Thursday 9 March 2017

Early Reports about Morag the Monster of Loch Morar

It isn't often I put up guest posts on this blog; come to think of it, I don't think I've ever done it. However, long time cryptid and general anomaly researcher, Ulrich Magin got in touch with me about new information he had found on the Loch Morar Monster, also known as Morag (or Mhorag).

Ulrich is known in Loch Ness Monster research circles from decades back. In fact, by coincidence, I recently found a letter he wrote to me back in the 1980s concerning Scottish sea serpents. Amongst the various articles and books he has written, he is to be thanked for the prodigious task he undertook as a youth of going over to Scotland to find and collate the hundreds of Nessie reports from the Inverness Courier and other papers.

In fact, he didn't start at 1933, but went back into the 19th century to find the 1852 account of kelpies, ponies and somewhat concerned natives. You can find his list of sightings in Henry Bauer's "The Enigma of Loch Ness". Going back to Mhorag, these are mainly pre-1933 Nessie era stories which range from the mythical to something more in keeping with the format of modern reports.So, without further ado, I hand you over to Ulrich.

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The monster, or mermaid, of Loch Morar was news long before its cousin from Loch Ness hit the headlines. I have fond personal memories of a bed & breakfast at Morar where I stayed in 1980, only to be lent the first book to ever mention the creature, James Macdonald’s “Tales of the Highlands” which contained an encounter between its author and a mermaid or monster-like creature in Loch Morar in 1887. The landlady said it was the very same copy Elizabeth Montgomery Campbell had used, the lady who wrote “The search for Morag”. I was still a schoolchild then, and when I returned, my parents urged me to send the valuable book back. When I visited Morar for the second time in 1981, the lady who had lent the book to me had died, and her children had thrown it away. I only hope there are further copies out there.

James Macdonald said Morag was a mermaid who only appeared when members of a certain family died. That is the siren of ancient lore, yet when he himself encountered Morag he gave no description at all. Still, mermaids were sometimes seen in Scottish lochs.

Then there are the mermaids, the kelpies of the south and the water bulls and horses of the north, of the lochs and streams, as stoutly believed by the peasantry who now live beside them as they were centuries ago. […] As to the mermaids of the lochs, they still exist past all dispute – at least with their friends the Highlanders. The railways, telegraphs and newspapers, like the heartless poachers they are, have sweeped or seined them well out of the lowland shires. They are and were both dangerous and beneficent personages. In olden times they were not above giving recipes for rashes, ringworm and other common ailments. Today they have all retreated to the shadowy Highland lochs, where they find comfortable flat stones to sit upon, and there, while combing their masses of long, yellow hair, sing in plaintive tones much that is ill or good to be heard. I know one canny auld wife of northern Perthshire who gets along very comfortably through her confidential relations with a mermaid that at present passes the summer season at Loch Ranoch.” (Kentucky New Era 18 July 1891, also Los Angeles Times, Jul 19, 1891)

First news about a monster in the loch come from the end of the 19th century, in the decade following Macdonald’s book. As reported by Mike Dash in Fortean Times 267, p.71, he discovered a mention of Morag in the notes of Father Allan McDonald from 1896/97. McDonald writes:

The monster called ‘Morag’ that is said to live in Loch Morar has many eyewitnesses … I heard the names of several living witnesses given but I had no opportunity of testing them at first hand.

These early testimonies were confirmed when Alexander Carmichael collected local folklore at the turn of 20th century. His informer was a certain Ewan MacDougall. His notes were found in 2013 by Dr Donald Stewart, a senior researcher on the Carmichael Watson project at the University of Edinburgh library while reading a “mad mixture” of tales from 1902, as reported in the BBC News of 25 February 2013 (to which Andreas Trottmann drew my attention). These snippets read:

Morag is always seen before a death and before a drowning. There is a creature in Loch Morar and she is called Morag. She is never seen save when one of the hereditary people of the place dies. The last time she was seen was when Aeneas Macdonnell died in 1898. The Morag is peculiar to Loch Morar. She is seen in broad daylight and by many persons, including church persons. She appears in a black heap or ball slowing and deliberately rising in the water and moving along like a boat water-logged. The Morag is much disliked and is called by many uncomplimentary terms.

Great distress. Like the other water deities, she is half-human, half-fish. The lower portions of her body is in the form of a grilse and the upper in the form of a small woman of highly developed breasts with long flowing yellow hair falling down her snow white back and breast. She is represented as being fair, beautiful and very timid and never seen save when one of the Morar family dies or when the clan falls in battle. Then she is seen rushing about with great speed and is heard wailing in great distress, bemoaning and weeping the loss of the House of Morar laid desolate. The Morag has often brought out of their houses at night the people living along the shores of the lake and in the neighbourhood of her haunts, causing much anxiety to the men and much sore weeping to the women.

Here, Morag is still part-time mermaid, part-time monster. Loch Morar became news globally when it was found that the lake was of immense depths.

Careful soundings just taken of Loch Morar, in Moidart, show that its greatest depth is 1000 ft. As its surface is only 31ft above sea level, its bottom is 989 ft below the latter, which is stated to be ‘the greatest depression to be found on the British plateau.’” (Otago Witness 1 October 1896, p. 54)

This was confirmed later:

The survey of the fresh-water lakes of the United Kingdom which is now in progress, under the superintendence of Sir John Murray, reveals the fact that Loch Morar, in Inverness-shire, is the deepest lake in the kingdom.

The complete chart of the loch shows that the greatest depth observed was 1009 ft, or 168 fathoms. For a distance of over seven miles the floor of Loch Morar falls lower than 600 ft beneath the surface, and the deepest part of the loch sinks 972 ft below the surface of the sea, from which the loch is separated by a narrow strip of land.

(Otago Witness 10 December 1902, p. 58; the news was also in the Sydney Mail, a little belated on 24 December 1902) 

We come across Morag again in the first decade of the 20th century, with three reports, all of them about a monster. The first is from a novel, Ethel Forster Heddle‘s The secret of the Turret, published by Sir Isaac Pitman in 1905. The book has 229 pages; the quote is on p.56. The characters discuss Scottish folklore.

"The fairy trees keep off evil. Màri told me. She says in Skye you can see the fairies dance on Midsummer Eve in the Cave of Gold, if you go with a naked dagger, or a bunch of rowan. The lilies are cold and faultless, and the stems are so long, and cold, and slimy. One thinks if one fell in — how the long arms would suck one down, and drown one — and how one might die unseen!

Now, in this context, there is word of a monster in Loch Morar:

Almost mechanically he began to tell me a story of Loch Morar, and its deep, deep waters, and how a man had been drowned there, pulled down by the long arms of the water plants, and hidden in the great leaves — held as in the dreadful embrace of a mythical sea-monster.

A review of the book, in the Otago Witness, 31 January 1906, says this: 

“THE SECRET OF THE TURRET. By Ethel Heddle. London: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons. This is precisely the style of story one expects to find eagerly followed through the weekly pages of such journals as Forget-me-not, Home Notes, and others of a similar class. It is the story of a charming girl - they always are charming; an American heiress and orphan - they are always heiresses, these Americans, - and her stay in a romantic castle in the Highlands of Scotland. All the proper accessories to a modem mystery are considered, glibly grafted on to the stage properties of the earlier romance, so that the ‘Secret of the Turret’ may lack nothing in the way of accessories.

But ‘the kilts’ are the real ‘piece de resistance’ of the picturesque attractions! The crumbling stair and narrow plank which lead to the turret room; the stormy loch, with its ‘sea horses’; the old bell with its, quaint inscribed instructions to the traveller — these are all the well-worn, threadbare accessories, but the kilts - new kilts, worn kilts, dress kilts, kilts of all sorts, these are the everyday interpreters of romance!"

It would possibly be interesting to get a copy of the novel for a rainy afternoon and see what more could be found in it. The next story was in The Cairngorm Club Journal, published by the Cairngorm Club (vol. 5, 1908, p.73–74). We learn that Loch Morar is difficult to visit

as the owners and tenants of deer forests have decided objections to intrusion upon their fastnesses.

this is followed by:

“But a sail on Loch Morar from the lower end is unhindered, and the scenery of the loch itself is very fine. Permission to fish may also be obtained, and the successful angler will be much pleased with the size and beauty of his captures. He may be thankful if he escapes the fear of capture himself. For the lake is the haunt of a remnant of the old- world monsters that till recently - if all tales be true - frequented our lonely lakes and streams. Mòrag - little Sarah, though why I do not know - seldom shows herself, and, so far as I have ever heard, has always been satisfied with frightening the intruder out of her realms. The best authenticated tale that has come to my knowledge was given me by a man who had made Mòrag's acquaintance. He was rowing across the loch, in going from Meoble to Tarbet on Loch Nevis. Glancing over his shoulder to see if he was nearing the shore, he saw between him and the landing-place the apparition. But, evidently believing that Mòrag was as shy of the company of human beings as they were of hers, he held on his course and landed without skaith.” 

Still in 1908, the monster is mentioned in William T. Kilgour’s "Lochaber in War & Peace: being a record of historical incidents, legends, traditions & folk-lore with notes on the topography & scenic beauties of the whole district". (Gardner, 1908, p.173–174).

Morar Loch – the deepest lake in the three kingdoms – has gained the reputation of harbouring a monster so mysterious and uncanny that the dwellers in these parts live in perpetual terror of it. ‘Morag,’ as the apparition has been christened, is said to have been seen by a number of persons of unquestionable veracity. One of them in recounting his experience alleges that early on a summer morn when rowing across the loch, he happened on nearing the further shore, to catch sight of ‘Morag’ — ‘a huge, shapeless, dark mass, rising out of the water like an island.’ It suddenly disappeared, and the disturbance of the water sent a ripple towards his boat, which caused it to roll slightly. The belief is prevalent among the residents by the lake, that the sea monster in Loch Morar never rises save when some MacDonald or a Gillies is about to exchange the barren hills of Morar for a fairer and more salubrious clime.

Morag here still announces local deaths, but she is transformed into a version of the kraken or island beast, much closer to what we would expect from a lake monster.

The Highland News, on 14 April 1917, p.5, carried an article about the folklore of the Highlands entitled “Traditional Monsters of the West”. The long article lists goblins, the pterodactyl-like Lochhourn monster, the one-legged humanoid of Glen Etive and then refers to Morag, the Loch Morar monster:

A monster is still located in Loch Morar. Some places are pointed out where it feeds; the marks of its feet are found at Camus-nam Bràthan; traces of it exist at Ruidh nan Deorcag and Coll-nam-muc. This Loch Morar creature gets from the natives the name ‘Morag’. It appears only when one of the natives of the place die (‘aon de dhùthchas an aite’). The last time it was seen was in 1898, when Aonghas an Traigh died. ‘Morag' is seen in daylight. As its appearance foretells a death, it is called ‘Morag Dhubh’'; ‘Morag Odhar’.

Montgomery Campbell’s book has several mentions after this, and I will now only note material I have found by accident, and which might not be well known. "Fear by Night", a woman’s thriller by Patricia Wentworth (published in 1934 in Philadelphia and London by the J. B. Lippincott Company, refers to the monster (I regret but I forgot to note the page): the

monster of Loch Morar, whose appearance is believed to presage disaster. So much for folklore.

On 27 November 1948, the first sightings appeared in newspapers. the Pittsburgh Press had this story on p. 15: 

“Scottish Monster Sighted On Loch.
GLASGOW – It’s back, folks – the ‘monster’ of the Scotch lakes. A party of nine on Loch Morar, deepest lake in Scotland, called the attention of boatmen John Gillies to an unusual object a quarter of a mile away. ‘Through my binoculars,’ says Gillies, ‘it appeared about 20 feet long and had prominent humps. Neither head nor tail was visible.’” 

This is sighting no 7 in "The Search for Morag". In 1949, Doré Ogrizek had this to say in his Great Britain: England, Scotland, and Wales in the “World in colour series” (Whittlesey House, 1949, p. 431):

“Not far from Mallaig are two unusual pieces of water. One is Loch Morar, the deepest hole in Europe at more than 1000 feet. The other is Loch Hourn, the ‘Loch of Hell,’ and there is said to be a monster in it which bears a distinct resemblance to the monster in Loch Ness.”

The English Review magazine, vol 2–3, Eyre and Spottiswoode 1949, also refers to

“Loch Morar, in depth just under 1000 ft and the haunt, like Loch Ness, of a Monster.”
In 1955, the New York Times on July 3, reviews a book titled “Folk-Tales and Tall Tales” which contained:

“many stories that were new to me, such as ‘Morag and the Water Horse’ (surely a foreshadowing of the legend of the Loch Ness monster).”
I want to finish with two brief further quotes. One, from a letter-to-the-editor in the New York Times of July 30, 1960, on p. 16, which says:

“As a Scots visitor to the United States whose home is not far from Loch Ness, I was interested to read in your paper about the famous monster which inhabits this loch [Ness]. […] It is only because Loch Morar is so isolated that monsters there are rarely seen.”

And in 1961, The Scottish Naturalist (vol 70-71. p.88) tantalizes with:

“The ‘beast’ of Loch Morar was named Morag. Father Allan says it had been seen by reliable acquaintances of his.”