Killing a Nineteenth-Century Nessie December 3, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
There is a fabulous Scottish water beast story that is worth repeating. Today we scour lochs for fantastic animals. In the early nineteenth century they scoured at Loch na Beiste (literally Loch of the Beast) to kill the same.
The story of the celebrated water-kelpie of the Greenstone Point is very well known in Gairloch. The proceedings for the termination of this wonderful creature formed a welcome topic for much of the period. The creature is spoken of by the natives as the ‘Beast.’ He lives, or did live, in the depths of a loch called after him Loch na Beiste… which is about half way between Udrigil House and the village of Mellon Udrigil.
The story of the beast’s execution is reported a generation later. Despite claims for lots of contemporary attention we’ve been unable to find any proof. Not even the article in Punch: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
About 1840 Mr Bankes, the then proprietor of the estate on which this loch is situated, was pressed by his tenants to take measures to put an end to the Beast. At first he was deaf to the entreaties of the people, but at length he was prevailed upon to take action. Sandy McLeod, an elder of the Free Church, was returning to Mellon Udrigil from the Aultbea Church one Sunday in company with two other persons, one of whom was a sister (still living at Mellon Udrigil) of James Mackenzie, when they actually saw the Beast itself. It resembled in appearance a good-sized boat with the keel turned up. Kenneth Cameron, also an elder of the Free Church, saw the same sight another day. A niece of Kenneth Cameron’s (some time housemaid at Inveran) told me she had often heard her mother speak of having seen the Beast. It was the positive testimony of the two elders that induced Mr Bankes to take measures for the destruction of the Beast.
It is not clear why the beast was so dangerous, but anyway, sharpen harpoons…
The proceedings have been much exaggerated; James Mackenzie states that the following is the correct version of them: Mr Bankes had a yacht or vessel named the Iris; James Mackenzie was a sailor in the Iris, along with another sailor named Allan Mackenzie. For a long time they and others worked a large pump with two horses with the object of emptying the loch. The pump was placed on the burn which runs from the loch into the not far distant sea; a cut or drain was formed to enable the pump to be worked, and a number of pipes were provided for the purpose of conducting the water away. The pipes are now lying in a house or shed at Laide. James Mackenzie often attended the pump. He and others were employed parts of two years in the attempt to empty the loch, or as James Mackenzie puts it, ‘to ebb it up.’
They next brought in chemical weapons.
It was after this that the Iris was sent to Broadford in Skye to procure lime. James Mackenzie went with her. They brought from Broadford fourteen barrels of ‘raw lime.’ They came with the lime to Udrigil, and it was taken up to the ‘loch of the beast,’ and the small boat or dingy of the Iris was also taken up. The ground-officers would not go in the boat on the loch for fear of the Beast, so Mr Bankes sent to the Iris for James and Allan Mackenzie, and they went in the boat over every part of the loch, which had been reduced only by six or seven inches after all the labour that had been spent on it. They plumbed the loch with the oars of the boat; in no part did it exceed a fathom in depth, except in one hole, which at the deepest was but two and a half fathoms. Into this hole they put the fourteen barrels of lime. It is needless to state that the Beast was not discovered, nor has he been further disturbed up to the present time.
But that was not the end…
There are rumours that the Beast was seen in 1884 in or near another loch on the Greenstone Point.
Some monsters just don’t have the decency to die.
4 Dec 2013: Lots of emails on this one: just two today. Crucially, Bob S wrote in: I enjoyed your posting on the monster in Lough da Beiste, and tracked it down to the 1886 book “Gairloch In North-West Ross-Shire- Its Records, Traditions, Inhabitants, and Natural History” by John H Dixon. I found an interesting newspaper report from 2 years later where details about the story emerged again at a Crofter’s Commission when the reason for a crofter’s arrears was being studied. The attached cutting suggests that the lake draining took place in 1864, not the earlier date given by Dixon in his book (which was referred to in the commission hearing). Another reference online, in a Guide to Wester Ross by A. Mitford (1934) suggests the lake draining was in 1873. PS. With these two dates, perhaps I will see if I can track down the reference in Punch referred to by Dixon.*** Beach has typed out the relevant cutting: In the third case heard before the Crofter’s Commission the other day Aulsbea – that of a tenant on the Gruinard estate whose rent wa s stated to be £7 9s. 2d., and who was said to be £13 15s. 2d. In arrears – a rather curious statement was made by Mr Macdonald, who appeared for the tenants. It would be seen by the rent book, he said, that in 1864 a sum of £1 was entered in the name of the ‘pipes’. In the summer of that year pumping operations were conducted in Loch Na Beiste (‘the Loch of the Beast’), situated about half-way between Udrigill House and the village of Mellon Udrigil, during the absence of the greater number of the crofters at the fishing. The work indicated was undertaken by the then proprietor, the late Mr Bankes, to whom it had been reported that a monster was seen in the loch. The beast was observed about the time in question by an old man, who was of opinion that it had two horns. It was therefore resolved by the proprietor to drain the loch. – The Chairman: But this is not evidence. – Mr Macdonald: I am explaning about the pipes, My Lord, Mr Bankes went on pumping the loch, but the quantity of water seemed to increase instead of diminish. Subsequently he procured a trawl from the salmon fishermen, and the loch was trawled. No results followed. The next step taken was to put several tons of quicklime into the loch with the view of destroying the monster, which was never got. In the end, some boys or vagrants, it was reported , had stolen the solder used for the pipes, and on that account the tenants of three townships were fined £1 each. Mr Mackenzie, the principal clerk, produced Mr Dixon’s new History of Gairloch, and the Chairman, having his attention directed to the chapter on water kelpies, said that Mr Dixon had given a full and particular account of the thing. Mr Macdonald: Does he give the number of horns? That is important. (Laughter). While the witness in thsi particular instance was being examined, the Chairman, addressing Mr Bankes, the present proprietor, said: What is the truth of the matter? Mr Bankes: I believe that Mr Bankes wrote the British Museum authorities inquiring if it was possible that there could be anything in the matter, and he got an answer leading him to think there might be something in it. The Chairman: did you believe there was something in the loch? Witness: I believed there were some fir roots that got entangled in the trawl. The Chairman: When the draining operations began, did you believe there was some animal in the loch? Witness: No, I did not. I never saw anything. The chairman: was there talk in the township about it. Witness: Yes, I heard some say that they saw something in the loch, and others that they did not. The conversation about the loch incident created much laughter. Towards the close of the evidence in the next application, Mr MacDonald urged the question of the fine on the tenants in the circumstances described as one for their special consideration. The Chairman: What do you want us to do with the animal? (Laughter in which Mr Macdonald joined, but vouchsafed no reply.) The third applicant who had been fined said he had paid 50s. for ‘pipes’ He paid a bigger share than the others because he woudl nto pay the £1 when first requested, thinking that he would not in the end have to pay. Interest was added every half-year. Another witness, interrogated as to the loch affair, said sometimes he believed there was a monster in the loch and sometimes he did not. (Laughter). Eventually, he did not belive it contained a beast. Everybody that passed was afraid. He did not know whether the quicklime had any effect, but it killed some of the trouts (Laughter.) The Chairman: It was an extraordinary undertaking: Anon, ‘Startling Superstition in the North’ Sheffield Evening Telegraph (25 May 1888), 2*** Southern Man has put together three quotations. The first largely repeats the information already given; the second describes the kelpie in context; and the third alleges that the beast was originally a bear! Thanks Southern Man. *** The existence of water-kelpies in Gairloch, if perhaps not universally credited in the present generation, was accepted as an undoubted fact in the last. The story of the celebrated water-kelpie — it was sometimes spoken of as the Each Uisge, and at other times as the Tarbh Oire — of the Greenstone Point is very well known in Gairloch. The proceedings for the extermination of this wonderful creature formed a welcome topic even for the Punch of the period. The creature is spoken of by the natives sometimes as ‘The Beast’. He lives, or did live in the fifties, in the depth of a loch, called after him Loch na Beiste, or Loch of the Beast, which is about half-way between Udrigil House and the village of Mellan Udrigil. Mr. Bankes, the then proprietor of the estate on which this loch is situated, was pressed by his tenants to take measures to put an end to the beast, and at length was prevailed upon to take action. Sandy Macleod, an elder of the Free Church, was returning to Mellan Udrigil from the Aultbea church on Sunday in company with two other persons, one of whom was a sister (still living at Mellan Udrigil in 1886) of the well-known John Mackenzie of the Beauties, when they actually saw the ‘Beast’ itself. It looked something like a big boat with its keel turned up. Kenneth Cameron, also an elder of the Free Church, saw it another day, and a niece of his told a friend of mine she had often heard her mother speak of having seen the Beast. Mr. Bankes had a yacht named the Iris, and in her he brought from Liverpool a huge pump and a large number of cast-iron pipes. For a long time a squad of men worked this pump with two horses, with the object of emptying the loch. The pump was placed on the burn which runs from the loch into the not far distant sea. A deep cut or drain was) formed to take the pipes for the purpose of conducting! the water away. I have myself more than once seen the pipes stored in a shed at Laide. But, unfortunately, it was forgotten that the burn which came into the loch brought a great deal more water into it than the pump and the pipes carried out; consequently, except in very dry weather, the loch never got any less. When this plan failed, it was proposed to poison the Beast with lime, and the Iris was sent to Broadford in Skye to procure it. Fourteen barrels of hot lime were brought from Skye and taken up to the Loch, along with a small boat or dinghy. None of the ground officers of the estate would go in the boat for fear of the Beast. So Mr. Bankes sent to the Iris for some of the sailors, and they went in the boat over every part of the loch, which had only been reduced by six or seven inches after all the labour and money that had been spent on it. These sailors plumbed the loch with the oars of the boat, and in no part did it exceed a fathom in depth, except in one hole, which at the deepest was but two and a half fathoms. Into this hole they emptied the fourteen barrels of hot lime. It is needless to say that the Beast was not discovered, nor has it been further disturbed up to the present time. There are rumours that the Beast was seen in 1884 in another loch on the Greenstone Point. There was one curious fact about this kelpie hunt — viz., that the eccentric English laird who started it was cam (one-eyed), the tinker who soldered the pipes together was cam, so was the old horse which worked the pumps, and it was altogether such a gnothach cam (one-eyed business) that people began to wonder whether, if the Each Uisge were ever captured, it might not prove to be cam also! So angry was the laird at his failure to capture the kelpie that he was determined to avenge himself on something or someone; and at last he decided to wreak his vengeance on the unfortunate crofters whose town- ships were in the vicinity of the loch. Unlike the kelpie they, poor wretches, could not escape him, so he fined them all round a pound a head, which in those days, when money was so scarce, meant a great deal to them! Osgood MacKensie A hundred years in the Highlands (London 1921), 235-237 *** Sir Walter himself has an interesting reference to the same superstition in his ‘Journal’ under date November 23rd, 1827. After enumerating the com- pany at a certain dinner party at which he had been present, he continues: ‘Clanronald told us, as an instance of Highland credulity, that a set of his kinsmen — Borradale and others — believing that the fabulous ‘water-cow’ inhabited a small lake near his house, resolved to drag the monster into day. With this view they bivouacked by the side of the lake in which they placed, by way of night-bait, two small anchors such as belong to boats, each baited with the carcase of a dog slain for the purpose. They expected the ‘water-cow’ would gorge on this bait, and were prepared to drag her ashore the next morning, when, to their confusion of face, the baits were found untouched. It is something too late in the day for setting baits for water-cows.’ If such conduct seemed wonderful in 1827, what would the author of Waverley have thought had he known that more than half-a-century later, people in the Highlands retained a thorough- going belief in such monsters ? No longer ago than 1884 rumours were current in Ross-shire that a water-cow was seen in or near a loch on the Greenstone Point, in Gairloch parish. Mr. J. H. Dixon, in his Gairloch, states that about 1840 a water-cow was believed to inhabit Loch-na-Beiste, in the same parish, and that a serious attempt was then made to destroy the creature. The proprietor tried to drain the loch, which, except at one point, is little more than a fathom in depth ; but when his efforts failed he threw a quantity of quicklime into the water to poison the monster. It is reasonable to hold that the trout were the only sufferers. The creature in question was described by two men who saw it as in appearance like ‘a good sized boat with the keel turned up.’ Belief in the existence of water-cows prevailed in the south as well as in the north of Scotland. In the Yarrow district there was one inhabiting St. Mary’s Loch. Concerning this water-cow, Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, writes: ‘A farmer in Bowerhope once got a breed of her, which he kept for many years until they multiplied exceedingly; and he never had any cattle throve so well, until once, on some outrage or disrespect on the farmer’s part towards them, the old dam came out of the lake one pleasant March evening and gave such a roar that all the surrounding hills shook again, upon which her progeny, nineteen in number, followed her all quietly into the loch, and were never more seen.’ James M. MacKinlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs (Glasgow 1893), 179-181*** Martial, as we have seen, speaks of the Caledonian bear. In Scotland the brown bear seems to have lingered longer than in the southern portion of the island. The rugged nature of the country, especially of the Highlands, afforded every facility for the shelter of wild beasts. Historical writers of the si.xteenth century specify bears as having existed numerously in Scotland in ancient times, though the period of their extirpation is not indicated. Thus, Bishop Lesley says that the Caledonian Forest was once full of bears : and Camden, in his Britannia, writes that Athole was ” a country fruitful enough, having woody vallies where once the Caledonian Forest (dreadful for its dark intricate windings, and for its dens of bears, and its huge, wild, thick-maned bulls),” had extended itself far and near in these parts. Traditions of the bear are still remembered in the north, where it is distinguished as the MagJi-GIianihainn — ‘the paw calf,’ and also under the more general term of beiste, or ‘the monster’— as — Ruigh-na-beiste, ‘The Monster’s Slope,’ and Loch-na-beiste ‘The Monster’s Lake’. The surname of the Clan Forbes is said to have arisen in connection with the chase of the bear. Robert Fittis, Sports and Pastimes of Scotlnd (London, 1891), 12-13. Thanks to Southern Man and Bob for their stirling work. Other sources?
18 Dec 2013: Sorry this one took so long. The Count has strong feelings: Incidentally, while looking up this curious tale, I discovered that some variants of it confuse the the tiny Loch na Beiste with the nearby and extremely large Loch Maree, in which the monster, or another of the same species, is also supposed to dwell. This is actually a quite plausible habitat for a huge creature, being the fourth-largest loch in Scotland, and, unlike Loch Ness, having a flourishing ecosystem with a large population of fish. Maybe they were looking in the wrong place? I’m also reminded that the tiny, uninhabited Isle Maree boasts what may very well be the most concentrated cluster of curious superstitions in the UK, except perhaps Stonehenge and Glastonbury. And I think it even beats them – Druidic bull sacrifices surviving into the 18th century, for example! By the way, partially harking back to enclaves, I was delighted to discover the charming but utterly useless fact that the largest island in Loch Maree is the only island in any lake in the British Isles to have its own lake (or, since it’s in Scotland, more properly its own lochan) which itself has an island. Anyway, back on topic, the tradition of huge creatures in tiny ponds applies even in Africa. Lake Tele in the Congo, where the fabled mokele-mbele supposedly dwells, is not only rather small, but shallow enough for a man to wade across all of it except a little bit in the very middle. This is easily explained by the fact, which nowadays cryptozoologists all to often conveniently forget, that these creatures have both a physical and a transcendental component. The kelpie in Loch na Beiste is not just a large aquatic reptile (or whatever); it’s also a supernatural shape-shifting fairy which preys on humans by assuming the guise of most often a magnificent horse, but sometimes a pretty girl, or anything else a man might be interested in. It doesn’t have the same requirements as a normal creature. It doesn’t need a food supply, it’s singular and immortal so a breeding population isn’t necessary, and since it’s not entirely physical, it may not even be present in material form most of the time. A body of water that’s little more than a pond can be inhabited by an enormous monster in the same way that a small hill or a miniscule Stone Age burial-mound may contain an entire subterranean kingdom of fairies. Which, needless to say, cannot be unearthed by means as simple as digging a hole, and anyway, nobody’s ever tried, except that one legendary fellow who came to a very bad end, thus demonstrating why you should leave it well alone. Crytozoologists have traditionally assumed that the plausible half of the legend is a literal description of a real animal, while the mythical addenda can be casually ignored. However, they’re increasingly tending to go the other way, since admitting that your fabulous cryptid is a supernatural being with unlimited magical powers gives you an excellent excuse for not having caught one yet. Which you need if you’re going to claim that a fair bit of North America (as well as large areas of Russia, China, Australia and quite a few other places) is infested with seven-foot-tall ape-men, but for some reason nobody’s ever shot one! For a further discussion of Scottish lake-monsters, here’s a useful extract which mentions your own account in passing, and also a similar tale passed on by no less than Sir Walter Scott. On a distantly related note, the Americans, not having an established monster tradition (apart from the Indians, who didn’t socialize much with the white folks), gleefully made one up. Their mythical menagerie is thus particularly exotic and whimsical, containing as it does deliberately silly beasts invented with a view to convincing newly-arrived colonists that they might encounter such things. Hence the Whirling Wumpus, a sort of living tornado, the Hidebehind, a terrifying creature whose appearance is unknown because it always hides behind something, only revealing its unbearably hideous face to stun its prey prior to devouring it, and the Jackalope, a horned rabbit still to be seen in many American bars because it’s the easiest one for taxidermists to fake. (Similar yarns exist in Australia, their most notable spoof cryptid being the Drop Bear, a predatory species of koala which may plummet on you if you stand under a tree.) But, along with the Jersey Devil, which I think you’ve already covered from a sociological perspective concentrating on the alleged circumstances of its birth, the most celebrated has to be the Hodag. It’s particularly appropriate for your purposes because the last years of the 19th century gave rise to a “real” Hodag corpse that wasn’t quite dead yet being put on display for paying customers (elsewhere, a very much alive Jersey Devil was also exhibited, albeit in a poorly-lit room), and splendidly-faked photos became best-selling postcards. Thanks Count!