Loch Ness Monster

The enduring legend of the Loch Ness Monster

In the rugged highlands of Scotland there’s a large freshwater lake known as Loch Ness. It stretches for 23 miles flanked by rolling hills. And its depth reaches nearly 800 feet. The reason you’ve probably heard of Loch Ness isn’t because of the dimensions but what allegedly lies beneath its murky surface. According to multiple eyewitnesses, the lake is home to some type of prehistoric animal. Otherwise known as The Loch Ness Monster.

Saint Columba tames the Loch Ness Monster

Nearly all these claimed sightings date from the 20th and 21st centuries. However, there is one alleged account from the sixth century AD. At this time, in what used to be termed the ‘Dark Ages’ after the fall of the Roman Empire in western Europe, monks from Ireland kept the flame of Christianity burning. One of their number, Columba, journeyed to what is now Scotland determined to bring the gospels to the pagan inhabitants.

His mission was largely successful.  A century after Columba’s death, the abbot of Iona Abbey – a man called Adomnán – wrote a two-part biography of the heroic Irish monk. In the second part, he describes an encounter between Columba and Nessie (as the monster is fondly known today).

“The brute lay asleep in the riverbed, waiting in his lair. He ascended to the surface and with a loud roar from his open heart, he lunged at the man. The Holy Man raised his hand and made a sign of the cross. At the sound of the saint’s voice, the brute retreated so quickly, it seems as if were pulled by a rope.”

Well, of course, confronted by this astonishing sight – the locals deserted their pagan gods and converted to Christianity on the spot. Now, stories of heroes taming or killing beasts and dragons have been a feature of both Christian and pre-Christian mythology going back millennia. Normally as a way of proving that my god is better than your god. Look what he can do!

In Christian scripture, we have Saint Philip described in the Acts of Philip – a gnostic gospel the church chose not to include in the bible – casting a dragon out of a temple dedicated to Apollo. Then there is Saint George who as everybody knows slew a dragon. Saint Theodore of Amasea did a similar deed. And in the Book of Revelation, we see Michael the Archangel sticking it to a devilish reptile.

Was Columba’s beast Nessie? That is a moot point. His biography states the monster was to be found in the River Ness, which flows from the lake. And that’s good enough for Nessie fans.

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Fast forward to the 1930s

We then have an enormous gap in the Nessie story from the sixth century AD to the 1930s. Had the monster gone into a multi-century hibernation – or swum off elsewhere? Who knows?

But for whatever reason, Nessie takes off in the decade that brought you the Great Depression and the Third Reich. Were people in the 1930s looking for a little escapism? Or were they influenced by Hollywood movies that had begun to master special effects. In the 1933 epic King Kong, we see the gigantic ape kill dinosaurs in the jungle. Could this imagery have been burned into the public consciousness?

In 1933, a newspaper article in the Inverness Courier sparked the Nessie craze. A married couple had seen a whale-like creature in Loch Ness.

“The creature disported itself, rolling and plunging for fully a minute, its body resembling that of a whale, and the water cascading and churning like a simmering cauldron. Soon, however, it disappeared in a boiling mass of foam.”

Something about this story fired people up. A circus offered a £2,000 reward to capture the beast (how very King Kong!!).  While the Daily Mail newspaper sent a big game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell to see if he could bag the monster. A breathless Wetherell reported back that he found gigantic footprints by the lake. Sadly, these turned out to have been created by hoaxers using the stuffed foot of a hippopotamus.

Incredibly, the famous author and member of the Bloomsbury group Virginia Woolf was swept up by Nessie mania. She wrote to her sister:

“We met a charming couple in an inn, who were in touch through friends, with the Monster. They had seen him. He is like several broken telegraph posts and swims at intense speed. He has no head. He is constantly seen.”

For the next twenty years, glimpses of the monster would continue to be reported. In 1959, a local firefighter, Peter O’Connor, was condemned for planning to kill Nessie. A year later, the chief constable of Inverness, J. R. Johnstone, called on parliament to pass legislation protecting the monster from “human villainy”.

The 1960s gets a bit silly

The decade that brought us the permissive society also loved to poke fun at pomposity. It took the Loch Ness legend and turned it into a comic British movie with a smutty title: What a Whopper.

The movie’s protagonist Tony Blake – played by real-life early 60s pop heartthrob Adam Faith – is an author whose book on Nessie has just been roundly rejected by publishers. So, to drum up interest he goes up to Loch Ness to fake a sighting. When his plan fails, Blake is forced to flee across the lake from angry locals…at which point the real monster appears.

Is this movie garbage? Oh god yes! As an aside, I worked with Adam Faith on a media venture forty years later at the turn of the 21st century and made sure I never mentioned What a Whopper to him. Some points in your life are best forgotten.

The use and misuse of science

There have been numerous attempts to apply scientific methods to the search for the Loch Ness Monster. In May 1973, a Boston patent attorney called Robert Rines took sonar and underwater photographic equipment to Loch Ness and claimed to prove the existence of “at least two large marine animals”.

Rines had set up an organisation called the Academy of Applied Sciences that despite its name, railed against “official science” because, as Rines told journalists, “organised science doesn’t know how to handle oral evidence”. This is a familiar trope of pseudo-science – arguing that real science should be a blend of peer-reviewed evidence and what a bloke said down the pub.

Over the last fifty years, expeditions to Loch Ness have used sonar probes, a submarine, a gyrocopter, a trained dolphin, a baited cage, an amphibious Volkswagen, and a model monster smeared with salmon oil to try and locate Nessie.

The sightings have come thick and fast with sceptics rolling their eyes and attributing the visual phenomena to otters, ducks, seals, cormorants, mirages, shadows and even rotting vegetation. All of this not helped by the dark gloom of the water, which is caused by the surrounding peat. It gives the lake an impenetrable and mysterious aspect.

The Loch Ness Investigation Bureau Limited

In December 1961, an organisation was set up to investigate claims about Nessie: The Loch Ness Investigation Bureau Limited. The founders were David James MP, Richard Fitter, the author Constance Whyte, and Sir Peter Scott.

Scott was a conservationist and the only son of the famous and fabled Scott of the Antarctic – the doomed explorer. Sir Peter worked with the above mentioned Rines and in 1975, they provided blurry photos of what looked like an underwater prehistoric creature, which was given the Latin name Nessiteras rhombopteryx.

Now I remember as a 12-year-old how exciting this was initially until some people began to analyse that Latin a little more closely. Didn’t it look suspiciously like an anagram? The Daily Telegraph newspaper decoded it as: “Monster Hoax by Sir Peter S”. A furious Rines countered that it could also read as: “Yes, both pix are monsters, R.”

The damage, however, was done – and no more was heard about that photo. In 2008, before his death, Rines announced that he believed Nessie had become extinct due to global warming.

Russian versions of the Loch Ness Monster

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, I remember as a child reading a sneering feature article in a Soviet publication laughing at the west’s obsession with childish fantasies like the Loch Ness Monster. It was symptomatic of our inferior bourgeois, capitalist mentality.

Only, Russia can hardly lecture the west on this subject. Back in 1953, members of a geological expedition claimed they could verify a local folktale about a monster living in a large body of water in Russia’s far east. The Labynkyr Devil was described by local fishermen as a “huge aggressive monster with a big mouth full of sharp teeth”.

What nonsense, the Soviet scientists initially retorted – before apparently running into it. One of the geological team, Viktor Tverdokhlebov, described a dark, grey creature moving at speed. “There was no doubt, we had seen the Devil – the legendary monster of this locale,” Viktor said afterwards.

And then there’s the Brosno Dragon, tales of which go back 800 years. Allegedly when the Mongols swept across Russia in the Middle Ages, the dragon obligingly stopped the Mongol army from seizing the city of Veliky Novgorod. As the Mongols unwisely watered their horses by the dragon’s lake – it leaped out and tore the warriors to pieces.

The rise and fall of Nessie?

In many ways, Nessie was a creation of mass media. The popular press and radio latched on to this fantastical story and amplified it globally. But one newspaper article in recent years has raised the point that modern media today is a double-edged sword. It can spread fake news and conspiracy theories with remarkable speed and impact. But it also punctures silly stories very quickly. The journalist posed the question whether the internet has now killed off Nessie?

infant saints

Infant saints with magical powers

I recently came across a Saxon infant saint called Rumwold of Buckingham who only lived for three days. But before this poor baby died, he was able to display what can only be described as magical powers. Rumwold asked to be baptised and immediately after, preached a sermon on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

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Apparently, the very precocious baby was able to reference heavy theological sources such as the Athanasian Creed. Not bad for somebody who hadn’t been alive for a week yet. The sermon concluded with Rumwold predicting his own death and outlining the funeral arrangements. His short life took place in the village of King’s Sutton in what is now the English county of Northamptonshire. And the chatty baby was the scion of a noble Saxon family with both pagan and Christian relatives. He died in the year 662.

There are plenty of infant saints aside from Rumwold but one that I find morbidly fascinating is Sicarius of Bethlehem. This infant saint was one of the Holy Innocents killed by King Herod, as recounted in the Nativity story. Now – I hear you ask – how could any of the Holy Innocents have died a Christian when Christ himself had only just been born? Put another way – there was no Christianity when Herod gave his notorious order so how does a baby at that time become a Christian saint?

Well, details, details. None of these inconvenient points stopped early medieval France getting very enthusiastic about his cult. From the time of Charlemagne, Sicarius was worshipped fervently and his remains were kept at an abbey in the Dordogne. How were they discovered? You ask too many questions!

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Though not a saint, Ellen Organ (1903-1908) was an Irish child whose apparent holiness was so overwhelming that Pope Pius X lowered the age for first Holy Communion from 12 to 7 years of age. “Little Nellie of Holy God” was another infant who rather implausibly was able to recite big chunks of scripture despite being obviously very young. The sickly child died of a variety of dreadful diseases from TB to whooping cough.

She was exhumed by the nuns looking after her a year following death and – of course – showed no signs of corruption. In 2015, there was some controversy over a call from a local bishop to exhume her yet again and move the body to a place where she could be venerated more easily by the faithful.

The Spanish Inquisition – what was it really like?

What was it like to be a prisoner of the notorious Spanish Inquisition? Well, I got a unique insight in 2019 when I visited what had been a Spanish Inquisition prison in the Sicilian capital of Palermo.

You might ask – what was the Spanish Inquisition doing in the Sicilian capital, Palermo? Isn’t that part of Italy?

And the answer is that Sicily was ruled by Spain from the 15th to the 18th century. With Spanish rule came the Spanish Inquisition and that meant imprisonment, torture and burning at the stake for those who didn’t accept the authority of the Roman Catholic church.

Spanish Inquisition gets to work in Sicily

In Palermo, people suspected of being ‘heretics’ – in opposition to Catholic teaching – were arrested and taken to a very severe looking building. They were crammed into dark cells from which they only emerged to be beaten and cruelly tortured.

But what is astonishing is that during their dreadful captivity, the prisoners used a mixture of dirt from the floor and their urine to paint religious art on the walls.

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This art was lost for centuries and only fully rediscovered in the last twenty years. Some of it seems to be a plea for mercy while other drawings are clearly intended to tell the Inquisition to sling its hook. There’s even one depiction of an inquisitor riding a donkey which is defecating.

I was genuinely affected by my visit to this Spanish Inquisition prison. It still holds the ability to terrify, though you have to use a bit of imagination to visualise it at the height of its operation. But frankly, anybody with a modicum of historical knowledge should be able to do that.

A visit is definitely recommended and – yes – you could take youngsters too. I suspect they’ll love it!

Top five weird saints in the Catholic church

I’ve been visiting the shrines of some weird saints over the summer.

The stories, legends and myths attaching to these holy people can often be rather weird. Strange tales of how they were martyred in a gruesome fashion. At the shrines, you can find their entire body or a bone or a piece of cloth. Let’s look at some of the weird saints I encountered!

Saint Cassian is the oddest account of a martyrdom. A Christian in the Roman Empire who was teaching pagan children. This was during the reign of Julian the Apostate – who tried to turn the empire back to paganism after three decades of emperors who had converted to Christianity.

Cassian refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and his punishment was to be turned over to his own pupils who were told to kill him with their pens and clay tablets. This took a while by all accounts – but Cassian urged them on desiring to die for his faith!

Cassian takes a while to die

Saint Apollonia is said to have been martyred during a riot in Alexandria under the reign of the Roman emperor Philip. Before her death, it’s said she had her teeth pulled out. And so rather ghoulishly, she is depicted holding a pair of pliers with a tooth in its grip. Yuck!

Wilhelm Borremans, Saint Apollonia, 1717

There’s many horrible ways to die but being grilled is probably the worst. Saint Lawrence is often depicted holding what looks like an iron bed mattress but it’s actually the metal grid to which he was tied and cooked.

Saint Lawrence and his grid

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Here’s the body of Saint Justina – a virgin woman from Padua in Italy. She converted to Christianity at a time when the Roman Empire was still pagan. The emperor Maximian himself tried to make her reject Christ but she refused. So she was martyred with a sword – which she holds close to her breast. Somehow, her body made it from Italy to Portugal and here it is…

Saint Justina – possibly!

And then there’s Bartholomew the apostle of Christ. He is said to have journeyed to India to convert people to Christianity but then came to grief in Armenia. There, he was executed by being skinned alive. Sometimes he’s also being crucified upside down at the same time. The depictions of him and his skin can be rather odd.

Bartholomew and his skin

The Green Children of Wulpet

Medieval England saw many strange incidents. Unexplained visitations that creeped out villagers who knew nothing about science or reason. One such incident was the sudden arrival of two children with green skin at the village of Wulpet. Who and what were they? The mystery is one well worth revisiting.

The strange green children of Wulpet

This is one of those stories that confirms the view of folk in the Middle Ages being…well…not the sharpest pencils in the box.  It’s a strange tale.  We must go back to the stormy reign of King Stephen, a Norman king who sat precariously on his throne fighting an insurgency from a rival claimant to his crown – the Empress Matilda.  The Anglo-Saxon chronicle claims these were miserable times for England when God himself had turned his face away from the country.

It’s in troubled periods like this that odd events seem to happen – mysterious occurrences with no rational explanation.  Maybe a product of mass hysteria – people driven out of their wits by daily strife.  And what happened in the village of Wulpit in Suffolk was, frankly, out of the ordinary. It was recorded by one William of Newburgh in 1150.  He adopts a cynical tone but says so many witnesses claimed what they saw was true that he feels compelled to repeat it.

Green children emerge from the “wolf pits” – known as Wulpet

Four or five miles from Bury St Edmunds – the shrine to a Saxon king shot through with arrows – was Wulpit….named after “ancient cavities” called Wolfpittes or ‘pits for wolves’.  While the reapers were in the fields working, two children emerged from these holes in the ground.  A boy and a girl.  Nothing untoward about that – except for their appearance.  William of Newburgh explains:

“…a boy and girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in garments of a strange colour, and unknown materials, emerged from these excavations…”

Their skin was completely green!  Well, the reapers were startled and grabbed the kids taking them to Wulpit.  The villagers gawped at them for ages, trying to feed them but the children would not take what they were offered – until somebody offered them beans from their pods.  And they gobbled them down.

Their green skin of the children of Wulpet fades!

Over time, they were taught to eat bread and learned English and then something unexpected happened – their green colour started to fade.  With this development, it was decided to baptise the boy and girl.  This proved fatal with the boy who subsequently died.  The girl survived and “differed not in the least from the women of our own country”.  She even got married.

All of which begs the question – who were these children?  This was their own explanation recorded by William of Newburgh:

‘…we only remember this, that on a certain day, when we were feeding our father’s flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St Edmund’s when the bells are chiming; and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, as it were entranced, and found ourselves among you in the fields, where you were reaping’.

Wulpet green children: from the ‘land of St Martin’

They claimed to be from the ‘land of St Martin’ – a place where this saint was hugely venerated.  Did they believe in Christ in their homeland? Yes. Did the sun rise like it did in Wulpit? No.

‘The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sunrise, or, follows the sunset.’

So they lived in a permanently dark realm though, bizarrely, they could see in the distance a ‘certain luminous country’.  But they couldn’t get to it because there was a great river in between.

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There are a large number of theories as to what or who these children were – ranging from aliens to fairies to Flemish refugees, etc, etc.  It’s not atypical of other stories in the Middle Ages detailing strange visitations to isolated villages.

One such story I like is of the villagers in a church who heard a great thump in the graveyard and found a massive anchor had dropped from the sky…and up above was a floating ship…and down the anchor chain came a sailor.  In one version of this story he was grabbed by the villagers and ‘drowned’, exploding like a being made of water.

Sounds like something from X Men!