The Strange Case of the Stronsay Monster
Orkney folk tales are rife with stories of sea monsters - could they be based on fact? Just over 200 years ago a huge carcass was washed ashore on the island of Stronsay. Was it really a decayed basking shark - or are there unknown animals living in the sea around Orkney? (Description of my original lecture about the creature at the Orkney Science Festival).
Cartoon of the Stronsay Monster draped over a rock
Welcome to the Stronsay Monster website. The creature washed ashore in 1808 in Orkney and at the time national opinion was divided as to whether it was a dead basking shark or a species new to science. It became a cause célèbre and parts of it were distributed to scientific bodies and collectors of curiosities. A large unknown sea creature had been seen swimming off the coast of Scotland very close to the time that the Stronsay Monster was washed up so in the public eye the two events were linked and a divide arose between those in the Scotland (Edinburgh's Natural History Society, the Wernerian Society) who believed it to be a new species and those in England (Royal Society of London) who believed it to be a dead basking shark. No experts from either organisation saw the creature when it was intact and only had the opportunity to examine parts shared with them by the people of Orkney.This speculation has continued through the centuries and there are now modern forensic techniques which could give us a conclusive answer.
The DNA testing proposal was refused so I have made details of material available at libraries and museums here. Some may wonder why it is necessary to test the remains but prior to making my requests I exhausted all the available facts and it is dismissive to imply that this creature's identity has been solved, it is simply not possible to identify this creature by physical examination of the remains and comparative anatomy. To fit the theory that this was a decayed basking shark the evidence of credible eye witnesses must be contorted and rejected.
No known creature found in the waters around Orkney or anywhere else fits with the measurements and observations made by the witnesses. The drawing by Mr Petrie for the Wernerian Society (see gallery) was made long after the creature's remains had been destroyed by the sea and the witnesses criticised it heavily. Basking sharks themselves were only at the time being described to science and it was the expert of the time who rejected the measurements of the Stronsay Monster to make it fit with his own theory, describing the witnesses as 'ignorant fishermen' despite their number containing a carpenter well used to accurate measuring and men with a natural curiousity and familiarity with Orkney's fauna.
None of the evidence conclusively proves it was a basking shark and much of the description we do have does not fit with that theory. You can read all the material relating to the creature here and get as close to the identity of the creature as anyone else can in the absence of DNA testing.