The Blue Men Stories
by S. J. McKenzie
part 1 of 2
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.
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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.
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Copyright © 2011 by S. J. McKenzie