Before the Monster

Of all the monster legends in the western world, that of Loch Ness is probably the best known. This stretch of dark water in the north of Scotland attracts thousands of tourists, year after year, there have been dozens of books written, a few films made, ten thousand photographs taken and about as many newspaper articles either deriding or analysing the phenomena of the loch. There are professional ‘monster hunters’ and people desperate to prove the whole thing is a hoax: yet despite all the publicity and the hype nobody can prove the existence or otherwise of this so called monster.

The first recorded sighting of a strange creature in this area was in the sixth century when Saint Columba came east from Iona to spread the Word of Christianity to Brude, King of the pagan Picts near Inverness.  Adamnan, Columba’s biographer, wrote of the supernatural conflict between Columba and Broichan, who was Brude’s personal druid as well as his foster father. What may have impressed even the druid was an encounter outside the dun of the king. A large creature arose from the River Ness and was ready to close its huge jaws on the head of an innocent bystander when Columbus raised his hand and shouted. The noise, or the Word of God, was enough to scare the creature into a hastily withdrawal.

Broichan may have been put out by this blatant display of Christian power in his province, so he predicted that a storm would batter the saint on his return to his west. The prediction was proved correct, but as Columba lived on a Hebridean island he was used to foul weather and returned home safely.

That was not only the first known mention of a monster in the region of Loch Ness; it was also the first mention of magic there: both seen intertwined in the legend of Nessie, the familiar name for the Loch Ness Monster. The Gaelic speaking locals called her An Niseag – the Scots pronunciation would be neeshack. Yet there is a silent message that may hint at ancient knowledge. At Balmacaan, not far from the loch, there is a stone with carvings that long predate the memory of man. These carvings show some strange beast that might be a snake, or something very much larger. It may be Nessie, or it may not. Like so much here, there is more mystery than hard fact.

Although the legend of Nessie is old, sightings seem to have been remarkably infrequent. There was apparently mention of it in the sixteenth century, which was also a time of great religious upheavals and of witch trials so people were receptive of strange ideas.  In the following century Blaeu’s Atlas, published in 1653 does not mention a monster but records: ‘waves without wind, fish without fin and a floating island’ all of which are unusual at least.  It would appear that there was something different about the loch, but nothing spectacular: yet.

So the monster, if monster she is, was remarkably quiet but there were local tales about another creature, a water horse that waited at the side of the loch for the unwary to jump on its back, whereupon it would gallop into the water and kill the unfortunate rider. As with most of these tales, there was never anything specific, only rumours and legends, dark mutterings as winter closed in on the surrounding hills and warnings of danger by the deep water.

In the early nineteenth century the loch was disturbed as engineers decided to create the Caledonian Canal to facilitate passage between the East and West coast of Scotland. Perhaps the sound of more vessels with steam paddle ships joining the ghosting vessels of sail wakened the monster, as she raised her unwelcome head on more than one occasion that century. Or perhaps it was not the monster but the water horse that was seen dimly through the mists of half-belief and fear.

There was also the occasional accident as men fell overboard from boats, such as the shepherd Duncan MacLaren who drowned in February 1860 and Edward Murphy, a drummer in the Cameron Highlanders who sailed a small boat in the loch in July 1885. It capsized in calm water without cause or explanation. Some thought that the loch would demand a death and spoke of the old days when animals and perhaps children were sacrificed to the spirit of the water or to long-forgotten gods banished by the Cross of Columba.

Others were luckier: one near escape occurred on the 31st March 1829 when a funeral party were travelling from Inverness to the old church at Boleskine. One chaise was passing the Black Rock at Inverfarigaig when, for no accountable reason, the driver of a post-chaise decided to leave his post, the coach overturned and slid toward the loch and only halted when it ran against some birch trees. In exactly the same area in June 1831 the congregation of Boleskine church were alarmed by a sudden change in the weather and hurriedly ran outside, to be met by what they termed a ‘waterspout’ that carried away a number of barns and immersed them waist deep in water. Boleskin was like that: strange things happened there.

There was an occasional shipwreck, such as Commodore of Greenock with a cargo of oatmeal which capsized in a sudden squall in January 1853. The master, Captain Colquhoun, and crew abandoned and the vessel was later discovered afloat but drifting close to rocks at Inverfarigaig, not far from Boleskin. Colquhoun succeeded in salvaging his ship.

Strange things continued to happen: each one insignificant in itself but when taken together the sum of the parts was more than equal to the mysterious whole. In December 1856 the Inverness Courier reported that there was a very ‘voracious pike’ in the loch, which ate thirteen ducks at the west end of the loch in a single day and a number of turkeys shortly after. In August 1863 the local people were astonished when the salmon in the loch suddenly decided to race up river at the Ness Salmon fisheries. Either they knew that a storm was coming, or something chased them. And all the time the normal life of the lochside communities continued, farming, fishing, hunting, living, loving and dying.

In January 1865 the body of a small boy was found washed up on the beach at Bona Ferry. The baby was tied up in an apron, with a heavy stone to weigh him down so he would sink. As rumours spread about the character of the local unmarried women, they met in the Free Church at Lochend, where a minister guaranteed that they were ‘beyond reproach.’ A Doctor Campbell travelled from Inverness and medically examined the breasts of the local women, then stated that none had recently given birth, so a reward of £5 was offered for any information that might lead to the mother being discovered.   The case, and the treatment of the local women, caused a stir far beyond Scotland as people argued that it was immoral for women to have to so publicly prove their chastity. Beyond the public outcry, the death of the child was quietly forgotten.

So Loch Ness had its share of drownings, a case of infanticide and some creature that ate water-fowl, but there was very little public mention of a monster. That does not mean that the locals did not have their own tales and their own local knowledge.  These Gaelic speaking Highlanders would not divulge too much to visitors, so what they knew normally died with them. However it seems that some snippers seeped out, so that it is known that the people who lived along the banks of Loch Ness spoke about the water-horse, which would take any unwary rider on a death dive beneath the dark waters of the loch.

Few more precise stories were heard. However there was Alexander Macdonald, who in 1802 mentioned that he had seen a mysterious beast like a salamander. Naturally he was the subject of ridicule long after, which could have hidden nervousness, or dissuaded others from admitting that they, too, had seen something strange. If other of the locals had seen anything out of the ordinary, they kept it within their own circle: what happened by the Ness stayed by the Ness.

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About malcolmarchibald

Happily married for 34 years to Cathy, I have three grown children and live in the depths of Moray in northern Scotland. I was educated in Edinburgh and Dundee and work as a lecturer in Inverness, while writing historical books, both fiction and fact.
This entry was posted in folklore, history, life experience, nature, People, Snow, winter, Scottish Borders, Scotland, Royal Mail,, superstition, tragedy, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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