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  • By Kara Newcastle

Myth Monday: The Loch Ness Monster

Myth Monday: The Loch Ness Monster

By Heinrich Harder (1858-1935) -, Public Domain

There’s something in that lake.

What is it, you ask me? Damned if I know, I answer. No, seriously, I don’t know what’s in there, but, like a few billion other people on the planet, I’d really like to know. About 23 miles away from Inverness, Scotland, Loch Ness is one of the biggest lakes in Great Britain, measuring twenty-two miles long and 755 feet at its deepest point. Anything could be hiding in that thing, and many people believe that something does.

In May 2018, Neil Gemmell, the leader of a group of scientists from New Zealand, announced that they were going to try to prove that something was in the loch by taking water samples obtained in April 2018 and testing the resulting DNA that floated around in it. That made me think two things: 1) What an awesome idea! And 2) Now it’s time for a cryptid blog! (And because it’s a “monster” it’s perfect for Myth Monday!)

Just about every human has heard of the Loch Ness Monster. It has the distinction of being the most famous cryptid (an animal that is thought to possibly exist but we don’t have solid proof one way or another) in the world. It’s also one of the earliest recorded monsters as well, though the story blends a little mythology with it: In 586 A.D., the Irish saint Columba traveled to Scotland with his followers to spread the word of God to the tribal Scots and Picts. As they followed the River Ness down to the loch (“loch” is Scottish for “lake”, if you haven’t put that together yet), they came across a group of Picts who were burying, depending on the version of the story, either a man or a young boy close to the shore. St. Columba asked what had befallen the deceased, and the Picts said that he had been swimming in the loch when he was attacked by the giant, vicious lake serpent that lived beneath the surface. They went on to say that they were at the mercy of the creature, as it was highly aggressive and not afraid to go after humans or their livestock.

Sensing an opportunity to help (and gain some converts in the process), St. Columba ordered one of his followers to strip down and start swimming. If the apostle had any reservations about being used as bait, it was never recorded, but he did as he was told, pulling off his robe and wading into the freezing cold, dark water. He made it up to his chest when the beast exploded out of the water with a skull-splitting scream. It opened its fanged jaws wide and coiled its snaky neck, ready to strike, when St. Columba shouted at it. “In the name of God, you will not touch this man!” St. Columba bellowed, and made the sign of the cross in the air. The power of God was so strong that the horrified monster backed rapidly away, then plunged back into the peat-stained water. It never attacked another human after that, and the Picts were so amazed by the power of St. Columba’s god that they all instantly converted right then and there.

Apparently, sightings of the snake-like creature continued, and though as far as I can tell it was only occasionally written about, it was well known to the people of the area. Since the area around Loch Ness was pretty remote for centuries, few outside the vicinity knew anything about the creature.

Loch Ness monster views by shalom

And then came the automobile.

With the introduction of cars to Scotland, it was necessary to construct roads to major towns and cities. One of these roads was built alongside Loch Ness, and apparently, motorists weren’t the only ones using it.

On July 22, 1933, George Spicer and his wife were driving beside Loch Ness when a bizarre creature suddenly shuffled across the road in front of their car. Not only was it bizarre, it was huge, with the Spicers stating that they thought the body of the thing to be about twenty-five feet long and four feet tall, with a neck that reminded them of an elephant’s trunk waving in the air, but they couldn’t make out any limbs. The beast flattened all the brush down with its body as it slid towards the loch, about twenty yards away.

On January 4, 1934, so early the moon was still brightly shining in the sky, veterinary student Arthur Grant was riding his motorcycle along the road beside Loch Ness—and keep in mind that he was a veterinary student, so he knows a thing or two about animals. As he came up past the loch, he saw something shuffling around in the brush off to the left side of the road. Something big. Before Arthur had a chance to even guess as to what it could be, a huge shape suddenly charged out in front of him, perhaps startled by the sound of his motorcycle. It was big, it had a humped, barrel-shaped body, a long, snake-like neck and a slender, serpentine head. It twisted its neck around to look at him dead on, then lunged across the road, down in an embankment and plunged into the loch.

Arthur Grant's sighting newspaper illustration

It’s a wonder Arthur didn’t crash his motorcycle at the sight! Though shocked and likely terrified, Arthur summoned enough courage to pull over and followed it down to the loch so he could get another glimpse at—whatever the hell it was. Unable to see anything else, Arthur safely finished his journey to Abriachan, later telling people that he had seen a monster at Loch Ness, that it looked like a strange cross between a seal and a plesiosaur, a sea-dwelling reptile from the Triassic period onward. Soon the local paper caught wind of the tale and interviewed him, asking him to provide a sketch of what he had seen. The story was so incredible that it was soon picked up by newspapers all over the world: an otherworldly creature had been seen in modern day Scotland.

Arthur Grant's Nessie sketch

And with that, the Loch Ness Monster—soon to be affectionately dubbed “Nessie”—became an international celebrity.

Sightings of the creature continued for years, most of which occurred within the loch itself, with witnesses reporting either a large gray hump in the water that resembled an overturned boat, a serious of several humps traveling across the lake, a black shape beneath the surface moving against the current, or a horse-like head atop a long neck rearing over the surface. There have been stories of boaters being bumped into or nudged by a huge animal, though it never seemed to overturn any of them, and there were never any reports of Nessie acting aggressively to humans (maybe St. Columba’s prayer still works!). In fact, the monster—or possibly monsters, as there have been a few reports of more than one animal in the loch—seems extremely shy.

Despite all the stories, there were still skeptics. To be honest, the idea that an animal that big could exist in an ice-cold loch and not be seen ore frequently, not leave behind footprints, eggs, carcasses or even spoor, makes the whole thing seem more than a little outlandish. Doubters demanded proof. And believers were determined to get it … especially when newspapers started offering cash rewards for convincing evidence.

There were some photographs taken, blurry and shadowy. There was a 16mm color video of the creature taken by G.E. Taylor, a tourist from South Africa, on May 29, 1938, though many skeptics believe is shows nothing more than three minutes of an inanimate object floating in the water. Most photographic evidence has been dismissed and witnesses ridiculed as being too eager or gullible.

And then there was the Surgeon’s Photo.

The Surgeon's Photo

You may not know the name of the picture, but I know you’ve seen it. It’s the most famous photograph of Nessie ever taken … except it’s fake. See, earlier that year a man named Marmaduke Wetherell had discovered what he thought were Nessie’s footprints in the mud along the lake. Unfortunately, the footprints were hoaxed by two impish schoolboys using a dessicated hippo foot umbrella stand, and the British newspaper the Daily Mail mocked Wetherell for his “discovery.” Incensed and insulted, Wetherell convinced his stepson Christian Spurling to fashion a sea monster head and neck and attached it to a toy submarine. Along with his other son Ian (who had bought the materials for the decoy) and friend Maurice Chambers, they floated the fake Nessie in the loch and took four photographs. Wetherell then gave the photos to his friend, Robert Kenneth Wilson, a respected colonel, gynecologist, and lover of practical jokes.

The doctor submitted the photo to the Daily Mail (sans his name, being referred to only as “the surgeon,”) on April 21, 1934. The Daily Mail believed it, ran the story, and the group of hoaxers allowed the world to believe for nearly sixty years that the doctor had actually photographed the elusive beast. It wasn’t until 1994 when Christian Spurling made a deathbed confession, revealing that the picture was utterly, totally fake. I remember catching the story on the news that night and being so disappointed!

Naturally, this led to a new wave of skepticism and a new wave of hoaxing. More pictures were produced, but many of those, while well done, are clearly faked (look closely and you’ll notice thing like the sunlight on the monster doesn’t match the way the light falls in the water, its shadow might not match the form, and the water around the animal isn’t as disturbed as it should be if something that big had suddenly emerged from the depths—one picture is even referred to as the Loch Ness Muppet), and others are just too vague to clearly be anything, but weird enough that it couldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

Still, Nessie continued to be seen, and now the scientific world decided to get in on the controversy. After all, if regular folk couldn’t figure out what the freak the freak was, then a well educated group of scientists would be able to come up with something, right?

Well, no. Not really. Not definitively, at least. Various groups of scientists from all over the world visited Loch Ness and conducted searches with fish detectors, underwater microphones, bait traps, sonar and motion sensitive cameras. Not one group was ever able to come back with any kind of hard evidence, though many of the expeditions did produce some weird findings. Bait traps were cleaned out (that could have been from the native eels), schools of fish were seen fleeing from a large animal on the fish finders, large objects were recorded moving swiftly under the surface, odd noises were recorded, and a series of bizarre pictures were taken under the surface.

The pictures are creepy, to be sure, but they’re unclear, and I mean that literally; there is so much peat in the water that you can’t see more than maybe 2 feet in front of you, and the deeper you go, the darker it gets. The bottom of the loch is covered with mud, clay, peat and rotting vegetable matter, and the slightest movement stirs up underwater tornados of crap that take forever to settle. There are also an untold number of logs, sunken boats, trash and, believe it or not, the remains of a Loch Ness monster prop from a Sherlock Holmes movie that sunk there after filming, so these pictures really could be anything. There is one remarkable picture of an odd flipper, but critics have stated that this could be a picture of any aquatic animal that a scientist, either desperate for more funding or afraid of looking like a fool who wasted his time looking for monsters, snuck into the stack of photographs.

This has frustrated scientists endlessly; if they go to prove the monster doesn’t exist they come back with proof that maybe it does, and if they go to prove that it does exist they don’t find any proof at all! This still hasn’t stopped them from theorizing what Nessie could be. Some researchers maintain that Nessie is no more than an old rotting log that drifts to the surface when methane gas released from rotting plants shakes it free from the bottom, but that doesn’t explain the sightings of Nessie moving around, the “overturned boat” appearance, the size, or the sightings of Nessie on land. The most popular theory claims that, based on Nessie’s overall appearance, that it’s a plesiosaur that somehow became locked in the loch. This theory doesn’t hold a lot of water (sorry) only because for a dinosaur to have survived for 65 million years, it would need a breeding population, and Loch Ness doesn’t have enough food in it to sustain a population of huge paddling reptiles.

Loch Ness Urquhart by sam fentress

Other theories have abounded from giant otters and beavers (which actually relates to Gaelic mythology, but that’s a different blog), to long-necked seals, giant catfish, sturgeons and zeuglodons (primitive whales with snake-like bodies but short necks.) Angler Jeremy Wade from Animal Planet’s River Monsters suggested that it’s possible the Loch Ness monster is actually a Greenland shark that wandered into the loch via the River Ness from the sea. Cryptozoologist Nick Redfern mentioned in his book The Monster Book that a new theory suggests that since eels live within the loch, then perhaps Nessie is what’s known as a eunuch eel. Eels mature within the loch and then migrate out to sea to mate, but occasionally there re eels that fail to mature sexually (hence “eunuch”) and remain in the loch for the rest of their lives. These eels can grow to be extraordinarily big, and no one knows how big they get or how long they live.

Other theories suggest that Loch Ness is what paranormal researchers call a “window area” and either we’re seeing back in time, or it allows a plesiosaur to swim out of the Triassic and briefly into our time. Others have suggested mass hallucinations, a tulpa-like entity (“tulpa” possibly being a misnomer, the idea comes from Tibetan mysticism that a person can develop their psychic abilities to such a degree that they can cause entities to physically manifest), and one story claims that infamous 19th century English sorcerer Aleister Crowley conjured the creature and, not knowing what to do with it, released it into the loch.

And there’s always the possibility that the Loch Ness monster is an actual animal that humans have yet to fully discover. The idea’s not so farfetched, as the silverback gorilla, the tapir, the giant panda and numerous other animals were once thought to be mythical until they were discovered and proven to exist by humans. Plus, Nessie’s description is very similar to those of other lake monsters, such as Ogopogo in Lake Okanagan, Champ in Lake Champlain, even Morag in nearby Loch Morar, and others. So maybe there’s something in that dark lake after all.

I guess we’ll just have to wait for the DNA results to come back to know. And, s the scientist says, even if no DNA is found, it doesn’t mean that Nessie doesn’t exist … it just means we have to keep looking until we’re certain.

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