The Loch Ness Monster, or Nessie as she’s affectionately called, the myth and legend, has long been part of the history of the Highlands of Scotland. The first written record of a monster in Loch Ness dates to the 7th Century. According to a chronicler from that time, the Irish monk St Columba banished a beast from the River Ness to end its days in the murky depths of Loch Ness.
Columba himself was no stranger to banishment. He left his native Ireland for Scotland as an act of self-imposed penance having illegally made a copy of the Gospels. When he refused to hand it over to the King of Ireland, a pitched battle took place. St Columba is better known for spreading Christianity in present day Scotland than for his monster banishing act. He founded the abbey at Iona sometime in the mid-6th Century, which was a dominant religious and political institution in the West of Scotland.
Modern day sightings at Loch Ness
Modern interest in the Loch Ness Monster was sparked by a sighting on 22 July 1933, when George Spicer and his wife saw “a most extraordinary form of animal” cross the road in front of their car. They described the creature as having a large body (about 4 feet (1.2 m) high and 25 feet (8 m) long) and a long, wavy, narrow neck, slightly thicker than an elephant’s trunk. The Spicers estimated the animals length spanned the 10–12-foot (3–4 m) width of the road. They saw no limbs and reported it lurched across the road toward the loch leaving a trail of broken undergrowth in its wake. Mr Spicer described it as “the nearest approach to a dragon or pre-historic animal that I have ever seen in my life,” and as having “a long neck, which moved up and down in the manner of a scenic railway.” It had “an animal” in its mouth and had a body that “was fairly big, with a high back, but if there were any feet, they must have been of the web kind, and as for a tail I cannot say, as it moved so rapidly, and when we got to the spot it had probably disappeared into the loch.”
On 21 April 1934, the Daily Mail published the most famous picture of the monster. Known as the ‘’Surgeon’s Photograph’’ it was reportedly taken by a doctor, Robert Kenneth Wilson. For decades the authenticity of the photograph has been debated by believers and sceptics alike.
This photograph provided the launchpad for Loch Ness to establish itself as a major tourist destination in Scotland with 1 million people visiting the area each year. It is estimated that approximately 85% of the visitors go there because of the ‘monster’. As this interest creates an estimated £25mn revenue for the economy, local people have a vested interest in keeping the myth alive.
Is the ‘Surgeon’s Photograph’ a hoax?
Unfortunately, yes. In 1994, 60 years after its publication, Christopher Spurling revealed the photograph was indeed a hoax after admitting his involvement in its production. Spurling was the stepson of Marmaduke Wetherell, a famed big game hunter who had been hired in 1933 by the Daily Mail to find the Loch Ness Monster. Wetherell returned with evidence of ‘footprints’ leading from the shore of the loch into the water. These were later found to have been made by a dried hippo’s foot according to Natural History Museum researchers.
The search for a definitive answer
To prove the monster’s existence, or not, a mass search of Loch Ness to look for a definitive answer to the centuries long puzzle took place last weekend. About 200 volunteers, strategically placed along the shoreline of the loch, kept watch for the monster over a 48-hour period. Nothing unusual was spotted from the shoreline.
Observers on a boat using acoustic equipment reported four unidentified ‘gloops’ but then realised that their recording equipment was not plugged in. Alan McKenna from the volunteer research group Loch Ness Exploration sheepishly admitted,
‘’We all got a bit excited, ran to make sure the recorder was on, and it wasn’t plugged in!’’
Could there really be a ‘monster’ in Loch Ness?
The idea that there could be a ‘prehistoric monster’ alive in Loch Ness is not altogether scientifically impossible. In 1938 a coelacanth, a living breathing member of a species believed at the time to have been extinct for 70 million years, was caught by fishermen in at the mouth of the Chalumina River on the east coast of South Africa. The fishermen had no idea of the significance of their catch, but they knew they had netted something highly unusual. Zoologists are always curious to see what local fishermen land in their nets, however, it was a young museum curator, Marjorie Courtney-Latimer, who found the specimen but was unsure what it was.
It was the esteemed ichthyologist JLB Smith who eventually confirmed the identity of the specimen as a living coelacanth. Coelacanths belong to a distinctive group of lobed finned fishes closely related to the lungfishes and tetrapods – amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. The coelacanth specimen caught in 1938 is still considered to be the zoological find of the last century. This ‘living fossil’ comes from a lineage of fishes that was thought to have been extinct since the time of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
One biologically striking feature of the coelacanth is its four fleshy fins, which extend away from its body like limbs and move in an alternating pattern. The movement of alternate paired fins resembles the movement of forelegs and hindlegs of a tetrapod (four-legged creature) walking on land. The coelacanth is of immense interest to scientists in linking the evolution of the land animals from the sea.
Coelacanths live on to this day. In October 2000 divers Pieter Venter, Peter Timm and Etienne le Roux discovered coelacanths living at a depth of 104m in Jesser Canyon at Sodwana Bay in South Africa.
From Coelacanths to Nessie
The interesting example of the coelacanth gives support to the possibility that a creature unknown to the scientific community could exist in the depths of Loch Ness. If there really was a ‘pre-historic monster’ living in Loch Ness, the economic benefits could be even greater than those we have built on the ‘Nessie myth’. This makes the search worth continuing.
Next time I hope those seeking the truth remember to plug their equipment in!
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