The myth of the Kelpies
This lesson plan explores the idea of the Kelpies, a Scottish myth that can be traced back as far as the fabulous ‘Pictish beasts’ carved on early medieval stones. The latest interpretation of the myth is the Kelpies sculptures near Falkirk by artist Andy Scott.
This lesson plan looks at the different ways artists and writers have depicted the myth and ask why the latest version is so very popular with the public.
Key Stage:P6,P7&S3, Literacy, Social Subjects and Expressive Arts. KS 3&4 English, Art
Overview:An introduction to the nature of kelpies in Scots and Gaelic folklore, and Pictish portrayals of ‘fabulous beasts’. Learning activities involve investigating and reflecting on the popularity of Andy Scott’s sculptures and evaluating Pictish images as possible representations of Kelpies. This lesson can be used:
-to start a investigation into early Scottish carvings
-to develop discussion skills
-to develop research skills
-to start a project comparing and contrasting artists representations of the myth.
-to compare and contrast the success and failure of two very different sites for public sculptures by the same artist.
Background - Kelpies
Kelpie is a Scots word for a shape-shifting water demon that can appear on land as a horse. The word probably derives from the Gaelic, cailpeach: a colt or bullock. In folktales, kelpies were seen as malevolent creatures that dragged their human victims under water. The kelpie would appear to its victims as a grey or white pony with a dripping mane. It would entice people to ride on its back, before taking them down to a watery grave. Some sources say that the kelpie still has hooves when appearing as a human.
Kelpies in writing
Writers have addressed the theme of the mythical creatures. In 1785, Robbie Burns satirised belief in kelpies in a poetic mock-sermon. Sir Walter Scott’s works contain two logical explanations for the origin of belief in kelpies; water-spouts moving across lochs and quicksands. Kelpies are also mentioned in books by J.K. Rowling.
Kelpies in painting
Artists have interpreted the myth in their own way. Kelpies were a popular theme for artists around the beginning of the 20th century including Herbert Draper whose version shows a relatively harmless nymph. It is recorded that the painting received a mixed reception when first exhibited as many critics felt the figure too modern for such a mythical subject.
Fabulous Beasts in Pictish Sculpture
Kelpies can be seen as distant descendants of the Pictish beasts found on early medieval sculptured stones particularly in the Scottish north-east. Pictish beasts come in a variety of shapes. Some are similar to the imaginary creatures in illustrated bibles like those produced on Iona. Others, like this pair found on a 9th-century cross, seem to match the description of kelpies as creatures shape-shifting from water-beast to horse.
The tribes living in the north and east of Scotland were first called picts by the Romans, and the picts remained the one group in mainland Britain unconquered by Rome. Amongst the physical remains of Pictish culture, the symbol stones are probably the best known and most mysterious.
Watch the short film Pictish Kelpies. It gives arguments for and against the picts having made carvings of kelpies. Discuss which of the two theories about these horse-fish carvings they think is most believable.
The artist’s brief and how it was realised.
Andy Scott was following in a tradition of artists responding to the myth of the kelpies. Folklore says that once caught in a magic bridle, the kelpies immense strength could be used to haul vast loads. The work’s commissioners may have envisaged this as a symbol of the contribution of the horse to the industrial revolution in Scotland.
Andy Scott first made three-metre-high maquettes. The models were then laser-scanned and the final sculptures were constructed by Jacobs Engineering Group and SH Structures.
Discuss The Kelpies, Andy Scott
Show the film, What We Found, The Kelpies, in which young people discuss the sculpture. Discuss which of the points made in the film do they most agree with. Then ask the group what questions they would most want to put to the artist. Discuss their questions and what responses they feel Andy Scott might make. They can then research the artist by looking at his website to see if they can find evidence to support their views.
Find out more at Andy Scott sculptor.
The popularity of public sculpture
Working individually or in small groups ask the students to brainstorm up to five factors they think make the Falkirk Kelpies sculptures so popular with the public and to rank them in order of importance.
Get the groups to share their results and discuss their similarities and differences.
Using Google Maps or Google Earth investigate the local environment surrounding the sites of The Kelpies and another Andy Scott sculpture made during the time he was working on The Kelpies. This sculpture is called Cob and is also of a horse. It is sited on a roundabout in south east London.
The postcode for The Kelpies is FK2 7ZT. The postcode for Cob is DA17 6GB.
Compare and contrast
Why is the Falkirk site a major tourist attraction, and what are the main factors about the location that make The Cob unlikely to attract visitors?
Points that could be discussed include: Is the Kelpies’ popularity mainly due to their size? Cob has no signage and very little presence on the internet. Does this matter? Although the two public sculptures are in many ways similar, do they actually have very different purposes?