Loch nam Breac Dearga really isn't much to look at: a puddle on the western slopes of Meal Fuar-mhonaidh (2,284 ft/696m) in the Highlands of Scotland. Yet once upon a time the little mountain lochan (above) possessed a fearsome reputation. Sir John Murray, the great oceanographer who devoted more than a decade of his life to a comprehensive survey of Scottish lakes, was told that "this loch was locally reputed to be of great depth, or even supposed to be bottomless."
The tradition of bottomless lakes on Meal Fuar-mhonaidh was certainly alive as early as the seventeenth century, when a Scottish divine by the name of James Fraser climbed the mountain to test the reputation of an even smaller lochan near the summit. According to the letter that Fraser subsequently addressed to the Royal Society in London, the lake he had travelled from Inverness to see was minuscule – "30 fathoms in length and six broad", or 60 yards by 12 (55m x 11m). It was a strange place, though, for the lochan had no outlet, yet it never froze and always maintained a constant level. Fraser brought with him a line 600 feet long with which to plumb its depths, but "could find no bottom". It's not clear which body of water he was sounding – it may have been Loch a' Chase (which is the closest lochan to the mountain's summit, but does drain via one burn that flows into Loch Ness), or perhaps the nameless boghole to the east of Loch nan Oighreagan. which is the only lochan on the Ordnance Survey map of Meal Fuar-mhonaidh that has no outlet [below left – click and drag to your desktop to open the map at a readable scale]. What does seem astonishing is that Fraser, serious scientist though he was, failed to find a bottom despite deploying his "100 fathoms of small line" [The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society vol.2 p.322]. It's certainly wildly improbable that either of the lochans Fraser may have visited has a depth of more than 20 or 30 feet; Murray surveyed neither of these minute bodies of water, but did sound Loch nam Breac Dearga and found it to be "not remarkable" in terms of depth – its deepest point was a mere 70ft (21.3m).
No one has ever taken a census of all the "bottomless lakes" there are in the world, but the number must run to hundreds, if not thousands. There's even an entire State Park – Bottomless Lakes State Park – based around nine deep limestone sinkholes in New Mexico. The tradition is not confined to English-speaking countries, either; when Michel Meurger and Claude Gagnon made their survey of lake folklore in Quebec, they discovered plenty of "bottomless lakes" in the French-speaking districts of Canada, including Lake Pohénégamook and Lake Maskinongé. There is a lake in Sweden by the name of Bottenlosen ('the lake without a bottom'), and Mummelsee, in the Black Forest in Germany, was thought of by locals in much the same way. Tradition at Black Lake, in Bohemia, was that "a stone thrown here falls eternally." [Meurger and Gagnon, Lake Monster Traditions: A Cross-Cultural Analysis (London, 1988) pp.129-30] Sometimes it seems that almost any dark body of water has been dubbed "bottomless" at some point in its history. The idea occurs not just at vast lakes such as Loch Ness (which was of indeterminate depth until Murray and his team firmly established its maximum as 754ft (230m) in 1903-04), but with regard to places that are nothing more than local ponds. A quick search reveals the existence of the likes of No Bottom Lake in Wisconsin [below left], a little fishing hole a few hundred yards in circumference, and the even less substantial No Bottom Pond on the island of Nantucket [below centre]. Henry David Thoreau, whose writings made Walden Pond in Connecticut [below right] famous around the world, found that the same tradition flourished in New England. "Many have believed," he wrote,
that Walden reached quite through to the other side of the globe. Some who have lain flat on the ice for a long time, looking down through the illusive medium, perchance with watery eyes into the bargain, and driven to hasty conclusions by the fear of catching cold in their breasts, have seen vast holes "into which a load of hay might be drived," if there were anybody to drive it, the undoubted source of the Styx and entrance to the Infernal Regions from these parts. Others have gone from the village with... a wagon load of inch rope, but yet have failed to find any bottom. [Walden, p.176]
To which, I think, one's first response is, 'Huh?' I mean, I've seen smaller ponds than Walden, sure, but it's a long way from being a lake, much less the sort of inky-watered cleft between vertiginous cliffs that you'd expect to give birth to the legend that its waters stretch down to the other side of the world. What sort of people could possibly look at this little local pool and come up with that sort of idea?
What we are seeing here, surely, is not tradition with any sort of basis in fact, but a sort of mythological indicator of the limits of geographical mobility a century or more ago. Most people simply didn't travel much in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – nor in the nineteenth, at least until the introduction of the railway. It really wasn't that uncommon to come across a farmer who had never ventured more than 15 or 20 miles from his home village. A "bottomless lake" a hundred or a thousand miles away meant little to such people. But there was still plenty of scope for local folklore, and men who had never gone far, or read much, or ever seen a body of water the size of Loch Ness or Lake Superior, were liable to apply the "bottomless" tag to the most inappropriate little splashes in their immediate neighbourhoods. There seems to be no rason to suppose they did so on the basis of any scientific evidence; indeed, the chances are that few of the unfathomable lakes or lochans in the world were ever properly plumbed at all, even by the likes of the Royal Society's incompetent correspondent James Fraser. When Thoreau – who plainly possessed a pretty hard head to go with his romantic leanings – decided to solve the mystery of Walden Pond himself by deploying a cod-line and a stone, he had little trouble showing that it was precisely 102 feet deep. Thoreau, of course, was an outsider – he was born in Concord, MA – and had an outsider's iconoclastic tendencies. The locals at Walden, and elsewhere, were no doubt happy enough to preserve the reputations of their "bottomless" lakes through inactivity, or even by discouraging investigation, for most such places would have yielded their secrets to the least determined searcher. As the photo shows, global warming, or a hot summer, has cruelly exposed the claims of No Bottom Pond, which has dried up almost to nothing and cannot ever have been more than a few feet deep in the first place.
Well, this is all very interesting, but what does it mean? I think, first of all, that it means that Michel Meurger was quite correct to identify the "bottomless lake" as one of the features of what he memorably terms the "mythological landscape" in which strange events are likely to occur – other such features include "dark water", a tradition of "the lake that does not give up its drowned", and tales of "terrified divers", "sucking currents", "underwater caverns" and underground connections between lakes [Meurger and Gagnon, op.cit. pp.128-45]. For Meurger, this folkloric cat's cradle of traditions actively promotes the creation and dissemination of associated legends.
But I think the existence of hundreds of lakes said to have no bottoms means something else as well: it offers a clue to explain the existence of somewhere north of 300 lochs and lakes with their own monster traditions. For if – in a world, remember, in which most people did not travel much – every district had its own "unfathomable" lake, and its own dark waters that never yielded up their dead, it is really that surprising that most also had monsters, which sprang up and paddled about pretty much everywhere that there were lakes?
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