In the murky waters of ancient Loch Ness, a prehistoric “monster” has replaced the dragons of myth. But along these bucolic shores, a roving Yank reporter discovers a people still battling the dragons within.
Story and photos by Billy Cox
Drumnadrochit, Scotland —Just outside this blink of a village on the western banks of Loch Ness, in a pub called Smiddy’s Bar, ancient animosities are never more than an ale away. Danny McCormick, having discovered a Yank in his midst, indulges a favorite pastime: ragging on the English.
The Brits, he says, are racist “hegemonists” who dump nuclear waste from Yugoslavia onto Scotland without local approval. They raze Scottish forests and make lumber profits off the Saudis. Ever since the English broke up native tribal clans, McCormick concludes, Scotland has been a royal spittoon.
“I have an ancestor, a McGilvery, a chap who was *!#&ed off at the English, who fought the English, right? He was captured, made an escape, went to America. He fought you Americans, because he saw that you Americans were doin’ the same thing to the North American Indians the English had done to the Scots, drivin’ the traditional people off the land, right? So he became an Apache chief, right? He fought with the Apaches.”
Few pleasures can compete with cryptohistory played out over cheap single-malt rotgut, especially here at the gateway to one of modern mythology’s greatest epics. As a soccer drama unfolds on the telly, Danny McCormick orders another round. But his audience isn’t here to get an earful of blood feuds. This Yank has come to hear about the monster, and the saint who brought the wrath of God crashing down on the beast.
McCormick is up to the task. He was, after all, educated at the University of London. He specializes in “anthropological psychoanalysis.” And there is no getting around human conflict, monster or no monster.
“Y’see,” begins the bearded raconteur, “Druidic society was tied up in myths and legends in the sixth century, as was Christianity….”
The year: a.d. 564. Scotland was the domain of shrieking Celtic headbangers known as the Picts. Their leader, King Brude, and a Druid priest named Briachan were having a spat. Along came Columba, an ambitious Irish missionary. Now, Columba had armed himself with knowledge of the local folklore, which was steeped in dragons. And he knew better than to come alone.
“These were literally Christian soldiers, right? He brought an army of these big, wild #@%&ers with ‘im.” McCormick shakes his head, as if he can see the lines of Christian spears descending upon his ancestors. “And Columba had to convince the local people that his god was stronger than the Picts’ god, the god of Briachan.”
The showdown occurred at modern-day Inverness, right where the River Ness drains into the north end of the Loch. In the official story, a man plunged into the cold, black waters to fetch a canoe from the other side. The Picts’ water monster, eioch uisge (pronounced “esh woozh”) in Gaelic, reared its head, surging toward the floundering swimmer. Columba, watching from shore, unsheathed his crucifix, waded into the river, and shouted,“Think not to go further,nor touch thou that man! Quick, go back!”
The startled creature balked and slid beneath the water. The swimmer was saved. The word spread. Briachan’s disciples deserted him; the nature-worshippers traded the old magic for the new. Even King Brude converted. Christianity gained its first toehold in pagan Scotland. Columba was canonized. And the Loch Ness Monster was born, into its own vacuum.
“Personally, I’m an agnostic,” McCormick says. “If someone tells me they’ve seen somethin’, well, fine; I’ve seen a few funny things amid the Caledonian pines and the shadows myself. But if there is an animal down there, it ain’t no &*#@in’ reptile, because a reptile can’t survive at those temperatures.”
He turns to the barkeep and engages another regular with a wink. McCormick shifts back to the Yank. “You want monsters, you go to Westminster Abbey and you’ll find plenty of monsters there. Am I right?”
“Aye,” nods the barkeep. The fellow on the barstool raises his glass and clinks to McCormick.
“There are more monsters down there than you’ll ever find in these parts.” McCormick hikes one eyebrow up for approval. “Am I right?”
Before Jurassic Park and Godzilla, before Hollywood’s computer-generated juggernauts turned box-office cash registers upside down, there was Nessie — a swan-necked, lizard-headed silhouette gliding into the early dawn of pop culture monster mythology.
She (or he) was ageless, predating Brude and Briachan. Biding her time, she waited for technology and the traffic of civilization to catch up. In Scotland, her lair was the Ness — a trench of opaque water 24 miles long, one mile wide, and deeper than the North Sea; an artifact of the Ice Age recession 12,000 years ago. Forever landlocked, never connected to the ocean, Loch Ness was so remote that it remained virtually inaccessible until the 1930s, when construction engineers began dynamiting the rocky slopes.
These explosions, according to lore, jarred Nessie from slumber and into the era of modern sightings. They echoed the apocrypha from the late 1800s, with eyewitness reports of serpentine elongations, writhing humps, water kelpies, and water horses.
But on April 19, 1934, another possibility materialized on celluloid — a photograph taken by a London gynecologist named Robert Wilson. Dubbed the “Surgeon’s Photo,” the image showed a long, dark neck protruding from a hump in the water, bearing a remarkable similarity to the extinct sea-going plesiosaurs of the Cretaceous period.
A living fossil?
The beast that time forgot?
Nessie cracked through the eggshell fog of Celtic mythology, splashing into the harsh scientific light of paleontology.
The past stands sentinel around Loch Ness, its monuments to fear and faith as steadfast as prison walls.
At the south end of the Loch stands the Benedictine Abbey, built atop the ruins of Fort Augustus. The fort was the forward outpost of the English in their bloody but successful destruction of the Second Jacobite Rebellion in 1745. The Jacobites were the last of the Highlanders to resist English authority.
Farther north, just two miles south of Drumnadrochit, the spooky shell of Urquhart Castle overlooks Loch Ness with the sort of vista that breeds dark sonnets. Constructed in the twelfth century on the rumored site of King Brude’s original stronghold, the castle is now a tourist destination. Posted signs explain the castle’s vicious defensive perimeters, its spartan innovations for life under siege. Significantly, there is also a sign acknowledging another link to the past, that mystery in the Loch, by its Latin name aquatalis bestia.
There isn’t much to Drumnadrochit, a hamlet of a thousand or so souls in the rolling pastureland. There are no stoplights where the quiet road forks, only an obelisk dedicated to the “Affectionate Memory of the Glen Urquhart Men Who Fell In The Great War 1914-1918.”
It bears the names of 46 villagers, who “Rose And Fell/That Right Might Prevail.” At the base of the pedestal, compressed like the acknowledgment of a mistake into an awkward postscript, are the names of 11 more locals erased in the sequel, World War II.
What makes Drumnadrochit like no other place in the world is its appropriation of Scotland’s unofficial mascot, Nessie. There are no billboards advancing the phenomenon, no Disney-esque “Nessie World” dreck outlets lining the highways. Commercialism here is pleasantly restrained, flourishing entirely within the village signs.
Drumnadrochit has only two tourist stops capitalizing on the legendary leviathan. At the Original Loch Ness Monster Visitor Centre, the cashier says 60,000 visitors a year converge on these out-of-the-way backhills; at the Official Loch Ness Monster Exhibition Centre next door, the cashier says yearly visitors number “millions, millions.” Both shops have erected outdoor fiberglass plesiosaurs to greet visitors. Inside, both sell books, T-shirts, cards, and other trinkets.
“The difference?” Tour boat operator George Edwards gives it a serious squint. “This one’s over here. That one’s over there.”
Musicians, Monks, and Mages
In 1971, Father Gregory Brusey of the Benedictine Abbey was alarmed by a “terrific commotion” some 300 yards offshore. He and another friar hustled over to the water.
“We saw quite distinctly the neck of the beast standing out of the water to a height of about 10 feet,” Brusey reported. The eioch uisge swam in from the bay before ducking into the liquid slate.
A few years later, Led Zeppelin guitarist and occult practitioner Jimmy Page moved into notorious Boleskine House, a country estate overlooking the east coast of the Loch some 14 miles north of the Abbey.
Boleskine House was built into the Monadhliath Mountains more than a century ago. For 18 years, beginning in 1900, it was home to “the Great Beast of Black Magick,” Aleister Crowley. Recoiling against the repressed mindscape of Victorian England, Crowley hosted orgies of consumption and decadence at Boleskine House, summoning (some said) satanic entities to the dance. Tales of human sacrifice, madness, and suicide oozed out.
In 1973, the year Page’s combo released Houses of the Holy, one Rev. Donald Oman performed an exorcism at the Loch. A growing number of Nessie eyewitnesses sensed an intelligent malevolence emanating from the waters. Oman abandoned the ritual in defeat, fearing those who continued to pursue the creature would suffer “mental instabilities.”
Page moved out in the 1980s, but the House still stands. Smoke rises from its chimney; a large white horse grazes in the pasture. If you take photos of Loch Ness from Boleskine House, a gothic cemetery haunts the foreground.
Far below, along the Loch’s rocky shores, the nameless faithful have recreated Nessie from driftwood and junk tires, as if anticipating a second coming.
Saturday night, upstairs at Hunters Bar. An aging folkie named John MacFarlane Morrison, boosting his Live at the Loch Ness Hotel CD, has just massacred a Kenny Rogers tune with new, ribald lyrics.
Near the ceiling, the light from the revelry glints off the glassy dead eyes of a mounted stag’s head. A sign on the wall reads “Revealed: Secret Files of Nessie.” Another bears a picture of a dragon with the caption “What a Whopper!”
“Have ya seen anything strange on the water today?” Morrison asks no one in particular. He tunes his guitar for the final song of his set. “Strange things goin’ on down there.” He takes another hit off the shot glass. He begins strumming a tune called “Living Next Door to Nessie,” or something like that.
Two people applaud at the final flourish. “Thang kew, thang kew very much,” Morrison says. He smirks. “We’ll come back in 10 minutes, with some modern stuff like Springsteen, for people who like livin’ in the past.”
A Spurious Icon
In 1994, a 90-year-old man named Christian Spurling made a deathbed confession that exploded like a car bomb across London’s Daily Telegraph. Spurling told how, in 1934, a big-game hunter hired by the Daily Mail pulled what may have been the hoax of the century. The hunter, Marmaduke Wetherell, was Spurling’s stepfather.
Dispatched to “bag” Nessie following the early 1930s sightings, Wetherell ordered Spurling to construct a model monster using a child’s toy submarine with a fake sea serpent head. The thing was a scant 18 inches long and one foot high. Gynecologist Robert Wilson, who took the famous photograph, was in on it from the beginning, Spurling said.
Since 1934, a number of Nessie-related photos and film clips have surfaced, some compelling, some cheesy, most hotly debated. But the one that started it all — the Surgeon’s Photo — now smears the legend like graffiti in a church. [Editor’s note: see “Belly of the Beast,” page 39 for an alternative view.]
The logo of the Official Loch Ness Monster Exhibition Centre is a stylized representation of the Surgeon’s Photo — a blue silhouette on a white background. Adrian Shine, director of the Loch Ness Project operating out of the Official Centre, sees no contradiction.
“If you’re a barber, you have a twisting, spiraling pole out front, red on a white background, and it has nothing to do with hair,” he explains. “If you’re a pawnbroker, you have three gold balls hanging outside. Not that he’s selling gold balls. He has a recognizable logo.
“The Surgeon’s Photo, for better or worse, is now an archetypical [sic] symbol. You can show the photograph anywhere in the world, and people will know that it represents the Loch Ness Monster. But to investigators, when the hoax was exposed, it was seen as a huge relief — wiping the plesiosaur off the board. Because there is no other evidence for the stereotypical long-necked creature. And the Surgeon’s Photo was the only one involving a long-necked creature.”
Like a Sturgeon?
Midmorning at Hunters ground-floor restaurant. Shine is a tall man, with an Old Testament nest of a beard turning the color of the Loch Ness waters on a clear day. He has pursued the beast since 1973 when he first came up from Surrey, near London. In 1987, he attracted the international spotlight as field director of Operation Deepscan. The operation was a $1.6-million sonar dragnet involving a flotilla of 24 launches patrolling Loch Ness in tandem, sweeping north to south and back again for a solid week. The payoff — three large, inconclusive sonar hits.
In 1993, Shine ventured his opinion in a scientific journal, The Scottish Naturalist. Attributing most of the 4,000 reported sightings to misidentified boat wakes, debris, and other prosaic illusions, Shine argued that the Loch didn’t have enough fish in it to sustain a viable population of carnivorous behemoths. Reptiles could not survive in the frigid waters, and mammals would be sighted frequently surfacing for air. Shine suggested that the Loch had been visited by a freshwater sturgeon that simply got lost, perhaps in the 1930s.
“Sturgeon, believe it or not, evolved during Jurassic times,” Shine says. “It is a primitive creature, reptilian looking, long snout, that can grow up to 600 pounds and 10 meters, if not bigger.”
No doubt, Shine admits, he has seen things on the Loch he can’t explain. Nor does he have definitive answers for Deepscan’s mysterious sonar blips. But given time and more data, he feels he can get to the bottom of it all without invoking exotic culprits.
“What we should be doing is discovering what’s normal in the Loch,” he says. “In the ‘90s, we’re studying its food chain, its resources, [if]there are environmental conditions in the physics of the Loch that can cause various sonar activities, temperature layers. There are underwater waves, for instance, that can get 100 feet high — slow waves, a kilometer long, that can reflect sonar.”
In short — logo or no logo — Adrian Shine has pushed his dragon up against the wall, into a very small box from which it may never escape. As for local tradition, well, that’s another story. He says tourism in Drumnadrochit has not suffered because of the Surgeon’s Photo scandal.
“We are still talking about the dragon within, and that dragon interests me much more on a psychological level than a zoological level,” Shine says. “Prehistoric monsters have replaced our medieval dragons, because they were real dragons, real animals. And to think that one of them could be alive well, here we are. The original plesiosaur enthusiasts wanted us to investigate, and for our sins, we have investigated.
“Credibility increases with distance from a phenomenon. The English are probably more credulous than the locals, and the Americans even more so. Although, as I understand it, America has its own dragons.”
Loch Ness is a lake without seasons. It never freezes, even during the worst winters. Its water temperature remains stable year-round, rarely fluctuating beyond a forbidding 41 to 43 degrees. Not even the allure of a fantastic crypto-creature can attract divers to this bleak frontier. Indeed, the waters are choked with peat, creating a claustrophobic blackness so dense that nervous divers are lucky to see their hands in front of them without a lamp. There is little vegetation here; the fishing is lousy.
Tourist museum footage from a bottom-crawling submersible: a dim light prowls forward, illuminating particles of debris and microorganisms sweeping past, like warp-speed space travel through a blizzard of hurtling stars. Suddenly eels appear, wriggling and squirming, vanishing in escape-clouds of billowing soot. An unholy revelation.
“I’ve never seen the humps or the head,” says guide George Edwards as he motors a small cast of international tourists across the Loch aboard his 30-foot boat on a sunny Sunday morning. “What I have seen, on more than a dozen occasions, is the so-called inverted bowl — one large round shape that rises from the water.”
Unlike Adrian Shine, the 46-year-old Edwards is a native Highlander, and a local since he was 10. He calls Shine’s 1987 sonar flotilla “Operation Deepscam.” He says sonar wouldn’t find a beer can in 10 feet of water, and that trying to chase eioch uisge behind the roar of the diesels is like hunting deer with a tank.
“There are, unquestionably, peculiar creatures in here,” Edwards declares. They must be carnivorous since aquatic vegetation is so sparse, he points out. They’re probably blind as well, given the water’s dismal visibility. Perhaps, like dolphins and whales, they hunt through echolocation. Maybe that explains why most of the sightings occur in the shallows, where most of the fish are, near sites such as Urquhart Castle.
“Get your cameras ready,” Edwards advises over the microphone as the boat gurgles toward shore and the Urquhart citadel. Sonar readings on the cabin monitor chart the Loch floor’s astonishing ascent. Wade three feet into the water in some places, Edwards warns, “and it’s like you’ve stepped off the edge of a cliff.” And if you go down, you stay down. The Loch never returns the bones.
The sun buffs the glassy waters into quicksilver. A tourist from the castle above waves as absent-mindedly as the Queen.
Yes, Edwards insists, there is something strange down there, somewhere — a wonder, a marvel. He knows it, he’s seen it. And he hopes the proof that could validate his intuition remains concealed forever. “You don’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” he says.
Zoom lenses, binoculars, sun visors pulled snug and low, the passengers scan the Loch and wait.
“Look around,” Edwards says. “Beautiful, isn’t it? Thousands and thousands of tourists a year, and we’ve managed to keep the ambiance. Can you imagine what would happen to this place if we found Nessie? How it would change?”
Two pilgrims on the bow have apparently traveled all the way from Asia to be right here, right now. From the way they touch, they are still in love.
Suddenly, the man becomes animated and directs his companion’s attention to something moving near the shore. He draws the camera to his eyes. She turns to confront a swan the color of October snow. But her laughter is drowned by a spectral silence from the towering ruins.
Billy Cox is a Florida-based journalist whose work has appeared in numerous publications. This is his first article for FATE — watch for his upcoming feature on the Star Child.