Columba, Nessie, and the Deadly Loathsome Little Creatures
Stories of fabulous beasts have been told for centuries. Some of the earliest accounts of monsters in the Highlands and Islands appear in a book entitled ‘The Life of St Columba’, written around the year 700. This was written by Adomnán, the ninth abbot of the famous monastery of Iona, in praise of his renowned predecessor Columba (the first Abbot of Iona), who had died about 100 years earlier. This work is a collection of accounts of Columba’s miracles, and many beasts of all shapes and sizes are mentioned. These include a whale, a giant boar, and a heron or crane. However, two of the beasts stand out as being more like ‘monsters’ which don’t resemble any known animal. These are a beast in the River Ness and a huge swarm of ‘deadly loathsome little creatures’ in the ocean somewhere to the north of Orkney.
The beast in the River Ness is the more famous of the two, as it is often argued to be the earliest sighting of Nessie. It is a terrifying account: Columba travels through Pictish territory and reaches the bank of the River Ness. There he sees local people burying a man who was killed by a water beast when swimming in the river. Columba astonishes everyone by telling Luigne (one of his companions), to swim across the river to fetch a boat on the other side. Unsurprisingly, as soon as the beast realises that another human has dared to go for a swim, it emerges from the riverbed, lets out a roar, and rushes towards Luigne with an open mouth. However, Columba raises his hand to make the sign of the cross and orders the beast to turn back. The beast flees ‘so fast one might have thought it was pulled back with ropes’ and Luigne safely brings the boat across to the group. It is obvious why the account is often said to be the Loch Ness Monster, but there are good reasons to doubt this. Aside from the fact that this monster is far more bad-tempered than Nessie usually is, the drama takes place in the River Ness, rather than Loch Ness. One theory is that the account describes a walrus. As we’ve seen recently, a walrus in Northern Scotland isn’t too outlandish a suggestion. However, it has been pointed out that even people who had never seen a walrus before would have been able to describe the beast in relation to animals they would have known (for example ‘a big seal with huge teeth’). Adomnán’s description of the River Ness beast is so vague that it contains nearly no information about what it looked like. A more likely suggestion is that the story was made up (or at least greatly exaggerated) by Adomnán himself. The story has a suspicious resemblance to an account in an earlier work (the ‘Dialogues’ of Sulpicius Severus), in which St. Martin commands a sea serpent to turn around and swim to the far bank of a river. This earlier book is known to have been in Adomnán’s library on Iona.
Although less famous than the River Ness beast, Adomnán’s account of the ‘deadly loathsome little creatures’ in the North Atlantic is possibly a more convincing account of strange beasts. The account features Cormac (an Irish monk) who sets out in a boat with several followers in order to find a place of solitude in the ocean to live a life of prayer. Despite encountering many dangers, Cormac never succeeds and ends up founding a monastery in Ireland. Adomnán describes three voyages of Cormac, although these seem to have been selected from an earlier larger collection which is now lost. In the first voyage, Cormac sets out from North West Mayo, but does not find a suitable place of retreat (this is attributed to the presence of a monk in the boat who had left without his abbot’s permission). In the second voyage, Cormac arrives in Orkney and is ‘delivered from imminent death there’ because Columba (knowing with foresight where Cormac would make land) has already ordered the King of the Picts to command the local king of Orkney to ensure his safety. In his third voyage, Cormac travels north for fourteen days and nights to a place in the ocean ‘beyond the range of human exploration’. It is in these unexplored seas that the men encounter the monsters: ‘...the whole sea was covered with deadly loathsome little creatures. They struck with horrible force against the keel, against the sides of the boat, against the stern and the prow, and the pressure of them was so great that it was thought they would pierce the skin covering of the boat. These creatures (as those who were present afterwards described) were about the size of frogs, but exceedingly troublesome because they had spines, though they did not fly but merely swam. They were also a great nuisance to the blades of the oars…’ The monks are saved from peril through the prayers of Columba who, despite being many miles away, knew the danger that Cormac and his men were facing. These prayers cause the wind to change, and the men are returned to safety.
There are some hints that some of the accounts of Cormac’s voyages tell us more about Adomnán’s own time than they do about the time of Cormac and Columba a century earlier. The political message in the second voyage in which the local Orcadian King is directly under the control of the King of the Picts is exactly what would be expected in a text written in the years following the Pictish King, Bridei son of Bile’s attack on Orkney in 682: Readers would be left in no doubt that Orkney was Pictish territory. However, the detailed description of the creatures in Cormac’s third voyage does suggest an attempt to describe unfamiliar creatures in detail- perhaps suggesting that the description does come from eyewitness testimony. This contrasts with the description of the River Ness beast, which has been argued to be deliberately vague in order to increase the atmosphere of horror in the account. If the description does truly derive from an eyewitness account, what could the creatures be? Many different creatures have been suggested, including jellyfish, squid, eels, mosquitoes, and even dolphins. Some of these are more plausible than others, but none of them perfectly fit the description in Adomnán’s account and their true identity remains a mystery.
Adomnán’s accounts of monsters seem to be a mixture of fact and fiction. The ‘deadly loathsome little creatures’ may well have been seen in the North Atlantic- although if this is the case it’s possible that their description changed with every retelling between the event and when the account was written down. While the River Ness beast might be based on something Adomnán read rather than an eyewitness account, it’s probably best to be careful next time you’re in Inverness, just in case.
Dr Oisín Plumb, Institute for Northern Studies, UHI, Kirkwall
Originally published in The Orcadian on 10/05/2018
Translations from Richard Sharpe (trans.), Life of St Columba (London: Penguin, 1995)