If a person is going to have heard just a few tall stories in their life – chances are that one of them will be about The Loch Ness Monster. A 'monster' that is so famous and so well known that it has even been given an affectionate nickname – Nessie, and has become the main focal point for global cryptozoological studies. Like all old tales, there isn’t really any proof that the hero of the story ever existed, yet no one seems to be able to dispel the myth and many people continue to believe – perhaps not hook, line and sinker, but at least that there is some element of truth hidden inside the mystery.
Loch Ness is one of Scotland’s many lochs, but not only that, it is also the largest area of fresh water in all of the British Isles. Being about 24 miles long, over 800 feet deep in many places and containing many underwater caves, it would seem that if a large monster was going to live and hide somewhere, Loch Ness would be a pretty good choice.
A long, long time ago…
The area of Scotland in which the loch is located was inhabited by the Picts, a group of people who had a very close relationship with the land and its animals. It is from their rock carvings – now about 2000 years old – that we get our first mention of this so called monster.
Many carvings made by these people have been found in the surrounding areas, all of which depict animals that can still be found there today or are to known to lived there at that time. However there is one reoccurring image that doesn’t look like anything that should have been there at that time. When zoologists tried to describe it in modern terms, they talked of it as looking like a 'swimming elephant'.
All over Scotland, going way back to those long ago times, the story of the water kelpie has existed. All large bodies of water have been said to be inhabited by these animals – large beasts with flippers, long necks and humped backs – that lure children into the water and eventually down to the depths. Many scholars say that these 'swimming elephants' drawn by the Picts are merely a representation of this myth. However, their proximity to Loch Ness combined with the other strange goings-on there have lead some to believe they are carvings specifically of Nessie.
The first eye-witness account of the monster at Loch Ness is provided to us by Saint Columba in 565. Legend has it that he was walking past the loch on one of his travels when he saw a large beast about to attack a man who was swimming. By calling upon God he managed to persuade the animal to retreat and leave the man unharmed. After that encounter, historical records reveal some 20 other stories from the loch, that all took place before the arrival of the 20th century. All of these accounts are somewhat mythical, and often contain the standard water kelpie claims, priests and miracles.
The modern legend
All those early stories were really confined to Scotland and were not widely believed or thought to be anything that unusual. From the beginning of the 20th century, more accurate records have been kept, and every now and again a story would be heard about fishermen who had seen a disturbance in the lake, or a child who had seen a kelpie swimming in the waters. However, come 1933 and suddenly the stories of the loch were thrust into the spotlight and the legend as we know it today was born.
It was in that year that the first road that ran parallel with the edge of the loch was completed. That same April, a local couple appeared at the offices of The Inverness Courier with quite a story. Apparently, they had been driving along the new road when they had spotted 'an enormous animal rolling and plunging on the surface.' Despite there being no evidence other than the couple’s words, the editor of the newspaper ran the story with 'Monster' as the headline to describe the animal.
Obviously, this is the kind of item that piques people’s interest and it wasn't long before the public were clambering for more 'Loch Ness Monster' tales. The story really hit its stride a few months later when another couple reported that they had seen the animal on land, lumbering across the very same road. Newspapers from all over Britain rushed to send correspondents to the loch, curious people turned up to see if they could get their own sighting of this incredible beast and entrepreneurial locals began to cash in on the buzz.
During this time, a photograph was sent to The Daily Mail that was the clearest picture of the monster anyone had ever seen. Showing a small head and long neck emerging from the water, it appeared at the time to be almost conclusive evidence that Nessie was alive and well. The photo was run, and became the quintessential image of what 'she' supposedly looked like. It became known as 'The Surgeons Photo' as it had been taken by a very well respected doctor, and so was seen as something that would be above a hoax. Even today, if you see one photo of The Loch Ness Monster, it will probably be this classic pose.
Everyone wanted a piece of the story, and the area become an even hotter location when a circus offered a £20 000 reward for this monster. At first, this offer was only really taken up by hunters, boy scouts and fisherman until in December, The Daily Mail hired a famous big game hunter, Marmaduke Wetherell, to track down and capture the beast once and for all. It was not long before he claimed to have found large footprints on the shore which 'must have come from an animal at least 20 feet long'. Plaster casts were made and sent to The Natural History Museum in London for a verdict. With this new evidence, still more monster-hunters gathered on the shore in hopes of claiming the prize for themselves.
But it was not to be. Just a few weeks later, The Natural History Museum revealed that the footprints were those of a hippopotamus – probably made with a stuffed foot pressed into the ground with a pole. The fever that had built up so quickly dissipated just as fast, with many people being upset at being drawn in by such a hoax. It was never found out if Wetherell himself planted the footprints or whether he too was a victim of the hoax.
As well as putting the public off, the furore also discouraged serious investigation by zoologists and other scientists. And for the next 30 years, although there were still many, many reports of sightings at the loch, and even numerous photographs, no one really seemed that interested in the matter. Professionals usually stated that rather than being hoaxes, the sightings were more likely optical illusions – floating vegetation, wakes from boats, tree stumps, otters etc. – basically, people seeing what they wanted to see.
In the late 1950’s, a local doctor by the name of Constance Whyte decided to try and lend some credibility to the stories. She began to collect together all the eye-witness accounts of sightings and drawings people had made of what they saw. All the stories were remarkably similar, with people describing the animal as being grey in colour, having a serpentine head, long neck, humped back, diamond shaped flippers and often a long tail as well. Eventually, just before the turn of the decade, she published all the findings in a book – More Than a Legend.
The age of technology
In 1960, inspired by Dr. Whyte’s book, Tim Dinsdale arrived at the loch and filmed what was supposedly the first footage of Nessie swimming in the loch. So convinced was he by what he’d seen that he gave up his career and moved out the loch. By the next year, together with a small group of other enthusiastic people, he had formed The Loch Ness Investigation Bureau. The aim of which was to lend further proof of Nessie and to discover more about the loch and the monster myth.
These activities were instrumental in bringing the stories to the public consciousness once more – but this time with a more seriousness aura, rather than the farce that had taken place in the 30’s. And so, over the next decade, four scientific expeditions were launched by some of the most respected institutions in Britain – the BBC, the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford and the University of Birmingham.
In an effort to settle the matter and to uphold their scientific reputations, the expeditions focused on the use of technologies that were new and not available to amateurs such as the members of The Loch Ness Investigation Bureau. This meant sonar. At that time, sonar was basically a military technology, and its use in such a venture was highly unusual, so of course the level of anticipation was high. However, none of the expeditions proved or disproved anything. They all located what appeared to be quite large objects moving under the water, which would then disappear abruptly – nothing more.
Interest remained high, and in the early 70's the Americans became involved. Boston's Academy of Applied Science was eager to test out some new technology – and Loch Ness seemed like the perfect opportunity. The technology was also based on sonar, but combined it with the use of underwater photography. The idea was that, rather than using the ordinary sonar, a newer, more sophisticated type, called side scan sonar, would be used. The signal would originate from a point near the shore and scan the entire body of water. An underwater camera and a strobe light would be placed underneath it. Then, every 45 seconds, the light and camera would go off, which when combined with the sonar readings would hopefully provide clearer pictures than ever before.
After many expeditions with no results, there was eventually some success. At the same time that the sonar was tracking a large moving object, the camera and strobe produced pictures of what appeared to be a huge fin or flipper, and later, one that looked somewhat like a long neck and head. With the support of the MIT professors who had pioneered the technology and Sir Peter Scott, a highly respected British naturalist, the Boston based team presented their evidence to the House of Commons in London. Sir Scott even gave Nessie a Latin name - Nessiteras rhombopteryx – so that she could be officially added to Britain’s list of protected animals.
That this was being taken so seriously was all that was needed to confirm in many people's minds that Nessie did in fact exist. But of course the nay-sayers were not far behind. Most claim that the sonar’s images are nothing more than suggestions and that the photos were so indistinctive that they only looked like anything at all, let alone flippers or faces, after serious enhancement. After all the effort, the somewhat flimsy evidence was pretty much chucked out on its ear.
Counter to what he may have been hoping, Sir Scott’s claim that he could identify the animal only served to further people's cynicism. He claimed that by combining the sonar images, photographic evidence and eye witness accounts one could conclude that the monster was in fact a plesiosaur. That this was a reptile that died out with the dinosaurs over 65 million years ago, and was only known to live in tropical sea waters, not the frigid fresh water of a Scottish loch, was too much for both the public and zoologists to believe.
The last 20 years
Despite the fact that previous efforts had yielded no significant results, expeditions continued. In 1987, Operation Deep Scan was launched. It was the largest single effort to find Nessie and included 20 boats and submarines decked out with sonar equipment. The idea was to scan the whole loch with 'a curtain of sound', such that nothing could go undetected. Once again, some large, unexplained, underwater targets were found.
In the early 90’s Project Urquhart began. This was a large collaborative deal, designed not so much for monster-hunting, but rather to try and learn as much as possible about the loch's biology, ecology and geography. Due to this, and all the extensive sonar scans done previously, Loch Ness has become one of the worlds most well understood and mapped geographical features. The most interesting result of this particular project was the discovery of a few large underwater caves which - due to the geography of the area – many suspect could lead to whole networks of caverns. And this would naturally be the perfect place for a large, prehistoric beast to hide! One again, nothing proved for certain.
All this inconclusive evidence has, of course, not amounted to a whole lot. There are many respected, scientific professionals who do believe that there is some sort of large, aquatic animal in the loch – others dismiss it off hand. Likewise, there are members of the public who believe in it wholeheartedly, and others who think of it as nothing more than a tourist trap or a story that belongs with the fairies and UFOs.
Ever since the 30’s photos have appeared, claiming to show Nessie in her natural environment. However, as technology has improved, most of these photos have been proved as fakes – even the famous Surgeons Photo from 1934. Others are probably nothing more than trees that look like an elegant neck to the wishful eye. Searching the web will bring you hundreds of Nessie pictures, some that are pretty convincing and others that could be just about anything. Never the less, the amateur groups still convene at the loch and take careful notes of sightings, and every few years a new expedition goes into the water with equipment designed to uncover the truth.
Recently, in 2003, the BBC was involved in a hunt that included the use of 600 separate sonar beams and satellite navigation technology to scan the loch for pockets of air that would supposedly show the animal's lungs. They gained unprecedented knowledge about the physicality of the loch, but saw no evidence of a large animal. Yet even some members of the team believe that it is possible for a plesiosaur type creature to live there, despite the story being run with the headline BBC 'proves' Nessie does not exist.
With the birth of the web, one can now find many sites dedicated to both proving and refuting the Nessie stories. There is even one with a 24 hour web cam set up, so you can become a monster-hunter from the comfort of your favourite armchair. It may seem strange that after so many years and so much effort there is still no widely accepted answer as to whether or not the beast exists – but it is in human nature to wonder at the hidden depths and unknowns in our world and to believe in things we cannot always prove. We see what we want to see, and make of things what we will – yet the truth still has the capacity to surprise us.
- NOVA's "The Beast of Loch Ness" - PBS Airdate: January 12, 1999
- List of modern sightings - http://www.crystalinks.com/loch_ness.html
- BBC 'proves' Nessie does not exist - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3096839.stm