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Saturday 12 April 2014

The Loch Ness Monster

On  the 23rd of January 1952, on a fieldwork trip, Calum Maclean recorded an anecdote about the Loch Ness Monster from William MacKenzie (b. 1872), aged 80, a retired gamekeeper, then residing in Cannich, Strathglass:

’S e an fhìrinn a th' ann. Tha mise ga chreidsinn. Chuala mi aig m’ athair 's aig mo mhàthair e, agus bha iad glè shean, gun robh seann-fheadhainn ga fhaicinn ann an sin. Chuala mi airson aon seann-duine a bha a' fuireach faisg air an sin. Agus bha e ri obair air choreigin. Cha ’reid mi nach ann a’ cliathadh na ri obair air choreigin as a’ chroit aige a bha e san talamh dhearg. Agus bha a chasan cho salach leis an talamh. Agus chaidh e a-mhàn ga taoian loch a ghlanag a chasan ann an taoian loch. Agus thàinig am beothach fiadhaich a bha seo, thàinig e a-staigh làmh ris gu tìr. Agus theich e is dh’fhàg e na brògan aige taoi' an loch. Agus bha cuid a' dèanamh fanaid air ach bha an duine ceart gu leòr.

Agus chunna mi a-rithist ann an leabhar air choreigin: Calum Cille nach b' fhada bhuaithe sin bhon a bha – chan eil cuimhne agam dè seo a’ bhliadhna a’ bh' ann; glè fhada air ais – chaidh e sìos gu Inbhir Nis uair agus dar a bha e a’ dul sìos ann an sin bha e airson a dhol thairis air an loch aig  a’ chaolas shìos. Chuir e fear a-null airson a’ bhàta a bha thall. Bha bàta thall. Agus chaidh e air adhart ach thill e. Cha leigeag am feagal leis a dhul. Bha am beothach fiadhaich ann an sin. Chunnaic e e agus chunnaic Calum fhéin e. Agus thuirt e ris an fhear “Cum air” agus thuirt e ris a’ bheothach tilleag (B875.2.; B877.1.2.). Agus thill am beothach, is chaidh e air adhart. Sin a’ chiad iomradh air. 'S iomag duine sin a chunnaic e bho chionn fhada air ais agus bhiodh iad a’ dèanamh dibhearsain dheth. Is chan eil teagamh nach eil e an sin.

And the translation goes something like the following:

It’s true and I believe in it. I heard it from my father and mother, and they were very old, that the old folk saw it there. I heard from one old man who stayed near there. He was working at something or another. I think that he was digging or something on his croft in the red earth. And his feet were very dirty because of the earth. He went down to the lochside to clean his feet by the lochside. And this wild beast appeared, it came to land near to him. He scarpered and left his shoes behind by the lochside. A few folk mocked him but he was a good enough [i.e.honest] character.

And I later saw in some book or another that St Columba – it wasn’t long before but I don’t recall the year when it happened; very long ago – went down to Inverness once and when he was going down there he wished to go over the loch where the narrows were. He sent a man over to get the boat that was there. The boat was over by. And as he went to go over he returned. He was so frightened that he couldn’t go over. The wild beast was there. He saw it and so did St Columba. And he said to the man “Keep going” and he told the beast to return [from whence it came] (B875.2.; B877.1.2.). And the beast went and he kept going. That’s the first mention of it. There are folk who have seen it long ago and they would tell stories about it. There is absolutey no doubt that it [the monster] exists.

Such a story obviously struck a chord with Calum Maclean for he mentions it in his acclaimed book The Highlands (1959), where he summarises the above and also where he quotes from Adamnan’s hagiography of St Columba, mentioned by the narrator as well:

I must now turn from religion to the less serious subject of the Loch Ness monster. I, however, am not quite so certain that the monster ought not to be taken seriously. When this remarkable creature first hit the headlines, its reported presence in Loch Ness was thought to be nothing more than a clever publicity stunt on part of the hoteliers of Inverness, a stunt calculated to encourage the tourist traffic. I doubt very much if the hoteliers of Inverness could have enough imagination to invent a monster which never did exist. Local opinion supports the belief that the monster is really there and that it has been there for a very long time. Adamnan, who became Abbot of lona in the year 679, first reported the monster in his Life of Saint Columba. Adamnan tells that the saint on one occasion wanted to cross the Ness, and, on coming to the bank of the river, found a group of men burying a man who had been killed by a water monster (aqualis bestia). Columba asked his companion, Lugne Mocumin, to swim across the river and bring him a boat that lay on the opposite bank. When Lugne was halfway across, the monster appeared and giving one hideous roar, made after him. 

Then the blessed man (Columba) observing this, raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupified with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, “Thou shalt go no further nor touch the man; go back with all speed.” Then at the voice of the Saint the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne as he swam that there was not more than the length of a spear staff between the man and the beast. Then the brethren, seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous heathens who were present were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians.

The monster, if it is the same one, has been putting in periodic appearances for a very long time and certainly as long as living memory can go back. My old friend, William MacKenzie of Cannich, Strathglass, whose father was a native of Urquhart, told of a man who was digging by the shores of Loch Ness over eighty years ago. It was a warm day in the Spring, and when the day’s work was done the man went down to the water’s edge, took off his boots and stockings and started washing his feet. Suddenly the head of the monster rose above the surface off the shore about twenty yards away from him. The man sprang up and fled in terror, leaving his boots and stockings behind him.

There were a number of similar stories about the monster and his appearances on Loch Ness. The general public first learned of the existence of the monster in the thirties mainly through the efforts of a journalist, John Herries, but the monster was no stranger to the local people. At that time the Glen Albyn road, from Fort Augustus to Inverness, was under construction and a great number of trees which had formerly screened the loch from the old roadway were cut down and, as Mr MacKell, the extremely able and popular headmaster of Glen Urquhart Secondary School, pointed out to me, large parties of workmen spent long days by the lochside and thus the monster had less chance of remaining undetected.

The question of whether the Loch Ness Monster actually exists or not has intrigued many types of experts and amateurs alike since her reappearance to worldwide acclaim in 1933. It is interesting to note that the above anecdote precedes this so-called reappearance of Nessie, as she has been affectionately known from the 1950s, for it may be dated to around 1879 or so. 

The Loch Ness Monster is a cryptid – a creature whose existence has been suggested but is not yet recognised by scientific consensus. Nessie, is reputedly a large unknown animal that is said to inhabit Loch Ness. It is similar to other supposed lake monsters in Scotland, such as Mòrag in Loch Morar, and elsewhere, though its description varies from one testimony to the next. Popular interest and belief in the creature’s existence has varied since it was first brought to the world’s attention in 1933. Evidence of its existence is anecdotal, with minimal and much-disputed photographic material and sonar readings.
The most common speculation among believers is that the creature represents a line of long-surviving plesiosaurs. The scientific community regards the Loch Ness Monster as a modern-day myth, and explains sightings as including misidentifications of more mundane objects, outright hoaxes, and wishful thinking. Despite this, she remains to this very day one of the most famous examples of cryptozoology in the world.

Mid-twentieth comic postcard of the monks at Fort Augustus in the company of Nessie
St Columba and his encounter with the Loch Ness Monster in the 6th century
The Loch Ness Monster depicted as a plesiosaur

Calum Maclean, The Highlands (London: Batsford, 1959)
SSS NB 16, pp. 1455–56

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