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.

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