Loch Ness is a 23-mile freshwater loch in the Scottish Highlands. The stretch of water is the second-largest such loch in Scotland after Loch Lomond and also the second deepest after Loch Morar. Such is the vastness of the place that it contains more water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined, and the area is home to a variety of fish such as trout, salmon, pike and sturgeon. Named for the River Ness which flows into the loch, the name “Ness” is believed to derive from the Celtic for “roaring one”, though this is likely to refer to water rather than the most infamous creature allegedly in the loch — The Loch Ness monster, or Nessie for short.
There have been rumours and sightings of a beast in the loch for years, and 2021 marks the 150th anniversary of the first “confirmed” sighting. In 1923, a D. Mackenzie of Balnain reported that back in 1871 he had witnessed an object “wriggling and churning up the water” of Loch Ness, the thing increasing in speed before disappearing. Some, however, have contended that the earliest sighting of a monster may have been Saint Columba in the year 565. Writing a century later, the abbot of Iona Abbey Adomnán said that Columba had witnessed a party burying a man near the loch and, when asked, they told him that the deceased had been attacked by a “water beast” in the River Ness. Indeed, these legends of water beasts have a long history in Scotland, with the kelpie being an essential aspect of Scottish folklore. The Swedish naturalist and author Bengt Sjögren has pointed out that the earlier accounts of Nessie describe a horse-like creature in-keeping with these ancient legends, developing over time into the familiar description akin to a plesiosaur.
Another early sighting of the cryptid was in 1888 when mason Alexander Macdonald sighted what he said resembled a “a large stubby-legged animal” exiting the loch and moving across the shore. Such was the confidence of his sighting that he reported it to the water bailiff Alex Campbell. The description, which Macdonald described as being like a salamander, is markedly different from the future derivations that have entered the public consciousness.
This famous description of the alleged creature would develop in the 1930s following a report that a beast lurked in the loch, the article coming from the pen of the long-tenured Campbell. The Inverness Courier description of the monster had developed from the “salamander” of 1888 into something more terrifying. Campbell’s article states that “Loch Ness has for generations been credited with being the home of a fearsome-looking monster.”
“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.”
Strange Spectacle in Loch Ness, Alex Campbell, Inverness Courier, May 2, 1933
Just a few months later, George Spicer and his wife would report that their car had been forced to stop on the road by “a most extraordinary form of animal” from the loch. Described as 4 feet tall and 25 feet long, the beast had a long wavy neck and no visible limbs. The reputation of the Loch Ness monster would explode just a few months after that, however, when Hugh Gray captured a photograph of a creature. Taken near the village of Foyers on November 12, 1933, the image seemingly showed the monster thrashing in the water, however, the picture was indistinct, and critics claimed it was a dog or an otter. In 1963, it was proven to be just that — an otter rolling on the surface of the loch. However, the race to be the first to get a clear image of the creature was now afoot.
The stories that were recurring in the press seem to have created much of the legend that they were reporting on, with imaginative minds beginning to see what their brains insisted things must be. Arthur Grant, for example, insists he saw a creature resembling a cross between a seal and plesiosaur in January of 1934, his experience very similar to that of George Spicer and his wife. With a long neck and small head, the creature had allegedly passed in front of him on the road. Grant was a veterinary student and not likely taken to fantasy, and while some have suggested that what he saw was an otter in low light, this seems an unsatisfactory conclusion to draw.
Any belief that the astounding claims might vanish when the furore died down would end in April of that same year when The Daily Mail printed a photo of the creature. Taken by Robert Kenneth Wilson, a London gynaecologist, this infamous image has become one of the defining photograph’s associated with Loch Ness and for many years, a prized jewel for those seeking evidence that a lost creature resides in the depths. Critics were doubtful, however. The image was one of two, with the second rarely being published due to the blurriness. Reprintings usually showed the “creature” cropped, making it appear more significant than it was. In 1993, the Discovery documentary Loch Ness Discovered analysed the photos. They discovered that ripples on the water were inconsistent with the creature and seemingly actually from an object in front, indicating that the “monster” was being towed. Key, both images featured a white item that was visible in every version of the photo, just in front of the “creature”.
Despite questions over the photo’s authenticity, the image sent the public into a frenzy, and soon cryptid hunters and tourists descended on the loch. Just a few months later, for example, insurance mogul Edward Mountain financed an expedition to stake out the creature. Setting up with binoculars and cameras, a twenty man team were determined to catch sight of Nessie. A film is alleged to have seen the creature but is sadly now lost. Twenty-one photos of possible sightings are meanwhile mostly dismissed as inconsequential.
Over the coming years, there would be many more such films and photos, the 1938 Taylor film being the first in colour and the Peter MacNab photo of 1958 being the first to show the creature with two “humps”. Perhaps the most notable of these was the so-called Dinsdale film from 1960 which seemed to depict a large animal underneath the water of the loch. Critics contend that the image shows a man in a boat, the “shadow” being the wake of the craft in the water. The low quality of the film fails to make this clear.
The legend of Loch Ness has only increased since the 1930s, with TV shows, children’s cartoons, films and documentaries only adding to the speculation and interest in the alleged creature. There have been numerous attempts to explain the sightings scientifically, and the phenomena has been put down to a combination of factors, including human imagination and error, other wildlife and even that the monster might in some way be real, possibly a prehistoric survivor.
One of the earliest genuine scientific studies came in the 1960s with the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau (LNPIB) which was set-up “to study Loch Ness to identify the creature known as the Loch Ness Monster or determine the causes of reports of it.” However, the most extensive and important work was possibly done by Robert Rines between 1972 and 2008. Rines led a group of researchers from the Academy of Applied Science and used sonar to examine the depths of the loch for anomalies alongside other techniques including the use of submersibles and underwater cameras.
Rines’ findings include the 1972 spotting of a large object under the surface of the water that was estimated to be between 20 to 30 feet in length going off the echo readings. Two experts were on hand from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who analysed the data. During the same expedition, underwater photography captured what some believe to be an image of a fin. In contrast, others contend that the photos show the bottom of the loch. However, there is also an accusation that these photos have also been manipulated. Team member Charles Wyckoff has said the original images were much more blurry and the fin has been superimposed in some way. Later visits to Loch Ness by the team would repeat the sonar findings and, in 1975, capture another image that was suggested to show two animals swimming side by side, both appearing to be plesiosaurs. While other such photographs have long been identified as differing animals, driftwood or simple shadows, the volume of photography produced by Rines stands in support of claims that there may be something in the loch, despite the low quality of many. Most of the photographs have been dismissed as logs, however. In 2008, Rines suggested that more recent failures to repeat the sonar readings and declining eyewitnesses told that the Loch Ness monster was dead.
It wouldn’t only be Rines’ team who made such findings either, with Operation Deepscan in 1987 sending out acoustic waves across the loch from twenty-four different boats. These waves made contact with an object said to be of unusual size and strength. Some of these findings seemed to suggest debris at the bottom of the loch; however, others were in motion. Some have proposed this movement was merely seals that had made their way inland.
“There’s something here that we don’t understand, and there’s something here that’s larger than a fish, maybe some species that hasn’t been detected before. I don’t know.”
Sonar expert Darrell Lowrance who contributed to Operation Deepscan
Whether scientific data surrounding the loch and the monster is drawing up blanks in this century through better equipment or the absence of a creature where one existed in the 1970s and 1980s is debatable. Still, the final nails into the present-day existence of a monster seem to have been made in 2018 when an international team of researchers from Otago, Copenhagen, Hull and the Highlands did a DNA test on the lake. Analysing samples, the team hoped to get a complete picture of everything that existed in the loch through DNA signatures left in the water. They found no evidence that anything unusual existed there, with no reptilian DNA, no seals and no otters. However, there was an abundance of eel DNA, perhaps opening the door for believers to develop new theories around what exactly may lurk in the depths of Loch Ness. Indeed, a gigantic eel was one of the earliest ideas ever proposed for what the creature was. In 1856 sightings of a “sea serpent” at Leurbost in the Outer Hebrides was most likely a sighting of a giant eel mixed with some wild imagination and such creatures were noted at the time as being fairly standard across the Highlands.
Despite this logical suggestion, many oppose it and suggest that catfish, otters, seals or even sharks who’ve made their way inland might be a better explanation for sightings of the monster. Others prefer that the sightings are not even animals at all, with many photographs over the years said to be of unusually shaped logs, the wake of objects such as boats on the water and simple optical illusions. Equally, human error, imagination and impaired sight or thinking may only add to the misinterpretation of events.
If there is indeed a monster in Loch Ness, a majority of believers in such a cryptid suggest that it is a non-extinct plesiosaur. Plesiosauria first appeared in the late Triassic Period and thrived until the mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. Scientists have identified over 100 species, and they all feature similar anatomic features such a large and broad body, a long neck, and flippers. They breathed air and are believed to have been warm-blooded. Claims that Nessie resembled a plesiosaur stretch back to the beginnings of the modern legends in 1933 and many sightings since have matched scientific descriptions of the extinct beast. However, there are many arguments against this theory, with a warm-blooded creature of such a size requiring far more food than Loch Ness could provide. Equally, the loch has only even existed for around 10,000 years, being frozen for 20,000 prior. These dates are long after the extinction event that wiped out much of the life on Earth. Writing for New Scientist in 2006, Leslie Noè of the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge added that the descriptions of the Loch Ness monster failed to account for neck length, saying: “The osteology of the neck makes it certain that the plesiosaur could not lift its head swan-like out of the water.”
It seems likely that the legend of the Loch Ness monster is many of the things above. Initially developing out of ancient folklore surrounding the kelpie, these descriptions morphed into descriptions of plesiosauria thanks, in part, to media sensationalism. The matter became one that was ingrained in the imaginations and a combination of clever hoaxes and wishful thinking aided many in seeing what wasn’t there. Logs became necks in low light, drunken tales of monsters developed out of otters and some, seeking five minutes of fame, made up their little corner of the growing legend. That is not to say however that the possibility that Nessie is or was an extinct creature should be dismissed and there are several such examples of such wildlife being rediscovered many ears after being thought lost forever. That said, the likelihood that a plesiosaur could have survived for so long is minuscule, and if there is something unusual in the loch, it would be more likely a giant eel. While Nessie may not exist, it serves as a boon to tourism in the region and one of the true icons of Scottish culture. It is a story that will continue to live on, despite evidence suggesting the creature is little more than imagination and wishful thinking.