MORE HUMANS have walked on the moon than have been to the deepest parts of planet Earth and although the oceans cover 70% of Earth’s surface, we only know around 1% of the seafloor. Many a mystery surrounds the deep blue and this particular story recounts the remarkable discovery of a cryptozoological enigma which washed up on Scotland's northern shores in the 19th century and made the world stand still.
A globster is a term used to describe an unidentifiable organic mass found washed up on the shoreline of any body of water. They are most frequently studied and written about in the pseudo-scientific field of cryptozoology and the word 'globster' was first written in 1962 by Ivan T. Sanderson to describe what became known as 'the Tasmanian Carcass’ of 1960.
Some reports claim the Tasmanian Carcass it had “no visible eyes, no defined head, and no apparent bone structure” while others maintained it had “soft, tusk-like protuberances, six soft - fleshy arms and stiff, white bristles covering its body.” This particular carcass was finally identified as a whale by L.E. Wall in the journal Tasmanian Naturalist in 1981, and a later electron microscopy analysis of the collagen fibres confirmed this.
Globsters are where sea monsters came from! Myths and legends often feature gigantic octopuses, which were inspired by decaying Giant and Colossal squid and/or masses of whale blubber released from decaying whale corpses. They are often incorrectly thought to be dead plesiosaurs which invariably turn out to be the decayed carcasses of basking sharks. Others remain unexplained and in these cases cryptozoologists thrive.
Many globsters have decomposed so much before being examined that they appear to be evidence of new species - as happened with the 'Cadborosaurus Willsi' carcass found in British Columbia in 1937, and the 'Newfoundland Blob' found in 2001, which scientists identified as being basking shark and sperm whale carcasses, respectively. But of course many cryptozoologists maintain that mainstream scientists are either willingly, or through ignorance, covering up the existence of unknown sea creatures, as they do.
The Stronsay BEAST
The Stronsay Beast was an enormous globster that washed ashore on the island of Stronsay in Orkney of the north east of Scotland. After a vicious storm on 25th September 1808 a local man, John Peace, was fishing at Rothiesholm Head in the southeast of the island. It was a 'grey misty day and he heard seabirds making a commotion closer to the shore'. He rowed through the fog to take a closer look and found them flocking around an enormous carcass lying on the rocks, which he later reported as “an animal, with a serpent-like body, long neck and three pairs of legs".
Ten days later the remains of this carcass washed ashore and were rediscovered by George Sherar, another local fisherman. Measuring 55 ft (16.8 m) in length, and missing some of its body, scientists at The Natural History Society (Wernerian Society) of Edinburgh failed to identify the carcass and after several weeks announced to the world's media that it was a new species.
Finally, the serpentine creature which appears in so many Scottish legends, myths and sailers tales had been discovered. The Stronsay Beast became a global sensation and convinced a new species had been discovered the respected Scottish anatomist, John Barclay, officially named it ‘Halsydrus pontoppidani’ (Pontoppidan's sea-snake) in honor of Erik Pontoppidan who wrote about such a sea serpent inhabiting these dangerous northern waters over half a century earlier.
The people of Stronsay were not as surprised as one might have expected them to be. The folk of 19th century Orkney were highly superstitious folk and for hundreds of years they had told stories of the Nuckalavee - a horse-like demon, the most feared demon of Scotland's Northern isles which originated in Norse mythology. Even the 16th-century Latin manuscripts of Jo Ben described a sea monster living on Stronsay. The Nuckalavee was “kept in confinement during the summer months by the Mother o' the Sea" an ancient Orcadian oceanic spirit who controlled such demons. Parallels can be drawn with similar malevolent entities in Scottish folklore such as the water kelpie.
Many northern Scottish myths were based upon the natural elements of the turbulent and ever changing sea. The activities of malevolent demons provided an explanation for naturally occurring incidents that islanders in bygone times were otherwise unable to account for. This is evident in that the nuckelavee's breath was thought to wilt crops and sicken livestock and it was also considered responsible for epidemics and droughts.
STAND ASIDE FOR THE SCEPTICS
As the scientific world theorised about the new species, renowned anatomist Sir Everard Home was a hardened sceptic and he stood up and cut through the mass hysteria claiming that the measurement of the beast taken in Orkney 'must have been incorrect'. Single handedly he confronted the zeitgeist and without any tangible evidence, only an unflagging confidence in the scientific method, he boldly declared the carcass was a decaying basking shark. His concept was supported in 1849 by Scottish professor John Goodsir.
But the 'believers' pushed back. Contrary to Home’s postulation the Stronsay Beast was measured by three individual people at different times. A carpenter and two farmers each reported it measuring 55 ft (16.7 m) long, 4 ft (1.2 m) wide with a circumference of 10 ft (3.1 m). It was reported to have had 'three pairs of paws or wings' and its skin was "rough when stroked tail to head and smooth when stroked head to tail." The fins were 'edged with bristles' and it had a 'mane' of bristles down the length of its back. Several witnesses reported the bristles glowing in the dark when wet and that its stomach contents were bright red.
Home later found support in Bernard Heuvelman’s 1968 book In the Wake of Sea Serpents in which the author noted that the drawings of the Stronsay beast's decayed carcass were 'similar in shape and size to the popular image of the Loch Ness Monster...the creature's remains were cartilage, not bone, so it could not have been an oarfish nor any other animal with a bone skeleton". Heuvelman concluded that the Stronsay beast was an unusually large basking shark because the third pair of appendages are most probably a "male shark's ‘claspers'."
Towards the end of his book Heuvelman leaves us with a stirring thought. He points out that male sharks are generally smaller than the females of the same species, suggesting the wild and ancient seas around northern Scotland might play host to a colossal new species of shark "larger than we could ever have expected to find.”
The reason I wrote this article is not just to tell the fascinating story of the Orkney Sea Creature, but to highlight how mass-hysteria can cloud real scientific marvels. The largest recorded basking shark at that time was 40 ft (12.2 m) in length and the Stronsay beast measured at 55 ft (16.7 m). The apparent discovery of a new species of serpentine sea-creature veiled what constituted a remarkable cryptozoological enigma - the discovery was the largest shark on record, a fact which sadly got greatly overlooked during the mass-delusion.
Although the Stronsay Beast was a Basking shark, new species are being discovered weekly and 2016 saw the discovery of an entirely new species of arapaima, a giant air-breathing fish that lives in South American rivers. But so far as discovering gigantic new species is concerned, I leave you with a thought provoking quote from Timothy Essington, professor of aquatic & fishery sciences at the University of Washington:
“Given the vastness of the ocean, I would not be at all surprised if someday some intrepid explorer discovered some bizarre new form of sea life that we never thought possible. It might be some creature of enormous size, a radically new body design, or some unique way that it "makes a living."
Full transcripts of The Stronsay Beast witness testimonies are held in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and can be viewed by appointment. Their telephone number is +44 300 123 6789. You should give them a call the next time you're in Scotland. Who knows, maybe you will observe something in the records which has thus far been overlooked.
Ashley Cowie is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker. Exploring ancient cultures and kingdoms, science and psychology. Investigating myths, folklore and legends. Examining artefacts, iconography and architecture. Discovering and presenting unique stories from the People's History.
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