As I mentioned in the last installment, sightings of sea monsters fell off rather dramatically after the Daedalus encounter and those that followed. Some have looked to this as proof that there had never been true sea serpents encountered, but rather a series of hoaxes and mistakes, while others have suggested this just reflects the fact that more and more ships at sea may have driven them into hiding, especially once those ships became motorized. The we-scared-it-off theory, after all, had seemed reasonable enough to explain the gradual falling off of sea serpent sightings in Gloucester Bay, New England, which had been crowded with tourist-laden ferries and fishing vessels all hunting for the creature. But the mid 19th century would not be last time that people believed they saw a massive, long-necked, water-dwelling creature that would be termed a monster. While the seas remained mostly calm and untroubled by serpents, in the 1930s and ever since, sightings surged in a rather unexpected place, inland, on a lake, as though the Great Sea Serpent had abandoned its saltwater habitat for the fresh waters of a lake in the Scottish Highlands, southwest of Inverness. Like the Great Sea Serpent, this creature is usually described as serpentine, owing to the fact that when it breaks the surface of the lake in which it supposedly dwells, it is seen as a series of humps. Sometimes, though, witnesses of this creature are graced with a view of its long neck and small head, and perhaps a glimpse of its bulky body, which has led to a popular conception of it as being akin to the plesiosaur, although the fact that this one supposedly lives in a fresh water lake would mean that it would more likely be of the family Leptocleididae, genus leptocleidus, or perhaps a genus and species of polycotylid that recent researchers have proposed, dubbing them “occultonectians,” or “hidden swimmers,” and suggesting they survived the extinction of similar plesiosaurs, at least for a while, by taking refuge in and adapting to bodies of fresh water, adaptation that resulted in the development of longer necks. But rather than speculating exactly what kind of surviving dinosaur this creature is, it is far more logical to first consider the reliability of evidence that there is anything at all so large or unusual dwelling in this particular lake: Loch Ness.
Popular belief in the monster affectionately known as Nessie began in 1933, in March, when a couple, the MacKays, who had been staying at a nearby hotel, were motoring along an old narrow road by the lake. Mrs. MacKay saw a huge black form rolling in the lake and told her husband John to pull over. Once he had stopped the car, John could only see the ripples, about a mile and a half away, but even from these he discerned that something very large had caused them. To Mrs. MacKay, the ripples appeared to be a wake made by something just below the surface, and she watched its progress across the otherwise placid lake. Then she saw it again: black humps, two of them, the one in front smaller than that behind it, rising and sinking as though the entire form were undulating. It turned and circled halfway around before sinking finally and disappearing. A few months later, in June, a crew of workmen spotted a large body and head emerge from the water in the wake of a passing boat, a sighting easily waved away as an optical illusion created by the waves themselves. But then in July, another motoring couple, the Spicers of London, saw a creature emerge from the bushes on the side of the roadway, or at least part of one. It looked like a thick appendage, trunklike, perhaps a long neck held horizontally, wavering over the surface of the road. Then it crossed the road in a jerking fashion, its body filling the entire roadway and then suddenly gone in the direction of the lake. Mr. Spicer estimated it was at least 25 feet long, with dark gray skin like that of an elephant. After this sighting, the lake monster had become a news item, with press reports at first suggesting in a measured way that the Spicers had just seen an enormous otter carrying its young on its back. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, with the press attention, sightings increased to about one a month. In August, more witnesses saw a disturbance trailing behind a steamboat on the lake, insisting that because there were calm waters between the boat and the disturbance, it couldn’t have been the boat’s wake. Then one Mrs. MacLennan saw a large animal sunning itself on a ledge, and when she called to her family, it lurched clumsily and rolled into the water. In October, a crew member on a boat towing a barge saw what looked like a mound of water moving toward them like a wave from the side of the lake. In November, Hugh Gray took the first known photo of the supposed creature during his walk home from church. He claimed to have seen it raising its head above the water and lashing its tail. His photo, which saw extensive reprinting in newspapers in December, shows a vaguely serpentine S-shape on the surface of the waters, obscured by a kind of hazy mist. This photo has been variously said by different photographic experts to show signs of having been retouched or damaged and to show no signs of having been tampered with, leaving us, almost a hundred years later, to merely wonder at it.
In December, as papers reported on Gray’s photographic evidence, the excitement, or hysteria, heated to a fever pitch. One Mrs. Reid, while motoring by, saw an animal lying in a glade very near where Mrs. MacLennan had earlier seen a creature sunning itself, and she described it in much the same terms, huge, fleshy, and clumsy like a hippopotamus. The same month, the first movie film evidence appeared, taken with a 16mm camera by Malcolm Irvine and a film production crew that was in the area specifically hoping to film the creature that had been in the news. His film, which was said by those who viewed it, including reporters from the Times, to have shown a humped creature swimming on the surface and moving both tail and fins, has unfortunately—some might say conveniently—been lost. But it did its job, nonetheless. On the 21st of December, the London Daily Mail, a newspaper with a long and dubious history, declared “MONSTER OF LOCH NESS IS NOT LEGEND BUT A FACT” and in a publicity stunt reported that it had hired Marmaduke Wetherell, a filmmaker with a reputation as a big game hunter, to search for further proof of Nessie’s existence. Think of Wetherell as an early 20th-century precursor to the many reality-T.V. cryptid hunters that populate the backwaters of cable television today, and remember him, for we will return to him shortly. While Wetherell performed his search for Nessie tracks along the shores of the loch, sightings continued into 1934. Just after the New Year, a student named W. Arthur Grant who might have been thought a reliable and scientific witness because he was training to be a veterinarian, nearly ran into something on a benighted road while riding his motorcycle. His headlight illuminated a massive creature with a flat head like that of an eel. It bounded from the bushes and across the road on flippers, its strong round-tipped tail extended behind it, and it disappeared into the darkness, leaving behind only the sound of its splash as it entered the loch. The next month, by the light of a full moon, two girls likewise saw something huge that tapered down to a long tail cross the road in front of them on short appendages that they called legs rather than flippers and head toward the water. And finally, in April of 1934, I’ll end my recounting of the first and most prolific flap of Nessie sightings with the appearance of the most famous, or infamous, photo of the creature. It would come to be known as the “Surgeon’s photo,” having been taken by a gynecologist named Robert Kenneth Wilson while on vacation with a friend. He admitted he had brought the camera hoping to snap a pic of the monster, although later he claimed he’d brought it to photograph birds. When the creature presented itself, he ran back to his car and returned just in time to take two photos, both of which show the shadow of a slender, curved object extending from the water’s surface, the water rippling around it. For all the world, it looked like the body and arched neck and head of the Loch Ness Monster.
When one considers the believability of these encounters, one might be tempted to dismiss the eyewitness testimony altogether, leaving only the harder evidence to evaluate. In fact, the simple fact that the story became a newspaper sensation within the first year tends to discredit most of the sightings as either hoaxes by attention seekers or mistakes by the overeager who had been caught up in the hysteria. But historical precedent for sightings of a creature in or around Loch Ness before 1933 might weaken this argument. In looking for pre-’33 indications of Nessie’s existence, one is invariably drawn into the realm of folklore. For example, the Scottish people originated largely in Ireland, and there is an ancient Irish tradition that sees in the reflection of bodies of water an inverted aquatic world, where it was supposed there dwelled mirror opposite creatures, like water-cows and water-horses. Tales told of these animals crossing over at times, such that farmers had been known to harness their ploughs to a water-horse. In Scottish lore, the water-horse evolved to become the kelpie, a shape-changing creature similar to the siren in its alluring behavior. And this certainly might apply to Nessie, when one considers the siren call it has had on many a monster and cryptid hunter. Further, more geographically specific folkloric evidence of the creature can be found in the 7th century writings of the Abbot of Iona, who biographized the 6th century life of Saint Columba. In his work, St. Columba has numerous encounters with animals that show God had given him mastery over the creatures of the earth, such as snakes and boars. In one particular passage, the saint commands a monk to swim across the River Ness and bring back a boat. When a “water beast” appears and makes toward the monk, St. Columba cried out from the shore, “Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man! Go back with all speed!” and the fearsome beast retreated. To most, in context with the rest of the stories told about St. Columba, this would seem a simple tall tale, but looking back at a story of a “water beast” in Ness—even if it was the river and not the loch—a modern reader cannot help but consider that this could be evidence of an aquatic monster in the area.
And there are many accounts in far more modern times of giant eels, or horse-eels, in the same area if one widens the scope of one’s search beyond Loch Ness. Friend of the show Mike Dash has written of 19th century reports of giant eels which have at least one thing going for them as explanations of Nessie in that they are bottom-dwellers that only surface occasionally, explaining why whatever is in Loch Ness is only glimpsed infrequently. He cites the memoir of a Scottish Catholic priest, who writing about events in the middle of the 19th century described lakes on Hebridean islands teeming with gigantic eels that travel overland from lake to lake. Dash also describes secondhand recollections of a huge maned eel being caught in a canal-lock in 1899 at Corpach, only about 26 miles southwest of the shores of Loch Ness, and how everyone believed it must have come down from Loch Ness, which supposedly had a reputation for monstrous serpents even then. As for Loch Ness itself, there were reports of sightings previous to the 1933 flap, such as in 1871 or ’72 when D. Mackenzie saw what he thought was a log suddenly come to life and churn up the water as it swam with great speed, or in 1889, when Alexander Macdonald saw an unusual creature on the lake that he called “the salamander” and which Roderick Matheson, who frequently plied the waters of the loch on his schooner, called “the biggest eel I ever saw in my life…[with] a neck like a horse and a mane somewhat similar.” Then into the 20th century, when sometime during the first decade a fisherman recalled having scared off a large beast with an eel’s head and a tapering tail that lay still upon the surface of the loch when he cast his line near it. 1919, a 12-year-old boy named Jack Forbes, drives a pony cart home through a stormy night with his father when a beast emerges from the trees, crosses the road and splashes into the water. 1923, a chauffeur’s headlamps catch a huge humped creature as his car rounds a bend, and actually hears the thing grunting as it waddles away. 1926, Simon Cameron is watching some gulls on the water when suddenly they fly off screeching because something that looked like an overturned boat bursts to the surface, water washing down its sides. While some of these recollections may have been colored by or even invented to corroborate the later legend of Nessie, it does seem that Loch Ness had long been a place where people saw animals they believed were unusual.
Further supporting the idea that Loch Ness monster sightings have proven to be far more than a yearlong flap easily written off as mass hysteria fueled by sensational journalism is the fact that the sightings never really stopped. Roy Mackal, a biologist working for University of Chicago who took particular interest in Nessie, claimed there were more than 10,000 such reports and that he had personally reviewed nearly 3,000 published accounts of them. Certainly there are many hundreds of verifiable witness claims, with a more recent accounting estimating they number around 1,800, but more than these, there is a wealth of harder evidence as well. Including the aforementioned Gray photo and the Surgeon’s Photo, one tally has around 30 photos taken of Nessie or what the photographers purport to be Nessie. Most of the time, they picture little more than shadowy humps on the water’s surface that one might imagine could be breaching portions of the creature’s neck or back, such as the Lachlan Stuart photo of 1951 and the Peter McNab photo of 1955. Others like the 1977 Anthony Shiels photo and the 1982 Jennifer Bruce photo seem to show the creature’s head and long neck held elegantly straight up out of the water, like the Surgeon’s photo. Not all of these are easily available to the modern researcher, as some are in private collections and seem to have no extant copies. Such is also the case with movie films supposedly capturing the creature, which also may number as high as 30, ranging from older cine film reels to more modern video recordings. One of these, taken by a Dr. MacRae around 1935 and said to show a slant-eyed, horned creature splashing the surface with its great reptilian tail, supposedly remains locked away in a vault in London, awaiting its release at some uncertain future time when “the public takes such matters seriously!” This seems to be a common explanation for why some alleged films cannot be examined, such as the 1938 film made by London bank manager James Currie, which supposedly resides in the same vault as the MacRae film. Then there are those films that have simply been lost, which includes the very first film made by the aforementioned Malcolm Irvine. Likewise with a film made by one James Fraser the next year, which seems to have rather suddenly vanished after being screened for the Linnaean Society of London, whose members thought it pictured a seal or otter rather than a monster. In 1936, when Malcolm Irvine managed to capture Nessie on film yet again, he once more promptly lost the footage. These instances of poor custodianship of evidence do little to inspire confidence in the credibility of the evidence itself.
Beyond the suspicious disappearance of evidence to cause one to look askance, there is also a history of hoaxes about as long as the history of Nessie herself. Remember the actor, film director and “big game hunter” Marmaduke Wetherell that I said to keep in your memory? Within days of his arrival at the lake after being hired by the Daily Mail to “track” the Loch Ness Monster, Wetherell made it known that he had discovered Nessie’s huge tracks and sent plaster casts of them to the London Natural History Museum. The museum eventually revealed that they appeared to be hippopotamus prints. But Wetherell hadn’t discovered a rogue hippo living around the loch; rather, he had taken a stuffed hippo’s hoof that had been part of an umbrella stand, attached a stick to it and used it like a stamp. Years later, in 1960, a young firefighter named Peter O’Connor was caught making hoax photographs by inflating a plastic sack and weighting it down with stones. In 1972, Frank Searle, frustrated at not being able to catch a glimpse of the genuine article, faked some later discredited photos using logs and other objects and by pasting images of brontosaurs onto pictures of water. Then there were the remarkably clear photos taken by Anthony Shiels in 1977, whose reputation as a kook already put his pictures in doubt. Shiels was a self-styled psychic and wizard who claimed to have actually conjured Nessie to the surface through the use of ancient magic. Close examination of his photo showed that ripples on the water’s surface could be seen through the creature’s neck, a sure sign of double exposure. By the time the 1980s and ’90s came around, older, long respected photographic evidence also began to be discredited. The first was Lachlan Stuart’s photograph of humps on the water from 1951, which Stuart had actually admitted to a local was accomplished by wrapping haybales in tarps and floating them in a row. Finally, in 1994, a confession revealed that the most famous photo of all, the Surgeon’s Photo, had been a crude fake perpetrated in collaboration with that original hoaxer, Marmaduke Wetherell. Wetherell’s own step-son, two years before he died, had admitted that Wetherell had conspired with his sons to concoct the photo by affixing a plastic head and neck to a toy submarine and photographing it in a calm inlet of the lake. The gynecologist Robert Kenneth Wilson had been a co-conspirator in agreeing to say he had taken the photo, since Wetherell had already been discredited. Some have cast doubt on this confession as being itself a hoax, suspicious about the perceived size of the object, whether the photo could have been taken in a sheltered cove, and whether a toy submarine could have supported the weight of such a false neck, but even most Nessie believers have come to accept that the Surgeon’s photo, long the single greatest piece of evidence in favor of Nessie’s existence, was nothing but a fraud.
Even if one took the Surgeon’s Photo as authentic, it still does not stand as unimpeachable evidence of Nessie’s existence, for ever since the beginning of the 1933 Loch Ness Monster flap, there have been plenty of convincing answers for what people really see and what is actually pictured in photographs. Most sightings of humps in the water are explainable as waves. Think about the sightings of humps in the wake of a passing boat I mentioned. And we now know that water sometimes behaves strangely, with odd, standing waves or solitons, that appear to be immobile humps with water washing over them. When sightings cannot be accounted for by the water itself, some other, more recognizable animal usually does the trick, like a bathing deer, or most commonly, an otter. Even birds, like cormorants, flying close to the water with their wings disturbing the surface, might appear at a distance to be a series of moving humps leaving a wake. As for more exotic animals, a bathing elephant extending its trunk from the surface, would certainly seem to fit the bill, especially considering some early reports that described its flesh as elephant-like, and it just so happens that a circus was in the area in 1933. The showman who owned the circus, Bertram Mills, was known to let his performing animals bathe in the loch, and he seemed to encourage the excitement, offering a 20,000 pounds sterling reward to any who could capture the monster. This was a monstrous sum indeed, equivalent to almost 2 million dollars today, and some have suggested he only advertised such an exorbitant reward because he knew the monster didn’t exist, perhaps because he knew his elephants had been mistaken for the beast. But one does not need to look so far for so complicated an answer either. In addition to the extensive photographs and films taken above water, there have been numerous underwater photos taken, as well as many sonar contacts, and all can be very convincingly explained by fish activity and debris. In the same way, some humps on the surface can be attributed to huge bottom-feeding sturgeon visiting the surface, or to simple logs and other vegetable matter. This seems to be a clear instance in which Occam’s Razor cuts to the heart of the matter. These prosaic explanations of sightings are far simpler than the notion that a heretofore undiscovered species of lake monster exists and may represent proof of surviving dinosaurs. And more than this, there are further problems of feasibility making the lake monster hypothesis fundamentally untenable. First, there is the fact that, for such a species to have survived, there must needs be substantial breeding population, not just a solitary monster or a couple of mates, which conflicts with how infrequently they are seen, especially considering how intently people search for them. Then there is the fact that the loch is simply not big enough to contain such a population, nor does it contain enough food to sustain them. Some have suggested that there must be a hidden underwater channel from this freshwater lake to the ocean, but if this were the case, the loch being so far above sea level would mean that the lake waters would have long ago emptied into the sea. When Occam’s Razor cuts so easily and unequivocally through a popular belief like this, it must be assumed to be false, and this means that the same must hold true for all the other supposed denizens of lakes that have surfaced since Nessie. Ogopogo in Okanagan Lake, Tessie in Lake Tahoe, Champ in Lake Champlain, and Bessie in Lake Erie: all must be considered with the utmost skepticism, their very existence held in doubt.
Binns, Ronald. The Loch Ness Mystery Solved. Prometheus Books, 1984.
Campbell, Steuart. The Loch Ness Monster: The Evidence. Prometheus Books, 1997.