The Loch Ness Monster is an enduring and internationally known phenomenon. It may even be one of the best known mysteries in the world. Many hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the Highlands of Scotland area every year in the hope of catching a glimpse of the Loch’s putative resident. Cynics maintain that Nessie is no more than a lucrative joke created by Scottish Tourism agencies to part credulous visitors from their money. While it may be tempting to go along with this, I think that there may actually be the kernel of something interesting here when you strip away all the hyperbole and nonsense.
Loch Ness, looking to the west
Now, before I start to talk about this particular mystery, I have to declare a personal interest. For more than twenty years, I lived close to Loch Ness (my trip to work saw me driving alongside the Loch every day) and while I’m well aware of the commercial exploitation of the Nessie legend, I have also spoken with reliable, sensible local people who claim to have seen something strange in the Loch. I even had one rather odd sighting myself. So, when I look at the question of whether there really is some unknown creature living in Loch Ness, I’m perhaps not quite as objective as I am about some other mysteries. In addition, I think that the very first claimed photo of Nessie can be reinterpreted in a quite different way to provide new evidence.
Despite my personal interest in this mystery, I will try to look at in the same objective way that I examine all the other mysteries on this site. Is there really a strange creature in Loch Ness or is the legend of Nessie just a clever way of selling novelty fridge magnets and tea-towels?
If we want to find the origin of the Loch Ness Monster legend, I think we can safely disregard the legend of a water kelpie or water horse (‘Each Uisge’ – a supernatural water spirit) said to live in the Loch. Some people seem to regard this as evidence that local people have always associated Loch Ness with a mysterious creature. But the truth is that while such a story is indeed attached to Loch Ness, almost every Loch in Scotland, big or small, has a similar story of a sinister water spirit living in its murky depths. We Celts are a superstitious lot and virtually every corner of the Highlands has a story of a ghost or a malign or kindly spirit attached to it. The water kelpie legend of Loch Ness isn’t unique or even unusual, and I don’t think it should be taken of evidence of a long-standing belief of an odd creature living there.
However, we do need to go back to before 1933, when the story of Nessie gained National and International fame, to find the origins of the current mystery. In the second half of the Nineteenth Century there were repeated references in the local press to an unusually “big fish” which was said to inhabit the Loch. This was reported by anglers and water bailiffs and the stories were generally fairly low key – the creature was supposed to be precisely as reported, an unusually large fish rather than anything more strange. One of the earliest references in print was in the Inverness Courier (the local newspaper, which is still in business) in October 1868 when there was a report of a very large dead fish being found on the shores of the Loch near Abriachan. The article included speculation that this was the big fish which had been reported in Loch Ness for “years back“. It was later discovered that the dead fish was in fact a skinned dolphin, though no-one seemed quite certain how it had got there (although there are dolphins in the nearby Moray Firth none have ever been seen in the freshwater Loch). This article is important in that it confirms that, even in 1868, there were existing reports of something very large living in the Loch.
One of the bridges over the River Ness in Inverness
I’ll include just two more reports that appeared in the local press before the story of a monster in the Loch became well known. In 1916 a local newspaper report described how the head keeper of the Balmacaan estate on the shores of the Loch stumbled into the Drumnadrochit Hotel looking distinctly un-nerved. When questioned, he explained that he had been fishing in the Loch when an “enormous animal” had risen abruptly to the surface very close to him. Terrified, he rowed to the shore as quickly as possible. In February 1932 an Inverness woman, Miss K. MacDonald, was walking over one of the bridges in the centre of Inverness which span the River Ness when she claimed to have seen a bizarre “crocodile-like creature” in the water below. She described the animal as having a short neck, long snout, large scales or plates on its back and tusks on either side of its head. Many other less dramatic reports were carried in the local press, generally describing unidentified objects or disturbances in the water before what is generally accepted as the beginning of the modern Nessie legend in 1933.
The new road on the north side of the Loch, pictured in around 1935
Part of the reason for the increase in sightings in 1933 was that prior to that there were few modern roads running close to the Loch, especially on its North side. Where there were roads, the view of the Loch below was often screened by trees. However, during the early part of 1933 improvements and extensions to the North road meant that for the first time it was possible to drive alongside stretches of Loch Ness and see the surface of the Loch clearly from the road. Perhaps because of this (or simply because the story exploded in the press during the same period) there were many, many more reports of sightings in 1933 and after and for the first time the name Loch Ness Monster was commonly used.
One of the first of these reports came from Mrs Aldie Mackay, manageress of the Drumnadrochit Hotel, who was driving on the new road in March 1933 when she saw in the Loch below what she described as a very large, whale-like creature. She didn’t report the sighting, but the story came to the attention of local water bailiff and part-time journalist Alex Campbell who wrote a sensational account which was published on the front page of the Inverness Courier in May 1933 under the heading “Strange Spectacle in Loch Ness”. Crucially, this account used the word “monster” in relation to the Loch for the first time. As noted, there had been earlier reports which mentioned a “monster fish” but, let’s be honest here, discussion of a “Loch Ness Monster” just makes a more dramatic and interesting newspaper story than “The Really Big Fish of Loch Ness”.
The summer of 1933 was a quiet time for National and International news and newspapers around the UK and beyond took up the story of what soon became generally known as the Loch Ness Monster or “Nessie”. Tourists started coming to the Loch hoping for a glimpse of the strange creature and yet more sightings and photographs followed. In July 1933 two visitors, a Mr. Spicer and his wife, were driving along the south shore of the Loch when they reported to newspapers that they had seen “the nearest approach to a dragon or prehistoric animal that I have ever seen in my life“. This was the first time that anyone had mentioned a similarity between Nessie and a prehistoric animal and this idea immediately had huge appeal and was widely taken up in press reports. The Spicers went on to explain that they had seen King Kong (the film was released in the UK in April 1933) and that the creature they had seen beside the Loch resembled the diplodocus from that movie.
It’s difficult to tell just what the Hugh Grey photograph from 1933 shows
The idea of Nessie as a surviving prehistoric monster was backed-up when in September, five people claimed to have seen a long-necked creature in the Loch near Altsigh and in October when Alex Campbell (the journalist who wrote that first story of the monster) reported a sighting of a long necked, plesiosaur-like creature near Fort Augustus. In November 1933 a local man, Hugh Grey, took the first claimed photograph of the monster, but although this was widely publicized at the time it didn’t really show anything very clear. However, in April 1934 Kenneth Wilson, a London surgeon who was holidaying in the Highlands, took a photograph that seemed to confirm the description of a long-necked creature which did indeed resemble a plesiosaur. This photograph, which has become one of the best known and most iconic photographic images of the 20th Century and became generally known as the “Surgeon’s photograph”, firmly cemented in the public consciousness the idea that the creature in Loch Ness was a surviving dinosaur. In 1934 Rupert T. Gould published The Loch Ness Monster and Others, the first full-length book about the monster (Gould’s conclusion was that it was a giant amphibian though he didn’t completely discount the dinosaur theory either).
Most reproductions of the Surgeon’s photograph are cropped and enlarged. This shows part of the original including the opposite shore. Looking at it like this, the “monster” actually looks quite small.
In the years that followed there have been a huge number of reported sightings and photographs and a few films of the claimed monster. There have also been a number of books on the subject, countless newspaper and magazine stories, television programmes and a number of expeditions whose purpose was to discover what, if anything, lives in the Loch. These expeditions have ranged from the rational and scientific (Operation Deepscan in 1987 was an attempt to use a detailed SONAR scan of the Loch to locate any large creatures which might be living there) to the utterly bonkers (several shamanic and occult groups have visited the Loch in an attempt to make psychic contact with the monster). However, all the sightings, photographs, films, books and expeditions have one thing in common: none of them have provided definitive, unambiguous proof that any unusual large creature lives in the Loch.
The McNab photograph from 1955 appears to show two humps cruising past Urquhart Castle.
I don’t want to spend too much time on the various photographs and films but I will mention a few of the best known. In addition to the Hugh Grey picture and the Surgeon’s photograph, well-publicised photographs claiming to show the monster were taken by Lachlan Stuart (1951), P.A. MacNab (1955) and Peter O’Connor (1960). All were initially believed to be genuine but all three are now known to be fakes. In 1960 engineer Tim Dinsdale, who had visited the Loch specifically to look for the monster, took a four minute film which he claimed showed the creature swimming in the Loch. However, the 16mm film has so little detail that it is not possible to be certain that it shows what Dinsdale claimed. In 1972 an underwater camera deployed by “The Academy of Applied Science” under the guidance of Robert Rines took what became known as the “rhomboid fin” photograph. This was claimed by some to show the flipper of a plesiosaur-like creature. However it turned out that the image had been “enhanced” to the point that it bore little resemblance to the image originally taken by the underwater cameras which didn’t show anything that looked like a flipper. Another of the same batch of photos was said to show a head and neck, but close examination made it more likely that this was actually a piece of wood on the bottom of the Loch.
The picture at the top is the enhanced rhomboid fin photograph. The picture below is the actual image captured by the underwater camera before enhancement.
In 1977 a psychic entertainer, shaman and hopeful professional monster hunter called Anthony ‘Doc’ Shiels took a startlingly clear colour photograph of the head and neck of the monster while camping close to Urquhart Castle. Subsequent detailed analysis of the photograph showed that some of the ripples on the surface of the water are actually visible through the head and neck. This led some people to wonder whether the monster inhabits a parallel reality which renders it semi-transparent in our world? Other more rational people wondered whether the same effect could be arrived at by painting the head and neck on a photograph of the surface of the water and re-photographing the resulting composite image? Shiels later cleared the matter up completely when he commented that, while the image was completely genuine, he didn’t himself believe in the Loch Ness Monster. Most people reject the Shiels photograph as a fake (it’s often referred to as the “Loch Ness Muppet”).
Doc Shiels photograph from 1977
Hopefully, you get the picture. There are more photographs and films showing distant blobs on the surface of the Loch than you can shake a stick at, but the only clear, unambiguous images are all either known to be fake or at least raise enough questions for us to have valid doubts. Most objective observers agree that something is fundamentally wrong here if there really is a monster or monsters in Loch Ness. Eye-witness sightings increased dramatically following the opening of the new road in 1933 and more have been reported in every subsequent year. However, in the last eighty years there have been no clear, unambiguous films or photographs. Not one. Nowadays around one million tourists pass along the side of Loch Ness every year. Almost all of them scan the Loch while hopefully clutching cameras and phones in the hope that they may catch a glimpse of Nessie. Add to this a number of expeditions which have placed observers equipped with cameras around the Loch. Goven this, if a colony of large, unusual creatures lived in the Loch, surely it’s reasonable to suppose that by now someone would have taken a clear photograph or film of one of them?
Sceptics have argued that the lack of photographs and films proves that there isn’t anything unusual in Loch Ness. And I almost go along with this. Almost. Except that I think there is one photograph which does show something interesting and some sightings which are worth more than others. But I’ll talk about those in detail in the My Thoughts section.
Before we consider the theories, let’s first talk about Loch Ness itself. The Loch is big – 22 miles long and a mile wide in places. It’s also very deep (much deeper, for example, than most parts of the nearby North Sea). Depth soundings in Urquhart Bay have recorded depths of over 800 feet, though there have been unconfirmed claims of depths of more than 1000 feet. The volume of water the Loch contains is staggeringly, bogglingly huge. Someone once calculated that, it were possible to empty the loch of water and silt, and you then placed every one of the seven billion humans on Planet Earth in to the empty Loch, it would still be 90% empty. There is so much water in there that the Loch creates its own microclimate. In winter, the area close to the Loch can be five or more degrees warmer than other more distant areas and in summer the Loch is generally much colder than the surrounding air. One of the results of this is the appearance of frequent mirages, where the layer of air close to the Loch is at a different temperature and can distort and refract images of distant objects.
View of Loch Ness looking west from Urquhart Castle
Loch Ness also lies on a major fault line and this area is subject to frequent earth tremors and even occasional earthquakes. The last big one was in 1755 but tremors substantial enough to cause the level of the Loch to rapidly rise and fall were reported in 1816, 1888, 1890 and 1901. Smaller tremors are still fairly routine in the area. The Loch is connected to the sea by the Caledonian Canal and the River Ness, both of which pass through the city of Inverness. It is a distance of around five miles from the Loch to the Beauly Firth, a narrow but deep channel which leads to the larger Moray Firth and out to the North Sea. Many people have wondered whether an animal could make its way from the sea to the Loch (or vice versa) using the river or canal? The canal seems an unlikely route – there are six lock gates between the sea and the Loch, five within the city of Inverness, and it’s difficult to see how any animal large could pass through un-noticed. There are two weirs on the river, but I’m not sure that these provide an impassible barrier – large salmon are certainly able to travel up the river and over the weirs every year to reach the Loch and their spawning grounds in the rivers beyond, so it isn’t impossible that a larger creature could travel to or from the Loch via the river.
The Holm Mills weir on the River Ness. This picture was taken in summer when the water level in the river is fairly low. It can be several feet higher when the river is in spate.
As far as theories go, let’s start with the theory that what lives in Loch Ness is a plesiosaur of some sort (or rather, a colony, because it simply wouldn’t be feasible for a single animal to be responsible for reports which go from the mid 1800s and earlier to the present day) which somehow survived the general extinction of the dinosaurs. I’m afraid that this idea is complete bollocks. Why? Well, because the dinosaurs died out a long time ago and Loch Ness is relatively recent. Until somewhere around 20,000 years ago, the land that now includes Loch Ness and the Great Glen was covered by ice. A lot of ice. A layer of ice that was as much as a mile or more thick. This ice had been around for more than 100,000 years and it was the action of glaciers within this ice sheet that scoured out the valley which became the Great Glen. Before the ice, there wasn’t a Glen or a Loch. The ice didn’t fully melt until around 10,000 years ago, by which time dinosaurs had been extinct for a very long time. It doesn’t matter how you argue it, Loch Ness didn’t even exist until more than sixty five million years after the last plesiosaur was dead. So, it just isn’t possible that a group of plesiosaurs somehow survived the general extinction of the dinosaurs by hiding in the Loch. Whatever might be in there, it simply can’t be a dinosaur.
The plesiosaur theory, which still has a surprising number of followers, began with the ‘dinosaur’ sighting by the Spicers in July 1933, seemed to be confirmed by Alex Campbell’s sighting of a long-necked creature in October 1933 and received a major boost again in April 1934 with the Surgeon’s photograph. By mid-1934 the idea that Loch Ness was the home to some long-necked creature which looked rather like a plesiosaur had firmly taken hold. However, there is good reason to doubt the Spicer’s sighting – they claimed to see a very large creature crossing the road in front of them and making its way down to the Loch, but when a local journalist investigated soon after, he found that this creature had somehow crossed the road without damaging the fences on either side and without leaving any tracks or even flattening the grass and small trees through which it would have to have passed. The most charitable explanation was that the Spicers actually saw something much smaller crossing the road (an otter has been suggested) perhaps distorted by heat haze.
Alex Campbell later admitted that what he had thought was a large, long-necked animal was actually a cormorant and we now know that the Surgeon’s photograph was a fake. Later photographs which appeared to support the idea of a long-necked creature such as the underwater pictures taken by the Rines expedition and the head and neck shot by Doc Shiels have all been discredited. In fact, all known photographs of a long necked creature have subsequently proved to be fakes or errors. Most sightings of a long-necked creature are hoaxes or simple errors. There really is no good evidence whatever for a long-necked creature and none whatever for a surviving dinosaur in Loch Ness and there is compelling geological data which makes this categorically impossible. Sorry. It’s a nice idea and all, but the plesiosaur theory just doesn’t work on any level.
Many people believe that the Loch Ness Monster looks like this artist’s impression of a plesiosaur.
Other theories have suggested that Nessie is a form of giant newt (Gauld, The Loch Ness Monster and Others , 1934), a stray sea serpent (Oudemans, The Loch Ness Animal, 1934), a huge, unknown invertebrate (Holiday, The Great Orm of Loch Ness, 1968) or even (this is my personal favourite) an elephant swimming in the Loch with only its trunk showing above the water (in an article by paleontologist and artist Neil Clark in the March 2006 edition of the journal of the Open University Geological Society). OK, this last one isn’t quite as loopy as it sounds – the suggestion is that a travelling circus may have visited the Loch in the 1930s, that it may have allowed one or more of its elephants to bathe in the Loch and these may have been seen as they frolicked in the water and mistakenly reported as a long-necked creature. Not that the author bothers with anything so prosaic as confirming whether such a circus was in the area at the relevant times or indeed explains how elephants can be responsible for sightings in the Loch that had been going on for close to one hundred years in 1930.
F.W. Holiday concluded that the Loch Ness Monster was probably an invertebrate, essentially a gigantic slug, in his book. Not that you’d guess from the picture on the cover of this 1970s edition.
But then, that’s the problem with all of these theories – they aren’t backed up by anything approaching proof. And the bewildering variety of different things that people have claimed to see in the Loch makes it difficult to reconcile them all as a single creature. Some people have seen a single hump, some have seen multiple humps. Some have seen a long neck with a small head. Some have seen something they describe as looking like a whale or an upturned boat. Some, like Tim Dinsdale, have described something very like the popular conception of a plesiosaur with powerful flippers. Holiday’s theory of a giant invertebrate was an attempt to explain this by theorizing a creature which could dramatically change its body shape (or at least, the parts visible above the water) accounting for the very different sightings. The problem is that there is no evidence at all that such a creature has ever existed and absolutely none to suggest that one or more lives in Loch Ness.
All of which makes it tempting to go along with the other main theory, that what people are actually doing is mis-identifying various natural phemomena in the Loch as an unknown creature. We see what we expect to see – if a person visits Loch Ness, they may have an expectation of seeing an unknown animal and many will expect to see something that looks like a plesiosaur. When they see something that they don’t immediately recognize, they tend to assume it’s the monster whereas if they had seen the same thing somewhere else, they might have recognized it as something more prosaic. It’s tempting to go along with this. Half-submerged, floating logs, otters, cormorants and large eels almost certainly account for some sightings.
This photograph taken by monster hunter Hugh Cockrell in 1958 was claimed to show the monster, but it’s almost certainly a floating log.
And there is at least one surface effect on Loch Ness that is unusual, striking and may very easily be taken as evidence for a monster. This is the standing wave effect caused when a boat moves down the Loch and creates a notable bow-wave. These are most apparent when the Loch is fairly calm. The bow waves from the boat spread out until they hit the shoreline and they are then reflected back towards the centre of the Loch. Where these waves intersect, they form what look like humps in the water. Unless you have seen this, you can’t imagine what an uncanny effect it produces. Of course, many other Lochs and lakes produce this effect too – it happens in any body of water which is relatively narrow with approximately parallel sides and upon which large boats travel. The bigger the waves created by the boat, the bigger and more clearly defined are the apparent humps. And there are plenty of large boats on the Loch – in addition to large tourist cruise boats, the Loch is part of the Caledonian Canal, the main water connection between the East and West coasts of Scotland and is frequently used by fishing boats. The difference is that at Loch Ness, people expect to see a monster and they interpret these waves as a monster sighting where they would most likely go un-noticed anywhere else.
Bow waves on Loch Ness. These were photographed by a monster hunting expedition in the 1960s
If you are low down and close to the surface of the water, the bow waves from a passing boat may not be particularly apparent except where they intersect in the middle of the Loch after being reflected from the sides. The intersecting waves appear like two or three dark, shiny humps moving through otherwise calm water at the same speed and in the same direction as the boat that created the original waves. The bow waves can take anything from six to eight minutes from the time they are first created by the boat to moment when they intersect in the middle of the Loch. In that time, even at a leisurely ten knots, the boat that created the wake can be half a mile or more away and it’s easy to assume that a distant boat and what seems like a group of moving humps in the water are not connected.
Standing waves on Loch Ness also mimic the speed of the boat creating them – if the boat slows, the bow waves it creates get smaller and, five or six minutes later, the apparent humps also get smaller or disappear altogether which can look as if a creature is submerging. The opposite happens if the boat increases speed – the humps get larger. If you watch from high above the Loch, you can see the entire pattern of waves and the effect is obvious. From lower down, the pattern of waves is less evident and the humps look much stranger. I have seen this effect on several occasions, generally on fine, clear days when the Loch is calm. On one occasion I watched on a Summer’s day as the wake from a fishing boat created a perfect standing wave and a group of excited tourists on the beach below me gestured, pointed and took photographs. Doubtless they reported a fine monster sighting when they returned home.
Otters almost certainly account for some monster sightings
I am confident that standing wave effects account for most if not all reports of multiple dark humps seen travelling along the Loch. When these are added to windrows (dark patches on the surface of the water caused by turbulent air), large fish such as salmon, diving birds, otters and the occasional seal, it’s perhaps not surprising that so many people who come to the Loch hoping for a sighting see something which they are happy to report as the monster.
So, is that it? Is the Loch Ness Monster nothing more than a tall story built on the misidentification of entirely explainable phenomena by credulous visitors? Partly I think this is true. Many, perhaps even most, sightings have a natural and explainable cause. But not perhaps all of them.
For the first time in a Mystery Ink article, I’ll now be talking about some of my own experiences. I can’t prove any of these things and you may decide that I’m simply demented, mistaken or not telling the truth. Or all three. I don’t believe that any of these are true (I mean, I know that I’m telling the truth, but if I were mistaken or just plain crazy, I don’t suppose I’d know, would I?). But in the quest to delve more deeply into this mystery, I’m willing to take that chance.
I moved to the Highlands of Scotland in early 1991 and I bought a house in a remote area around 25 miles north-west of the city of Inverness and around seven miles from Loch Ness. I ended up living there for more than twenty years – before that I had lived in Aberdeen in the north East of Scotland. I was aware of and interested in the story of the Loch Ness Monster, but I had no particular thoughts about whether a large unknown really creature lived in the Loch (though I had always considered the plesiosaur idea to be pretty stupid).
The object that I saw was moving upriver towards the footbridge in the foreground in this photograph. At the time I was driving on the road bridge which you can see in the background.
It was around 15:45 in the afternoon and I was driving on the A82 through the centre of Inverness with my wife, heading West. Traffic was fairly heavy and I ended up stopped briefly on a bridge over the River Ness. The weather was overcast but dry and the light was already starting to fade (the sun sets at about 15:55 at that time of year) when I happened to glance down at the river. I immediately saw a large, dark object travelling upstream, against the flow of the river and causing a sizeable wake. I pointed this out to my wife and we both watched as it moved up the river at around the speed of a brisk walk.
We compared notes afterwards and we agreed that what we saw was a dark object, either dark grey or black, projecting out of the water. It appeared to be around 2½ -3 feet long, 1 – 1½ feet wide and steeply humped, with the peak of the hump perhaps 1 – 1½ feet above the surface of the water. Light reflecting off the water meant that it wasn’t possible to see below the surface but both of us had the impression that this was the top of something larger projecting above the water while the main part remained submerged. There was no fin or other projection from the smooth surface of the hump, but it did appear to both of us that there was a pronounced line or peak running lengthwise along the top of the hump. We watched for a minute or so until traffic behind became impatient. I then drove on towards the roundabout on the west side of the bridge, drove all the way round this and then back over the bridge and on to the narrow road which runs alongside the east bank of the river. I parked the car and we both got out and stood beside the river. We could both still see the object as it moved smoothly up the river, though it now seemed smaller with the dark hump projecting no more than six inches above the surface. It still left a strong wake as it moved against the current and another person, a man walking a dog, also stopped beside us to watch. Gradually the object got smaller until it disappeared altogether. The time between first seeing the object and it disappearing was probably around five or six minutes, though for some of this time it was out of our sight as I drove back over the bridge.
And that was it. Compared to more dramatic sightings, it isn’t much I know, but it happened to me and I’m confident about what I saw. I should probably point out that I’m a keen walker (and dog owner) and I had spent a fair amount of time beside lochs and rivers in Scotland, and I was familiar with most of the wildlife that can be seen there, so let’s start off with what this wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t a trout, a salmon or an eel, the visible hump was just too large. It wasn’t a seal – it moved smoothly the water, neither rising nor falling and without with the undulating motion of a seal. The pronounced ridge or peak at the top of the hump was also unlike any seal. It wasn’t a dolphin (there are dolphins in the nearby Moray Firth) as the dorsal fin of a dolphin is unmistakable. It wasn’t an otter – it was too large and bulky when first seen and the shape and way that it moved were completely unlike an otter. It was also much too big to be any form of diving bird and it certainly wasn’t a wind or wave effect.
So, I’m confident about what it wasn’t. But what was it? I’m afraid that I have no idea. It was something that I have never seen before or since. Had I seen this in Loch Ness rather than in the River Ness, it would be a classic hump sighting. Now, my wife and I aren’t the only people to have seen something odd in the River Ness – other people have also reported strange things there (remember that sighting from 1933 of a “crocodile-like creature” which was also spotted from a bridge in Inverness?) including anomalous humps. Most monster investigators disregard these because the accepted argument is that the weirs on the river mean that it would be impossible for anything to travel from the river to the Loch. I’m not so certain and I think that it might be wise to include sightings in the river alongside sightings in the Loch itself. Incidentally, I moved away from the Highlands in 2013. In the more than twenty years that I lived in the area, I frequently passed by both the river and the Loch, and I never again saw anything similar, or indeed anything odd at all.
Now we move on to another sighting, not by me this time but by a friend. This was a woman in her forties who lived in a house on a hillside above the Loch with a stunning, panoramic view over Urquhart Bay. This person was utterly down-to-earth, prosaic and phlegmatic. She was also contemptuous of the whole idea of a monster in the Loch and openly mocked anyone who thought differently. One of the reasons was that she had lived in her house for almost ten years when I first met her and she often sat at the worktop at her kitchen counter and looked down on the Loch below. She was very familiar with standing waves, windrows and all the other things that commonly happened on the Loch and she had never seen anything that wasn’t completely normal. This combined with a generally skeptical attitude towards life in general led her to conclude that the whole Nessie thing was nonsense.
And then during a celidh at her house one evening in the summer of 1994, someone raised the subject of the monster (in the customary mocking way) and I noticed that she immediately backed away from the topic like a vampire confronted with garlic. Later, when no-one else was around, I asked her why? Initially she was very reluctant to talk, but eventually she admitted that she had seen something she couldn’t explain in the Loch. She had got up early and was sitting in her kitchen drinking coffee when she became aware that something was moving in the waters of Urquhart Bay. It was around 05:30 in the morning (the sun rises at about 04:30 in this area in late May) and the Loch was flat calm with no visible boats and almost no traffic on the roads. What she saw wasn’t very dramatic compared to some other claimed sightings – she had simply seen something large moving on or just below the surface of the water. She couldn’t make out much detail in the murky water (Loch Ness is heavily stained with peat debris washed down from rivers and visibility under water can drop to as little as two – three feet), but, she said, ‘It was big and it was alive!’ She watched it for ten minutes or so until it moved out of the bay and into the main part of the Loch at which point it appeared to submerge and was no longer visible.
When I pressed her, she gave a little more detail – it appeared to be dark brown (though peat stained water makes most things look brown), it was very bulky and she couldn’t see anything that looked like a long neck or flippers. She wouldn’t be drawn on estimating size or length beyond saying that it was considerably bigger than the small cabin cruisers which often visit Urquhart Bay. She thought that parts of this animal were above the surface of the water for periods during the sighting but she couldn’t be certain about this as she was looking down on it from above. Its size made her certain that it wasn’t any creature known to live in the Loch and it seemed to move fairly slowly. What impressed me most while talking to her was just how upset and distressed she was about this. But then, I suspect that’s often what happens to people when they are confronted by something that shatters their nice comfortable view of the world. Now, just like my own sighting, I don’t know for certain what she saw other than that it was large, animate and something she had never seen before. Of course, it’s possible that she was mistaken and that what she had actually seen was something known and explainable, but as someone who had spent a number of years looking at the Loch, this sighting impressed me.
You may wonder why I’m bothering to give details about my own and this later sighting? After all, neither is very dramatic and neither really adds much to the history of strange things being reported in Loch Ness. One reason is that I know that you won’t have read about either before because they weren’t reported. The other reason is that, over my years living in the area I collected a handful of other similar sighting reports from local people. These were similarly low-key and were mainly from people who fished on or worked by the Loch. Most simply involved a sighting which seemed to indicate the presence of something on or close to the surface of the water that was much bigger than any of the Loch’s known denizens. None described anything that could have been a head and neck. The people telling me about these were often frankly embarrassed and after telling me they would shrug and add, ‘but it was probably nothing…’ However, these sightings accorded well with the pre-1933 press reports of an unusually large fish in the Loch and they certainly persuaded me that there was something unusual there. However, in the interest of balance I should also add that I spoke to other local people who had lived their whole lives by the Loch and who had seen nothing at all, including the skipper of a local cruise boat who had travelled up and down the Loch three or four days a week for more than twenty years and who was adamant that, if there really was something large in the Loch, he would have seen it.
Even Sherlock Holmes became interested in the Loch Ness Monster. In The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) he discovers that it’s actually a submarine disguised as a monster. The prop monster built for the movie sank when it was being towed behind a boat and was rediscovered apparently intact on the bottom of the Loch during an underwater survey in 2015.
If you troll back through articles in the local press which predate the emergence of the monster legend in 1933 you’ll find many similar reports to the point where, by the late 1860s, there seemed to be a general acceptance amongst many local people that something large lived in Loch Ness, not a monster precisely, but some form of very big fish which was only very rarely seen. The idea of an unusually big fish in body of water as large as Loch Ness is odd, but not nearly as outrageous as the idea of a colony of dinosaurs living there. We know that a surviving colony of dinosaurs in the Loch is impossible but interest in this idea spawned the modern Nessie legend and tended to obscure more prosaic explanations for what might live in the Loch. It also had the effect of discouraging mainstream scientists and naturalists from studying the Loch. And all the sightings and/or photographs over the years which appeared to indicate a long-necked creature are either known to be doubtful, deliberate hoaxes or probable mis-identifications. There are a core of credible sightings of something unusual in the Loch, but these tend to describe either a single hump or a disturbance in the water that seemed to indicate something large just below the surface. I think the idea that there is a long-necked creature similar to a plesiosaur in the Loch is a red-herring unsupported by credible evidence and this has deflected investigators for more than eighty years from looking at the real evidence.
But, if the evidence tells us that there does seem to be (or at least, to have been at one time) something unusually large in the Loch, what can it be if it isn’t a dinosaur or a giant newt or any of the other sillier theories? Most of the credible sightings (and by that I mean sightings by people familiar with the Loch and its resident wildlife) talk about a single hump moving slowly on the surface before submerging (this is quite different to the multiple, rapidly moving humps caused by standing waves). Some people have described the hump as “whale-like” but a recurring phrase used to describe it is “like an upturned boat”. Think about that for a moment – the shape of almost every boat’s hull is curved down to a keel. Turn it upside down and you have a hump that rises to a pronounced peak. I think that what people are describing is a hump with a pronounced dorsal ridge or peak. That’s certainly what I saw on the River Ness (though on a much smaller scale).
Let’s take a moment now to revisit the first known photograph of the monster, taken by local man Hugh Grey on 12th November 1933. After a church service, Grey walked along the south shore of the Loch to the west of the mouth of the River Foyers. Somewhere between 12:00 and 13:00 (accounts differ) he saw something in the water below him:
“An object of considerable dimensions rose out of the water not very far from where I was. I immediately got my camera ready and snapped the object which was two or three feet above the surface of the water. I did not see any head, for what I took to be the front parts were under the water, but there was considerable movement from what seemed to be the tail, the part furthest from me. The object only appeared for a few minutes then sank out of sight.”
From an interview with Grey published in the Daily Record.
Grey took a single black and white photograph of the object with his box camera. The photograph subsequently appeared in the Daily Record, the Daily Sketch and a number of other newspapers. Here is an original, uncropped version of the picture as it was originally printed and as it has subsequently appeared in a number of books and websites.
This picture caused a great deal of excitement when it was first published and has generated intense speculation since. Grey is generally considered to have been an honest and decent man, and most observers ruled out a deliberate fake. However, he was known to have poor eyesight which has led some people to suppose that he might have mistakenly photographed something quite ordinary in the water. But, just what does the picture show? Some people have confidently stated that it shows Grey’s Labrador swimming in the Loch with a stick in its mouth. Other are equally confident that it shows a swan. I think both of these interpretations are simply silly – whatever the picture shows, it’s clearly not a swan or a dog. But then it doesn’t show anything that looks like the typical “upturned boat” sighting either.
However, I believe there are fundamental problems with this photograph. First, the way in which the object interacts with the water in which it submerged just looks wrong to me – the way in which the bottom of the object stands out from the water is distinctly odd. In addition, we don’t know precisely where Grey was standing when he took the picture, but in November at 12:00 – 13:00 on the south shore of the Loch and to the west of the River Foyers the sun should have been behind the photographer and fairly low in the sky (even at mid-day, the sun doesn’t get very high above the horizon in the Highlands in winter). I tested this idea by going to Foyers at the end of November at around the same time and it is correct. Now, I’m not a photographic expert, but to me that means that with the sun behind you, the shadow cast by the object in the water should be on the far side. But it isn’t – the object casts a shadow on the near side as if the photographer was facing the sun, which simply isn’t possible. What does that mean?
I have a strong suspicion it means that the picture was originally printed upside down in the Daily Record and that every subsequent use has simply followed this. Let’s try turning it up the other way:
Now the shadow is on the far side, as it should be for a picture taken with the sun behind the photographer. And now, suddenly, you can see a shape that does look a little like an upturned boat (or even a whale) and with a clear dorsal ridge which fits with many known sightings. The odd dark strip on the object itself (which doesn’t really make sense when the image is viewed upside down) is now clearly a shadow which extends into the water behind. Perhaps it’s actually the shadow of the photographer himself? And the object now fits better with Grey’s description where he noted that there was movement from “the tail, the part furthest from me “ – looking at the image this way up, what might be a tail on the right is the furthest part from the photographer. I’m still not certain what this image shows, but I do think that we may have been looking at it upside down for more than eighty years. Perhaps this could be the first (and only?) genuine photograph of Nessie? It’s also the only photograph I’m aware of that confirms the “upturned boat” description that many sightings describe.
OK, now (finally!) it’s time to consider what the Loch Ness monster could actually be. And I want to start by talking about fish. I know, if you were hoping for a plesiosaur, a fish seems kind of disappointing, but bear with me, I think this possible solution might be worth considering. Let’s start by thinking about the basic physiology of fish. Unlike mammals and most other creatures on the planet, fish don’t generally have a pre-defined maximum size to which they grow. No matter how long mammals live and no matter how much they eat, they won’t grow above a certain median height. Most fish on the other hand seem to be capable of just going on growing indefinitely – the older they get, the bigger they get. Given a lack of predators and sufficient food, a fish can keep growing until it becomes so large that it can no longer find enough food to sustain its body mass, at which point it dies. Given an environment with abundant food and a lack of predators, a fish could theoretically grow very large indeed.
A Beluga Sturgeon
Let’s talk specifically now about the sturgeon, the generic name for 27 species of fish belonging to the family Acipenseridae. These are very ancient species sometimes referred to as living fossils which date back to the Triassic period more than 200 million years ago. Sturgeon have a number of interesting characteristics. First, they live a very long time. We aren’t quite sure how long, but scientists who examined a lake sturgeon caught in Canada in 1953 determined that it was 152 years old. Second, during their long lives, they can grow very large indeed. The largest authenticated sturgeon on record was caught in the Volga Estuary in 1827. It weighed a staggering 3,463 lbs, was 25 feet long and was estimated to be more than 200 years old. There are persistent but unconfirmed rumors of sturgeon of over 30 feet in length. There is certainly no reason that this would be impossible. Just think about that for a moment. That’s a fish longer than a school bus and which weighs almost two tons. Observed in the context of a placid Highland loch, such a fish would indeed appear to be a monster.
This sturgeon was caught in British Columbia. It’s around eight feet long and probably weighs 800 – 1000lbs. Now, try to visualise something that is more than three times longer and as much as four times the weight. A monster? I think so.
Most species of sturgeon are anadromous, they live the first twenty years or so of their lives entirely in the sea before migrating into fresh water to spawn (just like the salmon which make their way from the North Sea to Loch Ness via the River Ness). Most sturgeon have a broad back rising to a pronounced dorsal ridge. Large sturgeon (nine or ten feet in length) have been caught in lakes in the northern Unites States and Canada which have similar climatic conditions to Loch Ness. Lake Washington in Washington State in the US had a reputation as being the home to a large, duck-eating monster. Sightings of this creature ended in November 1987 when an 11 foot long sturgeon weighing more than half a ton was found dead on the shores of the lake. Stafford Lake near Novato, in California was also the location for a number of monster sightings. In 1984 the lake was drained for dam repairs and the monster was found – a six-foot white sturgeon.
Could there be a large sturgeon in Loch Ness? It certainly seems possible, though there are no records of this type of fish being captured in the Loch. Let’s theorise for a moment that a sturgeon of some sort entered the Loch via the River Ness around 1850. This could have been a Baltic Sturgeon or even one of the now virtually extinct European Lake Sturgeon. Whatever type it was, it would most likely be at least 20 years old at this time, the age at which sturgeon begin to search for spawning grounds. Let’s suppose that, for whatever reason, the fish was unable to leave the Loch and remained there. That would certainly account for the stories about a “monster fish” in the Loch dating from this period. We know that sturgeon can live for 150 years and possibly longer (remember that the biggest sturgeon ever caught was thought to be 200 years old). So, the same fish (presumably grown by this time to a considerable size) could well have been responsible for the rash of sightings between 1933 and the 1980s. The same fish could conceivably still be living in the Loch today!
Do we have any evidence to support this theory? The first question to consider is, could a sturgeon get past the two weirs on the River Ness? The answer appears to be a qualified yes. There are certainly instances in Canada where large sturgeon have been caught in lakes where the only access is via rivers which include weirs. Both weirs on the River Ness include “fish gaps” to allow the passage of salmon on their way to their spawning grounds. On the Holm Mills weir the gap is 60 feet wide and upstream on the Dochfour weir the gap is 24 feet wide. When the river is in spate the depth of water over the Holm Mills weir can reach five feet and at Dochfour the depth can reach seven feet. That should be enough to allow even a very large fish to pass either weir. It’s certainly large enough to allow seals to pass the weirs as these animals are very occasionally seen in the Loch, usually accompanied by a spate of new “monster” sightings.
A large sturgeon caught on Lake Michigan
So, it does seem possible that a large sturgeon could enter the Loch via the River Ness, but have there been any sightings of sturgeon in the river? Remember the odd sighting of a “crocodile-like creature” from a bridge over the River Ness in 1932? The eyewitness described the creature she saw in the river below as having: “a short neck, long snout, large scales or plates on its back and tusks on either side of its head”. If you consider that a notable feature of the sturgeon is the large armoured plates on its back, that many species do have a long snout and that most varieties have barbels, long sensory organs, on either side of their mouths which could possibly be described as looking like tusks and suddenly this odd sighting begins to sound a lot like a large sturgeon in the river. My own sighting in January 1991, though providing much less detail, could also have been the back of a large sturgeon as it made its way up the river.
Let’s consider two more sightings. In 1936 landscape artist Alastair Dallas claimed a sighting of a very large (estimated 30ft) creature on the shores of the Loch. His sketch showed an oddly fish-like creature with a humped back, a snout and a sucking mouth with some sort of external organs next to it. A lot like a sturgeon in fact. In 1993 a woman watching what she thought was a log floating in the water of the Loch near Fort Augustus was surprised to see the log swim off leaving a wake and then submerge. She later said that she had assumed it was a log because of its size and ‘scaly’ pattern which she took to be bark. When she was shown a photograph of the bony plates on the back of a sturgeon she agreed that this was similar to what she had seen.
Are there any sturgeon in the area? These are certainly unusual, but they are not unknown. In August 1661 the capture of a 12 foot sturgeon was reported in the Moray Firth, not far from Inverness and the river mouth. In 1871 the Inverness Courier reported that a 7 foot sturgeon was caught in a salmon net just outside the mouth of the River Ness. The same article also mentioned another large sturgeon which had been caught in the same area in 1836. So, there certainly have been sturgeon in the area though, as far as I am aware, no-one has ever caught a sturgeon in Loch Ness.
If there was a large sturgeon in the Loch, could it account for monster sightings? I certainly can’t see any way in which a sturgeon could account for a head and neck sighting but as discussed, I’m not aware of any unambiguous sightings or photographs of a head and neck. A large sturgeon could certainly account for single hump sightings. Sturgeon are bottom feeders which spend most of their lives at depth. However, they are known to rise to shallow depths and spend short periods at or just below the surface. The reason for this is not known but I think that the broad back of a large sturgeon on the surface with its distinct dorsal ridge could account for at least some of the “upturned boat” sightings. A very large sturgeon could certainly account for my friend’s sighting in Urquhart Bay in 1994.
A Lake Surgeon
Could the Hugh Grey photograph also show a sturgeon when it’s viewed correctly? This is more problematic. The distinct dorsal ridge is obvious and what could be the front edge of a dorsal fin can be seen to the right (when the picture is viewed the correct way up). However, the pronounced hump on the left is a problem. I suppose it’s just possible that a sturgeon foraging on the bottom with its snout while its body floats on the surface might produce this shape, but the side and back of the object in Grey’s photograph look very smooth – there is no sign of the bony plates we’d expect to see if this was a sturgeon.
I believe that much of the hyperbole and excitement surrounding Loch Ness began in late 1933 with the notion that the Loch was home to one or a group of surviving dinosaurs. This is a wonderfully romantic notion and one that quickly gripped the public imagination. Unfortunately, there is no good evidence to support this theory and some very good reasons to doubt it and I think we can safely dismiss the idea of a long-necked creature or creatures in the Loch as nothing more than a silly season story hyped by the media. Which takes us back to where we were before 1933 when there was a widespread and longstanding belief amongst local people that the Loch was the home to an unusually large fish. I believe that a large sturgeon is the best candidate for this, either as a single example which survived in the Loch for a very long time or perhaps as a series of fish which have entered and left the Loch via the River Ness from time to time.
A large sturgeon would certainly qualify as a monster if it lived in the Loch and could, I believe, account for many of the credible sightings of humps and disturbances in the water. I’m afraid that the idea of a “Big Fish of Loch Ness” just isn’t going to sell many fridge magnets, but I do think it’s the most likely explanation for the Loch Ness Mystery if we review the available evidence rationally.
The Loch Ness Story, 1975, by Nicholas Witchell.
Published thirty-five years ago but still probably the best and most balanced book about the Loch Ness Monster is this effort by journalist and BBC news diplomatic and royal correspondent Nick Witchell. It’s no longer in print but it’s not too hard to find a copy.
The Loch Ness Monster: the Evidence, 1997, by Steuart Campbell.
If you want balance, this is the definitive book by a Loch Ness Monster debunker. Campbell starts with the premise that there is nothing unusual in the Loch and spends 130 pages explaining why this must be so (though he doesn’t explain any sightings and didn’t bother to interview any of the claimed eye-witnesses). He also refuses to use the terms “Loch Ness Monster (because non-Scots are unable to pronounce the word “Loch” correctly) or Nessie (too frivolous) so he refers only to the “LNM” throughout. Nothing new or starling here, but it is still a moderately interesting book.
The Legend of Nessie
Website which claims to be “the Ultimate and Official Loch Ness Monster site”, whatever that means. Claims to list “the latest sightings” (though the most recent is from 2011) and has a live webcam (which mainly shows the road which runs alongside the Loch) as well as details of some past sightings.
The Official Loch Ness Sightings Register
Another “official” website which provides a record of sightings, photographs and films. Nothing especially startling, but a good range of information if you want to find out more for yourself.