Mr Ulysses A Vincent and the Big Seal – Matt Andrews

The following story is from a first-hand recounting I was privileged to be present at some forty years ago and it concerns the account given to me in person in 1981 by the superbly named Mr Ulysses A. Vincent, affectionately known as ‘Vinnie’, a botanist who specialised in the recording and photography of Hebridean flora in the 1930s and 40s.

I was involved with the setting up and establishment of Pitstone Fen reserve in Buckinghamshire, near to Tring in the early 1980s;  this reserve later morphed into College Lake Reserve which lies adjacent to (but split by the railway from Euston north) Pitstone Fen and is probably familiar to quite a few of us now.  Pitstone Fen has been left to return to nature in favour of the larger College Lake but still has a good colony of Marsh Helleborines as well as Small Blue butterflies and Water Shrews amongst other little gems.

The late Graham Atkins was the principle driving force behind this project.  Graham worked as a cement lorry driver for the then Tunnel Cement company who owned the rights to quarry this location and he persuaded Tunnel Cement that they should consider their ‘green credentials’ and allow him to develop a small, abandoned piece of their quarry into a wildlife haven…Pitstone Fen. He was subsequently responsible for the founding, setting-up and running of the College Lake reserve. He was an exceptionally energetic and knowledgeable ecologist and we formed a lasting friendship.

During our conversations, Graham kept on mentioning ‘Vinnie’ and thought I ought to meet him as he had such wonderful accounts of his days in the Hebrides.  He was, I believe in his early nineties by then and although fully compos mentis, was nonetheless a physically frail person living in sheltered bachelor accommodation and unable to venture out on his own, much to his chagrin.  Well, we finally arranged a meeting one Saturday afternoon in late 1981 and along I went with Graham to see Vinnie in his charming little almshouse in Princes Risborough.

He was a wonderfully enthusiastic botanist still, full of anecdotes and recounting his adventures in the Scottish islands, in particular the Outer Hebrides where he spent most of the 1930s and 40s cycling around the various islands having got up there by train, bus and ferry and then bicycle. He would take his heavy and unwieldy square-format camera, lenses, glass plates and other paraphernalia along with his botanical recording books, etc., with him and stay at various guest houses up there, braving inclement weather, midges and other privations for several weeks at a time, two or three times a year and all at his own expense as far as I am aware.

Graham kept asking Vinnie to tell me his ‘big seal’ story, to which Vinnie would laugh and self-consciously look down muttering “he doesn’t want to hear that old nonsense” which meant of course, the more they bantered, the more I did want to hear it!  He eventually gave in to Graham’s pressure and said he would tell me the story but on the strict understanding that I was not to consider him anything less than fully sane and he then proceeded with the following incredible account which I have tried to recall as accurately as possible after some forty-one years and without any embellishment.

Vinnie was at his usual haunts one year, he didn’t say which year but it must have been in the late nineteen thirties by virtue of his most active period being then, on one of the long chain of Outer Hebridean islands but with no definite or precise location given.  He had gone out to count Grey Seals on a beach colony overlooked by steep cliffs.  If he mentioned the location, I cannot recall it.  Grey Seals were nowhere nearly as abundant as they are now and monitoring their populations at known breeding sites was carried out by many naturalists who otherwise specialised in different disciplines of natural history.

The time of year was not given but in view of the fact it was a Grey Seal colony, one may assume it was possibly in September or October as he would probably not have been looking for Hebridean flora throughout the winter pupping season.

He had a fair walk to get to the viewing location so went lightly equipped and once there, settling down on a grassy cliff overlooking the seal colony, Vinnie commenced his counting.  He had finished one count and was in the middle of a second confirmation count when he noticed an unusual looking seal and brought his binoculars up again to check it.

His description went as follows “…it was the same size, roughly, as an adult Grey Seal and was laying on top of a flat rock with a couple of seals nearby and with a slip-off access to the sea;  it was mid-grey in colour, possibly with darker blotches, again, similar in appearance to the surrounding seals but had a tapering neck about half as long as the body with a small but well-defined head attached.  It had two sets of flippers but these were clearly set at right angles to the centre-line of the body, totally different to the seals and a short, conical tail…it looked like a picture book illustration of a Plesiosaur.  I watched it for about an hour with good light using binoculars but didn’t have my camera so reluctantly left and went to fetch it.  By the time I returned, the creature had of course gone and I never saw it again, despite many repeat visits, both on that trip and subsequent ones“.

Sadly, Vinnie passed away a few months after this meeting so I was never able to hear this story again or indeed, have another chance to meet this fascinating old man but of course, have never forgotten this account of his ‘dinosaur sighting’!!

I suppose we must take this as another unconfirmed report of a strange and unfamiliar animal with no photographic evidence and no other eye-witness accounts. Nonetheless, I feel this is an account worthy of note purely because when I met Vinnie, he was an experienced field naturalist, clear and concise in his accounts of Hebridean botanical treasures, was clearly totally aware of his frailties but also of his mental state which was in excellent order;  finally, his story was short, modestly recounted and from Graham’s comments later, the same as it had always been and not added to for effect or to make it more believable. He was very bashful when starting the story but was absolutely convinced of what he saw.

I have tried to find Vinnie through various means both electronic and previously though library records, etc., but to no avail.  I would love to be able to pin down his Hebridean records of course, but sadly, until now, I have remained unsuccessful.

I must confess to being somewhat sceptical when the so-called Loch Ness Monster is attributed to a long-lost, land-locked plesiosaur-like creature.  Food availability, extremely low loch temperatures, a lack of numbers for breeding thus leading to inbreeding and eventual extinction make this improbable – and of course, the likelihood of a colony of large animals, reptilian or whatever, or their remains evading human sightings for thousands of years since the loch formed as a separate entity with no ready sea access and in such a restricted environment is so low as to be practically non-existent!  However, a reptile used to the colder temperatures of the open oceans and who is either living in these northern latitudes or indeed, is perhaps a Gulf Stream stray who wandered away from its normal home and found itself in a seal colony miles from its normal home much as a rare migrant bird, sea turtle or cetacean turns up in unexpected circumstances, might well be more plausible.

Saltwater Crocodiles swim many miles in the south Pacific and must often experience low sea temperatures too, yet still manage to not only survive but turn up at locations where they are not expected…!  I have seen for myself Monitor Lizards swimming to shore in Borneo from distant, barely visible shores and of course, Saltwater Iguanas have evolved a coping strategy for cold-water immersion, albeit for short periods in the Galapagos.  I have watched Loggerhead Turtles in the cold waters of the Mediterranean as well as Leather-back Turtles heaving themselves out of the Caribbean onto remote northern Trinidadian shores. Reptiles and some very large ones, can and do thrive in our oceans.

I sent this account off to Adrian Shine, who is the president of the Loch Ness Project and has featured many times on television as the principal collector of ‘monster’ stories and in particular Loch Ness’s very own and well known phenomena.  Although not able to take this account as being authentic, he is at the moment investigating Scottish west coast ‘monster’ sightings and felt this was noteworthy to the extent he has submitted it to the Highland Archive in Inverness. Plesiosaurs disappeared from the fossil records around sixty-six million years ago, the same time that Coelacanths disappeared … until they were ‘discovered’ in 1938 off the South African coast and latterly, the Indian Ocean too!  They are absolutely identical to Coelacanth fossils set down four-hundred and ten million years ago – so why not Plesiosaurs too?

Something to ponder upon and perhaps indicative of what amazing creatures remain ‘out there’ for us yet to discover…who knows what may turn up on Rebecca or Alan’s trail cameras in Simpson Stream or elsewhere in Milton Keynes?!

Matt Andrews
September 2021