Tuesday 20 February 2024

The MacLennan Land Sighting

It is back to classic sightings of the Loch Ness Monster and a report of a large creature seen on land in that seminal first year of Nessie reports 91 years ago. The date was the 6th August 1933 and two days before, the local Inverness Courier newspaper had published a letter from a George Spicer about a similar sensational incident. However, this account would not see the light of day for some time afterwards.

I have looked amongst the newspaper archives for an early record of this account but have found none so far and therefore quote the earliest report found in Rupert Gould's book, "The Loch Ness Monster and Others" published in June 1934. The witness was a Mrs. T. McLennan in the first week of August in the midst of stormy weather:

Mrs. McLennan and her husband were walking, towards their boat, along the Loch-side road between Whitefield and Foyers. Mrs. McLennan saw X, resting close to the water's edge, on one of these beaches. She could not identify the exact spot further than by saying that from it Urquhart Castle would be in a line with Temple Pier. She was greatly surprised to see what she took to be X out of the water. She had little more than a glimpse of it - she called to her husband, and at the sound of her voice X plunged clumsily into the Loch, sending up a big splash. Mr. McLennan was too late to see anything but this splash.

She described X as lying " hunched-up," end-on to her, its head towards the water but "thrown back." The back looked "ridged, something like an elephant's," and was of much the same colour, but had several humps on it. These were not so pronounced as those she had noticed when it was in the water. It did not stand very high off the beach. She estimated its length, hunched-up as it was, at 25 feet [pacing this off, when she gave me her account, along the wall fronting her cottage].

Gould adds that this happened near the scene of the Spicer land account weeks before where there were several small, flat beaches from which the Loch shore proper rose in a more or less steep slope, while the road is cut out of these slopes and overlooks the water at a height of some 20-50 feet. He further adds that the line of sight given placed the event about 2.5 miles from Whitefield, towards Foyers. Projecting that line onto Google Maps gives the location indicated below on the south shore.

Using Google's Street View tool on that location gives us a general view of the area and you can see how close the loch is to the road offering a close up of anything on the beach below. Being  August, the foliage would have been near maximum growth, though at to what it looked like in 1933, one can only assume it was similar to today.

Gould had been up at the loch in November 1933 touring the area on his motorcycle talking to eyewitnesses and Mrs. MacLennan had been one of those interviewees. The next major book on the Monster was Constance Whyte's "More Than A Legend" in which she also relates the story twenty four years later:

Mrs. MacLennan of Drumnadrochit and her husband had already seen the Monster in the loch on a number of occasions when, one day in 1933, as they were walking to their boat on the Dores side of the loch, Mrs. MacLennan was astonished to see the creature on the beach. She shouted to her husband to look, and at the sound of her voice it plunged into the water causing a considerable splash. All Mrs. MacLennan saw before it moved off was a dark grey mass apparently turned towards the water with the head and neck thrown over so as to rest on the creature's back. Length, she estimated as 20 to 25 feet and, end-on, no humps were visible. Mr. MacLennan could only corroborate that he heard and saw the splash. 

This does not really add much to the raw data even though one would think Whyte would have been able to contact MacLennan. However. one final account is to be found in none other than Maurice Burton's sceptical work, "The Elusive Monster" published in 1961 and which adds some interesting details courtesy of a letter from MacLennan.

I saw it on land, on the Foyers side. It had short, thick, clumsy legs, but most decidedly legs, with a kind of hoof very like a pig's, but much larger. I only saw it for a few minutes and being knocked giddy with excitement . . . it was stretched out full length in the summer sun and a more ugly sight you never saw. It came about on a Sunday. We had to cross the loch at Urquhart Castle. That day I had on new shoes. They hurt with the eight mile walk (four up and four back) so, after leaving the church I took off the wearisome shoes and took the road in my bare feet, walking on the cool green grass on the verge of the road, so I came on Nessie unawares.

I'll never forget it. You see, my husband and two sons were dawdling behind me. Then, on seeing this world wonder I yelled, "Daddy!" That did it. It doesn't seem to have any ears, but believe me it can hear. It lurched itself up on the two forelegs (it had four legs), then slithered hoofs forward over the cliff (it was only four to six feet from the water and must have climbed like a monkey to get where it was). I know that very ledge, so if you happen ever to be there I can show you . . . into the water it went. It did not stand up like, say, a cow. It kept the hind-legs on the ground seal-wise. It seemed to be too heavy in the body for its own legs. It went down quietly with a great splash. The rings were all my boys saw, thanks to me and my yell.

Mrs MacLennan added a postscript : "By the way, the monster on land was quite different from the one on the water. Gould thought that must have been the male, and that there must have been a school of them." The first sentence of this postscript I now regard as highly prophetic. 

We find the story related throughout the subsequent decades in various publications but they tend to draw on more original sources rather than add new details. The movement of Mrs MacLennan and her family would seem to amount to rowing their boat from Urquhart Castle to opposite shore south of Whitefield and a walk to church in Foyers which was four miles down the road. Assuming this finished about 1pm, they then walked to a point about 2.5 miles north of Foyers an hour or so later.

With three main reports spread over twenty seven years, we may expect some discrepancies in the wording and this is evident when comparing Gould and Burton.  The weather was stormy in the Gould account but sunny with Burton, Gould mentions several humps but Burton mentions none. Whyte differs little mainly because details in Gould and Burton are not mentioned by Whyte. In most cases, the earliest account should take primacy. It has been noted in other case studies that the passage of decades does have its effect on recall, even if the event was of a notable nature. However, since MacLennan recounter her story to Gould about three months after it happened, we can be more confident in its accuracy.

Now with all this in hand, I have always found this a most curious event and one which may provide a clue as to the nature of the beast. In fact, reading the details made me wish that Mrs. MacLennan had submitted a sketch of what she saw. The key detail concerns what is perceived as the head and neck. Gould's book says its "head [was] towards the water but thrown back."  and Whyte writes it was "turned towards the water with the head and neck thrown over so as to rest on the creature's back." but her letter to Burton says nothing concerning this although the ellipsis in the quotes leaves the possibility that such a reference may have been in the original letter.

The idea that the neck would be backwards and resting on the creature's back initially comes across as something contrary to expectations. For example, if one holds to the plesiosaur theory, such a posture is impossible. The same could be said of long necked pinnipeds or any vertebrate proposed as the creature's identity. In fact, being such an outlier, one may be tempted to discard this as a misperception of some kind. As I said, there is no original sketch, so I drew one myself to get a sense of what may have been seen that day and I reproduce the sketch here which was at the top of this article.

I have not included the mandatory tail as no such thing was mentioned. The neck flops back, but could have been even more flaccid than what I have re-imagined. I have added something approaching humps and the four limbs with their so-called pig's hooves appearance. A photo of a pig's foot is shown below and we can see it divides into a cloven hoof of two digits and a back two dew claws of which one is visible. This makes the pig an even-toed ungulate.

Such a literal arrangement is unsuitable for aquatic animals which leads me to believe Mrs. MacLennan was describing as best she could the three toed and webbed forelimb which has been described in other  accounts (such as Bob Duff and E. H. Bright). When such an appendage is at rest, it will fold together to give the impression of a less aquatic limb. Going back to the "neck", one may reject a single outlier, but we have another instance of a floppy neck just weeks before with the Spicer land sighting.

Now sceptics have rejected this account saying that such an undulating appearance does not square with a vertebrate neck. I may well agree with them on that and conclude what we see in these two accounts is not a neck in the spinal column sense. However, one might argue that the description of a ridge on the back is indicative of a vertebrate. That may indeed be true and I am not suggesting a boneless neck means this is an invertebrate, though the late Ted Holiday may have disagreed.

Indeed, should it be called a neck at all? A neck implies a head at the end of it, but often the creature is described as having an infeasibly small head which is just a continuation of the neck. That could be an argument that it is not a head at all. Then again, others have described a mouth and eyes to which we refer to sightings such as those by John MacLean. Are we talking about two different species here or one that differs by age, sex or some other attribute?

I am not inclined to think of two exotic species in one 26 square mile area. Mrs. MacLennan herself is quoted as saying she thinks what she saw on shore was different to what she saw in the water on another occasion described below from the Scotsman newspaper of the 13th November 1933.

A sketch from the same newspaper below portrays what was seen. Are these two creatures, one seen on land and one seen in the water irreconcilable as MacLennan said? I don't think so, but if you think one had hooves and a floppy neck, you may be inclined to think otherwise. 

This naturally begs the question as to what is this potential "non-neck"? At this point I have no clear answer as to proboscis, tentacle or otherwise, but I wasn't here first with that idea as I hand you over to Tony "Doc" Shiel's fantastical elephantine squid of Loch Ness as rendered at this link.

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The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com