The Great Loch Ness Con Trick

If the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist, how come there have been so many pictures and sightings? And is Nessie really Nellie?

The first documented sighting of a monster inhabiting Loch Ness was by Saint Columba in AD565. According to this, the Christian missionary was travelling through the Highlands when he came across a group of Picts holding a funeral by the loch. They explained that they were burying a fellow tribesman who had been out on the loch in his boat when he had been attacked by a monster. Columba immediately ordered young Lugne Mocumin, one of his own followers, to swim across the loch to retrieve the dead man’s boat.

Detecting lunch was on its way again, the great beast reared up out of the water, at which Columba held up his cross and roared: ‘Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed!’ And with that, the terrified monster apparently turned tail and ‘fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast’.

The group of Picts, very impressed by all this, converted to Christianity on the spot. However, as evidence of a monster living in the loch for the last 1,500 years, this account seems about as reliable as the story of the tooth fairy. Not least because St Columba also claimed, a tad implausibly, to have had various other successful run-ins with Scottish monsters, once even slaying a wild boar just with his voice. Nevertheless, many were convinced by the Loch Ness tale.

Then there was silence on the monster front until some strange sightings were reported in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the Loch Ness Monster, as we have come to know and love it, it wasn’t really ‘born’ until much later – not until 1933, in fact, when (prosaically enough) the A82 trunk road had finally been completed along the western shore of Loch Ness, connecting the western town of Fort William with the busy port of Inverness on the North Sea. Providing easy access for tourists and industry alike, the road also offered a route past the picturesque loch for the first time.

Nearby Inverness had a long-standing and hugely popular tradition of hosting an annual circus. In 1933 Bertram Mills took his circus to Inverness along the new A82 for the first time, where his road crew would have stopped along the banks of Loch Ness to rest and feed the animals. Coincidentally that was when the sightings of the Loch Ness Monster began.

Bertram Mills, ever the entrepreneur, quickly used the local story to his advantage by offering the £20,000 (nearly £2 million pounds today) to anybody who could prove that they had seen the great beast. It was a sum Mills seemed suspiciously unable to afford to pay out. But the public flocked to the area nevertheless, sightings soared and more people than ever before attended his shows in case the monster might make an appearance.

But how could Mills have been so sure nobody could legitimately claim the reward? My theory is that he must have seen the famous photo of a plesiosaur-like creature taken in 1933 near Invermoriston by a Scottish surgeon and had known that it was no monster. At the time, sceptics claimed the photograph was a fake: the creature it showed must be an otter or maybe vegetation floating on the surface of the loch. It was even said to be an elaborate hoax created using a toy submarine. But Bertram Mills had seen an elephant swim before and must have realized the photograph taken was most likely of one of his animals bathing in the loch. Although the financial benefits of staying silent about this were obvious.

Soon afterwards, on 14 April 1933, a Mr and Mrs Mackay claimed that they had seen a ‘large … whale-like beast’ idling in the loch and which had then dived under, causing ‘a great disturbance’ in the water. They had immediately reported the sighting to local gamekeeper Alex Campbell. Campbell, conveniently enough, also turned out to be an amateur reporter for the Inverness Courier. His embellished account of the sighting, entitled ‘Strange Spectacle on Loch Ness’, appeared on 2 May 1933 and brought him instant fame. The world’s monster hunters, not to mention the media, then descended on an remote area of the Scottish Highlands, only previously known for its fishing.

The dial of Loch Ness Monster excitement was then cranked up even further by the Daily Mail, when they sent in a professional team of monster hunters headed by the wonderfully named big-game hunter Marmaduke Weatherall. The Mail ran a daily piece on his efforts to lure the monster from its lair and to bag the beast. And within just two days, the headlines announced he had found unusual footprints on the shoreline.

A cast was sent to the BritishMuseum for identification and the Scots were revelling in the global attention their country was receiving. But the following week they were hanging their heads in shame when the cast proved to be the imprint of a stuffed hippopotamus foot, probably an umbrella stand from some local hostelry or tavern. Weatherall denied any mischief making and it was never proven whether it had been hunter or hoaxer who had laid the false tracks.

The two most compelling photographs of the ‘monster’ are world famous. One depicts a creature with a long greyish neck that tapers into an eerie thin head rising out of the water, followed by two humps. Roy Chapman Andrews, an American explorer and director of the American Museum of Natural History upon whom Indiana Jones was based, went on record in 1935 arguing that he had seen the original picture and that it had been ‘retouched’ by newspaper artists before being published. He firmly states the original picture is of the dorsal fin of a killer whale.

Most other experts disagree. As do I: to my mind, it is clearly the trunk of an elephant, with the first hump being the head and the second its back, almost certainly one of Bertram Mills’s, taken as the circus elephants swam in the loch. Hugh Gray was the photographer: ‘I immediately got my camera ready and snapped the object which was then two to 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.’ This photograph has been declared genuine by photographic experts and shows no signs of tampering, unlike so many of the others. And that is because, in my view, it is a genuine photograph – of a genuine elephant. No retouching

The Loch Ness Monster
But the best-known photograph is the one taken by surgeon Robert Kenneth Wilson on 19 April 1934. Indeed it must be one of the most instantly recognizable pictures ever taken. From a distance of two hundred yards what has come to be known as the ‘Surgeon’s Photograph’ shows a grey ‘trunk’ of around four feet protruding from the water with a hump directly behind it and clear disturbance in the water around. Once developed and declared genuine, the picture was bought and published by the Daily Mail and the Loch Ness Monster industry was properly born.

Curiously enough, when asked what he thought he had seen, Wilson claimed to have been too busy setting up his camera to take proper note, but thought there was certainly something strange in the loch. The next question then should have been: ‘Why didn’t you wait around for a while to see if it returned?’ because then he may well have seen the elephant surfacing, as it would have had to sooner or later. Then again, perhaps he did, but greed rather than valour influenced the better part of his discretion.

As recently as March 2006, Neil Clark, curator of palaeontology at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, has stated (thus confirming something I have believed for many years): ‘It is quite possible that people not used to seeing a swimming elephant – the vast bulk of the animal is submerged, with only a thick trunk and a couple of humps visible – thought they saw a monster.’ Dr Clark also notes that most sightings came around the time of Bertram Mills’ reward offer for evidence of the monster. He himself believes that most other the sightings could probably be explained away by floating logs or unusual waves.

But just as it seemed the eminent professor was about to finally blow the Loch Ness Monster out of the water, so to speak, he was asked by the BBC whether he believed there was a large creature living in the loch. To which he responded: ‘I believe there is something alive in Loch Ness.’ And he’s not wrong, is he? There must be ‘something’ alive in the loch; in fact there are lots of living things swimming around in it. But at least he didn’t go on to say it was a 1,500-year-old sea monster, which it would have to be, as that is the premise upon which this whole story has been constructed.

But to be fair to Dr Clark, the Loch Ness Monster is big business for Scotland. Consultants have estimated it to be worth in the region of £50 million per annum and rising. More that 500,000 tourists travel to the area every year in the hope of sighting the beast, despite Bertram Mills’ reward expiring with him. Some claim the industry has even created 2,500 new jobs. And the Monster Spotting Tour comes in at £15 a head. Dr Clark would not be popular in his home country if he finally dispelled the myth many love and even more rely upon.

Since the elephant-heavy 1930s there have been dozens of sightings of objects of varying shapes and sizes. Even if paddling pachyderms are no longer the likeliest explanation, other theories are possible. Loch Ness is actually a sea lake, fed from the Moray Firth in the North Sea via the River Ness. Furthermore, the Moray Firth is one of the areas of British seawater most frequented by porpoises, dolphins and whales.

Indeed seals and dolphins have been filmed in the loch many times. If the mind wants to see a monster, three partly submerged dolphins swimming in a row could easily provide the illusion of a thirty-foot, three-humped creature in the gathering gloom – especially after a few drams of the local malt. I have myself encountered a few three-humped monsters after a lively evening out before now.

The BBC has used sonar and satellite imagery to scan every inch of the loch and found ‘no trace of any large animal living there’. But, as it has always been the case with myths, legends and fables, while it is possible to prove the positive by producing irrefutable evidence, it is never possible to prove the opposite argument.

We could dam Loch Ness and drain it. We would then be able to take everybody still perpetuating the myth down into this vast new dry valley and show them every nook, cave and rock cluster, but still the hardcore believers would reply: ‘Ah, but Nessie may well be out in the North Sea at the moment just limbering up for another appearance.’ But of course that is not the reason at all. Everyone from Columba (who told that miraculous story, embroidered or otherwise, which led to his canonization) onwards has profited from retelling the tall tale of Loch Ness.

The only surprise is that so many people have, and still do, strongly believe there is an unidentified prehistoric monster living in a Scottish loch. Some argue that is a historical fact; I know it’s just a hysterical one. I’m here to inform you, kids – there is no such thing as the Loch Ness Monster. Just don’t tell anyone it was me who told you.

Extract from Mysterious World

Albert Jack books available for download here

Evacuating Hanoi

This week is to be my last in the hot little beehive that is the narrow and cramped streets of the Old Quarter, Hanoi City. And I will not be sorry to leave. Happily, the house I have rented at Ho Bo De (Lake Bo De), around 4 miles outside Hanoi and across the Red River, will be ready for me to move into and finally I can unpack and have some space to move around in. If you have read Hotel Blues then you will already know why setting up home in a hotel is never a good thing.

From next week I can organize a study in which to start working on Last Man in London and the stage play I have planned. I also have five new book proposals in with my agent, who already has publisher interest on several of them, so it looks like I am going to be busy for the rest of the year at the house. So what have I learned from city life, Asian style, whilst I have been here?

Well, for a start, I thought I saw a man killed last week. I was sitting just inside a pavement cafe when a screech of rubber, and what sounded like two wheely bins being collided together, caused me to look up in time to see a man landing relatively softly on the road and his crash helmet fall into my frame of vision, from above, and smash onto the pitted tarmac. He had collided his scooter with another. Head on, by the look of things and at speed, by the sound of them.

He lay flat on his back and didn’t move. Passers by crowded around and started rummaging though his pockets, although without any apparent menace. It simply looked like they were trying to find out who he was and were not robbing him. In Africa, of course, they would be. It worried me, with him being on his back, and I was tempted to go out and put him into the recovery position, at least. I know what that is because I put myself into it on most weekend afternoons. But a waiter stopped me and explained he had to be left alone until the police arrived. ‘But he could die by then,’ I protested. Nobody said anything.

Instead, we all waited and nobody touched him either. Half the narrow street was blocked and so the one million passing scooters had to squeeze into the other half with even more intensity and hooting than before. Luckily it was only a matter of minutes before a taxi driver, who was himself inching passed the scene, stopped. He blocked the entire road and started shouting at the crowd.

He then took the initiative by jumping out, opening the back door of his cab and, with the help of another, scooped the motionless man off the road and into the back seat. By now his face was only a few feet from mine and, despite having no formal medical training, I could see he was not doing well. I couldn’t see his chest moving at all and so it didn’t look like he was breathing. Moments later the car sped off (to the hospital I hoped) and the crowd dispersed leaving two scooters laying in the road and the other rider standing alone, holding his arm in pain.

Twenty minutes later and the police arrived. They calmly walked about taking photographs, drawing sketches and making chalk marks around the bikes. One of them interviewed the other rider and the road wasn’t even closed as they made their measurements. Instead the traffic continued along and even riding over the officer’s tape measure as he noted the width of the road. Imagine this is any western capital where the road would have been closed for two days after such an incident.

Within minutes the scooters had been dragged to the pavement, the officers left and life returned to normal. For the rest of us, at least. The following morning I relayed this incident to one of the hotel managers over breakfast and his first words were, ‘did you see anyone leaving a small amount of money at the scene,’ Excuse me? He had to repeat it before I could remember if I had seen such a thing. ‘No.’ I told him.

‘That’s good then,’ he replied, ‘it means he isn’t dead.’ I asked him to explain how he could know such a thing and he then went into great detail about the Vietnamese custom of leaving small value notes with a body if anyone was ever to chance upon one. The reason is to help the soul pass into heaven by paying the tolls along the way. Now, obviously I thought he was having me on but then one, two and three other people confirmed his account.

‘Ok,’ I said, ‘so what happens to the money? Do the medics pick it up and later give it to the victim’s family?’ He looked as though I had just shot his dog. ‘Noo,’ he cried, ‘never. Nobody touches it, it stays with the soul.’ I didn’t understand. ‘Surely somebody picks it up?’ But he insisted not. It stays at the scene. I started to smell a rat. ‘So you are telling me,’ I pressed, ‘that in the morning, when it has all gone quite, even the street cleaner or a passing ragged urchin doesn’t see a note fluttering on the wind, three streets away, and himself pick it up?’

He insisted that would never happen and left me wondering about the peculiarity of these customs and the naivety of some of those involved. I use the word ‘naive’ with consideration but I am sure that someone, somewhere will trouser such a windfall should they happen upon it. I don’t believe all these notes drift around Hanoi for evermore. Nor do I believe there are such toll fees to be paid along the way to Heaven. For that matter, nor do I believe in Heaven but that’s another story.

By the way, I was back at the same restaurant a few days later and asked about the victim who was hurried away in the back of a taxi. ‘Ahh,’ the waiter replied, ‘I saw him yesterday. He came back to pick up his scooter.’ That was a relief. Next time I shall look out for money being left at a scene. (If there is a next time.)

Other customs include women of all ages walking around in their pajamas. Apparently this is a status symbol and a signal to others that she is a lady of leisure. She doesn’t have to work and could, quite literally, stay in bed all day. I wish they would. Some of the men also have similar vanities. Their creepy and long fingernails, of up to two inches, are meant to reveal a man who is above manual labour and who doesn’t have to work on the farms or in the rice fields. Really? I would love to see them instead mending scooters all day with those claws. Actually, no I wouldn’t.

The other day I noticed the traffic lights, or robots, at the major junctions have a number within them that counts down to the exact point they are to change from red to green, or the other way. This is useful for pedestrians who are wondering whether to take on a busy junction with five million scooters lined up to your right, or left. It means you know exactly how long you have to make it across the road before the light turns green. Or exactly how long you have left to live, depending on your choices.

So, I have enjoyed learning about Hanoi City, and all of its quirks, but it is now time to be working again.The holiday is over and I am moving on in a few days. I went over to Bo De yesterday to take some of my bags and to be given a tour of the house and village. This is how you heat the water, use the air conditioning and that sort of thing. Buy fruit from this place and not that one. Vegetables here, bread there and, eventually, Jamesons from that place over there. I thought I was going to have to ask.

I have also learned that many of the men drink vodka with their breakfast on a weekend morning. I was quite surprised to see the vodka bottle being passed around at 10am on a Sunday. I thought I was the only one who did that.

I haven’t got off to a great start in my new community though. At one point we passed a market stall with a young lady manning the post who was wearing a Union Jack T shirt. I smiled at her, pointed to her T shirt and gave her a thumbs up. She looked confused. I pointed again, smiled, pointed to myself and said, ‘that’s my country’s flag,’ and gave another thumbs up.

She looked even more confused and others started acting strangely. It then occurred to me that it was unlikely anybody around here knows what the flag of Britain looks like in the first place, or cares. Instead, they all saw the new Englishman pointing to her chest, then to himself and giving her a thumbs up. It was an innocent mistake but I shall have to be a bit more careful with my sign language in future.

Albert Jack

Hanoi, June 2013.

Next – Bangkok, the City of Angles

Albert Jack books available for download here