A Blue Man of the Minch (I found this image online some time ago, unsourced and uncredited, but it looks like it may be a modified version – by person(s) unknown – of a picture from highly-acclaimed London-based photographer Chris Parkes's spectacular 'All that Glitter is Green' series; if so, © Chris Parkes, and thus used here on a strictly non-commercial, Fair Use basis only; also, please click here to visit Chris Parkes's website and see some of his wonderful photographs)
The British Isles are said to contain more ghosts than anywhere else in the world. Less well-known is that a remarkable diversity of monsters, mythological creatures, and mystery beasts have also been reported from these ancient lands, as will be seen here in this exclusive ShukerNature selection of some notably esoteric entities from my homeland. The trick, however, is trying to decide which category each of them belongs to - fact or fable, legend or reality, the natural world or the supernatural realm - a perilous choice that I will leave, gentle reader, to you!
It is not widely known that Britain can lay claim to its very own indigenous species of unicorn. Yet according to Hebridean folklore, the lochs on the Inner Hebrides island of Skye are home to just such a creature, called the baiste-na-Scoghaigh (aka biasd na Srogaig). Despite its long legs, however, its bulky, lumbering form renders it more akin to a rhinoceros than to the elegant unicorn of classical legend; and as it can assume human form, this deceptive creature is technically a were-unicorn. See also here for more details.
One of England's most dreadful bogey-beasts, the barguest is able to assume several different guises, but its most common form is as a huge, shaggy-furred black dog with enormous fiery eyes, and sometimes even a pair of horns. According to tradition, this spectral hound haunts lonely areas of wasteland in Yorkshire, but especially between Wreghorn and Headingley Hill, near Leeds. Its appearance is widely believed to foretell an impending death, usually of some important figure living locally, and is often accompanied by fearful howling, baying, and sometimes the sound of rattling chains.
The Minch is a strait separating the largest Outer Hebridean island, Lewis-and-Harris, from the Scottish mainland. According to local maritime tradition, it is also home to a fierce race of mermen, distinguished from other fish-tailed folk by their vivid blue skin. Happily, however, their fondness for attacking sailors can be readily countered, simply by berating them exclusively in rhyme!
Scottish Highland lore describes the boobrie as a black lake-dwelling bird with white marks upon its neck and breast, resembling the great northern diver Gavia immer but very much bigger, and deadlier. For whereas divers (or loons, as these birds are referred to in North America) are content to feed upon fishes, the boobrie will allegedly seize any sheep or cow that dares venture near this monstrous bird's aquatic abode, and haul it beneath the water, thereafter to feed upon its drowned carcase.
HAIRLESS BLUE HORSE
During 1868, a very unusual horse was exhibited at London's famous Crystal Palace. Not only was it completely hairless, but its skin was blue, so that it looked as if it had been sculpted from some rare form of oriental blue marble. This singular steed had been captured on the plains of South Africa by a merchant called Lashmar in 1860, and had been associating with a herd of those now-extinct, incompletely-striped zebras known as quaggas. The fate of the hairless blue horse after its Crystal Palace days is unknown - as is its identity. Could it have been a freak quagga, rather than merely a freak domestic horse run wild? See also here for more details.
Photoshopped image of a horse resembling the Crystal Palace-exhibited curiosity described here (© Daisiem worth1000 – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)
LOUGH DUBH MONSTER
One day in March 1962, schoolteacher Alphonsus Mullaney and his son went fishing to Lough Dubh ('Black Lake') in County Galway, Ireland...and caught a monster instead. Suddenly, their line became taut, and when they attempted to reel in their catch, they saw to their horror that they were hauling up an incredible water beast like nothing ever reported before - or since. The size of a cow, it had short thick legs, small ears, dark grey skin covered in short bristles, and a large hippopotamus-like face - with a sharp rhinoceros-like horn on the end of its snout! Not surprisingly, the two anglers fled away, but when they returned with a posse of local men, the lake's mysterious monster had vanished again. See also here for further details.
Artistic representation of the Lough Dubh monster (© Orbis Publishing - reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)
An unexpectedly loquacious English dragon, the knucker lived in a deep pool near the church at Lyminster, close to Arundel, in Sussex. Unfortunately, however, it developed a great liking (in the gastronomic sense!) for sheep, pigs, and even the odd farmer or two...until a local youth called Jim Puttock came along. After deliberately over-feeding the knucker with a heavy pudding that gave it severe indigestion, Puttock promised to provide a remedy for curing its stomach ache. The remedy in question, albeit decidedly unorthodox, was also undeniably effective - after engaging it in seemingly innocent conversation, Puttock abruptly wielded his trusty sword and chopped off the knucker's head!
MINIATURE WOLVES OF ACHILL ISLAND
According to Irish tradition, County Mayo's Achill Island was home to a type of small wolf-like beast long after true wolves had died out elsewhere in the British Isles. They were said to resemble normal wolves in overall appearance except for their relatively small stature. No such creatures have been reported here in recent times, however, so even if they really did once exist they have now presumably died out.
According to Swedish archbishop Olaus Magnus (1490-1557), an extraordinary sea monster resembling a hybrid of whale and wild boar was sighted in the sea north of Scotland's Orkney Islands in 1537. In bestiary compiler Conrad Gesner's tome, Nomenclator Aquatilium Animantium... (1560), this Orcadian boar-whale was depicted with the head and body of a boar but with scales instead of fur, flippers instead of feet, and a fish-like tail. Not surprisingly, it has never been identified.
During the demolition of an old church at Renwick in Cumbria, northern England, during 1733, workmen were terrified when a huge winged apparition rose up out of the foundations, for in appearance it closely resembled a cockatrice. According to legend, this was a lethal dragonesque monster combining reptilian scales, leathery bat-like wings, and a snake-like tail with the feathered body and also the wattled, coxcomb-surmounted head of a farmyard rooster, and which was hatched by a toad from a shell-less egg laid by a cockerel! As this hideous creature sallied forth, the Renwick villagers fled in all directions - except for one brave man named John Tallantine. Armed with a lance hewn from the rowan tree, which is famed for its reputed power in warding off evil, Tallantine pursued the cockatrice into the churchyard, and after a fierce battle he succeeded in slaying it. As a reward, the grateful people of Renwick decreed that for ever afterwards Tallantine's descendants would be exempt from paying tithes. A copy of an account describing this alleged occurrence is preserved in Renwick's current church.
ST SEONAN'S MONSTER
Like an amphibious cyclops, this maned water monster had a single eye gleaming brightly in the centre of its forehead. It also had a whale's fluked tail, and a mighty chest that sounded like a pair of huge bellows when it exhaled its scorching breath. It frequented the island of Iniscathy (aka Inis Cathaigh), located in Ireland's Shannon Estuary, and whenever it sharpened its razor-sharp iron talons, sparks of fire would dance upon the island's rocky surface. Eventually, however, it was allegedly banished by St Seonan.
SCREAMING WHITE RABBIT
Reputedly, an eerie spectral rabbit, pure white in colour and emitting a hideous screaming cry, has been encountered spasmodically in an area of Cobridge in northern Staffordshire, England, that is known locally as The Grove. It is claimed that this white rabbit is the restless ghost of teenager John Holdcroft, who was strangled to death by fellow teenager Charles Shaw one day in August 1833 after Shaw had accused him of cheating at a game of pitch and toss. Terrified by what he had done, Shaw hung a noose around his friend's neck and tried to pretend that he had committed suicide, but he later confessed to the murder and was sentenced to transportation. As for the rabbit, its eldritch shrieks are supposedly John Holdcroft's death screams.
WINGED FEATHERED SNAKES
Remarkably, until as recently as the early 1800s some local inhabitants believed that creatures apparently resembling winged feathered snakes congregated in large numbers within the wooded vales of Penllyne and Penmark in Glamorgan. Extraordinarily beautiful, they had shimmering bodies whose scales sparkled like multicoloured jewels, rainbow-hued crests, and outspread plumed wings. Despite their flamboyant finery, however, Glamorgan's feathered flying snakes were reputedly slaughtered like common vermin by farmers, on account of their taste for the farmers' poultry, until at last they were completely exterminated. See also here for more details.
Depiction of one of the winged feathered snakes that appeared on the front cover of the original 1997 American edition of my book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (© Dr Karl Shuker/Llewellyn Publications)
YELPING BEAST OF MANY COLOURS
Finally, but staying with extraordinarily beautiful creatures: Loosely connected to the Arthurian corpus of legends and originally composed anonymously in French during the 1300s, Perceforest is a 6-volume prose romance presenting a fictionalised origin of Great Britain. One memorable scene from it features Maronex the Gilded Knight, magnificently bedecked in brilliant golden armour, encountering a huge and equally dazzling, rainbow-hued creature that gave voice to ear-splitting yelping cries when it was pursued by him after it seized a stag in its jaws. Hence it is generally referred to as the Yelping Beast or the Beast of Many Colours. After dropping the deer as it fled headlong through the forest, the Yelping Beast finally reached its lair, a dense thicket in the midst of a deep marsh, and successfully eluded Maronex when his horse became enmired up to its belly in the marsh's black mud. Although Maronex was eventually able to free his horse, he conceded that it would be perilous in the extreme to attempt any further pursuit of the Yelping Beast through such treacherous, potentially lethal terrain, so he reluctantly turned back, his multicoloured quarry far beyond his reach by now. The creature's penchant for exceedingly loud yelping cries, incidentally, readily calls to mind comparable behaviour described for the snake-headed, leopard-bodied, hart-footed Questing Beast in traditional Arthurian legend.
The Yelping Beast of Many Colours and Maronex the Gilded Knight, from Royal 19 E II mss, Perceforest, Anciennes croniques Dangleterre, faictz et gestes du roy Perceforest, et des chevaliers du Franc Palais, version transcribed by David Aubert in late 1400s, Holland (public domain)