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Matador Nights editor Tom Gates takes us on a hunt for Nessie’s much shier — but perhaps more compelling — cousin.
MORAG IS A LOCH MONSTER with a terrible publicist. Although slightly famous in Scotland, tales of Morag have not spilled into coloring books or Hollywood films. A bit of a sensation in the late sixties, the beast’s home of Loch Morar has shied away from publicizing sightings and remains quite disinterested in a tourist trade that involves humped aquatic creatures.
Author’s hoax photo. Not convincing. Yes, that’s basil.
The case for a monster in Morar, though, is compelling and arguably stronger than discussion of what might be living in neighboring Loch Ness.
For starters, Loch Morar is the deepest body of fresh water in Europe, reaching depths of over 1,000 feet.
It is largely uninhabited, flanked by a road that only covers one quarter of its perimeter — this allows for hardly any traffic around the lake, which would explain the lack of tourist sightings.
More importantly, it is the setting for sightings as sensational as any that have come out of Nessietown.
Tales of a monster have permeated the Morar area for centuries, first spun as tales during “silly season,” the terrible winters when Scottish highlanders hole up, tell tales and get a little juiced up.
According to early stories, “Mhorag” was the spirit of the loch, only appearing in the form of a mermaid when a member of the Gilles clan was about to kick. Later, tales spun of a waterhorse (or “kelpie”) that would lure riders onto its back, then drown them and snack on their remains.
If you’re laughing, you probably weren’t born in the 1700s, when it was completely reasonable to treat most of these tales as fact.
Monster hunting in the Harry Potter Age has got to be difficult. Nearly eighty years after the first reported sighting in Loch Ness, the creature has started to lose its sex appeal, out-imagined by Pixar and the like.
The romance of a loch monster just might be dead and buried, even if the animal is still alive and swimming.
Still, I wanted to find out if what I’d been hearing was true; if another loch was a more likely candidate for some kind of beastie than the infamous one near Inverness. I went straight to Scotland’s loch monster expert, Adrienne Shine, in hopes of learning a bit more before I set off to Morar myself.
Nobody would know better than Shine, who began his own Morar investigation in 1974. He was sparked by the loch’s most famous account, which made papers around the world. Says Shine
It was the encounter in 1969 that aroused my interest. I thought if Loch Ness wasn’t the only place where there were these traditions, perhaps there’s more chance of it being real.
He hired a rowboat and drifted at night with a powerful light fixed to a camera, in hopes of repeating the encounter. After this turned up nothing but a false sighting in the form of a rock (“It taught me not to believe the evidence of my own eyes.”), Shine decided to head below water. By 1975 he was manning missions into the depths of a loch in a homemade submersible, during what he calls “the underwater phase of my work.”
Shine is difficult to pin when asked the ultimate question about what’s out there, mostly because he has no definitive evidence either way. He says,”I have no one theory because many animals and physical effects have contributed to sightings.” When asked about his favorite explanation, he offers
I am accused of the Shine Theory. The occasional migration of sturgeon into fresh water might have started the water horses tradition.
While many argue that such a fish couldn’t live in these lochs, it is quite arguable that no fish has ever looked like a horse more than a sturgeon.
Shine is honest about why he first started hunting the now-famous beast, seeing it first as “a soft option for fame and glory.”
Thirty-five years later, it has become much more than this to him. He’s manned countless expeditions in Loch Ness, most famously with 1987’s Operation Deepscan, during which dozens of sonar-armed boats scanned and mapped the whole of Loch Ness. It proved inconclusive.
If a man like Shine couldn’t find a monster, how would I? There was one thing that Shine said that kept me going.
Wherever these traditions seem to come to the surface now, there’s always a perception that they’re copying Loch Ness.
It was his way of saying that Morar had been written off as a copycat.
Could Morar just be a place that had been overlooked? Digging a little deeper into the history of the area, it seemed entirely possible.
I’d been reading The Search For Morag, a history of all known accounts of the monster. Hardly a bestseller, I’d had to order this discontinued title from a collector’s shop and paid dearly for it. Written by Elizabeth Montgomery Campbell in 1972, the hardback documents everything known about Morar, recalling over 100 years of sightings and probing that ultimate question.
The book doesn’t disappoint, recounting sightings that were, in the words of one subject, “beyond explanation or definition”. Reports generally describe a humped, “eel-like or snake-like” creature, with “black and shiny” skin. It is generally seen on sunny and calm days, when the waters are less choppy and Scotland’s rain isn’t pissing down.
The most famous sighting — the one that grabbed Shine’s attention in 1969 — involved two men, Duncan McDonell and William Simpson. In the account, they describe a creature that accidentally ran into their boat while breaching the surface. Their initial fear was that it might capsize the boat. After attempting to fend it off with an oar, Simpson fired his rifle in the animal’s direction. He claims,
I then watched it slowly sink away and that was the last I’ve seen of it.
The whole thing would have been easy to write off were there not scores of other sightings before and after.
Morar is exactly the same as Campbell described it in 1972. The town is comprised of a hotel, a train platform and about ten houses.
The Morar Hotel is one of those terrifying old white houses, the kind with squeaky floors, a mysterious staff, and wall-to-wall carpet. I was given an umbrella at check-in and warned that rain came when it pleased, and often.
I made my way down to the water under careful directions from the hotel (“Turn left at the house with the satellite that’s pointed towards God.”) and took a look. It was ominous, moody and unfathomably quiet. The skies had gone dark and threatened to spill buckets. Nothing living moved on or around the lake. The opposing shore was at least a mile away and not one boat could be seen on the water. The loch was desolate.
The water had a wake that day, mostly because of the coming and going weather. I could see quite easily why there were so many false sightings in these parts — every rock or wave looked like something. One of the most common monster mistakes has been the misinterpretation of a boat wake. I could see why — a number of them caught my eye, tricking me too.
Rocks make a deceptive wake.
The rain finally started to fall as I tried my best to walk the path around the loch. It would have been impossible to circle in one day, so my plan was to make it halfway around, about another hour out from where the road ended.
In the course of six hours I saw three people, seven cars, and about ten houses. There just wasn’t much life on the loch, other than the occasional lamb or sheep.
My eyes remained on the water. It wasn’t so much that I was hoping to spot a giant serpent but more that the loch had some kind of draw, a quiet power that demanded attention. There was no doubt in my mind that if there is ever to be something discovered, it could be found here, rather than in a populated place like Loch Ness.
Half a day later, I was back at the hotel, sans monster story and waterlogged.
Nobody would talk to me.
I’d been warned about this from a few people but it was surprisingly true — the town has zero interest in kicking up a story and attracting tourists. It would seem that the fame of the 1969 sighting was enough of a taste for everyone.
I did speak with one woman who wished to remain anonymous. She said that the area was largely run by one of the older families and that they wanted nothing more than for the world to leave them (and their sheep) alone.
The mandate was that if you spoke, there’d be hell to pay. She herself has seen something in the water but brushed it off as quick as it was out of her mouth. “It was probably nothing.”
The sightings in The Search For Morag are all that really remains of the hunt in this loch and may serve as the end of any formal investigation. But they’re still compelling to this day. There is the story of John MacVarish:
What I saw was a long neck five or six feet out of the water with a small head on it, coming quite slowly down the loch.
And Charles Fishburne:
It passed within thirty-fifty yards to port…three large, black hump-shaped objects moving quickly through the water.
Or Kate MacKinnon:
It was rather like a huge eel…the neck was about one foot in diameter and was black in color.
All of these tales have to make you wonder if there is something out there and, if so, what it might be. There’s plenty of exploring left to be done in these waters and plenty of stories to be fished out.
If you’re interested in trying your hand then you couldn’t find a better place than Loch Morar. Just turn left at the satellite aimed towards God and keep walking.
If your own search for the Loch Morar monster comes up short, drown your sorrows by Boozing Through 5 Whisky Distillery Tours In Scotland.