Thursday, 28 May 2020

Jeremy Wade and those Loch Ness Eels




Jeremy Wade, the well known presenter and expert on exotic and large fish, is back on TV with a new series entitled "Mysteries of the Deep" which ran its first episode last week on the Loch Ness Monster. As it turned out, it was not a full episode devoted to the subject, but rather a 20 minute slot with two other unrelated stories. The subject itself was familiar and topical enough - could a mutated form of eel grow to gigantic proportions in Loch Ness? The subject was handled well enough as Professor Neil Gemmell who ran the initial eDNA survey suggested that giant eels were the best theory. Or to use his own words, there is possibly a very large eel in Loch Ness. 

Jeremy mentioned some past cases such as Gordon Holmes' video which has been interpreted by some as an eel, while the recent video clip by Rory Cameron of a large water disturbance in the loch was also briefly shown. Among other shots were the plesiosaur skeleton at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, a clip from the 1958 BBC documentary, "Legend of the Loch" and a nice little CGI rendition of the 1933 Spicer sighting (though they added a heat haze to keep the sceptics happy). 

The people brought in to comment on the story all looked unfamiliar to me, but since they were being used to comment on a variety of non-Nessie related sea stories, that was quite understandable. However, what happened to Jeremy's Greenland Shark which he touted as a viable candidate back in 2014? It was never a good theory and I suspect Jeremy knew that. 

So having said all this, it seemed a good point to ask a couple of questions. I covered the pros and cons of giant eels a while back, so this is by way of an appendix. The first is how old is the giant eel theory? A perusal of old newspaper stories from the 1930s shows that the giant eel theory was doing the rounds pretty early on. This clipping from the Dundee Courier dated 16th June 1933 was penned just over a month after the Aldie Mackay article of the 2nd May which kicked off the Nessie sensation. In this piece, we see the giant eel theory being touted alongside the sturgeon theory though with little detail as to why this is a favoured theory.




However, a letter sent to The Scotsman dated 23rd October 1933 from "Old Stratherrick" expands on the theory a bit more. As one who was brought up in the area, he tells us it was common knowledge that "enormous eels" inhabited the loch. He puts that in quotes as if to suggest he was using the words of someone else. He also seems to go left of field when mentioning the old tale that the loch never gives up its dead and it is nothing to do with strong undercurrents. What has that got to do with giant eels? Was he implying the eels scavenged anything that fell into the loch? That would seem to be his implication. After this, he gets to the nub of his argument in postulating that some eels may have settled in the loch rather than head out to the Sargasso Sea from which they evolved at some distant point in time into giants.




Rupert Gould himself examines the theory in his 1934 book "The Loch Ness Monster and Others" but rejects it, opining it is the fodder of letters to various newspapers. And, indeed, one could multiply letters and articles which add giant eels to the list of Loch Ness suspects, but the point is that giant eel theories are as old as Nessie stories and nothing new to the discourse. Indeed, most theories had been played out by the end of 1934. But this naturally leads to the second question. If giant eels are a possibility, then have any huge eels been captured in the area around the loch? Once again, we resort to the newspapers of old in search of an answer. 

As it turns out, the locals may have spoken of giant eels, but no giant eels have ever been caught in the area. At this juncture, one may ask what qualifies as a giant eel? That may be a bit like asking how long is a piece of string. But let us go through some examples of what was found. The first clipping is from the Inverness Courier dated 14th December 1848 and it describes an eel of five foot in length being captured somewhere near the River Ness estuary. Not very big by Nessie standards, so we move on.



The next episode is 11 years later from the Inverness Courier 12th November 1859 and recounts the tale of a seven footer being found in a pool at the Longman, which is again near the mouth of the River Ness. We are told its girth extended to two feet and eight inches which suggests a diameter of about ten inches to give us a more impressive creature but still a long way from a thirty foot Nessie.




There are similar clippings for the Inverness area covering over a hundred years of newspaper but none of them from Loch Ness itself. That doesn't mean no other large eels were caught in that time, perhaps November and December were slow news months. But there was a tale of another capture a little further north, perhaps in the Cromarty Firth, from the Courier dated 13th October 1830.




This was six foot and five inches long but is identified as a Conger eel which makes one suspect the other catches are also Congers and not the Silver eels which inhabit Loch Ness. Indeed, seven feet is the maximum expected length of the Conger which live out at sea and so should not be expected in fresh waters such as Loch Ness while Silver eels would only be caught at sea when they are migrating.

So, the lengths found here do not really add up to anything remarkable and one is left asking what the tales of giant eels at Loch Ness were based on? If any eel up to seven foot long was caught in the loch, we can be sure that if they produced the body, it would have made the newspapers like their marine counterparts. So it seems no eel of unusual size has been caught in Loch Ness.

I say that based on a presumption that if Nessie was a giant eel, there will be a progression of sizes from the usual one or two footers up to Nessie size. I know of no such intermediate eels which have been caught by the many anglers of the loch. That would leave one with the scenario that somehow there are the ordinary eels and then the monstrous ones which no angler is going to catch with their puny fishing lines. Would there be a scenario in which the biggest eels evolve and mid sized ones got naturally selected out a long time ago? However, if we extend our search in time and place then strange tales begin to emerge. Firstly, there is the story from 1747 regarding the eels of Loch Askeg near Fort William:

Eels of a monstrous size are understood still to inhabit some of the largest of the Highland lochs; some of whom are said to be nearly as thick in the body as a horse. In the year 1747, a party of soldiers  having observed a monster in Loch Askeg  near Fort William, they prepared a strong line and hook, on which having  put a sheep for a bait and fixed the line to a tree, they succeeded in  catching an eel nearly as thick as the body of a horse.

Loch Askeg probably refers to the Port of Askaig at the confluence of lochs Eil and Linnhe at the southern end of the Great Glen. Clearly, an eel with the girth of a horse is going to be a head turner. Using the conger statistics above, we are perhaps talking about a length of eleven feet based on fifty inches for a horse's girth. But again, we are in salt and not fresh water suggesting these may again be conger eels. Were conger eels bigger 300 years ago? I have no idea. There is also the story related in MacFarlane's 1767 "Geographical Collections":

Likewise there is abundance of eels, in that Lochediff which the men of the country allege and persuade others that the said eels are also big as a horse with a certain incredible length ...

Like the previous tale, Loch Etive is also a sea loch about thirty miles south of the top end of Loch Eil and Linnhe, once again suggesting conger eels, but of notable proportions. To complete the complement of large eels caught at this southern end of the Great Glen, there is the letter quoted by Ted Holiday in his "Great Orm of Loch Ness":

In a letter to Captain Lionel Leslie, a Mrs Cameron of Corpach, near Fort William, described how workmen killed an animal found in the Corpach canal-locks when these were drained at the end of the last century. She related: 'In appearance it resembled an eel but was much larger than any eel ever seen and it had a long mane. They surmised it had come down from Loch Ness as even then the loch had a sinister reputation.' 

A fresh search of online newspaper archives provided no leads for this story around 1900. But in reference to the long mane mentioned in this story, I finish with a story from the same period related in the July 1961 edition of the Glenurquhart Rural Community Bulletin:

Here I may relate a thing that happened to my late father and the Rev. Mr.McNeill, Church of Scotland Minister, in Invermoriston, who went on many fishing expeditions to Loch Nam Breac Dearg and other hill lochs. One evening on their way home they were fishing in a very deep pool in Aultsigh Burn when Mr. McNeill caught an eel 20” long with a mane of hair right down its back.

It is to be noted that the Aultsigh Burn feeds into Loch Ness. Conger and silver eels do not have long manes and it with some frustration I ask why these two unusual specimens from either end of the Great Glen did not make their way to a zoologist? Did these gentlemen capture a young monster and was it related to the one killed at Corpach? Over a hundred years on, we will never know, but I hope the next time a Loch Ness angler capture a run of the mill eel but with an unusual formation of hair on its back, I hope they do not throw it back in!

Well, that's enough about giant eels for now.


The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com









29 comments:

  1. This as a viable explanation is much better then his former theory of Nessie being a lost Greenland shark! That mane issue, isn't that something might see more on some type of a seal or maybe even that prehistoric whale Dr Mackel liked for Nessie?

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  2. Well if the most likely contender for what's in the Loch is a population of enormous eels, I can't see how that squares with the long pole like sightings throughout the years. The pics by James Gray and Roy Johnston depicting an outstretched neck out of water, if genuine, would suggest that giant eel-like creatures are capable of that. In addition, both the Gray and Johnston sequence of pics show a long neck like object surfaced before a graceful headlong descent back below the surface. Can eels even do that, let alone big ones? Also, the vintage pic by Hugh Gray back in 1933 would suggest a long slender body like an eel. Hmmm... I don't know, eels as the answer sounds too facile and accommodating.

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    1. Maybe the truth is that there are multiple animals in the Loch causing those sightings? Evolved seals, hugh Eels, big Salamanders, and even maybe ancient whales?

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  3. Great article. Fascinating to hear reports of possible corroboration with specimens caught. As prosaic a possibility as a giant eel may be it's defo plausible. These days I favour a giant newt but this is probably a close 2nd.

    A while ago I accepted the fact that as much as I desperately still want it to be a dinosaur - it ain't. But that doesn't mean the source of the legend isn't something still relatively monstrous and equally wonderful.

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  4. So Jeremy has changed his mind from Greenland sharks? I suppose we have to accept loch ness will always be used for some television entertainment. I for one wont be taking his opinions very seriously.

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    1. True enough Gezza, but we do need to be able to feel free to evolve our ideas. My idea of Nessie right now, and 30 years ago are two very different things.

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  5. Did Jeremy intend to target anything larger than common-sized eels in that River Monsters episode? It didn't show him using big game fishing tackle in Loch Ness (is it even allowed there)?

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  6. I welcome Mr wade's interest.. I enjoyed his river monsters series. His last idea was a Greenland shark.. it was nice to see a new theory put forward and the Greenland actually ticked more boxes than a sturgeon or catfish! Greenlands love cold water and love deep water staying down most of time plus they can be found not far away in that part of the sea.. And unlike catfish and sturgeon they actually can grow to lengths of 20 ft in cold waters whilst catfish in the UK hardly go beyond a few feet! Obvs there is a problem with the head and neck on a lot of sightings.. But it's not impossible that a few greenlands at an early age and size cud of got into Loch Ness many moons ago when the loch was easier to get in too...i look forward to Mr wade's programme... Cheers

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    1. Would account for those sightings that looked like upturned boat, but not neck and land sightings...

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  7. What are Horse eels. Are they creatures with a Horse sized girth or are they eel-like creatures with a Horses head?

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    1. They are eel-like creatures with a horses head. Supposedly they grew to great lengths. If you Google horse eels, there is a lot of information. Very interesting!

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  8. New webcam footage:

    "The Loch Ness Blob!!!"
    https://youtu.be/jrtZJCi-RnY

    Might the "blob" be a mirage?

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    1. The nessie blob might be a boat. This is not the highest quality camera!

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    2. Quite interesting though.

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    3. That's what I first thought the blob was: a boat, and a big one given its distance. But it slowly disappears in place over several minutes.

      If not a boat or a mirage, perhaps a wind slick?

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    4. As Be says, it would be a big boat given its distance. I've done some measurements comparing it to a cabin cruiser on the web cam, and I think it's about 50 metres wide. Anything solid and that big would surely have been seen by someone else. I think it has to be a wind slick.

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    5. Thank you for checking out my video. :)
      I would like to just say that I have no clue what the blob was. I sent the link to the Loch Ness Monster Sightings Register. He said he wasn't sure if it was a Nessie sighting or not, but it remains unexplained. I watched this blob sighting along with several other people, and we all agreed it was weird.

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  9. I can't see how an eel, even a huge one, can account for the moving single hump that Dinsdale saw and filmed nor the sightings [ as Holiday described ] of a large hump motionless on the surface for many minutes.

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    1. Could there be multiply creatures being seen in the Loch then? Think are seals there, and big eels, maybe other creatures also at times?

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  10. It would seem very odd that even a party of soldiers would be able to land something with the girth of a horse. Even if the strength was present, what equipment would be required? I'm not into fishing so I might be off the mark
    There were also a tradition of hairy, repulsive eels at Morar, that fishermen refused to keep. But unfortunately it was the same 'common knowledge' with no sources cited, in The Search for Morag.

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    1. At least in the Loches there are tales of really big eels, would that be enough to satisfy those into hunting for Nessie, if one is caught?

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    2. Although we would still be left with the age old shape shifting phenomena that Nessie exhibits. Maybe she moves with the times.

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  11. I Google searched "Nessie The Loch Ness Monster - Pet Care Tips. There's a lot of information of these so called hairy or horse eels. Aparently, people called them eels because that's all they could think of as a way to possibly describe what they were looking at. According to locals they had the ability to swim with their head above the surface. There must be some connection with these animals to what people are seeing at Loch Ness.

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    1. I'm not sure keeping one as a pet is a great idea. My bath is too small. Not house trained, but guaranteed to impress a neighbour.

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  12. In the one case that's pretty well documented in Ireland it seems that the eel was about eighteen inches in girth.
    This was established by looking at the culvert which had to be replaced when it became trapped whilst trying to pass through. The culvert connects two small lakes in Connemara, Western Ireland.
    It appears to have desperately tried to free itself and trashed about for some time. Interestingly it was described as having a mane and was hideous looking.
    It was left to rot away.
    Nowadays I'm sure a sample at least would have been preserved.
    This took place during a particularly wet period when normal streams and rivers were overflowing. Perhaps this suggests it wouldn't have attempted this route in more normal conditions.
    I can only find a single reference to its length as between fifteen and twenty feet .

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  13. I assume you recount this story from Ted Holiday's book The Dragon and the Disc? For me the whole book called into question the nature of the reality we live in, and how we perceive it. Ted was certainly faced with a dilemma - he was presented with what he considered facts, but facts that could not possibly fit into the world as we understand it. I can see why he went the direction he did.
    One of my favourite parts is when he recounts asking an older resident whether he'd seen anything unusual in the lake he lived by. No, he said. Ted asked 'What about horse eels?', to which the man replied 'Horse eels? Now why didn't you say!'. As a fellow Irish, it makes me proud to have such eccentric countryfolk.

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    1. Yes indeed Martin. I have a lot of time for Holiday as a researcher but personally I don't go down any paranormal avenue and tend to disengage from this aspect.
      RTE archives is another source for not only this account but other recorded eye witness reports of eel like creatures in several small Connemara lochs.
      There are a few common denominator s which may well be related to similar incidents recorded in Scottish lochs also.
      The creatures are apparently able to swim with a head/neck visible above the water line.
      They older folk reported their ability to cross land.
      Usually two protrusions were noticed on the head.
      Black seems to be the predominant colour.
      The most recent account seems to be from 1961 when seven members of the same family witnessed one of these horse eels. It was highly agitated by the family dog barking. Estimated to be 12 feet long.
      The trapped specimen I mentioned appears to date from 1888.
      It seems that a much larger creature was similarly caught under a small bridge in the Ballynahinch estate,not too far away,but this time did manage to free itself and made its way to the sea. Locals were preparing spears to try to kill it.
      Also occurred in 1888. One of the family members mentioned above,Mr.Coyne,recalled his grandparents talking about these incidents when he was a boy. He was aged 65 in the late 1960s when he spoke to Ted Holiday.
      While I have always been open to different unusual species in Loch Ness, including this type of large eel,I'm not convinced it satisfies the large,whale like ,upturned boat creature reported by so many.
      Especially a long term witness like Mrs Cary,who lived overlooking the loch.

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    2. The upturned boat Nessie seems to be more of a reaslly big fish, or maybe a large whale like creature, hasn't there been sonar sounds in Loch Ness that sounds like those from a mammal?

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