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  The Nuggle - the Orcadian water horse

The Icelandic Nykur

Water Horses - Illustration by Sigurd TowrieA variant of Orkney's nuggle is also found in Iceland, where it is known as nykur.

At one time, most lakes in Iceland were thought to house a nykur and, as such, considerably more lore surrounding this water-horse has survived there.

Essentially there was no difference between the Orcadian and Icelandic versions of the creature - it was usually in the shape of a horse, found near water and lured the unsuspecting to a watery grave.

However, the Icelandic nykur - also referred to as noni or nennir (takers) - had a few distinct, and strange, differences.

It appeared as a grey coloured horse, but its ears and hooves were turned backwards, with the fetlock is in front. It was also said to have a bladder under its left haunch.

Although its favoured form was a horse, the nykur also had the power to shapeshift and could change itself into all forms - living or dead. The only restriction to this ability was that it could not take the form of lambswool or peeled barley!

The creature's favourite haunts were near rivers or lakes that were difficult to cross.

Like the Orcadian nuggle, and the Scottish kelpie, the nykur initially acted docile, tempting people to mount and ride across. But as soon as the rider climbed upon the beast's back, the nykur galloped into the water, where it lay down, dragging the rider with him.

The nykur were also connected with ice, something particularly prevalent to Iceland. There, when ice cracks form on frozen lakes and make a noise, Icelanders say that the nykur neighing. Because of this, people were very cautious when crossing ice.

The Icelandic nykur could also breed with horses, giving birth like a normal mare, albeit in the water. The offspring of these unions were indistinguishable from those of a normal horse - but for one thing. The offspring of a nykur had a tendency to lie down when splashed with water or when led through belly-deep water.

One of the only defences against the attentions of the nykur was the fact that they could not stand the sound of their name, or any other word that sounded like it. Where this happened, the nykurs would rear manically before galloping to the safety of the water.

One tale explains how a nykur was dragging a sleeping girl out into a lake when the girl woke and shrieked: "Leave me alone, nykur." The creature immediately dropped his prey and disappeared beneath the water.

Making the sign of the cross over a suspected nykur's rump was also a surefire way to prevent it carrying a rider to a watery grave. This act also allowed the creature to be ridden like a horse.

Again, like Orkney's nuggle, much of the nykur folklore follows the same pattern, usually with children meeting a nykur and unwittingly clambering on its back. However, these children usually manage to save themselves by saying something the nykur can't stand.

One story, for example, has a small girl leading sheep to pasture. This youngster had gone far and was becoming tired when she saw a grey horse on the path.

She approached the horse and, tying her stocking around its neck, led it to a rock and tried to get on its back. Experiencing difficulty mounting the nykur, the little girl gasped and said, "I don't feel like getting up on the back."

The nykur reared up with a shriek and galloped into a nearby lake where it disappeared.

Another recorded name for the Icelandic nykur is kumb, a name that probably derives from Kumbur pond below Skardsfjall in Landsveit. There, so local tradition has it, a grey stallion once emerged from the water and mated with a mare.

This same lake was also reputed to be the place where a big, fat, grey cow entered the world.

While this otherworldly bovine was being milked it was noticed that her hooves were turned backward, just like those on a nykur. Because of this, no-one wanted the animal, who became so enraged that she stamped a child to death before disappearing.