A Brief History of the Loch Ness Monster

From 1933—and possibly much, much earlier—to just this past May, people have been claiming (and staging) sightings of the famed water cryptid.
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(Photo: biodivlibrary/Flickr)

(Photo: biodivlibrary/Flickr)

One of the weirdest and most easily forgotten things about the modern legend of the Loch Ness Monster is that it first finds the creature not in its namesake lake, but on land. (There is a non-modern version of the legend, involving a 7th century manuscript called Life of Saint Columba by Adomnán. Describing an encounter with a sea beast in the River Ness, some Nessie adherents think the story lends credence to the monster’s existence, while skeptics suggest fantastical tales about battling water beasts are nothing more than a popular narrative motif in the stories of medieval saints.) In July of 1933, the Scottish newspaper Inverness Courier reported the story of local residents Mr. and Mrs. Spicer, who claimed to have seen an “extraordinary form of animal” cross the road in front of their car.

The Spicers described the creature’s body as nearly four feet tall and 25 feet long, plus a long, “undulating” 10- or 12-foot neck. Though they could not see the limbs with which it did so, the Spicers said the creature sped across the road in the direction of the loch, presumably to enter it. The couple also said they saw an animal in the beast’s mouth—possibly a small lamb.

From there, the legend exploded: The Daily Mail (an outlet that, in fairness, has never offered much in the way of temperance) published an account of the sighting and titled it, “MONSTER OF LOCH NESS IS NOT LEGEND BUT A FACT.” British newspapers sent reporters to Scotland in search of additional testimony, and, ideally, proof. In December, the London Daily Mail enlisted big-game hunter (and, also worth mentioning, actor and film director) Marmaduke Wetherell to track the beast. (It seems unlikely that any man has ever been better named for such a task.) He dutifully reported finding enormous tracks after just a few days spent around the loch; by his estimate, the creature responsible for them would have to be at least 20 feet long. Wetherell made plaster casts of the prints and sent them to the Natural History Museum in London.

Every mushy mess found on the beach faces the same sad trajectory. There is the precipitous and glorious rise to the top, and then, soon after, what I can only imagine is the most humiliating thing that can happen to a dead sea creature: being discovered and described as just a whale, just an octopus.

When the museum finally replied that the prints in question had not been made by a previously unknown sea beast, but by the stuffed feet of a hippopotamus (likely attached to a stick of some kind, making them into a footprint stamp), it drew a sharp division between those who’d let a little hoax convince them the whole thing was nothing more than a metastasized myth, and those that had made up their minds months earlier: Nessie was not a legend, but a fact.

The next year, the beast was finally (allegedly) captured on camera. In a picture now popularly known as “The Surgeon’s Photograph,” a plesiosaur’s neck and head stick up from the loch, several rings of ripples waved out around it as if the creature has only just emerged. Its photographer, British surgeon Colonel Robert Wilson, said he took the shot early in the morning after noticing something moving in the water.

It wasn’t until 60 years later that the true origins of the photo were revealed. Christian Spurling, 90 years old and wanting to come clean, confessed to having hoaxed the photo in a plot developed alongside both Wilson and Marmaduke Wetherell—who, it turns out, was Spurling’s stepfather. Spurling built his Nessie by attaching a serpentine head to a toy submarine. Wilson was only a front man; faking evidence of the sea monster was a family affair.

EVERY MYSTERY THAT HAS ever emerged from the ocean (or a lake) has been solved, at least so far. For those waiting on a true sea beast, disappointment is inevitable. It’s only a question of how long it takes—to deem the Bloop nothing more than cracking, quaking glaciers; to designate the Chilean Blob, the grayish, whitish 14-ton pile of webby tissue that washed ashore Pinuno Beach in 2003 and subsequently drew international media attention, as, ultimately, just a sperm whale.

Every mushy mess found on the beach faces the same sad trajectory. There is the precipitous and glorious rise to the top, and then, soon after, what I can only imagine is the most humiliating thing that can happen to a dead sea creature: being discovered and described as just a whale, just an octopus.

Still, if there’s anywhere on this Earth that a monster could live unidentified and undetected, it’s probably the ocean. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 95 percent of the ocean is unexplored. It was just 10 years ago that we first saw footage of a previously unseen giant squid—saw, on TV or the Internet, that famous clip of its single, staring side-eye. It looked cartoonish, drawn on. It looked fake. But it wasn’t.

GARY CAMPBELL WAS NOT ready to give up on Nessie, but he was nervous. Campbell, the self-proclaimed “Official Registrar of Loch Ness Monster Sightings,” told the BBC in February that no one had reported seeing the creature in 18 months. It was, by his records, the first time since 1925 that so much time had passed without a confirmed sighting.

"It's very upsetting news and we don't know where she's gone,” Campbell is quoted as saying.

You have to feel for him. Sadder even than learning Nessie had never existed at all would be learning that she did, but had recently died. Despite the radio silence, Campbell remained cautiously optimistic: “I'm convinced that Nessie has just taken some time out and will be back with a vengeance this year," he told the BBC.

Then, in April, an image captured by Apple’s satellite map app, seeming to show an extraordinarily large sea creature with fins and a tail, made internationalnews. Campbell’s Twitter feed around this time is an excited flurry of retweets, each to a different media outlet recounting versions of the story.

It didn’t take very long for skeptics to point out the purported monster’s unusual resemblance to a Loch Ness-based cruise ship called the Jacobite Queen; the discovery and the debunking took less than 24 hours. But it didn’t really matter. Not to Campbell. He’s still out there recording sightings: April 29, May 8, May 20. Wherever Nessie went, it seems she’s back.

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