April 10, 2017
Of all the monsters in the world, one creature outshines them all. None are more notorious than the beast that is said to inhabit Scotland’s Loch Ness. In fact, it is so well known that it has been affectionately given the moniker “Nessie” . Some dismiss Nessie as a myth while others firmly maintain its existence. Whether real or fictional, it undoubtedly continues to be the object of fascination for many.
This article seeks to take a closer look at the Loch Ness Monster phenomenon that has captured and continues to capture the interest of so many since its first sighting.
About Loch Ness
Loch Ness, the lake where the Loch Ness Monster allegedly resides, is as mysterious as the monster itself. In fact, the elusiveness of Nessie could be attributed to the nature of Loch Ness. Located on the Great Glen Fault, southwest of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, it is not only the second largest loch or lake in Scotland but is also the second deepest, at an astounding 755 feet (230 meters) at its deepest point. Basically, there is more water in Loch Ness than all the other lakes in England, Scotland and Wales put together.
Underwater visibility is low and minimal due to the peaty nature of the surrounding soil and Loch Ness’s depth, giving the waters a dark and murky appearance. In addition, there is a layer of sediment of more than 25 feet in depth on the loch floor, which makes it impenetrable to light.
To add to its mysteriousness, Loch Ness appears to “steam up” on excessively cold days. This is actually due to a thermocline line found approximately 100 feet below the surface of the water, which ensures that the temperature in the lake remains constant. In essence, as the surface water nears freezing point on wintry days, it sinks and is then replaced by warmer water from below. This is why one is unlikely able to go ice-skating on Loch Ness even in the harshest of Scotland winters.
It is also interesting to note that the Great Glen Fault, in which Loch Ness is situated, occurred approximately 400 million years ago and thus, the waters of Loch Ness literally date back to the last Ice Age, approximately 10,000 years ago. Legend has it that there are hundreds of caverns and underground tunnels that exist below the water that could lead to other Highland lochs. However, to date, none have actually been discovered.
Long before science attributed the origins of Loch Ness to geological glacial and earth movements, its formation had a more mythical spin on it. According to local legend, the Loch Ness area was under the benevolent rule of a powerful Druid priest who conjured a mystical well which was meant to provide an unlimited supply of clear and sweet water for the whole village. The only catch to this bounty was a strict rule imposed by the Druid priest whereby the well had to always be covered with a ‘capping stone’ after water was drawn from it.
One day, a young woman was in the midst of drawing water when she heard her baby screaming from inside her house. In her haste to return, she forgot to cover the well. It is said that the water rose quickly from the well and within a very short time, overflowed to the point of flooding the entire valley and causing the villagers to flee to the hills. The mystical well then turned the area into the Loch Ness we know today.
Whilst different sightings have yielded many versions of Nessie’s physical appearance, common themes attribute the following features to Nessie:
- A large body with at least one hump,
- A long, arched or serpentine-like neck as well as a small head, and
- A grey or dark brown colour.
The verdict is still out as to whether Nessie has limbs as its bottom half is submerged in water in most sightings. That being said, the proposition that Nessie has limbs has not been as vehemently opposed compared to other contentions about Nessie’s physical attributes, and is more or less tolerated.
Sightings and Expeditions
The earliest presence of Nessie detected in Scottish history are depictions of a strange aquatic creature carved by the local Picts onto standing stones near Loch Ness which date back to around 500 A.D. The earliest written reference to a monster in Loch Ness can be found in the 7th Century biography of Saint Columba, the Irish missionary credited for bringing Christianity to Scotland. It was recorded that one fateful day in 565 A.D, Saint Columba who was on his way to visit the king of the northern Picts near Inverness chanced upon a group of people burying a man who was a victim of a monster in Loch Ness. He then took it upon himself to get rid of the monster by purportedly getting one of the villagers to swim in the lake as bait to lure the beast out. When the beast appeared, Saint Columba is said to have invoked the name of God to successfully banish the beast.
Following this, Nessie’s status was elevated from the realm of Scottish folklore and myth to a real monster lurking within the waters of Loch Ness. The reverence given to Saint Columba for his missionary work in Scotland and his social standing as a man of the cloth lent much credence to the existence of Nessie and this record remains a popular piece of “evidence” used to prove Nessie’s existence.
Since then, there have been many more sightings of Nessie from various points spanning Loch Ness by the locals but luckily, there haven’t been any more accounts of human lives being claimed by the Loch Ness Monster.
Although it has been spoken about since the 7th Century, the Loch Ness Monster was relatively unknown to those living beyond the Loch Ness area. It wasn’t until around 1933, with the completion of a new road along the shore of Loch Ness, that the hype surrounding the Loch Ness Monster started to really take off.
The first modern sighting was by George Spicer and his wife who encountered “a most extraordinary form of animal” whilst driving along the newly constructed road in May 1933. The local paper ran the couple’s description of a creature “having a large body about 4 feet (1.2 m) high and 25 feet (8 m) long and a long, wavy, narrow neck, slightly thicker than an elephant’s trunk as long as 10–12-feet (3–4 m)” crossing the road in front of their car. The couple probably had no idea that this sighting would become the catalyst for a worldwide fascination with the Loch Ness Monster that continues till today.
Since then, interest in Nessie has only increased with many people flocking to Loch Ness, patiently waiting to catch a glimpse of Nessie. It has also prompted several British newspapers to dispatch reporters to Scotland to get exclusive coverage. This culminated in the Daily Mail hiring Marmaduke Wetherell, a rather well-known big-game hunter at the time, to capture Nessie. When Wetherell reported finding footprints of a large four-legged animal, the Daily Mail carried the dramatic headline: “MONSTER OF LOCH NESS IS NOT LEGEND BUT A FACT” without waiting for further verification.
This proved to be a costly mistake for the Daily Mail when the British Museum of Natural History debunked the story after examining plaster casts of the footprints alleged by Wetherell to be Nessie’s. To add insult to injury, the museum revealed that the tracks were in fact those of a hippopotamus, specifically one hippopotamus foot, and probably stuffed. The hoax temporarily deflated Loch Ness Monster mania, but stories of sightings continued.
Interest in Nessie peaked again in 1934 when the Daily Mail published a photograph of what appeared to be a plesiosaur-like beast with a long neck emerging out of the murky waters. The photo was nicknamed the “Surgeon’s Photograph” after the photographer, Dr. Robert Kenneth Wilson, a London physician who refused to be identified with the image. It is said that there were two photographs successfully captured by Dr. Robert but only the Surgeon’s Photograph was clear enough to be of use.
The Surgeon’s Photograph was also closely scrutinised especially by sceptics and in 1994, was determined to be a hoax. In fact, it had been declared a fake in a Sunday Telegraph article on 7 December 1975 but the article fell into obscurity. The hoax was further brought to light in Nessie – the Surgeon’s Photograph Exposed, a book published in 1999 explaining how the Surgeon’s Photograph was faked. According to the book, this elaborate hoax involved a number of parties and was masterminded by Wetherell who wanted to get revenge on his former employer, the Daily Mail, for publicly humiliating him during the footprint debacle.
However, it has to be highlighted that Alastair Boyd, the researcher credited for uncovering the Surgeon’s Photograph hoax, maintains that the Loch Ness Monster is real and has even stressed that the hoax does not mean that other photos, eyewitness reports, and footage of the creature are also fakes. In fact, he himself has also claimed to have seen Nessie.
Many share the same sentiments as Alastair Boyd and there is a steady stream of reported sightings of Nessie year after year. Nessie sightings were so frequent that 2013 made headlines as the year without any confirmed sightings at all. This sparked a media frenzy which speculated on the disappearance of Nessie. Things however, went ‘back to normal’ when from 2014 onwards, Nessie sightings occurred again.
Interestingly, a satellite image on Apple Maps revealed what appeared to be a large creature approximately 30 metres (98 feet) long just below the surface of Loch Ness on 19 April 2014. This not only generated the usual hype of claims that it was the Loch Ness Monster but also served to comfort those who were upset over the earlier speculation that Nessie had disappeared.
Google also recently jumped on the Nessie bandwagon by introducing a new feature to Google Street View by which users could explore just about every inch of Nessie’s home, Loch Ness, both above and below the water, from the comfort of their own homes.
Major Expeditions and Efforts on a Big-Scale
The race to procure evidence of the existence of the Loch Ness Monster is not only confined to enthusiastic individuals. Serious monies have also been invested by reputable organisations to fund major expeditions, studies and researches in search of the elusive Nessie. The following are but some of the more notable ones.
1. Edward Mountain Expedition (1934)
This expedition took place over five weeks from 3 July 1934 and saw 20 men stationed around Loch Ness armed with binoculars and cameras every single day from 9 am to 6 pm in an attempt to capture clear photos of the Loch Ness Monster. The expedition yielded 21 photographs but none were considered conclusive.
The supervisor of the expedition, James Fraser, did capture an object about seven feet long on film. However, the images were deciphered by zoologists and professors of natural history at the time and they concluded it was likely a grey seal instead of Nessie. Unfortunately, the film was lost over the years, rendering it impossible to revisit the imagery with modern technology. It is said that Sir Edward Mortimer Mountain, the founder of Eagle Star Insurance (which became one of the largest insurance companies in the United Kingdom) decided to finance a search for Nessie after being inspired by his reading of Rupert Gould’s, The Loch Ness Monster and Others.
2. Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau (1962-1972)
Officially formed as a full-fledged society based in the United Kingdom in 1962, this society, subsequently shortened to Loch Ness Investigation Bureau, was dedicated towards uncovering the mystery of Nessie via extensive study and observation of Loch Ness. In line with this aim, the society charged an annual subscription to cover administration costs as well as facilities and encouraged many groups of self-funded volunteers to scrutinise Loch Ness from vantage points with film cameras and telescopic lenses. It disbanded in 1972 after a 10-year run. At its heyday, the society even had its own caravan camp and viewing platform at Achnahannet.
3. Sonar Studies
To date, the largest sonar investigation of Loch Ness is Operation Deepscan in 1987 which saw 24 boats equipped with echo-sounder equipment deployed across the width of Loch Ness, to simultaneously emit acoustic waves. A number of the echo-sounder units were donated by sonar expert Darrell Lowrance, founder of Lowrance Electronics.
Although Operation Deepscan did make fleeting contact with a large unidentified underwater object of unusual size and strength, again no conclusive findings were yielded. However, it did establish that between 17 and 24 tonnes of small fish live in Loch Ness, which although not a large amount for such a great expanse of water, is certainly enough to feed approximately 10 creatures weighing up to 226 kg each. Thus, it was possible that there were enough fish in the lake to sustain Nessie.
Other notable extensive sonar studies (although no conclusive evidence was found from these) include:
- In 1968, Gordon Tucker, Chair of the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at the University of Birmingham, installed a prototype sonar transducer with a maximum range of 800m (2,600 ft) underwater at Temple Pier in Urquhart Bay and directed it towards the opposite shore, drawing an acoustic “net” across the loch through which no moving object could pass undetected.
- A group of researchers from Boston’s Academy of Applied Science, led by Robert H. Rines, combined sonar and underwater photography in their expedition to Loch Ness in 1972 and 1975. A photo resulted after that and after enhancement, seemingly revealed a giant flipper of a plesiosaur-like creature. This photograph has rarely been published. They went on to conduct another study in 2001 before carrying out a final study in 2008 where Rines theorised that Nessie could have become extinct, due to its failure to adapt to temperature changes resulting from global warming. He cited the lack of significant sonar readings and a decline in eyewitness accounts as justifications.
- The BBC, capitalising on the Nessie craze, sponsored a search at Loch Ness using 600 sonar beams and satellite tracking in 2003. The whole process was turned into a documentary aptly titled; “Searching for the Loch Ness Monster” which was aired on BCC One.
The Fascination Continues…
It is a testament to the notoriety and allure of the Loch Ness Monster that there are even awards given to the best Nessie sighting! One of these is organised by William Hill, one of the largest bookmakers in the United Kingdom. An annual contest is held in Scotland to pick the best Loch Ness sightings from the past year. It is judged by a panel of experts with cash prizes for the winners. Last year, the prize money went to a former Gulf War veteran, Conor McKenna, where his account of sighting “something” inexplicable on the Loch Ness netted him the first prize.
It is not even necessary for one to physically stand vigil at Loch Ness in order to win this contest. Bjarne Sjöstrand from Sweden claimed the prize of £2000 for the Best Loch Ness Monster sighting in 2014 despite never having visited Scotland. He won after submitting a Google Earth image taken of a long thin object in the waters of Loch Ness which he spotted from the comfort of his home in Stockholm.
There are arguments for and against the existence of the Loch Ness Monster but as there is an absence of a living specimen, a body or even fragments of a carcass, it is impossible to determine if Nessie exists or not. To shed some light as to the possibility, we will briefly examine the usual arguments put forward to support the existence of the Loch Ness Monster.
The most popular explanation for Nessie is that it is a type of marine reptile that died out 65 million years ago i.e. the plesiosaurs. Plesiosaurs lived in the same age as dinosaurs but are not technically deemed to be dinosaurs themselves. The problem with this theory is that plesiosaurs were cold blooded creatures and the waters of Loch Ness would be too cold for them to survive.
However, there are cold-blooded creatures which are able to survive very cold temperatures; such as sea turtles (which are large reptiles) that can thrive in the cold waters off the coasts of Iceland and Alaska. In addition, a study of oxygen isotopes extracted from the fossilised bones of plesiosaurs by French scientist Aurélien Bernard and colleagues, published in Science in 2010, revealed that plesiosaurs were likely capable of adjusting their body temperatures and were therefore capable of surviving in relatively cold waters. However, this would also mean that it is necessary for a creature like Nessie to surface regularly in order to breathe, which would make sightings a lot more frequent. This is not the case as Nessie is rarely seen.
Some have also put forward a theory of the Loch Ness Monster being an overgrown eel. This has been largely debunked as eels cannot raise their heads above water and they tend to swim in a sideways motion.
There are also those who claim that sightings of Nessie are actually of wayward seals. Many doubt this theory as there is a very slim possibility of seals in Loch Ness. Moreover, they usually travel in groups.
Next, we have the “evidence” to contend with. Firstly, early medieval references would have to be dismissed as they tend to be laden with mystical creatures. Then, to avoid the probability of hearsay and lack of means for verification, we have to set aside anecdotal accounts that occurred in the 20th Century. This means we are only left with photographic and film evidence, which sceptics can dismiss as floating logs, seals or hoaxes. There are also sonar images, which disbelievers claim to be fish schools, algal blooms or echoes from submerged cliffs (or even movie props). What the sceptics have done here is to throw doubts without offering anything conclusive. By the same token, believers have also presented evidence that is not conclusive.
Another thing to consider is that Nessie cannot possibly be a single creature that has survived for thousands of years and thus, according to the laws of biology, there ought to be a population of several inter-breeding animals. If that were the case, there would be more chances of seeing them considering the level of scrutiny at Loch Ness. Instead, sightings are few and far between.
However, there is so much of Loch Ness left unexplored that we should not dismiss the possibility that Nessie exists, hidden safely in the depths of the lake. Just because we do not have all the pieces does not mean we should give up on the puzzle.
Ultimately, it is up to the individual to decide if the available evidence is compelling enough to support the existence of such a creature. So, where do you stand? Could Nessie be real, or simply an old Scottish legend?
 This moniker only came about around 1975 and was shortened from the scientific name coined by British naturalist, Peter Scott, for the Loch Ness Monster i.e. Nessiteras rhombopteryx (Greek for “Ness monster with diamond-shaped fin”) in hopes of enabling the creature to be added to the British register of protected wildlife. Such a controversial move garnered much attention especially from sceptics and more notably, Scottish politician Nicholas Fairbairn called the name an anagram for “Monster hoax by Sir Peter S“. Nonetheless, the name Nessie stuck and remains the popular nickname for the Loch Ness Monster.
 The Great Glen Fault is a long strike-slip (trans-current) fault that runs through its namesake the Great Glen (Glen Albyn) in Scotland. In geology, a “fault” is a planar fracture or discontinuity in a volume of rock, across which there has been significant displacement as a result of rock mass movement.
 The Picts were a tribal confederation of peoples who lived in what is today eastern and northern Scotland during the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval periods. They are thought to have been ethnolinguistically Celtic.
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