Monday, March 10, 2014

An Niseag vs. Nessie - Folklore vs. Science

Some time back I had the pleasure of reading Roland Watson's blog article, The Folklore of An Niseag, which proved to be a highly refreshing read.  Of course if you're here reading this, you've probably seen it already!  But if not, I highly recommend it.  This is like getting a bonus chapter to his excellent book, The Water Horses Of Loch Ness.

More importantly for me, it replenishes my ammunition.  When I run across fluff news pieces related to Nessie online, I cannot seem to ignore blanket statements such as:

"In fact, there are no reports of the beast until less than a century ago."

That's a direct quote from a piece by author Benjamin Radford, ironically entitled "Facts About Nessie", written for & located here (click for article).  It's also dead wrong, and I would cite Watson's book and his aforementioned blog article as the best places to go for proof of that.

Unfortunately the debate I had with Radford back then (posted in the comments following his article) went nowhere, as he refused to step outside his circular logic:  sighting reports cannot exist before 1933 because "Nessie" hadn't been reported by the press yet; therefore alleged sightings prior to 1933 can't be called "Nessie sightings".  They must be called kelpie or water horse legends, and as generalized legends they cannot be counted as "reported sightings".  And why again?  Well, because they are pre-1933 of course!

Now, I agree legends don't count as eyewitness reports.  We mean something quite specific by the word "report".  There are, as Watson's new article describes much better than I ever could, traditional and modern branches to what's perceived to be part of the Loch Ness Monster story.  Whether a particular account belongs to traditional folklore, or belongs in the record of reported sightings, that's something that must be evaluated on an individual basis.  Some accounts will always fall in the grey area, and we'll never have enough data to safely class them one way or another.  Those cannot be considered as witness testimony per se.  Others will be no brainers:  I think we can all agree on which branch to place talking mermaids (legend), as opposed to where we'd put a Greta Finlay account (sighting report).  But one thing we can not do is classify our data on a randomly chosen line in the sand, such as the year 1933, because the press says so, and pretend that's scientifically objective.

Now the funny thing is I gave Benjamin Radford concrete examples of 19th century sightings with names, dates, publications and the emphasis on these being described as animals.  Who would call the Alexander MacDonald or Duncan MacDonald sightings too folkloric?  (Alexander called what he saw a "great salamander" paddling towards him with definite front limbs.  Duncan was the diver to have the first underwater encounter, and described a huge animal with a frog-like head.)  They described the animals they encountered as animals, with some specific morphological traits, and long before 1933.  And those aren't the only examples.  Alas, Radford deemed these generalized Water Horse legends, and therefore inadmissible, because the animals described didn't sound "Nessie" enough!!!  Somewhere I must have missed the chapter on traditional Water Horses being described anything like big but recognizable amphibians.

Gosh darn it.  You just can't beat circular logic.


  1. Special bonus for salamander fans:
    "Early in the Second World War, Ian [MacDonald] had been on an exercise in the area with the Cameron Highlanders when, going along the shores of Loch Ness, a disturbance was spotted. They all piled out of the truck and, armed with their spying binoculars, they watched "the beast" for a full twenty minutes. When Hamish [MacDougall***] as a little lad was not behaving to Granny's [Annie MacDonald nee Galbraith's**] liking, she would threaten "I will throw you to the salamander" – her name for "the monster" ."

    Peter R. English "A bridge to the past: an oral history of families of Upper GlenUrquhart" (Inverness: Speedprint, 2009)

    * died at Tobruk, 23 Mar 1943
    ** died 1969
    ***living in Muir of Ord at time of publication


  2. A true gem! Thank you AnonStg!

    I've read the start of this account in at least one if not two LNM books, as I recognized it word for word through the binoculars sentence up to "a full twenty minutes" -- but I swear I'd never seen Annie MacDonald's salamander quote before. I've reread most of the classic LNM books since starting this blog expressly to be sure I wasn't missing any references to salamanders. Whichever author(s) truncated the reference to "the salamander" surely deemed that part unimportant. It clearly is not unimportant, at least not to this blog!

    A good reminder to us all that research on a specific topic cannot be limited to books on that specific topic, especially where history is concerned. And oral history is just full of rare gems -- thank goodness there are writers that transcribe and preserve it.

    So. We have one more reference to the culprit as a salamander. AND one more pre-1933 sighting that is nature-based rather than mythologically based. (I hope Benjamin Radford is paying attention.)

    Granny did NOT say the kelpie would get you. Granny said the amphibious tetrapod would get you. Granny rocked.

  3. Have you seen the other rines photo?its s salamander with large rear legs and a neck like tail.

    1. Do you may mean this one?

      That is one of the alleged "flipper" photos, probably post-JPL enhancement but still pre-airbrushing. At this stage it does resemble a newt tail and adjacent rear legs MORE than it does anything else. It still started life though as a picture of scratch in the bed of the Loch, as did the other "flipper" photo. For an objective analysis of Rines' photos, I recommend this page at Dick Raynor's website:

      Perhaps you meant a different photo though? There are several photoshop jobs floating around the Internet that are labeled as "Rines Photos" or "The Lost Rines Photos" that actually didn't come from Robert Rines or any of the APS expeditions, so some caution must be exercised. To my knowledge there are only five APS photos that were alleged to show part or parts of an animal -- these are authentic underwater photos from Loch Ness, just not really photos any animal. Of these, the "head/neck" photo might conceivable be salamander viewed from the rear, but it would be a tiny salamander of the ordinary variety as evidence suggests it was taken from extremely close range -- there's an article on that at Dick's sight as well.

      There are only three species of newt indigenous to Scotland, none of which have ever been photographed in Loch Ness. Surprisingly though the common toad has been caught on camera, cavorting on the *bottom* of the Loch some 300 or so feet down!

  4. Sorry to divert away from the thread topic but wanted to see if you had a take on this Steve:

    1. This topic has meandered anyway :) Familiar with the photo from a ways back (it's recent but not really new) I had to follow your link to see what ABC was saying about it. Why. oh why on Earth is the article accompanied by that old video of George Edwards promoting his last hoax photo??? As if it hadn't been debunked and as if Edwards hadn't already confessed it was a hoax? And it has nothing to do with the photo the article is about. Major news outlets are just entirely irresponsible when it comes to covering Loch Ness!

      That being said, the apple photo is a boat. It's 100 feet long, many times larger than any amphibian current or in the fossil record -- cruisers that size do pass through the Loch.

      Sebastian Wang has an enhancement of the photo at:

      Definitely more signs of the boat's structure in this version.

  5. Glad to be of help, Steve. I still peruse the old archives at the main library. There are a few old sources I would love to get my hands on, but I'll take them as they come.

    1. Thanks GB, and if there's more pre-1933 tidbits lurking in those dusty stacks you'd be the man to spot them!

  6. Goddamn Stupid Ass comments system, this is my 4rth attempt.
    Why not put a Mailto link on your blog?

    I was excited about this, especially the artists impressions, but now I'm just going to kill myself, fuck Google
    fuck Blogspot

    1. Sorry for the inconvenience Colin! Comments already go directly to my e-mail for moderation, but your other 3 attempts just never appeared. You needn't despair or contemplate worse measures. Online systems all have their transient glitches.

      Thanks for the link, and I agree the artist did a splendid job. While the species is 200 million years older than Loch Ness, it serves to remind us how large amphibians can get.

    2. The frog-like face of the species at your link does indeed put one in mind of the Duncan MacDonald underwater sighting, mentioned in the above article.

  7. Hello. Interesting stuff. I once read about some large salamanders up to 10 ft long spotted in the Trinity Alps ( if i remember rightly) I agree it is possible some large ones still exist. The chinese and Japanese ones are big and if bigger would fit the description of many a Nessie sighting. I hope you dont mind me adding on here . Thanks , im Carl by the way.

  8. Hi Carl! And welcome aboard. I do hope to be posting some fresher content here in a few weeks, but then I've been promising that for a year and life just keeps happening.

    That being said, the article you've added onto here is so old I best edit it a bit, as it no longer refers to a "recent" post.

    Indeed, there's long been rumored to be a Trinity Alps giant salamander, and more than one expedition has gone looking for it. A good article (for those so interested) is at:

    Such an animal would almost certainly have to be a member of the cryptobranchid family, although if reports are true it's even larger than the current Chinese Giant Salamander, which officially reaches 6 feet but may have grown as large as 8 feet from anecdotal accounts relayed back to Europe from the first western explorers in earlier centuries. The sad fact is they seldom live long enough to approach full size anymore, as the modern Chinese treat them as a culinary delight and have hunted them onto the endangered species list.

    Less well known may be that at least three supposedly extinct cryptobranchid species were EXTREMELY successful in North America just prior to the last ice age, and have left us a fossil record. The largest specimen so far clocks in at about 8 feet, which is of course huge. There are also multiple fossil species from Europe at the same time, at least as large as the current Chinese giant.

    With Scotland falling between these populations, it's hard to imagine it didn't contain its own cryptobranchids until just before the last ice age. Any survivors would be serious contenders for the identity of the unknown species in Loch Ness.

    1. I look forward to your new content Steve. The whole Salamander theory makes a lot of sense.Any large Creature in a busy popular lake would for me have to be mainly nocturnal, be able to breathe in water, and live deep down or amongsr the side walls. I have always thought Nessie could be an amphibian. However, the only stumbling block for me is amphibians lay eggs. What is your opinion of this Steve? Thanks for welcoming me on board and congratulations on your fantastic work. These pages are a breath of fresh air. Thanks. Carl

  9. Ive had a good look on youtube about the giant salamander. A larger one of these would really fit the bill for a lot of the nessie sightings. I did wonder If the depth of Loch Ness would be a problem as most reports I read is that they live in shalllow streams and rivers. There again it probably is no problem to these fabulous creatures. I wont go on, but i look forward to your new content in the coming weeks. Keep up the good work and thanks 4 putting my posts up. Carl

  10. Hi Carl, and thanks for the additional input.

    The depth of Loch Ness is both a problem and not a problem as far as any amphibians are concerned.

    The common toad, one of Scotland's six (known) indigenous amphibians, has actually been photographed cavorting on the bottom of Loch Ness, at a depth of over 200 feet as I recall (Dick Raynor has a photo and the recorded depth somewhere on his website). That was rather a surprise for everyone. What it would be doing down there in the darkest depths, well we'd have to ask it!

    There's also an alleged underwater photo of Nessie's head I once had a good look at, and it floats around the internet. It really looks like a toy dinosaur at first glance, but then I realized from the shape of the head, it has to be a palmate newt, the most common of Scotland's salamanders! Those are only a few inches long, but if one swims up to your camera and presses its nose to the lens, it would of course look like a giant head, albeit out of focus just as it is in that particular photo. Scale is everything!

    Like Scotland's other common frogs and newts, there's apparently no reason any amphibian would be uncomfortable in Loch Ness. The low temperature, highly oxygenated water would be perfect for them.

    A problem does crop up though when we consider a salamander of the giant cryptobranchid family. They don't reproduce in large, open water. Cryptobranchids still use what is presumed to be the most primitive reproductive method of all amphibians, external fertilization -- the eggs are simply sprayed out in a cloud. The three known, living species all do this in a confined space, a cave or rock overhang just under river banks. Loch Ness is bereft of such features, which would be a terrible dilemma for any Chinese or Japanese giant salamanders. They'd probably have no problem living in the Loch, but they couldn't reproduce there. And if any giant animal had to leave the Loch in order to reproduce, they would have to be seen coming and going at particular times, which just isn't the case.

    Despite the romanticism of the idea, Loch Ness doesn't have underwater caves -- certainly nothing big enough to hold a pair of 25 foot salamanders at the same time! Or even 8 foot salamanders. The loch sides are granite, not limestone, so caves never formed. Sonar has detected a few modest overhangs under the Horseshoe Scree, but nothing as suitable as a real cave.

    So that's the problem with >cryptobranchid< salamanders where Loch Ness is concerned. I've heard that Japanese giant salamanders do go far enough up river to turn up in some lakes, but they don't reproduce in those lakes.

    But this type of external fertilization practiced by cryptobranchids is not typical of all salamanders by any means. Several species of aquatic amphibians have developed viviparous reproduction during the course of evolutionary history. And I'll devote a future article to this whole issue.


  11. Well you learn something new every day, i didnt know some amphibians can give birth. So there is the answer maybe 2 my problem. And i have just looked up on the frog found deep in the loch and it was actually found at 300 ft and found by the AAS .Remarkable. Well Steve your information has got me very interested, great work . Keep it up Carl

  12. Hello there. Im always pleased to find fellow Nessie Hunters, and I have enjoyed going through your blog, fascinating stuff. You are obviously a big fan of the large amphibian theory, can i ask you do you believe it is a new species to science or a species long thought extinct?
    Im up at the Loch now for a few months so if there is any news I will share it with you, and Roland of course.

    1. Thanks for commenting Nessie hunter, and enjoy your months at the Loch! Give my best to Dick Raynor should you run into him. And, ah, keep any eye on the water ;) Well you never know!

      I doubt it would prove an EXACT match for any known species already named.

      If it's from an older lineage, as in temnospondyl amphibians, the most recent fossils to compare it to are tens of millions of years old, so I'd expect some characteristics to have changed over time. Just like fossil coelacanths aren't quite the same as the two living species, although they were initially quite hard to tell apart.

      If it's from a younger lineage, as in the cryptobranchid salamanders, it would most certainly have to be called a new species if it proved to be more than 10 feet long (the biggest cryptobranchid species for which we have fossil evidence from just before the last ice age). But if recent fossils of an even larger cryptobranchid do turn up in northwestern Europe or northeastern America, even a tiny bit larger, it would be almost as good as finding a smoking gun.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. Thanks, im spending most of my time on the southern shore at the moment,so not really bumped into abybody, plenty of time though :-) Well a 10ft salamander is a fair size and there will always be one that grows unusually bigger than the others in the species,what is the name of the one you refer too Steve?

    1. I had the name and size wrong in my earlier reply, so I'm replacing it with this one.

      Cryptobranchus matthewi was the species to which I was referring. Thanks to some excellently preserved vertebrae, we have a minimum size estimate of 7.6 feet for the best preserved specimen (not the 10 feet I said earlier, but still considerably large! And no reason to suppose it was the largest of its species.)

  15. Well im open minded on Nessie's identity, amphibian it could be. I had my doubts about amphibians because i thought they would be seen out of water more often, however i saw an article and video of a giant salamander coming out of the water in Japan and walking up a path and the locals saying they had never seen this before because they are rarely seen at all. So it looks like certain amphibians could remain hidden for most of the time.

  16. I was thinking about you yesterday as I was reading the new book on nessie by Malcolm Robinson. At the beginning of the book it doubts Nessie could be an amphibian because at one stage the Loch had seawater and no amphibians live in salty water. I think this is false information myself as nobody knows exactly when the Loch was connected to the sea and even if it ever was. I had a quick search on the internet this morning and found a salamander that does tolerate salty water and its the taylor salamander as you probably know. I wonder if there are others past or present that could live in saltwater as im sure amphibians of ancient past must have lived in the sea at some time or other. I have seen a few documentries on nessie that say it cant be an anphibian but i think too much is being made of this and the fact loch ness was once saltwater.
    On another note a quick update on my nessie hunting just to say it has been very quiet apart from a couple of strange washes and shadows. On a brighter note I have spoken to a couple of people who believe they have seen nessie this year and one last year. The hunt goes on. NH

    1. So good to hear from you NH! Although some might find it odd we're conversing through the comments thread of a two year old post! For anyone else peeking in here, I had some health issues last year (all cleared up now), I also got remarried in the last year, and my small business (which pays no few of my bills) has been fortuitously booming. So while I have in no way lost interest in the subject of Nessie, and follow all the posts and news online, this poor blog, my research, and my unfinished articles have gathered dust while I've been swamped with more urgent things. Not sure when that can change, but change it will!

      Haven't read Robinson yet, but he'd be correct to point out no >modern< amphibians live in salt water. But many ancient species did, and were successful at it for a very, very long time. Google Trematosauridae or look them up on Wikipedia. The were really large, and had living relatives at least through to the early Cretaceous. If a relict population was still at large as recently as Loch Ness formed, they could have entered during one of the Loch's few brackish periods.

      But Loch Ness has mainly been fresh water from its beginning, with few if any brackish periods, so we don't really need to postulate a marine amphibian, there are fresh water candidates to consider. I think it's in Adrian Shine's book where the geology of the Loch is best explained. It has mainly if not exclusively been a conduit of fresh water to the sea, not the opposite, and contrary to older thinking it may never have been a saltwater environment. True there are many marine fossils in the area, but these actually predate the formation of the Loch itself, which is geologically quite recent.

      Do enjoy the hunting! Were the people you spoke to locals? I have a certain mistrust of the tourists who think they've seen something on their first visits, but I've heard reliable locals have had some recent sightings that cannot be easily explained away.

    2. Looks like I was a bit late finding this blog the same as I was with Roland's,but im glad I did as they are both fascinating and very enjoyable. The geology of the loch is not my strongest point but when I look at the pattern of the great glen and see one side ( loch linnhe) open to the sea then I think the other end (ness) must have been the same at one point but eventually closed off from the sea, hence the huge masses of arctic char in loch ness. Going on to the people I have spoke to who have had recent sightings yes they are all locals and one who lives overlooking the loch. It is also worth noting the amount of people I speak to who believe in nessie even though they have not had a sighting themselves but hearing sighting stories off reliable friends and family.I was even suprised one day when i spoke to a builder from manchester who looked a right tough cookie who now lives near the loch and believes in nessie because of what older fishermen friends have told him what they have seen, and he pointed out that they were honest blokes and some ex forces.
      I hope you get back to writing in here Steve as I find your posts very fascinating.You certainly know your stuff, good luck. NH

  17. Hello there Steve.Very intersting stuff you write here.I see you favour a tail for the neck sightings so that tells me you believe that people have seen the neck ( or tail) sightings. Im just wondering is it just possible that we could have a type of thick bodied amphibian so the head region looks like a neck? or maybe we may even have this type of amphibian yet to be discovered, im quite sure we have only discovered a small % of past creatures. What is your opinion?
    Im Gezza by the way, pleased to meet you Sir.

    1. Hello and welcome Gezza!

      "is it just possible that we could have a type of thick bodied amphibian so the head region looks like a neck?"

      Thick-bodied, certainly. I don't believe many people subscribe to the "sea serpent" body plan, artistic renditions and tourist post cards to the contrary. And the largest known (recognized) aquatic salamanders are extremely thick bodied (usually broad and flat) in proportion to their lengths.

      In my proposed morphology there's very little differentiation between the (large) head and the actual neck, which I'd put at only about 2 feet long. In two hump sightings, the top of the (actual) head is probably the smaller hump, with the shorter conjoining neck just below the waterline and so often invisible. People EXPECT to see a long serpentine neck, so that's what they "see" on those (fairly rare) occasions when the actual tail is visible. There's usually no recognizable head reportedly visible in those types of sightings, which I would call the first clues we'd had the whole thing backwards for all these years. When people have reported they are sure they saw the head, although that's rare, they most often report a very large one. I suspect these are the people that were actually correct!

  18. Thanks. Well i was thinking more on the lines of lets say a newt.If a large newt had a thickened body then it could possible look like a head and neck. Only a thought.