RECENTLY my son returned from a year in Thailand and India where he saw a bewildering range of exotic animals in the jungles. Like this country, however, there are also strong legends about mysterious beasts, one of which is a Loch Ness Monster type of creature that haunts the River Mekong.

When I was in Thailand some years ago, I went up the Mekong in a small boat and was made very aware by the local crew that this monster lurked in the dark depths of that lengthy and very fast-flowing river.

The mysterious creature is known as a naga; a huge serpent-like animal with a ferocious temper and appetite. In fact I brought home a walking stick whose head was carved like that of a naga.

In the world of legends, such creatures are not unknown in several parts of the world. Everyone loves a mystery and this country is fortunate in being able to provide several enduring examples.

We have sightings of mysterious big black cats in the countryside, several within this region, but no authentic photographs or scientific proof. Down the years, we have learned of ghosts galore ranging from entire armies to stage coaches and grey ladies standing in abbey ruins.

In addition, there are other natural but explainable puzzles like will o’ the wisp and Northern Lights.

Down the centuries, classic literary stories have told of fearsome sea serpents raiding ships and devouring humans. One relates how a sea monster terrified the horses of Hippolytus’ chariot while another tale tells how Andromeda was chained to a rock as a sacrifice to a sea monster before being rescued by Perseus. It’s all good thrilling stuff, but do these tales contain any truths?

There are stories of a similar creature in one of the Norwegian fjords while we have our famous Loch Ness Monster whose appearances have entertained us down the centuries.

The story of the Loch Ness Monster is probably one of the most enduring because it has been told for more than 1,400 years, often with convincing sightings and even photographs.

Loch Ness itself is a mysterious lake – 24 miles long and surrounded by hills rising to more than 2,000 feet, it has a depth of 1,000 feet — deeper than the North Sea. To make a thorough search of that massive inland water is impossible, as successive experts and expeditions have discovered even when equipped with the latest technology.

No one can be sure when the first sighting occurred, but the first on record is believed to be that of St Columba in AD 565.

He described it as a dragon in a boiling lake; he saw it at the northern end of Loch Ness when he is reputed to have saved a man from being devoured by the creature he called a water-horse. Critics of Columba’s account suggest he was in fact describing an earthquake that had caused the water to bubble vigorously.

Since that time, the Loch Ness Monster has continued to puzzle us, and tourists visit the loch in the hope of catching sight of it. From time to time, photographers come forward to claim they have captured the creature on film. So far as I am aware, no single photographer has convinced scientists of the true existence of this mythical creature despite careful scientific examination of their films.

Experts believe that all “sightings” of the monster were in fact underwater earthquakes that produced a terrifying effect along with disturbances of the water surface that might have been misinterpreted as large aquatic animals on the move. Earthquakes have reportedly coincided with many monster sightings. Among the more convincing of reports is that of Mr and Mrs George Spicer who were driving along the side of the loch on July 22, 1933.

Two hundred yards ahead they noticed a huge creature with an undulating body. It was crossing the road and completely blocked it – the Spicers described it as five feet high and up to 30 feet long.

In the same year, a man witnessed a creature whose long neck was protruding from the water to a height of about five feet; it swam half a mile in twelve seconds, and then sank.

In January 1934, a veterinary student called Arthur Grant was motor cycling along the loch side in the moonlight when he saw a massive creature with flippers lurching across the road ahead before splashing into the loch. He went straight home and sketched it.

Down the centuries, these and other reports have only served to strengthen the myth of the Loch Ness Monster. The foundation of the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau in the 1960s prompted several scientific investigations of the loch and its contents, but apart from the discovery of a massive underwater cavern, no monster has been located.

Because the sightings span so many centuries, it suggests there is a family of monsters that have somehow survived in the loch since primitive times. So does the Loch Ness Monster really exist? Local residents believe it does, many having sighted it without making a fuss, and a few years ago I was speaking to a monk who lived at a monastery on the shores of the loch. When I asked about the monster, he smiled and said, “Oh, yes, I’ve seen it – very early one morning. It was crossing the road.”

I have not noticed any recent reports of sightings but the mystery remains.

Wild rabbit theories

Following the theme of mysterious creatures, in a field half a mile or so from our house, it was once common to see several black rabbits.

They were living in the wild among others of the normal brown-grey shade. This was a few years ago and understandably they created some interest and speculation, one theory being that their ancestors had escaped from captivity to breed.

Those that I saw were handsome creatures with shiny jet-black fur but I can’t recall whether their tails were white. Probably they were. All I can remember is they were in good condition with beautiful shining fur, and appeared to be perfectly at home among their more normal cousins. I never noticed any segregation between those of differing colours.

Even now, it is not clear why some wild rabbits can produce jet-black fur and one theory is that their bodies have an excess of melanin.

This is a pigment that varies from dark brown to black and it can appear in the skin, eyes or hair of humans. An excessive amount can also lead to a darkening of body tissues in animals which in turn can produce varieties of their natural colour. This might explain those black rabbits.

Another theory, for which I have found no confirmation, is that originally wild black rabbits were limited to an off-shore island somewhere along the coast of Scotland, and that a few specimens either escaped or were captured and released on the mainland. Another suggestion is that they came to Britain with the Romans and bred here ever since, speedily expanding their territory as only rabbits can.