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An Early Sighting of the Loch Ness Monster? April 27, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

Medieval saints were famous for their encounters with dangerous animals. In their Lives we read of confrontations with wolves, bears, stags and snakes; but also of meetings with more exotic creatures. Beachcombing thinks of St George facing down a dragon or St Brendan and his monks celebrating communion on the back of an enormous sea beast named Easter.

It is one of these more curious episodes that is sometimes (perhaps dubiously) clamed to be the first eye-witness account of the Loch Ness Monster.

The alleged sighting appears in the seventh-century Life of St Columba by Adomnan. Columba was not from Scotland – he was born in Ireland. But he lived the second half of his life on the Hebridean island of Iona and visited, on several occasions, the kingdom of the Picts in what is today eastern Scotland. One of these visits, c.580 AD, took him not only to Loch Ness, but to the banks of the wide River Ness that feeds from the east of the Loch into the Atlantic.

‘When [Columba] reached the banks [of the River Ness] he saw an unfortunate man being buried by some locals. The ones doing the burying said that while out swimming, not long before, the dead man had been grabbed and bitten savagely by a water beast. Some had gone to rescue him in a wooden boat. But these had arrived too late and had retrieved his unfortunate corpse using hooks.

However, monster or no monster, Columba intends to cross. Impatiently he orders one of the men accompanying him to swim over the wide river and bring back a boat that rests on the far bank.

‘Hearing this order… Lugne Mac Min obeyed without hesitation and throwing off all his clothes, except his tunic, he dived into the water. But, the monster, whose hunger had previously been not so much satisfied as sharpened, remained at the bottom of the river. Feeling the water above disturbed by Lugne’s swimming it suddenly swam up to the surface and with great roars and wide-open mouth sped at the man swimming in the midst of the current.

Today Nessie is a shy, rarely glimpsed, creature, if he exists at all. But here he is savage and aggressive.

‘While everyone there – the Picts and the brothers – were frozen in great terror, the blessed man who was watching lifted his holy hand and made the redeeming sign of the cross in the air. Then, calling on God, he instructed the wild beast saying ‘You will go no further. Do not touch the man. Now turn around quickly’. Hearing the saint’s instruction, the beast, as if dragged back with ropes, went terrified into a swift retreat – though as Lugne had swum it had approached within one short pole’s length of the man.’

Columba controls animals, dangerous or otherwise, with a simple sign of the cross or a prayer.

‘After, seeing that the beast had withdrawn and that their brother Lugne had come back to them uninjured and safe in the boat, the brethren, amazed, praised God in the blessed man. And the heathen Picts who were there at the time, impressed by the greatness of the miracle that they had seen gave thanks to the God of the Christians.’

The story ends with the Picts, pagan at this date, praising God. It is a useful reminder that the Life of St Columba is not a scientific historic account, but a work of Christian devotion. The writer may have got high on kelpies and made up the episode. Or he may have exaggerated what Columba saw: one academic has even suggested that the ‘monster’ was actually a walrus that had strayed into the river! Indeed, much is made of the fact that this is the river not the Loch by sceptics and they may have a point.

Any other medieval accounts of beasties from the fringes of Europe? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

30 April 2011: R R the Great wrote in with a short reference: ‘I hope the ‘fringes of Europe’ include Switzerland.   What about the Tatzelwurm?’ This was news to Beachcombing who will report back. Pridian, meanwhile, writes in with some extraordinary allegations about Hampshire in southern Britain: ‘You asked for any other medieval accounts of beasties from the fringes of Europe. There are indeed other such formulaic accounts where the saint overcomes some peiste/beastie to impress the locals, the way a visiting western gunfighter will impress the locals by taking out the town bully on arrival. An account by a visiting Belgian party of monks by Canon Herman of Laon [a text BTW that Beachcombing loves] refers to a dragon rising from the sea and burning the town of Christchurch (Hants) for its sins. (Its officials were hostile to their group’s setting up a temporary fundraising stall.) The author does not claim credit for having called up the dragon, but merely witnesses the fire as the party left, though implying this is just/divine punishment for the insult to their Lady of Laon, i.e patron saint. It’s from Herman’s De Miraculis Sanctae Mariae Laudensis (Miracles of St. Mary of Laon), better-known for describing an incident when the group moved on and reached Cornwall and nearly provoked a riot when one of them told the locals they were wrong in their belief Arthur ‘still lived’. Interesting contrast here – the monks are sceptics about the then-widespread secular legends about Arthur but [later] allow a published account of witnessing a sea-dragon burning a town. There is not even any evidence Christchurch suffered a major fire in or around 1113. Nor does there seem to be a link to the local land-based serpent-dragon legend localised across the valley at Bisterne (which means beast’s or pest’s secret place). I’ve researched these stories for a couple of blogs and websites, but the pattern so far is that of an intriguing story that goes nowhere. (I chose local examples so I can access research sources beyond Google, ie old local history texts.) For example, there is the neighbouring legend of the Highcliffe Grampus [H. is next door to Christchurch.] This is the bizarre legend of a grampus  stuck up in a yew tree in the churchyard oppressing the locals with its noisy breathing, till the church exorcised and banished it back to the Red Sea… Grampus, from Latin grandis piscis via Spanish gran pez, big fish, can be a killer whale or a dolphin, both being air-breathing mammals i.e. with blowholes which could explain the noisy breathing. You might think, well, a dolphin got washed ashore and into a tree by a large wave, and died in agony, and the tale elaborated itself from there – but Highcliffe is so-named for good reason. No large wave has been known to have breached it. Other versions change the locale to Highclere in upper Hampshire, which isn’t a help, as it’s far inland; these accounts also have it chasing young women. I did look at a couple of incidents of a ‘grampus’ being discovered in Hampshire rivers. This were referred to in March 1997 on Channel 4’s late-night discussion programme ‘For The Love Of…’, and also in 1997 by Fortean Times [no. 104]. Both incidents date from 1932, backed up by press clippings and photos on the walls of local pubs. The reports have two creatures being found dead in 1932 upriver in tributaries of the River Hamble, near Curbridge, and identified tentatively from the photos as a Bottle-Nosed Dolphin and a Risso’s Dolphin (grampus griseus). This scarcely accounts for the legend of a grampus living in a tree.’ Thanks RR the Great and Pridian!!!