A being or spirit formerly believed in was the water-horse, generally known in Shetland as the njogel, njuggel, njogli, neugle, or water-njogel, and also sometimes called nikker, sjopeltin, or sjupilti. The last term is confined chiefly to North Shetland.
This being is described as similar in size and shape to a horse or pony of the Shetland type, well proportioned, and of great strength and fleetness. Generally he was fat and sleek, and of handsome appearance; but occasionally he appeared as a very thin, worn-out, old horse. His color was gray, usually rather dark gray, but sometimes lighter or darker, and approximating to white or black. He differed from ordinary horses in that his hair grew and lay in the opposite direction to the hair of other horses; his fetlocks grew upwards instead of downwards; his mane was stiff and erect; his hoofs were also reversed and pointed backwards; and his tail was shaped like the rim of a (muckle) wheel. Why the tail was so peculiar in form seems to be unknown; but the people say that it must have, been of special utility to him in some way, perhaps used for propulsion in the water or to accelerate his speed on land, or perhaps to stop water-mills in some way. Some claim that his naturally very long tail was dragged behind, and occasionally rolled up like a hoop or the rim of a wheel, between his legs, or on his back. He could roll it up at will.
Partly because of these peculiarities, by which he could be detected, the water-horse was rarely seen in the day-time, but appeared generally at dusk or at night. When out of the water, he usually frequented the edge of lakes and streams, or paths in lonely dales near the water. The njogel was mischievous and fond of playing pranks. According to some, he was evil and revengeful, and sometimes intentionally tried to harm or even to kill people.
Perhaps his most common trick consisted in lying in wait for foot-travellers in the dusk of the evening, when he would stand meekly close to some trail, with his tail hidden between his legs. When the weary traveller would mount him to ride some distance, the horse would first go slowly, but soon he quickened his pace; and before long the astonished rider would find out that he was being carried at an ever-increasing break-neck speed towards some lake. As the horse's speed increased, a haze rose around him, lighting up the darkness. Streaks of fire or blue flames burst from his feet, and fiery smoke or blue flames issued from his nostrils and mouth. His distended eyes became fierce and flashed fire. Paralyzed with fright, the luckless rider was finally plunged into the lake, where the horse disappeared from under him, and he was left to drown. The horse continued to the opposite side of the lake, and vanished in a blue light.
Sometimes the njogel approached men as if he were a very tame horse; at other times, when a man had passed by without attempting to catch him or mount him, unobserved he would run ahead and wait for him again at some other part of the trail, trying thus again to entice him. He would occasionally change his appearance, the better to deceive, first showing himself as a young fat horse, and then as an old, lean or bony horse.
Although the njogel generally carried people into lakes, he also took them sometimes to the middle of streams, into dams, over waterfalls, or into rough, swift water. As a rule, he ran a straight course to the nearest deep water, occasionally taking people into the sea or to the mouths of streams, and even jumping with them off cliffs into the sea, presumably causing them to be drowned, although no stories actually relate such an occurrence. The njogel never seems to have attacked people, although he frightened them or tried to drown them, as stated above.
He had the power at will to make anything that touched him stick to him. Thus any one who mounted him could not escape, unless he had the presence of mind to call on God's name or call the njogel by his own name. In either case the njogel at once vanished from under the rider.
Another common prank of the water-horse was to ascend streams and stop water-mills. This was generally done when milling was going on at night; but it is known to have been done in the evening or even in the day-time, when the horse was seen, and driven away by the miller, who came out, and said, "God be here, and the Devil take the njogel!" At night, fire was generally used to drive him away, a burning peat or torch being thrown down the shaft-hole of the mill. According to some, a knife thrown down had the same effect. On some occasions (probably when neither fire nor knife was at hand) the horse would not let the mill-wheel go until an offering of meal had been made. When milling, some people always gave small offerings of meal in order to avoid trouble or interference from him. These offerings were placed inside the mill or just outside, or thrown from the mill into the water below.
Unlike trolls, mermen, etc., this being was always spoken of in the singular; so it seems that in the popular mind there was just the one njogel, or njogel-spirit, which could appear at any time in many places widely apart, much in the same way as the Devil. Some people believed the njogel was one of the fallen angels doomed to inhabit the water in the form of the water-horse, either for all time or for a long period of probation. Somewhat similar ideas, however, were held to account for the origin of nearly all the supernatural beings commonly believed in.
- Spence, J. (1899). Shetland Folk-lore. Lerwick: Johnosn & Greig, pp. 23-24.
- Teit, James A. (1918). "Water-beings in Shetlandic Folk-Lore, as remembered by Shetlanders in British Columbia." JAF 31:180-201, pp. 183-186.
This article incorporates text from Water-beings in Shetlandic Folk-Lore, as remembered by Shetlanders in British Columbia (1918) by James Teit, which is in the public domain.