Dry As Dust

A Fortean in the Archives


Of giant eels

Bridge at Ballynahinch Castle

The thing about lake monsters, I think it's generally agreed, is that they really ought to be seen a lot more often than they are. Take even a reasonably substantial body of water, one the size of Loch Ness, for instance, add a self-sustaining monster population (25 animals? 40? Nobody really knows, but it'd have to be a decent number), and the brain begins to boggle slightly at the sheer implausibility of all those creatures paddling about the centre of the Highlands, within a few yards of a major road, and yet being spotted and reported perhaps three times a year.

The real problem, of course, is that virtually all of the usual suspects – the plesiosaurs and long-necked seals and, god help us, giant prehistoric whales (if there's one LM candidate that combines the worst aspects of every conceivable theory in one utterly unlikely package, the zeuglodon is it) – are air-breathers. And you don't have to spend too long at Loch Ness, just 22 miles long and only one mile wide, to realise how preposterous the idea of air-breathing lake monsters is. Seals, which do get into the loch occasionally, are quite regularly spotted and identified, so there's simply no reason to suppose larger animals would go unnoticed. That's why I long ago converted to the idea that the solution to this mystery more likely lay in the realms of witness perception, human psychology and cultural expectation than it did in cryptozoology. But, even so, I still suspect that one type of animal does play a central role in some lake monster sightings: fish.

There's little doubt in my mind that fish are responsible for much of the sonar evidence from places like Loch Ness, and none that animals large enough to awe witnesses exist (though not necessarily in Scottish lakes). There's a surprisingly large amount to be said in favour of sturgeon as the explanation for many "upturned boat"-type sightings. But, for those who remain convinced by numerous reports of lake monsters with long necks, only one candidate really satisfies: the eel – or, more specifically, a hypothetical giant eel, perhaps with an unusually thickened body; Roy Mackal was keen on those.

Bristol Mercury 29 October 1842Hull Packet 6 November 1840I'm no scientist, and I'll leave it to the likes of Darren Naish to discuss the problems with the eel theory; there are many. Still, seen from my layman's perspective, there are a couple of things to be said in favour of the notion, aside from the fact that eels are predominantly bottom-dwellers that don't come to the surface very often. One is that many accounts of the existence of giant eels exist – here are two, discovered in a cursory search of 19th century British regional newspapers. [As always with this blog, you can see such clips in a more readable format by downloading and opening the image, or clicking on it and dragging to your desktop.] The one on the left is from the Bristol Mercury of 29 October 1842, and the clip on the right is from the Hull Packet of 6 November 1840. Both describe animals significantly larger than eels are supposed to get in the UK, or indeed anywhere else; the largest recognised eel species, the Moray, can grow only to about 12 feet (3.75 metres).

A second point is that eels are capable of travelling surprising distances over land, which may help to explain some of those pesky land sightings of lake monsters; a third, and the one that most interests me today, is that there demonstrably is, or was, a tradition in Ireland and Scotland that monstrously large and ugly "hairy eels" exist. The Irish called these creatures horse-eels, supposedly because their heads and foreparts resembled those of horses, while their tails were those of eels. I'm going to devote the rest of this post to setting out some little-known descriptions of these creatures. How you interpret this material is up to you; cryptozoologists may choose to see it as evidence that such animals really exist,but even if you doubt this I think the folkloric aspects of the tales are interesting, and they certainly tell us a great deal about the background against which Scottish and Irish lake monster reports were originally made – before the cryptozoologists and mystery-mongers got their hands on them, that is.

The first source I want to publish here is an extract from a memoir by a Scottish Catholic priest named Alexander Campbell (1818-1891), who was based on the Hebridaen island of South Uist. The memoir was written right at the end of Campbell's life, but the period alluded to is c.1850. The memoir is preserved in the Scottish Catholic Archives in Edinbugh, which, by the by, contains most of the surviving papers of the abbots and monks of the old Benedictine monastery at Fort Augustus, and is a surprisingly rich source for a wide variety of nineteenth and early twentieth century Highland Forteana.

Another prominent feature of the long island is its enumerable lakes teeming with eels and trouts, some of the former attain an almost incredible size. These eels when they arrive at this monstrous size according to the opinion and also conviction of the natives, make their way over land to the sea. And I have reason to believe that this opinion of theirs will be found to be correct. I myself for some years was an eye witness[,] one of these huge monsters appearing in a lake situated in the township of Boisdale lashing at times furiously the water with its tail and making at the same time a hissing sort of noise. But for the last three years it has left the lake and is not now to be seen. Its disappearance was no matter of surprise to the inhabitants because they expect all monster eels of this description to make at length their way to the sea.

It is equally known here that these eels migrate from one lake to another and crawl along the land like serpents. In confirmation of this fact, I was told by an eye witness worthy of credence that he and others were assembled together on a Sunday evening on a knoll in Ormiclate and saw a great many sea gulls assembling over a field at no great distance, darting now and then down to the ground. The unusual manoeuvres on the part of the gulls excited their curiosity so they went to see what was making such a swarm of them congregate in one place. Upon their arrival they discovered a number of large eels making their way to the neighbouring lake, which was more than a quarter of a mile distant from the one from which they started. No consideration will induce an Uist man or woman to taste an eel and they even intertain the strangest prejudice against them who do so.

[Source: Alexander Campbell, 'The Mission of South Uist.' Scottish Catholic Archives DA9/45B]

South UistThe area that Campbell describes can be seen on a map of the southernmost portions of Uist (right), but one thing that's not so clear from this close-up is how close Uist itself is to Ireland. In fact it's only just over a hundred miles directly north of Ulster, and – more importantly – it sits astride an ancient sea route that, during the Middle Ages, closely linked Ireland and the Western Isles to Scandinavia. The intermixing of Irish and Scots along this route is key to understanding much of the history of this region (for example, the Western Isles were part of the Kingdom of Norway until the 1260s, and the repercussions of the plantation of Scots in Ulster during the seventeenth century still looms large in Irish politics today.) It's also very important to understand that Irish and northern Scottish folklore is inextricably interlinked. From the folkloric point of view, it's no surprise that both the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and their Irish counterparts, the wild western parts of Eire, are equally rich sources of lake monster traditions.

The chief source of information on the Irish horse-eel tradition is old school monster-hunter F.W. "Ted" Holiday: a man in whom I generally place limited faith, as previously discussed. Nonetheless, horse-eels play a leading role in his The Dragon and the Disc (1973), which deals in large part with a series of bizarre lake monster reports that emerged from the bogs of Connemara during the 1960s – and by bizarre I mean not only that the creatures were frequently reported at remarkably short range, and hence in unusual detail, but also that the loughs that they were seen in were minuscule – far too small to support even a single large animal for any length of time.

The thing that makes Holiday's work valuable is that it includes a long series of interviews with his Connemara witnesses. These were tape-recorded and transcribed, and reprinted without passing through the filter of the author's preconceptions, which makes them unusually interesting. I commend all of them to you, but there are too many, actually, to give them in full here, so I am going to confine myself to one especially peculiar type of story: traditions concerning gigantic eels that for various reasons became trapped in a variety of obstacles, allowing – at least hypothetically – for detailed observation, and the collection of physical evidence. (The fact that no such evidence was, in fact, collected says something about all these accounts, I'm sure.)

Those who know a little about lake monsters may be familiar with at least one such story: an account, which comes via the Irish monster-hunter Captain Lionel Leslie, from a Mrs Cameron, of Corpach. Writing probably early in the 1960s, Mrs C. describes an animal "found in the Corpach canal-locks when these were drained at the end of the last century," or c.1899. Corpach is at the southern end of the Caledonian Canal, which runs from Inverness, through Loch Ness, to Fort William. According to the letter which Mrs Cameron addressed to Leslie,

In appearance it resembled an eel but was much larger than any eel ever seen and it had a long mane. They surmised it had come down from Loch Ness as even then the loch had a sinister reputation.

[Source: FW Holiday, The Great Orm of Loch Ness (London: Faber, 1971) p.172]

As a source, this account is less than perfect – it's at second, or more likely third, hand, and even if it does contain a grain of truth it's pretty definitely been corrupted by later accretions from the Loch Ness legend; Ronald Binns and others have amply demonstrated that the loch had no "sinister reputation" as early as 1900. The idea of a gigantic eel, particularly one with a "long mane" is, however, pretty consistent with the material collected by Holiday and his colleagues in Connemara in the 1960s. These accounts dealt with eel-like lake monsters seen in a number of western lochs located close to the district capital, Clifden. These include Lough Fadda, Lough Auna, Lough Shanakeever and tiny Lough Nahooin, as well as Crolan Lough – all of which I have identified on the Connemara map below.

Map ofWestern Connemara showing lake monster reports

The first of these accounts comes from an interview with a Connemara man by the name of Tom Connelly, "who had worked in America and London before returning to his native heath." The interview was conducted by Holiday with Ivor Newby and Lionel Leslie; the date was 11 July 1968, and Connelly, who was then 65, described his sighting of a "horse-eel" in Crolan Lough in April 1961. The bogs of Connemara, incidentally, are good country for eels; as Connelly explained, Crolan Lough fed into Lough Derrylea and thence "a continuation of little rivers takes them into the sea." After he described his sighting – of a 12 or 14 foot long creature seen at roughly 40 yards – Connelly added some further information about Crolan Lough:

Culvert between Crolan Lough and Lough Derrylea, ConnemaraHoliday: You've never seen anything like this before?

Connelly: No, not before or since. Only that when we were small our parents always kept us away from that lake in particular. They'd never let us go near it.

Holiday: Was there any local name for the creatures that you ever heard of?

Connelly: Some of the people called them..."horse-eels"...The old people used to make out that the things in these lakes used to travel overland. I often heard about that.

Holiday: From lake to lake?

Connelly: Yes, from lake to lake.

"Mr Connelly," Holiday's account continues, "then took us across the bog to a point on a hillock where he had looked down upon the monster. On the way back we examined a shallow, sedge-filled stream which connects Crolan Lough with Lough Derrylea. A culvert, about a yard in diameter, takes this stream under a bog road. The witness described how a monster became stuck in this culvert about eighty years ago [c.1888] during his father's time."

Holiday: Did you hear this from your father?

Connelly: From me mother. I used to hear me father talk about it, too, but her in particular always used to talk about it.

Holiday: "Did they ever describe what it looked like?

Connelly: Only just an oversized eel, like, caught in the gully. It couldn't wriggle itself through. They didn't bother going near it and it stayed and it just melted away.

Holiday: No bones? They never found any bones?

Connelly: There could be but they just didn't take much remark of it. Only just that when we were small they'd always keep us away from that lake in particular.

Concluded Holiday: "Further questioning suggested that the creature damaged the culvert during its struggles and this had to be rebuilt. The carcass was so loathsome that no-one would remove it."

[Source: FW Holiday, The Dragon and the Disc (London: Futura, 1974) pp.52-4]

Culvert at Crolan LoughDuring a holiday I took in Connemara during the hot summer there in 1991, I visited the same district and located the culvert and the stream, which, as can be seen from these snaps (above right and, left, in close up), was and is a pretty modest affair, so overgrown it was difficult even to make out the mouth of the pipe. Roy Mackal, who in 1968 visited the same spot, reckoned that to get stuck there an animal would need to be no more than around 18 inches in diameter. The "monster" of Holiday's second Irish story, though, was apparently a good deal larger. This tale was set a few miles to the east at Ballynahinch, a castle from which the Irish Protestant landowning family the Martyns held sway over much of Connemara between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. The castle is built on a very picturesque lake, from which a shallow river that for most of the year is not much more than a stream runs two miles south to the sea at Bertraghboy Bay, and it was beneath a bridge on this river that a monstrous eel was supposedly caught at pretty much exactly the same time as the Crolan Lough incident – c.1888. On this occasion, Holiday's witness was Patrick King, "an old man" living in a cottage on the road from Clifden. Because Mr King was shy of strangers, he was interviewed on Holiday's behalf by "an alert young man" from the same cluster of cottages named Martin Walsh.

"About this big eel that was seen at Ballynahinch," Walsh began.

Patrick King: Well, I don't remember it but I heard my father talk about it. It was jammed under the bridge at Ballynahinch. By Ballynahinch Castle.

MW: Well, what preparations did they do to catch him?

PK: They couldn't kill him so they were making a spear... the blacksmith pointing a spear to spear him with it and get a rope tied onto a tree [sic].

MW: What was the name of the blacksmith?

PK: Patrick Connelly.

MW: And where was he from?

PK: He was from Cashel.

Bridge at Ballynahinch Castle beneath which a horse eel supposedly became stuck, c.1888Walsh then established that Connelly had been working at Ballynahinch when "the eel [became] jammed under the bridge [and] the water stopped." My photos of this location (right and below) give some idea of how large the creature in question would have had to be to genuinely dam the stream – though perhaps during a real drought the river would have dried to nearly nothing, and in any case the detail has something of a folkloric ring to it.

MW: Was there much water under the bridge at the time?

PK: There wasn't.

MW: What height would it be about?

PK: His back was over it. And they made a spear for him and that night there was  a big flood and it went over himand took him off.

Holiday: How big was he?

MW: How big did you hear he was? What length was he?

PK: I hear he was about 30 foot.

MW: Thirty feet long. And how thick do you think he'd be?

PK: About as thick as a horse.

Holiday: Did you hear what his head looked like?

PK:  I didn't hear about his head. I only heard them talk about him. That would be... about 80 years ago now.

MW: What length was the spear that they were making for him?

PK: Oh, the spear was a pointed one to drive into him and hold him with feedin on it. [Feedin is a type of line - MD]

MW: So that when it went into him it wouldn't come out.

Holiday: I know. With barbs on it. How long was he stuck under the bridge then?

PK: A couple of days. He came down and was jammed under it.

[Source: The Dragon and the Disc pp.70-2]

As I say, you can interpret these stories as you wish. I think it would be wise to assume the material may be distorted by the witnesses' desire to please their interviewer, perhaps by conjuring up details where really there were none. But Patrick King's refusal to describe the Ballynahinch monster's head is quite an encouraging sign that his account may be reasonably accurate – though by that I mean only that it was probably an honest report of a tradition dating back to well before his birth.

Bridge at Ballynahinch Castle from the north looking southIf horse-eels did dwell in Connemara in the 1880s, though, there's still the question of why they are so rarely seen there now. Father Campbell's memoir, which suggests that once the creatures reached a certain size they left the lakes that they had made their homes and returned to the sea broadly correlates with the known life-cycle of eels, which famously breed in the Sargasso. Further than that, though, I'm relucant to go. For me, these accounts can simply be enjoyed as stories, no matter what the "truth" in them. And from that perspective, Holiday's The Dragon and the Disc is well worth a read. There are lots of stories in it, and it's very thought-provoking.

[Afterword: Dick Raynor, one of the best Loch Ness researchers, has a very useful page documenting a series of horse-eel reports from Loughs Auna and Shanakeever, two other loughs that Holiday mentions in his book.

[Acknowledgements: My grateful thanks to Alasdair Roberts, former editor of the Innes Review, for sending me the SCA material from Father Campbell's account of South Uist.]

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Enormous eel Bristol Mercury 29 Oct 1842.jpg73.47 KB
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Western Connemara loughs.jpg166.2 KB

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