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The Legend of Loch Ness

  • By Stephen Lyons
  • Posted 01.12.99
  • NOVA

"Many a man has been hanged on less evidence than there is for the Loch Ness Monster."
—G.K. Chesterton

For at least 1,500 years a legend has held sway in the Scottish Highlands that Loch Ness is home to a mysterious aquatic animal. Find out how this legend got its start and how various possible sightings have kept the legend alive.

iconic image of Loch Ness monster

This much-debated photo from 1934 may be iconic, but the legend of the Loch Ness Monster dates back to before the Roman invasion of the region. Enlarge Photo credit: Fortean Pictures Library

birth of a legend

When the Romans first came to northern Scotland in the first century A.D., they found the Highlands occupied by fierce, tattoo-covered tribes they called the Picts, or painted people. From the carved, standing stones still found in the region around Loch Ness, it is clear the Picts were fascinated by animals, and careful to render them with great fidelity. All the animals depicted on the Pictish stones are lifelike and easily recognizable—all but one. The exception is a strange beast with an elongated beak or muzzle, a head locket or spout, and flippers instead of feet. Described by some scholars as a swimming elephant, the Pictish beast is the earliest known evidence for an idea that has held sway in the Scottish Highlands for at least 1,500 years—that Loch Ness is home to a mysterious aquatic animal.

In Scottish folklore, large animals have been associated with many bodies of water, from small streams to the largest lakes, often labeled Loch-na-Beistie on old maps. These water-horses, or water-kelpies, are said to have magical powers and malevolent intentions. According to one version of the legend, the water-horse lures small children into the water by offering them rides on its back. Once the children are aboard, their hands become stuck to the beast and they are dragged to a watery death, their livers washing ashore the following day.

The earliest written reference linking such creatures to Loch Ness is in the biography of Saint Columba, the man credited with introducing Christianity to Scotland. In A.D. 565, according to this account, Columba was on his way to visit a Pictish king when he stopped along the shore of Loch Ness. Seeing a large beast about to attack a man who was swimming in the lake, Columba raised his hand, invoking the name of God and commanding the monster to "go back with all speed." The beast complied, and the swimmer was saved.

Daily Mail British newspaper

The Loch Ness Monster has been headline news all over the world for more than 60 years. Enlarge Photo credit: Daily Mail

When Nicholas Witchell, a future BBC correspondent, researched the history of the legend for his 1974 book The Loch Ness Story, he found about a dozen pre-20th-century references to large animals in Loch Ness, gradually shifting in character from these clearly mythical accounts to something more like eyewitness descriptions.

a 20th-century sensation

The modern legend of Loch Ness dates from 1933, when a new road was completed along the shore, offering the first clear views of the loch from the northern side. One April afternoon, a local couple was driving home along this road when they spotted "an enormous animal rolling and plunging on the surface." Their account was written up by a correspondent for the Inverness Courier, whose editor used the word "monster" to describe the animal. The Loch Ness Monster has been a media phenomenon ever since.

Public interest built gradually during the spring of 1933, then picked up sharply after a couple reported seeing one of the creatures on land, lumbering across the shore road. By October, several London newspapers had sent correspondents to Scotland, and radio programs were being interrupted to bring listeners the latest news from the loch. A British circus offered a reward of £20,000 for the capture of the beast. Hundreds of boy scouts and outdoorsmen arrived, some venturing out in small boats, others setting up deck chairs and waiting expectantly for the monster to appear.

The excitement over the monster reached a fever pitch in December, when the London Daily Mail hired an actor, film director, and big-game hunter named Marmaduke Wetherell to track down the beast. After only a few days at the loch, Wetherell reported finding the fresh footprints of a large, four-toed animal. He estimated it to be 20 feet long. With great fanfare, Wetherell made plaster casts of the footprints and, just before Christmas, sent them off to the Natural History Museum in London for analysis. While the world waited for the museum zoologists to return from holiday, legions of monster hunters descended on Loch Ness, filling the local hotels. Inverness was floodlit for the occasion, and traffic jammed the shoreline roads in both directions.

Big-game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell Enlarge Photo credit: ABC News

The bubble burst in early January, when museum zoologists announced that the footprints were those of a hippopotamus. They had been made with a stuffed hippo foot—the base of an umbrella stand or ashtray. It wasn't clear whether Wetherell was the perpetrator of the hoax or its gullible victim. Either way, the incident tainted the image of the Loch Ness Monster and discouraged serious investigation of the phenomenon. For the next three decades, most scientists scornfully dismissed reports of strange animals in the loch. Those sightings that weren't outright hoaxes, they said, were the result of optical illusions caused by boat wakes, wind slicks, floating logs, otters, ducks, or swimming deer.

Saw Something, They Did

Nevertheless, eyewitnesses continued to come forward with accounts of their sightings—more than 4,000 of them, according to Witchell's estimate. Most of the witnesses described a large creature with one or more humps protruding above the surface like the hull of an upturned boat. Others reported seeing a long neck or flippers. What was most remarkable, however, was that many of the eyewitnesses were sober, level-headed people: lawyers and priests, scientists and school teachers, policemen and fishermen—even a Nobel Prize winner.

In the 1950s, a local doctor named Constance Whyte began collecting these eyewitness accounts, along with sketches of what the people had seen, finally publishing them in 1957 as a book entitled More Than a Legend. Noting that many of her friends had been subjected to ridicule and contempt, Whyte said her goal in writing the book was "the vindication of many people of integrity who had reported honestly what they had seen in Loch Ness." (To hear recent personal anecdotes, see Eyewitness Accounts.)

In the 1960s a group of dedicated amateurs formed the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau to keep a constant vigil on the loch. Enlarge Photo credit: BBC-Tomorrow's World

Whyte's book inspired a new generation of monster hunters, including Tim Dinsdale, who on his first visit to the loch in 1960 took an intriguing film of something moving across the loch—and promptly gave up his career as an aeronautical engineer to devote his life to pursuing the monster. The next year, a group of dedicated amateurs formed the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau, keeping a constant vigil on the loch from an observation post on the northern shore.

But perhaps the most important effect of Whyte's book was to turn the tide of public opinion. Long dismissed as fodder for "silly season" press reports, Nessie was finally considered a subject worthy of serious scientific investigation. In the span of a decade, beginning in 1958, four separate expeditions were launched, first by the BBC, then by three respected British universities: Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Birmingham. Rather than scanning the surface with binoculars and cameras, as the amateur investigators had, these expeditions came equipped with sonar, a military technology that used sound to search the underwater environment. Though the expeditions found nothing conclusive, in each case the sonar operators detected large, moving underwater objects they could not explain. (To learn how sonar works, see Experiment with Sonar.)

In 1987, Operation Deep Scan, the most ambitious sonar survey of Loch Ness, found three unexplained underwater targets. Enlarge Photo credit: North Scene Video

high-tech searches

The use of technology to search the loch reached a new level in the 1970s, when a series of expeditions was sponsored by the Boston-based Academy of Applied Science, whose members included many technically skilled people with ties to MIT. The Academy's approach was to set a trap for the monster by combining sonar and underwater photography for the first time. Under the leadership of Robert Rines, a lawyer trained in physics, the team pointed a sophisticated form of sonar, called side scan sonar, out into Loch Ness from a point near the shore. Nearby they placed an underwater camera taking pictures every 45 seconds as a strobe light illuminated the depths with a bright flash. The system paid off one night in 1975. At the same moment the sonar was registering a large, moving object, the underwater camera was taking pictures of an object that looked, after development and computer enhancement, like the flippers of an aquatic creature.

Rines' discovery won the support of two reputable scientists: Harold "Doc" Edgerton, the legendary MIT scientist who had invented side scan sonar and strobe photography; and Sir Peter Scott, one of Britain's most respected naturalists. With Edgerton and Scott behind him, Rines was given an opportunity to present his evidence at a hearing at the House of Commons in London. Never had the possibility of the Loch Ness Monster been taken so seriously.

Almost immediately, however, critics began to raise questions about the evidence. Could the suggestive sonar traces be the result of human error? Had the flipper photos been altered to improve their appearance? Just as damaging to Rines' case was Peter Scott's bold pronouncement about the identity of the creature. Based on the flipper photos and the eyewitness sightings, Scott concluded that Nessie was a plesiosaur, an ancient reptile that was thought to have gone extinct along with the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. The idea was just too far-fetched for professional zoologists to take seriously.

This painting by Sir Peter Scott, a respected British naturalist, helped create the popular image of Nessie as an ancient reptile called a plesiosaur. Enlarge Photo credit: Adrian Shrine/Bob Rines

Although zoologists have yet to conduct the full-scale investigation Rines hoped to trigger, the loch continues to yield intriguing sonar hits. In 1987, an expedition called Operation Deep Scan used a flotilla of 20 sonar-equipped boats to sweep the loch with a curtain of sound; the operation yielded three underwater targets that could not be explained. In the early 1990s, the BBC's Nicholas Witchell helped organize Project Urquhart, the first extensive study of the loch's biology and geology. Although they weren't looking for monsters, the expedition's sonar operators detected a large, moving underwater target and followed it for several minutes before losing it. And during the 1997 expedition featured in NOVA's Loch Ness film, Rines and his longtime colleague Charles Wyckoff detected yet another puzzling underwater target. According to the expedition's sonar expert, marine biologist Arne Carr, it was a moving target, appeared to be biological in nature, and was about 15 feet long—the size of a small whale.

Famous Photo Falsified?

In the 65 years since the birth of the modern legend, dozens of people have come forward with photographs purporting to show the monster. Most were quickly dismissed as either outright frauds or images of ordinary objects mistaken for monsters. But one photo stood above the rest. Taken in 1934, it shows what appears to be the slender neck of an animal rising from the surface of the water. From the moment it was published in the London Daily Mail, it became the very image of the Loch Ness Monster and, for many, the strongest evidence that Nessie actually exists.

The "surgeon's photo," published in 1934, became the very image of the Loch Ness Monster. Enlarge Photo credit: Fortean Pictures Library

One reason the photograph had such an impact on the Loch Ness legend was that it came from such a credible source. The photo was sold to the Daily Mail by a London physician named R. Kenneth Wilson, who said he had taken the picture when he noticed a commotion in the water as he was driving up from London to photograph birds with a friend near Inverness. Few believed that such a respected doctor could be party to a deception.

The credibility of the surgeon's photo hinged on its source—a respected London doctor named R. Kenneth Wilson. Enlarge Photo credit: Fortean Pictures Library

But in 1994, 60 years after the photo was first published, newspapers around the world reported the claim that the "surgeon's photo" was a fake, part of an elaborate plot to dupe the Daily Mail. The man behind the story was a former English art teacher named Alastair Boyd, who had become an avid student of Loch Ness lore after he and his wife had had their own sighting of a large animal in the loch in 1979. Years later, a friend of Boyd's named David Martin discovered an old newspaper clipping in which Ian Wetherell (the son of Marmaduke Wetherell of hippo foot fame) claimed the surgeon's photo was a hoax. The article had attracted little attention when it was published in 1975, but two details caught Boyd's eye.

First, Wetherell said the plot had involved a man named Maurice Chambers—the very same man that Dr. Wilson said he had driven up from London to visit in 1934. Second, Wetherell mentioned that the surgeon's photograph included the scenery of Loch Ness in the background. In fact, the familiar Nessie photo includes only the protruding neck and the water around it. Boyd knew that the original photo had included a bit of the far shoreline in the background, because he had rediscovered the uncropped version in the late '80s. But that full photo had been published only once, in 1934. So how could Wetherell have known this detail? "Either he had a very long memory, or he took the picture," Boyd says.

The full, uncropped surgeon's photo, published only once in 1934, was rediscovered by Boyd more than 50 years later. Enlarge Photo credit: Fortean Pictures Library

Ian Wetherell had died by the time Boyd and Martin read the article, but they were able to track down his step-brother, Christian Spurling, in the south of England. Spurling, 93 and near death, confessed. Unhappy with the way he was treated by the Daily Mail after the hippo foot fiasco, Duke Wetherell had set out to get his revenge, enlisting his son and step-son in the plot. First Spurling built a model monster by grafting a head and neck onto the conning tower of a toy submarine. Then Wetherell and his son Ian drove up to the loch and staged the photograph, taking care to include the actual Loch Ness scenery in the background. Finally, to conceal his own role in the hoax, Wetherell persuaded Dr. Wilson, through their common friend Chambers, to have the photo developed and sell it to the Daily Mail as his own. The plot worked better than any of them could have imagined.

Not everyone accepts the Spurling story. American journalist Richard Smith, for example, notes that toy experts question whether the toy submarines of the 1930s could have performed as described, and he wonders why Boyd waited until after Spurling's death to reveal his confession. But in the aftermath of Boyd's 1994 bombshell, most people now believe the surgeon's photo was yet another Loch Ness hoax.

The 93-year-old stepson of Marmaduke Wetherell told Boyd he made the monster in the picture by grafting a plastic wood neck to a toy submarine. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

Does that finally disprove the monster's existence? Not at all, says Boyd. One of the great ironies of the Loch Ness story is that the man who brought down the most famous piece of evidence remains a firm believer in Nessie. "I am so convinced of the reality of these creatures that I would actually stake my life on their existence," he told NOVA. "I trust my eyesight ... I used to make my living teaching people how to observe, and I know that the thing I saw was not a log or an otter or a wave, or anything like that. It was a large animal. It came heaving out of the water, something like a whale. I mean, the part that was actually on the surface when it stopped rolling through was at least 20 feet long. It was totally extraordinary. It's the most amazing thing I've ever seen in my life, and if I could afford to spend the rest of my life looking for another glimpse of it, I would."

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program The Beast of Loch Ness.

Stephen Lyons was the co-writer and co-producer of NOVA's "The Beast of Loch Ness."

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