History of a Mystery: Ninety Years of Nessie

Lawrence Bennie
15 min readMay 2, 2023

The Birth of the Loch Ness Monster

A view from the east shore of Loch Ness

In April 1933, local hoteliers Aldie and John McKay sighted an unknown creature in Loch Ness. Mrs McKay, then owner of the Drumandrochit Hotel, was driving back from Inverness, with her husband, when she noticed a considerable disturbance on the water. Decades later, in the 1980s, she recounted her experience in a rare television interview:

“…I can see it still. It just rolls out of the water — black, wet, with the water rolling off it. And I yelled at my husband: Stop! The Beast!”.

Shortly afterwards, local water bailiff and part-time journalist Alex Campbell wrote up the story for The Inverness Courier. Strange Spectacle On Loch Ness featured on Tuesday 2nd May 1933. Nondescript and, somewhat ironically, without a picture, Campbell’s piece would nonetheless be credited by author Ronald Binns (writing fifty years later) as the moment which “helped turn an obscure piece of Highland folklore into a living myth”. (1)

Of course, the living myth is the Loch Ness Monster, the ever-elusive, large creature alleged to dwell in Loch Ness, the 23 mile-long freshwater lake nestled up in the Scottish Highlands. Immortalised since the initial media frenzy of the early 1930s as a plesiosaur, ‘Nessie’ has endured ninety years of scandal, scepticism and scrutiny to remain a global icon, regardless of variable public opinion on her credibility and existence.

Loch Ness itself resides in Scotland’s Great Glen, a 80-mile valley that divides the Highlands from the Grampian Mountains below. About 12,000 years ago, towards the end of the last Ice Age, the Great Glen was filled by a huge glacier. When the ice melted, a series of three lakes were created; Little Loch Oich, Loch Lochy and Loch Ness, the largest of the three.

Record-holding ‘Nessie Hunter’ Steve Feltham regards the riddle of Loch Ness as “the world’s greatest mystery”. There’s a strong case for that. With over 1100 officially recorded sightings, the catalogue of eyewitness testimony for the Loch Ness Monster is statistically startling. Yet, sceptics have plenty at hand for counter-argument. Dozens of scientific expeditions have discovered nothing convincing to prove the creature’s existence. Previously cherished photographic and film evidence has been repeatedly debunked. Intensive but fruitless surveillance of the loch has driven members of the monster ‘fraternity’ from dedication to hardened doubt. For some, the nail in the coffin for Nessie finally came in 2019 when the University of Otago’s much-publicised e-DNA survey failed to find any reptilian evidence in the loch and suggested the more underwhelming conclusion that giant eels are more likely the real identity of Nessie.

Yet, the mystery endures. Large, unexplained sonar contacts continue to be captured. Intriguing, albeit often obscure, snapshots still surface. And, whilst admittedly less frequent, eyewitness testimony of something large and unexplained lurking in the loch still, occasionally, hit the news.

If there is one certain truth to the Loch Ness phenomenon, then it’s the certainty of the sheer splendour of the Loch itself. Huge in size and volume, and in popular culture, Loch Ness is simply vast. Southwest of Inverness, ‘the capital of the Highlands’, one cannot fail to be stunned by the spectacular scale of what River Monsters star Robert Wade has called “the world’s most mysterious lake”.

Certainly, there is an inescapable sense of mystery over the loch’s long-debated secrets as well as an unshakable atmosphere conjured up by its centuries-old existence nestled amongst the Highlands. Of course, the biggest draw, for millions of eager visitors, is the tingling excitement of a scan for something extraordinary still lingering in the loch. However, there is an oft-forgotten irony, when tracing the Monster back through history to its earliest record sighting, that that this did not, according to the written record, even occur at Loch Ness.

St. Columba, the River Ness and the water beast

Inverness Castle overlooking the River Ness.

Dating back to the 11th century, Inverness Castle is at the historic heart of the city lying 8 miles from Loch Ness. Believed to have been built by Máel Coluim III of Scotland, who allegedly constructed the building after destroying the nearby castle of Macbeth, the graceful 1836 structure visible today overlooks the 6 mile-long River Ness, which flows from the northern end of Loch Ness, through Loch Dochfour, north-east through Inverness before discharging into the Beauly Firth. And, it is at the River Ness where the legend of the Loch Ness Monster begins, 492 years before the arrival of the first Inverness Castle.

The historical genesis of the monster tradition is endlessly recounted through decades of Loch Ness Monster books and TV documentaries. In 565 AD, a fabled encounter took place between the Irish monk, St Columba, and a ‘water beast’. As told by Columba’s biographer, Adomnán, Columba had travelled from his homeland to convert the Picts to Christianity when he encountered local residents burying a man by the River Ness. According to the mourners, the man had been swimming in the river when he had been attacked. When one of Columba’s followers swam across to collect a boat from the other side, the beast re-emerged but, this time, Columba was at hand to drive the beast away. Columba made the sign of the cross and ordered the creature to “Go no further. Do not touch the man. Go back at once” (2). It then fled, tradition says, into Loch Ness.

Inevitably, Adomnán’s account divides opinion. For some, it is vindication of the creature’s historical existence as far back as the 6th century. For others, it is more likely hagiography that taps into a local motif of water-beasts and was later adopted by gullible believers to provide credibility to their claims. Whatever the truth, and despite Adomnán’s statement that the episode occurred at the River Ness, this particular escapade of Columba’s has nonetheless become accepted as the bedrock of the Loch Ness Monster story in the historical record. Yet, it wouldn’t be for another 1,368 years until news of Nessie really did make a splash. So, what happened in between?

Rise of A Mystery

Professor Ray Mackal identified Columba’s experience as the 1st documented sighting.

Well, for the sceptics, there was nothing. Amongst the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745, the construction of the Caledonian Canal in 1803 and the subsequent Victorian tourism boom in Loch Ness, reports of large creatures did not flock in. For some, it all seemed just a little too quiet for the tradition of a beast living in the Loch to be plausible:

“During all this time and all this activity no-one ever reported seeing monsters in Loch Ness…it seems odd that the monster was never seen by English troops or by the men on the sailing boats which silently plied the loch, or even by Victorians out fishing. The negative evidence against the existence of a herd of giant unknown animals in Loch Ness seems overwhelming”. (3)

Yet, in retrospect at least, it was not a complete blank state between Nessie’s sixth century debut and her spectacular resurgence in the early 1930s. University of Bristol Professor Gareth Williams fills in some of the blanks, with a ‘Monster of Loch Ness’ mentioned around 1520 and the brief account of two workmen in the 1730s witnessing in the waters two ‘Leviathans’ they believed were whales. However, Williams adds, a ‘commentator’ proposed the possibility that “some huge unknown species had made their way in through some subterranean passage and grown too large to return”. Later, in 1880, the diver Duncan MacDonald was unnerved by the sight of “a very odd-looking beastie” and refused to dive in Loch Ness again. In 1888, Alexander MacDonald described a “strange creature” which bore resemblance to a giant salamander, whilst Roderick Matheson described the mysterious creature that he observed as “the biggest eel” that he ever saw (4).

Then, on 27th August 1930, there came a pre-cursor to the landmark 1933 Inverness Courier article that would hurtle the mystery into the modern age. Appearing in the Northern Chronicle and titled “What was it? A strange experience on Loch Ness” it told the atmospheric story of three young men who witnessed a large, mysterious wave and a “wriggling motion” which caused their boat to “rock violently”. Salmon were ruled out. Behind the pen was the man who, just a few years later, would finally ignite the Nessie explosion. Alex Campbell.

Strange Spectacle

Alex Campbell’s seminal Nessie story as it appeared in the Inverness Courier.

On May 2nd 1933, reports once more surfaced of uncanny activity around Loch Ness. This time, there would be no fade into obscurity. On this occasion, the witnesses were a couple, a “well-known local businessman and “a university graduate”, who saw a large, whale-like object churning up a huge wake in the loch. Reading the opening sentence of the piece today, it is amusing to find the very text credited with consolidating the modern-day myth of the Loch Ness Monster (from ninety years ago) virtually echoing the general opinion on the subject today in the media and, arguably, the wider community:

“Loch Ness has for generations been credited with being the home of a fearsome-looking monster but, somehow or other, the “water-kelpie”, as this legendary creature is called, has always been regarded as a myth, if not a joke”. (5)

At the time of publication, the identities of the reporting ‘correspondent’ and the couple involved were anonymous. Later, the author was revealed to be Alex Campbell, whilst the nameless couple were revealed to be John and Aldie McKay, owners of the Drumnadrochit Hotel (now the newly refurbished Loch Ness Centre ). In retrospect, some interesting questions arise when considering Campbell’s opening. Firstly, if the legend of the “fearsome-looking monster” had lasted for “generations”, then why, prior to the explosion of interest in 1933, was the tantalising possibility of a mysterious, unidentified creature living in the loch kept quiet for so long? Secondly, the description of this unexplained enigma as “fearsome” and a manifestation of the “water-kelpie” feels distinctly archaic, if not redundant, alongside what Loch Ness expert Adrian Shine dubs the “media monster”.

As we have briefly seen, there were other sightings through time, though Williams and other critics argue that these only arose during the craze ignited by the McKay sighting. So, why the silence? Fear of public ridicule was a cause of avoidance, whilst others were conscious of the superstitions attached to the figure of the ‘water-kelpie’. According to Celtic legend, the water-kelpie is a shape-shifting water spirit inhabiting the lochs and pools of Scotland. Described as a black horse-like creature, able to adopt human form, Campbell’’s reference to the “legendary creature” is indicative of its position within Scottish folklore, where unfortunate victims were tempted to jump on its back before it submerged them to a watery grave. Furthermore, the water-kelpie story was likely used to keep children from playing near deep water, something which Campbell himself would later recall in interviews. For Gareth Williams, “the legend of the water horse has inevitably moulded the saga of the Loch Ness Monster…the power of superstition was so pervasive that local people refused to talk about peculiar events in the Loch” (6).

As well as the trepidations surrounding local folklore, some timely external factors also played their play part in bringing the monster mystery to the surface. The early 1930s saw the extension of the A82 around the Loch, whilst 1933 (the very year of the McKay sighting) saw the release of the original King Kong. Today, sceptics note, the impact of the release of cinema’s seminal monster smash on the rise of the Loch Ness Monster phenomenon cannot be overlooked:

King Kong brought prehistoric reptiles back from the dead and, for the first time, dinosaurs and plesiosaurs were seen moving on the cinema screen. They had only supporting roles but the effect was electrifying”. (7)

If the association of the Loch Ness Monster with the water-kelpie diminished over the course of the 20th century, then the idea of a “fearsome-looking monster” inhabiting Loch Ness has become alien. In today’s world, the “beast” initially reported by the McKays is instantly recognised as the family-friendly ‘Nessie’, branded and packaged as a playful plesiosaur, made centre-stage of a BBC cartoon series, Drumnadrochit’s very own Nessie Land, scores of children’s books and adoringly cute Loch Ness Monster iconography around the world. Unsurprisingly perhaps, filmic efforts to capitalise on Nessie’s more sinister potential have bombed and are confined to bargain baskets and critical derision. On the other hand, The Water Horse (2007) became a children’s film favourite, eleven years after the overlooked but charming Loch Ness (1996). (Both films feature a child that has befriended the monster).

With the exception of 1933’s follow-up account from the Spicers, subsequent reports and sightings would rarely, if ever, use the monstrous terms that Campbell deployed in his early attempt to sensationalise the creature. Yet, as with Adomnán, Campbell’s Strange Spectacle is a cornerstone of the legend. For Williams, however, the legacy of Campbell runs much deeper. He did not just bring the story to the mainstream, he “gave the Monster a history”. Arguing that Campbell, in the wake of the Strange Spectacle report, “continued to drip-feed sightings and anecdotes which kept the Monster’s profile high”, Williams denounces the existence of any credible existence prior to the 1930 Northern Chronicle story:

“Before that, if we only accept contemporary reports, there is nothing…the Monster became a profitable sideline which he (Campbell) exploited to the full…he thrived on the celebrity status which the Monster brought him”. (8)

In fact, Williams’ argument is a regurgitation of Roland Binns’ thesis in the earlier The Loch Ness Mystery Solved — that the sparse pre-1933 accounts are suspect and that Campbell essentially ‘invented’ Nessie. If true, Campbell’s strategy worked. The Strange Spectacle piece achieved the creation of the modern-day phenomenon of the Loch Ness Monster where, despite the relentless scientific disparaging of any presented evidence, it continually sustains itself. In other ways, if Campbell’s depiction of the creature was accurate, it achieved very little. For many, if not the majority, the Loch Ness Monster is still a joke. Nessie has come full circle.

A Prehistoric Monster

A classic pastiche of the Spicer sighting

On 4th August 1933, a sensational sequel to Campbell’s Strange Spectacle piece appeared in the Inverness Courier. Once again, the eyewitnesses were again a couple, but this time from London. During their drive from Inverness, half-way between Dores and Foyers, they saw an unusual creature crossing the road about 50 yards in front of them. Mr George Spicer would later gave a dramatic retelling of what happened:

“It was the nearest thing to a dragon or prehistoric monster that I have ever seen in my life…it appeared to be carrying a small animal or lamb of some kind…It seemed to have a long neck, which moved up and down in the manner of a scenic railway, and the body was fairly big with a high back…Length from 6 to 8 feet and very ugly”. (9)

It is with the Spicer sighting that the Monster developed a more sensationalist image. The bland (by Monster standards anyway) whale-like object of the earlier McKay sighting graduates to the more tantalising descriptions of a hideous “prehistoric monster”, whilst, on this occasion, the creature is glanced not from three-quarters of a mile offshore but, remarkably, on the road ahead of the Spicers. Dramatically, we also have the suggestion that, kelpie-like, it holds prey in its mouth.

Famous as the Spicer sighting is in the record of the Loch Ness Monster, it is also unique in some respects. It is a rare land sighting, the creature was described repellently by Spicer as an “abomination” and, on this occasion, it even has a victim (although it has been said that the Spicers later changed their story to suggest that this was possibly a different part of the animal). However, we also have the first descriptions of the “long back” and “high back” that would become synonymous with Monster sightings, even if Spicer’s initial estimated length of the creature (6 to 8 feet) is significantly smaller than what would be stated in later reports.

Yet, the Spicer story was met with scepticism and continues to be. An anonymous source suggested that the couple had seen an otter carrying a cub in its mouth. Spicer responded defiantly. It was far too big to be an otter and, whatever it was, should certainly be killed. For Spicer, his Monster sighting was indeed a strange spectacle.

The First Pictures

The Hugh Gray Photograph — the first photo alleged to show the Loch Ness Monster.

On 12th November 1933, Hugh Gray took a photograph of “an object of considerable dimensions”, during his Sunday morning walk after Church. Later published in The Daily Record, Gray’s seminal snapshot carries an air of enigma. Admittedly, it is very blurry and very difficult to make out. For some critics, the picture taken is of an otter. For others, it is Gray’s dog, swimming back towards shore with a stick in its mouth.

A close-up of The Surgeon’s Photograph, as it appeared in the Daily Mail in 1934

If Gray’s picture proved frustratingly ambiguous, both in 1933 and today, this was not the case with the next photograph purported to show the Monster. Published on 21st April 1934 in The Daily Mail, the “Surgeon’s Photograph”, as it came to be known, heralded the arrival of the Loch Ness Monster on the world stage, transporting the fabled water-kelpie from Scottish folklore to a globally-recognised icon.

The photograph was purportedly taken by Robert Kenneth Wilson, a 34 year-old London-based gynaecologist:

“At about 7 or 7.30am, I stopped by the roadside two or three miles on the Inverness side of Invermoriston at a point where the road is some hundred feet above the loch. I had got over the dyke and was standing a few yards down the slope and looking towards the loch when I noticed a considerable commotion on the surface, perhaps two or three hundred yards out. When I had watched it for perhaps a minute or so, something broke surface and I saw the head of some strange animal rising out of the water”. (10)

Wilson took four pictures on a quarter-plate camera, owned by a photographer friend, and immediately travelled to Ogston’s chemist shop in Inverness to have the four plates developed. The third plate proved to be the perfect depiction of what Wilson later described as seeing — ‘the head of some strange animal rising out of the water’’— and, as acknowledged by Nessie believers and sceptics alike, became one of the 20th century’s most iconic images. Its significance in Loch Ness Monster lore is well-captured by Gareth Williams.

The Surgeon’s Photograph probably converted more people into true believers than anything else. It carried through the Monster safely through the Second World War, nudged some notable sceptics into joining the ranks of the faithful, and, half a century later, was still one of the central planks in the evidence that the Monster exists. The Photograph also pushed into the foreground a question that now had to be taken seriously. Could this peculiar body of water, which even scientists found difficult to understand, turn out to be a unique habitat — one which somehow had sustained an animal species that, elsewhere on the planet, had died out millions of years earlier?. (11)

In 1994, The Surgeon’s Photograph was, of course, exposed as a hoax. As for the McKay sighting of 1933, the mystery remains intact. And with it, for all the frauds, mistakes and scepticism, so does the Loch Ness Monster. Ninety years on, Nessie still has her proponents. Roland Watson’s authoritative online blog — simply titled Loch Ness Monster — spearheads the cause that there is still “something strange in Loch Ness”. Alan McKenna’s Loch Ness Exploration team are dedicated to observing the phenomena of the Loch. The Loch Ness Centre, in the same building once ran by Mr and Mrs McKay, is soon to reopen to walk visitors through “500 years of Loch Ness History”. And, from his base on Dores Beach, overlooking the iconic southern view of the loch, Steve Feltham continues to watch and wait, over three decades on from beginning his lochside vigil in 1991.

The history of the Loch Ness Monster story is an intriguing one and, despite the controversy, its mystery has prevailed and the enigma endures. This mystery is far from being history.

References

  1. Binns, Ronald. The Loch Ness Mystery Solved (1984), p.8
  2. St. Adomnan, The Life of St Columba (690 AD), text available from https://www.lochnessproject.org/adrian_shine_archiveroom/papershtml/columba_loch_ness.htm
  3. Binns, Ronald. The Loch Ness Mystery Solved (1984), p.73
  4. Williams, Gareth. A Monstrous Commotion (2015), p.11–15
  5. https://www.inverness-courier.co.uk/news/report-of-strange-spectacle-on-loch-ness-in-1933-leaves-unanswered-question-what-was-it-139582/
  6. Williams, Gareth. A Monstrous Commotion (2015), p.8
  7. Williams, Gareth. A Monstrous Commotion (2015), p.272
  8. Williams, Gareth. A Monstrous Commotion (2015), p.288
  9. Binns, Ronald. The Loch Ness Mystery Solved (1984), p.19–20
  10. Whyte C. More Than A Legend, revised 3rd impression. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1961, pp.6–7.
  11. Williams, Gareth. A Monstrous Commotion (2015), p.39

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Lawrence Bennie

Teacher & Theatre tour guide. Interested in Arts & Culture, Film, History, Psychology, and the odd mystery!