More Monsters and Genetics: The Orkney Beast

A Basking Shark: Just... basking?  (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
A Basking Shark: Just... basking? (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
I gots monsters on the brain!

The Loch Ness Monster (or possibly elephant) has been a pretty hot topic around Science Buzz lately, so this article caught my eye.

A Scottish geneticist is reported to have been researching the "Orkney Beast” (also known as the Stronsay Beast), and will be comparing it to the Loch Ness Monster in a talk she will be giving at the Highlands Science Festival this week.

The Orkney Beast was this huge, bizarre carcass that washed up on the shore of Stronsay, in the Orkney Islands, in 1808. It was pretty rotten at the time, but everybody seemed to agree that it was some sort of sea serpent (it was 55 feet long, with a 15 foot “neck,” and measured 10 feet around). However, a couple of anatomists later decided that it was probably a shark, specifically a large basking shark. The locals were pretty disappointed with this, but who can argue with an anatomist?The Orkney/Stronsay Beast: A drawing of the carcass, made in 1808.  (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
The Orkney/Stronsay Beast: A drawing of the carcass, made in 1808. (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Even if it was a shark, the Orkney Beast remains an interesting find. The largest basking shark (which is a filter feeder, and the second largest shark after the whale shark) ever recorded was 40 feet, significantly smaller than the beast’s 55 feet.

The skull and “paw” of the creature were sent to London in the 19th century, but were destroyed in World War II. Some remains still exist at Edinburgh’s Royal Museum, however, and the geneticist was given the chance to study them. The article didn’t say what the researcher made of them.

I don’t know that the geneticist is claiming that Nessie or the Orkney Beast are genuine monsters (what a strange phrase), but she points out that the drawings and descriptions made of the carcass at Orkney are strikingly similar to descriptions in “eyewitness accounts” of Nessie. It’s an interesting coincidence, although I suppose people often see what they want to see, even when looking at giant, rotting fish.

Also, this is kind of interesting. Apparently there’s no shortage of Scottish loch monsters.

Update, 7/7/14: JGordon here, 7 years later. 7 years! And to think that my own mother suggested that I'd be comatose, in jail, or comatose and in jail by now. I sure showed her, because I am none of those things! Anyhow, I've updated/edited this post to remove the name of the researcher supposedly associated with the genetic study. Apparently media reporting on this story (me?A) were a little overenthusiastic when it came to describing the scientist's involvement with the tests (which, it turns out, were to be done by a lab in the USA, and didn't happen in any case.) So if you came here looking for info on this scientist, you're barking up the wrong tree; his or her research and education is probably not summed up very well by a cryptozoological story from seven years ago.
JGordon out. See you in 2021.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Eoin Stevenson's picture
Eoin Stevenson says:

Since when has this creature been known as the Orkney beast,as long as I can remember its been the Stronsay monster.
We here on Stronsay hope to have an event on the subject, next year being the 200 year anniversary. See you all then.

posted on Fri, 12/07/2007 - 2:49am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

OK! I was just going by what the article had said, but I'll defer to your expertise.

The Orkney Beast shall henceforth be known as (and only as) the Stronsay Monster.

posted on Tue, 12/11/2007 - 8:09pm
Freddy G's picture
Freddy G says:

Does anyone know what [this person] came up with about the remains of the creature. Is it the remains of a baskingshark or what??

posted on Thu, 01/10/2008 - 6:52am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

weel, I'm sure that John Peace wid ken the difference between a basking shark and a monster and I'm sure that he wid hiv seen a rotting basking shark afore. I"ve only been here so many years and I've seen plenty.



posted on Thu, 04/03/2008 - 1:41pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Plenty of rotting basking sharks? That's pretty cool, and, uh, kind of horrifying.

posted on Fri, 04/04/2008 - 8:34am
Howie Firth's picture

Delighted to read of your interest in the Stronsay Beast, and very good to see the way you've highlighted it on your site. And now that I've found it, I will take the opportunity of looking further at the site, which looks very stimulating. It's great to have interest from Minnesota in this story from Orkney.

There are several factors that add to the interest of the Stronsay Monster. One is that the creature was systematically measured by various members of the Stronsay community, and samples of body material sent away for scientific study and preservation.

Another factor is that there are a number of accounts from Orkney of sea creatures being seen during the 19th and 20th century. These are quite detailed, and seem to be something quite different from a basking shark.

The next stage would seem to be to identify a suitable test for the small amounts of body material that are still held in Edinburgh. This would be the one way of establishing what the creature may have been, whether it was some unknown species of giant basking shark, or something else.

[There will be] an update in this year's Orkney International Science Festival (

This year is the 200th anniversary of the Stronsay Monster, and so we plan to hold an event in Stronsay itself on 6-7 September, in collaboration with the Stronsay Development Trust. Members of the Stronsay community will take visitors to the exact place on the island where their ancestors found the monster.

I know that it's a long way to travel from Minnesota, but we would all make you very welcome!

With best wishes,

Howie Firth
Director, Orkney International Science Festival

posted on Mon, 04/28/2008 - 10:47am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Thanks for stopping by, Dr. Firth! The festival looks pretty exciting.

Hey, museum bosses, any chance you'll swing for a weekend trip to Scotland in September? I'll wear an SMM pin, and bring back some nice sweaters, I promise. And I'll keep saying "Science Buzz" over and over again. Think about it...

posted on Mon, 04/28/2008 - 11:35am
ChanaV's picture
ChanaV says:

Until now, many people are still into monster-thing. Every time something unusual or weird looking creature, monster pops out of most of people’s mouth. The recent was the Montauk monster that was last seen just early this month. If you haven't heard about it, don't worry, but the Montauk Monster is a carcass that appeared on the beach of Long Island, New York. It defies classification, as it looks like no animal known to science, and a lot of people would give installment loans to figure out what it is. It washed up not too far away from Plum Island, AKA Anthrax Island, an uninhabited isle home to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, a known animal testing facility. The corpse is thought to be a hoax, but some insist its real, or Amy Winehouse sunbathing. Still, many would pull out credit cards to unravel the Montauk Monster mystery.

posted on Tue, 05/19/2009 - 11:38pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Nice Montauk recap, ChanaV.

I saw this after the first "Montauk monster" washed up, and despite coming from a NYC gossip blog, it looks like a pretty reasonable answer. A rotten body and rodent incisors seem a little more likely that a beaked genetic experiment.

posted on Wed, 05/20/2009 - 8:42am

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