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Loch Ness itself is pretty impressive with or without a monster. Located 23 miles south west of Inverness, the Loch is the largest body of fresh water in the UK. Although its length of 22.4 miles is just pipped by Loch Lomond’s 23 miles, Loch Ness is the largest due to its depth of 754 feet, holding 263,000 cubic feet of water. Quite a lot for a cryptid to swim in! The surface of the Loch can also rise by as much as seven feet in heavy rain. Another interesting quirk is that due to the large amount of water, Loch Ness has a thermocline 100 feet down. This causes the top 100 feet to alter its temperature according to the weather, but the water below maintains a steady 6.6 degrees centigrade all the time. During the winter, the extreme cold causes the warmer water to rise, and the Loch lets off steam if it’s particularly chilly. Or Nessie has put the central heating on!
As for Nessie herself, the first indications of her may in fact go back to when Picts lived around the Loch. Romans arrived in the area at the time, and found several carvings of animals, most of which were recognisable. However, one depicted an eel like creature with flippers. It became known as a water horse (or Each-Uisge in Scottish folklore). The first ‘official’ sighting of Nessie occurred in 565, when St Columba and his followers arrived by the Loch.
There are slight variations to the tale, but a document from the 7th or 8th century has it that the band of Christians came across a group of Picts burying a man who had died after being being bitten by a monster in the Loch. St Columba directed one of his men to swim across the Loch and bring back a boat from the other side. As the man swam, a water beast rose to the surface and began chasing him. As the others looked on in terror, St Columba raised his hand and, in the name of God, ordered the beast not to touch the man. The monster halted and vanished under the water. The follower in the water was safe and St Columba’s entourage was joined by the Picts in praising the wonders of God.
The modern era of Nessie was born in 1933 with the construction of a road around the Loch. Users of the new road occasionally met some unusual local fauna. George Spicer and his wife were out when they saw a massive beast about 25 feet long, with a long neck, cross the road towards the Loch. A few weeks later, motorcyclist Arthur Grant almost crashed into a similar creature as it crossed the road and vanished into the Loch. The following year saw the publication of the infamous Surgeon’s Photo, which claimed to be the first photo of Nessie. Although it was claimed to be fake in 1975, and further debunked in 1993, debate still rages about it’s authenticity. And that was pretty much the start of Nessie mania. Down the years, this has taken in several Cryptozoological hunts, a myriad of sightings, more photos, the claim by the Italians that they had killed Nessie with a bomb in WW2, and during the campaigns for the Scottish Independence Referendum quips that Nessie had moved to England on the off-chance Scotland seceded after a photographer claimed to have taken the monster’s photo in Lake Windermere!
The area surrounding Loch Ness has the usual fare of ghostly tales. Back in the days when Cromwell’s New Model Army were holed up just by Inverness during its occupation of Scotland, it was decided to burn the town to the ground in a pre-emptive strike, just in case the locals rose against them. The army didn’t get far. They found Inverness was well defended – by the dead who rose from their graves and surrounding the town! Then there is the case of Castle Spioradan, formerly Castle Bona. It was the scene of massive bloodshed between the Camerons and Macleans, that ghosts haunted it to the extent it became abandoned and it’s name changed to Spioradan, meaning Castle of Spirits. It no longer stands.
But what Loch Ness has to offer, as well as it’s monster, is a brilliant cross section of classic Scottish supernatural entities – in particular, the Cailleach and the Kelpie/Each-Uisge.
Before the advent of Christianity and the institution of the single omnipotent (male) God figure, Gaelic mythology boasted a rich pantheon of gods and goddesses – each one usually connected in some way to a natural phenomenon such as a season, or to geographical features like trees and mountains. One of these figures, arguably one of the most ancient, is known as the Cailleach – which translates as ‘hag’ in modern Scots Gaelic and came from the Old Gaelic ‘Calleich’, meaning ‘veiled one’.
The Cailleach is believed to be an ancestor deity but is also connected to the weather, to the mountains and to the season of Winter. In fact in Scotland she is also known as Beira, Queen of Winter – and old legends say that she formed many of the country’s starkly beautiful mountains and hills, either by dropping stones from her creel or wicker basket as she walked, or by purposefully erecting them as stepping stones (depending on the story). It is said that she is the divine Mother figure, and from her the other gods and goddesses sprang forth.
She is linked to the goddess Bríghde – the Cailleach rules over the winter months from Samhain to Beltaine, while Bríghde holds sway over the summer months. In February and March the ‘pass-over’ of power between the two goddesses was once celebrated by our ancestors – and, in some cases, still is. Legend has it that February 1st is the day the Cailleach devotes to collecting firewood for the following winter; and if she intends the winter to be long and harsh, the first day of February will be bright and sunny to give her plenty of light in which to collect all the wood she will require to keep warm during the icy months to come.
There is a rich tapestry of beliefs revolving around this fascinating ‘crone’ figure. On the Isle of Man she has been seen in the form of a giant bird; in Scotland and Ireland the first farmer to complete his harvest must make a corn dolly to represent her and fling it into the field of a neighbour who has not yet finished collecting his grain. Then, too, there are some scholars who believe that the Old Irish poem entitled ‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare’ is in fact about the Cailleach herself. The poem speaks of this woman’s longevity and states that ‘…her grandsons and great-grandsons were tribes and races’.
There is even a Scottish glen named for the hag, and a fascinating local legend is connected to it which tells how the Cailleach, her husband the Bodach and their children were taken in by locals living in the glen, and how they made it green and fertile by way of thanks. When they departed from the glen they left several stones behind them, and told the people that as long as these stones were carefully placed to watch over the glen on Beltaine and then returned to their shelter on Samhain, the reign of prosperity and fertility would continue. Even now, the people of Glen Cailleach still move the stones according to the goddess’s instructions – and the valley remains green and beautiful.
There are a few tales of Cailleachs lurking in the hills around Loch Ness. One was Cailleach a’ Chrathaich, the Hag of the Craach. Living in the hill to the west of Loch Ness, she particularly had it in for the MacMillan clan. The Hag of the Craach’s favourite trick was to keep an eye out for passing travellers with whom she’d strike up a conversation, passing herself off as an old woman living in the hills. She would surreptitiously take the traveller’s hat from him without his realising – they would in fact leave, not realising they were bare headed. The Hag would sit and rub at the material until it was worn away, at which point the hat’s owner would drop dead instantly. In this manner, she killed several men, quite a few of them from the MacMillan clan.
One clan member she caught out was Donald MacMillan. Donald spent some time talking to the Hag when he realised who she was and that she had his hat. He ordered her give him his hat back ended up fighting her for it. While he got his hat back, his fate was sealed, as the Hag let out a blood curdling scream, telling Donald that although he got his hat back, in three weeks, he would die. Donald was left in a lather, and three weeks to the day of the curse, his friends and family gathered around him, praying for the curse to be lifted. But it wasn’t to be. At nine o’clock, Donald fell down dead.
The Kelpie is a water-bound mythological creature which is said to be dangerous and malevolent – though also sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful, when they appear in human form. Kelpies are said to dwell beside the banks of rivers or streams, and in this way are slightly different from the Celtic water horse, or Each-Uisge, which is said to be far more dangerous and can be found in the sea, in sea lochs or in fresh-water lochs.
Because of the similarity between the two, and also because of the sheer variety of stories told about them, it can be difficult to make general statements about Kelpies. They can be vicious and murderous – dragging innocent children to their deaths in the water – or appear as helpful fairy-tale creatures, seeking out human companionship in their loneliness. They can also show themselves in various physical forms. In one myth the Kelpie appears as a beautiful, well-muscled black horse; in another, as a wizened old man with ‘a malignant scowl’.
One rather romantic folk story, hailing from the Outer Hebrides island of Barra, tells of a Kelpie showing himself as a handsome young man in order to woo a beautiful mortal girl and take her as his wife. But the girl discovers the truth and, while the kelpie-man sleeps, steals the silver necklace he wears, which represents his bridle when he is in equine form. Instantly the young man changes into his true shape, a mystical horse, and the girl takes him home to her farm where her father puts him to work in the fields for one full year. When a year has gone by the girl mounts the Kelpie and rides him to visit an old wise man, who instructs her to return the silver necklace to the beast. When this is done he transforms back into a handsome boy and the wise man asks him which form he would prefer – will he remain a man or revert to his horse shape forever?
The Kelpie turns to the young woman and asks her if she will marry him, so long as he stays a man. She agrees, and the Kelpie thus opts for the human form – choosing mortality, in order to be with her. They marry…. and, hopefully, they lived happily ever after.
Unsurprisingly, as the body of water is already so steeped in myth and legend, Loch Ness was said to have its very own Kelpie. But unlike the handsome man of Barra, the Kelpie of Loch Ness was a much less amenable beast and appeared only in equine form, haunting the eerie woods and windswept shores of the famous loch back in the 1800’s.
Fully tacked up with saddle and bridle as if it were nothing more ominous than an escaped horse, the Kelpie thus hoped to lure a hapless mortal onto its back and drag him into the loch to drown. But a famous legend recounts how Highlander James MacGrigor captured the creature and cut off its bridle, without which it would surely die within the space of twenty four hours. The Kelpie – which could speak – tried to bargain and plead for its bridle to be given back, but to no avail. Dismally it followed MacGrigor all the way back to his home, where it told him that he could not enter the house with the bridle, as there was a cross over the entrance. By way of response, the cunning MacGrigor simply flung the bridle into the house through a window – and the outwitted Kelpie was forced to retreat to the woods to die, all the while cursing MacGrigor and its unfortunate fate.
Some Kelpie/Each-Uisge tales from Loch Ness seem to tie in with the monster; in fact, as as already been mentioned, the first ‘official’ Nessie sighting occurred in 565 when St Columba saw off an Each-Uisge determined to eat one of his followers having already killed a Pict fisherman. Perhaps it could be said that Nessie is the modern form of the Each-Uisge. One rather vivid Kelpie tale from Loch Ness involves two young brothers who were allowed to go fishing on the Loch by themselves for the first time.
The boys were warned by their father to watch out for the Each-Uisge, which appeared as a beautiful white horse wearing bejewelled, golden bridle. The boys promised to be careful, and off they went. They had a very successful day’s fishing, and were returning to the shore when the younger brother pointed out the Each-Uisge, noticing how beautiful it was. The pair became entranced by the creature’s unearthly power and walked slowly towards it.
But the eldest remembered their father’s warning and shook himself from the Each-Uisge’s spell. He tried to rouse his brother from the enthrallment, but to no avail. By this point, the youngest boy was already on the Each-Uisge’s back. The eldest suddenly, somehow managed to break free from the spell, and put up a hard struggle that he ultimately won to save his brother from the Each-Uisge hypnotic power by slicing through the beast’s neck with a sword. It turned out that the creature was a young man cursed by an evil wizard to live as an Each-Uisge until a person who had never lifted a sword cut off it’s head.