When prehistoric sea reptiles were first scientifically described, it was difficult for people of the time to conceive of these creatures the way they would a modern animal. It’s no coincidence that some of the earliest palaeoartists, like John Martin, were primarily known for apocalyptic Biblical illustrations – ancient animals seemed less like “real” animals, and more like the monsters of myth and scripture. Humanity has a habit of creating monsters like this.
Once upon a time, a monster dwelt in a river. It was a great and terrible beast: its broad flanks were black and smooth, like an ancient bull seal, large enough to rival even the mighty Stoorworm of Orkney. Yet despite its near five hundred feet of length, it was a silent swimmer, almost as elusive as the creature of Loch Ness – were it not necessary to breach the surface on occasion, one might not even know it existed. But its true danger lay not in brute strength, but the awful fire in its belly: within the beast lay the power to unleash an inferno miles wide, a poison with no cure or antidote that lingered for decades wherever it touched, and a light that blinds all who witness it from leagues away. This monster was not natural – it was created by the hand of man, and creatures of its ilk wrought untold horror in lands on the other side of the world.
The emperor of a faraway realm controlled this monster, but he did not want the beast to live near his subjects, or risk despoiling his hunting grounds and scenic landscapes. So he brought the beast here, closer to his enemy’s empire, to this land. Our country did not yet have a leader to defend our interests, so the lord of our southern neighbours – who had long asserted their dominion over our lands under the guise of an “equal union” – parleyed on the matter of the monster. The lord wanted to imprison the monster in a great loch where few of our people lived, but the emperor insisted on keeping the monster closest to the most populated city of our realm – so that the monster’s guards could easily take leave and enjoy our hospitality. Despite the love our neighbour’s lord felt for our land’s grouse moors and castles – if not our people – he felt he had no choice but to allow the emperor to place the beast in a holy loch.
The monster dwelt there for a generation. The guards brought the beast out in chains to patrol the sea round the land, to impress and intimidate the rival empire to the east, and deter any would-be invaders to the realm. And all the time, the creature belched its poisonous fumes, corrosive bile dripping from its maw, into our pure air and crystal waters. The beast which was claimed to protect the land was destroying it. Some of the people rose up against it, seeking to drive the monster from our waters, but the emperor’s men were strong, and the lords of our southern neighbours did not want to risk his wrath. So the beast remained, roaring and rending the land, while the people waited anxiously for the horns which heralded the coming of its nemesis – and their oblivion.
Scotland is a land of monsters. We all know the mythic beast that dwells in Loch Ness – but Nessie is but one of the many creatures purported to lurk in the depths of Scotland’s waters. In the misty summit of Ben MacDhui, a being known as Am Fear Liath Mòr reigns supreme, a liminal creature guarding the gateway between worlds. Banshees, Bean Nighe, Bodachs, Bogles, Boobries, Each Uisge, Kelpies, Red Caps, the Nuckelavee. In modern times, humanity doesn’t have to imagine monsters lurking in the lochs, the moors, the shadows. Humanity creates monsters of our own.