In the rugged highlands of Scotland there’s a large freshwater lake known as Loch Ness. It stretches for 23 miles flanked by rolling hills. And its depth reaches nearly 800 feet. The reason you’ve probably heard of Loch Ness isn’t because of the dimensions but what allegedly lies beneath its murky surface. According to multiple eyewitnesses, the lake is home to some type of prehistoric animal. Otherwise known as The Loch Ness Monster.
Saint Columba tames the Loch Ness Monster
Nearly all these claimed sightings date from the 20th and 21st centuries. However, there is one alleged account from the sixth century AD. At this time, in what used to be termed the ‘Dark Ages’ after the fall of the Roman Empire in western Europe, monks from Ireland kept the flame of Christianity burning. One of their number, Columba, journeyed to what is now Scotland determined to bring the gospels to the pagan inhabitants.
His mission was largely successful. A century after Columba’s death, the abbot of Iona Abbey – a man called Adomnán – wrote a two-part biography of the heroic Irish monk. In the second part, he describes an encounter between Columba and Nessie (as the monster is fondly known today).
“The brute lay asleep in the riverbed, waiting in his lair. He ascended to the surface and with a loud roar from his open heart, he lunged at the man. The Holy Man raised his hand and made a sign of the cross. At the sound of the saint’s voice, the brute retreated so quickly, it seems as if were pulled by a rope.”
Well, of course, confronted by this astonishing sight – the locals deserted their pagan gods and converted to Christianity on the spot. Now, stories of heroes taming or killing beasts and dragons have been a feature of both Christian and pre-Christian mythology going back millennia. Normally as a way of proving that my god is better than your god. Look what he can do!
In Christian scripture, we have Saint Philip described in the Acts of Philip – a gnostic gospel the church chose not to include in the bible – casting a dragon out of a temple dedicated to Apollo. Then there is Saint George who as everybody knows slew a dragon. Saint Theodore of Amasea did a similar deed. And in the Book of Revelation, we see Michael the Archangel sticking it to a devilish reptile.
Was Columba’s beast Nessie? That is a moot point. His biography states the monster was to be found in the River Ness, which flows from the lake. And that’s good enough for Nessie fans.
Fast forward to the 1930s
We then have an enormous gap in the Nessie story from the sixth century AD to the 1930s. Had the monster gone into a multi-century hibernation – or swum off elsewhere? Who knows?
But for whatever reason, Nessie takes off in the decade that brought you the Great Depression and the Third Reich. Were people in the 1930s looking for a little escapism? Or were they influenced by Hollywood movies that had begun to master special effects. In the 1933 epic King Kong, we see the gigantic ape kill dinosaurs in the jungle. Could this imagery have been burned into the public consciousness?
In 1933, a newspaper article in the Inverness Courier sparked the Nessie craze. A married couple had seen a whale-like creature in Loch Ness.
“The creature disported itself, rolling and plunging for fully a minute, its body resembling that of a whale, and the water cascading and churning like a simmering cauldron. Soon, however, it disappeared in a boiling mass of foam.”
Something about this story fired people up. A circus offered a £2,000 reward to capture the beast (how very King Kong!!). While the Daily Mail newspaper sent a big game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell to see if he could bag the monster. A breathless Wetherell reported back that he found gigantic footprints by the lake. Sadly, these turned out to have been created by hoaxers using the stuffed foot of a hippopotamus.
Incredibly, the famous author and member of the Bloomsbury group Virginia Woolf was swept up by Nessie mania. She wrote to her sister:
“We met a charming couple in an inn, who were in touch through friends, with the Monster. They had seen him. He is like several broken telegraph posts and swims at intense speed. He has no head. He is constantly seen.”
For the next twenty years, glimpses of the monster would continue to be reported. In 1959, a local firefighter, Peter O’Connor, was condemned for planning to kill Nessie. A year later, the chief constable of Inverness, J. R. Johnstone, called on parliament to pass legislation protecting the monster from “human villainy”.
The 1960s gets a bit silly
The decade that brought us the permissive society also loved to poke fun at pomposity. It took the Loch Ness legend and turned it into a comic British movie with a smutty title: What a Whopper.
The movie’s protagonist Tony Blake – played by real-life early 60s pop heartthrob Adam Faith – is an author whose book on Nessie has just been roundly rejected by publishers. So, to drum up interest he goes up to Loch Ness to fake a sighting. When his plan fails, Blake is forced to flee across the lake from angry locals…at which point the real monster appears.
Is this movie garbage? Oh god yes! As an aside, I worked with Adam Faith on a media venture forty years later at the turn of the 21st century and made sure I never mentioned What a Whopper to him. Some points in your life are best forgotten.
The use and misuse of science
There have been numerous attempts to apply scientific methods to the search for the Loch Ness Monster. In May 1973, a Boston patent attorney called Robert Rines took sonar and underwater photographic equipment to Loch Ness and claimed to prove the existence of “at least two large marine animals”.
Rines had set up an organisation called the Academy of Applied Sciences that despite its name, railed against “official science” because, as Rines told journalists, “organised science doesn’t know how to handle oral evidence”. This is a familiar trope of pseudo-science – arguing that real science should be a blend of peer-reviewed evidence and what a bloke said down the pub.
Over the last fifty years, expeditions to Loch Ness have used sonar probes, a submarine, a gyrocopter, a trained dolphin, a baited cage, an amphibious Volkswagen, and a model monster smeared with salmon oil to try and locate Nessie.
The sightings have come thick and fast with sceptics rolling their eyes and attributing the visual phenomena to otters, ducks, seals, cormorants, mirages, shadows and even rotting vegetation. All of this not helped by the dark gloom of the water, which is caused by the surrounding peat. It gives the lake an impenetrable and mysterious aspect.
The Loch Ness Investigation Bureau Limited
In December 1961, an organisation was set up to investigate claims about Nessie: The Loch Ness Investigation Bureau Limited. The founders were David James MP, Richard Fitter, the author Constance Whyte, and Sir Peter Scott.
Scott was a conservationist and the only son of the famous and fabled Scott of the Antarctic – the doomed explorer. Sir Peter worked with the above mentioned Rines and in 1975, they provided blurry photos of what looked like an underwater prehistoric creature, which was given the Latin name Nessiteras rhombopteryx.
Now I remember as a 12-year-old how exciting this was initially until some people began to analyse that Latin a little more closely. Didn’t it look suspiciously like an anagram? The Daily Telegraph newspaper decoded it as: “Monster Hoax by Sir Peter S”. A furious Rines countered that it could also read as: “Yes, both pix are monsters, R.”
The damage, however, was done – and no more was heard about that photo. In 2008, before his death, Rines announced that he believed Nessie had become extinct due to global warming.
Russian versions of the Loch Ness Monster
Before the fall of the Soviet Union, I remember as a child reading a sneering feature article in a Soviet publication laughing at the west’s obsession with childish fantasies like the Loch Ness Monster. It was symptomatic of our inferior bourgeois, capitalist mentality.
Only, Russia can hardly lecture the west on this subject. Back in 1953, members of a geological expedition claimed they could verify a local folktale about a monster living in a large body of water in Russia’s far east. The Labynkyr Devil was described by local fishermen as a “huge aggressive monster with a big mouth full of sharp teeth”.
What nonsense, the Soviet scientists initially retorted – before apparently running into it. One of the geological team, Viktor Tverdokhlebov, described a dark, grey creature moving at speed. “There was no doubt, we had seen the Devil – the legendary monster of this locale,” Viktor said afterwards.
And then there’s the Brosno Dragon, tales of which go back 800 years. Allegedly when the Mongols swept across Russia in the Middle Ages, the dragon obligingly stopped the Mongol army from seizing the city of Veliky Novgorod. As the Mongols unwisely watered their horses by the dragon’s lake – it leaped out and tore the warriors to pieces.
The rise and fall of Nessie?
In many ways, Nessie was a creation of mass media. The popular press and radio latched on to this fantastical story and amplified it globally. But one newspaper article in recent years has raised the point that modern media today is a double-edged sword. It can spread fake news and conspiracy theories with remarkable speed and impact. But it also punctures silly stories very quickly. The journalist posed the question whether the internet has now killed off Nessie?