Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber 24.10.19

An unidentified U-boat coming alongside U826 which is flying a White Ensign photographed at Loch Eriboll, on the north coast of Scotland..

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A few weeks ago I wrote about monsters and gigantic eels which, judging by the number of emails I received, seemed to have caught many readers’ imagination – so much so that it appears the mysteries of the deep are still as interesting as ever.

First in was a message from an old crofter on Loch Eil-side who remembered what her aunt told her about the Loch Ness Monster. Before she, the aunt, married, she had been a legal secretary, and knew an elderly gentleman, Finlay Beaton, who was an Inverness historian. As a boy, he used to go and stay with his grandparents at Fort Augustus, where his grandfather might have been one of the lock keepers who opened and closed the locks.

One day Finlay and some others were trying to close the lock that led into Loch Ness. They didn’t know what was blocking gates, so out came the boathooks and goodness knows what else. Before long they discovered that there was a giant eel preventing the lock gates from shutting. Her aunt asked what did they do with the eel, and was told they dragged it back into the loch and returned to work!

Tales of huge numbers of large eels in Loch Ness surfaced again when, in 1933, experienced professional divers employed by a well-known insurance company, went down into the stygian depths in search of a yacht in which there was a string of priceless antique pearls belonging to the owner’s wife.

The late Mrs Cameron-Head of Inverailort, whose family lived at Culachy above Fort Augustus and knew the yacht owner, told me the divers talked about underwater horizontal shelves covered in thousands of eels, some so huge that they feared for their lives and refused to go down to where the yacht was thought to lie with the result that the pearls were never recovered and are presumably there to this day.

In October 2016, Scottish Power crews discovered the wreckage of a WW1 German U-boat when surveying the seabed to lay a new power cable in the North Channel that connects the Irish Sea with the Atlantic Ocean.

Incredible sonar images show the 100-year-old wreck to be mostly intact, and the find has led to the resurfacing of nautical folklore. Experts say the wreckage may be the infamous UB-85, which, legend has it, was attacked by a sea beast during the war.

According to the old tale, the U-boat commander – Captain Gunther Krech – said the submarine had been cruising on the surface of the water to recharge its batteries when a ‘strange beast’ rose from the sea with large eyes, set in a horny sort of skull. According to Krech the animal had a small head, but with ‘teeth that could be seen glistening in the moonlight’.

The story goes that the sheer size of the beast was so great that it forced the U-boat to list and the crew began shooting at the monster until it dropped back into the sea. The captain said, however, that during the course of the fight the forward deck plating had been so badly damaged that it could no longer submerge.

The British military had a slightly different take on the incident. Official reports suggested that when the UB-85 surfaced on April 30, 1918, it was spotted and destroyed by a British patrol boat – HMS Coreopsis – not by a mysterious sea monster.

German navy logs revealed that the submarine sank after issues with the
captain’s heater.

For the previous two weeks, UB-85 had been patrolling the Irish Sea, looking to unleash its 10 torpedoes on merchant ships bringing vital supplies to Britain from the US and Brazil. But before Krech was able to engage with the enemy, he told his superiors that UB-85 was rocked by an huge surge on the starboard side, followed by a terrific thud as something landed on the deck.

Krech, apparently looked down, and to his bewilderment and horror saw a huge sea monster emerging from the water and climbing on to the side of the submarine. Krech claimed he was standing with his crew on deck when the creature attacked.

The weight of the monster, he maintained, was so great that it began forcing the 730-ton submarine down. Eventually, with its mighty body stung by one too many bullets, it let go and slipped back into the depths. Although the crew were safe from immediate peril, it soon became apparent that the creature had severely damaged the forward deck, leaving the U-boat incapable of diving.

As dawn came, UB-85 became a sitting duck for the many ships of the Royal Navy patrolling the channel. Among them was an armed drifter called the Coreopsis, which cautiously approached the damaged submarine as it bobbed up and down. To the astonishment of the British ship’s crew, the Germans were standing on the deck with their hands up, and were willing to surrender without a fight.

It was only when the trembling seamen were on board, and Krech told his tale, that it became apparent quite why the Germans seemed so grateful to be taken prisoner. Even if the crew members of the Coreopsis were not sure whether to believe their captives, the story of the sea monster and UB-85 got out.

Despite the apparent absurdity of the German commander’s claims, plenty of locals have maintained that UB-85 could well have been set upon by a savage sea serpent.

Among them is Gary Campbell, the keeper of the Official Sightings Record for the Loch Ness Monster. ‘The area of sea where the attack took place has a history of sea-monster sightings. What the captain said could well be true. It’s great to see how Nessie’s saltwater cousin clearly got involved in helping with the war effort – she even managed to do the damage without anyone being killed.’

Peter Roper, of Scottish Power, said: ‘I am probably on the side of the historians who believe the capture of the vessel was more straightforward than a sea monster attack.’

Returning to the curse of the rowans, a correspondent on Mull wrote: ‘Regarding the legend of bad luck attending anyone cutting down a rowan tree. As you know, from time to time it is necessary, and in my own time, when the “County” roadmen had to take a rowan tree down, every man in the squad would be expected to have a hand on the saw. This was considered sufficient to dilute the effect of any malefaction that might result.

‘Several years ago, maybe 10, I observed the largest flocks of redwing and fieldfare I have ever seen, gorging themselves on a very heavy crop of berries which were on the trees beside the road on Liddesdale (a steep hill above Loch Sunart in Morvern).

‘As I approached, there was what I can only describe as a cloud of birds flying from the rowans, into the spruce for sanctuary until I passed. There must have been tens of thousands of birds and, even at that, the feast lasted more than a week. I have not seen the like before or since.’

iain.thornber@btinternet.com