Here’s a jolly piece about weird British beasties I wrote for SFX‘s Paranormal Special back in October of 2011. My knowledge of most of these creatures comes from years of reading The Fortean Times, a singular publication that deals with weird news from all over the world with a refreshingly rational eye. I sincerely recommend it.
Great Britain, as crammed full of people as it is, has its fair share of frightening monster stories. Here we present ten famous beasties to terrorise you. Some might well have perfectly ordinary explanations – misplaced animals, folkloric remembering or other such comforting, rational causes. But then others most certainly do not…
The Grey Man
Am Fear Liath, or “The Grey Man” is a giant entity said to haunt Ben MacDhui, at 1309 metres the highest mountain in the Cairngorms and the second highest in Britain. Eyewitness accounts of the Grey Man describe a huge figure, covered in fur, that pursues climbers towards dangerous drops. Others speak of becoming overwhelmed by great terror or depression. The great climber John Norman Collie described his encounter with the creature thusly: “I began to hear the sound of noises in the loose rock behind me coming down from the natural cairn on the high plateau. Every few steps I took, I heard a crunch, and then another crunch as if someone was walking after me but taking steps three or four times the length of my own.” Another famous early 20th century climber, Alexander Tewnion, shot at it with a revolver!
There is a mountain illusion, the Brocken Spectre, essentially an amplification of a person’s shadow in the mist, that offers a possible explanation, another is that the Grey Man is a relict hominid, or that Ben MacDhui is a dimensional portal. Research into the phenomenon suggests that this feeling of panic is a feature of wild, mountain areas – the evil twin of the feeling of serenity one may also experience in nature – so there may be a psychological explanation.
Loch Ness Monster
Modern interest in Nessie goes back only as far as 1933, when a Londoner named George Spicer and his wife saw a large creature crossing the road toward the loch with “an animal in its mouth.” The story was widely reported, and more sightings were unearthed from the past, including St Columb’s encounter with a “water beast” in the 7th century. A photograph taken by Hugh Gray was released later in 1933, and interest has never died away.
There have been numerous expeditions to find the monster, and they’ve turned up a variety of contentious sonar hits, weird underwater noises and photographs. Concrete evidence, however, remains elusive. The most extensive search of the loch, undertaken in 2003 by the BBC and using the most modern technology, failed to find anything.
The monster’s identity has been ascribed to remnant populations of prehistoric seals, giant eels and plesiosaurs, but it’s worth bearing in mind that lake monsters are common worldwide, (examples include Ogopogo in the US, and Storsjoödjuret in Sweden), and so are possible explanations – turbulence, swimming deer, and surfacing logs.
Morgawr (“water giant” in Cornish) is Britain’s most famous sea serpent. This beast haunts the seas off Falmouth in Cornwall. Descriptions of it, and it has been seen many times, are remarkably consistent – a long-necked, humped, scaly creature with a mane, small head and stumpy horns. Examples of it were supposedly landed by fishermen in 1876 and 1926. Several credible sightings date from the 1970s, and in 1999 a Natural History Museum employee videotaped the beast.
With 70% of Earth covered in water, sea serpents may be real – there is, after all, plenty of places for them to hide. They’ve been reported through history and seem to fall into a number of distinct types. Although some of these are undoubtedly oarfish, giant squid or other unusual but known creatures, perhaps there are several kinds of large “monster” waiting to be discovered in the oceans of the world. We can only hope.
Skriker, Padfoot, Hairy Jack, Black Shuck, Moddey Dhoo – Britain is positively crawling with spectral hounds, where they are associated with ancient ways, execution sites and electrical storms. Not all black dogs are evil; some, like The Gurt Dog of Somerset is said to watch over children and lost travelers. But most are.
Their appearance is held in some areas to be a portent of death for the observer or for a relative. Some are actively dangerous, like York’s barghest. This black dog comes into the city where it hunts in the snickelways, and is possessed of shape-changing abilities, once having been witnessed as a lady’s glove.
There are headless dogs, fiery dogs, dogs that are ghosts of men, dogs that appear as men, and dogs that hunt with the ghosts of men. Generally they are saucer-eyed and big as calves. Black Shuck, the ghost dog of the east English, entered the church of Bungay in 1577 during a thunderstorm and killed two people. Claw marks can be seen on the door still.
Perhaps these dogs are folk story hand-me-downs from ancient mythological beasts such as Garmr and the Cwn Annwn. On the other hand, perhaps best stay off crossroads during thunderstorms…
In 1976 the area around Mawnan, Cornwall was gripped by a wave of weird activity – UFO sightings, animal attacks, and a sighting of Morgawr.
The most enduring tale of that summer came from holidaymaker Don Melling. His two daughters saw a terrifying creature hovering over Mawnan church in Cornwall, so perturbed were they by this encounter that they cut short their holiday by three days and fled. That creature was the Owlman. Several more sightings were reported that summer, with more in the years since. The overall theme of the depictions suggest an eagle owl. Eagle owls can grow to two feet tall, with a massive six-foot wingspan. They are not native to the UK, but our country is full of naturalized escapee animals (including wallabies, wild boar, and various species of deer), and eagle owls are kept in aviaries here. Plausible, but eagle owls aren’t as tall as people, nor do they have glowing eyes.
The Geordie Bigfoot
In 2003, there were two reports of a huge, yeti-like apeman haunting Bolam park in Northumberland. Three fishermen coming back from the lake after midnight saw “a dark figure, looked about 8ft tall, heavy built, its eyes, or what seemed to be its eyes, glowed in the darkness.” Another fisherman, camping out there some time earlier, reported hearing a growl and something rummaging through his baitbox at one in the morning.
Reports of giant apemen are not as rare as you might think in the UK. Another was seen by three men in the 1990s near Aberdeen. This trio saw the beast twice – the first time while walking in a forest. Spooked by its “inhuman face” one of them lobbed a rock at it. It had its revenge a few weeks later, where it chased their car at 45 miles per hour as they were driving towards Torphins until they outran it, leaving it staring after them in the road.
Tales of “alien big cats”, or ABCs, are a favourite of British papers. There multiple sightings a year of cats variously described as pumas and panthers [indeed, I know someone who has seen one], and some compelling video evidence – the best in recent years that of PC Chris Swallow, taken near Helensburgh in Scotland in 2009.
There are two oft-touted explanations for the actuality of these felids. One – obviously – is that they are out of place exotic species. In 1976, the Dangerous Wild Animals Act came into force, forbidding the keeping of dangerous animals as pets. (Previously, lions had been for sale at Harrods). Many may have been dumped. In 1980, a puma was captured in Scotland. In 1991a lynx, on the run from a private collection, was shot in Norwich.
The other explanation is that ABCs are an unknown big cat, a survivor from the Ice Age. This may seem improbable, but in 1984 the Scottish Kellas cat, long thought to be a myth, was proved to exist when one was shot. At over two feet long, this hybrid of wildcat and house cat is not a small animal.
Sightings, the occasional attack and other evidence aside, no remains have been found, nor has one ever been hit by a car, and police hunts for them end fruitlessly. Die-hard paranormalists ascribe a mystical origin (that old dimensional doorway again); psychologists mass hysteria. Still, there may be a leopard at the end of your garden…
The Cottingley Fairies
Fairies play a prominent part in British folklore, especially on the Celtic fringe. One famous hoax story that took in no less than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was that of the Cottingley fairies. Two cousins – Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths took five photographs in 1917 that purported to show fairies in their garden. Doyle, a staunch spiritualist, took the pictures at face value and used them in an article he wrote in 1920.
In the 1980s, the pair admitted they were faked – the fairies were cardboard cutouts copied from a children’s book and stood up on pins. However, Frances maintained that the fifth photograph, the “sunbath” showed real fairies, and the pair of them insisted that they had actually seen the fairies to the end.
As to why they remained silent for so long, Elsie related in an interview on Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World in 1985: “Two village kids and a brilliant man like Conan Doyle – well, we could only keep quiet.”
The Lambton Worm
Where would a round-up of monsters be without a dragon? This worm-like example comes from Northumbria. John, heir to the estate of Lambton, bucks church one Sunday to go fishing. Ignoring dire warnings from a wise old man, he pulls up a bizarre creature from the River Wear. Deciding he’s caught the devil, he chucks it down a well, grows up and goes off on the crusades. While he’s gone, the dragon, now massive, crawls out of the well, and begins to eat everything in the district. His father calms it daily with gallons of milk, and impoverishes himself keeping it sated.
John, returned home, follows the advice of a local witch and welds a bunch of spearheads to his armour so that the beast cannot crush him in its coils. He chops it to bits, which are washed away by the river. Unfortunately, he does not heed the warning of the witch, that he should kill the first living thing he sees. He hatches a cunning plan to kill a dog, but dear old dad forgets and rushes to congratulate his son. John cannot bring himself to kill him, thus condemning nine generations of his family to early deaths.
The Hexham Werewolf
In 1972, the Robson boys dug up a pair of stone heads in their parents’ garden in Hexham. The night after, their neighbour witnessed a werewolf-like phantom in their house. The heads were passed to Dr Anne Ross, who collected such things. Shortly after acquitting them, Dr Ross awoke at 2 am to see this monster: “It was about six feet high,” she said, “slightly stooping, and it was black, against the white door, and it was half animal and half man. The upper part, I would have said, was a wolf, and the lower part was human and, I would have again said, that it was covered with a kind of black, very dark fur. It went out and I just saw it clearly, and then it disappeared, and something made me run after it, a thing I wouldn’t normally have done… I could hear it going down the stairs, then it disappeared towards the back of the house.”
She initially believed it to be a dream, until her tearful teenage daughter revealed that she had seen something similar. Ross disposed of her collection. The heads were displayed in the British Museum for a time, where they were linked with further odd happenings. Although it was later claimed a previous owner of the Robson house had carved the heads, they have since gone missing, and it was never possible to determine their provenance. Interestingly, in 1904 there was a wolf-panic in Hexham, The Wolf of Allendale, which saw many sheep killed and farmers roaming the countryside with guns. Linked? Perhaps.