The notorious ‘Surgeon’s Photograph’ of 1934, which was uncovered as a hoax.
A freakishly colossal catfish, a family of otters, a giant eel, a stranded whale, a castaway Scots pine log or an amphibious dinosaur forgotten by evolution that somehow survived the Ice Age? Or is Scotland’s legendary Nessie nothing more than the product of over-active imaginations stirred into a fantastical frenzy by local whisky and tricks of the light?
According to folklore legend dating back many centuries, somewhere within the great murky depths of the freshwater expanse of Loch Ness in Scotland lurks an elusive cryptid affectionately known as Nessie. Hundreds of sightings of this mysterious beast, admittedly mostly spurious and entirely unsubstantiated, have created an enduringly fascinating yet possibly nonexistent local celebrity.
Situated in a photogenic and atmospheric region of the Highlands of Scotland, Loch Ness is a tectonic lake which holds more water than all the other rivers and lakes of the UK put together – it has a capacity of over 260,000 million cubic feet and is up to 800 feet deep. Plenty of water to conceal a giant eel, a twenty-foot catfish, a fleet of double-decker buses, or possibly even a stranded plesiosaur or basilosaurus.
A ‘cryptid’ refers to an unidentified species, and over the years – certainly since the 1930s when sightings of the beast became more frequent (and were often backed up with fuzzy photographic ‘evidence’) – hundreds of people have claimed to have seen the creature both underwater and on land. However, nobody has yet been able to make a positive identification. Descriptions have varied from a ‘whale-like’ creature and a serpentine prehistoric beast, to a terrifying dragon and even a giant tortoise or turtle. But it might just be an upturned boat, a piece of driftwood, an optical illusion, a trick of the light or the figment of a lively imagination.
Whether he (or indeed she) exists or not, Nessie has done wonders for the region’s tourism industry – Loch Ness attracts around two million visitors every year. If Nessie does exist, the cryptid or ‘water kelpie’ that was reportedly first seen over a thousand years ago was certainly not the same creature that was spotted by a gamekeeper in 1863 or the “most extraordinary form of animal” witnessed by Mr and Mrs Spicer during their summer drive in 1933 and later reported in local paper The Inverness Courier. Equally, none of the dozens of unsubstantiated sightings are likely to be of the same fuzzy objects captured by camera during the twentieth century, including the infamous and now iconic “surgeon’s photo” of 1934 taken by Robert Wilson, and Tim Dinsdale’s indistinct film footage of 1960. Suffice to say the majority of photographic ‘evidence’ is about as convincing as the picture above.
One of the more recent and arguably most compelling sightings was captured on video on 2007 by Gordon Holmes, although he has since been largely discredited and sceptics claim the footage could merely depict shadows of otters or seals.
In 1962, a society was formed, rather grandly calling itself the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau (LNIB). This society consisted of over 1,000 volunteers who monitored the loch throughout the year, equipped with binoculars, expensive cameras with telescopic lenses, and doubtless a cheeky wee flask of Scotch on standby. The LNIB even had a campsite and dedicated ‘viewing platform’, but despite a reasonably promising sonar expedition in 1967-68 led by Professor D Gordon Tucker, it closed in 1972. Then in 1975 Nessie was bestowed with the scientific name Nessiteras rhombopteryx, although even this gesture of officialdom has not been without its own controversies (see here ).
There have since been numerous other inexplicable sonar activity readings, but even these can generally be met with disappointingly humdrum explanations. In 2003 a major BBC expedition trawled the loch from end to end using sonar and satellite tracking, and after several weeks of intensive optimism and having blown a budget of several million quid, still came up with zilch. Underwater shots have proven even fuzzier and less convincing than the above water shots.
Sceptics have a valid point when they claim that if anything unusual did ever exist in Loch Ness, or still does, there would by now be a plethora of incontrovertible evidence, such as unusual tracks, carcasses or remains, and the elusive beast itself (or whatever is left of it) being positively identified and even caught. It is unfeasible that there is just one ‘Nessie’ – if the beast does exist, it is not a solitary creature but a family or a whole herd of beasts – which again raises the question of how it is possible that sightings have not been far more frequent and definitive. But for now the appeal of the legend is the fact that it cannot ever really be completely refuted – the riddle is as irresistible as it is unsolvable. As flimsy as the supporting ‘evidence’ might appear to be, based as it is on hearsay and hoaxes, it is impossible to rule out the existence of Nessie – it is, after all, no more or less fantastical than claims of little green men from outer space, ghosts or a politician with a conscience.
Nessie has inspired countless expeditions, studies, boat tours, televised investigations and campfire tales, dozens of books and poems and even a children’s cartoon (The Family Ness, 1985-87), not to mention a moderately unwatchable movie starring Ted Danson in 1996. Still the ancient Scottish legend continues to attract hoards of intrigued tourists year after year. The question remains tantalisingly unanswerable: does Nessie exist or do all these sightings have something to do with the fact that the highlands of Scotland are renowned for their distilleries, which produce the finest (and most potent) single malt known to humanity? Nessie will doubtless persist in puzzling and perplexing cryptozoologists and the general public alike for many years to come.