The quest for legendary creatures draws seekers to all corners of the globe, yet this remote Scottish lake remains the epicenter of cryptozoology.
by Loren Coleman
Rumors of — and searches for — the Loch Ness Monster, known affectionately as Nessie, date back to Celtic times in Scotland. This summer, however, an unusual number of crypto-seekers descended on the loch, prompting several of them — including myself — to organize an international conference at the historic locale that is the epicenter of cryptozoology. Gary Campbell, the dynamic 34-year-old director of the Loch Ness Monster Fan Club, coordinated the event, dubbed “Loch Ness 1999: An International Symposium.”
About 40 Nessie fans and cryptozoologists from the U.S., Belgium, the U.K., and Japan attended the two-day event, held over the weekend of July 10–11 in the Drumnadrochit Hotel at the loch’s edge. The gathering attracted attention from the mainstream press. “Monster hunters from all over the world,” noted the Inverness Courier on July 13, “gathered on the banks of Loch Ness at the weekend for the first conference of its kind aimed at finding a new way forward in the search for Nessie.”
Though attendees discussed several other rumored beasts, Nessie naturally dominated the show. Edinburgh researcher Gordon Rutter started things off with an overview of the Scottish crypto-scene, emphasizing his special interest in ancient “wurms,” “kelpies,” and other folkloric beasties that may have presaged Nessie.
In Campbell’s own talk, he touched on what has become a contentious issue among Nessie fans and researchers — the so-called Surgeon’s Photo. This 1934 photograph is the best-known of all Nessie images, and shows what appears to be a long, serpent-like neck and head protruding from the loch. Reportedly taken by a London doctor, the Surgeon’s Photo has long been thought to be a hoax, due to an alleged deathbed confession by a man who claimed he helped set up the fraudulent shot.
Campbell presented a paper from American crypto-researcher Richard Smith, who argues that the evidence used to “prove” the photo a hoax was flawed. Smith’s own analysis, Campbell told the crowd, does not agree with the 1994 results and suggests that the Surgeon’s Photo is in fact real.
Such disputes aren’t new among cryptozoologists, who are often amateurs, and their critics, who generally hail from the scientific mainstream. “Scientists tend to ignore the area that people find the most interesting,” Professor Henry Bauer of Virginia State University noted, “so it remains up to the amateurs to do the necessary groundwork.”
The loch’s unique atmosphere and reputation attracted a few mainstream scientists to “Loch Ness 1999.” But it seems doubtful their colleagues could be persuaded by anything short of an actual Nessie body or a DNA sample. Cryptozoology remains an inexact science, Bauer admitted, often based on the sort of empirical observations that defy conclusive proofs.
In contrast, professional scientists, “have got to produce results,” he said. “But we do not know how to produce these results about Nessie. Science is about having things ready to be solved and I don’t think Nessie is ready to be solved yet; you need a stroke of luck. We must not forget that when what we call science began it was just people drawing and making notes of what they saw. The issue of Nessie is the same.”
Loren Coleman is coauthor of Cryptozoology A to Z: The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters, Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature (with Jerome Clark; Simon and Schuster 1999).