Eleven Popes have sat on the throne of St Peter since the turn of the last century, and most authorities would rank Pius XI (b. Achille Ratti, r. 1922-39) among the two or three most influential of that number. An able diplomat, fighter for social justice, noted critic of capitalism, fervent opponent of contraception and, inter alia, a one-time librarian and founder of the Pontifical Academy of Science, Pius was the first Pontiff in nearly half a century to abandon successive Popes' self-imposed exile within the precincts of the Vatican. In the course of his reign, he had to deal with the rise of Fascism and Nazism – which he condemned rather more forcefully and consistently than his controversial successor, Pius XII. But in his spare time, it now emerges, Il Papa was also an enthusiastic cryptozoologist.
We owe this rather startling bit of information to an equally colourful character, Sir David Hunter-Blair: an able scion of an ancient Scottish noble house who, after a youth spent at Oxford University (where he was an intimate friend of Oscar Wilde), took vows as a monk and eventually became the second abbot (1912-1917) of the new Benedictine monastery at Fort Augustus, at the southern end of Loch Ness [below]. Hunter-Blair – or Abbot Oswald, as he was known to his brethren – spent much of the remainder of his life on the shores of the loch, and was buried there when he died in September 1939. He took a keen interest in his surroundings, and was a noted believer in the existence of the Loch Ness Monster – "I became and remain," he wrote, "absolutely convinced on the testimony of a veritable cloud of credible eye-witnesses, which it would be absurd as well as unreasonable to flout or to ignore, that a weird and mysterious creature really and truly does haunt these waters." Indeed, Hunter-Blair was personally convinced that the LNM was a surviving dinosaur, and later experienced his own sighting – a rather unusual one, which lasted for all of 40 minutes, during which "I watched it... gambolling in the deep water and lashing it into a foam with its powerful tail." [Constance Whyte, More Than A Legend: The Story of the Loch Ness Monster (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1957) pp.58-9]
All of which brings us to March 1935, and a visit Abbot Oswald made to Rome, where he was granted a private audience with Pius. Abandoning the usual formality, the Pontiff invited Hunter-Blair to sit next to him; the Abbot responded by pulling out some photos depicting his abbey's beautiful setting on Loch Ness. Seeing these, Pius delightedly exclaimed: "Enfin, nous l'avons – l'habitat du Monstre!" ("At last we have it – the home of the Monster!") As Hunter-Blair later recorded, it transpired that the Pope had long been fascinated by tales of the LNM, and made a habit of interrogating any Scottish priests and bishops he encountered for further information. When he discovered that his visitor actually claimed a sighting of his own, "it proved impossible to steer the conversation onto any other subject." [Hunter-Blair, 'A last audience with Pius XI,' PAX 210 (Spring 1939) pp.5-11]
Mere sidelight on the long and complex history of the Loch Ness Monster though this is, Hunter-Blair's unexpected Vatican encounter certainly does provide a startling illustration of just how rapidly and widely the legend of the Monster spread during the 1930s – not to mention an intriguing and sympathetic glimpse at the broad interests of a Pontiff more usually remembered for the altogether grimier reality of his fraught relationship with Mussolini.
[Acknowledgement: My thanks to James Downs for sending me a copy of his unpublished memoir of Abbot Oswald. PAX, the source of Hunter-Blair's anecdote, was the journal of the Benedictine community on Caldey Island, in South Wales, with which the Abbot was also intimately associated.]