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The Mysterious Sea Monsters of the Orkney Islands

Lying off the north coast of Great Britain is an archipelago in the Northern Isles of Scotland by the name of the Orkney Islands. There are about 70 islands here, ranging in size from the 202 square mile island called Mainland, down to smaller ones that are barely more than slashes of rock. The islands have been inhabited for nearly 9,000 years, the local culture steeped with folklore and legends, and the stormy grey waters that surround the islands are well known for their abundant sea life, including many species of seal, dolphins and whales. There is also myriad bird life here, and such is the biodiversity of the Orkney Islands that is holds 13 Special Protection Areas and 6 Special Areas of Conservation and much of the sea to the northwest is protected as an immense Nature Conservation Marine Protected Area that sprawls over 1,685 square miles. Yet for all of the marine life one would expect to find here, the strangest might be actual sea serpents, as the waters of Orkney have been home to numerous sightings of mysterious beasts in the sea throughout history.

Although sea monsters have been seen in the windy seas of Orkney for centuries, most of the more exciting modern reports come to us beginning in the early 20th century. One notable sighting was made in November of 1905 off the coast of the island of Shapinsay. According to an article in November 11 edition of The Orcadian, two fishermen were on their boat near the bleak, sea thrashed rocks beneath Balfour Castle, fishing at a place referred to as the “Douch.” At one point a sea serpent suddenly emerged from the water right beside their boat, and the original report reads:

The visit was so sudden and unexpected that the men cannot give a very particular description of the monster. Of one thing they are certain, however, and that is that the serpent had an awe-inspiring appearance, and was quite different from anything they had ever seen before. The body is described as massive as that of horse, covered with a scaly surface, and spotted. It was the eyes of the monster, however, that attracted most attention. These are said to have been as large as a bowl, and had a most fascinating attraction for the beholder. After gazing at the occupants of the boat for a second or two the uncanny visitant, gradually sank out of view, much to the relief of the fishermen. The same men, when fishing near the same place on Wednesday last, had another glimpse of the sea serpent.

Apparently Shapinsay had frequent reports of sea serpent sightings at the time, leading to speculation that there was more than one of them and that perhaps they inhabited the region or were migrating through. There was also the theory that they lived in the many undersea caves that dot the area. This was the conclusion of a group of five fishermen who in the summer of 1919 were off the coast of the island called Hoy, when they were shocked to see some sort of “long-necked monster” about 25 or 30 yards from their boat. It was described as having a tiny reptilian head atop a neck as “thick as an elephant’s leg,” which stuck out about 6 feet out of the water as the creature cruised by. The monster was reportedly a total of approximately 20 feet long. The same fishermen would claim that they saw what they believed to be the same creature on several more occasions after this, and speculated that it lived in an underwater cave.

In 1936 there were a few sightings posted in The Orcadian within a short period. In the summer of that year, a farmer by the name of Henry Stout was working in his hay field along with his son on coast of the island of Stromness on a clear sunny day when their attention was drawn to something moving at a rapid pace out in the sea less than a mile offshore. The witness would explain:

Gradually we made out an object of considerable size. The fastest motor boat in Stromness could not have kept up with the object while it was speeding straight ahead. While we watched, the object began to operate nearer the shore. Four sail-like fins became visible. The foremost of the four, I judged, was about five feet high and four feet long at the surface of the sea. The other fins, each smaller than the other, were situated at intervals of ten feet. We watched for half an hour and a few minutes, during which I hastened to Breckness for a spyglass. We finally saw it dive beneath the surface altogether. For several days we spoke of this to no one. I hesitate to suggest that the object we saw may be a deep-sea monster, but am curious to know if anyone else happened to see what we saw. I am definite that the four fin-like objects were members of one unit. In that event, what we watched was something measuring at least forty feet in length. I am sorry we got no glimpse of a head of any kind. I have lived at Leagar, Outertown, for forty years, and am familiar with all the aspects of the sea in that area. I formerly engaged in cod fishing and am well acquainted with the habits of basking sharks, porpoises, flights of birds and whales. This object we watched was none of these.

Just a few weeks later there was another bizarre sighting from a lighthouse keeper at a place called the Pentland Skerries, who was out on the landing dock when he noticed a curious patch of churning sea “as if on a submerged rock.” Since he knew the waters here very well, he knew that this was not a normal feature of that location, no rocks in that spot that could account for it, and so he focused on that patch of sea. When he did, he saw something beyond his wildest imagination. He would tell The Orcadian:

I watched for a little, and presently a great object rose up out of the water, anything from 20 to 30 feet, and at an angle of 45 degrees. It was round-shaped and there appeared to be a head on it, but as it was about half a mile from the shore, I could not be sure. I called the attention of the other two men but, unfortunately, before they got their eyes on the spot, it had disappeared again, although both of them saw the foam it had made. We watched for a considerable time but it never appeared again.

A few weeks after this there was yet another mysterious sighting, when a witness was off the coast of the Orkney island of Rousay along with his brother and two friends when they saw something strange in the water about 200 yards offshore. They had a spyglass on board, which they used to take a closer look, finding that what they had first taken to be a dolphin or a whale was anything but. The witness would say:

All we could see was a big head, with long ears and very long neck. We were not satisfied with that so my brother and I launched a boat and went off to get a better look. As we came near, it turned round, head-on towards us about 12 or 14 feet away. This is what we saw: A big round head with small black eyes, big drooping ears, long tapered neck and a very heavy-looking thick body, altogether about nine or ten feet long; slate grey in colour and smooth-skinned like a porpoise.

Even more spectacular than any of these sightings was an incident that happened way back in 1808, when the actual carcass of a sea monster was allegedly found on a rocky beach on the island of Stronsay. On September 25, 1808, a local fisherman by the name of John Peace was fishing in a tiny boat off the rocks at Rothiesholm Head when he noticed a commotion of sea birds not far away. The raucous birds were obviously very excited about something, and there were so many of them that Peace went to investigate. As he got closer he could see that the birds were gravitating towards a large, dark shape that was obviously the carcass of some sea animal. At first he thought it must be a dolphin, seal, or whale, but as he drew even closer still he could see that it was actually some sort of “long-necked serpent” with “three pairs of legs.”

At the time the carcass was on an inaccessible outcropping of rocks in the wind slashed sea, but at some point it was dislodged and washed up on shore, after which it was found by another Stronsay man named George Sherar, who had also seen it perched out on the rocks. By this time 10 day had passed, and so the corpse was quite decomposed, but certain details could be made out. For one, the beast was immense, much larger than originally thought, measuring about 55 feet long from head to tail. Its body was somewhat serpentine, topped by a “head like a sheep” possessing two oversized eyes. The bumpy, hairless skin was like that of an elephant’s, and had hair that was smooth when brushed one way towards the tail, but rough and spikey when rubbed the other way towards the head, similar to the scales of a shark. Sherar would say of the creature’s skin:

Its flesh was 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 about two inches thick in parts.

The discovery was so amazing that it hit the news in a major way at the time, and “The Stronsay Beast” was even given the scientific name Halsydrus Pontoppidani, meaning “Pontoppidan’s Water Snake of the Sea,” by the Natural History Society in Edinburgh. This was all very exciting for naturalists, but a closer examination of the remains led to the conclusion that this was nothing more than the decomposing carcass of a basking shark, which had merely decomposed in such a way as to seem more anomalous than it really was. However, certain details have served to help the story of the Stronsay Beast to retain some of its mystery and allure, such as the presence of three pairs of legs and the fact that basking sharks are not known to get up to 55 feet in length. Considering that the carcass was never preserved we only have these old reports to go on, and so we will likely never know for sure, and it will probably remain in the realm of speculation and debate. Whatever truth any of the accounts we have looked at here hold, the islands of Orkney have managed to remain a hotspot of sea monster sightings right up into the modern day, and it is certainly a mysterious place full of history and perhaps creatures from beyond our understanding.