Monday, 4 December 2017

200 Years of the Inverness Courier and the Loch Ness Monster

 As I was driving to work this morning, BBC Radio Scotland ran a short feature on the 200th anniversary of the Highland newspaper, the Inverness Courier. Not surprisingly, one particular storyline was uppermost and that was their local monster. Nessie.

As a bonus, they ran a short interview with the Courier's Fort Augustus correspondent, Alex Campbell from 1958. He was retelling the story of how he submitted the first story of the monster back in May 1933. However, the association of the Courier with the Loch Ness Monster goes a long way back.

The first mention I find in the Inverness Courier of strange creatures in Loch Ness comes from the 16th October 1833 where the obituary of a well known soothsayer, Willox the Warlock from Tomintoul is covered. Willox (or Gregor MacGregor) was famed for advising clients on magical solutions to their problems via the use of a supernaturally endowed bridle which he alleged a brave ancestor claimed from the Loch Ness Kelpie with a blow of his sword.

The Courier refers again to the dreaded monsters of Loch Ness in the first case of a Loch Ness Monster misidentification from 1st July 1852 when two ponies swimming across the loch raised some superstitious consternation amongst the locals.

A more relevant reference from the 8th October 1868 talks of the first monster hoax when fishermen dumped a dolphin carcass in the loch. Talk of the "huge fish" that was seen to surface occasionally in the loch were prompted by this discovery. I talk more of this curious incident here.

Even up to the start of the Nessie era (1933-present), strange stories would still surface, such as this letter published on the 29th August 1930 which recounts the curious experience of several anglers (later identified by Rupert Gould as Ian Milne and others).

However, the story that started it all was published on the 2nd May 1933 when Aldie Mackay's encounter with a two humped creature was written up. Alex Campbell was later panned by some sceptics for the way he wrote this. As it turned out, it was not him but their histrionics that was a strange spectacle (see here).

And so the Courier moved in lockstep with the monster as its varied appearances made their way into the newspaper for decades to come. As an example, from 13th August 1971 is the unique account of how diver Robert Badger had a close encounter with a creature underwater as he went for a swim.

And so the list goes on and today the monster stories have gone online for millions across the world to engage in the latest stories from the loch. Many have been the hours when I have poured over the pages of the Inverness Courier looking for new information that advances the cause of the Loch Ness Monster; be it in paper, microfilm or online digital form. So, I for one am grateful for their contribution to the mystery and hope for many years more of them reporting on their most famous inhabitant.

The author can be contacted at

Thursday, 30 November 2017

You Can't Keep A Good Monster Down

It's Saint Andrew's Day in Scotland today and Google have acknowledged this with a montage on a Scottish theme. It came as no surprise that the Loch Ness Monster put in an appearance in this representation of the nation. It was probably unintentional on Google's part, but I note the monster lies halfway between a known animal, the stag and a mythical one, the unicorn.

Symbolically, that is where Nessie lies in the great debate concerning its existence. Some regard it as real as the deer whilst others regard it as mythical as Scotland's national animal, the unicorn. And there I suspect it will continue to lie for years to come!

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Monday, 27 November 2017

A Scottish Sea Serpent from 1635

I picked up this interesting article from the Aberdeen Press and Journal, dated 20th December 1933. The Loch Ness Monster was rising in media coverage, doubtless bolstered by the recent publication of the first photograph of it - the Hugh Gray photo. I quote the relevant portion here:

DURING those daily discussions and reports as to the Loch Ness Monster, readers of old John Spalding's "History of the Troubles" may have recalled that Aberdeen three hundred years ago had a visit from a monster of the deep.

Spalding, whose name and book give title and character to the work of the three Spalding Clubs which have in succession had their headquarters in Aberdeen, was Commissary Clerk in the city. The records he left in the " Troubles" are the day-by-day notes he took of contemporary events during the twenty-two years of the Covenanting and Civil War struggles,. 1624-45.

Spalding writes in the character of a loyal churchman and royalist, to whom the events of the time represented the wicked rebellion of a froward people in the rest of Scotland, with Aberdeen in the main loyal and suffering for its loyalty to the old ways. His disapproval of the tendencies of the time causes him to regard all unusual occurrences as "tokens" of still worse things to follow.

Under date " Anno 1635" he writes :- 

"In the month of June there was seen in the river of Don a monster having a head like a great mastiff dog, and hand, arms, and paps like a man, and the paps seemed to be white: it had hair on the head, and its hinder parts was seen sometimes above the water, which seemed clubbish, short-legged, and short-footed, with a tail.

This monster was seen body-like swimming above and beneath the bridge, without any fear. The town's people of both Aberdeens, came out in great multitudes to see this monster: some threw stones, some shot guns and pistols, and the salmon fishers rowed cables with nets to catch it, but all in vain. It never sinked nor feared, but would duck under water, snorting and bullering, terrible to the hearers.

It remained two days and was seen no more; but it appears this monster came for no good token to noble Aberdeen, for sore was the same oppressed with great troubles that fell in the land."

The monster is not, as it would be now, a natural curiosity, a problem in  marine zoology, but a "lusus naturae", a freak not to be placed in any category of fishes or animals, but a creature without ancestry and destined to be without progeny. In short, a "token" having a supernatural warning significance. 

As to what this creature may have been is a matter of conjecture and doubtless varied opinions. Dolphins and the occasional stranded whale would have presumably been familiar animals to those on the east coast of Scotland, though the non-flipper like description of the limbs does suggest it belonged to another species.

Perhaps a walrus, you say, or the now extinct Steller's sea cow or perhaps the legendary sea serpent, a creature distinct from those classified to date by science? The mention of bellowing does suggest an air breather though. Describing the head as being like that of a mastiff dog begs the question as to what a 17th century Mastiff dog looked like. This engraving from the 16th century gives some idea as to how the head of this creature was perceived.

Furthermore, the white underside is a feature sometimes spoken of by witnesses to the Loch Ness Monster, though this creature does not seem to come across as Loch Ness Monster like as it there is no mention of a long neck. Comments as to this creature's possible identity are invited.

One aspect that does dovetail with the Loch Ness Monster, or should I say the Loch Ness Water Horse, was the attitude that the appearance of such unidentifiable creatures were a bad omen or "a token having a supernatural warning significance". As has been discussed on this blog before, appearances of the Water Horse that inhabited Loch Ness were often events that were hushed up or rarely spoken of lest this tempted a bad outcome.

Certainly, such an attitude was a subtext to the initial reports of the monster in 1933 as older folk spoke of the supernatural aspects of the entity once held in dread by locals. These attitudes probably peaked at some point prior to the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century and was certainly noted in the literature of the time as on the way out by the end of that century.

By 1933, it would appear only the older locals would have remembered these traditions. Refer to the Cameron-MacGruer land sighting of 1919 where the children "had been warned not to go near the loch by our grandparents as there were these wild horses in the loch". The story of the Loch Ness Monster has now moved from the supernatural to the biological ... or has it?

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Monday, 13 November 2017

Follow up to the 1975 Underwater Photos

The last article on the Rines photographs from 1975 certainly stirred up a discussion amongst people with myself tending to view them in a sceptical manner. However, Lake Champlain researcher, Scott Madris, posted a photograph which reminded me (once again) that the subject of the Loch Ness Monster is not the clear cut, objective process that we often try to make it out as.

Professor Roy Mackal, in his seminal book "The Monsters of Loch Ness", had discussed the "gargoyle" and "body" shots and concluded both were "positive evidence" for the cause. I have already stated my opinion on the gargoyle, but was more reticent on the body shot on the basis that the object looked too "white" for a Loch Ness Monster.

Scott posted a picture of an eel taking by the AAS equipment which is shown below. Now it goes without saying that eels at Loch Ness are not albino either, but this one is very white and that is down to the reflection of the lights on the camera rig.

Roy Mackal made this comment on the eel image in relation to the controversial body picture:

P 17. (Sec Chapter VII.) Aside from the identity of the animal, one of the most important questions regarding this photograph is the animal's size. Unfortunately, as was also the case with P 16. a precise site estimate cannot be made. However, some estimate can be made based on comparison with other photographs taken of known objects under the same conditions at comparable ranges. For example, the same strobe-camera rig took a picture of an eel (Illus. 9) at a range of 20 ft. (estimation by Rines and Wyckoff). The eel is probably 18 in. long (the most common size encountered in Loch Ness as determined by our eel studies: see Appendix G). On the basis of degree and character of the lighting. Wyckoff estimates the range in P 17 to be 25 ft. 'Therefore, a comparison between the two photos permits an independent size determination of the animal in P 17: head neck region about 71/2 ft. in length.

So, perhaps a dark object can be bleached into a far whiter object under a strobe flashlight and I should be more open to the Rines body picture. One question on my mind was the possible natural colour of the eel in said picture. Of course, that cannot be determined now as the European Eel can present several different aspects to that 1975 camera rig. A look at the Wikipedia page on this creature shows that it could present three shades to the camera.

From the picture above, you can see the general olive green colour of the creature. However, it can also presents a yellowish underside and when it is sexually mature, more silvered sides and a whitish belly. Which of those three colours was closest to that camera is not clear. However, it is clear that the luminance of the strobe does create a whitening effect.

Roy Mackal's point is that this whitening diminishes with distance allows an estimate to be made of the "body" giving a tentative 7.5 feet. I will come back to that number shortly because all this controversy about whether this image showed the Loch Ness Monster or nor prompted me to go back to the original sources and basically start again. That process begins here with Mackal's book.

I preferred as original as possible as reading recent accounts would be subject to 40 years of failing memories and hardening prejudices. To that end, I consulted the late great Tim Dinsdale who was there and had seen it all and participated in those AAS expeditions many years ago. What did he say in his books? The answer came in his last book, the 1982 edition of his most popular "Loch Ness Monster". In Appendix D, he says this seven years after those heady events:

I now hold the view that only one of these pictures is potentially interesting from a "monster intrusion" point of viewpoint. It is the single frame showing an apparent long-necked body ascending from below, photographed at a distance of about 25 feet and having a visible extent of some 20 feet.

Note he gives a different length estimate to that of Roy Mackal. The other pictures he says are subject to valid alternative explanations but declines to go into further details, doubtless because of the "verbal conflict" that he had already mentioned and from which he wanted to move on.

Now my take on this picture was mainly down to the opinion that any large creature would be largely indiscernible at longer distances. I compared the Rines picture of a diver near the strobe camera to the body photo, the diver occupies 80% of the height of the frame and the body occupies about 50%. There was about 4.5 feet of the diver visible and I assumed 15 feet for the "body". Using the rule that an object's apparent size reduces in proportion to its distance, if the 15ft object was the same distance from the camera as the diver, it would occupy a theoretical 267% of the frame height.

Since it only occupies 50%, it must be 267/50 time further away or 5.33 times further away. So, if we assume the diver was, say 6ft from the camera, that places our "body" 32 feet away, which I said was too opaque for any distinct image. It looks like the technical team at the time place the object 25 feet away, so my own estimate was not far off this.

I needed more technical information and so I consulted my copy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's "Technology Review" Vol.78 No.5 dated Mar/Apr 1976. This was a report compiled by Robert Rines, Martin Klein, Charles Wyckoff and Harold Edgerton going into the details of the 1975 expedition and in this 16 page article we get more information.

The events which sparked such a furore occurred in a small time frame during the AAS expedition between 9:45pm on the 19th June 1975 and 4:50pm on the 20th June 1975 or an interval of about 17 hours. During this time six pictures of interest were obtained and printed. In others, the bottom of the boat supporting the camera rig is seen indicating the rig had been tilted upwards by some force. The speculation being it was the creature buffeting the strobe and camera. The chronological sequence of pictures is shown below with the time and date underneath each one:

1. 9:45pm 19th June 1975
2. 10:30pm 19th June 1975
3. 4:32am 20th June 1975
4. 5:40am 20th June 1975
5. 11:45am 20th June 1975
6. 4:50pm 20th June 1975

The article estimates the "body" in the famous picture to be 25 feet away and 18 feet long. This is more in keeping with what Dinsdale said. Mackal's apparent disagreement of 7.5 feet is more likely referring to the bulbous part which the MIT article puts at 8 feet long.

Note the proposed setup for this expedition taken from the same article below. The rig suspended in 40 feet of water was the backup to the sonar-triggered device fixed to the loch surface. Indeed, this was the equipment used for the 1972 expedition which produced the "flipper" photograph. This backup flashed automatically every 75 seconds and it was this rig alone that produced the pictures of interest. During the same period, the fixed rig apparently only produced pictures of silt storms.

The article pointed out at the beginning that it was fixed at 40 feet above the other rig and pointing horizontally and therefore was not capable of photographing the surface of the loch bed. The implication was that anything photographed was in mid-water and animate. On that basis, the second picture of a rough looking surface was taken to be the skin of the monster (complete with parasites and anal fold). There were several other inconclusive pictures followed by the now famous gargoyle and body shots.

Reading wider, a look at Dennis Meredith's 1977 book "Search at Loch Ness" pretty much stated the same thing in a more narrative kind of way as it recounted the story of 1975. The problem was whether this backup rig had indeed managed to stay fixed in its position over that 17 hour period. If it had, then these pictures were indeed of great interest. However, the fact that the aforementioned "skin" picture looked more like the loch bed suggested the boat had managed to drift under prevailing winds towards the shore, collided with the rising loch bed and titled upwards, photographing the boat above and rolling over to snap nearby items on the underwater surface.

The MIT article takes the stance that such a thing was not possible and hence anything with a surface must be mid water. What could other contemporary sources reveal about potential problems with the rig? To this I resorted to Rip Hepple's Ness Information Service newsletters.

NIS issue No.9 (June 1975) reports Robert Rines and his team would stay until early July and leave the equipment operating automatically until their return in the Autumn. The weather was described as "wet and windy" which does suggest the potential for boat drift.

Rip Hepple's "Nessletter" further reported in October 1976 (issue 18) how gales at the loch can adversely affect mooring operations as a huge gale ripped the AAS equipment from its moorings and it drifted from Urquhart Bay to Dores, apparently without being seriously damaged.

So, it seems the images we see are all down to the camera snapping objects near it on the loch bed. However, there are some questions that still need to be answered. After all, Tim Dinsdale did not think that all was so cut and dried with the famous "body" picture. Though he did not outright call it "monster", neither did he offer a so called rational explanation for it.

The thing about the body picture is that there appears to be the underwater equivalent of "clear, blue sky" all around it. There is no suggestion in the picture that this object is connected in any way to the loch bed. The best picture I scanned is shown below and, in my opinion, there is water to the left of it as there is water to the right of it.

Objections are raised to the object being out of focus (and hence close up) and being lit from 12 o'clock due to claimed shadows and hence must be very close to the camera. The problem here is that if it was close up the MIT article says it would be outside the light cone of the strobe and hence in relative darkness, dependant on scraps of scattered light. In other words, it is more likely to be inside the strobe light cone to be seen illuminated and hence a lot further away (see diagram below).

Neither should one presume the object is out of focus. My opinion is that any indistinctness in the image is due to it being at the limits of the range of the strobe light and hence beginning to disappear into the darkness. You know, I think I am beginning to warm again to this photograph, but it has to be noted that the body photograph was taken in between two shots which show the loch bed and hence will always have this "guilt by association" even if it could be argued that the camera rig could have intermittently drifted back into open water.

Finally, two questions came to my mind which muddied the waters on this boat dragging business, to coin an appropriate phrase. I do generally accept that the boat dragged the camera rig towards the loch bed, but there are niggles.

Firstly, I note that the pictures of interest were taken on Thursday through to Friday and any boat drift would have begun in daylight hours before the first picture taken at 9:45pm. Sunset was at 22:20pm and sunrise was at 4:30am (note again our episode ran from 9:45pm to 4:50pm).

So one wonders how this proposed drifting was not seen by anyone? The AAS team was still around the loch along with their local volunteers. How could they not have noticed the boat had drifted out of position when it was allegedly still snapping in shallow waters at 4:50pm? Surely if drift had occurred, this would have been logged and any pictures taken during this time discounted? Either that or the locals and the Americans were not up to the job of keeping an eye on the setup!

Secondly, the rig was left there until the autumn. The obvious question here is that there was a good chance that more drift would have occurred and similar pictures would have been snapped. However, there is no mention of such pictures. Surely if the AAS team were taken in by these pictures, they would have been taken in by others or realised their mistake and dropped the whole thing?

So, I would suggest that the mystery of those murky pictures taken in 1975 continues and I would not take anyone to task who thinks that bright bulbous body is none other than the Loch Ness Monster passing within range of Robert Rines' camera. Indeed, I am inclined to join them myself!

The author can be contacted at

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Those 1975 Underwater Photos

Just before 7 o'clock on the evening of Friday 29 August 1975 the telephone at my home in Leeds rang. An American voice inquired: 'Mr Nick Witchell? Transatlantic call for you from the United States.' After a short pause Bob Rines came on the line to announce news that meant the search for the 'Monster' of Loch Ness was finally over. 'Nick,' his voice came clearly and steadily over the thousands of miles, 'we've got it, we've hit the jackpot. We have detailed close-up colour photographs of the head, neck and body of one of the animals.'

Thus spoke Robert Rines to Nicholas Witchell as found in Witchell's "The Loch Ness Story". It is what I would call the summit of Monster Fever or perhaps we could call it "Peak Nessie". It was back in 1975 when rumours began to appear on the TV and newspapers that ground breaking photographs of the Loch Ness Monster were about to be revealed to the world.

Nicholas Witchell had already published the first edition in hardback of his book the year before and this news made it easy for Penguin Books to go to paperback with a new and final chapter entitled "The Solution". Reading that postscript gives one the impression that this was the last cryptozoological book on the creature. The next one would be zoological. Clearly that never happened, so what went wrong?

I was a kid back then whose love of mysteries had naturally latched onto the big mystery that was only a few hours drive from my home in Glasgow. I was too young to remember the controversy and sensation caused by the 1972 Flipper photograph, but by the time Robert Rines and his Academy of Applied Science were hinting at better yet pictures, I had already jumped on the Nessie bandwagon with such lightweight books as Dinsdale's "The Story of the Loch Ness Monster".

By the time December came, the proposed symposium in Edinburgh was called off due to excessive media attention and the photographs were subsequently presented to the world at a meeting in the House of Commons, thanks to MP and LNIB co-founder, David James.

The photos merited such attention that even Dr. George Zug, Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians at the Smithsonian Institution averred: "I believe these data indicate the presence of large animals in Loch Ness, but are insufficient to identify them". It seemed that the Loch Ness Monster was about to enter a new paradigm. It did, but not in the way those monster hunters expected.

By that I mean, the deflation that resulted from the anti-climax led some to rethink their positions and, as the 1980s dawned upon us, they took an opposing side to what their friends and colleagues continued to hold to. Hence the term, "Peak Nessie".

Now you may have read subsequently that said sceptics have done this and that detailed analysis and risked having their arses bitten off by Nessie by diving into the depths of the loch to recover tree stumps to claim the glory on how these photographs ought to be regarded as non-monsters. Well, to mangle a quote from a well known film - "Sceptics? We don't need no steenkin' sceptics!", because even as a naive kid I knew there was something wrong with these photos if one had just a couple of Nessie books to hand.

That "gargoyle head" was the greatest offender. Going back to Witchell's book, this was his reaction to this photo in that darkened room 42 years ago:

I had stood up to move closer to the screen and remained there as Bob moved to the next slide. The picture that came on to the screen was, without doubt, and I make no apology for the continued use of superlatives, the most remarkable animal photograph ever taken. It was the head of the creature, in close-up detail from a range of only eight feet.

For a few seconds the shapes were a tangle; then it suddenly fitted together. The head occupied the left-hand section of the frame and was more or less in profile: the open mouth of the animal showed what appeared to be teeth inside it; a prominent, bony ridge ran down the centre of the face into a thick, hard-looking upper lip ...

When it was first published and interpreted as a head, I struggled to see anything resembling a head at all. It was certainly not the most remarkable animal photograph to me. When Sir Peter Scott produced a painting sympathetic to the idea, I figured it out, but realised it could not be correct. Why? Because I referred to the sightings database that was extant at that time. Tim Dinsdale had done a good analysis of the creature's morphology in his first book, "Loch Ness Monster".

What his (and other books) described as a head bore little or no resemblance to the gnarled, knobbly object that was called a "head" by Robert Rines. The challenge to the researcher was whether to go with one alleged picture of the creature or go with the sum total of knowledge gathered to that point in time. The choice was obvious to me - go with the flow and deduce that this object was not the head of the Loch Ness Monster.

In that light, it was a bit sad to read Nicholas Witchell's account of how he was led into a darkened room to gain an exclusive viewing of these photographs. No doubt, the atmosphere was electric as the "head" appeared and Witchell perceived horns on the object. To this he mused that Greta Finlay was right, ignoring the other problems with the picture.

Now Greta Finlay was right, but not because of this picture and Witchell's error here led one sceptic (who is rarely seen without his bunnet) to take the initiative by promoting his improbable ear-less deer theory. In fact, note that the Scott painting portrays three horns, a clear departure from the sightings database!

Moving onto the body picture, I must admit I was more impressed by that and held on a little longer to that one. That was despite the newspaper headlines that followed its publication. I remember one headline in particular that described this photo as "bagpipes in a snowstorm"! It was sarcastic, but apt given what we had.

However, the database began to exert its inevitable pressure as the inconsistencies began plain to see. For example, the young version of me noted the proposed neck was way too long for what is usually described by eyewitnesses. However, if the top portion of the "neck" was ignored (since there is a gap between it and the rest), it was more acceptable.

But the biggest problem was the fact that the object is virtually white. A cursory glance at the database tells you there are no albino monsters. They are uniformly described as grey and would have been pretty difficult to spot in the peat stained waters at the distance that was being suggested - even with flashlights. It all looked a busted flush to me - even as a schoolboy. Since that time, I have looked again at these pictures and tried to give them the benefit of the doubt, but the totality of eyewitnesses always shouted back a collective "No!".

But herein lies the problem, attempting underwater photography in 40 feet of water was always going to be an arduous task. Ignoring the real problems with just getting the setup to stay stable in that environment, the peat suspension is a killer for clear, unambiguous pictures. Take a look at the picture below which shows of the Rines expedition divers at that time. Opacity is clearly an issue even at that close distance.

So Peak Nessie arrived and we entered the downslope in the 1980s. The Academy of Applied Science had arrived with fanfare the following year having negotiated a deal with the New York Times to give them exclusive access to any new pictures. They took no new exciting pictures and indeed the whole thing faded into such obscurity that it is not clear when they finally called a halt to the whole thing.

Nicholas Witchell is more sanguine about his comments now. In fact, I think he doubts there is anything mysterious in Loch Ness. One wonders if investing so much reputational capital into those pictures delivered a blow from which he, and others, never recovered from?

Doubtless, forty years on, technology has improved to the point where a better setup may produce better optical results, but the way forward now seems to be with sonar imaging and the great leaps that have been made to the point where they are beginning to achieve near-optical quality.

However, the problem there is getting one of these creatures to come up close. Sonar attenuates as distance increases and so, as with any proof finding endeavour, proximity is everything. This was demonstrated with the recent find of the Nessie prop which sank in 1969. Repeated sonar scans of the loch failed to find this Nessie-sized object until a remotely controlled sonar submersible got close enough to resolve it sufficiently to identify it. Normal surface scans had rendered it as no more than an interesting protuberance on the loch bed.

Clearly, the loch is still big enough to hide a few secrets. Unfortunately, investment in finding unusual phenomena at Loch Ness is in inverse proportion to the degree of scepticism. In other words, the more the "experts" talk down a monster, the less likely it will be proven. Then again, perhaps that is the way they like it.

The author can be contacted at

Monday, 30 October 2017

A Nessie Article from 1956

I came across this article in a rather obscure magazine entitled "The Aquarist and Pondkeeper" dated July 1956. It is a journal that mainly concerns itself with Aquaria and water gardens, but in the midst of all this came an article concerning a creature that you could not buy from your local pet shop and, besides, was unlikely to fit inside your standard tank. I reproduce the text from the page above.

Is the Loch Ness Monster a Fish?


DURING August, 1954, a brief report appeared in the Sunday Times that the Loch Ness monster had been seen by a number of people, including the occupants of a motor coach. The discovery of the coelacanth may have tended to shake our healthy scepticism about the existence of undiscovered monsters, "living fossils" and the like. At any rate two well-known zoologists have recently suggested that the great sea serpent may actually exist, and have put forward identical hypotheses regarding its nature. Dr. Maurice Burton points out in his book Living Fossils, that sea serpents have been alleged to have been seen by a large number of people over a period of many years and characteristically show a series of humps above the water-line when swimming. Now, Burton observed a conger eel at the London Zoo turning on its side and undulating its body vigorously, thus producing a series of humps from head to tail. He suggests that a giant eel carrying out the same manoeuvre would present an appearance similar to that of a sea serpent.

The larvae of the common eel, which measures up to three feet in length when adult, are only three inches long. Yet Dr. Anton Bruin, zoologist of the Danish "Galathea" deep-sea expedition, dredged up a larva six feet in length, and possessing over 430 vertebrae—three times as many as are found in the largest known eel. There was a dramatic moment while Dr. Burton was showing a film of the expedition during the XIV International Congress of Zoology at Copenhagen in August, 1953. After describing living organisms found at the very greatest depths, he asked: If a chordate can live at the bottom of the sea, why not a sea serpent ?"

It has been objected that nearly all the accounts that have been given about sea serpents are due to mistaken identity. No doubt giant squids are responsible for many of the stories that have arisen, for these creatures are known at times to come to the surface of the sea. One of their arms, 30 feet in length, one moment writhing on the surface and next raised aloft, must look very much like a serpent. Also sea serpents have sometimes been described as spouting water, an act that might well be expected from a squid. It has also been suggested that basking sharks, schools of porpoises, long strings of weed, giant ribbon fish and even flights of birds may at various times have given the appearance of a serpent.

It is more difficult however, to explain an unknown marine animal seen off the coast of Brazil not far from Parahiba by E. G. B. Meade-Waldo and M. J. Nicoll on 7th December, 1905, while cruising in the Earl of Crawford's yacht "Valhalla." This was described the following year in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. The creature had a dorsal fin about four feet long projecting about two feet from the water: this fin was brownish-black in colour and much resembled a gigantic piece of ribbon seaweed. Behind the fin could just be discerned the form of a considerable body. "Suddenly, an eel-like neck about six feet long and of the thickness of a man's thigh, having a head shaped like that of a turtle, appeared in front of the fin." Unfortunately, the curious beast soon disappeared; but on the following night some animal made such a commotion in the water that it looked like a submarine travelling along just beneath the surface.

A firm believer in sea serpents was Dr. A. C. Oudemans, formerly director of the Zoological Gardens at the Hague. In a volume entitled: "The great sea-serpent: an historical and critical treatise", Oudemans gave reports of 187 appearances, the suppositions and suggestions of scientific and non-scientific persons including 22 "explanations," and his own conclusions regarding the nature of the animal - that it was a huge, unknown, long-tailed pinniped. In 1934, he published a somewhat dogmatic pamphlet entitled "The Loch Ness Animal", in which he stated that this creature was "nothing but a sea serpent."

If indeed there is a sea serpent and it has whiskers, a mane, two pairs of webbed, pentadactyl flippers, blows like a whale, its warm breath condensing in the air, and moves in a series of jerks, just as seals and sealions do, then Oudemans may be correct. Certainly a sketch by Mr. Arthur Grant, who claimed to have seen the animal in the road about eight miles from Inverness by the light of his motor-cycle lamp at 1 a.m. on 5th January, 1934, shows an animal that cannot possibly have been an eel but looks not unlike a seal.

On the other hand, in his book "Half Mile Down", Dr. William Beebe describes a fish which he saw at a depth of 2,450-2,500 feet, that was at least 20 feet in length and deep in proportion. The whole fish was monochrome and he could not even see an eye or a fin. In shape it was a deep oval: it swam without evident effort and it did not return. This description certainly seems to be not inconsistent with that of a giant eel. Thus it may be that the great sea serpent does exist and is, in fact, an enormous eel. It is not impossible that more than one kind inhabits the depths of the ocean. If one of these creatures were occasionally to find its way into the restricted waters of Loch Ness, its appearance might well occasion reports of a fabulous "monster." So, if that is the explanation, then the Loch Ness monster is a fish!


1. "Sea serpent" seen off the coast of Brazil by E. G. B. Meade-Waldo and J. M. Nicoll in 1906
2. "Loch Ness monster" os seen by A. Grant in 1934
3. Most probable form of the "sea serpent" and "Loch Ness monster" according to A. C. Oudemans, 1934

The article promotes the idea that the Loch Ness Monster is a giant eel and that is a thought favoured amongst zoologists and cryptozoologists across the years. Indeed, I initially though Dr. Cloudsley-Thompson, was just a local doctor who maintained a fish tank in his surgery waiting room.

No, far from it. John Leonard Cloudsley-Thompson was a postgraduate, lecturer, doctor and eventually professor in the science of zoology to which he added a long and varied list of publications on the subject of animals. His speciality was desert fauna, an interest birthed in North Africa where he was a tank commander during the Second World War and where he left after being severely wounded in battle (obituary here).

Prof. J.L. Cloudsley-Thompson

I would note that this short article was written in 1956 when things were pretty quiet for the Loch Ness Monster, being sandwiched between the 1951 Lachlan Stuart and the 1958 MacNab/Cockrell photographs. At this point, Tim Dinsdale was an unknown man with little interest in the monster and his future critic, Maurice Burton, was still a leading advocate of the creature. It seems also to be a time when leading zoologists were open to the idea of a large creature in the loch and would openly discuss it.

To that end, Cloudsley-Thompson mentions his fellow zoologist, Burton, in this article with both taking a positive view of a cryptozoological approach to the Sea Serpent mystery. However, Burton was perhaps still inclined towards plesiosaurs while Cloudsley-Thompson plays it somewhat safe with giant eels.

As time advanced and monster fever grew to an inglorious end with the 1975 Rines photographs, zoologists began to step back until the siren song of the sceptics lulled them into a belief that all was just waves, logs and birds.

Having said that, he talks more about sea serpents than loch monsters, his one reference to a then recent eyewitness report of the creature is most likely the object seen by a Mr. Alan Graham and a party from Oxford-Cambridge. The description is of a hump which surfaced before them, estimated at four feet long by one and a half foot high which was seen early on a July morning.

It initially remained stationary for about four minutes whereupon it took off at a "fair speed" leaving a wash before finally submerging. No doubt one of those "standing waves" which can do remarkable things, but another academic by the name of Roy Mackal saw fit to include it in his list of top reports.

The professor dies only four years ago and one wonders what his thoughts were then compared to his article from 61 years ago. In that respect, I note he was discussing the identity of that other cryptid, the Mongolian Death Worm, with Karl Shuker back in the 1990s.

Evidently, the world of strange and unclassified beasts was something that piqued his interest. Either way, the subject of that large creature in Loch Ness is not a subject which is as easily broached in polite zoological circles today.

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Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Land Sightings: The Basis of the Kelpie Myth

An account of the way it was in days long past.

On a summer afternoon when silence brooded over the hills, and the waters of Loch Chrois were motionless, two lovers sat on a sand-dune at the end of the loch. "sweet is the water out of the cup when stolen", says a proverb of the Gael, and sweet to the lovers was this time because none knew of their meeting, least of all their fathers and mothers, for between the two families was a great feud.

As they talked, the sun sank behind the mountain; still they sat side by side when the afterglow suffused the western sky. The silence of a summer afternoon passed into the peace of a summer evening, and dark shadows gathered in the hollows around them ere the lovers bethought them of their homes. "The game 1 came out to snare is still on the wing," the youth said; "the kye are on their way to the homestead," was her answer. 

As they spoke, their eyes lighted on a black horse which pastured beside the loch. Thinking that it belonged to the clachan whence they came, the lovers led it towards a boulder, and there sprang on its back. Hardly were they seated, than the horse headed lochwards, and when they tried to slip from his back, they found that an invisible power gripped them. Then they knew that their steed was the Each-uisge of Loch Chrois.

On the further side of the water, men and women were returning from Fuaran-Gearradh, the cool well, whose waters, blessed by a passing saint, cured sick folk of many diseases. To them the lovers shouted for help, but it was in vain, for already the kelpie had gained the edge of the loch. Louder than the cries of the unwilling riders, rose the wild neighing of the black horse, as with unwonted fierceness he reared and plunged into the loch. 

On either side of him as he fought his way to the centre, vast clouds of vapour were seen to rise from the water; and the people fled affrighted at the weird sounds that broke the stillness, and the strange sight on the loch. The bodies of the lovers were never found, and in every clachan and strath for miles around it is held that the demon carried them to the loch-depths where he dwells, there to await the call of the pibroch on the day of days."
Source:  The Scottish Review Vol.28 July-October 1896

Thus runs the tale of the Scottish Water Kelpie, or to be more precise, the Each Uisge or Water Horse. The telling of the tale takes on many forms across the ages encompassing all manner of scenarios, the vast bulk of which are now lost. The aforementioned Loch Chrois in Ross-shire is but one example.

But what was the purpose of such a story and to whom was it directed? If you read the anthropologists of the time and those sceptics who parrot their words today, we are told it is a story manufactured to warn vulnerable children away from the shores of dangerous waters where death by drowning may await.

A plausible theory, but an improbable one that does not reflect the narrative that was recorded by the same Victorian anthropologists before the arrival of science and industry wiped away the oral tradition of many generations.

To wit, the Water Horse was portrayed as a predator that cared not for the age of its victim and whose mere concern lay rather in whether warm blood flowed through their veins. So, adults and children are likewise victims. Moreover, the dangers of water seems not to be the moral of the tale as Sabbath breaking is also featured as a caution to the indolent and, as noted above, no cause at all as lovers merely enjoy each others' company.

Which brings me to the contradiction in these tales. Why would a creature which is most definitely portrayed as a creature of the deep waters always have a land based narrative? Indeed, sometimes it is nowhere near the loch as the Loch Ness Kelpie of the Warlock would patrol the dark roads of the Slochd Muichd, miles away from Loch Ness (near the modern A9 road).

If one was intent on warding children away from dangerous shorelines, why not present the Water Horse as a fearsome beast that lies just under the water waiting to drag away any unwitting child who foolishly wades into its waters? Indeed, even a monster that could break forth from the waters and gallop after its errant victims would suffice. But a Water Horse in a field or on a distant road? Just what exactly is the deterrent value there?
There is none in that respect and one is rather left wondering what small grit of truth initially arose to allow these pearls of folklore to form around it and eventually hide it from modern eyes? What was it these ancient people perceived in these creatures that warranted it spending more time on land in these stories than actually in its native waters?

My suggestion is that though these creatures were evidently seen in the waters of Loch Ness, they were seen on land as well and this created a greater impact on the people than if they stayed in the water. The psychology of this should be evident because if the creature stays in the loch, then the natives can feel more secure on land. Water Horses are only an issue if you go out on a boat or go for a swim.

But bring them into the natural territory of humans and the perceived threat level of the Each Uisge rises significantly. So, just as people over the 84 years of the Loch Ness Monster have logged a noticeable number of land sightings, one may conclude that people centuries back were seeing these creatures on land and this eventually weaved its way into the fabric of their folklore.

Now just as we today are also fascinated by these tales, we seek an explanation as to why they come ashore. We think of such things as food, breeding, basking or some other less obvious reason. The old Highlanders similarly sought an explanation and theirs was food. Now why they would suggest that may be purely down to the fact that they feared these unknown creatures and so defaulted to the worst possible outcome to deter people from approaching them.

One suspects it is more than certain the death of any person was attributed to such creatures across the hills and glens of Scotland, whether the beast was responsible for it or not. That would seem to suggest their deadly role in folklore was assured for generations to come.

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