Saturday 8 March 2014

The Folklore of An Niseag

Where does folklore end and reality begin? What is the overlap between these two planes of "existence"? This was a question obliquely asked in a recent article by “Dr. Beachcombing” when he reviewed my book “The Water Horses of Loch Ness”. You may wish to read his article first before proceeding here.
The Doctor (as I will call him) holds the article in tension between two schools of thought. On the one extreme, there is my view that these old tales had a biological basis in truth. That is, An Niseag (the old Gaelic for Nessie pronounced "An Nee-Shack"), was a real creature hidden under the various layers of folkloric accretions. But in opposition, was the dismissive view of Daniel Loxton, co-author of “Abominable Science”, who viewed all folklore as irrelevant to the question of what is the Loch Ness Monster. I reviewed that book from a Nessie perspective back in September.

He ultimately is sceptical of any real creature beneath the folkloric or real waves and sides with Loxton in that respect. However, he sides with this author in regards to Loch Ness folklore and opposes "Abominable Science". There was a tradition of a beast in Loch Ness which people believed to be true.

Delving further though, he had issues with some of the stories I presented. He though I was indulging in "special pleading" regarding the Richard Franck story of the 1658 "Floating Island". He does not say why, but given what I know about Loch Ness, I highly doubt Franck's mass of vegetation has any mileage. I refer him and readers to my article on that subject here.


There is also the issue of historian David Murray Rose's letter to The Scotsman on the 1st January 1934 which gives various known and unknown pre-1933 monster stories but (infuriatingly) without the name of the original sources. Another article by the Doctor which I covered here, partly vindicates Mr. Rose on another old story, but sadly progresses us not an inch on finding these particular old sources.

Indeed, I recently found another letter from Mr. Rose to The Scotsman for 30th November 1934 when I was looking for references to crocodiles at Loch Ness. The relevant portion is below and refers to dates around 1828 and 1850 but what quite prompted David Murray Rose to mention those dates, I have no idea (though he refers to his "notes" further in the letter). 

Moving on, the Doctor is hesitant to accept stories from witnesses before 1933 but only made public after 1933. He feels there may be some form of Nessie "contagion" introduced into these accounts. I agree the possibility is there in theory but I do not accept that this invalidates all these accounts (though the Doctor does not do this either). Sceptical researchers can either dismiss them as fabrications or as people who genuinely saw something they could not explain years before (to which the usual boat wakes, birds and otter explanations are retro-fitted).

With the introduction of the Nessie genre in the 1930s, those witnesses may well have applied the monster template onto them, but that by no means lessens the degree of mystery they attached to what they saw. Hence, they should be assessed each on its own internal evidence, in the same manner as a more modern report.


But it is then asked why one should accept the Kelpie tradition as being an indicator of something physically unknown anymore than the equally prevalent tales of fairies in the Highlands? Now, I may not believe in a race of indigenous fairy folk inhabiting the North of Scotland, but does that mean one must dismiss all Highland tales as having no tangible basis in reality? If people, outside of the Highland traditions, had not continued to report strange sights in Loch Ness, perhaps we would have. 

Actually, this is where things dovetail into my separate paranormal studies. Since the days of Jacques Vallee's "Passport to Magonia" and John Keel's "Operation Trojan Horse", there has been a growing school of thought that many strange phenomena from centuries past up to this present day are merely different manifestations of the same underlying cause.

From diminutive fairies to Adamski's blond Venusians to today's skeletal grey aliens, none of them cohere together at the surface but they are all the same stuff of folklore both ancient and modern. The underlying cause is a matter of speculation and ranges from Charles Fort's "Cosmic Joker", to the Collective Unconsciousness of mankind to another intelligence. Or one could play it safer and speculate on something that emanates from our deepest psyche. I have no fixed opinion on the matter.

But as to the accretions of folklore, be it green-jacketed fairies or talking kelpies; these can be discounted as man's attempts to reconcile these shady phenomena with man's surroundings. The Doctor correctly points out that Kelpie folklore was important in providing part of the "kindling" that ignited a new level of story telling at Loch Ness, one which changed into a dinosaur (for me the same creature, but a different representation).


The way I see it is represented in the diagram below which was part of my Kelpie talk at last year's "Nessie at 80" Symposium. In this we see two parallel but similar worlds. There is the ancient and modern branches which have a common root called "The Reality". From this springs what witnesses claim to have seen moving in the waters of Loch Ness. Here we have the first level of perception.

The next level of perception is the local group perception. Here the accounts of the witnesses are recounted, either to the local community of old or the researchers today who record the stories as faithfully as possible. 

The final level of perception are the storytellers or their equivalent in the modern media. They take the recorded accounts and turn them into stories compatible with the culture of the day. So, in the diagram above, that transforms to the Kelpies, Water Horses and Water Bulls of fireside raconteurs. Today, it translates to the various green and fierce monsters of films, books and artists.

Finally, we have the downwards arrows feeding back from media and storytellers to community and researchers and finally to witnesses. These represent the cultural and scientific ideas of the time which shape to varying degrees how future generations will feed back up the loop. That in itself is a controversy as some say this is sufficient to form a positive feedback loop that can disengage from "The Reality" while I say there is no such thing as a free lunch in this matter and has to be sustained by whatever lies beneath the waves to propel it, else the whole cycle collapses after a short time.

Moreover, I would suggest that An Niseag was the "seed" for other Water Horse tales that sprung around ancient Scotland (perhaps Mhorag also helped). One proof of this is the higher than usual concentration of Kelpie lochs around Loch Ness. However, unlike An Niseag, these derived lochs have no underlying reality and hence peter out over time. 

There is also a modern parallel to this when other aquatic cryptids gained prominence when Nessie appeared and a lot of modern sea beasts are often referred to as "The Loch Ness Monster of ...". 

That much seems certain to me, but the root cause called "The Reality" which has no resolution because it is yet to be unambiguously observed foments controversy. To the skeptics it is simply a collection of unremarkable, everyday events. To others it is a creature of more interesting proportions.


One of the items from that time proved most interesting to the Doctor (as it does to me). The article in question was printed by the Inverness Courier on the 8th October 1868 and is reproduced below.


“A few days ago a large fish came ashore on the banks of Loch Ness about two miles to the west of Lochend Inn. Neither the name nor the species of the strange visitor could be satisfactorily explained, and large crowds of country people went to see and examine for themselves, but left without being able to determine whether the monster was aquatic, amphibious, or terrestrial. Some of the most credulous natives averred that a huge fish, similar in size and shape, had been occasionally seen gambolling in the loch for years back, and with equal determination protested that its being cast dead on the shore boded no good to the inhabitants – that, in fact, its presence presaged dire calamities either in pestilence or famine, or perhaps both.

At last, however, an individual better skilled in the science of ichthyology appeared on the scene, and ascertained that the strange visitor was nothing more or less than a bottled nosed whale about six feet long. 

How one of the denizens of the ocean came to be cast ashore at Loch Ness was the next question, but, this too, has been set at rest, for it was ascertained that the blubber had been taken off! 

The fish had, of course, been caught at sea, and had been cast adrift in the waters of Loch Ness by some waggish crew to surprise the primitive inhabitants of Abriachan and the surrounding districts. The ruse was eminently successful.”

This the story where folklore ends and reality begins. No longer the Kelpie of fireside ceilidhs, but a huge fish seen for years back. A great fish that coexisted with dark tales of aquatic horses was now in the process of decoupling from the legend. Let us take a closer look.

The background is a strange carcass found on the shores of Loch Ness near Abriachan. Being as yet unidentified, some of the local natives presumed it to be the Kelpie of old. We know this because of the supernatural construction they put on it by predicting calamity for the community. If you are familiar with this genre of folklore, it was known that bringing harm or imprisonment to a Kelpie was a sure path to ruin.

However, the correspondent seems to get his local natives mixed up as he also quotes them talking of a great fish. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Kelpies will know they were never likened to  fish. Nevertheless, the author of the report assigns the label "credulous" and "primitive" to these people.

These derogatives very much explain the attitude of the Inverness Courier to any talk about strange creatures in Loch Ness and why we rarely heard anything about them. Quite simply, such tales were regarded as nonsense and superstition by the editors of the newspaper. With the Industrial Revolution transforming Scotland and Victorian academics assuring everyone that such tales were mythology, Highland newspapers were jumping on the progressive bandwagon.

So, any story you are likely to meet on this subject is going to be framed in a sarcastic way that not only entertains but very much advertises the modern, dismissive stance of the newspaper. This is corroborated in at least two other Loch Ness newspaper accounts of the time which leave the reader in no doubt about how the newspaper treats such a subject.

The other interesting point is why the Inverness Courier does not simply dismiss the tale of a great fish as yet another sturgeon story? A casual search of digital archives reveals various stories of sturgeons being caught around the Moray Firth and the River Ness. Why not state this as such a case? After all, the carcass was stated as being six foot long, which is a typical sturgeon size (though it is unclear how the locals decided their fish was six foot long - unless they were saying that six foot was visible at the surface). I would suggest the way the "great fish" story was related by locals to the journalist precluded such an explanation.


And, finally, the reporter says the carcass was dumped "by some waggish crew to surprise the primitive inhabitants of Abriachan and the surrounding districts". Why did they do this? The phrase "primitive inhabitants" is linked to the previous phrase "credulous natives" and their great fish. I would suggest the crew were aware of the local tales of this beast and decided to pull off a hoax.

But you may say "A monster hoax at Loch Ness in Victorian times?" and I say "Yes". There was a sufficiently strong and contemporary belief in a large creature in Loch Ness to put the "progressive" newspapers in sarcastic mode and those itinerant fishermen into hoaxing mode. Or to put it another way, if there is a monster hoax, it presupposes a monster belief. 


Did nothing more than waves, logs and birds cause the modern and ancient legends of the Loch Ness Monster? Are even modern stories just a continuation of the folkloric traditions which themselves will be discussed and pored over centuries from now? Or does it take more than the mundane to kick start these strongly held beliefs? 

Regular readers will know this blog's answer to that question.


  1. Hi interesting read, I have just posted a blog post on my new blog about the loch ness monster and would love some comments

  2. Gosh darn it, I was looking forward to commenting on this great article Roland, but it put me in mind of an argument I had with another writer a few weeks ago who said "In fact, there are no reports of the beast until less than a century ago." So my comment turned into more of a rant about that, and then the rant got too long and a bit too personal to belong here, so now it's a post on my own blog.

    Thanks for another great read, and bringing out more of the folklore, and how it interfaces with the present. Now your book should be revised to include this as a bonus chapter.


    1. Steve's article can be found here:

  3. "Where does folklore end and reality begin? What is the overlap between these two planes of "existence"? "

    Well, I've already rambled on a lot about Loch Lomond in another thread, but just to go back there and use the quote from Alexander Graham of Duchray (1724) which appears in your book:
    "In this Loch at the place where the River of Enrick falls into it, about a mile bewest the church of Buchanan it is reported by the countrymen living there about, that they sometimes see the Hippotam or Water Horse."
    So there you have it. The misty waterhorse bumping against the so solid hippopotamus in the same sentence. I don't think we yet have anything similar for Loch Ness – and the possibility of such being created vanished when the media circus came to town.


    P.S. It's interesting that the inhabitants of Abriachan are specifically mentioned as the target of the 19th century hoax. Maybe a hint that the story of Alexander MacDonald of Abriachan bantering with passing loch-farers about "The Salamander" has a basis in fact.

    1. "Hippotam" and "water horse" would be near equivalent terms (hippopotamus = river horse)?

      Good point about Alexander MacDonald, some story was definetly doing the rounds back then.

    2. Chasing Leviathan11 March 2014 at 15:49

      "Hippopotamus amphibius" is the Latin for "River horse" if I've got it right.

      I can see Wetherell having fun with that...

    3. 'hippopotamus' is actually a Greek word, '(h)ippos'=horse + 'potamos'=river.

      Interesting read, Glasgow Boy, I do agree with your views. Commenting on Dr. Beachcombing's article, I find the comparison of 1933 being to Loch Ness what 1888 was to Riperologists accurate. Oddly enough, only yesterday, I was making this very same comparison of the Loch Ness monster with Jack the Ripper myself, while observing the same mechanism that has turned the Ripper to a legendary character and his image (filtered through the magnifying/distorting lens of the media) to that extremely powerful immortal archetype, to have been at work with the case of the 'Loch Ness monster', too... And as there is no doubt that the Ripper really existed and there's a real source behind the legend, so must be the case with Nessie, there must be some source -whatever her nature may be- that has been (and probably is occassionally still) witnessed/experienced and given rise to both the 1933 stories and the earlier tales and folklore traditions...
      (p.s: with your references to the 'Cosmic Joker', and the works of Valle and Keel, I'm starting to have doubts whether the cloudy 'leprechaun' on the 'Nessie' picture may not be pareidolia after all...:) )

    4. It's interesting how two people can look at the same passage and come to slightly different conclusions. On the one hand, Duchray, as a Writer to the Signet, would have had his own share of classical education. On the other hand, 'hippotam' sounds a bit like the sort of thing that country people might have said in the vernacular in trying to describe things in terms of a known animal. I'll need to have a look at one of the old Scots dictionaries. (If there's "oliphant" for "elephant" then…)


    5. "hippotam" does sound rather un-Scots like. I assume the Scots language rather than the Gaelic was spoken around Loch Lomond?

  4. Just reporting back. I've checked the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue and the Scottish National Dictionary and have to report "absence of evidence". "Hippotame" and "hyppotame" appear under the hippopotamus entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. Here are a couple of citations to whet your appetite:
    From 1572: John Bossewell's Works of armorie: "The water Horsse of the Sea is called an Hyppotame."
    From 1398: John de Trevisa's Bartholomeus de propretatibus rerum: "Some fysshe seke theyr meete only in water some by nyght upon the londe, as Ypotamus, the water horse."
    Good job that the 20-foot plus European hippo went extinct before the last glaciation, otherwise things could start to get really confusing.