loch ness

This article is a preview from the Spring 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

After 80 years the Loch Ness monster lingers on, mostly as a gift to cartoonists and the Scottish tourist industry but with the occasional enigmatic new photograph to enthral the shrinking band of believers. Today, scepticism prevails and it has been several decades since there was a serious organised monster-watch involving teams with high-powered cameras observing the loch over a period of months.

Nessie’s life has been a long one. First came the monster’s improbable discovery in 1933, which resulted in a media frenzy, two sensational photographs, numerous sightings, and eye-witnesses who swore they’d seen the animal on land. Then things went quiet for a quarter of a century, until in 1960 a monster-hunter named Tim Dinsdale shot some amazing footage of an unidentified object churning its way across the loch. This resulted in a new media frenzy, an astonishing photograph of Nessie at close quarters and a surge of investigative activity at the loch. Theories about Nessie’s identity included a giant eel, a giant aquatic worm with horns (“nature’s ultimate horror” in the words of one enthusiast) and a herd of plesiosaurs. All this activity came to a climax in 1975 when the prestigious scientific magazine Nature published an article on the monster by Peter Scott and Robert Rines of the self-styled “American Academy of Applied Science”.

Rines’s team had obtained a number of sensational underwater photographs of the monster, including one of a diamond-shaped flipper, another of what appeared to be a strange, long-necked animal and one, dubbed “the gargoyle’s head”, which was believed to show the face of a hideous, horned beast. In a carefully synchronised piece of marketing, Penguin Books rushed out The Loch Ness Story, a paperback by Nicholas Witchell (later to achieve prominence as a reporter for BBC television news) which announced “one of the greatest and most dramatic discoveries of the twentieth century”. The monster had finally come in from the cold.

All that remained now was to give it a proper scientific name and take steps for the conservation and further study of this marvellous, actually existing creature.

And then the bubble burst. The underwater photographs failed to convince scientists. They were regarded with scepticism since both the dimensions and the identity of the underwater objects were inconclusive. Later it emerged that what had been photographed was merely inanimate debris on the bed of the loch. The astonishing diamond-shaped flipper photograph turned out to have been doctored, almost certainly by Rines, who tried to sell Nessie pictures to media outlets for $100,000 (no takers) and was accused by fellow monster-hunter Roy Mackal of being “an unscrupulous opportunist”.

In the years that followed, the evidence for the Loch Ness monster crumbled bit by bit. The famous classic photographs became discredited, most famously by the revelation that the iconic “Surgeon’s photograph” of a swan-like head and neck in reality showed nothing more than a carefully crafted model some twelve inches high, mounted on a child’s toy submarine. None of the tens of thousands of visitors who have stood beside the loch, camera in hand, has ever succeeded in capturing the objects shown in the classic Nessie photographs. The only credible motion film, shot by Dinsdale, is now widely believed to show nothing more than a distant boat.

Professor Gareth Williams’s new book, A Monstrous Commotion: The Mysteries of Loch Ness, retells a much-told story in a fluent, entertaining way. It’s the first Nessie book to adopt a non-partisan approach, giving equal space to believers and sceptics, though Williams’s own feelings about the monster’s credibility (or rather lack of it) quickly become evident.

When organised watching of the loch surface was abandoned in the 1970s, the focus switched to what lay underneath. New scientific surveys of the loch have established it as a barren, “nutritionally impoverished” environment with no food supply adequate for a large predator. And just as surface surveillance by teams equipped with powerful movie cameras failed to yield photographic evidence of a large unknown animal, underwater detection equipment has proved equally empty in its results. Echo-sounding indicated that there could be no large animals present with structures involving bone, lungs or air-sacs. High-resolution sonar has established that changes in water temperature can produce false “contacts”. Large-scale sonar searches have failed to corner any monsters.

Right from the start, sceptical voices were raised against the notion of a large unknown creature in Loch Ness, with sightings attributed to varieties of misperception. Williams himself reaches the same conclusion, reiterating the basic sceptic’s argument that the monster “is not a single entity, but a ragbag stuffed with non-monstrous animals, tricks of nature and hoaxes.”

What’s left is a colourful saga involving a motley band of individuals who have kept the story going over eight decades. To this tale A Monstrous Commotion adds the promise of “an unexpected ending”, which turns out to be a claim that the monster myth was deliberately created in 1933 on behalf of hoteliers in the Lossiemouth area. There is not a scrap of evidence to support this idea, which was first promulgated some 30 years ago. It rests on the dubious and self-serving testimony of a single individual with no proven connection with Loch Ness at all. It also makes no sense since Lossiemouth is on the coast and was never in a position to benefit from a flood of tourists rushing to the Great Glen.

It is also unfair of Williams to suggest that Alex Campbell, the amateur journalist who first reported the existence of the monster, was a “stooge”, working on behalf of a PR firm. Campbell was certainly responsible for promoting the monster in the local press but that was because he had a deep personal belief that a “water kelpie” lived in the loch. His interest was sincere, not mercenary.

Williams is on much firmer ground when he draws on a cache of hitherto unpublicised correspondence from the Peter Scott Archive held by the University of Cambridge. Here he makes a genuinely new contribution to the saga by using previously confidential material to illustrate the extent to which the Loch Ness investigation involved the often comic clash of gigantic egos. Dinsdale pestered Buckingham Palace, requesting an urgent audience with the Queen, who alone could protect the monster. He didn’t get one but was not deterred. His commitment to “that huge, miraculous creature” consumed the rest of his life. “I will never let go, for I have seen the truth,” he wrote.

Dinsdale was far from alone. Rupert Gould was convinced that a sea-serpent had swum up the river from Inverness and become trapped in the loch. Ted Holiday came to the conclusion that Nessie was a sinister paranormal entity. Roy Mackal confidently identified the creature as “a giant aquatic amphibian”, then lost interest and went off to hunt dinosaurs in the Congo.

Over the years Loch Ness has attracted more than its fair share of obsessive visionaries, rogues and hoaxers, and in A Monstrous Commotion Williams provides a very readable account of the enduring pursuit of cryptozoology’s number one mystery animal.

“A Monstrous Commotion: The Mysteries of Loch Ness” is published by Orion Books