Never has an unexplained phenomenon had such good will behind it as the Loch Ness Monster has. I doubt there is anybody who would not wish for it to exist. Far from being a `monster` it scares nobody. It is charming and mythic, and beloved of kids of all ages. It is a Scottish mascot that has added to the gaiety of my nation.
Not only is that but the Nessie brand recognised worldwide. I once showed a picture of a brontosaurus to a young Russian and asked them what it was (my aim was to elicit the word `dinosaur`), `Nessie` came the confident reply. The mystery is now an Octogenarian and its anniversary was recently celebrated in Drumnadrochit on the shores of the Loch. Most of those present were firm disbelievers, however.
Loch Ness Revisited.
I grew up in the Nineteen Seventies. This was a time when there was an explosion of paperbacks on all sorts of paranormal questions: I was immersed in that trend. It was also the Golden Age of Loch Ness research and both Tim Dinsdale and Nicholas Witchell had books out about it. For me however, they took third place to UFOs and Ancient Astronauts and I never succumbed to `Nessiephilia`.
Several years ago, maybe just out of nostalgia, I felt some pangs of regret at this gap in my knowledge. After all, here was a world mystery on my very doorstep. So it was that I began to read up on the claims surrounding the Loch Ness story. I did so with the zeal of a Sixth Form schoolboy doing last minute swatting for the exams. I took on all comers: sceptic and believer alike. Then I visited loch Ness itself. I drew some of my own conclusions, which I will divulge later.
Ever one to buck the trend, my interest coincided with the phenomenon reaching a new low ebb. Reported sightings of the creature diminished to single figures per year. There were headlines announcing the death of the monster. Few books were published about it. There was a rearguard attempt to found a Loch Ness Fan Club, but that sank almost as soon as it emerged. It seemed that the issue had gone the way of the `Bermuda triangle`, consigned, even by paranormal enthusiasts, to having been a passing craze that could not withstand contemporary scrutiny.
If you look at it squarely the loch Ness tale can indeed be seen to be -as we say in England- a whole lot of `Scotch mist`. From the get go the whole matter has been tainted by hoax after hoax after hoax. This is, in itself, is nothing new to those in paranormal investigation. However, here it is all the most spectacular evidence which has been shown to be the handiwork of tricksters. Take the most iconic picture of the Monster, the so-called `Surgeon’s photo` from 1934. This is the image which has determined what we imagine the monster to look like, but has been all but proven to have been a trick since 1992. (Not that this stops the picture from being endlessly recycled!) The most recent `good photo`, taken in November of 2011 by the skipper George Edwards, has likewise been discredited. Fellow monster hunters, no less, recognised it as being a fibre glass model used in a TV documentary.
Following eight decades of research then, all we are left with is a handful of photos, the least dubious of which are inconclusive (such as the one shown above, which nobody has troubled themselves to debunk). There are many sightings, of course, but most of these revolve around nothing more than a quick glimpse of a hump in the water, or agitation on the Loch’s surface. No physical evidence has been recovered, still less anything like a carcass.
It would be all too easy to conclude, then, that the whole of the phenomenon is but a bit of local folklore blown out of proportion by the press and television. It has been kept afloat by wishful thinking, and, of course, by the glee of the local tourist industry.
Something in the water.
Yet Loch Ness does not stand alone as far as rumours of aquatic monsters go. Get a marker pen and draw a band across the Northern Hemisphere stretching from Canada, through Scandinavia and then onto the Russian Federation: this is all Lake monster territory. Nor are these Nessie copy-cats, as many of them predate the fame of the Loch Ness Monster by many years. Lake Champlain, on the border of America and Canada boasts `Champ`. Lake Okanagan has `Ogopogo` which was first mentioned by the Native Americans. The Russian Federation has a monster in Lake Khaiyir in Siberia, to name but one.
Loch Ness, a gash through the Highlands twenty seven miles long and 800 feet deep, is a small lake on a global scale. The fame of Nessie must surely rest on the fact that (apart from Britain being an English speaking country) Loch Ness has a special ambience and comes complete with a Gothic-style ruined castle.
Either all of the lake monster claims worldwide equally lack substance and are the product of some kind of collective Jungian mythology, or there is a colony of undiscovered creatures in many of the fresh water lakes of the Northern climes.
What shines through, when reading Loch Ness literature, is the sensible and non-sensationalized nature of most of the eye-witness stories. I will not insult the reader by trotting out the old cliché about how they come from `all walks of life` and how some of them are policemen, etc. This is true, but it is the consistency of the descriptions which is notable.
What colour is the Loch Ness Monster? Ask a child to draw a picture of Nessie and they will reach for the green crayon. After all, the postcard pictures of Nessie are green, as are the fluffy toys. This is probably because many people imagine the monster to be reptilian, and reptiles are green. That is not what people report though. What people report is something which is black or gun metal grey. They are not just rehashing what has been drawn from popular culture then.
Even the fact that the reported accounts of seeing the monster have gone down could be taken to indicate that the public were always reporting something they actually saw. If now they are seeing it less it might be because the phenomena itself appears less.
Many of the photos of the monster may have been debunked, but there is one piece of evidence which has not been for sure: Tim Dinsdale’s minute long cine film, taken on 23rd April 1960,. This shows something crossing the water. Nobody has yet cried `hoax`, although some say it was just a motor-boat.
The plesiosaur dead-end.
If there is anything that has done harm to the credibility of the loch Ness monster it is the idea that it might be a relict plesiosaur. It was this paradigm which captured people’s imaginations, much in the same way that the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis for UFOs has. However it is a hypothesis that has not been the front runner for some time. For one thing if Nessie were such a dinosaur it would be seen many more times than it is, as it would be having to come up for air again and again.
There have always been other contenders as to what Nessie might be. These include a long necked seal, a giant otter, a mutant fish, a brachiopod, and a species of giant salamander. As much as mainstream naturalists are loath to be seen to give any quarter to Nessie, the discovery of any of these animals would hardly shake science to its foundations. Of course, others claim Nessie is a ghost or a time traveller….
Five old chestnuts (roasted).
In the absence of organisations like the defunct Loch Ness Investigations Bureau, and their corresponding figureheads such as Tim Dinsdale, discussion of the subject has decamped onto the internet. This does offer some advantages. It also means, however, that a lot of half-truths often get repeated. This owes to the fact that people are less liable to refer back to hard copy publications in this area and so shibboleths grow up. Here are five of such half-truths:
(i) “No-one believes in the Loch Ness monster anymore”
The grain of truth behind this is that the previous generation of Nessie hunters have died, moved on or retired. Tim Dinsdale and Sir Peter Scott are both no longer with us. Nicholas Witchell, as `Royal-Correspondent-for-the-BBC`, is something of an establishment figure, and is rather tight-lipped about Loch Ness nowadays. Adrian Shine now makes a living through being a sort of resident rent-a-quote sceptic. Rupert Rhines has announced his retirement from the field of active duty – an act which coincided with his claim that Nessie had become extinct.
There is, however a new generation of Nessie believers. Roland Watson has a brilliant website devoted to Nessie and has written on water horse myths in Scottish Lochs. Paul Harrison wrote an encyclopaedia on Nessie and is still out there. Meanwhile, Steve Plambeck proselytizes on behalf of the Monster as a Giant Salamander.
(ii) “Countless searches for the Monster have found nothing.”
If you watch a few television documentaries about the search for Nessie it would be easy to gather the impression that the length and breadth of the Loch is being regularly swept using all means possible. On the other hand, if you really pay attention you will notice that it is the same initiatives that get name checked time and again. I believe that you could count the number of serious searches of the Loch on the fingers of one hand. These, too, have been lightly staffed and minimally funded. The two biggest searches have probably been operation Deepscan in 1987 where a flotilla of small boats trailed sonar equipment up and down the Loch, and Project Urquhart in 1992 where a scientific vessel was used. Both of these, incidentally, did track unknown objects in the Loch.
(iii) “The phenomenon is a creation of the Nineteen Thirties.”
Yes. The term Loch Ness monster was coined in the Nineteen Thirties. The publicity machine which surrounds the issue got into gear then. The first recorded modern sightings happened in the Thirties. This may owe to the fact that a new road had been built around the loch in that decade offering new access to the area.
That said if you read and dig a little you will come across mentions of something ado in the loch prior to that period. Some of these are retrospective but some not. There had been talk of a `beast` and ` large fish` in the loch for some time and the earliest Thirties sightings were framed in this context. Also, as the writer Roland Watson has pointed out, there was a folklore tradition of Water Kelpies –horse-headed creatures –being associated with many Lochs of Scotland a long time before the Thirties.
(iv) “The whole thing is just a tourist con.”
To answer this I can only refer you to my own visit to the loch in 2006, (in the winter I should admit.) I stayed in a hostel in Inverness, the nearest town to the Loch. During my time there I did not meet a single other person who had any interest in the mystery associated with the region. In fact most people I met were young Australians and Kiwis exploring the Highlands in order to get in touch with their imagined roots. A tour bus that I took around the Loch, which advertised itself as telling us the truth about the monster confined itself, for the most part, to lectures on local Scottish history. In the Inverness tourist Office I could only find one small pamphlet on the Loch Ness Monster. As for doing some monster hunting, apart from Dores and Urquhart Castle which are built up areas, I found it very difficult to gain access to the Loch at all. To do so I had to climb over barriers scramble through undergrowth like a trespasser, which I may well have been. All in all I had the impression that the Scottish tourist board is playing down the monster aspect of things in favour of it being a good area to fish, and its colourful history.
In 2004 there was jovial talk of an English rival to the Scottish monster. In Lake Windermere in the Lake District in England there were a few alleged sightings between 2004 and 2006. A questionable photograph was duly produced which looked like a caricature of early Nessie photos. The creature was even dubbed Bownessie after a region in the area. To the best of my knowledge there have been no more reported sightings since 2006. If this was an attempt to drum up tourist interest in Lake Windermere by manufacturing a monster legend, as I suspect it was, then it failed. The lesson? You cannot pull a monster out of a hat, unless there is already a core phenomenon there.
(v) “The BBC has disproved the existence of the Loch Ness monster.”
This one is faintly surreal. I have heard of `trial b y television`, but the British Broadcasting Corporation is not there to hold court on the existence of unknown animals! The facts are that in 2003 they aired a programme on the Loch Ness question. Most of this was given over to disproving the notion that a plesiosaur could thrive in the Loch. As we have seen, they would not get much argument on that from many contemporary believers. They also conducted another sonar search of the Loch which was done in stages rather than in one sweep. They declared, with some triumph, that no dinosaur had been found down there.
Is sonar the magic mirror that some imagine it to be? Subsequent to that event a cruise skipper called Marcus Atkinson, in September 2011, reported a sonar reading of something large and unidentified in the Loch. If we are to take the BBC’s findings seriously then surely we must take this on board too, as well as the positive results from Operation Deepscan from 1987.
A personal view.
Life tells us not to swallow too much Received Wisdom. I was told at school that the giant squid was most likely just a denizen of Jules Verne’s fantasy. Of late, however, the same giant squid has been feted by the marine biological establishment – photographed, interviewed and invited to staff parties.
Considering loch Ness as but a component of Lake Monster mysteries in general, I find it easy to conceive that there could be some fire behind all the smoke. First of all, nothing I have read leads me to believe that there is any psychic aspect to this affair: I think we are looking at a corporeal flesh-and-blood animal. Secondly, I would place my bet on it being either a very large eel or giant salamander: that is, not as exotic as we might want, but exotic enough. Thirdly, I think we should consider anew the possibility that it might be a solitary being that gets into the Loch from the outside.
In general I can only concur with Arthur C. Clarke: `On Tuesdays and Thursdays I believe in the Loch Ness Monster`*.
Now over to you.
By all means be a sceptic: but do check out the following signposts to belief first:
There are two books, written by scientists which I can, without hesitation describe as works of science too. The first by Roy P. Mackal is widely seen by believers as the best book written on the Loch Ness Monster: The Monsters of Loch Ness ( Chicago: The Swallow Press, 1976). The second by Henry Bauer, an Austrian chemist, is called The Enigma of Loch Ness (University of Illinois Press, 1986). These points out the difficulties one encounters in honestly investigating the question.
Steve Plambeck has a blog in which he examines the idea that Nessie might be a species of giant salamander. This can be found at thelochnessgiantslalmander.blogspot.com. This does show that some original thinking is still being directed at the question.
Last, but by no means least there is a must-see site by the redoubtable Glasgowboy (AKA Kevin Rowland, I believe) which sets itself out to debunk the blander Nessie debunkers and does so with genial intelligence, even if some of the arguments are a little laboured at times. This can be found at lochnessmystery.blogspot.com.
[* Quoted from memory. The remark appears in his TV-tie in book Arthur C. Clarkes Mysterious World, circa 1981]
Randles, Jenny Truly weird: Real-Life Cases of the Paranormal (London: Collins & Brown Ltd, 1998)