The Kelpies, Scotland: History, Art, Legend, Engineering Meet

Kelpies: unless you live in Scotland, that may not be a word you know.

It is much better known since Scottish Canals chose The Kelpies as the name for this project:

kelpies horse art scotland falkirk

At these kelpies, art, engineering, legend, and history meet. They are located in eastern Scotland, in the central belt region, between the towns of Falkirk and Grangemouth — and they stand one hundred feet high.

They form a centerpiece of The Helix, a parkland with trails for cycling and walking which connect many communities in the area. There are also play areas for children, splash pools, and related family friendly things. The Kelpies, though, have become a draw for visitors from all over the world.

kelpies interior w/tour group

The working horse goes back long through history in Scotland, from horses as partners in farm work to companions in battle to main ways of transport over distances long and short. Horses often provided the power to pull wagons, and when canals were added to roads as means to transport goods and people, horses walking along canal banks provided engines for this sort of transport, as well.

The horse goes back in legend in Scotland, as well. One of those legends is the source for the name of the sculptures: kelpies, in legend, were waterhorses — that was one of their forms, anyway, as they could and did take many shapeshifting ways. For good or ill, as friend or foe to humans involved in these tales, the kelpie most often returned eventually to the form of the waterhorse.

keplies horses lit red at night scotland

Andy Scott, the artist who designed The Kelpies, had both these ideas in mind as he began to consider what he would create. Over time, however, he found himself drawn to the idea of the working horse. “Falkirk was my father’s home town and that inherited link to the town has been one of my driving inspirations.  A sense of deep personal legacy has informed my thinking from the outset, with old family connections anchoring me to the project,” he writes in his artist’s statement about The Kelpies.

In the industrial history of the Falkirk/Grangemouth area he found a way to blend the story of working horses and the ideas come down in myth. “The ancient ethereal water spirits have been forged into engineered monuments,” he writes. He used two Clydesdales of Glasgow City Council as models, while suggesting other heavy horses of Scottish industrial history as well. The engineering of the structure and the materials were part of what Scott connected with this purpose. “The towering horse heads have an industrial aesthetic with structural columns and beams visible through the riveted laser cut steel plates of the skin, the manes rendered as geometric overlapping slabs of steel,” he explains.

kelpies scotland horse art andy scott

Of his intention for The Kelpies sculptures, Scott writes “Water-borne, towering gateways into the canal system, The Helix Park, and the nation, translating the legacy of the area into proud equine guardians.”

Whether you pass them by in the distance, come up close to look them over, or take a tour to see their interior structure, The Kelpies make a distinctive and dramatic feature of the landscape, one that is capable of many interpretations.

kelpie horse art lit blue at night scotland

Falkirk itself lies in the Forth and Clyde Valley, and is the site, among other things, of the unique Falkirk Wheel, which transports boats between levels of the Union and Forth and Clyde Canals. Part of the Antonine Wall, dating from Roman times, runs through Falkirk, and the historic Callander House is also nearby. The Kelpies and the trails are open and free to access day and night. The Kelpies change colors through the night — perhaps a nod to those shapeshifting waterhorses of legend — and the trails are lighted. Park facilities and tours, which do carry charges, are available during the day.

However much there is focus on the legacy and presence of real working horses, there is still, too, that name, and those legends. For a whisper of that, give a listen to Julie Fowlis, who has several times sourced songs of waterhorse legend for her recordings. Here, she sings the waterhorse story Dh’èirich mi moch,B’fheàrr nach d’ dh’èirich/ I arose early, would that I hadn’t and comes up with a creative visual evocation of the idea, too. Fowlis has recorded the song on her album Alterum.

Photographs of red Kelpies at night by Chris Allen, interior with tour group by James Allan, blue Kelpie by Greg Fitchett.

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