Morag: The Cryptid of Loch Morar

Posted by: John Kirk on May 24th, 2007

I haven’t been to Loch Morar in Scotland. It is always that left hand turn that I miss when I travel north from southern Scotland to the Highlands. I have been to Lochs Lomond, Linnhe, Lochy, Oich, Ness and Shiel, but Morar remains on my to-do list.

Elizabeth Montgomery wrote about the creature of Loch Morar in her 1973 book The Search for Morag and also detailed the work of the Loch Morar Project which seriously investigated the creature. One may remember that Adrian Shine went down into Morar on a number of occasions in a submersible called Machan, but no cryptid was ever seen by the investigators.

Morag, as the cryptid is called, was actually shot at in 1969 by two men named McDonnell and Simpson, but it appeared to have survived that confrontation as it has been seen since. Recent sightings are few and far between and that is not surprising as Morar is in the middle of nowhere. From Fort William you have to drive west past Glenfinnan and the monument to the rising of the Jacobites in support of Prince Charles Edward Stuart in 1745. Just across from the monument is the elevated railway bridge that you see in all the Harry Potter movies and to the south is Loch Shiel which is the home Shielag, yet another Scottish Lake cryptid which has been seen even recently.

You then continue driving west and soon you see to the right and the north, the waters of Loch Morar. It is over a thousand feet deep, making it the deepest lake in the British Isles. To the west of the loch is the small community of Mallaig. Unlike, the communities around Loch Ness, Mallaig makes no effort whatsoever to cash in on Morag. People I know who have been to Morar have found the locals friendly enough, but they really don’t have much to say about Morag as appearances by the cryptid have been few in recent years.

It is hard for me to imagine that the cryptids of freshwater lakes are single creatures. Many of these lakes have quite good sighting accounts that range over decades. I find it inconceivable that there is a single animal with incredible longevity dwelling therein, so it makes sense to me that there might be a very small breeding population in each lake that is close to extinction.

I would consider Morar and Okanagan Lake as two lakes where the cryptid population has dwindled so as to be on the precipice of extinction. The west highlands of Scotland are absolutely magnificent insofar as scenery is concerned and Morar is no exception. There is a stunning bleakness to the landscape and visually – from what I have seen of it in photography – it is a crucible of all that is ancient and majestic about Scotland.

John Kirk About John Kirk
One of the founders of the BCSCC, John Kirk has enjoyed a varied and exciting career path. Both a print and broadcast journalist, John Kirk has in recent years been at the forefront of much of the BCSCC’s expeditions, investigations and publishing. John has been particularly interested in the phenomenon of unknown aquatic cryptids around the world and is the author of In the Domain of the Lake Monsters (Key Porter Books, 1998). In addition to his interest in freshwater cryptids, John has been keenly interested in investigating the possible existence of sasquatch and other bipedal hominids of the world, and in particular, the Yeren of China. John is also chairman of the Crypto Safari organization, which specializes in sending teams of investigators to remote parts of the world to search for animals as yet unidentified by science. John travelled with a Crypto Safari team to Cameroon and northern Republic of Congo to interview witnesses among the Baka pygmies and Bantu bushmen who have sighted a large unknown animal that bears more than a superficial resemblance to a dinosaur. Since 1996, John Kirk has been editor and publisher of the BCSCC Quarterly which is the flagship publication of the BCSCC. In demand at conferences, seminars, lectures and on television and radio programs, John has spoken all over North America and has appeared in programs on NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, TLC, Discovery, CBC, CTV and the BBC. In his personal life John spends much time studying the histories of Scottish Clans and is himself the president of the Clan Kirk Society. John is also an avid soccer enthusiast and player.

14 Responses to “Morag: The Cryptid of Loch Morar”

  1. big max 2 responds:

    I had the chance to visit Loch Morar again in March with my wife, but decided not to. It’s a fair hike from Fort William and having been there before, the above article describes the same experience I had in 1988. My wife wanted to see Loch Ness. She is Japanese and Nessie is well-known in Japan. But Morag? I couldn’t tempt her. Back in ’88, it was a bewildering drive. You can see why people go to Loch Ness, not just for the chance to see Nessie. It’s a beautiful place with a castle and various settlements. Morar has none of this. It’s desolate and remote. The waters may contain something, but it’s when you step outside at Morar, the village that is closest between the sea and the loch, you can believe. The smell of sea is in the air and the possibility of some ocean giant slipping through subterranean caverns and into the loch appeals.

    The loch is the deepest in the British Isles and also has 5 sizeable islands. Interestingly enough, it has a reasonable population of fish as well as plankton, and maintains a fairly stable climate in such a northern area, with its 19 km long valley benefiting from its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. Compared to other areas, ice is limited to shallow areas. A very small population spread around the loch, especially to the east matches the limited sightings of Morag. Compared to 40 years ago, the fish population has decreased and this would align with its cryptid going AWOL. The locals will talk about Morag but there are no tourist attractions and you have to spend some time in a bar like I did at Mallaig, to find someone who wil open up. That was very refreshing. The couple I chatted to who said they’d seen Morag related to it like it was just an accepted part of the landscape.

    I have driven beside Loch Ness half a dozen times and just sometimes couldn’t believe Nessie may be real. But at Morar…..hmmm…….

  2. mystery_man responds:

    Hi bigMax2.

    I was interested in your post because you mentioned that your wife is Japanese. I myself live in Japan (my wife’s Japanese too) and indeed Nessie is very popular over here. There was recently a humorous commercial here featuring Nessie. Perhaps you have heard of Issey, the Japanese lake monster that is said to inhabit Lake Ikeda in Japan? I have been to the Lake once in the hopes of seeing something, but I came away skunked. The locals told some wild stories though.

  3. dogu4 responds:

    I’ve never been to Scotland (but I kinda like the beatles)…but I’ve spent some time on the water and know just how tricky wakes, currents, marine layer mirages, tidal bores, families of otters and sea-lions and water-logged trees and root wads can appear with surprisingly lifelike and animated features that defy categorization.

    Never the less, I keep that in mind when confronting the reality that coldness and darkness, whether in a cave or buried in the mud of ocean estuary, combine to have an effect of life as it adapts to those conditions. It slows the mechanisms of metabolism to the extent that crickets and spiders live for maybe hundreds of years. A northern Bowhead whale was harvested in which a slate projectile point was found lodged, presumed to be at least 100 or more years old. I’ve heard that some lampreys and hagfish are adapted to live in the mud of river deltas and are adapted to the periodicity of storm events in the rivers, coming to life only after a 50 year storm finally brings ’em enough detritus to allow for a brief period of activity, reproduction and eventually the return to their quasi-larval state. The cold dark mud of post glacial lakes seem like a place that catadromous or anadromous bottom dwellers might find quite suitable as they wait for the right conditions. The earth and its processes, after all can be far more patient than we typically recognize.

  4. mystery_man responds:

    Dogu4- I am not sure what you mean by saying the lakes would be ideal for catadromous and anadromous bottom dwelling species. This would imply that there was some link to the sea through which they could migrate to spawn, otherwise, they would not be able to complete their life cycle. Is there any evidence that these Lochs are linked to the sea?

  5. dogu4 responds:

    Unless they’re formed in a geological basin, like Salt Lake, the Dead Sea, Salton Sea(though artificial) and a number of others around the world, they are. Can organisms travel the drainage system? Over the course of geologic and climatic history, lakes can become detached from their outlets. Kokanee in the Pacific Northwest are a great example of amadromous fish who survive having adapted despite being cut off from the sea. The natural force to overcome barriers of migration is pronounced as witnessed by salmon jumping up waterfalls and elvers “swimming” across grassy meadows to reach their instinctively guided destinations.
    I like to keep my sensors on the lookout for other examples. Cheers

  6. mystery_man responds:

    I have heard there were theories that the Lochs were connected somehow to the sea, but from what I understand, there is no such evidence that they are in modern days. Of course they were at some point in history, but if the fish there have evolved to remain within fresh water, then they are no longer truly catadromous or anadromous. In this case, they have adapted so that their entire lifecycle is within the confines of a freshwater body of water, which eliminates the need to migrate to spawn. The salmon are a good example, but this supposes that there is a physically possible way for them to cross the divide between lake and ocean, which I am not sure is in place with the Lochs. I have always been a proponent of the idea of some Lake cryptids migrating between ocean and sea, but I seem to remember reading somewhere that possibility being limited in the Lochs.

    I am interested in the idea of some sort of eel, or mollusk, or other creature that may undergo a sort of metabolic depression in the cold, deep parts of the lakes. There are many animals that can lower their metabolic rates to a good 5 to 15% of their resting rate and creatures in torpor reach lower levels than this. I wonder if there is maybe some sort of intrinsic depression, in that the animals may experience a reduction in metabolic rate due to anticipation of some sort of adverse environmental conditions. This periodic dormancy could explain why there are long stretches where there are no sightings and I suppose it could be a good survival adaptation in this environment.

  7. mystery_man responds:

    As a matter of fact, a dormancy level where anaerobic metabolism is even 0.05 to 0.4 of resting is not that uncommon at all in creatures ranging from earthworms, to crustaceans, to fish and reptiles and this level is quite prevalent in animals that display depression due to adverse environmental factors. There are animals that even can exist anoxia, which is to say without any oxygen at all. Animals that are cryptobiotic in nature reach even lower levels, under 0.05 of resting and anhydrobiotic animals are the lowest of all, with metabolic levels that are practically zero. Sure, these latter examples happen in quite small organisms and their eggs (think sea monkeys and tadpole shrimp), but it is still amazing how some life has evolved to deal with the environment. I can imagine some sort of large eel or amphibian dormant down in the cold muck at the bottom of the lake, only to emerge when the conditions were right and rescources available. It would go far towards explaining why they were not sighted all the time.

  8. Bob Michaels responds:

    Could it be the Extinct Giant Otter of Ireland?

  9. dogu4 responds:

    Mystery Man…of course. I should have stipulated I meant that in the ancestral sense. My point was, as you might expect, to draw attention to our past and the environment of the glacially dominated landscapes, which we think of as being exotic and relegated to the frozen wastes of the north, were not too long ago, a very prominent and expansive ecotone lasting for long time periods over the last couple of million years, and so the relic populations, whether fish, fowl or furry, are adapted to that, and might be able to withstand the occasional interglacial warming, giving them pre-adaptive ability which might afford them some longevity in this particular interglacial period we’re experiencing now, as it would have for the previous interglacials. Salmonids and char are good examples of animals genetically adapted not only to a complex life cycle, but are adapted to a very changeable environment where rivers and lakes and shorelines come and go. I think that when a population is shut off from the sea, the young never experience the environmental triggers that cause their genes to express themselves for the transition to salt water. If their nursery waters are suitable they survive and reproduce, without actually having done any additional genetic modification through mutation. I’ll have to check with my salmonid guy to see what would happen if a population of landlocked salmon were to find their lake open to the sea again, something that must have been not all that rare over the last few tens of millennium.

    I suspect the Scottish landform is rising as a result of isostatic rebound since the last glacial retreat. When lower Lock Ness has a direct connection to the sea.

    Thanks for those metabolic figures. It is astounding what living organisms can withstand…it sounds cliche’ but the tenacity of life is formidable.
    I mention the hag fish because years ago I’d read small science article about some ecologist wondering what happened to all the carcasses of animals and stuff that got washed out in floods. Of course he expected the hagfish and whatnot but was a little surprised to find that they hadn’t travelled far but emerged from the mud on the deep submerged depositional fan. What did they do the rest of the time? The speculation was that they were dormant until the signal (turbulence? infrasonics? chemical signature of decaying tissue?) triggered their awakening…at that depth the seasonal signals on the surface were so dampened that the system would be more attuned to periodic floods bringing debris to them. The interval could be years and years…and the question left unanswered was, “were there populations synchronized with 50 year floods? 100 year floods? 500 year floods? Those might not be unrealistic cycles for abyssal communities of scavengers. I used to think about this while staring out through the Golden Gate.

  10. big max 2 responds:

    Thanx for your comments Mystery Man. And also for adding so much extra to this blog topic. I live in Tokyo and am very interested in cryptozoology. I have been researching a piece for this site on Hibagon.

    Back to your comments though, I know the old ‘sea connecting to the loch’ theory has been paddled around for ages, and evidence is sparse. The ability to survive in both saltwater & freshwater has always worried me about this idea anyway. I have heard about Issie here in Japan, and of course there is also Kussie up in Hokkaido.

    I think a theory more along the lines of extinction or species depletion is more likely to account for Morag’s no-shows over the past 20 years. But biologically speaking, it appears that Loch Morar would be a better candidate for supporting a largish marine creature than Loch Ness.

  11. springheeledjack responds:

    That’s an interesting theory on the dormancy thing…would be worth looking into to see just how viable that might be to something larger.

    I have been reading Dennis Hall (Champquest 2000) who is of the mind that at least the critter in Champlain is nocturnal. To me that sounds reasonable and would account for a lack of sightings on a regular basis.

    I also am of the mind that Morag and other lake critters are probably some sort of creature that has indeed evolved to master its environment over the decades and centuries and that it may an offshoot of some other, possibly better known species…though at present I am not sure enough to hazard a guess.

    I think I will have to hunt down the book on Morag and read through it even though I am not likely to get to that loch for quite a while.

  12. mystery_man responds:

    Dogu4- If you find anything on the effects of habitats becoming open to the sea again on landlocked salmonids , please let me know. I am curious myself to find out more, and as you say I am sure it is not an incredibly rare occurence. Very true what you say about the glacial landscapes of the not too far distant past. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, as always. The information you gave on the hagfish is fascinating. Wish I could have a look at that article myself. Any recollection of where it was published by any chance?

    Bigmax2- I live in Tokyo too and it’s funny that you should mention the Hibagon, because I keep meaning to translate a piece on that cryptid for Loren but have not gotten around to it due to a hectic schedule and a fairly recent baby. I helped with a piece on this site about the Honshu wolf back in March. I have done a lot of research on the Hibagon, Honshu wolf, and the Tsuchinoko, and I am involved with studying Japanese habitats and animals. As for the recent lack of sightings, it is of course very possible that the species has been depleted or even gone extinct due to any number of environmental factors. I was just speculating about other possible causes for this, such as the possibility that the animals have gone into some sort of dormancy or torpor. It is not a biologically infeasible possibility.

    Springheeledjack- Well, yeah, size is one thing that I was considering with that theory. There are large species that reach quite a high degree of metabolic depression and dormancy, but nothing as large as what has been reported in the Lochs. Some big animals can reach a profound state of depression or hiberation as is demonstrated with land animals such as the grizzly, and it has been shown that some animals can go into states like this for quite extended periods of time, so the biological possibility is there. I am not sure how this adaptation would scale up to the size of the things reported in the Lochs, but I for one at least think it is an idea worth considering and I am fairly certain it is not an entirely far fetched notion. I don’t think there is any evidence pointing to this happening in the Lochs, but it is interesting to speculate about nevertheless!

  13. dogu4 responds:

    Mystery Man. Thanks for those metabolic figures. Really amazed at the tenacity of life and the surprising ways it does so. My salmonid expert is on a raft trip for the next two weeks, but I am interesting in knowing the answer myself and will pursue it and get back to you. As for the hagfish anectdote; I think I came across it in an old pre-internet ScienceWeekly. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for it and see if there’s been any new discoveries, and considering the discoveries that are being made down there, that wouldn’t be a surprise.

    Bigmax2: I just brushed up my geological knowledge of Scotland and both Morar and Ness are described as glacial valleys and both appear to have been connected to the sea. A google earth fly-over strongly suggests it as well based on the geomorphology. I wonder why the difference in trophic levels.

    Springheeljack; Nocturnal activity would indeed explain the rarity of sightings, but considering the latitude, during the summer their feeding or foraging hours would be pretty short, kinda like being in Anchorage this time of the year (which I sorta wish I was) or just a few miles outside the city limits.

    Thanks for the great posts. Enjoy the mind stretching speculation and conjecture. Cheers.

  14. dogu4 responds:

    Ooops. I said Loch Ness is same latitude as Anchorage, and should have said Juneau, which is about 100 miles farther south.

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