The abbey at Fort Augustus, administered by monks of the Benedictine order until they vacated the facility in 1999, sits on the shore at the southern end of Scotland's fabled Loch Ness. Staring out from the abbey wall that fronts the 24-mile-long, one-mile-wide loch stands a statue of St. Columba, the fighting Irish missionary who in the sixth century established churches and monasteries in his homeland before taking his campaign to Scotland, where he converted the Picts and founded yet more monasteries, including one on the western island of Iona, serving as its first abbot. According to Life of St. Columba, written in the late seventh century by St. Adamnan, Iona's ninth abbot, Columba (521-597) maintained a busy schedule, working myriad miracles en route to attaining sainthood. Like this one, from chapter XXVIII:
"On another occasion also, when the blessed man was living for some days in the province of the Picts, he was obliged to cross the river Nesa (the Ness); and when he reached the bank of the river, he saw some of the inhabitants burying an unfortunate man, who, according to the account of those who were burying him, was a short time before seized, as he was swimming, and bitten most severely by a monster that lived in the water; his wretched body was, though too late, taken out with a hook, by those who came to his assistance in a boat.
"The blessed man, on hearing this, was so far from being dismayed, that he directed one of his companions to swim over and row across the coble that was moored at the farther bank. And Lugne Mocumin hearing the command of the excellent man, obeyed without the least delay, taking off all his clothes, except his tunic, and leaping into the water. But the monster, which, so far from being satiated, was only roused for more prey, was lying at the bottom of the stream, and when it felt the water disturbed above by the man swimming, suddenly rushed out, and, giving an awful roar, darted after him, with its mouth wide open, as the man swam in the middle of the stream.
"Then the blessed man observing this, raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, 'Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.'
"Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast. Then the brethren seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians."
Fourteen centuries later Father Gregory Brusey, longtime music teacher at the Fort Augustus Abbey School and the monastery's renowned organist, experienced a somewhat less dramatic encounter with the aquatic monster of Loch Ness, by that time affectionately called "Nessie." Like most Nessie sightings, it happened serendipitously, in this case while Father Brusey, age 58 at the time, strolled the abbey's grounds with his friend Roger Pugh in mid-October 1971.
"It was a lovely morning, and the sun was warm and the water smooth," he recounted to The New York Times in June 1976. "And with me was a friend, an organist from London. We suddenly noticed a big commotion about 200 yards out in the water, and then a black neck appeared, about eight inches in diameter and seven or eight feet high, followed by a hump. It rose, then dove sideways back into the water. It was not a boat or a log or a fish. It was a different animal."
And with that the monk/teacher/organist immediately became fresh meat for the legions of scientists, journalists, documentary filmmakers and assorted fringies who feed at the Loch Ness Monster trough. Here was an unimpeachable eyewitness?a man of God?who had quite clearly seen Nessie. They came, they peppered him with questions and they recorded his words, which he happily offered in the beginning. "We saw quite distinctly the neck of the beast standing out of the water to a height of about 10 feet," Father Brusey noted on British tv shortly after the incident. "It swam towards us at a slight angle, and after about 20 seconds disappeared. We felt a sort of awe and amazement. In fact my friend said if I hadn't been with him, he'd probably have run. It gave us a feeling of something from another world."
But in time the questioning turned into pestering. In a photograph that appears in the 1982 book Mysteries of the Unexplained, Father Brusey?clad in his brown monk's robe, hands clasped piously in front of himself?stands facing the camera, his back to the picturesque loch, a what-have-I-gotten-myself-into expression creasing his face. Still, he accommodated the larger news organizations, regaling them with his tale, although its specifics began to vary ever so slightly: height out of water, distance away, humps or no humps.
"Suddenly we caught sight of a tremendous churning of the water on our right, about 300 yards away," he told the Chicago Tribune in October 1987. "I saw spray being lashed off the water by something moving violently underneath. Suddenly we were amazed to see a great neck appear about five feet out of the water, held at an angle. We didn't see any humps. The monster was moving slowly toward the middle of the loch for about 20 seconds. Then it went down sideways and disappeared."
Ultimately, though, Father Brusey grew weary of the Nessie inquiries. Two weeks ago The Times of London quoted Father Francis Davidson, the abbey's ex-prior, as remembering, "The business bored him and he really found it an imposition. He asked me, 'How can I stop all of this?' and I told him the only way was to leave a message with reception that he was available for interview for a fee of £250."
Born Dec. 30, 1912, in London, the son of a fishmonger, James Brusey, as he was originally known, attended Fort Augustus Abbey School, where he excelled at cricket?"like a spider with his very long arms," an old schoolmate, Monsignor John Barry, recently recalled for The Scotsman?and music, learning to play the piano, organ and violin. He moved from the school to the abbey in 1931, and a year later professed his monastic vows as Brother Gregory. From there he studied in the music department of Edinburgh University, graduating in 1938, and then was posted to a Benedictine monastery in Hungary to continue his religious and musical educations for a year.
Back at Fort Augustus he was ordained a priest in August 1941, taking up duties as music teacher at his alma mater, which included helping to stage Gilbert and Sullivan productions. Hard times beset the monks during World War II, prompting them to deal with shortages as best as possible; Father Gregory, for one, spent countless hours on Loch Ness indulging a personal passion?fishing for salmon. After the war he served as master of music at Carlekemp Priory School in North Berwick, on Scotland's eastern coast, next to the Firth of Forth. There, he taught, organized a boys recorder ensemble, prepared students for piano exams before the Royal Academy of Music and composed various pieces, most memorably "Fantasia on Christmas Carols."
Father Brusey returned to Fort Augustus in the 1950s to teach and to resume his perch behind the gargantuan abbey organ. Made up of hundreds of pipes, one 32 feet in diameter, it was built in 1875 for a Londoner, then purchased by the Scottish monks in 1894. His hands and feet in flight, Father Brusey blasted works by Bach and others from the instrument, playing for abbey tourists and for radio broadcasts. In addition to teaching at the Abbey School, he assisted with its choral society and conducted its brass band; he also occasionally contemplated Nessie, which, based on his post-sighting research, he reckoned was probably a plesiosaur.
"One book I read said no reptile could live for a long time in such cold water," a 74-year-old Father Brusey told the Chicago Tribune in 1987. "But the evidence is so strong. So many of my friends have seen it. I hope it still exists. Sometimes I wonder if it's caught cold and died in the cold water of the loch."
As the abbey's remaining 10 monks prepared to vacate the premises in January 1999, a then-86-year-old Father Brusey, his hearing virtually gone, his once elegant hands gnarled by arthritis, mused wistfully about his brief encounter with the monster. "I was glad," he confided to Scotland's Sunday Mail. "I had always believed in the legend and there before my eyes was the living proof. I watched until she dived under. I would have liked to have seen Nessie one more time because I know I will never be back here."
From the abbey at Fort Augustus, Father Brusey moved one final time: to Ampleforth Abbey, near York, in England, where he died, age 88, on March 30.
Like many who sighted Nessie, Father Brusey felt affectionate toward her, even protective. "We ought to leave the monster alone," he contended in The New York Times in 1976. "In this technological age we've placed a label on everything. I am a champion of the unknown. Mystery intrigues people, and so it should remain."