Loch Ness Monster, prehistoric giant beneath the deep dark sea?

Loch Ness Monster, prehistoric giant beneath the deep dark sea?
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Some people will claim that the existence of the Loch Ness Monster has really only been a topic of conversation for around a century or so. Interestingly, this would tie in with the growing popularity of photography amongst the general public – and the earliest of so many intriguing images.

However, others will take you back almost fifteen centuries to around 565AD when it was reported that Saint Columba banished a giant beast. This creature had already been said to have mauled and killed a local man. One of his followers was then sent to swim in the waters of the Ness river itself. When the creature approached, Columba made the sign of the cross and then ordered it to halt; and the monster obeyed. Certainly, there is no lack of religious iconography around the world that presents the defeat of serpents and the like, as representations of Satan.

About Loch Ness itself

Loch Ness

Image Credit: Flickr, Alexandra Stevenson

Part of The Loch Ness Monster mystery can be attributed to the water itself. Before we delve into the depths of the intriguing mystery itself, it might be useful to find out more about the location. Set just over fifty feet above sea level, the loch is Scotland’s second biggest by surface area, but due to its depth, by far the largest in water volume. It’s also a sea lake, fed as it is through the River Ness from the Moray Firth and the North Sea beyond. This could be important because there are many examples of sea creatures – monsters – in Norse and other legends.

As it flows into the loch from a variety of streams and rivers, this water is darkened by its exposure to peat particles. A dark brown tint means that the sun never reaches much further that around four metres below the surface. With a maximum depth of more than 200 metres, Loch Ness provides plenty of truly murky volume for a monster, or creature if you prefer, to call its own private domain.

Scots would certainly like you to know that it contains more freshwater than all the lakes in the Lake District combined (occasionally known to Scots as ‘those big puddles’) and that you could also add in every other English or Welsh lake and still not fill Loch Ness. It’s a monster on its own! When you visit this most beautiful of spots, you’re also likely to notice, towards the southern end, Eilean Muireach (meaning Murdoch’s Island – but also known as Cherry Island). It’s the only one in the loch and, half a millennium ago, was home to a stone and oak wood castle.

Welcome to the world of Cryptozoology

If you are intending to visit Loch Ness and spend time hunting for the monster, then feel free to tell friends and family that you are actually a cryptozoologist. This means that you have the ambition of identifying and describing creatures from folklore, reported sightings, and anecdotal evidence, among other sources. This keeps you apart from those pesky biologists, who spend their time trying to identify new species. Where’s the fun in that? By the way, feel free also to impress by using the Gaelic term for the creature which is An Niseag – Anglicised to Nessie. Famed naturalist Sir Peter Scott, gave the scientific name of Nessiteras Rhombopteryx, meaning ‘Ness monster with diamond-shaped fin’

The first modern times’ sightings of the Loch Ness Monster

If you believe that those ‘in authority’ have never taken the matter even slightly seriously, it’s interesting to note that, over eighty years ago, the Royal Scottish Museum wrote to the Secretary of State for Scotland basically claiming the ‘corpse’ when it became available! They were anxious that The Loch Ness Monster lying in state, as it were, in England, might even lead to Nicola Sturgeon one day demanding IndiRef2!

This communication followed a 1933 newspaper account, provided by Mr and Mrs Spicer, a pair of visitors from London. They maintained that a large creature, like nothing they could identify, had slithered across the road in front of their car with a smaller animal in its mouth. The monster then slipped into the dark waters of Loch Ness. This report was filed by Alex Campbell, the Loch Ness water bailiff, in his other role as Inverness Courier journalist. A few months later in December, local man Hugh Gray took the first picture of what might be the still-elusive Nessie. This was published in the Daily Express.

Loch Ness Monster hoax photo 1934

The “surgeon’s photograph” of 1934, now known to have been a hoax. Image credit Wikipedia

The following year, a London gynaecologist, Robert Kenneth Wilson, was supposedly the taker of a photograph of the creature’s head and neck. When published in the Daily Mail, he refused to have his name associated with it (this led to it being known as the ‘surgeon’s photograph’). It was one of four photos, the second was extremely blurry, the other two exposures were unclear. Debate were had about the authenticity of these two images – experts had taken positions, claims and counterclaims were made, but it is now known to have been a hoax. At the end of the day, people will believe exactly what they want to about the authenticity or otherwise.

Between the initial account of St Columba versus the Loch Ness Monster (amazingly not yet turned into a Hollywood blockbuster), and after publication of the 1933 sighting came an earlier claim. A Mr Mackenzie, who lived in the Glenurquhart area, suggested in a letter to Rupert Gould (a retired Royal Navy officer) that, around sixty years earlier, he had noticed an object that looked like an upturned boat or floating log. However, he saw it wriggling and churning up the water as it built up speed and disappeared from his sight.

Within a month or so of the Spicers’ sighting of what came to be known as the Loch Ness Monster, an Arthur Grant then claimed to almost have collided with the creature while riding his motorbike. The incident was timed just before 1am in moonlit conditions. Mr Grant, who was a veterinary student, described a small headed and long necked creature – picturing it as a cross between a seal and a plesiosaur (an extinct sea reptile from the Mesozoic Era).

It’s worth pointing out the significance of 1933. This was the year of the building of the road along the shores of the loch. This meant that an area which had previously been fairly isolated, even remote, was much more available for tourists to enjoy and workers to use. Therefore the potential for sightings of the Loch Ness Monster increased greatly.

In 1938, the Chief Constable of Inverness-shire entered the debate. William Fraser by name, he stated that, beyond doubt, the monster existed and was concerned about the arrival of a hunting party, complete with a harpoon gun. He doubted that he could protect the famed creature. This letter remains as part of the National Archives of Scotland.

The ongoing hunt for Nessie

The above provides some examples, and many other attempts have been made to locate the Loch Ness Monster. Without covering each in detail, these have included taking sonar readings to identify objects under the water, filming of events causing ripples on the surface, plus further photographic evidence, including satellite imagery. It was also reported in 2015 that Google Street View spent a week capturing Loch Ness. Don’t be surprised if drones are the next investigation devices! Maybe if President Trump were ever one day to officially visit the area, perhaps Nessie would make an appearance to see if HE was for real!

Sending out search parties

Many of the earlier examples could be said to be ‘accidental sightings’. These have been added to by official expeditions of various types. Sir Edward Mortimer Mountain, the founder of Eagle Star Insurance, financed a 1934 search where 20 men, armed with binoculars and cameras, spent each day for five weeks positioned around the loch, watching for the merest eddy on the surface. A few photos were taken but to no great excitement.

For a decade from the early sixties, the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau, claiming at one stage to have over a thousand members, encouraged self-funded watch groups, in much the same way as Sir Edward had. Both in the 1970s and 2000s a group from the Academy of Applied Science carried out further sonar investigation. Operation Deepscan, from 1987, used 24 boats fitted with echo sounder technology, and in 2003, the BBC sponsored a search using sonar beams and satellite tracking. A lack of subsequent Nessie appearances on The One Show confirmed that nothing was found!

As you might imagine, there are a wide range of videos – and claims – on this subject on YouTube! With so many possible appearances, it does lead to an important question…

Does Nessie aka the Loch Ness Monster need an agent?

Well, yes, probably. Presumably, without official permission from the creature, it has been part of famous fiction. In Asterix and the Picts, the hero journeys to the Highlands and meets up with the Loch Ness Monster. In 1971, the monster may or may not have had a guest role in an episode of popular comedy show The Goodies! Then there’s Scooby Doo and the Loch Ness Monster.

There’s a book which tells all in the title Doctor Who (Tom Baker version) and the Loch Ness Monster; although the TV version was called Terror of the Zygons. They were furious at the change, but, as the years passed, decided to let Zygons be Zygons (sorry).

Head to a certain online retailer (think South American river), and in a books search, they’ll offer you almost 700 results, from cartoons and kids’ stories to detailed analysis. There are also DVD and Blu-Ray choices, plus a range of jewellery products, including pendants, pins, charms and even and necklaces showing Nessie playing the bagpipes. If this one day proves to be the truth, that year’s series of Britain’s Got Talent might as well not bother broadcasting! There are even a board game and a song ‘The Monster of Loch Ness’ recorded by famed Scottish folk duo Robin Hall and Jimmie MacGregor, and an audio CD ‘Alex Harvey presents the Loch Ness Monster’. Add countless t-shirts…

So does (did) the Loch Ness Monster exist?

This brings us to the crucial question. Let’s start by saying the existence of Nessie simply can’t be disproved – there is no way to say, with complete certainty, that there has never been an unusual creature in the waters of Loch Ness. Just because no concrete proof has been produced, this does not mean there isn’t any. As with religions, people tend to believe what they want to, and base this on anything from an analysis of scientific evidence at one end of the spectrum, to optimistic hope and great imagination at the other!

It is possible that no such creature has ever existed. It’s also a possibility that there was something in the waters, but it moved on through the river and into the sea. Another option is that the Loch Ness Monster has simply died, of old age or other causes. Of course – Nessie, or more than one of them, may be resting down there in the darksome peaty depths unaware of how much controversy – and fun – this presence has caused. Unlike other ‘monsters’ of legend, our Nessie probably doesn’t deserve this epithet, being, in virtually all accounts, a thoroughly peaceful and gentle soul with no real desire to interact with humanity.

What could the Loch Ness Monster actually be?

Cynics will tell you ripples, or wakes from boats, on the water’s surface, tree trunks or driftwood, seals, hoaxes. There have been several of the latter, to different standards, some trying to appear genuine, others simply to discredit any other sightings. Another explanation is simple optical illusions but genuinely believed. In folk tales, around the world, we can often find references to what Scots often refer to as kelpies, or water spirits, who have powers to shape-shift, even into human form. However, if there is (or was) a genuine Loch Ness Monster, of a decent size, what could it have been?

Experts provide a range of possibilities, some perhaps more fanciful than others. Starting with the pre-historic, we find suggestions such as the plesiosaur, although many scientists doubt that it could have survived through an ice age and that the loch couldn’t supply the necessary foodstuffs for its specific diet.

A second hypothesis was that Nessie could be a huge bristle worm or the like. There are more than ten thousand such species, and they survive in deep and cold water. Thirdly, for Loch Ness Monster read long-necked amphibian, specifically a giant newt. At least one biologist, a keen study of the subject, suggested this as the most likely possibility. Other ideas that have been suggested include a giant eel.

A Nessie postscript or two

With such a rich history, some other weird and wonderful stories have attached themselves to the Loch Ness Monster. So, to help finish our tale, here are just five fairly amazing facts…

1. The owner of Bertram Mills Circus offered a reward of £20,000 (a huge sum at the time) to anyone who could bring the monster to him

2. Famous Scots author of Whisky Galore, Sir Compton Mackenzie, reported a sighting of Nessie

3. It has been reported that PM Margaret Thatcher thought about making Nessie a protected species. Whether this would have made her more popular in Scotland is not known!

4. One survey, a decade or so ago, found the Loch Ness Monster to be the Most Famous Scot. Imagine how much more popular the creature could have been if Nessie had also invented TV, the telephone, or discovered penicillin!

5. Athletes competing in a triathlon in the area were said to have been insured for £1m each against monster bites

Are you going to be the one to find the Loch Ness Monster?

It’s estimated that a large majority of visitors to the area each year would cite Nessie as one of the reasons for their visit to the area. It’s a topic that is often heard in and around Fort William, itself a perfect base from which to start your Loch Ness Monster hunt. Whether you’d view that as just a piece of fun, or a more serious search, the chances remain that Nessie will get the better of you, as our beloved monster has of both committed hunters or visiting tourists for the last eight decades – or 1500 years if you prefer. But – and there will always be a but – one day… And it could be your day!