Physical creatures leave physical remains. Thus begets the argument that if such large animals were to exist, how does one account for the absence of forensic evidence? As if assuming at some point in history someone would have stumbled upon the remains of an expired beast fouling up the lake shore. For starters one needs to consider why carcasses come to shore in the first place.
Upon expiration fish make themselves available to the birds due in part to the buoyancy created by their swim bladder. Eels on the other hand have an “open” swim-bladder and thereby avoid the raven’s blissful beak in exchange for being nibbled apart by some bottom dwelling scavengers (most likely other eels). So not all water-dwelling animals go belly up. In the case of mammals, some may float on account of their density and blubber. (The so-called “Right Whale” was coined as such by appreciative whalers who noticed this particular species would remain afloat after being thoroughly harpooned.) Besides the contributing internal devices, the bacterial content of the water tends decide the likelihood of a body becoming surface-born. One factor determining the level of bacteria is how oxygenated the water is. Many of lakes sightings originate from have a high amount of peat content which can become so dense as to starve a lake of oxygen. Under such circumstances the low bacteria content slows the process of decomposition, leaving deceased organisms to rely on scavengers to finish them off. This is one of the reasons you’ll hear of lakes infamous for “never surrendering up their dead” in regards to the failure in recover victims of drownings.
While you’re not likely to find a rotting beastie fouling up your favorite casting point, there are actually a small number of recorded instances where ultimate evidence was, for a moment at least, at hand.
To Kill a Kelpie
According to a tradition found on the Scottish island of Rasay at least one of the quasi-mythical Kelpie met its fate at the hands of a vengeful blacksmith. The story was replayed to one Dr. Samuel Johnson during his tour of the Hebrides in 1773 (Costello):
‘He (their guide) said, there was a wild beast in (Loch na Mna), a sea-horse, which came and devoured a man’s daughter; upon which the man lighted a great fire, and had a sow roasted on it, the smell of which attracted the monster. In the fire was put a spit. The man lay concealed behind a low wall of loose stones, which extended from the fire over the summit of the hill, till it reached the side of the loch. The monster came, and the man with a red hot spit destroyed it. Malcolm (the guide) showed me the little hiding place, and the row of stones. He did not laugh when he told me this story.’
A more detailed version of this story was published in McKay’s More West Highland Tales, Vol.II. According to McKay the man was a smith whose daughter disappeared while herding cattle. The next morning her heart and lungs were found on the shore of the loch. They suspected the lake’s water-horse was responsible and devised a plan to destroy it. He assembled a forge near the loch and with his son crafted large iron hooks and kept them heated till they were red-hot. A sheep was roasted on the fire casting a tempting aroma across the water. Eventually from the lake rose the water-horse “like an ugly, shaggy yearling”. Once it seized the sheep-bait, the father and son sprung out and grappled it with the hooks, killing it. However, in the morning no remains were found of the beast except a heap of what appeared to be star-shine*.
(*Mysteries within mysteries= “Star-shine”, also called star-rot, is a Fortean phenomena pertaining to a gelatin type-substance sometimes found in fields and believed by peasants to have fallen from the sky.)
Granted the likelihood of this event is certainly questionable. The “daughter eaten by water monster” is a bit much to, well, swallow. Yet for the sake of argument, there are a few-recorded-instances on hand that imply a sort of magnetism water-horses have towards children. Not to imply that Kelpies, whatever they turn out to be, are true man-eaters but just the same it’s not entirely improbable that this story could have some basis in an actual event. In particular it’s worth noting that the kelpie was lured with the use of a fire. There’s been some theorizing down the years that a link may exist between nocturnal sightings and campfires. As though the illumination from the flames has a drawing effect towards spy-hopping creatures that otherwise reside within darkness. So if this story is rooted from some factual event, the roasted sheep or sow probably wasn’t the actual charmer.
Sent to Stornoway
The slaying of a murderous Kelpie may be questionable folklore but a “sea serpent” that drew crowds of spectators to the village of Leurbost in 1856 was reported by none other than the London Times. Sightings were occurring in a lake near the village. Its general description clearly indicated it was a hair-eel and apparently a visiting one seeing as how its sudden appearance created somewhat of a sensation. Hopeful spectators arrived from neighboring villages along with anxious sportsmen eager at the prospect of a dragon’s head propped above the fireplace. (Needless to say lake monsters were just as much a tourist magnet back then as they are today.)
The beast may have escaped the pursuit of riflemen but some locals would recall a similar creature had been captured from within the same lake sometime in the mid-1700s. The animal had been described as resembling a huge conger eel and had been loaded onto a farm cart before being towed to Stornoway. What may have become of this rare specimen is unknown though it may be worth searching through the town’s historical archives for any references or acknowledgement on the matter.
Dragon in the Debris
Captain Lionel Leslie was informed of the another alleged hair-eel slaying sometime at the very end of the nineteenth century. Workers were clearing out the Caledonian canal at Corpach when they discovered a creature that “resembled an eel but was much larger than any eel ever seen and it had a long mane.” Costello writes that the beast was killed by the workers but Holiday states it was found already dead. The workers were under the impression the strange find had originated from Loch Ness. The body most likely was disposed of with the rest of the debris.
Too Ugly to Keep
At present we can only speculate as to what hair-eels sustain themselves upon. Fish seem the logical choice and if so then it would only seem inevitably that at some point one mistakenly takes a fisherman’s bait. Such would appear to have been the case for fishermen on Loch Morar. In her book In Search of Morag, Elizabeth Campbell writes of a local tradition that spoke of fishermen (or a fisherman) hooking “hideous hairy eel-like creatures”. The peculiar catch received pardon on account of their repulsive appearance. It’s uncertain whether the reference was to an isolated event or separate occasions. There are other instances, most notably from Lough Ree, where fishermen have told of hooking powerful creatures that aside from their awful strength, behaved unlike ‘normal’ fish. Always the struggles ended with a broken or severed line. The tale obtained by Campbell, if true, may be the only known recorded scenario where a specimen (most probable a juvenile at that) had been successfully taken in.
Evidence in Wait?
Moving from Scottish accounts back to Irish instances we have two possible “strandings” that allegedly took place within the region of Connemara. While no exact date is given, both would seem to have taken place during a drought sometime in the 1880s. During the dry spell rushing streams which interconnected many lakes and pools were reduced into trickling creeks. With their watery highway interlinking lakes and streams hindered, at least two horse-eels found themselves obstructed beneath man-made structures. Of the two, one animal met with tragedy while the other succeeded in getting away.
In a culvert linking Derrylea Lough with Lough Crolan, a horse-eel passing from one lake to another became lodged inside. None of the locals cared to approach the beast on account of its frightful appearance. Shunned and hopeless, it was left to eventually “melt away” inside its cylindrical chamber. During the LNIB’s 1968 expedition Dr. Mackal visited the site and after measuring the culvert concluded that for an animal to become imprisoned inside it must have been at least 18 inches in diameter. The culvert was also said to have been damaged from the beast and needed repair afterwards.
There is a strong possibility that the remains of this unfortunate creature may still be present today, preserved beneath oxygen starved layers of muck. Already the mummified remains of prehistoric animals and even people have been recovered from within bog, most notably by accident when roads are constructed through bog lands. It’s possible that after the body decayed the water flow eventually poured the remaining carcass out where pieces of it settled into the sediment. Hence if the circumstances prove to be favorable, physical evidence may be obtainable. And you can be assured that this time proof would not be so carelessly discarded.