds and ends welded together and are a lot of fun. (I would post photos if I knew how, but you get the idea.) But they are nothing to these horses!
They sound great, Dorothy!
They are exceedingly difficult to photograph without getting the high tension power lines in the photo, as you probably noticed! We make a point of seeing them when we were in Scotland in 2019, Mike. Very nice!
Thanks, Jim. I’m impressed you’d heard of them!
We visited them!
Seeing the Kelpies is on my wish list but hopefully when I finally do see them it will be in much sunnier weather 🙂
I reckon they’d look pretty good in most weathers, provided the visibility was OK.
Very appropriate that it was Princess Anne who inaugurated them!
Yes, I didn’t think of that!
I always wondered what Kelpies were. Now I know. Thanks, Mike.
I didn’t know until I looked it up, Rick 🙂