The Legend of the Loch Ness Monster Begins

When the Romans first came to northern Scotland in the first century, they found the Highlands occupied by fierce, tattoo-covered natives they called the Picts. From the carved, standing stones found in the region around Loch Ness, it was clear the Picts were fascinated by animals, and careful to render them with great fidelity. All the animals depicted on the Pictish stones were lifelike and easily recognizable, all but one. This one was a strange beast with an elongated neck, and flippers instead of feet. Described by some scholars as a swimming elephant, the Pictish beast is the earliest known evidence for an idea that has held sway in the Scottish Highlands for at least 1,500 years that Loch Ness is home to a mysterious aquatic animal.

In Scottish folklore, large animals have been associated with many bodies of water, from small streams to the largest lakes, often labeled Loch-na-Beistie on old maps. These water horses, or kelpies, are said to have magical powers and malevolent intentions. According to one version of the legend, the water horse lures small children into the water by offering them rides on its back. Once the children are aboard, their hands become stuck to the beast and they are dragged to a watery death, their livers washing ashore the following day.

Saint Columba Commands the Loch Ness monster to go back with all speed.

The earliest written reference linking such creatures to Loch Ness is in the biography of Saint Columba, the man credited with introducing Christianity to Scotland. In the year 565, Columba was on his way to visit a Pictish king when he stopped along the shore of Loch Ness. Seeing a large beast about to attack a man who was swimming in the lake, Columba raised his hand, invoking the name of God and commanding the monster to "go back with all speed." The beast complied, and the swimmer was saved.

When Nicholas Witchell, a future BBC correspondent, researched the history of the legend for his 1974 book The Loch Ness Story, he found about a dozen pre-20th-century references to large animals in Loch Ness, gradually shifting in character from these clearly mythical accounts to something more like eyewitness descriptions.

Scottish Folklore and Myth "Kelpie"

Kelpie the water horse According to the Swedish naturalist and author Bengt Sjögren, present day beliefs in lake monsters such as the Loch Ness Monster are associated with the old legends of 'kelpies'. He claims that the accounts of the loch monsters have changed over the years, originally describing creatures with a horse-like appearance. the story was that The kelpies would come out of the lake and turn into a horse. When a tired traveller would get on the back of the kelpie, it would gallop into the loch and devour the traveller. This myth successfully kept children away from the loch, as was its purpose. Sjögren concludes that the kelpie legends have developed into current descriptions of lake-monsters, resembling the look of plesiosaurs. In other words, the kelpie of folklore has been transformed into a more realistic and contemporary notion of the creature. Believers counter that long-dead witnesses could only compare the creature to that with which they were familiar, and they were not familiar with plesiosaurs.

Specific mention of the kelpie as a water horse in Loch Ness was given in a Scottish newspaper in 1879, and was commemorated in the title of a book "Project Water Horse" by Tim Dinsdale. A study of the Highland folklore literature prior to 1933 with specific references to Kelpies, Water Horses and Water Bulls suggested that Loch Ness was the most mentioned loch by a large margin.

The Modern Legend  |  The Loch Ness Monster Nessie