Did You Hear the One About Nessie, the Sceptic and the Water Horse? February 2, 2014Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback
Two of the most interesting Christmas books this year were Roland Watson’s The Water Horses of Loch Ness and Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero’s Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids. As is evident from the titles these books take opposite sides of the crypto argument: in fact, the authors have had a public scrap online – ‘fight’, ‘fight’, ‘fight’ as the braying kids used to say at Beach’s northern comprehensive school. Having gone through and enjoyed both of these works I, however, find myself in an unusual position. I would bet my house that no pleiosaurus or other large acquatic animal unknown to science lurks in Loch Ness, nor has, I suspect, one lived there in the last couple of thousand years: Beach is very much a small ‘s’ sceptic and has been influenced by the Count’s attack on acquatic monsters. However, in one important respect I find myself in absolute agreement with Roland Watson and in absolute disagreement with Daniel Loxton (the writer of the Nessie chapter in Abominable) and that is about the documentary evidence for the Loch Ness monster prior to 1933: the breakthrough year in Nessie sightings. There are certainly prior records and these records should not and cannot be dismissed with an airy wave of the hand.
For those who have not dipped their toes into the delightful waters of Ness then a little background is necessary. 1933 is to Loch Ness what 1888 is to Jack the Ripper. In that year Nessie became international news after a sighting of the beast (by one Aldie Mackie) and other reports that followed on. Those who do not believe in the existence of the Loch Ness monster point to a serious problem. Prior to 1933 there is, they argue, no evidence for a beast in the lake. Those on the other side of the debate have dealt with this in different ways. Some have said that there are no records because there was no interest, some have said that there were relatively few people on Ness prior to this date so Nessie wasn’t seen, some have said that there are records but they have been overlooked or ignored. Roland Watson takes up, in his book, that third strategy with great force. In fact, the central thesis of his book is that there are a whole array of records of Nessie prior to 1933 and the finest measure of his achievement is ‘Appendix C’ where he has gathered thirty-two references to pre-1934 sightings.
DL had not read RW’s book when he wrote his own chapter on Loch Ness, but he anticipated this kind of argument and, indeed, there are several sources used by both authors: though naturally different conclusions are drawn! DL is able to get rid of most by simply playing the retrospective card, i.e. pointing out that this or that Nessie account might be about 1880 but was written after 1933. I wrote above that 1933 is to Nessie what 1888 is to Riperologists. However, a more fruitful comparison might be with ‘c. 1136’, the date of Geoffrey of Monmouths History of the Kings of Britain. c. 1136 matters to Arthurian scholars: anything written after that date about Arthur has very often been contaminated by Geoffrey’s undeservingly authoritative account; only material written before has, then, guaranteed independent value. The same thing holds for Nessie. If we have material dating before 1933 then that is extremely interesting because the material is clean of all the calamitous rage in the newspapers in that year. If, on the other hand, we have material that dates afterwards, even if there are individuals remembering twenty or thirty years or a hundred years (‘remembering’) before then these accounts may have been contorted or perhaps even spawned by the sightings of 1933. Now, in fact, Arthurian scholars have long understood that ‘c. 1136’ is only indicative. Sources should be studied on their merits even if later. Ultimately it would be useful to look at Nessie material in the same way. But for present purposes let’s stick to the scientific high-ground and rule out everything from 1934 and after even if promising.
If you apply the retrospective rule to Roland Watson’s ‘Appendix C’ then the sources available shrink from 32 to fewer than ten (the exact number is difficult to judge without a lot of cross-referencing). Then, those names can also be whittled down further. One fascinating source is Adomnan’s Life of Columba, written in the early seventh century: this blog already covered this source a number of years ago, but we’ll write another post in the near future as it deserves a revisit. For present purposes we ignore it. There is also a letter by Scottish antiquarian David Rose published in 1934 but referring to a sixteenth-century book, which has never been found, with a reference to Nessie in it. (More needs to be understood about David Rose before this material can be taken on trust, which is why Strange History has a couple of posts on that gentleman out or coming out). There is a 1658 reference to a floating island on Loch Ness: this is special pleading and needs, with great respect to RW’s arguments, to be crossed off the list. By now we are down to a handful of references and none of these surviving references amount to a reliable sighting of an important acquatic animal in the Loch. They prove though something else and this brings us to Daniel Loxton, the sceptic.
Daniel Loxton overreaches himself in one respect in his genteel fight against Nessie. He is confident that there is not and that there has never been a monster in Loch Ness: and with this it is difficult to disagree (at least for me). However, he also makes the mistake (and there is no question that it is a mistake) of arguing against the folklore of monsters in the Loch. For example, he talks about various water monsters: ‘Today these related but distinct mythological creatures are harnessed in service of the legend of the Loch Ness monster, but there are strong reasons to think that this linkage is inappropriate.’ Why? DL’s first objection is that they don’t look like the Loch Ness monster, a point which we’ll come back to. But he then claims: ‘none of [these folklore creatures] is indigenous to the Loch’. When in the first true Nessie article in 1933 a local writer claimed that a ‘fearsome-looking monster’ had ‘for generations’ been said to have lived in the Loch, DL poo-poos this as invention. But I suspect that on some levels he knows that folklore cannot be ignored. Indeed, he writes at the end of his discussion that ‘Nessie was born from magic: the kelpie folklore of Scotland and the movie magic of Hollywood’, which was in that period going monster mad (see below).
Now Roland Watson’s research is the perfect antidote to Loxton’s dismissal of folklore. By going through the book it is possible to very quickly put together a list of eight folklore references prior to 1933 (and more will certainly be found). Note this is not the same as Roland’s Appendix C, which is for sightings.
1) There is an 1823 reference to a local warlock who had stolen the bridle from a Kelpie associated with Loch Ness. I’ve covered this in a previous post – there are many sources for this same story – but RW does a far better job (80-96).
2) There is a newspaper article, 31 Jan 1849 with a brief reference to a prophecy that states that a bridge would not fall until ‘a monster of the whale tribe, bred in Lochness [sic], came down and attacked [the bridge]’
3) A comic piece, 1 July 1852, about two ‘monsters’ spotted in the lake that turn out to be two ponies out for a swim. The lakeside population are sent running for weapons and an old man with a rifle proclaims in Gaelic. ‘Dis mu’n doian, ‘a iad na-h eich-uisg a th’aun!’ This apparently translates as ‘God protect us, they are the Water Horses!’ A lot rides on the ‘na’ if anyone has a modern Gaelic speaking friend. Does this mean ‘the water horses of the Loch’ as is naturally understood in English? Or does it mean ‘water horses’ more generally? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com If the first there is an important hint of a tradition here.
4) The great Scottish folklorist John Campbell wrote in 1862 that ‘Loch Ness is full of [water bulls]’
5) There is a folklore reference, 11 June 1879 that describes a kelpie that was ‘in the habit’ of appearing as a horse on land and tempting passers by into the water of the Loch.
6) In 1883 in Cromb’s The Highland and the Highlanders there is a reference to a kelpie in Loch Ness ‘seen swimming along the surface of the water, or browsing by its side’
7) 8 Oct 1886 there is a reference to ‘a large fish’ whose body was washed ashore on the loch side. This turned out to be a bottle nosed whale (WtH!) but: ‘some of the most credulous natives averred that a huge fish, similar in size and shape, had been occasionally seen gambolling in the loch for years back, and with equal determination protested that its being cast dead on the shore boded no good to the inhabitants’. Pestilence and famine were apparently on their way…
8) In 1893 James Mackinlay refers to ‘a noted demon steed’ that once inhabited the loch: this reference seems to be picked up again in 1896 in the proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
It might be possible to argue over a couple of these, but not all eight. The message is clear. A or more likely several folklore ‘beasties’ were associated with the loch prior to 1933. Possibly by 1933 these beliefs had died out: if not they were likely dying. But there is no denying that they were there in the mid and late nineteenth century and presumably for generations before: the 1886 reference is particularly striking. Nor is it in the slightest bit surprising that there were legends associated with the Loch. In fact, it would have been extraordinary had there not been some sort of supernatural creature in such a vast and charismatic body of water! Sceptics will make two points here. First, that there are actually several different water monsters here and, of course, they are right. This may be because terms were mixed in local tradition (taxonomy and folklore don’t make for good bed fellows) or because there were many different types (as was also typical). They will argue too that the Loch Ness Monster, as described, does not resemble any of these creatures. But as most sceptics now accept it was a brontosaurus from the 1933 film King Kong that inspired the monster craze and the creature was imagined or re-imagined as a brontosaurus (which had appeared in that film) or a pleiosaurus (big dinosaur long neck), not least thanks to a celebrated photo fake. The way mythical monsters are imagined changes constantly as even a glance at, say, giant-lore or dragon-lore will demonstrate.
Roland Watson has made then an absolutely fundamental point in his book, one that, to the best of my knowledge, has been missing from Nessie research or that has existed only at the level of allegation without comprehensive proof: there is a folklore substrata to these sightings stretching back into the nineteenth century. He has demonstrated this beyond a shadow of doubt and he should be congratulated. Personally, I cannot follow Roland onto the ‘terminal buffers’ claiming that the legend exists because there is a creature somewhere in the Loch: and here again I offer my house keys to the first romantic to bring me Nessie’s beating fishy heart on the silver shining plate of science. Legends emerge more easily from the subconscious and from human needs than from environmental peculiarities. There are fairy legends in my home valley in Yorkshire, but very few people would claim that there were ever physical entities there that created the ‘little folk’.
However, legends and, in this case, the legends of Ness, matter: they too shape the world. I suspect that this is precisely what happened in the case of Nessie: though I cannot demonstrate this and the matter is probably beyond proof. I’m going to finish with an extended metaphor to try and express my logic. The spark that led to the Nessie legend was the sighting in 1933 by Aldie Mackay. The wind that blew the spark into a flame was the monster mania produced in part by the success of King Kong (and other similar films in the period). However, the fire caught and kept burning because there was kindling lying around and that kindling was the legends and experiences of locals living those legends: the fears and the perceptions of the folk of the Loch who had grown up with water bulls, kelpies and water horses kicking around in the shallows. What this means is that those despised retrospective reports from after Aldie Mackay’s sightings, recalling sightings in the 1920s or 1890s, are prime folklore material. They should be treated much as collectors treated fairy accounts from the west of Ireland at about the same date: they are precious living fossils from a way of life that was rapidly dying out. It is an easy matter to imagine the various folklore creatures being assimilated to Brontosaurus ‘Nessie’ post 1933: particularly as these traditions were probably half-dead memories.
Nessie is dead: Long live Nessie!
2 Feb 2014: This post was accidentally published two weeks early – regular readers will know that this is a fairly frequent occurrence around these parts. In the four hours it was up Mike Dash, acclaimed English historian, read the piece – though he should have been in bed at the time – and provided the following thoughts. ‘Enjoyed today’s Loch Ness post. Lake monsters are my “home territory” as a Fortean and I have read all the literature, as well as having a fair bit of personal experience of Loch Ness – I served as a watch leader with Adrian Shine’s Loch Ness & Morar Project from 1983-88 which included helping to run the famous Operation Deepscan. I would add a couple of points to your post (and I take a position very similar to your – while not believing in everything Roland does, he does a really excellent job on his blog in re-examining classic cases and I think it is important to have good-quality believer-oriented material to set against sceptical accounts). Firstly, while there is no doubt that 1933 is central to the history of Loch Ness, and there is strictly limited evidence of anything like the classic modern image of the LNM being in the loch before that date, your account omits a couple of important points. Firstly, anyone who looks at reports from Loch Ness, however post hoc, ought to be struck by the rather remarkable preponderance of land sightings dating to before 1933 (and that these almost immediately peter out to nothing after 1933). These are especially remarkable because in almost every case the land reports describe something with four legs, not four flippers – that is, an animal apparently adapted to live on land, not in the water. Although the reports are never actually horse-like (weirdly, where they refer to any animal, the comparison is generally with camels). I think this has to suggest the remnants of a kelpie legend. Secondly, while Loch Ness sceptics such as Ronald Binns have long suggested that all lake monster legends spring, ultimately, from Loch Ness, there are several lakes where reports demonstrably date to before 1933. The most interesting are Lake Storsjon, in Sweden, Lake Okanagan, in British Columbia, and Loch Morar, in the Scottish Highlands. Of course it’s perfectly possible (and legitimate) to say these accounts are influenced by contemporary sea serpent reports, and in the case of Morar, lashings of local folklore are certainly involved (the monster was a harbinger of death for senior members of the local clan). Nonetheless, recent research in the records of the early folklorist Alexander Carmichael (1902) reveals a description of the monster closely resembling those from post-1933 Loch Ness: “She appears in a cnap dubh – a black heap or ball slowing and deliberately rising in the water and moving along like a boat water logged.” I am sure Roland would make more of this than I would, but it’s undoubtedly interesting. I have collected half a dozen other pre-1933 accounts from Morar which are equally interesting.’ Thanks a million Mike!!! Hopefully Roland and Daniel will follow up.