Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Sea serpents of the Orkney Islands

Stories of sea serpents abound in the Orkneys, but there has been a number of documented "sightings", over the years, of strange sea creatures.

In 1850 a boy, Alec Groundwater, was spending a day in Orphir .He was on the shore, perched on some rocks, gazing out over the Scapa Flow his legs dangling out into the water. The sea beneath him suddenly began to boil and an animal with a broad, flat head and a wide mouth containing some “wicked” looking teeth or tusks surfaced before rearing up and attempting to seize the lads dangling legs. Obviously the creature failed to gab him or he would not have been around to tell the story . He said it dived beneath the sea surfacing once to “shake its head and mane till the water cascaded from it on all sides, then disappeared”.

Then there is Gilbert Voy's account of his sighting in the early 1900’s of a sea monster in Inganess Bay
“Now, one afternoon in the early autumn, my sister and I were in the ebb gathering whelks which we intended to sell. This was our chief method of raising funds to spend at the Lammas Market. On this day, we had quite a lot gathered when we noticed the sky becoming very black and overcast. It looked as if we were in for a thunderstorm and we were thinking of making for home when we heard a bit of a commotion in the water at our side. On looking up, we saw a huge animal rearing its head over the top of us. My sister, who was older than I by about 4 years, screamed and dashed aside, knocking me and my pail of whelks flying into a deep hole of water. She then fell over the top of me and we both got entangled in the seaweed. After frantic struggling and scrambling, we got out on to the bare rocks and then, without even looking backwards, we tore for home, leaving out whelks and good tin pails behind us in the ebb. It had a long smooth neck, devoid of any hair, with a head like a comic horse or cow and with large protruding eyes that didn't blink. It made a hissing noise while water dropped from its chin and water sprayed from its distended nostrils. Now, I would have been about 10 or 11 years old at this time and not guilty of seeing things that didn't exist, but the picture of this strange animal is still clearly in my mind. I've never seen anything like it since and, therefore, am a bit doubtful as to its real size. I now realize that it could have appeared enormous to us, as we were both up to the knees in water and, in addition, were both bending down when this thing reared its long head and neck over us.

Then in Tim Dinsdale’s book on the Loch Ness Monster ,the following appeared: A sighting of a SEA SERPENT by BILL HUTCHISON
It was on a beautiful day in August 1910 that my father along with my cousin and myself decided to take our sail-boat to the Skerries of Work in Orkney to shoot duck and plover.
We had a twelve-bore shotgun and a Martini Henry rifle aboard. The latter fired a heavy lead pellet. We had rounded the Head of Holland and got about halfway between the north point of the Head of Holland and the skerries of Work when we observed a school of whales to seaward of us leaping out of the sea so dar we could see the land of Shapinsay Island below their bellies when they jumped. It was a wonderful sight to see these creatures - some of them sixty feet long - crashing down on the sea sending the water up in spray. We watched fascinated until they had disappeared from view, heading for the open sea.

My father was steering and when the whales were out of sight he looked ahead and I heard him say: "My God, boys, what's that?" We looked where he was pointing and saw a creature standing straight up out of the sea. It had a snake-like neck and a head like a horse or camel. At the distance it was away from us, a hundred to a hundred and fifty yards it stood about the height of our boat mast - eighteen feet - above the sea. My father turned the boat to port heading for the land, bringing the creature abeam on the starboard side. I jumped for the rifle which was under the deck and loaded but my father whispered "Don't shoot, Bill, you might wound it and it will sink the boat". This was a disappointment as I should have liked to have killed it and find what the creature really was. We sat very quiet as the boat headed for the land and shallow water. I held the loaded rifle intending to make a fight if the creature attacked us.

The wind was light and we were not leaving it quickly behind so we had a good opportunity to watch it for about five minutes before it slowly began to sink straight down and the water closed over its head without a splash. We now expected it to attack us as we were all sure it had been chasing the whales. It looked as if it could have picked us out of the boat one by one without much effort. However we re The colour of the creature was dark brown with lighter stripes across the neck. The head resembled that of a horse or camel and appeared to be very large for the slenderness of the neck were they joined. Probably the best description is if one can imagine an enormous brown giraffe with its body submerged and only the neck showing at water-level would be about three feet and gradually tapering upwards. We reached shallow water and saw no more of it.

Then in 1919, a lawyer, Mr J. Mackintosh-Bell, was on holiday in the Orkney Islands. On the morning of August 5th, from the deck of a cod-line fishing boat, off Hoy, he saw a monster with 'a long neck as thick as an elephant's front leg, all rough looking like an elephant's hide'. He described the head as like that of a dog, with small, black eyes.

The most famous of these encounters has to be the story of The Stronsay beast in 1808. The Stronsay beast was first sighted on September 25, 1808, lying on rocks at Rothiesholm Head, in the south-east of the island. John Peace, a local man, fishing off the coast, was puzzled by the sight of seabirds flocking around what looked like an animal's corpse on the rocks. Turning his boat, and watched by another Stronsay man, George Sherar, Peace made his way to the carcass. But what he found was unlike anything he had encountered before. Lying on the rocks were the remains of a large serpent-like creature, with a long, eel-like neck and three pairs of legs. At the time, the corpse was inaccessible, so closer examination was impossible. However, ten days later, a gale blew the decomposing remains ashore.Sherar now had his chance to examine the corpse.The beast was described as serpentine, measuring exactly 55 feet long, with a neck measuring ten feet three inches long. The head was like that of a sheep, with eyes bigger than a seal's. Its skin was grey and rough to the touch. However, if stroked from the head down the back, it was said to be as "smooth as velvet". Six "limbs" extended from the body and a bristly mane of long, wiry hair grew from the beast's shoulders, down to its tail. These silver coloured bristles were said to glow eerily in the dark.

"Its flesh was described as being like 'coarse, ill-coloured beef, entirely covered with fat and tallow and without the least resemblance or affinity to fish'. The skin, which was grey coloured and had an elastic texture was said to be about two inches thick in parts."
Account of the Stronsay Beast as reported in The Orcadian newspaper.

Because the remains had rotted away to practically nothing, the four men who had originally examined the carcass were taken to Kirkwall and they had to swear to the magistrate that their information was the truth.

The details of the find reached the ears of a Natural History Society in Edinburgh.At the society's meeting in November 1808, the creature was given the Latin name Halsydrus Pontoppidani. The name, meaning Pontoppidan's Water Snake of the Sea, was in honour of the 18th century Norwegian bishop, who collected reports of sea-monsters.Then the naturalist Sir Everard Home read of the Stronsay Beast.He viewed what was left of the evidence. He thought the creature was nothing more than the remains of a decomposing basking shark.

Dr Yvonne Simpson, a geneticist from Orkney, has researched the evidence and suggests that the Stronsay Beast may indeed have been an unusually large Basking shark.The basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus, is the second largest living fish, after the whale shark. It is a cosmopolitan species and is found in all the world's temperate oceans. Geneticist Dr Yvonne Simpson has researched the Stronsay Beast and presented a lecture on it to the Orkney International Science Festival in September of 2008

See website here: http://www.theangloscot.co.uk/ Dr Yvonne Simpson,

However the beast was measured to be 55 feet long from tip to tail, so the shark that decomposed to form the Stronsay Beast must have been a monster of sharks!.

All the sea beasties reported cannot have been basking sharks. One or two sound like walruses or elephant seals, but fishermen would recognise these creatures so there is always the seed of doubt, that perhaps it was a real sea monster one of the witnesses saw.


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