Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Monday, 20 April 2009

OTTER KINGS TO EARTH HOUNDS - IN SEARCH OF BRITAIN'S LESSER-KNOWN MYSTERY BEASTS

Grace Connolly was a recently-married young woman who lived in the townland of Creevelea, at the northwestern corner of Glenade Lake, just inside County Leitrim's border with County Sligo, in Ireland. One bright morning in September 1722, Grace went down to the lake, to bathe and perhaps also to wash clothes. Tragically, however, she did neither, for while there she was attacked and killed by a water monster that rose up out of the lake's depths.


Carving of the dobhar-chú on Grace Connolly's tombstone (Dave Walsh)

When her husband, Terence McGloughlan (in keeping with Gaelic custom, Grace had retained her maiden name after marrying him), discovered Grace's body lying at the lake's edge later that day, he was half-crazed with grief. However, his grief turned to fury when he saw that his wife's assassin was actually lying asleep across her prone form. It was a dobhar-chú - a mysterious, elusive beast of Irish folk tradition, also known as a king otter or master otter, because it superficially resembled a normal otter but was much bigger, with powerful hound-like limbs.

Terence lost no time in slaying the monster, but its death cries alerted its equally formidable mate, which emerged from the lake and pursued Terence, who fled on horseback. Eventually, however, he ambushed the avenging dobhar-chú and slew it.

Needless to say, this could be readily discounted as just another traditional Irish folk story - were it not for the stark fact that Grace Connolly's grave exists. And carved upon her tombstone is a detailed depiction of her cryptozoological nemesis - the dobhar-chú.

This still-unidentified mystery beast is just one of many strange, enigmatic beasts reported over the years - and centuries - from the British Isles, thereby demonstrating that Nessie and various pantheresque or puma-resembling big cats are not the only mystery creatures associated with our green and pleasant lands.

MASTERING THE MASTER OTTER

The mystery of the dobhar-chú or master otter is particularly intriguing, thanks to the existence of Grace Connolly's tombstone and the portrait depicted upon it. As revealed in my books Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999) and The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), both of which contain a detailed account of this remarkable case, Grace's grave can be found in Conwall Cemetery, in the town of Drummans, forming part of the approach to the Valley of Glenade from the coastal plain of north County Leitrim and south County Donegal, and not far from Bundoran.

Grace's name, and that of her husband, together with the year of her death, are still legible, as is the remarkable carved image of the dobhar-chú. The creature is depicted lying down with its head and neck flung backwards so as to lie flat along its back, thus representing it in its death throes, because a spear-like weapon (gripped at its upper end by a human fist) is piercing the base of its neck and re-emerging below its body. The creature itself curiously combines the short head and tiny ears, large paws, and long heavy neck of an otter with the long limbs and powerful thighs, deep-chested body, and lengthy curved tuft-tipped tail of a hound-like dog.

As true otters are very familiar beasts in Ireland, it would seem unlikely that this is merely a badly-executed portrayal of a normal otter. Yet if it is an accurate depiction, then the creature that it illustrates would appear to be unknown to science. Even more intriguing is that whereas this carving represents a creature killed back in 1722, a very similar beast has also been reported from this same area of Ireland in much more recent times.

Immediately to the west of County Sligo is County Mayo, off whose western coast is a small isle called Achill Island, containing a lake known as Sraheens Lough. During May 1968, several observers independently reported seeing a strange creature either running on land near to the lake or emerging directly from it. The mystery beast was said to be 8-10 ft long, roughly 2.5 ft high, and shiny black or very dark brown in colour, with a small head but a long neck and tail, and four powerful legs on which it rocked from side to side as it ran. A modern-day dobhar-chú? Perhaps - but until a specimen is (if ever) obtained, this mystifying mammal will continue to linger with leprechaun-like evanescence amid the twilight limbo between Celtic folklore and contemporary fact.

WHEN A SEA MONSTER SET FORTH FROM THE FIRTH OF TAY?

It's not every day that you see a sea serpent - and certainly not one that is actually making its way laboriously on land, along a major road, in full view of passing traffic. Yet that is what at least two eyewitnesses may well have seen, judging from their independent yet closely corroborating statements. The first of these was Maureen Ford, driving with some friends along the A85 towards Perth at 11.30 pm on 30 September 1965. Suddenly, as she neared Perth, she saw what she subsequently described as "a long grey shape [which] had no legs but I'm sure I saw long pointed ears", by the roadside yet only a few yards from the banks of the River Tay, which enters close by into a North Sea inlet - the Firth of Tay.

At 1.00 am the very next morning, this bizarre beast was seen again, but on the opposite side of the road, to which it had apparently crossed meanwhile. Its eyewitness this time was Robert Swankie, driving along the same road but in the opposite direction from Ford, i.e. away from Perth and on towards Dundee. As he drove along, however, his vehicle's headlights abruptly exposed an extraordinary sight - a weird creature with a 20-ft-long body that was "...humped like that of a giant caterpillar" (i.e. undulating vertically), and a head over 2 ft long, bearing a pair of pointed ear-like appendages. The creature was moving very slowly, making "...a noise like someone dragging a heavy weight through the grass".

Swankie wanted to stop, in order to obtain an even closer look at this scientifically-unidentified animal, but there was a car close behind him, so he deemed it best to carry on driving; however, he did subsequently report his sighting to the police. Suggestions that perhaps it had all simply been a trick of the light have since been discounted by cryptozoological investigators, pointing out that if this had indeed been true, why then had Swankie not seen monsters elsewhere on his journey?

After all, there was nothing special, optically speaking, about the particular stretch of road along which he and Ford had independently, and on opposite sides, spied an elongate mystery beast - one which, moreover, closely recalls many sightings of comparably serpentiform sea serpents and also lake monsters, including the equally inexplicable horse-eels of Lough Nahooin and elsewhere in Ireland. And optical illusions in any event do not normally feature an accompanying soundtrack of dragging noises.

Perhaps therefore, some highly elusive, still-unrecognised water beast did indeed emerge from the sea that evening under the cover of darkness, to make a rare, short foray overland, but by sheer chance had been spotted separately by two late-night travellers.

TEGGIE OF BALA LAKE

Also called Llyn Tegid, Bala Lake is Wales's largest lake, and, thanks to Teggie, its resident monster, it has also lately become its most famous, cryptozoologically speaking. In recent times, a number of sightings have been claimed here, featuring a reclusive creature variously likened to a crocodile or to the long-necked Nessie-type beasts more famously reported from Scotland. For example, while fishing from a small boat on the lake in March 1995, Paul and Andrew Delaney, visiting from London and unaware of Teggie reports, peered in great surprise at a small head that appeared at the lake's surface only 80 yards or so away, then proceeded to raise itself on a long slender neck until it was about 10 ft above the surface. This and other reports prompted an investigation of the lake later that same year by a Japanese TV crew, who obtained a sonar trace of a very large, unidentified object moving swiftly under the water, but failed to film Teggie, who remains steadfastly aloof.

THE EARTH HOUND OF BANFFSHIRE


The earth hound (William Rebsamen)


One of Britain's most macabre mystery beasts must surely be the earth hound or yard pig of Banffshire, northern Scotland, which allegedly lives in or near graveyards and digs inside coffins to feed upon corpses. Alexander Fenton and veteran Scottish cryptozoological chronicler David Heppell have uncovered a number of fascinating accounts regarding this creature.

One such account, written in 1917 by a Mr A. Smith, documents the description of an earth hound by a gardener who had dug up and killed it about half a century earlier, while ploughing some haughs (alluvial flats) close to a churchyard. According to the gardener, it was brown in colour rather like a rat, but had a long hound-like head, and a tail bushier than a rat's. This same specimen was later seen by a second eyewitness, who stated that it was:

"...something between a rat and a weasel, and about the size of a ferret, head very like that of a dog...the tail was not very long. At a casual glance it would be mistaken for a rat, but was quite unlike on close examination."

An earth hound killed in c.1915 near Mastrick, again near a churchyard, was said to have mole-like feet, white tusks, and prominent pig-like nostrils. Even as recently as spring 1990, Fenton was soberly informed of the earth hound by a Banffshire friend. Yet surely, if such a creature truly existed on Scotland, there would be specimens of it in museums by now - unless the very unsavoury nature of its lifestyle has effectively warded off attempts to seek out and preserve specimens of this weird animal?

CENAPRUGWIRION

Among the least-known yet most mystifying of British cryptozoological beasts is a curious 1-ft-long lizard-like reptile supposedly inhabiting burrows in and around Abersoch in North Wales. Known as the cenaprugwirion or genaprugwirion (sometimes translated as 'daft flycatcher'), it is readily distinguished from all species of native lizards not only by its length but also by its combination of an orange-sized head, dewlap (skin flap) beneath its chin, large mobile eyes, long fly-catching tongue, and mud-brown colour. Apparently once common here, it is rarely reported nowadays, which is a great tragedy, because this tantalising creature bears more than a passing resemblance to one of the world's most remarkable reptiles - the tuatara Sphenodon punctatus of New Zealand.

Tuatara (Dr Karl Shuker)

A veritable 'living fossil', the tuatara is the only modern-day representative of an otherwise long-extinct reptilian lineage known as the sphenodontids, and is found nowhere else in the world - officially. During the 19th Century, however, tuataras were commonly imported into Britain, and as they are not only well-suited to surviving Britain's climate but also have an extremely long lifespan (several decades), it has been suggested that perhaps some tuataras escaped into the Welsh countryside a century ago and established a viable colony, whose members were ultimately dubbed cenaprugwirions by the local people.

THE BEAST OF SOAY

Soay is a small unassuming island just south of Skye, largest of the Inner Hebridean isles. On 13 September 1959, however, the waters surrounding it witnessed an extraordinary incident - a decidedly close encounter between two fishermen and an incredible reptilian sea monster. Swimming to within 20 yards of the dinghy containing angler Tex Geddes and engineer James Gavin came a huge sea creature with a blunt tortoise-like head and gaping toothless mouth (through which they could plainly hear it breathing), red mouth lining, cylindrical neck, rounded face, and two large protruding eyes. Its body was scaly, burly, and the expanse visible above the sea surface was estimated by the two men to be 8-10 ft long. Overall, therefore, Soay's unwonted visitor may well have recalled a giant marine turtle - had it not been for the row of distinctive triangular spines running along the midline of its back, which bestowed upon it a disturbingly prehistoric appearance. Some zoologists sought to identify it as an escapee iguana, but there is even less resemblance between this lizard and the Soay beast than between the latter and a turtle. Happily, the bizarre creature posed no threat to its eyewitnesses, and was last spied by them swimming away towards the island of Barra.

EYEWITNESS REPORT - HOOKING THE HORNED MONSTER OF LOUGH DUBH

One of the most terrifying mystery beasts ever recorded within the chronicles of British cryptozoology was encountered by schoolteacher Alphonsus Mullaney and his young son, also called Alphonsus, while fishing one day after school in mid-March 1962 at Lough Dubh in County Galway, Ireland. As the shocked teacher later recalled to a Sunday Review reporter:


“Suddenly there was a tugging on the line. I thought it might be caught on a root, so I took it gently. It did not give. I hauled it slowly ashore, and the line snapped. I was examining the line when the lad screamed.

"Then I saw the animal. It was not a seal or anything I had ever seen. It had for instance short thick legs, and a hippo face. It was as big as a cow or an ass, square faced, with small ears and a white pointed horn on its snout. It was dark grey in colour, and covered with bristles or short hair, like a pig.”

After the two Mullaneys promptly fled, a party of brave locals with guns later returned, but no trace of the monster was found. However, as noted by lake monster author Peter Costello, far from basking in the resulting publicity of their amazing sighting the Mullaneys actively shunned all television interviews, and the father did everything to assist his son in blotting their very frightening experience from his young mind. Accordingly, Costello considers a hoax to be out of the question. As for the creature itself, of which no further sightings have been reported: it bears no resemblance to any other lake monster on file - or indeed, to any other beast of any kind - and therefore remains a total enigma.

UNSOLVED HISTORICAL CASES - THE WINGED SNAKE OF HYDE PARK AND HAMMERSMITH

Perusing old back issues of long-vanished British journals can be a surprisingly successful means of uncovering baffling yet fascinating cryptozoological reports - as evinced by the following still-unexplained account, which appeared in The Gentleman's Magazine on 20 April 1798. Penned by a correspondent identified only as 'SB', it concerned a surrealistic snake(?) allegedly sighted a few miles west of London at the beginning of August 1776:

“The strange object was of the serpent kind: its size that of the largest common snake; and as well as it could be discovered from so transient a view of it, resembled it by a kind of grey mottled skin. The head of this extraordinary animal appeared about the size of a small woman's hand. It had a pair of short wings very forward on the body, near its head; and the length of the whole body was about two feet. Its flight was very gentle; it seemed too heavy to fly either fast or high; and its manner of flying was not in an horizontal attitude, but with its head considerably higher than the tail; so that it seemed continually labouring to ascend without ever being able to raise itself much higher than seven or eight feet from the ground.”

Not long afterwards, the same magazine published a second account, by a pseudonymous correspondent identified only as 'JR', describing a supposed sighting by a friend of a similar (or even the same?) creature, this time encountered on the road between Hammersmith and Hyde Park Corner on the evening of 15 July 1797. Dark in colour, roughly 2 ft long, and "about the thickness of the lower part of a man's arm", it had very short wings placed near the head, and flew less than 7-8 ft above the ground, with its head raised above its body.

With no details supplied concerning the correspondents' identities, an outright hoax or a somewhat abstruse example of 18th Century satire cannot be discounted. Certainly, to the best of my knowledge Hyde Park and Hammersmith are not renowned nowadays for visitations from serpents of the winged variety, which is probably no bad thing!

THE WALKING FIR CONE OF DUMPTON PARK

It was on 16 April 1954 when Police Constable S. Bishop, while walking through Dumpton Park in Ramsgate, Kent, encountered a bizarre-sounding beast that he likened to "a walking fir-cone". Since then, nothing more has been heard of this novel creature, but PC Bishop's evocative description of it continues to tease and torment. What could it have been?

When I first read it, Bishop's description immediately conjured up images of pangolins. Also known as scaly anteaters, these extraordinary beasts, covered in huge brown scales, really do resemble animated pine or fir cones. However, they are wholly confined to tropical Asia and Africa, and due to their insectivorous diet are very difficult to maintain in captivity. Accordingly, they are rarely exhibited in zoos, and are seldom if ever kept as pets in the western world. Thus, despite being fir cone lookalikes, pangolins surely cannot be considered seriously as candidates for the Dumpton Park beast's identity.

More recently, however, a second identity was suggested to me that offers a greater degree of plausibility, yet does not compromise the fir cone similarity factor. John Mitchell from San Francisco had read my account of the Dumpton Park beast in my book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), and offered a most intriguing identity for consideration. Namely, the Australian stumpytail or shingleback skink Trachydosaurus rugosus - also called the pine-cone skink, because its large brown overlapping scales make this lizard look uncannily like a pine or fir cone on legs, as discovered by Mitchell when introduced to a pet specimen owned by a friend. Around 14 in long when adult, with a tail so closely resembling its head that it is difficult to distinguish one end of the creature from the other, the stumpytail is possibly the best-known lizard in Australia, due to its abundance and presence in or around a number of Australian suburbs. Moreover, its placid temperament and tough survival ability make this lizard a popular pet, frequently maintained by herpetological enthusiasts worldwide. Hence there is rather more potential for the Dumpton Park beast being an escapee stumpytail skink than an absconded pangolin.

As with all of the cryptic beasts documented here, however, in the absence of a specimen or even a good photo of one, any attempt at identification is fraught with difficulty - and especially so with those that seemingly bear little if any resemblance to animals currently known to science. Far too much hot air is generated within cryptozoological circles arguing vehemently but vainly about what a given mystery beast is and is not, instead of sensibly accepting that without a physical specimen to examine, all that we can have are theories and opinions, not facts. In the case of the animals surveyed here, although they are less famous than Nessie and Britain's mystery cats, they are no less fascinating, and certainly are no less deserving of further investigation, in the hope that one day theories and opinions regarding them can indeed be replaced by hard facts - the true goal of any serious cryptozoologist.




3 comments:

  1. The description of the dobhar-chú sounds remarkably like the recently discovered fossil "walking seal," Puijila darwini.

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  2. Great article! Wonderful read.

    The Dobhar-chú reminds me of the description of a Bunyip.

    THE HORNED MONSTER OF LOUGH DUBH -- why not a hippo? esp. if it looked like one, should be considered. Perhaps "the horn" was actually one of its large curved teeth, easily confused in that moment of terror, as a horn.

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  3. FWIW, there was a magnificent taxidermied pangolin in the window of an antique shop in Raglan, Wales, in the late seventies or early eighties. That puts an unidentified pangolin of unknown provenance within 200 miles and two or three decades after the Ramsgate sighting.

    The shop was closed, and I couldn't conceive of how to get it safely back to the US, but I still recall it with great longing.

    ReplyDelete