The endless allure of a non-existent monster
Friday 21st august 2015
The Loch Ness ‘creature’ got its first mention as early as the 7th century and ever since it’s fuelled imaginations the world over. Now PETER FROST wades in with some sobering scepticism
In January of 1934 the Daily Mail, just as much of a reactionary rag as it is today, excelled itself with its most despicable and notorious headline.
“Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” it proclaimed above a paean of praise for Oswald Mosley and his fascist bully boys.
In the April of that same year it was the first London newspaper to report on a strange unknown creature in Loch Ness and the first to publish a photograph.
In the Daily Mail you could read about horrible slimy reptilian monsters emerging from the primordial depths to wreak mindless death and destruction.
But when you had finished with Mosley’s anti-semitic cretins, what did the Mail have to say about the creature in the Scottish loch?
Well, some of its story was nicked from the Inverness Courier which the year before was the first to report on the loch monster with an article headlined “Strange Spectacle on Loch Ness.”
The rest of its story and picture it bought from a prominent London gynaecologist named Robert Kenneth Wilson. He wanted to remain anonymous and the picture was nick-named the “surgeon’s photograph.”
The Daily Mail paid Wilson £100 for the picture (over £6,000 today) but he was later fined £1,000 (£60,000 today) by the British Medical Association for allowing his name to be associated with it.
In his story Wilson claimed to have been walking by the loch when he saw the creature break the surface. He hurriedly took four photos, only two of which came out and one of them was rather blurry.
Tales of a beast in the loch had first came to national prominence in 1933 when a new loch-side motor-road gave easy access to unrestricted views of the loch.
One of the first sightings from the new road were from a couple named Spicer who reported seeing a 25ft (7.5m) animal with a long neck crossing the road in front of their car before splashing into the loch.
The Daily Mail sent big game hunter Duke Wetherell to investigate and, like many a good Mail reporter before and since, when he found no real evidence, he made some up.
He used a hippo foot umbrella stand from his hotel to make giant foot prints in the loch-side mud. The Mail printed the pictures.
It has even been suggested that the Mail’s man Wetherell created a plastic head and neck and attached it to a toy submarine that much later proved to be the real object in the surgeon’s photograph printed on the front page of the Daily Mail.
The legend of a loch monster is an old one. A 7th century book relates how St Columba told the legend of a man who had been attacked and killed by a water beast in Loch Ness.
Perhaps the commonest theory about the creature in the loch is that it is related to plesiosaurs, marine reptiles that existed in prehistoric times. No less a naturalist than Peter Scott held this view.
Since 1933 over a thousand sightings have been recorded. Most are controversial, with much argument and debate about their veracity.
Many have been proved to be inert floating objects, seals, swimming deer and driftwood. Over the years many hoaxers have eventually come forward to admit their deceit.
A million people visit Loch Ness each year and nearly nine out of 10 say they are there to try and spot the monster. They put more than £25 million into the local economy.
Despite all those visitors and despite the fact that virtually all of them today carry a high-definition camera, if only in their phone, there have been very few sightings and even less reliable photographs or film in recent years.
The best recent pictures are probably satellite images and both Google Earth and Apple Maps have had pictures that some think prove the creature’s existence.
The £1,000 prize for best monster picture of the year wasn’t claimed at all. The 2014 prize was won this January by somebody recording Google Earth images from his laptop in Sweden.
Does Frosty have a theory? Well I have taken the advice of a real expert and, if pushed, I’d put my money on a member of the cryptobranchidae family — more commonly known as giant salamanders.
The Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus) can reach a length of nearly two metres (6ft 6in), is fat and lumpy, black in colour and lives in deep freshwater lakes, only coming to the surface very infrequently.
That description matches exactly many of Nessie’s reported sightings.
Whatever it is, or was, there is a very good chance that, like any tiny population in a remote and isolated location, it must be under great threat of extinction.
So with the lack of recent sightings it may be that the last specimen of whatever it was is lying rotting at the bottom of the loch and, as that is 755ft (230m) down, we’ll probably never know for sure.
But I am sure that won’t stop many people heading for Loch Ness for many years to come. I wish them all good hunting.