The prize piece of my portfolio is a small black and white photograph. It is an original print, I believe, not a copy, and on the back in old-fashioned, neat penmanship is the following description: “Sanday, Orkney Islands. June 15, 1947.”
The photo shows two young boys, maybe eight or nine, emerging from the surf onto a sandy beach. They are both skinny, ruddy-hued island boys, cut from the sand. Each wears cotton shorts and an oversized woollen jumper hanging sodden from their shoulders, sleeves covering their hands. Both are barefoot.
The two boys are grinning hugely. The one on the left holds his hands out towards his companion, like a quiz show model presenting a prize. The boy on the right stands bow-legged, his arms wrapped around a boulder sized object which, on close inspection, appears to be a human milk tooth of gigantic proportions.
I travelled to Orkney in 1994, soon after the photograph came into my possession. I had nothing to go on but the picture itself and the rear inscription. I began in Stromness on the Mainland, the first port after taking the ferry from Scotland’s mainland proper. My host at the B&B knew nothing of the photo or the boys, but assured me that Sanday had a tiny population, less than five hundred, and that I’d be certain to find the owner if an owner was to be found. When I took dinner at a nearby pub the proprietor smiled and frowned simultaneously at the picture, struggling to summon up an ancient piece of gossip. The story of the huge tooth was known to an older generation, but he had never seen pictorial evidence before. He told me to search out the Rendall family once I arrived at Sanday.
The next morning I took the bus to Kirkwall and then a second ferry north to the sandy island. Within two hours of disembarking I was knocking on the door of a bungalow on the road outside of Kettletoft.
Sanday, Orkney Islands.The woman who answered was the daughter of Andy Rendall, the boy with the modelling pose. Over tea and brack, she told me that the man Andy had grown into was long dead of a heart attack. The other boy, Steven Tulloch, had emigrated to Canada in the late fifties, and was never heard from after that.
The tooth had caused a bit of a stir on the Islands at the time. After the boys pulled it out of the sand, it was kept in the milking parlour at Tulloch’s farm, and half of Sanday had trooped in to see it. Word had been sent to the Natural History Museum in London, but a polite return letter had dismissed the object as a piece of oddly shaped driftwood or, possibly, a carved hoax. Ceramic perhaps.
She didn’t know who had taken the photograph. It was the first time she had seen it (I later sent her a copy). Visitors were not unknown to the islands, even in the forties, so it was possible that a passing tourist snapped the shot before moving on to the next leg of their journey.
And the tooth? She sighed. It had, after the initial interest died down, passed a few years in farm sheds, before ultimately being incorporated into an ornamental rockery in her mother’s garden. This was after her father had married and built a house. It sat in the rockery for many years, right through her childhood, before disappearing one winter in the seventies. Nobody knew who had taken it. It had probably been gone for weeks before its absence was noticed.
And was it driftwood? Was it ceramic? She smiled. It felt like no wood I’ve ever touched, she said. It was like tooth, or polished bone. Maybe, if you could imagine a bone large enough, it might have been carved from bone. But it was perfect, she added. There were streaks of cracked enamel. There were cavities in the crown into which you could fit a child’s clenched fist. I thanked her, and left. I was both satisfied and frustrated, as always.
The rest of my portfolio of evidence is mainly newspaper clippings, photocopies, documents in the public domain. Individually it is junk and rumours, but there is a pattern there. I see a pattern.
An account, reportedly from a 17th century almanac, later copied into a 19th century compendium of unexplained phenomena, describes a man’s thumb “the size of a great bull” washing up on a beach in Aldeburgh, Suffolk in 1678. It sat well up on the sand after a high tide, and remained there until a priest arrived from the town to examine it. The priest forbade anyone to touch it and, after disappearing to consult with the bishop, announced that it was a remnant of a man that walked the Earth before the Flood, when humans were larger and lived mightily longer. He did not attempt to explain the apparent lack of decomposition, and instead instructed that it be surrounded by logs and cremated, as burying it would present some logistical difficulties. Naturally there are no recorded remains of the digit, and the compendium from which I photocopied the story presents it with a air of humourous disbelief, which is surprising given the seriousness with which it treats werewolves.
Similar stories abound. Through other sources comes the testimony, from the early 1800s, of two herders chasing a lamb on the cliffs at Kilkillogue in County Sligo on the west coast of Ireland. On a particularly stormy night, with gales coming in hard from the northwest, they saw what appeared to be a man’s foot “the size of a shipping vessel” washing up against the rocks at the base of the cliffs.
The men, unable to descend the cliffs in the storm, nevertheless examined it at length from a distance and were able to account that “the foot was hewn below the ankle, but it was not clean like the butcher’s cut. It looked to have separated in the water, and the flesh was swollen like a sheep carcass brought up in the tide. You could smell it on the wind.”
When the men returned the next day with local skeptics in tow, the foot was gone. The mens’ story was not totally disregarded by local authorities, on account of them both being Pioneers, but despite promises from local fishermen to be on their guard, no evidence of the foot or its provenance was seen again.
There is a rich seam of mythology and legend surrounding giants in the British Isles. The Irish Fionn mac Cumhaill, warrior and leader of the mighty Fianna, is often depicted as a giant in Irish and Scottish folklore. There are equivalents on the Scottish side also, such as Benandonner, a thunderous colossus who challenged Fionn, forcing him to build the Giant’s Causeway from Antrim to the isle of Staffa in Scotland in order to fight. In Wales, Bendigeidfran was the king of all Britain and one of the many giants in Welsh mythology.
Many of the impressive geographical features of our islands are attributed to giants in Celtic folklore. In some cases the mountains are heaped and shaped by mighty battles. In others the giants simply lay down to and fell into a deep sleep, becoming themselves the lineaments of the landscape. Perhaps, one day, to waken.
I do not mean to suggest that these myths are true, of course. I merely note them to illustrate the importance of the giant to these islands. Our giants, might I add, are uniquely corporeal among legends. Uniquely undemonic. They lived in our societies, married our womenfolk, fought our enemies. We describe them as outsized humans. From where came this notion of the giant among us?
Count me as a skeptic. No, truly. Others who would include me in their cohort expound grand theories about the giant. Relatively fresh remains, appearing through the ages, seem to suggest a being that lives and breathes today. But where could such a being live?
Greenland, suggest some. The localisation of the events to the British Isles, and their northern shores in particular, point towards Iceland, Greenland and beyond. But surely satellite imagery and increased air traffic render this extremely unlikely. Besides that, what would an outsized human eat in such an environment? How would they live?
Perhaps they have gills, suggest the fantasists. They may live in the ocean, and this would explain their carcass parts always ending up on our beaches. But I don’t hold with this. It seems unscientific. If the parts are recognisably human, how would gills factor? Would they have evolved? If we must entertain the idea of an amphibious hominid, however, it could go part way to explaining the enormity of the creature. In a similar way to the evolution of whales towards the colossal, the ocean might have given aquatic humans freedom to grow unconditionally. It would not, however, explain their otherwise unchanged shape.
The out-and-out fantasists propose magical abilities. Beings stepping in from another dimensions. Giants that are invisible, living in the mountains and valleys of our fair isles, until they die and are buried at sea, only to become visible again in their decomposition. There are as many fanciful notions are there are crackpots to invent them.
My preferred theory is the idea that the body parts that have landed on our shores are deposited by glaciers in our waters. The ice would preserve the remains, perhaps since the last ice age or earlier, until the glacier drifted south and melted in our relatively warm seas. It would neatly explain the lack of decomposition, but it does not explain the lack of fossilised remains, or the lack of the occasional wooly mammoth carcass.
I, for one, demand evidence. What we have are too many testimonies, too many connections for any sane man or woman to discard. The phenomenon of the immense human remains appearing from the sea is both too rare to have become a memetic fib passed through the centuries, and too common to dismiss as the ravings of coincidental village idiots.
I have only these patterns of stories to follow, patterns that repeat and mount as recorded history progresses. And now, in this age of instant communication and ubiquitous documentation, we are reaching a horizon where the existence of the giant must be proven utterly or disproven by omission. I am ready.
The phenomenon of the beach blob is common the world over, and well documented. Huge lumps of featureless organic matter, nicknamed “Globsters” by the media, wash up on beaches, leaving the locals horrified and imaginations running rampant.
For centuries these blobs defied classification. Many have been identified as the remains of sea monsters, an unknown species of gargantuan squid or octopus. Others have been offered as proof positive of the continued existence of plesiosaur, only to later be recognised as the rotting remains of basking sharks.
St. Augustine Monster.In the age of DNA analysis, much of the mystery has gone out of these globsters. The most boneless, mysterious lumps have been categorically identified as enormous masses of whale blubber separated from the decaying animal.
I note this trend in relation to a beach blob that washed up on the shores of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland in 1972. It was approximately the size of a small van. Unusually for a globster, the flesh seemed more or less free of rot, and was well-preserved by the salty brine. Locals described the lump as having a pork-like texture, quite unlike any sea creature they were familiar with.
Samples were taken by marine biologists, and the blob was then destroyed by order. It was separated and cremated in pyres on the beach, much like the thumb (reportedly) found in Suffolk. There were rumours that a few of the islanders squirrelled away pieces of meat, and found it to be very like bacon when boiled with cabbage and potatoes.
Five years ago I was part of the campaign to get those samples DNA tested, now that other studies were having so much success in identifying decades-old mysteries of beach blobs. Eventually we convinced a student to work it into her PHD on some extraneous excuse, and she obtained a sample of the Aran Lump being held with University College Galway.
When the DNA results were returned, they stated the samples were unequivocally human. In her report, the student reasoned that the material had become contaminated in the thirty years of storage. We accepted her findings.
Late last year I got a call from a friend living in the area. A hand had washed up, he told me. A giant hand had washed up at Clogher. This is a beach just five miles down the road from my home, on the Dingle Peninsula.
It was late evening, there was still some light in the air as I climbed into my car and headed down to the strand. Clogher is a rough and treacherous bay, fenced narrowly by jagged black rocks that herd unpredictable swells up through the its mouth onto the steep beach. No one swims there. On the horizon, framed by the sea battered cliffs, is the westmost island of the Blasket Islands. In Irish it is called The Fear Marbh, in English The Dead Man, because it uncannily resembles a giant corpse laid out for a wake.
There was a small group of interested onlookers standing on the raised seawall when I arrived. I stepped around them and saw, there in the half light, a huge, cupped hand dredged in the shallows about twenty feet out. The waves were doing their best to push it upwards towards the beach, but the hand had settled heavily into the soft sand.
I questioned the group. No one had approached it yet. It was still too far out, and no one was looking to get wet. Plus the waves were cunning here. Better safe than sorry.
I walked down the steep concrete steps onto the sand. The hand was even bigger as I approached it, the size of a tree, pale and white in the fading light. The sea frothed like cream and ink around it.
Mind yourself there, called the group. Don’t be silly. From the edge of the water the hand looked smooth, rigid. I convinced myself that the tide had retreated even in the five minutes since I’d arrived. I stepped into the waves, accompanied by a chorus of protestations from the gallery above.
The water came in softly enough, but as it drew back it pulled masses of sand out from beneath my feet, trying to unbalance me. I held my walking stick above the surface, finding it more an impediment as I moved forwards. The sea was above my knees, then my waist, then I was close enough to reach out and touch the hand with my stick. It was fibreglass.
The washed up hand made all the papers that week. It was soon traced back to a giant donut-advertising statue, which had blown away by a hurricane passing through Miami ten years ago. Into the Gulf Stream it had gone, and out of the sea it came in West Kerry. So there. I have met reality face on. I have had my disappointments.
But still I hope. There is still my portfolio of newspaper clippings and photocopied legends. I am resigned to reality, but I hope. There are questions—real questions—that will be answered in my lifetime, I believe.
I accept that if giants did exist, they are surely gone now. The glacier theory is the best of a bad lot, and it places the giant firmly in an ancient history. But I am dissatisfied. It leaves a question left unanswered, a question of my own. A memory.
In 1959, holidaying with my parents where I live now, where that seed of living here now was planted, in West Kerry. We pitch our tent on a farmer’s land, in a time when camping was unheard of, and he laughs and shakes his head and tells us to go ahead in thick, treacly Irish.
I rise at six, when the light wakes me, and climb out between sleeping bodies onto dewy grass. The air is still cold and the smells of cowshite and flowers are just warming up. The beach is just a half mile away, and I take off down the quiet path without bothering to change out of my pyjamas.
I can barely hear the sea. Smerwick harbour is such a secluded inlet that the waves hardly ripple. But I can smell it, the smell piques as the path turns from gravel to sandy gravel and then sand and begins to slope upwards into dunes. I reach the top and there before me is the great expanse of Beal Bán, a smooth and gradual beach a mile long and empty as the end of time. The tide is on its way back in—slow, lazy pushes up the sand that are nothing like the crashing waves you get on the far side of the peninsula. Everything looks quite identical to how it looks today.
Except, in the middle of the belt of sand, a gigantic human footprint. I can see it clearly from my vantage point in the dunes. My memory puts it at eighty or one hundred feet long, and at least ten feet deep. A swimming pool of a footprint. As I stand, confused and entranced, the lazy tide pushes up and begins pouring into the impression. In five minutes the pool is half-full from a dozen incursions. By the time I return with my father, a half hour later, the sea has covered everything.