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  The Nuckelavee - Devil o' the Sea

The Nuckelavee Abroad: Illustration by Sigurd TowrieOf all the supernatural beings once believed to roam Orkney, none was as feared as the creature known as the Nuckelavee.

The Nuckelavee was a creature of abject terror, and spoken of with bated breath until comparatively recent times.

Although many folklore creatures had a dualistic nature, the Nuckelavee was a creature of sheer evil. His sole purpose was to plague the islanders - a task from which he rarelyt rested.

According to the old Orcadians, who lived in constant fear of the Nuckelavee, only the power of the Mither o' the Sea kept the beast in check. Were it not for the fact that she restrained him in the summer, and that his terror of fresh rainwater kept him hiding in the winter, they were sure that the Nuckelavee would have driven mankind from the Northern Isles long ago.

Despite the fact that his home was considered to be the sea, the Nuckelavee was known to wander freely on land. It was during these landward excursions that he was most often encountered by mortals - usually seen riding a steed as monstrous as himself.

Grotesque hybrid

The surviving accounts vary, with some storytellers merging the two monsters so that rider and horse become one - a vile hybrid of man and beast that, they swore, was Nuckelavee's true shape.

From the few recorded descriptions of the Nuckelavee, we learn that his head was similar to that of a man only "ten times larger". He had an incredibly wide mouth that jutted out like a pig's snout and a single red eye that burned with a red flame.

Hairless, his body was also skinless, its entire surface appearing like raw and living flesh. It was said that his thick, black blood could be seen coursing through his veins, as his sinewy muscles writhed with every movement he made. His long ape-like arms hung down to the ground and from his gaping mouth spewed a foul, black reek.

All in all, not a pleasant sight to encounter on some lonely stretch of coastline.

Nuckelavee's blight

The Nuckelavee was often blamed for numerous disasters that were known to afflict the hardworking folk of Orkney:

"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."

Were this catalogue of misery not enough, the Nuckelavee was also blamed for any droughts that could seriously ruin a harvest.

From this, we are left in no doubt that the old Orcadians regarded the Nuckelavee an incredibly powerful and dangerous creature - perhaps more powerful than the surviving accounts would indicate. How else could an earthbound entity affect the weather to such an extent?

Mortasheen - Nuckelavee's legacy

The old practice of burning gathered seaweed to make kelp was said to cause terrible offence to Nuckelavee.

The creature could not stand the smell of the pungent smoke and it drove him into an extreme and diabolical rage. In this state he would vent his wrath by smitting all the horses on the island of Stronsay - the island where kelp was first burned in Orkney - with a deadly disease known as "Mortasheen".

Once propagated, Mortasheen would soon spread throughout the islands where kelp was burned. Nuckelavee's revenge was terrible and complete.

The Orkney folklorist Walter Traill Dennison, who lived in Sanday in the nineteenth century, claimed to know of a man who had actually encountered Nuckelavee and lived to tell the tale.

According to Dennison, the man was very reticent to talk on the subject and only after much "higgling and persuasion" was a narrative forthcoming.

To read of this encounter click here.