A Crocodile in Loch Ness?
An interesting aside to any study of the Picts of Scotland is to read Adamnan’s Life of Saint Columba. Among other things it describes the progress of the Irish saint through the Pictish regions around 565 AD. We hear of his exchanges with the pagan Pictish Druids (shamans) and how he would regularly perform miracles and exorcise demons as he sought to convert the locals to Christianity. In one example, he drove out a demon that supposedly dwelt in a milk-pail; and another time, he purified a poisonous fountain, which the locals were worshipping as a god.
It is unfortunate that, wherever it has gone, conversion to Christianity has blurred or destroyed the older beliefs and the information about earlier history that accompanies it. We are left with only snippets of useful information – such as the fact that Columba, himself a Gaelic speaker, had to converse with the Picts through an interpreter. For further information on this topic, see my: Picts and Ancient Britons.
One day as Columba was crossing the River Ness near modern Inverness, we are told of how he vanquished an ‘aquatic creature’ that was attacking a local man.
…when the blessed man was living for some days in the province of the Picts, he was obliged to cross the river Nesa (the Ness); and when he reached the bank of the river, he saw some of the inhabitants burying an unfortunate man, who, according to the account of those who were burying him, was a short time before seized, as he was swimming, and bitten most severely by a monster that lived in the water…
Perhaps disbelieving this, Columba instructed one of his companions to swim across the river to fetch a boat, with the inevitable result:
But the monster, which so far from being satiated, was only roused for more prey, was lying at the bottom of the stream, and when it felt the water disturbed above by the man swimming, suddenly rushed out, and giving an awful roar, darted after him, with its mouth wide open, as the man swam in the middle of the stream.
[Chapter XXVIII of Adamnan’s Life Saint Columba in William Reeves translation of 1874].
We are told how Columba simply raised his hand and told the monster to go back; at which point it fled, seemingly terrified; and the watching Picts were amazed by the power of the Christian god.
Now, this description of a creature attacking ‘with its mouth wide-open’, if it were it to occur anywhere else, would be instantly recognisable to us as the typical attack of a crocodile or an alligator! But: a crocodile in Loch Ness? How could that be?
Most rationalisations of the Loch Ness Monster myth look no further than the influence of modern hoaxers, such as the 1933 Surgeon’s Photograph, and their influence on the twentieth-century mind. This neglects the older folklore about a monster in the loch. However, Adamnan’s description does not describe some huge monster, rather a normal-sized predator; and it was in the River Ness, not in Loch Ness itself.
It is possible that a crocodile could have been imported into the region as a baby, perhaps by a traveller, or as part of a circus menagerie. People in northern Scotland would never have seen such an exotic creature. It may have become too large for its captors and escaped, or was simply released. As a lone animal living in Loch Ness it could have survived for many years and grown to full size; thus starting all the legends that have persisted ever-since of a ‘monster’ in the loch.
Coincidences like this in legends should always catch our attention. Adamnan could not have known that twentieth-century hoaxers would start a monster-myth in precisely this place. If he had wanted to create a fictitious miracle to enhance his story then he could just as easily have placed it in Dornoch Firth or the River Dee. Such coincidences are always a pointer that a core of truth underlies an ancient story. We should then ask: in what circumstances might this be true? Could the Loch Ness Monster myth really be so simple after all, as just one lost crocodile?