Yessss, we're halfway to Halloween! Enjoy this episode about a mysterious eel-like monster sighted in Ireland and Scotland.
Welcome to the Patreon bonus episode of Strange Animals Podcast for mid-October, 2019!
There are stories around the world of water monsters waiting to lure the unwary to a watery death. For the most part these stories are probably ways to keep small children from getting too close to deep water or other dangerous areas, like bogs, where they might fall in and drown. In Ireland and Scotland, the monster is usually called a kelpie. The kelpie would look like an ordinary pony or horse standing in the water. When someone approached the pony, as soon as they touched it, it would drag them deeper into the water and drown them, presumably to EAT.
But there are other stories in Ireland of an animal called a horse-eel or péiste [pron. paystee]. Péiste means worm in Irish but can refer to anything worm-like in shape, such as an eel.
The horse-eel is supposed to be an eel or eel-like animal that’s 10 to 30 feet long, or 3 to 9 meters. It’s dark in color, has a horse-like mane along its back, a horse-like head, sharp teeth, and can crawl on land. Stories about it are supposed to go back to the 10th century, but I don’t know if those stories are about this horse-eel or some other monster like a kelpie.
Some accounts of horse-eel sightings sound like misidentified seals or otters. For instance, in an account published in 1893 but probably taking place much earlier, a boy was bitten on the back while swimming and chased all the way home by a horse-eel. If you’ve listened to the dobhar-chu episode you may recognize the story as sounding a lot like a dobhar-chu, and therefore probably an otter.
Other accounts are not so clear. Some men fishing on Lough Fadda in 1954 said they had seen a huge monster with a long neck and two humps along its back, and that the monster had almost caused their boat to capsize. The same year a librarian and her friends also saw something in the lake they described as a 30 foot eel with jaws like a shark.
In 1965 a big game hunter called Captain Lionel Leslie decided he knew how to solve the mystery. He took five pounds of explosives, used for blasting tunnels through rock, and threw it into the water.
Now, I do not need to tell you that doing this is bad for anything living in the water and that you should not mess around with explosives anyway. You could blow yourself up. And it didn’t help Captain Leslie anyway. He wrote:
“Within seconds of the explosion a large, dark object came thrashing to the surface of the lake; it thrashed so wildly that the members of the team had a difficult time making out any specific physical features of the beast. After some discussion the team agreed that what they had seen was a very real creature, one that resembled no other animal known to live in Lough Fadda.”
Captain Leslie then went through that lake and some nearby ones with giant nets but didn’t catch anything.
Whatever Captain Leslie’s team thought they saw thrashing around in agony after they dropped five pounds of explosives on it, no one else has reported any sightings of a horse-eel in Lough Fadda. If it was there, Captain Leslie probably killed it. It might have been new to science and now it’s dead.
There are similar reports from Scotland, too. In 1965 a woman named Maureen Ford was driving near the river Tay near where it enters the sea, late at night. She and the other people in the car saw a “long grey shape” by the side of the road. She said “it had no legs but I’m sure I saw long pointed ears.” A few hours later, a man named Robert Swankie was driving the same road and saw the same animal—but on the opposite side of the road, so it must have crossed it at some point. He described it this way: “The head was more than two feet long. It seemed to have pointed ears. The body, which was about 20 feet long, was humped like a giant caterpillar. It was moving very slowly and made a noise like someone dragging a heavy weight through the grass.”
One theory is that the horse-eel is just a European eel that never spawned. Since adult eels die after breeding, if an eel never spawns, it will just live and live. Some people believe these non-spawning eels grow to massive lengths and are the source of many lake monster sightings, including the Loch Ness monster.
If you’ve listened to episode 49, about the Brantevik eel and other eels, you may remember that the European eel only grows about five feet long, or 1.5 meters. The Brantevik eel lived in a well from 1859 until it died in 2014, and it didn’t grow to ridiculous lengths. Other European eels kept in captivity also live an extremely long time, but don’t grow appreciably larger once they’re adults. But all these eels were kept in relatively small habitats compared to an entire lake or river. It’s possible that non-spawning eels in the wild do grow larger than ordinary eels. The longest eel known is the slender giant moray, which can grow up to 13 feet long, or 4 meters. But, of course, we don’t know everything about eels. There might be much bigger ones out there.
The European eel can and does sometimes come out of the water, too, especially on wet nights, and will slither around on land to eat worms and other small animals. But as far as I know it never humps its body up like a caterpillar. Besides, eels don’t have long ears.
In summer of 2019, so only a few months ago when this episode goes live, a group of cryptozoologists led an expedition to Ireland to search for the horse-eel—without explosives, fortunately. Instead they had drones and other modern equipment. I can’t find a report of their results, which probably hasn’t been published yet, but if they found anything spectacular they probably would have sent out a press release, so, you know, probably not. But at least they went looking for it. Hopefully they’ll keep looking, because one day someone might actually discover a gigantic eel or another, more mysterious animal in an Irish or Scottish lake.
The next episode in the main feed will be about giant octopuses. It’s also releasing on my birthday, so eat a piece of cake or pumpkin pie in my honor. That means our Halloween week episode will be about rats, specifically mystery rats, although since I haven’t done much research on that one yet I can’t swear I won’t change my mind at the last minute and release a different episode instead. I like to live life on the edge.
Thanks for your support, and thanks for listening!