Waiting for Nessie

The best laid plans of science and the New York Times, like those of mice and men, can also gang aft agley

Michael Enright September 6 1976

Waiting for Nessie

The best laid plans of science and the New York Times, like those of mice and men, can also gang aft agley

Michael Enright September 6 1976

Waiting for Nessie

The best laid plans of science and the New York Times, like those of mice and men, can also gang aft agley

Michael Enright

Many a man has been hanged on less evidence than there is for the Loch Ness Monster. G. K. Chesterton

The men from the British Bacon Curers’ Federation were clearly not happy. It was six in the morning, and things were not going right. They had trucked their Thunder hot-air balloon up from England to Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands to do their bit for British Bacon, but the wind wasn’t right. Or there was too much mist on the loch. Or too much of a chop on the water. “Right,” said Alan Dorman, a pilot for British Airways, “let’s go to Invermoriston.” Things were worse there. The midges were particularly bad. Midges are gnatty little Scottish bugs that eat your face. So they left Invermoriston and drove back up the loch to Urquhart Castle, where the sun had burned off the mist. “Right,” said Alan Dorman, “let’s set up here.” Mr. MacTavish from the BBC smiled benignly as if he had seen everything at least once and set up his camera. The genial Australian bartender named Mike Vaughan helped the British Bacon men lug their equipment down a hill to a point near the castle ruins. Their takeoff spot was 20 feet from a dead sheep and the odor was wilting. Their plan was simple: they would inflate their balloon with 77,000 cubic feet of hot air and float over Loch Ness dragging a leg of Ayrshire bacon through the water. This would bait the creature who would lunge for the bacon and become visible to the two men riding in the basket. It would also sell British Bacon.

The balloon was stretched out on the ground and the basket was filled with the propane gas cylinders used to keep it aloft. “Right,” said Alan Dorman, “I’m starting to burn... NOW.” He turned a nozzle on the burner and a jet of flame began to heat the air in the balloon and inflate it. Crowds along the castle walls applauded politely. Up on the road traffic began to pile up. Frank Barnes, a mathematician by trade, climbed into the basket with Dorman. “Have we got the bacon?” Dorman asked. Barnes nodded and Dorman said, “Right, HANDS OFF.” The volunteers who had been steadying the basket stood back and it lifted gently off the ground. The balloon rose to about 100 feet and the wind carried it directly away from Loch Ness . It disappeared over a hill and 15 minutes later came down in a nearby trailer camp.

“What absolute rubbish,” said Mrs. Winifred Cary as she pottered about the kitchen of her house on the Urquhart

Castle road. “What bloody nonsense,” she said. She had not even bothered to watch the British Bacon balloon from her kitchen window. She and her husband, Basil, a retired RAF wing commander, have lived in Drumnadrochit since 1951. Mrs. Cary, Freddie as she is called by her friends, is 69 and talks rapidly in a high breaking voice. She is articulate, warmly outgoing and delights in telling stories about the Highlands, the loch and, of course, the creature.

Her father was a barrister in Edinburgh and the family used to come to Drumnadrochit for their summer holidays. In 1917 when Mrs. Cary was 11, she and her brother Douglas were out on Loch Ness in a row boat. “It was around noon and my brother and I were fishing. Suddenly there was this colossal great thing in the water, oh it must have been 50 or 60 feet long. I said to my brother, ‘I don’t like the look of that,’ and we made for shore. When I told

my parents and everybody, they said, ‘Oh you must have seen a water kelpie,’ but I knew it was the creature. I didn’t see it again until July, 1954. We kept poultry then, and I was down feeding the hens. It was a very warm day and the loch was flat calm. I looked out to the bay and thought I saw a 30-foot boat with a large mast. Suddenly it turned and came straight at me. I ran to my husband and said, ‘Look, Basil, Nessie’s still here.’ ” She has had 15 sightings of the animal since 1917, the last on April 24. In June, 1970, Mrs. Cary stood with nine other people and watched for seven minutes as the creature moved across the loch. She is not a woman given to hysteria or hyperbole. She knows she has seen the animal as clearly as she knows the flowers of her small garden. Basil, her husband, is soft-spoken and not easily conned. He has that look about him, as if he would count his fingers after shaking your hand. “To say that what we saw were otters or eels or logs or somesuch is absolute nonsense. A log or a tree trunk doesn’t suddenly change direction and move off at 30 miles an hour.”

A few years ago, some local people put a raft out on the loch carrying some ham, kippers, some herring and a trout to see if they could lure the creature to the surface. The next morning the food was gone but there was a note on the raft. “This bait is no bloody good. Signed, The Monster. ”

Loch Ness runs 23 miles south from Inverness through the mountains of the Great Glen of Scotland to the village of Fort Augustus. This is the country of the Clans and Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite Uprisings of 1715 and 1745. Until the early part of the century, the bays and villages around Loch Ness were pretty much cut off from the rest of Scotland. The area retains an antique quality about it even in high summer, when tourists flock to the area creating a noisy rosary of vans, trailers and tour buses around the loch. They come for the scenery, but they also come for the Monster. To the world outside, Loch Ness is a comic place peopled by Alastair Sim type crofters who knock back the whiskey and cannily whisper about “beasties and kelpies and God-knowswhat-all.” It’s an unfair characterization. The people of the loch who have seen the creature are slow to talk about it. They have no urge to convince anyone or to put forward scientific reasoning to explain what they have seen. They leave the creature alone.

The largest freshwater lake by volume in the United Kingdom, the loch is itself. The shoreline drops steeply from the highland ranges and at some points the loch is over 800 feet deep. The water is dark, almost black with particles of peat suspended throughout it. It has a mean temperature of 43 degrees Fahrenheit. It is a moody piece of water, dead calm in the mornings, some-

times turbulent at midday. The glen acts as a wind tunnel that whips the breezes down the length of the loch. The water can go from flat calm to a high crest in a matter of minutes and then settle itself again. The water seems to have a way of changing color. Light breezes cut dark pleats of water in the middle which contrast with the shallower depths near the shore. The water can hold the bow wake of a boat for a long time after the boat has passed. You can see a ripple or a small rush of water that looks like the fading movement of a prop wash, with no boat in sight. This is the capricious, beautiful, infuriating body of water that refuses to give up its secret.

In 1969, a British film company came to Urquhart Castle for location shooting on the movie The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes. Part of the script called for an expensive, fire-breathing wide-eyed monster. A prop man asked a local farmer what he thought of the movie monster. “A h well, you see, it is sitting a wee too high in the water to be a true creature. ” The prop man agreed and added more ballast, whereupon it sank without a trace to the bottom of the bay. The old farmer went home and told his friends what he had seen.

On April 14, 1933, Mr. and Mrs. John Mackay drove from Inverness to their home in Drumnadrochit along A82, a new road on the north side of the loch. At Abri-

achan, Mrs. Mackay suddenly said to her husband; “Look, John, what’s that out there?” She pointed to the middle of Loch Ness where something large was churning up the water. Mackay stopped his car and the two of them watched “an enormous animal rolling and plunging” in Loch Ness. The string of monster sightings goes back hundreds of years, but the Mackay report was the first of the modern era. Other residents of villages around Loch Ness started to report they had seen something in the water. Usually the sightings were in the morning before nine-thirty and when the loch was calm. In all of the reports there are similar characteristics. Usually people reported seeing a large hump appear above the surface surrounded by a turbulence in the water. The size of the hump varied from five to 20 feet. Sometimes more than one hump was seen.

In April, 1934, a London surgeon, Colonel R. K. Wilson, snapped two photographs of a long-necked animal swimming in the loch. One picture clearly shows an animal with a long, curved neck, and a small sheeplike head moving in rippled water. This “Surgeon’s Photograph” caused a sensation in the British press, and the whole ethos of “Nessie” was born. There was no doubt about Wilson’s sincerity. He never claimed to have photographed the monster; only that he had taken a picture of something moving in Loch Ness. His pictures were studied carefully and were found to be genuine un-retouched reproductions. In 1972, one of the prints was sent to the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, California, for “computer enhancement,” a process developed during the Apollo moon landings that removes surface graininess from photographs. The tests indicated again that the pictures were genuine.

Three months after the colonel took his picture, the first serious investigation into the Loch Ness mystery was headed up by Sir Edward Mountain, a wealthy businessman. A number of “monster watchers” were hired at two pounds a week and given Kodak box cameras in case they saw the creature. For five weeks the monster watchers watched, and they reported 11 clear sightings. British science was unimpressed and newspapers scoffed at the silliness of the highland mystery. One expert in aquatic life dismissed the monster theory out of hand: “The whole business is a stunt foisted on a credulous public and only excused by a certain element of low comedy.”

Whatever the scientists had to say, the people of the loch went right on seeing the creature. Alex Campbell is 74 but looks 60. He is very precise in his speech and dresses each statement with meticulous detail. He lives in a cottage in Fort Augustus called Inverawe at the end of a rickety footbridge bearing the sign: "ANYONE USING THIS BRIDGE DOES SO AT HIS OWN RISK. For 47 years, Campbell was a water bailiff on Loch Ness. Hisjob was to check the supply

of salmon, drive off poachers and generally protect the waters. He knows the loch and its rivers and burns as well as any man in the area. “Mid-May of 1934 was my first sighting of the actual animal,” he said. “I was standing down at the river mouth here, the River Oich, and I was looking for a run of fresh salmon. It was eight in the morning in brilliant sunshine, and the loch was like a mirror, not a breath of wind, not a boat or ship in sight. Just opposite the Benedictine Abbey boathouse, without any warning whatsoever, there was this terrific upsurge of water. Lord, I was absolutely struck dumb; that was the feeling. And then the head and the neck and the long, curved, humped body appeared. The head was turning and jerking every which way. I was about 250 yards away. The head looked rather small to me and rather horseshaped. It had a long, tapering neck and

the head was at least six feet above water level. At my estimation, the length of the body was 30 feet. I didn’t see any bumps on its head, and I couldn’t see any eyes or mouth; the distance was a bit too much. Well, then it moved gently about for three minutes, I’d say. When it finally dived, the upsurge of water was twice as big as when it had surfaced. I would say the thing’s skin was slate grey and very much like an elephant’s. It was, to say the least, fantastic.” All his life, prior to his sighting, Campbell had been told about something large swimming in the loch. His parents had warned him as a child never to swim in the loch or the “An t’ Uisghe” would get him. The phrase is Gaelic for “water horse.”

In the early part of the century, Loch Ness was the home of A leister Crowley, the satanist and self-styled “wickedest man in the world. ” He lived high on a hill on the east side of the loch in a place called Boleskine House where it ’s said he conducted orgiastic rituals and black magic. It is even said he drove several of his servants mad. He left the area in 1918, and Boleskine House is now owned by Jimmy Page, a guitarist with the rock group, Led Zeppelin.

If the possibility of a prehistoric creature in the depths of Loch Ness was taken as a summer giggle story by the press and as a fraud by the scientific establishment, it won increasing respect from a group of enthusiastic amateurs. Too many different people in too many different places around the lake had seen something. And they were people seemingly without a vested interest in lying. They were policemen, priests, nurses, lawyers, retired sailors, doctors and farmers. In October, 1958, 27 passengers on a bus saw a dark hump in the water that measured, they say, upward of 25 feet. Each summer, groups of naturalists and “Nessie hunters” trooped around the bays and inlets of the lake carrying cameras and telescopes. In 1961, some prominent naturalists set up the Loch Ness In-

vestigation Bureau. The LNIB organized summer expeditions into Loch Ness and set up a series of watcher stations around its shores. These were usually wooden huts containing the watcher and his photographic gear, still and motion-picture cameras. The bureau set up a headquarters at Achnahannet, south of Castle Urquhart. Each reported sighting was studied by the LNIB and subjected to a serious standard of credibility. For instance, no sighting was usually accepted if it occurred within 30 minutes of a ship passing down the loch. Between 1963 and 1972, when it folded for lack of money and public support, the bureau recorded 197 serious sightings of a large aquatic animal moving in the waters of Loch Ness. But even this effort failed to attract more than passing attention from British scientists. For one thing, the bureau, for all its energies, failed to get a close, clear picture of an animal. “We always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or we’d run out of film or the bloody camera wouldn’t work,” one former LNIB watcher explained.

Whether there is a right time or right place is impossible to say. Some people who know the loch well say it is entirely a matter of luck. Constable Sandy Gray is everybody’s idea of the British copper. He is tall, muscular and speaks with the softest burr of an accent. Five years ago he joined the three-man police detachment at Fort Augustus, a town of about 1,600. In the summer his biggest problem is traffic accidents. Last April 13, Gray and his partner, Sergeant Donald Nicholson, a 25-year veteran member of the force, were on patrol near Invermoriston on the west side of the loch. It was just before five in the afternoon. “Well, there was this awful row, roaring water and the like coming from the lochside. We thought it was a boat in trouble, so we ran down. We were about 30 yards away when we saw the fins, two of them, one behind the other two or three feet above the water. And they were going at a hell of a lick. I yelled, ‘That’s no bloody boat,’ and the sergeant told me to stop a car. If you can imagine a pot of boiling water, that’s what the water offshore was like—and it was clear and calm on the rest of the loch.” The two policemen had decided to keep their sighting to themselves, but the vehicle Gray stopped was a bus and the driver spread it all over the neighborhood. Gray himself was interviewed by television crews from England, France and Brazil and by radio programs in Canada, the United States and New Zealand. “I’d just be sitting down at home with my wife for something to eat and another film crew would drive up,” said Constable Gray. Nicholson, who had been a nonbeliever when it came to the Loch Ness monster, changed his mind after that afternoon at Invermoriston.

British science has always treated the idea of a creature in Loch Ness at arm’s length. Even though there have been about 4,000 reported sightings since 1933, the sci-

entific community has stayed away from any meaningful involvement. Mainly this is because of the press. Nessie has become a city editor’s dream, a summer silly season story that grabs British readers and charms the tourist. Caricatures of dotty old vicars and aging matrons in brown brogues and tweeds rattling on about the monster make good reading during the summer months. Scientists, aware of all the media hoopla, tend to back off as if any associations might burn up promising careers.

Not so, apparently, with the Americans. The United States has always had a fascination with unknown phenomena and been willing to spend some money in reaching for explanations. In 1971, the Academy of Applied Science of Boston came to Loch Ness. The academy is largely the creation of one man, Dr. Robert Riñes. A patent lawyer and dean of the Franklin Pierce Law Centre in Concord, New Hampshire, Riñes is also trained as a physicist. He set up the academy with a few scientific friends to explore various reported phenomena around the world. He has access to some of the best technological minds in the Boston-Cambridge academic enclaves and the backing to successfully finance his operations. Six years ago he decided that the Loch Ness monster was worthy of study by his team. He also decided that the best way to go about discovering the creature was through underwater photography. He enlisted the aid of Professor Harold Edgerton, emeritus professor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and inventor of the stroboscopic camera which takes underwater photography. His credentials as a scientist are immaculate. The Americans’ plan was to combine underwater photography with sonar detection devices in the area of Urquhart Bay.

The summer of 1971 was largely unproductive, although Riñes did have a sighting of the animal himself. But it was in 1972 that Riñes and his underwater photographers made a breakthrough. Late one August night the crew lowered a sonar transducer, the box that sends out sonar signals into about 40 feet of water. They also lowered a camera. The transducer was set up with its beam pointed toward the camera which flashed and took a picture every 15 seconds. In the middle of the night the sonar screen started to trace out a large blip image, larger than any fish or even a school of fish. The camera kept taking pictures as whatever it was moved underneath the boat. A few days later the group returned to the United States where the film was developed at the head office of Eastman Kodak in Rochester. Technicians handling the film signed affidavits that they had not tampered with it in any way. The most startling of the Riñes pictures was a photograph of what looks like a large fin, about three or four feet across and about eight feet long. There is a large riblike ridge down the centre which appears to be attached to a large humped mass. Scientists who examined the photos were guarded in

their reaction, saying generally that the picture contained insufficient detail to make any identification. What the pictures did do, however, was further excite Dr. Riñes and his fellow explorers. They made plans to return to Loch Ness, annually if necessary, with more sophisticated and expensive equipment.

He was standing there, by the loch, as he always does, no matter what the weather. He had one camera around his neck, the other mounted on a large tripod. Dangling from the tripod was a pair of binoculars. He rarely took his eyes off the water, turning occasionally to watch the next carload of tourists drive up. On his sweater was a button that said: VM ALMOST FAMOUS.

The whole aura of Loch Ness, by its very nature, attracts a procession of characters to its shores. One of the oddest and most controversial is a former British paratrooper in his late forties named Frank Searle. In 1969, Searle came north from England and set up a tent beside Loch Ness near the village of Foyers. By his own estimate he has spent 23,000 hours looking at the water, from early morning to late at night in all kinds of weather. He never goes anywhere without a camera; he never takes a vacation or leaves the loch for any reason. Searle is a short man but powerfully built with burly, tattooed arms. He has a tanned face and a military brush moustache. When he talks it is with the conviction of a man sure of himself to the point of fixation. For the past three or four years, he has been releasing a series of pictures that, if genuine, are remarkable. They show a creature in various positions all over Loch Ness. But the authenticity of his pictures has been challenged, particularly by Nicholas Witchell, a brilliant young law graduate and author of The Loch Ness Story, probably the best compendium of information on the subject. Witchell, who used to be Searle’s friend, has come to the conclusion that this lonely, compulsive man, doctors his photographs. Still he stays by the water. “Look, what I want, what I’m here for, is a good close picture of the creature from, say, 25 yards that will prove once and for all that there is an animal in these waters. And you can stuff the scientific establishment and all the rest of it.” Searle is convinced that the only sure proof of the creature’s existence will come with surface photography. “All that underwater photography stuff of Riñes’ is absolutely useless because of the peat in the water. The farthest you can see with infrared lights is 4Vi yards. And the time and conditions and location have nothing to do with it. You can come down to any part of the loch and in 10 minutes get a sighting or you could sit there for 12 months and see nothing. It’s pure luck.” Searle has written a book and with the royalties is going to build a permanent information centre at Foyers. At the moment he has a wooden shack covered with his pictures and a col-

lection box for tourists’ contributions. The water is his life as well as his livelihood. “Look, if I go into that caravan to make my liver and bacon and I’m thinking about the water all the time, I wouldn’t enjoy my liver and bacon, would I? Life wouldn’t be worth living.”

The summer expedition of 1976 was to have been the culmination of efforts by the Riñes team to prove the existence of the creature. Enthusiasm was running high, the sonar and photographic equipment were as good as money can buy and the expedition had the prestigious co-sponsor-

ship of the New York Times. It also had some important scientific talent in the person of Dr. Christopher McGowan of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. Dr. McGowan has been at the ROM for seven years, where he is associate curator of the department of vertebrate paleontology. A scientist with a well-established international reputation, he was going to search for bone remnants of the creature. From a bone, a good one, he would be able to throw some light on the identity of the animal.

The group arrived at Drumnadrochit in early June. From the beginning things did not go well. In the first place it was a poor summer for sightings. The drought that afflicted England so badly reduced the level of the rivers feeding into Loch Ness and consequently the number of spawning salmon. Since the creatures seem to feed on salmon and Arctic char, few sightings were reported. And a lot of time was spent waiting for equipment or checking equipment or merely standing around. Out of the entire summer, Dr. McGowan was able to spend only four days in his search for bones. Fart of this was caused by the unprofessionalism of the team’s organization. Not that McGowan has anything against amateurs. “Some of the most important things that have ever been found have been found by amateurs,” he said. But Riñes sometimes lets his enthusiasm get in the way of his judgment. One day McGowan was returning by boat to the team’s headquarters at Temple Pier. A group of American Boy Scouts was being shown around the place, and when McGowan arrived he found Riñes excitedly telling the scouts about a terrific so-

nar tracing that had just been made. McGowan tried to persuade Riñes and the scouts to calm down, that what they saw might be a surface report, might even have been his own boat coming into the pier. He went out on the water and came in again to prove his point; he was right and the Americans seemed to sulk at being shown to be wrong. With the Times involved, the expedition became something of a media circus. One Drumnadrochit resident who had seen the creature told her story to three American television networks, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Spanish, French and Swedish television. “There was a little bit of Barnum and Bailey associated with it, I’m afraid,” said McGowan. By early August, things were going nowhere and the Riñes team went back to Boston.

While the summer was unproductive from McGowan’s point of view, he remains convinced that a large, unknown aquatic animal lives in Loch Ness. “Before I came over, I was 95% sure of its existence; now, after this summer, I’m 100% sure. Any attempt to identify it would be mere speculation, we simply don’t know enough. The thing that staggers me beyond anything else, apart from the animals themselves, is how everybody turned their backs on it.” McGowan would like to return to Loch Ness but next time with an experienced team of professional scientists who could exert some control over the direction of the expedition.

Dr. Riñes and his team hope to return in October, without Dr. McGowan, to poke and prod the loch and take more pictures. He seems determined to capture on film whatever is there. But then others have come to Loch Ness with the steadfast determination to end the mystery. It is probably one of the most studied pieces of water on earth. Men have gone under it in submarines, across it in minesweepers and over it in helicopters. They’ve used every conceivable device to bait the creature or photograph it or capture it. The newspapers and television companies of the world have tramped all over the place shoving microphones at people and recording the smallest tidbit of sensationalism from anyone who had ever seen anything on the loch. When you take away all of the media furor, the hyped-up enthusiasms, the Nessie Burgers, the Monster key rings, the quacks and the convinced, what you are left with is a large group of ordinary people who have seen some extraordinary things. In the meantime what is under the surface stays there. An old man, a crofter with a face as hard as a knuckle and a smile like St. Theresa’s, was talking to an outsider about these things. Like many of the people of Loch Ness he was suspicious of the press and refused to give his name. What he said was this: “You see, we’ve all got our secrets, haven’t we? Things we don’t want to give over to anyone else. The loch, it’s got its secrets as well.” He paused: “Only fair, isn’t it?”1^