April Fool's Day at Loch Ness

The swan-like “head and neck” photograph of the Loch Ness Monster was taken seventy-nine years ago today. In all likelihood there is almost nobody in the civilized world who has not seen it. What is surprising is that the story of Nessie had only been around for about a year at the time of the snapping of that photo, that monster of an April Fool’s prank by London gynecologist Robert Wilson. Far from being an ancient legend that dates back to Saint Columba, no reports of any unusual animals in Loch Ness can be found prior to 1933. And no other year has had as many recorded sightings as 1933.

Dr. Wilson always refused to talk about his astonishingly famous photograph. After his death, his son came forward to say that his father had hoaxed the photo with a toy dinosaur. There is nothing but water surrounding the figure in the photo, so there’s no way to gauge it for size or even to verify that it was in Loch Ness. But this picture, along with other blurry images, lifted the Nessie story out of local Scottish newspapers and launched it as one of the greatest myths of the 20th century. In three quarters of a century only UFOs have come close to the status of the elusive critter of Loch Ness. And it was all started by a small group of eccentrics pulling pranks and telling tall tales.

There never could have been a Loch Ness Monster legend without the dedicated promotional work of one Alex Campbell, local employee of the Ness Fisheries Board. Campbell had the title of Water Bailiff, and for decades patroled the lake checking the fishing permits. In 1933 he wrote an anonymous letter to the editor of the Inverness Courier, which began, “For generations Loch Ness has been credited with being the home of a fearsome-looking monster…”

This was the very first mention of anything of the sort.

One might not think so, judging by the monster literature and television documentaries. They invariably say that the first reported sighting of a strange animal in that lake dates back to Saint Columba in the early Dark Ages. All the writers and producers recycle the same stories over and over. It was not until 1983, the fiftieth anniversary of the myth, that the first skeptical writer attempted to actually track down some of these historical nuggets. That was Ronald Binns, whose book, The Loch Ness Mystery Solved, is worthy of a book search to pick up a copy. The Binns’ book is as readable and enjoyable as detective fiction, and is easily the best researched work on the Ness story. But it has been allowed to go out of print, even as the mindless promotional books get reprinted and reprinted for future generations.

The Saint Columba story comes from the biography entitled Vita Sancti Columbae, written in 565 A.D. There are two primary problems with it. First, this ancient story book on the saint is little more than a laundry list of fantastic creatures, miracles, and supernatural stories. To pluck this one account out of the stack and present it as some kind of evidence for Nessie is a stretch, to say the least. But aside from that, anyone who read the original text would have seen that the incident was not described as happening in Loch Ness at all, but in the River Ness, a totally separate body of water! The River Ness is a very shallow flow, separated from Loch Ness by Loch Dochfour. It has never been deep enough for navigating.

Amazingly, Ronald Binns found no mention of a monster in Loch Ness prior to 1933. And there were certainly plenty of opportunities for sightings. Far from being the remote, unpopulated zone described in monster books, the Ness area has been occupied for centuries, and was a major tourist attraction in the Victorian Age.

Alex Campbell’s promotion of the myth was zealous, in print, radio, and later television, from 1933 throughout his long life into the 1980’s. No other person has had as many sightings of Nessie as Alex Campbell. (Eighteen). No other person has ever had so many close up, detailed sightings as Campbell. While the average monster sighting is of a dark shape in the water at a distance of half a mile, Campbell’s always sounded more like a scene from Jurassic Park. Oddly, Campbell never once had a sighting when he wasn’t alone, and never once had a camera with him to confirm his story. He is still regarded by the monster faithful as the Grand Old Man of the mystery, but what many fans do not know is that the monster is not the only enigma of Loch Ness that Campbell believed in. Campbell also claimed that Loch Ness is haunted by the ghost ship of St. Columba, which appears every twenty years. The ship looks like a Biblical craft, and glows.

In the 1960’s the dubious Dinsdale film of a grainy blob moving along the far shore of Loch Ness led to the formation of the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau. This was a volunteer organization of young people who numbered one thousand at its peak, and included Ronald Binns. Its purpose was to maintain a sustained surface observation of Loch Ness from dawn to dusk, with cameras, and verify the monster’s existence. This organized effort was carried out in warm weather months for a period of ten years. Its results were exactly — zero. Dredging of the loch’s bottom for carcasses is another effort that was carried out for ten years. Results — zero. Don’t count on finding many mentions of this extensive work in the paranormalist literature.

For all the newspapers, documentaries, and hotel rooms that Nessie sells, nothing like her has ever actually existed in Loch Ness. But in symbolic terms she is real enough, and plentiful. Taken as a symbol of human folly, this world is overrun with Loch Ness Monsters.

 

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