Friday 7 October 2011

The Loch Awe Monster

My attention was drawn to a post recently which concerned a modern sighting of the monster of Loch Awe. The original post was by Lindsay Selby and can be found here.

One of the comments was posted by a person named "Sallyumbo" which goes as follows:

Around Easter 2000, my husband and I were driving north past Loch Awe for our first weekend away together. As we drove alongside the loch, I saw to my amazement something that looked to me exactly like pictures I'd seen of the Loch Ness Monster. A long neck and head sticking out of the water at the front, and two humps behind it. It was moving quite swiftly through the water.

I was completely astonished. I had never heard of any monster in Loch Awe. I actually said nothing, thinking that my new fiancee would think I was completely mad if I announced I could "see the Loch Ness Monster" so I just watched in silent wonder. A couple of hours later we stopped for lunch at a pub. There was tourist info available in the form of leaflets there, and one was about Loch Awe.

Imagine my feelings when I read, "Loch Awe is said to be home to a monster like that of Loch Ness". "It does!! I saw it!!" I yelled, beside myself with excitement. Needless to say my fiancee thought I was crazy. But I'm sure I really did see what people call the Monster of Loch Awe.

Now to add to what Lindsay said about a tradition of a creature in Loch Awe, the recent book "The Water Horses of Loch Ness" surveys the historical traditions of strange creatures in Scottish Lochs and though Loch Ness is first by the proverbial mile on the list, Loch Awe comes in a respectable second. So it seems that the folklore of old points back to something in the loch which echoed through to the beginning of this new millenium.

What "Sallyumbo" saw follows in that tradition of creatures. I did a cursory survey of the books I have and found no other modern era sightings of a beast in Loch Awe. Let us hope another sighting occurs soon to seal this monster's return.

Using the information provided by her, we can actually pinpoint the general area of the sighting in the map below.

A view of the loch from that stretch of road can be seen here using Google StreetView (though the witness' exact location as the car moved is not precisely known):

We can make a few further observations about the Loch Awe Monster.

The first is that any creature in Loch Awe has an easier access to the sea than the Loch Ness Monster would. Note the River Awe in the top left of the picture which connects to the sea loch Loch Etive and hence to the open sea. Loch Ness is harder to traverse due to the locks of the Caledonian Canal (though not impossible). So any arguments about not enough food supply are irrelevant if it can swim in and out of the loch (though I do not know the existing fish stocks in Loch Awe).

Secondly, she saw an extraordinary creature in an ordinary loch. So what you may ask? The point is this - critics of the Loch Ness Monster say people see monsters because they want to see monsters. This overstretched theory is always trotted out to allegedly explain how ordinary birds, wakes and deer can turn into extraordinary creatures with just the right psychological impairment applied to witnesses' minds. No doubt some will think "Sallyumbo" merely saw a bird swimming along in the water.

But how does that theory apply to this case? Quite simply, it does not.

Our witness states she had no knowledge of such a creature until after the event happened. No hyped up expectations, no strange things happening to the observational faculties. Likewise, we take the view of people looking at Loch Ness. To make my point via hyperbole, they are not hyperventilating with mad expectation as they approach the loch and do not jump up and down excitedly like three year olds whenever something appears on the loch. I suggest people are sensible and not given to dubious interpretations. They are not stupid ...

I do not doubt people mistake things for the Loch Ness Monster amongst the 10,000+ alleged sightings of the creatures but frankly not enough to explain everything strange that goes on in Loch Ness ... or Loch Awe for that matter.

Monday 3 October 2011

Previously Unknown Land Sighting of Nessie

Occasionally as I research the subject of the Loch Ness Monster, the odd shiny piece turns up in the dross. I was in the National Library of Scotland recently and was perusing some old Scottish publications in search of new Nessie information.

Amongst other items, I reserved some copies of the Scots Magazine from 1990 for the reason that a land sighting of Nessie from 1932 had been featured in the June issue by a Colonel Fordyce. That particular sighting is already known to cryptozoologists but another one turned up in a later issue. My reasoning for this action being that when the Fordyce article was published it may have elicited a response in the "Letters to the Editor" page at a later date.

And so it was that a letter appeared subsequently in the August issue from the Reverend G. Mackenzie of West Chiltington, West Sussex. He was not the witness to this event, but he recounts how he was an Oxford Undergraduate between 1928 and 1931 and had been invited by his tutor with some other Scots to an evening with the Right Reverend Sir David Hunter Blair. The significance to us is that Sir David (pictured below) was once the Abbot of Fort Augustus Abbey on the shores of Loch Ness. At some point in the conversation, he was asked if he had seen the Loch Ness Monster. His answer was "no" but he said that one of his monks had seen it emerge from the woods and enter the waters of the loch. The Reverend Mackenzie adds no further details other than the description offered by Colonel Fordyce sounded very much the same as what he was told the monk saw. So ends our brief but interesting story.

What can we make of it? Firstly, my list of land sightings adds up to thirty three and this one was not in it. I am not aware of it being in the Loch Ness literature and so it looks like a new story and swells the ranks to thirty four alleged land encounters with Nessie. Rev Mackenzie's address was given in the letter but given the information in it, he would be aged about 100 years now and I suspect he is no longer with us.

Secondly, his letter implies that they were talking about the creature between 1928 and 1931. However, the monster did not become international news until 1933. One might presume an error was made in the date of the meeting, but since this blog believes that the Loch Ness Water Horse was known to locals (and monks) prior to 1933, we have no problem with this. It transpires that David Hunter Blair was abbot of the Abbey between 1912 and 1917 which suggests the event may have happened between those years. However, one cannot be certain of this.

Thirdly, a monk was claimed as the witness. Now this is the type of witness beloved of Nessie books. Someone regarded as honest, upright and not as likely to fabricate an account. For this reason, reports by clergy, policemen and other respected vocations are often held up above other sighting reports. This is quite reasonable as such people have more to lose if caught lying (though this does not preclude the idea that they misidentified an object as Nessie). So we quite like the fact that a monk was the stated witness (and told by another cleric - Sir David Hunter Blair).

Fourthly, we have the brief account itself. The story itself is not unique in its tenor, we have several accounts of large beasts with long necks and bulky bodies waddling/lumbering out of bushes in front of witnesses and then proceeding to disappear into the deep waters of Loch Ness. Where it may differ is in how Rev. Mackenzie says the description sounded "very much the same" as the Fordyce episode which describes an animal with a long neck, small head, humped back but with hair and hooved feet. Which parts of this strange Nessie description tallies with the monk's encounter we cannot tell. They may only agree in the long neck, small head and humped back of general Nessie lore but then again the hairy hide and hooves may have a part. So therein lies a mystery within a mystery.

Looking at a map of the area around Fort Augustus Abbey suggests a likely place for the encounter. The Abbey is at the mouth of the River Tarff (which was discussed in a previous blog). At this point there is a wooded area across the river from the Abbey and this looks the likely spot from which the creature emerged from the trees. Speculating, "x" would mark a possible place of the witness and the circled area is the forest where the creature may have emerged from in his view. Curiously, this proposed place of encounter cannot be more than a few hundred yards north of the land sighting of the beast reported by Margaret Munro in 1936.

But did our astonished monk rather misidentify what he saw? Could he have merely seen a deer or otter enter the water? Now I may be going out on a limb here, but I would have thought that a resident of the shores of Loch Ness would not have a problem knowing a deer or an otter when they saw one. Yet we are asked to believe that witnesses to such events do indeed fail to recognise known animals for something quite frankly astonishingly different. Methinks this is special pleading but then again such people would retort that suggesting the monk saw an extraordinary creature is also special pleading.

Pick your conclusion according to your prejudices, I say.

We would also note that this monk may have seen his creature prior to the media frenzy of 1933. Skeptics of Nessie have this theory that once a person enters the environs of Loch Ness they undergo a temporary metamorphosis which warps their perception of reality and they begin to see monsters where there are none. Once they are somewhere near Inverness, their brains are handed back to them and normal service is resumed. But as for local residents such as monks, had they undergone a permanent disabling of their mental faculties? I would not think so and their testimonies need to be given due weight.

Interestingly, Sir Hunter Blair wrote an article for the Catholic newspaper "Universe" in January 1934 which hints from its title that the monk's experience was not forgotten:


Let me say at once that by the above heading I do not intend for a moment to imply that I entertain the slightest doubt as to the real and objective existence of a strange and unknown beast in the profundity of the great loch which I have known intimately for more than half a century. Elusive he is and must be, as long as it remains unpredictable when or where he will make his appearance in the length and breadth of the vast sheet of water which is his habitat. But during the autumn weeks which I spent at Fort Augustus, and still more as a result of correspondence since, I became and remain absolutely convinced, on the testimony of a veritable cloud of credible eyewitnesses, which it would be absurd us well as unreasonable to flout or to ignore, that this weird and mysterious creature does really and truly haunt these deep waters, not as a casual visitor, but as a resident — of how longstanding who can say.

Since the Editor of the 'Universe' asked me to write this short paper, I have thought it well to confirm -the impression, or rather conviction, which I formed a few months ago by communicating with a member of the Fort Augustus community, who enjoys a high and just repute as one intimately acquainted with the habits, language, and folklore of the West Highlands, and also as an antiquarian and archaeologist of high attainments.

I asked for a concise answer to several questions, the first being, has the monster been actually seen by any members of the Benedictine Community?
''Yes," he replies, "by four or five (whom he names) independently and on different occasions; also by several of the employees and workmen attached to the Abbey. Two of the elder boys of the Abbey School, and also a clerical student, had likewise seen it". Two of the most, remarkable witnesses are first, an ex-engineer captain of the Royal Navy resident at Fort Augustus, a man of high ability, training, and experience, who himself saw the animal and who has been for months past collecting and sifting all the evidence on the subject; and, secondly, the owner of Invergarry (the old home of the Macdonnels), who was suddenly converted from entire scepticism by watching (with his daughter) the creature's revolutions and gyrations in the loch for a continuous period of 40 minutes.

It is perfectly obvious, from the letters of my learned correspondent at Fort Augustus, that he brushes aside as puerile and untenable the absurd theories which has been put forward as to this mysterious visitor to, or rather resident in, Loch Ness being either a grampus, a lizard, a conger eel, a sea serpent, an upturned boat, an inflated rubber bag, or a lump of seaweed!

All of which he being a sensible man, dismisses (to use Disraeli's memorable phrase) as merely 'the hare-brained chatterings of irresponsible frivolity.'
What my friend maintains, after carefully weighing all the available evidence, and giving much thought to the subject, is, briefly, that this strange amphibian belongs to the far-back, but post-glacial period, when the great chain of lakes, Loch Ness, Loch Lochy, and Loch Oich of Scotland, were still connected with the sea. These denizens of the deep waters have in the course of ages become fresh water, not salt water, amphibians. This particular specimen, having been (according to the generally accepted theory) disturbed by the recent extensive blastings in connection with the road making around Loch Ness, found its way to the surface, and in the continuous sunshine of the past summer, took a fancy to the upper world, which it apparently still retains, though the summer is long over.

My correspondent believes the animal, on all the evidence, to approximate to the type of the Plesiosaurus. Let me record my own belief that it is a true amphibian, capable of living either on land or in water, furnished with lungs as well as gills, with four rudimentary legs or paddles, an extraordinarily flexible neck, broad shoulders, and a strong, broad, flat tail, capable of violently churning up the water round, it. I hazard the conjecture that it belongs to no existing species, but to the Devonian period, oldest but one in the history of the world, and dating back some hundreds of millions of years.

I have little doubt that Hunter Blair's contact at the Abbey was Father Cyril Dieckhoff - enthusiastic researcher of Nessie. The retired Royal navy captain was possibly Captain Donald Munro who also was a monster hunter.

But Mr Hunter Blair believed the creature to be amphibious and quite capable of being at home in water or land. Hence there is no surprise that this mysterious creature was seen lumbering out of a wooded area.

Our final enquiry would be why the Loch Ness Monster is drawn to venture into forest before returning to its aquatic home? Does it seek food on land? There are not many reasons why a brute beast would take to land apart from food, shelter and reproduction. One can speculate endlessly as to which one (or any) may be relevant to this creature.

One may even add the musings of the aforementioned Colonel Fordyce at the top of this article who suggested the monster could even be a land creature hidden in the Moidart Mountains to the east of Loch Ness, which spends its time between hill and loch in uncertain proportions!

Curiouser and curiouser ....