Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Ancient Serpent Stone of Loch Ness

There are some things which reside at the periphery of the Loch Ness Mystery and sometimes present themselves as a mystery within a mystery. I had been meaning to write on this object for some time, but was awaiting further information which has now arrived. One could best sum it up in the words of Nicholas Witchell's "The Loch Ness Story", back in 1974 (p.16 1st edition).

This carving, believed to be neolithic in origin, was found at Balmacaan House, which used to be near Loch Ness until it was knocked down in the 1930s. It has been speculated that the serpent-like form my be some reference to the animals in Loch Ness.

However, the story of this stone goes further back than this. Ted Holiday first mentioned it in his 1968 book, "The Great Orm of Loch Ness", where he recounts something akin to a jungle expedition in 1965.

On June 15th I had now been at Loch Ness for nine days. Heavy rain pounded down during breakfast, After going round to Strone for a last word with Clem and Brian, who were leaving for London, I finally spent the rest of the morning searching the grounds of derelict Balmacaan House for a view of the ancient carved stones on which an unidentified creature is depicted. After beating the rhododendron jungle for an hour, I gave the search up as hopeless.

Witchell's circumspection was overshadowed by Holiday's firm belief that this stone showed a Pictish representation of the "Great Orm". In other words, this carving depicted the first recorded "sketch" of the creatures. As he relates further on in the book:

In his dealings with the Orm the neolithic artist seems to have adopted one of two stylized approaches. Usually, the creature was represented in a sort of plan-view with its body coiled in two wide undulations. The head was ovoid with pear-shaped eyes and a bluntly conical nose. This particular treatment was often incorporated with a symbolic device or pattern known to Archaeologists as a 'Z rod' which may possibly have indicated the rank of the leader for whom the carving was executed. The alternative rendering was a depiction of the head and neck alone. Usually this showed a long neck topped by a small head embellished with a number of feelers or tentacles. 

To which Holiday adds a small note beneath a drawing of the stone:

A neolithic carving found at Balmacaan, near Loch Ness. The creature appears to be a stylized depiction of the Orm and incorporates numerous features reported by witnesses such as vertical undulations, wide head, oval eyes and conical nose. 

One could of course argue that the conical nose, oval eyes and sinusoidal curves were equally emblematic of a common snake. However, the discovery of the stone beside the shores of Loch Ness made this more than a matter of land based serpents. To delve further into this neolithic puzzle, we need to know more about the stone.

Though the stone was said to reside at Balmacaan house, the actual site of discovery was beside the river Enrick near Urquhart Bay. According to William Mackay in the 1886 Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, it was accidentally dug up on Drumbuie Farm about 1869  along with another symbol stone which were laying on top of a cairn. The site of that discovery gives the stone its proper title of the "Drumbuie Stone". However, it was removed to the Earl of Seafield's estate prior to 1886. The original location is shown below as the central green circle.

As it turns out, Ted Holiday was wasting his time looking for the stone amongst the rhododendrons in 1965 as it had been removed ten years earlier to the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh for safekeeping. The stone had left Loch Ness, but did the mystery of its serpent remain?

The stone is itself one of over 300 items known as Pictish symbol stones. The Picts were a mysterious race of people who populated the northern parts of Scotland, but little is known of their culture, even after converting to Christianity. The stones are rough hewn slabs of stone carved with known and unknown objects which are found either erect or laid flat on cairns and so on. They are to be found all over the north of Scotland with the preponderance being located in the north east and they date between the 6th and 9th centuries AD.

They have presented a bit of a challenge to archaeologists since the symbols carved on them have remained undeciphered and represent a kind of Highland Hieroglyphics lacking a Highland Rosetta Stone to unlock them. By that I mean, some carvings are clear enough in depicting boar, fish, eagles, deer and so on. Others appear to be more abstract, though some may represent man made objects such as mirrors and combs. But why they are there and how each carving on a given stone relates to those around it has no universally accepted solution.

The Drumbuie stone is no exception in that the serpent is depicted with a construct known as a "Z rod" interlacing it. What this and the double disc below it signifies is a matter of unresolved conjecture. Such abstract symbols are seen across Scotland adorning stones in various ways. 

When I considered these discs and the serpent, I thought of Holiday's subsequent book, "The Dragon and the Disc" which explores the links between alleged ancient dragon and disc worshipping cultures. Surely, the Drumbuie stone would be "Exhibit A" in such a theory with its combined discs and serpent? But, surprisingly, Holiday (as far as I can tell), makes no mention of the stone in his book. A curious omission, I thought.

Then again, maybe not. As I continued to research the matter, I found a very useful website mapping out the large number of symbol stones across Scotland. It is run by Strathclyde University and can be found here. Some observations can be made using their information. Firstly, there are 23 symbol stones containing a serpent and 13 of these are this serpent plus Z-rod combination. Moreover, these serpents are combined with so many different other symbols as to look almost random in occurence.

But the second point is that the other serpent stones are located largely in the east of Scotland where there is a dearth of loch monster traditions. Most of the folkloric tales of kelpies, water horses and water bulls reside in the west and centre of the Highlands. This is shown in a rough overlay I did of the distribution of loch monsters and symbol stones.

The folkloric lochs are shown as white circles and the symbol stones as red circles. One can almost argue for a negative correlation between the two classes. The conclusion is that the serpent carvings are not related to any ancient idea of loch monsters (though one cannot quite discount the river varieties). 

That may or may not be a surprise, as it depends on what the function of such a Pictish symbol stone was. Was the serpent a real snake or a symbol for something like a notable family or leader? That we'll leave to the experts, but perhaps Holiday himself came to realise the stone serpent was nothing to do with the Loch Ness Monster when he omitted it from his Dragon book.


I said the stone was sent to Edinburgh in 1955 and so we complete the story with its current status. I contacted one of the curators who confirmed it was still there and he kindly sent me the latest picture of it, which I reproduce with their permission. At last, we can see the actual stone and not sketches (probably derived from rubbings).

Copyright of the Trustees of National Museums Scotland

The stone is not on display at the museum due to its somewhat fragile condition and it awaits some restoration work. Therefore, it remains boxed up at the museum's warehouse facility and was not amenable to a visit by myself. At least we know this curious stone still exists and is in good hands.

The Loch Ness Monster may continue to be a mystery, but there is no mystery connecting it to this stone. The mystery of this stone firmly resides in the little known ways and customs of the Pictish people. There may be other symbols that equate to creatures the Picts regarded as aquatic and monstrous, such as those on the Aberlemno II stone and the well known Pictish Beast. To these we must look for clues as to the monster lore of these people.


Balmacaan House was the property of the Earl of Seaforth and was located on his estate to the south west of Drumnadrochit (see map from 1930s with house in bottom left). The house and its 40,000 acres would have served as hunting grounds and indeed were rented to rich clientele such as the American Bradley Martin. It was used as a home for war evacuees in the 1940s but was evidently abandoned as a sale of assets in 1942 suggested its days were over (perhaps due to the onerous death duties imposed by the British Labour Party on the aristocracy).

By the time Ted Holiday arrived with his machete in 1965, the house was in a severe state of disrepair and was soon demolished, perhaps in the 1970s. There were reports of ghosts appearing as the house was levelled!

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Monday, 9 January 2017

Monster Programs Alert

To all UK readers, Channel 5 has two hours of sea monster programs and Nessie may make an appearance. Programs start at 7pm.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Archive of Annual Nessie Reviews

This blog enters its eighth year as of 2017 and has been publishing end of year reviews since 2012. So if you want a summary of what has been going on in and around the loch and its famous monster during those years, just click on the links below. I note I did not do reviews for 2011 and 2010. I will backfill these with articles when I have time.

Review of 2016 - link

Review of 2015 - link

Review of 2014 - link

Review of 2013 - link

Review of 2012 - link

Review of 2011 - to be done

Review of 2010 - to be done

The author can be contacted at

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Vote for the Best Nessie Sighting of 2016

Source: link

The Inverness Courier are running their annual poll on the best Nessie sighting over this week. The poll closes at midnight on January 8th. The candidates can be viewed at this link, but to vote you need to go to this link and scroll down to the bottom right of the page until you see the voting buttons appear.

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Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Miscellaneous Loch Ness Articles

Here find an index of past articles on subjects not specifically on the Loch Ness Monster or its satellite subjects, but rather convey information on the history and geography of the loch and its environs. Of course, the monster may get a mention or two, but you can cut through that to the main stuff. This article will find its way to the webpage side links and be updated as and when.

Pictish Symbol Stones at Loch Ness - link

Metal Monsters in Loch Ness - link

Saint Cummin's Bell - link

Contour Map of Loch Ness - link

The Other Serpent Stone of Loch Ness - link

New Record Depth for Loch Ness? - link

 Boleskine House Ablaze - link

How Many People can Loch Ness hold? - link

A Piece of Loch Ness History - link

The Treasure of Castle Urquhart - link

Loch Ness Steamships - link and link

The Mysterious "Footprints" of Loch Ness - link

Wrecks of Loch Ness - link

Cool Picture from Loch Ness - link

Porpoises in Loch Ness? - link

Ice Age and Loch Ness - link

Another Car Accident at Loch Ness - link

60th Anniversary of John Cobb's Death - link

Another Monster on Loch Ness - link

Loch Ness in 1912 - link

An Interesting Catch near Loch Ness - link

The World's Biggest Spirit Level - link

 The Blighting of Loch Ness - link

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Saturday, 31 December 2016

Nessie Review of 2016

Looking back on 2016, Loch Ness and its Monster had a worthy list of events in and around the place to keep the subject and this blog busy from January to December. Let us now go over these in largely chronological order.

January began with a big claim for a new record depth for the biggest loch in Britain. Jacobite Cruises went to press with the story that their new 3D sonar imaging equipment had detected a depth of 889 feet, beating the current record by 135 feet. The claim immediately generated controversy as others said they could not reproduce the result.

I myself saw the sonar recording a depth of 884 feet back in September, when I attended a talk on the monster. So, there is no doubt the equipment was doing what was claimed and the talk was whether a minor quake had caused a collapse of the bottom silt near the Clansman Hotel. However, the lack of corroboration leaves this one a bit up in the air and so we move on.

The month of March showed that despite sceptical assaults on the centuries old story, you can't keep a good monster down as the tourist agency, VisitBritain, decided to recruit the Loch Ness Monster for their promotion of the Highlands to foreign visitors. 

Admittedly, it was all a bit tongue in cheek, but more tourists means more chance of good videos and photos. Well, that is the theory, but the shortcomings of reality often intrudes on opportunity, be it distance, human frailty or poor equipment.

A few weeks later in April came the sensational news that a monster had been found, albeit one that had sunk without trace over 45 years ago. I am, of course, referring to the model monster made for the 1970 film, "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes". The prop did not actually appear in the film as it sunk before filming began. 

The relics of the prop had been found thanks to the latest in sonar technology in the form of a low flying sonar torpedo called the MUNIN Autonomous Underwater Vehicle. The missle's ability to draw near to target areas and produce higher resolution images was the advantage it had over previous searches.

Which clearly begs the question as to why previous sonar missions should be taken seriously when they claimed to have swept the whole loch and found nothing. They did not find this because they lacked the acuity of vision to see this monster sized object. Whether such new technology will be used again at the loch remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, pictures and videos purporting to be our favourite cryptid rolled in throughout the year. One of the first to "surface" was the webcam shot taken below by Diana in April of a strange looking neck like image. There were various such webcam shots that came to my attention over the year of varying quality, though the same conclusion applies to all. They may add to the story and the mystery, but they are too far away to provide conclusive evidence.

Other pictures came to the fore although most were no more than interesting and even explicable by natural phenomena. A video by Tony Bligh in June is most likely just a boat wake,. A picture also taken in June by a Texan tourist appears to show a dark shape under the water, but is too indistinct to tell. What was of more interest was a picture taken by Ian Campbell in August showing two strange objects swimming just under the surface opposite Inverfarigaig (below).

The picture suffers from being taken at a distance of about 400 metres, although Ian Campbell was convinced it was two creatures. Meantime, a strange carcass found on the shores of Dores was fooling no one. It was a publicity stunt for a forthcoming crime drama set by the shores of the loch.

Likewise, a picture taken in September claimed as one of the clearest yet, was clearly a line of seals playing and pursuing. The only argument was whether it was taken at Loch Ness or near the owner's residence in the Cromarty Firth. The argument leans to the latter, but it is certainly no Nessie.

Of more interest was the dorsal fin most certainly photographed at Loch Ness on the 22nd August by Kate Powell which had echoes of the Adams-Lee photograph of the 1930s. Further analysis showed it was no photoshop job and most were agreed on that. What was not accepted universally was that is showed a dorsal fin.

Indeed, the initial and well worn tactic of the sceptic was to first play the "Not taken at Loch Ness" card. This soon disintegrated when Steve Feltham produced the uncropped image. Panic soon set in as the prospect of a possible mystery stalked the sceptic and soon an alternative but pathetic excuse arrived in the form of an osprey taking a fish from the water. The answer is its own refutation, as they say.

But you know why it is a stupid explanation? Because if you had said it had been taken in the Moray Firth, the same Nessie deniers would have unhesitatingly screamed "Dorsal Fin". Please! Now what this photo actually shows is another matter. A local dolphin expert told me it was not one of the dolphins they track along the north east shores of Scotland. Bird? No. Dolphin? Maybe. Nessie? Not sure!

On a personal note, the hunt and research continued in 2016. Several trips were undertaken to the loch such as in September. The use of trap cameras and the like continues, but no conclusive evidence was acquired, but information about the loch useful in important conclusions were indeed acquired. Some strange things were investigated, though not necessarily of a monster nature!

Back at the desk and laptop, various advances were made in Loch Ness Monster research. After some pursuit, I was most pleased to make contact with H. L. Cockrell's son and obtaining a wealth of information on this famous photo of the monster - including the never before seen second photo. Sceptics don't give a rat's arse about pursuing such things, if you think it is all just boats and logs, where is the motivation? Leave that sort of stuff to those who believe there is something strange in Loch Ness. There is more to come on H. L. Cockrell in 2017.

Continuing in the vein of those who do proper research, a couple of mysteries were cleared up which had lain dormant for decades. The long standing conundrum of John Keel's 1896 Nessie was resolved when I dug deeper into the archives. Likewise, Peter Costello's brief mention of another 1896 reference to a monster in Loch Ness was also proven to be true, though not perhaps in the way predicted by either side of the Nessie debate.

Back in April, I also took part in a TV documentary on Nessie and delivered a lecture on the paranormal history of the Loch Ness Monster to the Scottish UFO and Paranormal Conference. Finally, I was pleased to renew my acquaintance with renowned Nessie researcher, Rip Hepple. I thank him again for his important contribution to the Nessie debate in the form of his 40 years of newsletters.

And so, the year draws to an end and even as I type these words, another late news item on a possible Nessie sculpture hits the media. You just can't keep a good monster down! It was a good year in terms of events and things to debate. However, evidence which will convince even the most die-hard sceptic continued to elude. Mind you, since that probably means a monster carcass, they could be waiting a long time.

I wish all readers a prosperous and healthy 2017.

The author can be contacted at

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Ted Holiday and the LNIB Hunting Irish Monsters (video)

A reader called Liam emailed me with a link to an old October 1969 RTE TV report from Ireland which covered the visit of some members of the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau to the boggy land of Connemara in the west of the Republic of Ireland. The members interviewed were Ted Holiday, Holly Arnold, Lionel Leslie and Ivor Newby.

Seasoned monster readers will be well aware of this trip as it was covered in Holiday's book, "The Dragon and the Disc" published in 1973. I refer you to that book for further details of the search for the Irish "Pieste".

The picture of Ted Holiday above is taken from the video which you can view here.

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