“Monster hunting isn’t as easy as it looks.” So says Jack at the start of my first book for children, Monster Hunting For Beginners, and he should know, because an Ogre is sitting in his garden, getting ready to eat his Aunt Prudence for breakfast. (Jack’s aunt, that is, not the Ogre’s. Not even monsters eat their own aunts).
But Jack is also wrong in a way, because it’s surprisingly easy to find monsters if you know where to go hunting for them. The British and Irish Isles are full of magical creatures from myth and legends. From Giants in Cornwall, to banshees in Ireland, to dragons in North Yorkshire, there’s barely an inch of ground that hasn’t been home to some magical creature at some point in time. But where to start?
That’s where Jack has his first adventure, and it’s impossible to go far in the county without coming across a place where Giants and Ogres once lived. St Michael’s Mount was home to the giant Cormoran. He was 18 foot tall, and, needing plenty of food when you’re that big, regularly helped himself to whatever, and whoever, he could lay his hands on, until a different Jack – Jack the Giant Killer – dug a pit for him to fall into, and killed him with a pickaxe. St Agnes on the north coast was home instead to the giant Bolster. He also used to eat too many children. He fell in love with a woman and she asked him to prove his love by filling a certain hole in the clifftop with his blood. But the hole was bottomless, so he died. That’s quite a sad story really, but the locals were probably just glad not to be eaten anymore.
This part of Southern Scotland has more than its fair share of monsters. Mermaids were said to dwell in every river and sea pool. Fishermen were always falling in love with them, but it never ended well. The Galloway Faerie Trail near Castle Douglas is a good place to get up to speed with local legends. There are also regular storytelling events at different times of the year around Wigtown for children to keep the old stories alive.
Well, no monster hunting trip would be complete without a visit here. Most people head straight to Urquhart Castle, where many of the most famous photographs of Nessie were taken, and it’s certainly an imposing setting. But there are plenty of quieter places along the road that runs down either side of the loch where you can stop and do some monster-spotting. I’ve never been fortunate enough to see more than the odd unexplained splash, but I still live in hope of having a close encounter one day.
THE LAKE DISTRICT.
Not only one of the most beautiful places in the country, but also one of the more magical in the traditional sense. There’s said to be a dragon asleep under the village of Dragley Beck near Ulverston. In Renwick, stories say that workmen once accidentally released a basilisk (a sort of serpent king who can kill with a single glance) from under the floor of a church whilst renovating it. Best of all, there are “Tizzy-Wizzies”. These creatures have the body of a hedgehog, the tail of a fox or squirrel, and a pair of bee-like wings. The boatmen on Windermere used to run tours for visitors to see them, and one was even photographed. The picture is absolutely, definitely, 100 per cent not fake in any way.
I’m probably biased because I live here, but Northern Ireland is the perfect location for a monster-hunting holiday. Lough Neagh is said to be formed from the hole which was left when the giant Finn McCool tore up a chunk of earth to throw at his Scottish rival. He can’t have been a very good shot, because the chunk he threw apparently became the Isle of Man, which is in the wrong direction entirely. The lord of the underworld is said to live underneath Lough Neagh, and one story has it that a stick of holly left in the water for seven years will turn into iron. I can’t vouch for that personally, so don’t blame me if it doesn’t work, but it’s a good excuse to come back again and check on the progress. There’s another entrance to the underworld on top of Slieve Donard, the highest peak of the Mourne Mountains in County Down, and of course Finn McCool also built the famous Giant’s Causeway on the north Antrim coast to reach that aforementioned rival in Scotland – then later tore it up in fright when he realised that his enemy was much too big.
IAN MARK is an author and part-time monster hunter living in Northern Ireland with his family and an indeterminate amount of cats. With his partner, he has written adult thrillers under the pen name Ingrid Black. Monster Hunting for Beginners is his middle grade debut.
Monster Hunting For Beginners by Ian Mark, illustrated by Louis Ghibault is published by Farshore Books, price £12.99.