The Loch Ness monster celebrates her 90th birthday this year. The first newspaper reports and the first photograph date back to 1933. There is no evidence of an ancient and continuous tradition of a mysterious beast in the loch: Nessie is not as old as monster-hunters would like to think.
But, unlike the northern white rhinoceros, the Tasmanian tiger or the Ganges river dolphin, she is certainly not extinct. A video taken at Loch Ness last year, lasting two and a half minutes, has been hailed as the best footage for decades. Had the location been anywhere else in Scotland or the world, observers might write this off as disturbed water seen from rather a long way off.
But to pour cold water on the – ah – cold water would be regarded as highly unsporting. It’s far more fun to believe, say, that generations of plesiosaurs survived the great mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago and some of them still hang on in Loch Ness.
Last year palaeontologists from the University of Bath made a significant find in Morocco, one which appeared to show that plesiosaurs, previously considered exclusively marine reptiles, could also operate effectively in freshwater. The inevitable journalistic response was: does that mean they could have lived in Loch Ness? The team, no doubt torn between the usefulness of publicity and despair at the journalistic mind, agreed that it was, well, plausible.
But the 90-year history of the Loch Ness monster is not really about zoology. It’s about psychology and perception and the relationship between them. The Loch Ness monster exists because for 90 years we have wanted it to exist: and for that reason hundreds of honest people have seen the monster beyond any possibility of doubt. The rest of us have read reports and pored over photographs and videos and have seen what we wanted to see.
The first report of a monster in the loch was published by the local paper, The Inverness Courier, in 1933 under the deadline “Strange spectacle in Loch Ness”. The piece bore no byline but was written by Alex Campbell, not a self-effacing man and one who combined the trades of water bailiff and journo. It appeared on 2 May and concerned a sighting by Donaldina “Aldie” Mackay and her husband. They saw the monster from their car while driving along the A82, a major road that runs alongside the loch.
Campbell rather let himself go: “The creature disported itself, rolling and plunging for fully a minute, its body resembling that of a whale, and the water cascading and churning like a simmering cauldron. Soon, however, it disappeared in a boiling mass of foam. Both onlookers confessed that there was something uncanny about the whole thing, for they realised that here was no ordinary denizen of the depths, because, apart from its enormous size, the beast, in taking the final plunge, sent out waves that were big enough to have been caused by a passing steamer.”
In July the same year, Campbell reported that George Spicer and his wife had seen “a most extraordinary form of animal” crossing the road: 25 feet long, with a long neck and no limbs: “The nearest thing to a dragon or prehistoric animal I have ever seen in my life,” Spicer said.
This was followed the same year by the first Nessie photograph, taken by Hugh Gray. It shows a dark, serpentine shape in the water. It’s been interpreted as an otter, a swan and a Labrador – perhaps even one belonging to Gray – fetching a stick. Some suspect a hoax, some a puzzling picture taken in all sincerity; others, of course, see the real thing.
The events of 1933 made Nessie famous. Her existence before that date is controversial. Campbell naturally claimed that there was a long and ancient tradition of a hidden monster; other locals declared they had never heard of such a thing before Campbell’s piece appeared. Two 19th-century sightings have been claimed, but they cropped up post-1933 and so prove nothing about ancientness.
But there’s a nice tale from AD565, from Life of St Columba by Adomnán, in which the saint witnessed a monster attacking a swimmer in the Ness River, made the sign of the cross and bade the beast: “Go no further…” The beast “stopped as if pulled with ropes” and fled. But there is no evidence of a living pre-1933 tradition of the monster.
It was the following year that Nessie became a superstar. This was on account of the most famous picture of them all, the one known to monster-hunters as “the surgeon’s photo”. It was taken, or allegedly taken, by a London-based gynaecologist named Robert Wilson, an apparently impeccable witness, and published in the Daily Mail on 21 April 1934.
I read a great deal about dinosaurs when I was a boy and I was naturally convinced by this photograph: it was obviously a plesiosaur. One of my boyhood heroes, the great pioneer conservationist Sir Peter Scott, went so far as to suggest a scientific name: Nessiteras rhombopteryx, Loch Ness dweller with diamond fins.
The surgeon’s photo was a fake. The perpetrator was a man usually described as “a big-game hunter”, Marmaduke Wetherell, assisted by his ingenious stepson Christian. It was a brilliant revenge: the Mail had earlier ridiculed Wetherell for believing he had found footprints of the monster; they turned out to be hippopotamus prints, possibly made with an umbrella stand.
Christian made the fake monster from plastic wood and a clockwork submarine bought from Woolworths. It was about a foot high. After the photo-session Wetherell sank it with his foot to avoid detection, and no doubt bits of the plastic still survive unrotted in the loch. It seems that Wilson went along with the gag; certainly he sold the picture to the Mail.
And with that – for once the word is appropriate – iconic image of the monster, there was no stopping her. She had become part of our lives: what Richard Dawkins called a meme: a national and international phenomenon. Awed and exuberant sightings, ambiguous photos, equivocal videos and many other kinds of soft-centred evidence have been collected, analysed, mocked and treasured ever since, along with contributions from attention-seekers and fakers with the willing assistance of barrel-scraping journalists.
There was a 1938 film of a floating object and a hunt with a harpoon gun the same year. In 1954 the sonar from a fishing boat found a large object keeping pace with the boat. In 1955 there was a picture of two black humps. In 1960 a film showed humps that left a wake. A sonar study of 1967-68 found a fast moving thing that wasn’t, they insisted, a shoal of fish. In 1977 a self-styled mystic claimed to have “summoned” the monster. In 1993 there was an underwater shot of underwater shapes.
And on and on. In 2003 a BBC team employed sonar and satellite tracking and found nothing. In 2018 a DNA survey demonstrated beyond doubt that there are an awful lot of eels in the loch – prompting the suggestion that Nessie was a giant eel. In 1988 Robert Rines, who had previously taken pictures of Nessie’s flipper, declared that Nessie was extinct – and set about a hunt for her carcass, without success.
There are more than 1,000 eyewitness accounts. Campbell himself claimed 18 of them, all of his lacking time, date and precise location. You might think a thousand people can’t all be wrong: sane, sober, sensible, respectable people. Most of them weren’t. They genuinely saw a monster… and if you want to know how they did it, ask a birdwatcher.
Birdwatchers are used to processing scanty visual information at extreme range. Sea-watching is the hardest discipline of all, but I can accurately identify a red-throated diver half a mile off when a non-birder would struggle to diagnose a bird. But it can get tricky.
What’s that even farther out? Another red-throated? Surely it’s a great northern. No, by golly – it’s a white-billed diver, look at that shape, look at that bill, the sharpness of the tip, can’t you see it too? And of course you can, because we both long to see a white-billed diver, and there it is, beyond all shadow of a doubt. And all along it was a distant oil drum – but the mist, the waves, the movement, and above all the hope…
Sure, an oil drum is much bigger than a bird, and the monster is invariably described as much, much bigger than an otter or a seal or a swan or a dog. But size is notoriously difficult to estimate without reference: nearby otter or distant monster? Father Ted explains this principle to Dougal, using a toy from a children’s farm and the real thing: “Small – far away.”
There are almost as many possible explanations for monster sightings as there have been sightings: distant boats, the wake from boats, unusual effects of the tides, rising gas bubbles, floating bits of tree, often with sticky-up branches, seals, sunfish, dolphins, giant catfish, Greenland shark, even an elephant and an anaconda.
But people still prefer the idea of an actual monster – and that’s really the most intriguing aspect of the Loch Ness cult. We actually want wild things in the heart of civilisation. We really want the scientists to be wrong. We really want to confound the experts. Why shouldn’t there be a monster in a lonely loch?
But it’s been centuries since Loch Ness was lonely. It’s part of the Great Glen, a geological fault that cuts Scotland in half and contains four principal lochs; it’s been a natural highway for as long as the place has been inhabited. The A82 runs along the 22 miles of the loch; it was classified in 1923, linking Inverness with Glasgow. Loch Ness is also part of the Caledonian Canal, which has carried cargo between Inverness and Fort William since 1822.
If there have been monsters in the loch for centuries, or even for 90 years, there must be a viable breeding population. But there is not enough food in Loch Ness to feed a family of very large creatures; it’s a truism of ecology that the prey population controls the numbers of predators.
But a part of us just doesn’t want to know. We thrill to the idea of a wilder world than the one we have created for ourselves, and we love the idea of mystery, of something wonderful hiding just beyond our reach.
This atavistic yearning has brought about the thrilling discipline of cryptozoology: the study of hidden creatures, or “cryptids”. They occur all over the world, an enduring human archetype: yeti or the abominable snowman, Bigfoot or Sasquatch, Igopogo, Chupacabra. Black Shuck, a spectral dog, roams East Anglia. Britain, like everywhere else, is full of cryptids: Surrey puma, Fen tiger, Shooters Hill cheetah, the beast of Exmoor, Sheppey panther and the beast of Dartmoor.
But alas, cryptozoology is a pseudoscience, based on neither zoology nor anthropology. It lacks scientific rigour, experimental verification and properly researched folkloristics. It is a mostly harmless cousin to holocaust denial, creationism, election theft and the anti-vaxxers.
As with Father Christmas, no one wants to spoil a good story. Yes, Virginia, there is a monster! You can find teasing YouTube footage from National Geographic and CBS, among others, saying well, yes, it’s possible… Correct scientific caution says that the non-existence of a large creature in the loch is not actually incontrovertibly proven. The rest of us interpret that as permission for fantasy.
And it’s true that creatures turn up unexpectedly. The coelacanth, a lobe-finned fish, was thought to have gone extinct 70 million years ago before it turned up near Madagascar in 1938. More modestly, last autumn the black-naped pheasant-pigeon was found on an island off Papua New Guinea, the first sighting by scientists for 140 years.
But the point is that zoology deals with real wonders that exist objectively in the living world, rather than fabulous monsters that spring from the ancient human love of mysteries and the modern human nostalgia for wilder times. But as we contemplate the shifting waters we all long to see the Loch Ness monster. She exists all right. She’s an irrefragable part of the human mind.
Simon Barnes is a journalist and author. His most recent book is A History of the World in 100 Animals.
Photographs Getty Images