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An announcement in the national press recently that the fabled monster of Loch Ness is a gigantic European eel (Anguilla anguilla) has not impressed the Nessie hunters or the Highland tourist industry.
Even in this fast-moving modern world, reports that something more than an eel has been seen breaking the surface of Loch Ness near Castle Urquhart in the early part of the year, produces keen interest by the world media and an even great number of visitors than usual.
Tales of monsters are not new and go back thousands of years. The Book of Daniel records: ‘And behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly…and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had 10 horns’. Stories of the ‘each uisge’, the dreaded ‘water horse’, are among the oldest established of Highland legends.
The story of the Loch Ness monster can be traced back to the time of St Columba. On his way to visit Brude King of Picts in the hope of spreading Christianity among the heathen living around Inverness, he is said to have encountered a water beast in a nearby river.
Lord Malmesbury, the sporting tenant of Achnacarry, wrote in his memoirs in 1857, of a strange beast in Loch Arkaig: ‘My stalker has seen it twice. The creature was basking on the surface; he saw only the head and hind quarters proving that its back was hollow which is not the shape of any fish or of a seal. Its head resembled that of a horse. The Highlanders are very superstitious about this creature. They believe that there is never more than one in existence at the same time.’
Loch nan Dubhrachan in Skye was dragged with a net by order of Loch MacDonald in 1870 on account of a beast which, after being seen on the shore mistaken for a dead cow, ‘swam out with its head below the water, putting little waves ashore’. During the dragging the net stuck and the gillies, terrified of what they might bring to the surface, dropped it and ran back from the loch as fast as they could.
Other sightings occurred down the ages but it wasn’t until the 1930s than the whole business caught the attention of the public who, at this time’ were beginning to travel to the Highlands in huge numbers. In July, 1947, the Loch Ness monster was allegedly seen by an Inverness Bank manager and his wife with some friends. He was interviewed by a national newspaper and their account was the subject of some derision.
A few days later the following facetious letter appeared in the same paper: ‘Dear Sir, Although not acquainted with Mr GCF (full name was given) manager of the National Bank Inverness, I should like to confirm his statement. From my viewpoint in the loch I could see Mr F distinctly on the shore with his friends and I actually saw them leap to safety from the wash which I caused when racing up the loch. Might I ask sightseers to return their empty bottles for the amount of broken glass in and around the loch is very dangerous to us amphibians. Yours faithfully, The Monster. Loch Ness, Inverness-shire’.
A common complaint about the monster sightings was the poor and unsatisfactory reporting technique, unlike that of Elizabeth Mackay, Reay, Caithness. Miss Mackay didn’t see a monster. What she saw was a mermaid. A letter which she wrote, dated May 25, 1809 to Mrs Innes, Dowager of Sandside, was an inspiration to all journalists for its accuracy.
While walking with her cousin by the shore on the 12th of January, “about noon, our attention was attracted by seeing three people who were at some distance, showing signs of terror and astonishment at something they saw in the water. On approaching them, we discovered that the object of their wonder was a face resembling the human countenance, which appeared floating on the waves; at that time nothing but the face was visible. It may not be improper to observe before I proceed that the face, throat and arms are all I can attempt to describe; all our endeavours to discover the appearance and position of the body being unavailing.
‘The sea at the time’, Miss Mackay went on to say, ‘ran very high, and as the waves advance, the mermaid gently sunk under them and afterwards reappeared. The face seemed plump and round, and the eyes and nose were small, the former were a light grey colour, and the mouth was large; from the shape of the jaw bone, which seemed straight, the face looked short. As to the inside of the mouth I can say nothing. The forehead, nose, and chin were white were white, the whole side face of a bright pink colour. The head, which was exceedingly round, had hair thick and long, of a green and oily cast and appeared troublesome to it, the waves generally throwing it down over the face: it seemed to feel the annoyance and as the waves retreated, with both its hands frequently threw back the hair and rubbed its throat, as if to remove any soiling it might have received from it.’
‘The throat was slender, smooth and white; we did not think of observing whether whether it had elbows, but from the manner in which it used its arms, I must conclude that it had. The arms were long and slender, as were the hands and fingers; the latter were not webbed.’
Miss Mackay’s careful account was followed, a few months later, by that of William Munro, a Thurso schoolmaster who wrote to his friend, Dr Torrence, giving details of a mermaid he had seen 12 years previously.
‘The head was covered with hair, light brown in colour and shaded on the crown. The forehead round, the face plump, the cheeks ruddy, the eyes blue, the mouth and lips of a natural form, resembling those of a man; the teeth I could not discover as the mouth was shut. The breasts and abdomen, the arms and fingers, of the size of a full grown of the human species. The fingers from the action in which the hands were employed, did not appear to be webbed, but as to this I am not positive.
‘It may be necessary to remark that previously to the period I beheld this object. I heard it reported frequently by several persons, and some of them persons whose veracity I never heard disputed, that they had seen such a phenomenon as I have described, though then, like many others, I was not disposed to credit their testimony on this subject. I can say of a truth that it was only seeing the phenomenon I was fully convinced of its existence.’