To understand the story of Nuckelavee, you must know that the Orkney Islands are cold and rocky, and it is hard to make a living there. The people have thought of every possible thing to get an income from their homeland, including burning up the seaweed that forms in drifts along the shore, to sell the mineral salt that comes out from the ash. This practice is called “making kelp.” For many years, kelp-making was a mainstay of the Isle of Stronsay in Orkney, but then the practice was abandoned; and for good reason, as you shall see.
There was an orphan called Tam Brodie living on Stronsay. One starry night, Tam was walking home from the tavern (where he went most nights), along the edge of a road that had the sea on one side and a freshwater loch on the other. As he made his way along the narrowest part of the road, he saw a huge creature climbing up towards him out of the dark sea.
“The Lord will be with me, and take care of me, as I am out for no evil purpose tonight!” said Tam boldly, and he kept walking slowly forward. (It was well known on Stronsay that he was very foolhardy.)
But soon he regretted all his brave piety, as he saw that it was no ordinary sea-creature, but Nuckelavee, the most terrible monster in any part of the Northern Islands.
This is how Tam described him to the folks gathered in the tavern the following evening:
“The low part of him was of a horse, of eighteen hands, all black from dripping sea-slime, and giving off a terrible stink. But out of his back grew the torso of a man, and his arms were so long that they dragged right along the ground! His head was huge, and it lolled from side to side as he walked, and he had only one eye, but huge it was too, and as red as fire, and his breath was all burning, sulphurous steam!
But worst of all, the monster was skinless, so his body was only red, raw flesh, with blood as black as tar running through his veins, and with great white sinews, thick as horse tethers, twisting and stretching as he moved about!”
Now, Tam had not had his parents by to see that he grew up with good sense or manners, so that he had become something of a target for mockery. But despite this, the boy had a way of telling a tale so that it would fill the room, and everyone listened as he continued.
“I was in fear now, for I knew that there was no chance to flee, for the creature would outrun me as a horse does a man. But yet I was undaunted.” A bold tone came to his voice. ““I’ll see the front of whatever kills me, rather than show him me back,” said I, and I continued forward.”
“We all wonder how you are still alive with us, for all your bravery,” said another young man, and there was a brief uproar of laughter, which Tam misunderstood completely.
“’Tis no laughing matter!” he said. “It was beside me all at once, its arms reaching out towards me and its fiery breath all on me face.” And sure enough, the skin on the poor lad’s face was burned pink all down one side, and his hair and lashes were gone there too, to the last one. “I lurched backward away from it, and tumbled down the narrow bank, so that one of me feet went in the loch, splashing up some of the water.
“’Tis only God’s kindness that the water splashed at the legs of the monster as it followed me down the bank! And as soon as it got on him, he gave an awful yelp, which gratified me no end to hear, and he shied back away to the other side of the road.”
And then everyone recalled the common lore about Nuckelavee: he feared fresh water, and could not bear to have even a drop of it on him; for to him with no skin, it was like brimstone, so that he was afraid even to leap across a running stream. There were a few cries of “Ah! It was fresh!” and “Of course, the water,” but then they hushed down, so that Tam could go on.
“So I stayed near the loch, didn’t I, as any fool would! I kept me legs almost in it, so as I could leap in there and avoid his clutches, if the worst came to it. But I wanted to get no closer to the loch than that, for the Lord only knows what other kelpie or beast might be in there! And so I stretched away along the bank of the loch with the monster galloping after me, bellowing something like a horse, and something like the waves on the rocks, and a fearful noise it was to hear.
“Well, I’m no braggart, but after the quickest mile anyone ever ran on Stronsay, I come to the river. If I could cross the fresh running water, I was safe I knew, but he was gaining on me as I went to make the jump, and just as I leapt across, he lunged at me, but succeeded only in grabbing me hat! You should have heard him bellow as I ran away on the other side. When I turned he had gone from sight, although still I could hear the hooves of him clatter on the road as I made me way back. “
“And ran into your namesake Tam O’Shanter on the way, I’ve no doubt,” said the other young fellow, and the laughter roared up again in the tavern, but it could not hide the air of deep concern among many of those who had heard the tale.
As I have said, Tam was an unruly fellow, and while his stories were as amusing as himself, most folks gave them little credence. And so it might have been that the people of Stronsay ignored him when he said he had encountered the creature, which had not been seen in a generation.
But this time, it had to be said that Tam might be telling the truth. The marks on his face were enough to convince them that something had happened out there, be it as he said or otherwise.
Then, upon their investigation of the narrow road, they found that great hoof-prints were visible, right where Tam claimed the creature had been. And then at the end of the road where the river lay, they found his hat, with the top of it burned right through.
That was enough for the Islanders. Quick now to believe the creature had returned, the people began to take great caution, bringing in all their livestock from the outlying fields, and making sure never to be out on the roads after night had fallen, in case they too meet the dreaded creature.
But it was not until a few days later that anyone gave thought to the reason for Nuckelavee’s return. Mrs. Harcus, an elderly widow and friend to the Brodies, was walking past Tam’s bothy and saw him doing something that every other Islander knew was unthinkable. There he stood, right before her on a clear autumn day, burning great piles of seaweed that he had gathered in an old pit by the ocean shore.
“What in the Devil’s name are you doing, Tam Brodie?” said she.
“It is such an easy way to be rid of it!” said he, an idiot’s grin upon his red-burned face. “I have been doing it for a month or more. I am surprised no-one else has thought of it.”
“Well, I am surprised you are not already in Heaven with your maker. It is said he has a special place ready for born fools.” She put her hands on her head and stomped up and down. “Do you not know that he hates the smell of that? (She dared not say Nuckelavee’s name aloud). “To us it is but burning kelp, but to him it is the foulest odour.”
All this was true enough. To burn the kelp weed was to summon up Nuckelavee out of the sea, for he considered it a terrible offence, and it had not been done on Stronsay in many years. But poor Tam had never learned this, or if he had been told, the news had gone straight through his head without finding a part of his mind in which to lodge.
So this was why the creature had returned. “Because Thomas Brodie is as big a fool as ever lived on Stronsay and has been burning the kelp, which any child in a cradle knows you must not do!” she ranted that night, as the people gathered. “It is only God’s mercy that we have not got the Mortasheen already. And if we do, it will be the boy’s fault, and then what will become of him?”
“The monster knows as much. It sought him out first,” said one of the men gathered there. “It is him the creature wants!”
“I hope you are not suggesting we turn him out, son,” said Mrs. Harcus. “We’ll not turn on our own, no matter how damnably stupid they are.”
While many in the tavern nodded in assent, some others muttered about there being a time and place for rough justice, and it was clear that Tam’s future did not look bright. And so he was taken from his little bothy by the loch into the house of his relatives in Rothiesholme, where his uncle could keep an eye on him and make sure he got up to no more foolishness.
Unfortunately for the folk of Stronsay, Mrs. Harcus had spoken too soon about the Mortasheen. The very next day, signs of the disease had begun to appear. Horses took sick near to where Tam was now living at Rothiesholme, and began foaming at the mouth. The day after that, other horses showed the same condition, although these were at the other end of the island.
There was no help for the poor beasts; after two days of foaming at the mouth, they were dead. It was not long before half the horses on the island were dead or dying, and other animals had begun to contract the sickness, too.
And it got worse very rapidly. The barley, which had been nurtured throughout the brief summer and was due for harvest, had begun to show signs of mildew, although there had been not an inch of rain for several weeks, and little fog. Soon it was crumbling away into nothing. Other crops failed too, although there was not a sign of trouble on any other island but Stronsay.
This was the worst visitation of the Mortasheen ever known in Orkney. It was said that Nuckelavee was walking the length of the island at night, breathing his pestilence into barns and fields, and causing the strange drought as well, so that no animal or crop on Stronsay would survive the winter, if nothing could be done to placate him.
And of course, word had gotten round about Tam Brodie and the burning kelp, and on the fourth evening after the plague began, there was a crowd gathered outside his uncle’s door, demanding that he be sent out into the wilds at night so that the creature could claim the one he wanted, and leave the rest in peace.
“We are paying for his sin!” one of them shouted. “We’ll all starve, and not see out the harvest, now he has brought this thing on us. You’re harbouring the curse in there, Brodie. Turn him loose at once, or we’ll come in and take him.”
James Brodie (that was Tam’s uncle) was a good man and respected on Stronsay, and he did not want to see his orphaned nephew so mistreated, but he knew that after a day or two more of the disease, there would be no stopping the Islanders from carrying out their threat. So he stood at his doorstep and placated them like so:
“Let him stay this one night more in my care, for he needs some time to prepare himself to fight the creature. After that, you may do as you please with him, but do not harm him this evening.”
So the villagers went away, leaving the Brodies and other folk in Rothiesholme wondering what to do with the wayward boy. They gathered to discuss it, and it was Mrs. Harcus who put forward the only real suggestion.
“It is the monster that is controlling the weather,” said she, “for it is known that he hates the rain. Autumn is his time. The Mother of The Sea keeps him at bay in summer, and the rain keeps him back at winter. As we cannot wait for the sun, we must have the rain, to bring on the winter, and to drive him away.” This was a strange suggestion, but no-one could think of an alternative, so that evening they went down to the water’s edge to pray for rain to come.
Now, rain is neither a normal nor a needful thing to wish for in those Isles, in which every other day sees it coming down by the bucket. And so it was that their song caught the attention of a Finman, who was lurking in his night-boat offshore in the darkness.
The Finmen were a mystery to the people of Orkney in those times: their moods were changeable, and their magic as powerful as any winter storm. But they were also remote, and showed themselves to normal folk only according to an occasional capricious whim, sometimes for the purpose of kind generosity and sometimes for malice, and one could never know their true purpose until the final moment came.
Swiftly and silently, the Finman drew close to the shore without need of an oar, and then stepped from his boat and came upon them from the shadows of the beach. He was within a whisper’s distance before the little group of singers knew he was there. Of course, they were most frightened when they saw him.
“Pater Mary one, Pater King two,” said James Brodie, to repel the threat of evil, as quickly they formed into a huddle, with the fire between them and the sorcerer. But he, who was dark and tall and lean, and whose face could only half be seen beneath his hood, gave a low laugh and told them not to fear.
“I have come to help you, James Brodie. I heard your song just now. If you wish to bring the winter rain, I know how it can easily be done,” he said, for like Nuckelavee, the Finmen were masters of the weather. “But I would know why you want such a thing done, just when the harvest is upon you?”
“What is it that you want, if we tell you?” said James Brodie, who was by now holding up a burning branch from the fire to ward off the dark man.
“I want only to help you. And in reward, you will meet me here on this beach in a year from today, and you will bring this bag, filled with silver; and if you do not, none of you will ever see me again.”
James Brodie and the others secretly thought this was a foolish bargain, but one that suited their side well, and so they told the sorcerer all about poor Tam, Nuckelavee, and how they wanted to save the boy and be rid of the creature. The Finman nodded and asked no questions, as though he knew the reason all along, and soon agreed to make the rain come for them the next evening. And then he slipped silently away.
On the night of the following day, when his uncle could appease the vengeful crowds no longer, Tam Brodie was turned out of the house at Rothiesholme. Most of those who had gathered to see it done were quick to return to their homes before the darkness was complete, but some of the younger lads swaggered after him as he headed away from the village, shouting at him, one or two even throwing stones. After a mile they gave up the game, and he was alone.
“Head for high ground, son, and look for a shelter where he’ll not find you,” James had said to him before he departed, handing the lad a bag of dry food and a blanket to take with him up into the hills, where he was to wait out the evening. “Keep alive just one night longer, and you’ll be through this.”
He walked slowly up the side of Sly Hill, searching the horizon for the promised rain. But this evening, the sky was filled with blazing star-shine, just like the night he had first met the creature and his troubles had begun.
He began muttering to himself about all the bad luck that had ever befallen him, from the beginning of his life to this very hour. But as he looked back upon his life — a thing he had never done before — he remembered too all the kindnesses that had been shown to him, and he began to regret the many times he had ignored the lessons that others had tried to teach him.
“Damn me!” he said. “If I was more of a one for listening and learning, and less often at the tavern playing the fool, the Mortasheen would not have come upon us, and I’d be safe at home now!” And he decided that if he could only see out the night, he would abandon the life of the young fool and work at making a man of himself.
But he was not even at the crown of the hill before he heard the sound of galloping hooves coming after him, and then the steaming blast of Nuckeavee’s breath. He turned and saw the glowing red eye, visible for a moment in the night before the rest of its body came into view as it charged out of the darkness.
The eye stared straight at him, and the ghastly mouth grinned wide, and then it reared up upon its hind legs and roared, and he smelled the bloody slime dripping from its undersides and saw the fleshy tendons writhing within its body. Then it bore down on poor Tam Brodie, so recently of new resolve, but who now seemed certain to die that night, as there was no help from the Finman forthcoming.
But then the darkness came, and it came swiftly. So sudden it was that frightened Tam thought the stars had all gone out and that the final Judgement of Christ was at hand, and he began to pray aloud for mercy. But as he prayed, he looked overhead and saw the real reason that the darkness had come upon them.
Great black clouds had rolled in from the west onto Stronsay and had covered over the little island in all the time it takes for a wave to break onto the shore. And as soon as the last patch of starry sky was gone from sight, down came the rain, and within a few heartbeats he was soaked through.
Nuckelavee had got within five yards of Tam before the first drops hit his flanks, but it was so dark now that Tam had difficulty in seeing what befell the creature, and afterwards he could never quite explain it.
“It was as though parts of him just went their separate ways,” he would say. “Some of him staggered off down the hill to the sea, screaming in a man’s voice, but I heard the bellow of an angry horse go off towards the landward side. And part of him just fell to pieces in the spot where he stood, like a cake of salt in hot water.”
And when the clouds parted, as swiftly as they had arrived, and he moved forward to see what remained of the creature, all he found was a large dark patch of slime on the grass.
There is a final word to the story, and you may have already guessed that the Finman had it, exactly one year later. The Brodies and their friends (not Tam, for he was away working) were sitting down for supper at their house in Rothiesholme when there came a knock at the door, and before it could be answered, the dark Finman came into the room and stood before them.
“I fulfilled my promise to you. But you did not come to the beach. Have you the bag of silver, so that you may also fulfil your part of the bargain?”
James Brodie had not forgotten about the bargain, and he was ready with words for the sorcerer, although he did not rise to greet him, but remained seated as he was.
“The bargain was unjust,” he said. “We are not to know if the storm came by its own accord, or was sent by God, instead of you. In any case, we are only poor people, and have no bags of silver to be giving away to strangers. Your word was that if we gave you nothing, we would not see you again. Well, we have nothing for you, and you have entered uninvited. Go from my house now.”
The Finman said: “Very well.” And for a moment they thought he would trouble them no more. But then he reached into his cloak and drew out from a small pouch a handful of black powder, smelling of salt and fire, which he threw in a whirl so that it went into the faces of everyone that sat around the table that night. And from that moment on, they were all as blind as the stones in the hearth.
“It is as I said: none of you will ever see me again,” laughed the Finman, and as they groped about on the floor to find their way, they never heard him slip away into the night.
Credited to S.J Mackenzie