- Loch Ness, Scotland. (Credit: M. Coe.)
History shows again and again
How nature points up the folly of man
—Blue Öyster Cult, “Godzilla”
Char and I are waiting for Mandy out in front of the Loch Ness 2000 Exhibition Centre, which should not be confused with the Official Loch Ness 2003 Monster Exhibition Centre, also known as “the ORIGINAL the Loch Ness MONSTER Visitors Centre,” the unyielding grammar of which I cannot help but admire. All that separates the two centres is a hundred yards of highway A82, with the added diversions of a hairpin turn (the site of numerous yearly accidents), the Loch Ness Monster Booking Office (a mostly gutted office that has the look of a broken-up telemarketing racket), a Bank of Scotland (the cash machine of which is broken), and a store called Bits & Pieces (which sells large, Damoclean swords that, according to the sign on the window, can go “abroad, on a plane, AS LONG AS YOU DECLARE IT AT THE AIRPORT”).
The Loch Ness 2000 Exhibition Centre is run out of the Drumnadrochit Hotel, while the Official Loch Ness 2003 Monster Exhibition Centre falls under the administration of the Loch Ness Lodge Hotel. Char and I have booked rooms at the Drumnadrochit Hotel. A challenge comparable to securing a reservation in one of the towns surrounding Loch Ness in the month of August might be sprinting through the White House’s Northwest Appointment Gate with an M 160 rocket launcher and a duffel bag full of gay porn. But my fourth call to the Drumnadrochit Hotel paid off—though I was left with the impression that the rooms I lucked into freed up literally seconds before I called, that the previous reservation holder had come to some irreversible grief. Whatever the case, Char and I have rooms right in town, near the loch. Mandy is not as lucky, and had to settle for a bed-and-breakfast across town. I should say that Mandy is not as lucky as Char, because, despite my room, I may rank among the unluckier people currently on holiday in or around Loch Ness.
My particular bad luck, while far from catastrophic, was distinctly modern and hammeringly iterative. The morning of September 11, 2001, for instance, found me in seat 24C of Northwest’s morning flight from Detroit to New York, enjoying the excitement of my very first emergency landing. In the summer of 2005, on my way to the Middle East, I was tagged with a fourteen-hour layover in London, during which I decided to tube into the city and visit the Tate. I came aboveground shortly before three young Britons detonated themselves, and thirty-nine others, in three separate tube cars, in protest of the war I was on my way to cover; the fourth bomber, who was eighteen years old, killed himself, and thirteen others, on a bus, as I was retreating, by taxi, to Heathrow. Yesterday morning—a date the papers here are already referring to as “8/10”—I landed in London only hours after the authorities had arrested nearly two dozen people allegedly involved in an airliner bomb plot notable for its planned use of some sort of liquid detonator. Gels and liquids are now absolutely forbidden on all commercial UK flights; Visine is being treated as though it is plastique. How surreal is Great Britain right now? On the BBC this morning one commentator, in all apparent seriousness, suggested stripping passengers naked before boarding.
My luggage lost, my connecting flight canceled, I had made my way up to the Scottish Highlands’ self-proclaimed capital of Inverness by train. I had purchased the only ticket available: first class. This cost more than my transatlantic flight. Since the ticket machine spat out my receipt I have been wondering if most Americans are aware of how much sand the brawny pound is currently kicking in the face of the pale and scrawny U.S. dollar, the strength of which on 8/10/06 was somewhere between that of Emmanuel Lewis and a Golden Girl.
In Inverness—a pleasant, seagull-strafed city on the mouth of the River Ness—I was met by Char, a Scotswoman who lives only a few hours south. Char, aware of my troubles, brought with her some clothes for me. These clothes had once belonged to Char’s brother, a man I have heard described by her as “absolutely mad.” Right now I am wearing the lone ensemble that did not send Char to the floor with laughter: a long-sleeved white turtleneck shirt with a camel-colored cashmere cardigan sweater over it. The result is a look that might be called Kenobi Casual.
- Tom Bissell with Char and Mandy.
I first met Char and Mandy last fall at a writers’ retreat in Scotland. Mandy is a Liverpudlian poet. Char is a playwright, novelist, storywriter, and poet. Both are lifelong Britons. When I told them I was coming to Loch Ness, reunion plans quickly solidified. Char, it turned out, had never been to Loch Ness before, and Mandy had visited only once, as a little girl. And so here we are, waiting for Mandy—who has finally appeared. Apparently she had some sort of religious experience watching the sunrise from the porch of her B and B this morning, and she asks how we are enjoying the hotel.
I have nothing but praise for the Drumnadrochit Hotel. This, I tell Mandy, is a historic place. It was the manager of this hotel, one Mrs. Mackay, who in April 1933 glimpsed something whalelike in the loch—a sighting that more or less created the modern phenomenon known as the Loch Ness Monster. One small bone could be picked with the management of the Drumnadrochit Hotel, however, and this concerns its so-called Loch Ness Café Viewing Lounge and Bar. It offers no such view. In fact only one local hotel, the Clansman, offers views of the loch, which they are not shy about broadcasting.
Surrounding the Drumnadrochit Hotel is suite of older buildings, one of which is the former Drumnadrochit Hotel, a big stone keep of late-Victorian construction, which the Loch Ness 2000 Exhibition Centre currently occupies. Next door is a “Nessie Shop.” Mandy insists on entering, and inside we find a dearth of monster-related products but many tartans and kilts. Char winds up talking to Jenny, an older, frankly pretty salesperson. “People come here because it’s beautiful,” she tells Char. “And it’s good fun for the children.” Char asks her the Inevitable Question. Jenny does not hedge, or rather hedges in an admirably non-hedgy way: “It’s one of these things that common sense says, ‘Probably not.’ But other days, you think, ‘Hmmm.’” She shrugs. “You need something, don’t you? It’s absolutely miserable out there.”
We exit the Nessie Shop to find a tour bus coasting into the Drumnadrochit Hotel parking lot. With idling hugeness it expels its dozens of passengers, who hail from every industrialized nation one would care to name. Despite Jenny’s belief in the good fun Loch Ness offers children, most of these people hold no small hands and guide no small bodies. They are instead earnest middle-aged men and women who are, what the hell, visiting Loch Ness. Mandy and Char and I realize we had best get our Exhibition Centre tickets now, before the rush. We walk into the lobby, enter a narrow hallway lit in black light, and see cast on the wall, in ghostly letters, the following: “Today you must be Naturalist and Detective, Judge and Jury.”
“God,” Char says with a laugh, “I can’t believe I’m doing this rubbish.”
* * * *
It has been described as “one of the most enduring, and controversial, images of the twentieth century.” Well, no—but it remains, after seven decades, the best photo ever taken of Loch Ness’s most putative inhabitant. Its influence has been determinative: few referred to a “monster” before this photo’s 1934 publication and no one has thought of it since as anything but. In 1992, an American woman claimed to have spied a sea serpent in the Pacific Ocean and described it as resembling “the picture of the Loch Ness monster.” No one had to ask which picture she was talking about.
- The Loch Ness Monster?
From a compositional standpoint—black silhouette of a long-necked, strangely graceful creature centered among the radial ripples of perturbed gray water—the photo is unimprovable. The beast’s head resembles a few things—hoodless cobra; finger bent at the distal phalange; prow of a Viking ship—but its overall countenance seems alert, intelligent, and oddly friendly. In Monsters of the Sea, the great ocean scholar Richard Ellis writes, “To qualify as a proper monster, the creature has to be large and mysterious, but it also has to pose some sort of a threat.” To a child, this was the magic of the Loch Ness Monster. Whatever it was, the worst that could happen to you in its presence was getting wet while hugging it.
All children love two things: they love dinosaurs, and they love the paranormal. The Loch Ness Monster managed to be both. It attracted its share of druid enthusiasts and yeti scholars but also entranced respected scientists such as the University of Chicago’s Roy Mackal, author of some really quite reasonable books about the monster, or so they seemed to me when I read them as a boy. (I have since reread one of them: Mackal argues that the monster is some kind of jumbo eel-salamander mongrel.) Around the world other monsters were out there slithering and staggering—Bigfoot, Momo, Champ, Ogopogo, the Mokèlé-mbèmbé, the Skunk Ape—but they were thinly sketched, unsubstantiated, and reeked of zoological confusion, bad faith, and drunken double dares. Indeed, delving into the eyewitness accounts of these other marquee names of cryptozoology almost always turned up some moonshine addict or professional attention-seeker. Yet who vouchsafed for the Loch Ness Monster? Doctors, priests, kindly old ladies, and one saint. The evidence that something existed in Loch Ness seemed overwhelming.
In Scottish Gaelic it was traditionally known as Niseag, which ultimately devolved into Nessie. Such was the ferociousness of my love that I refused to call it Nessie. After all, as of 1975, it had a proper name—Nessiteras rhombopteryx—courtesy of the then-president of the World Wildlife Fund, Sir Peter Scott. Startled by a suite of underwater photos that appeared to show a living creature, Scott declared that the images left “no further doubt in my mind that large animals exist in Loch Ness.”
I was born a year before Scott bestowed upon the monster its Linnaean name, and the next few years turned out to be a golden age for the paranormal in general and Nessiteras rhombopteryx in particular. While I awaited the Feast Day of Solid Proof, everywhere I turned I encountered some charitable widening of what could be construed as unexplained phenomena. The generation-defining television show In Search of . . . , for instance, opened with the following mission statement: “This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producers’ purpose is to suggest some possible explanations—but not necessarily the only ones—to the mysteries we will examine.” This managed to sound both skeptically sober and insanely irresponsible, and suited the mood of that blurry, nameless time (1979–1981) before the decades recognizably detached.
For one of my earliest science projects I constructed a diorama of Loch Ness. Book report assignments found me churning out New York Review of Books–style evidential summaries of Whyte’s More Than a Legend, Burton’s The Elusive Monster, Dinsdale’s The Loch Ness Monster, and Mackal’s The Monsters of Loch Ness. An early research paper begins, “Does a monster lurk in the depths of Loch Ness?” The following year: “No one agrees what lurks in Loch Ness . . . but that it is a Mystery.” The year after that, the rigor mortis of certainty set in: “The Loch Ness monster is real and I will prove it in this paper.”
But there were a few things about the monster’s most famous photograph of which I was not aware. The story I was familiar with maintained that in April 1934 a London surgeon named R. K. Wilson was driving around Loch Ness on holiday when he saw something break the water’s surface. He happened to have on him a camera with a telephoto lens. He snapped four photos, only two of which turned out. The second photo appeared to be of an otter. But the first photo . . . It was published in the London Daily Mail, and the sensation was instant. Indeed, Wilson’s photo is the mother of modern cryptozoology.
But it was not snapped in a vacuum. In the previous two years there had been several sightings of a large, strange animal in or around the loch. In 1932 one witness saw something that looked like “a cross between a very large horse and camel” in the woods between Kent and Aberdeen. Shortly thereafter the Drumnadrochit Hotel manager Mrs. Mackay saw her cetaceous, waterborne version of the creature. In August 1933, a squat, thick-legged animal was spotted on the loch’s gravel shoreline. In the same year a couple claimed to have seen a giant slug—a baby lamb improbably dangling from its mouth—crossing the road.
A local magpie named Alex Campbell used such sightings to write an Inverness Courier article on the possibility of a so-called kelpie, or “waterhorse,” living in the loch. This was hardly remarkable, as most Scottish (and Irish) lakes have some days-of-yore waterhorse tradition. Yet the first that many lifetime inhabitants of the area ever heard about something strange supposedly inhabiting Loch Ness in modern times was in Campbell’s fulminating dispatch. Thanks to him, the story slipped the surly bonds of the oddball parochial: it spread to London. A newspaper-sponsored reward was offered for the creature’s capture, and several enterprising seekers turned up to snare it. One such huntsman, the improbably named Marmaduke Arundel Wetherell, claimed to have found the beast’s footprint on the shore. It was quickly adduced that Wetherell had made these prints with an old hippopotamus foot, leading to his ridicule. Nevertheless, the anticipation of the beast’s capture was so keen that a massive cage was constructed in Inverness.
Prior to Wilson’s photo, only one description of the monster had mentioned any resemblance to the plesiosaur, and the provider of that description had just seen King Kong—the plesiosaur’s pop-culture debut. The monster’s quick evolution from an initially horselike creature to a hippolike beast to a forest-wandering animal to a snail-like carnivore to a plesiosaur moved the director of the London Zoo’s aquarium to deem the sightings “a striking example of mass hallucination.” The monster’s final and most visually satisfying form was problematic, however, given that plesiosaurs were physiologically unable to hold their heads in the manner the Wilson photo showed, never traveled on land, and had been extinct for 65 million years. Rather like Mormonism, then, the Loch Ness Monster’s foundational story is built upon a number of historical impossibilities. Also like Mormonism, this did not at all hinder the story’s growth.
I was either unaware or blind to such bothersome minutiae as I made my way through my boyhood’s Loch Ness Monster books. Nor was I aware that in 1984 a photography expert who studied the image concluded that the water patterns shown in the photo suggested a monster no more than two feet long. Nor did I know that, given the cant of its angle, the photo could not possibly have been taken from where Wilson claimed to have taken it. For six decades people speculated what Wilson’s photo really depicted: Plesiosaur? A diving bird? An otter’s tail? Some part of a pilot whale?
In 1994, an accomplice of the foiled monster hunter Marmaduke Arundel Wetherell confessed on his deathbed that the so-called surgeon’s photo was a hoax. Despite the fact that a mere touch from Occam’s razor should have disintegrated the image two generations before, the world at last learned that the monster’s most famous portrait depicted nothing more than a toy submarine attached to a toy head. All R. K. Wilson did was deliver the photos to an Inverness developer. None of the men who conspired to perpetrate this hoax expected the story to combust in the manner it did. Wetherell died in the 1950s, Wilson followed him in 1969, and the longevity of their hoax was only its second most remarkable aspect. Its most remarkable aspect was that such a gimcrack and cynical prank could achieve such beauty. This allowed the monster to become one of those culturally sanctioned lies—the egg-hunting bunny, the obese Arctic philanthropist, the nocturnal kleptomaniac elf with a tooth fetish—so poetic, strange, and lovely that those who did not believe afforded a general indulgence to those who did. More than anything, it made you want to believe.
I remember reading about the deathbed confession, and how strangely sad it made me, even though I had not, at that point, believed in the monster for years. How much sadder, I wondered, would it make those who still believed in the existence of a monster in Loch Ness? I first began writing for magazines toward the end of 2000 and was taken out for a few editorial lunches intended to generate “ideas.” When I suggested a piece about the Loch Ness Monster, one editor told me the idea was “too In Search of” and another’s burst of laughter sprayed partially masticated yellowtail sashimi halfway across the table. That so many people could believe in something demonstrably false seemed quaint and amusing at the beginning of our twenty-first century. Six years later it seemed a different pathology altogether. Was there anything charming about an obvious delusion? I went to Loch Ness to find out.
* * * *
The Loch Ness 2000 Exhibition Centre was conceived and designed by Adrian Shine, a well-regarded and Galdalf-bearded naturalist who is now a resident of the Loch Ness area. In the 1970s, Shine proved beyond all reasonable doubt that Scotland’s Loch Morar was not home to its own monster, known as the Morag, and today takes a stern if fairly forgiving view of Loch Ness’s monster tradition.
Shine’s Exhibition is a room-by-room affair. These rooms are differently themed and well decorated, with much mise-en-scène assistance provided by Epcot-ish costumed mannequins. In each room, on a decent-size movie screen, a bit more of a Shine-narrated documentary unfolds while timed spotlights fall upon relevant bits of scenery. The overall effect is extremely professional and embarrassingly engrossing.
Much of the material I am familiar with: the Norse and Celtic origins of the waterhorse legend, Loch Ness as Great Britain’s largest lake, the loch’s location at the northern end of the Great Glen fault line, its geological relationship to the connected lochs of Lochy and Linnhe. But a few rooms into the film some surprising details begin to emerge. There are, for instance, several types of monster sightings, and in Shine’s view that is how they need to be judged. Outsiders have tended to see plesiosaurs and humpbacked monsters, both the clear result of influential hoaxes. But the monster seen by locals—who are in possession of what Shine describes as the “Highlander’s eye”—has almost always been said to resemble an “upturned boat,” which is harder to explain away. We also learn that some unexpected animals do live in the loch: shoals of Arctic char that inhabit the freezing bleakness near the bottom of Loch Ness. They were discovered as recently as 1981 and are thought to have inhabited the loch since its Ice Age formation 10,000 years ago.
Next comes sonar, which cannot tell the difference between fish flesh and water, and instead bounces off gas-filled swim bladders. An animal that possessed not a swim bladder but a pair of bean-bag-sized lungs would be fairly easy to detect. But sonar is tricky. All a single sonar reading does is establish the distance and bearing of an object. It takes multiple contacts to allow the extrapolation necessary to determine an object’s size and shape, and nothing big enough to be the monster has ever been detected. The Birmingham sonar readings of 1968 are often cited as proof of the monster’s existence, but it is far from clear what exactly was recorded. The Birmingham researchers themselves cautioned others from reading too much into their findings. Furthermore, the loch, due to its steep V-shaped walls, causes any number of sonar echoes and oddities. Moreover, the man who used sonar to find the Titanic and the Bismarck came up empty at Loch Ness.
The surface of the loch is as troublesome. “Windrows” are naturally occurring dark patches of water that make it appear as though something is lingering beneath the surface. They are most common on calm days. Halcyon weather is often deemed “Nessie weather,” because most sightings have taken place on calm days. There is a reason for this: the loch’s many unusual wave effects are discernible only on an undisturbed surface. What is going on below is even stranger. Via Shine we learn about “seiches”: powerful underwater waves that have the ability to scoop logs from the floor of the loch, thrust them up toward the surface, and then carry them along against the current. The vast majority, if not the totality, of honest sightings of the monster breaking the surface were probably seiche-spawned. (As a wag once put it: “Log Ness Monster?”) In addition, deer swim across the loch from time to time, and mirages are common.
Much of Shine’s film is nicely turned. He speaks of one attempt to film the loch as “a war of attrition against the law of averages,” and of the “pollen dust of 10,000 summers.” He also takes a frank view of the hoaxes. Contrary to many assertions, the photo evidence for the monster is not strong. Many of the most prominent monster photos can be easily described: nothing, hoax, wave, deer, hoax, nothing, log, bird. As for the famous underwater photos that earned the monster its scientific name, they are much less than the sum of their suggestive parts. The photo that appears to show the monster’s head actually shows a tree stump that has since been recovered. The photo that appears to show the body and brontosaurian neck of the monster can only be an object one or two few feet long, given the extremely limited range of the camera’s flash. The most famous underwater photo depicts a rhomboidal fin of some sort. Problem #1: The unenhanced version of this photo does not show a fin but rather a jet of bubbles. Problem #2: The photo’s enhancement is often said to have been provided by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It was not. It was provided by a graduate student working on JPL computers on his own time. Problem #3: The flipper photo has been further enhanced since its original enhancement, and the negative of the original, unenhanced image has been lost.
The film ends with Shine wondering whether the loch is “a veil that may one day be lifted or a mirror to our own imagination.” On that wizardly note, Char, Mandy, and I file silently out of the Exhibition’s final room. “Well,” Mandy says, “seeing as how there’s nothing there, they made it really interesting.”
Nessie’s Lair, a large gift shop, is conveniently attached to the Loch Ness 2000 Exhibition Centre. I examine the Lair’s many stuffed monsters, which have no standardized size, shape, color, or price. Some of them have humped backs; some do not. Some have hairy faces; some do not. Most are wearing tartan berets. All are smiling. “Maybe that’s all this is,” Char says. “A way to sell toys. How else would you convince an Italian to come to the Scottish Highlands?”
We drive down to what the Scottish call a lay-by—a paved roadside area that offers elevated, photo-op views—for our first real look at the loch. On the way there the sky seems as volatile as a Mediterranean deity. To the west the clouds are moody, low-sailing changelings, while to the east big puffy cotton balls roll contentedly along a blue backdrop of friendlier meteorology. A frozen green forest fire of pine-shaped flame covers the sometimes sharp, sometimes rolling hills around the loch. These trees are not native to the Highlands and were planted during World War II to allay fears of fuel shortages.
We pull off into a lay-by empty but for a Scottish man decked out in full Highlander regalia: knee-high socks, red-and-green kilt, black coat covered in silvery buttons, big white Rollie Fingers mustache, tartan beret. He is smiling and cradling his bagpipes but not yet playing. Char rolls her eyes and whispers to us that he is what you call a “teachter”—Lowlander slang for a Highlander given to argyle minstrelry. The man then begins to play. The bagpipes, I have always believed, are beautiful. No longer. I ask Char for her view of her native land’s most distinctive instrument. “They’re all right,” she says, “as long as you’re outdoors and the person playing is far away.”
We go the edge of our lay-by and look down onto Loch Ness. The water moves in a glittery, sidewinder way. Below us the impossibly black water has a severe, pebbled surface. Farther out it is as smooth as sheet metal. There is something about this water. It seems thicker than normal water. The shapes it makes, the manner in which it reflects sunlight: it is as though it holds the light for a second or two longer than it should. A line of paddling ducks suddenly comes into view. As they kick against the current, leaving surprisingly turbulent wakes, they look exactly like Wilson’s plesiosaur. “Baby Nessies!” Mandy says. Char lifts her camera but struggles with what, exactly, to photograph.
A car pulls into the lay-by. After a few moments its occupants—a short woman and a thin man wearing a ball cap that says PHEASANTS FOREVER—walk over and introduce themselves. Char asks where they are from. “Nebraska,” Pheasants Forever says, to general silence. Then: “It’s in the middle of the country.” Char, who began the day believing Indiana was “somewhere near Florida,” thanks the man for the clarification. She then asks him if he believes in the monster. He nods his head solemnly. “They haven’t disproved it. They’ve sure tried but they haven’t disproved it. There’s definitely gotta be something there. Or here.” And he laughs. If one does not count the numerous futile sonar scans or the simple fact that a single monster would need to consume more than twice the yearly amount of food than that which exists in the loch, then, no, the monster’s existence has not yet been definitively disproved, though for that only a drained loch would suffice.
The woman asks Char if she believes in the monster. Char seems surprised to have been asked, and hesitates before answering. “No,” she finally says, looking down. She asks Mandy, who smiles and shakes her head. The woman then turns to me. She is small and formless in her yellow sweatshirt and straight-legged blue jeans, her short hair a peppery gray. “How about you?”
It is hard to look a believer in the eye when you are about to reject her belief, but I hold her gaze. “I don’t, no.”
“Skeptics,” she says, in a teasingly accusatory tone. “Then why are you here?” Char and Mandy and I look at one another. Good question. Pheasants Forever, who I have just noticed is wearing a large diamond earring, brings up the coelacanth, a fish thought to have been extinct for 70 million years—until 1938, when one was caught in the Indian Ocean. I aver that there is a large difference between failing to find a monster people have spent decades looking for in a closed marine system and the accidental discovery in the open ocean of a relatively small fish that no one knew existed. I would be a lot more willing to believe in the monster, I say, if it lived in the ocean rather than Loch Ness.
Pheasants Forever looks out at the water, and my eyes follow his. Some of the loch is gray, some of it blue, some of it black, all of it popping with the low fireworks of reflected sunlight.
* * * *
At Inverness’s Mail Boxes Etc., I log onto British Airways’ baggage-tracking website to determine which dimension, if any, my missing luggage currently occupies. It has not yet been located. While I sit and stare disconsolately at the screen, the large, thick-forearmed man behind the counter asks me what brings me to the Highlands, and I tell him. He admits that he usually tells tourists he believes in the monster, especially American and Japanese tourists, who have been known to evangelize on the topic, but in truth, “It’s all a steaming shite heap, and you can quote me.”
We head back to Drumnadrochit as ovals of dusky golden light drift across the countryside, lighting up trees and valleys like Tiffany lamps. The cumulus clouds have the look of impregnable white castles, the hills before them serrated green ramparts. There is something lushly sterile about the Scottish countryside, an opulent harshness.
Char is entertaining me with her many accents—highborn Brit, Scottish Highlander, German baroness, Irish drunk, American know-nothing—when Mandy shushes us and turns up the radio. One of the alleged 8/10 bombers, the broadcaster informs us, is an English convert to Islam. “English,” in this context, obviously means Anglo-Saxon. And so the virus has jumped hosts, capable of infecting even those with no ethnic or cultural entry in the encyclopedia of grievances that is modern Islam.
Mandy twists off the radio, and after a few minutes we have all established where around this issue we sit on stakeout. Char argues that in practical terms there is little to no moral difference between suicide-bombing airliners and shelling areas in which civilians live. Mandy concedes that Islam may have a uniquely tormented relationship to suicide bombing, but believes the 8/10 allegations are at least partially fabricated to frighten the British public into supporting Blair. My view: Khobar Towers, the African embassies, the USS Cole, the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, Madrid, London—how many people have to die before we on the Left consider the possibility that radical Islam might actually be a problem in and of itself, independent of the bugbears of contemporary liberalism?
“The problem,” Mandy says, “is that they have all the radicalism. On our side there’s no radicalism left. We used to go out there with bolt cutters and wreck stuff. Now all we do is paint our bedrooms beige.”
Char finds another lay-by and we walk down to one of Loch Ness’s few gravel beaches. Most of the loch’s shoreline is too forested, rocky, or steep to be enjoyed by human beings, and a boat launch or dock distinguishes nearly every traversable bight or inlet. We find standing along the shore here an Adidas tracksuit–wearing couple, both of whom are drinking from beer bottles the size, shape, and color of a Neanderthal’s club. “Seen Nessie?” Char calls to them. “Maybe in one or two or ten years,” the woman says. We talk for a little while: how pretty the loch is, where they are from (“Nuremberg. Have you heard of it?”), Drumnadrochit’s Tribeca-priced restaurants. Their boys, for whom they have made this trip, are farther down the beach. They seem a little old to be interested in the Loch Ness Monster. Soon enough they walk over and come fully into view, and I understand why the Loch Ness Monster has retained their teenage interest. Neither of these tall, fat, pimply, long-haired Bavarian boys is going to be getting laid anytime soon, unless he learns how to play the guitar, and even then I have my doubts. They are nice kids, though, and we try to skip some rocks together. Unfortunately, the rocks here are not skippable. I am unable to find a single flat, smooth rock—owing, I suppose, to the utterly different geological history than that of my rock-skipping homeland in coastal Michigan. The only nice thing about these rocks is their colors: pink, slate blue, light orange, lilac. They almost look candied.
The boys rejoin their parents, who greet them by holding up two enormous beers. We walk on down the beach and eventually come across a huge scorched log washed up on the shore. Seized by an idea, I begin to push the log deeper into the water. Char, going above and beyond, takes off her pink sandals and rolls up her pants and wades into the water—which she says is warmer than she was anticipating—while dragging the log out with her. Once the thing’s basic seaworthiness is established she gets behind it and pushes. Our log—with a curve that vaguely resembles a plesiosaur neck—sails out to its destiny. Meanwhile Mandy takes pictures of it, already enumerating what she will buy with the tabloid money. I then notice Char inspecting a nasty bruise on her calf, which she earned moving the log. “The bite of Nessie,” she says with satisfaction. I stare down the neck of the loch, wondering how far our log will travel. Although the loch is only a mile wide, it is 52 miles long. It is a calm day, a monster day. Maybe it will float all the way to Fort Augustus. The weather is pressing down on us now, and farther out the loch has clogged with thick fog.
Walking back, Mandy spots something on a shoreline rock. We watch her approach the rock and squat down, a position she maintains for several seconds. In an aggrieved, weakened voice, she calls us over. When we are halfway to her she stands and turns, holding a bouquet of sunflowers. She hands Char the note that was attached to the flowers, and then Char hands it to me. “Dearest Dennis,” it reads. “I will miss you. You’ll be forever in my heart. With love always, Trudi.” None of us bothers to speculate about Dennis’s fate, and, a little shaken, we finally head back. Right before the beach is out of view, I turn and look back on it. A man has set up a tripod and is photographing the loch. Actually, if I am not mistaken, he is photographing our log.
* * * *
The next day we decide to visit the Loch Ness Lodge’s Loch Ness 2003 Monster Exhibition Centre and watch its film about the monster. On the walk over the Highland air has a dense coolness to it not unlike chilled meat. Char says this is not normal for August. The Highlands, it seems, are suffering something of a cold snap—what the BBC’s meteorologist referred to last night as “jumper weather.” Out in front of the Loch Ness 2003 Monster Exhibition Centre is a big plaster monster with three humps, as well as a green picnic table, where some rough young men in camouflage pants slurringly curse one another over a dozen empty bottles of Orkney Island SkullSplitter, also known, by its manufacturer’s own admission, as “hangover in a bottle.” It is 9:15 a.m.
The sign just inside the Loch Ness 2003 Monster Exhibition Centre promises quite a bit: “This is a wonderful opportunity to view in a short space of time all the history and mystery of LOCH NESS, see the MONSTER[,] swim Loch Ness [?], and then . . . be the judge.” We have already been told that Adrian Shine’s film is a Frontline episode compared to what we are about to watch, and I ask the lady at the ticket booth which film is better. “Ours is different,” she says.
“It’s very different.”
We enter the Loch Ness Cinema. No educational walk-through here: this film is viewed in old-fashioned movie-house grandeur. They have actually done a nice job with this. Mounted on the walls are a few dozen fake gaslights, each tricked out with a bit of red cloth blown up by a miniature fan to simulate fire. We wait for more people to wander in, but as the lights go down Mandy and Char and I are the Loch Ness Cinema’s only patrons.
The narrator of this film is named Gary Campbell. He wears a large, puffy white shirt that looks to have been ironed several thousand times, a green kilt, and not a trace of shame. Apparently no one told Gary Campbell that it is not a good idea to emphasize every single word with one’s hands while addressing the camera, and I begin to wonder if he is providing his own running translation for the hearing-impaired. This would actually not be a bad idea, since his Scottish accent leaves me unable to understand much of what he is saying. He speaks of the monster’s first sighting, by Saint Columba in the sixth century, as having “laeft a meestery thattis gdater steel.” Saint Columba’s run-in with the monster is often cited as among the more ironclad sightings. Problem #1: The story of Saint Columba’s sighting was written one hundred years after it was supposed to have occurred. Problem #2: The story does not even take place in Loch Ness. Problem #3: The seventh century was not known for its skepticism. The Saint Columba story is followed by some porn-quality video footage of the loch. As for the surgeon’s photo, Campbell does not mention the hoax, but does say it “huz saenz baecoomb the soobjaect oov intaense debaet.”
Afterward, we visit the museum, and I find that a famously brazen hoax photo from 1977 of the monster’s head peeking out of the water is captioned with the following: “This superb coloured print clearly reveals the evidence of the existence of Nessie.” What the print actually clearly reveals is the monster’s evolutionary descent from Gonzo, Dr. Teeth, and Fozzie. Nearby is the famous three-humped monster photo, taken in 1951 by a Forestry Commission employee who lived on the loch, long considered one of the most unassailable figures in monster-sighting history. At least one investigator called this “the most important” photo of the monster ever taken. In the late 1980s it was revealed that the three humps were hay bales covered by tarps. And then there is Father Gregory Brusey, a Benedictine monk, who claimed to have seen a plesiosaur-like animal in 1971. This, too, has been cited as “one of the most compelling pieces of evidence for the existence of the Loch Ness Monster.” That a priest might lie is apparently an unthinkable possibility. Even Adrian Shine is guilty of such misplaced trust. If there are no monsters, he has written, “then over one thousand people[,] including doctors, clergymen, M.P.s, civic dignitaries, not to mention a saint, may have lied: unthinkable.” I would like to live on Shine’s planet, where titles such as “doctor” or “father” transform those who hold them into icons of reliability. Some people who claim to have seen a monster in Loch Ness were simply mistaken. All of the others were almost certainly lying. This does not strike me as particularly hard to believe. Lying is among the least surprising, not to mention the least interesting, things people do.
These exhibits’ rattly plastic windows have not been washed in a decade; they are smudged with the credulous breath and stunned handprints of thousands. The museum quickly segues into a general showcase of cryptozoological balderdash: a still from the famous (faked) striding Bigfoot footage, a (hoax) photo of Lake Champlain’s Champ, but also some animals that, today, we all accept as real: the mountain gorilla (dismissed as legend until discovered in 1903), the megamouth shark (discovered off Oahu in 1976—only three live specimens of which have been seen since), the Komodo dragon (discovered in 1912), the okapi (discovered in 1901).
Mandy walks from one end of the museum to the other, looks around, and says, “This is more honest. There’s no science dressing this up. This has got circus.”
Char, equivocally: “But what if we’d never seen the other film?”
“Then I’d know a little less about fish bladders. I like the audaciousness of all this. This is how I’d do it.”
* * * *
The last thing we want to do before leaving Loch Ness is take a boat ride out to Urquhart Castle. The boats leave from the dock at the Clansman Hotel, where we decide to have a cup of tea. “I’ve decided,” Mandy says, as she dunks her teabag, “that Nessie is close enough to a fairy tale for it to be something special. It can be true without being real.”
Char shakes her head. “No. I think people like being one up on all these fancy scientists, especially in a place as small as Scotland.” When the waitress comes to clear our cups, Char asks her, “Is it bemusing to you that hundreds of thousands of people travel all this way to see something that doesn’t exist?”
The waitress looks at all of us, then sighs. “In a word, yes. If another person asks me if I’ve ever seen the monster I’m going to scream. But Nessie pays my mortgage.”
Our boat ride commences in sprinkly rain, beneath a cement sky, upon a blackboard of water. The captain of the Jacobite Spirit begins our voyage by handing out Nessie buttons to the ship’s under-10 constituency. The monster on these buttons is purple, its most popular alternative color. I stand at the gunwale. The ship’s side wake, atop the black water, is as startlingly white as the foam atop a pint of stout. The captain suddenly announces that the loch is so big and deep that it could hold the entire world’s population—an image that strikes me as both improbable and Holocaustian. (Later research will back up the captain’s claim.)
The battered, stately tower of Urquhart Castle comes into view. The castle is featured in several of the most famous monster photos, and even turns up in In Search of . . .’s opening credits. I had long assumed this monster-castle synergy was due to the general lack of imagination (funnily enough) on the part of the hoaxers, but in fact the waters off the edge of Urquhart Castle are close to 800 feet deep. (The deepest point of Loch Ness, astonishingly, may be 850 feet.) If a monster were going to live anywhere in the loch, it would be here. The captain calls the area we are about to cruise into “the most mysterious stretch of water in the world.” On cue we drift into a curtain of fog and rain.
Next to me is an older Japanese woman wearing a sky-blue rain slicker and thick purple eye shadow. She leans out over gunwale, saying, “Nessie! Nessie Nessie Nessie!” She notices me staring at her, then giggles. “Nessie is sleeping!”
Char asks the woman if she is here specifically for Nessie.
“Yes!” she says, in a girlish tone of voice. “Nessie is very popular in Japan.”
“Why is Nessie so popular in Japan?” Char asks.
“Because we are scientists.” And with that she goes back to staring at the water.
We arrive at Urquhart Castle, which is basically a facade surrounded by a grassy esplanade, at the far end of which stands a reconstructed catapult. Mandy and Char walk over to explore the castle but I visit the gift shop. Because Urquhart Castle is a registered Scottish landmark, the monster’s offshore residence is noticeably played down. What I do find are books with titles such as Scottish Ghost Stories and biographies of Robert the Bruce and clan-booklet genealogies for family names such as MacNab, MacNeil, MacKenzie, MacInnes, Burns, Cameron, Gray, Cummings, Wallace, and, yes, Urquhart. One clan booklet’s last sentence reads thus: “It’s a story that makes this clan one of the oldest and most respected in Scotland.” Another: “It’s a great expression and it was coined by one of Scotland’s greatest clans.”
After a while I sit at the dock and wait for Mandy and Char. Luckily I have along with me Richard Ellis’s Monsters of the Sea. I reread the following passage:
Unfortunately, the very circumstances that make Nessie watching so popular (the availability of suitable vantage points; the limited size of the lake) are likely to be the undoing of the monster stories. If the creature is a plesiosaur, then it has to surface to breathe, like a whale. If, on the other hand, it is some sort of fish, it could remain permanently submerged, but the idea of a 60-foot-long fish with a long neck and a small head has never been seriously proposed. (There is no fish that has a neck.) That leaves the invertebrates—the worms and slugs—and while there are indeed gigantic invertebrates (the giant squid is one), the idea of a 50-foot eel or a 60-foot slug does not fall comfortably into any scientific frame of reference currently employed.
Yet, as Ellis reminds us, the Loch Ness Monster would be no weirder than many animals we do know exist. The fifty-foot-long giant squid, with its dinner-plate-sized eyes. The wormlike oarfish, with its coral-red dorsal fin that runs the length of its twenty-foot-long body. The Indo-Pacific beaked whale, also known as the rarest animal in the world, whose existence hinged upon two recovered skeletons in Somalia and New Zealand. Or how about the truly startling fact that free-swimming whales were not photographed until 1975? So there is hope. There is hope: the thought actually crosses my mind.
On the ride back I note that, below decks, drams of whiskey are available. I order one, which tastes like smoked meat filtered through Listerine. While I nurse my dram, sinking into the briar of a strangely foul mood, Char strikes up conversation with an attractive young Frenchwoman here with her curly-haired, seven-year-old twins. “Do your children like the monster?” Char asks her.
The Frenchwoman looks over at Char, then laughs. “Of course, yes. Why else would I be here?”
“Do you believe in the monster?” Char asks one of the twins, whose head sinks shyly into his coat.
The woman translates, and the both boys answer with a quick shouted sentence. She looks at Char and laughs again. “They love the monster.”
“What do you think?” Mandy asks. “Do you believe?”
She pulls one of her sons onto her lap. “I think there are many ideas here and not all can be correct.”
* * * *
Later, after Mandy and Char have gone home, I check out of the Drumnadrochit Hotel. The hotel’s disarmingly youthful owner, Robbie, whose family has run this hotel for decades, swipes my credit card and asks if I have had a good time. “Well,” I say, “I never saw the monster. But then why would I, since it doesn’t exist.”
Robbie looks at me. “That all depends. I know plenty of people—fisherman, boat crewmen—who’ve seen something strange in the loch. They don’t see a long-necked plesiosaur, no, but they all agree that it’s about fifteen feet long, black, fast moving, and indistinct. Now, is it a manatee that escapes in and out of the loch? Is it a big fish? I don’t know. But there’s definitely something there. I know too many people who’ve seen it. They’ll never talk to the press about it. I wish they would, but they won’t.”
For a moment I am unable to speak. “That’s Adrian Shine’s theory, right? That it’s a big sturgeon?”
Robbie hands me my credit card. “Adrian and I have had many an interesting discussion.”
On the way to Inverness, I think about Robbie. Is he crazy? He may be crazy. But he did not seem crazy. In fact he seemed utterly rational. I think about what would happen to this area if it were finally, conclusively established that no monsters live in Loch Ness. I think about, and instantly recoil from, the Loch Ness Sturgeon. I think: There is no monster. I think: Nessie is sleeping. I think about the children I have heard about, who walk out of Adrian Shine’s film crying. I think about Pliny, who believed in “Meremaids.” I think about Columbus, whose shipboard diary refers to “sirens.” I think about how myth bleeds into science, how science circles back to myth, and I think that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio . . .
I try to remember the day I stopped believing in the Loch Ness Monster, the day I realized heaven and earth provided more than enough to think about. I cannot, which seems strange. I have never regretted my obsession with the Loch Ness Monster. A strong belief in UFOs, say, is somehow contaminating, so many of its paths leading into the intellectual urinal of conspiracy and cover-up. Belief in the hard-core paranormal is not something one grows out of but something one is reduced to. Accepting the Loch Ness Monster’s existence, on the other hand, did not mean signing on to any particular pathology, except possibly that of optimism. The Loch Ness Monster made the world a little stranger, a little more wonderful.
I finally remember, for the first time in a long time, the day in third grade when, during recess, Chris Burkland announced that Santa Claus did not exist. His brother had told him so. I stepped forward, rationally explaining how the man had been eating the cookies and drinking the milk I left out for him for years now. Chris Burkland would not back down. Neither would I. It came to blows. When my teacher learned of the cause of our fight she visibly blanched. Even though it was the middle of the day, my father was called. I was still crying when he picked me up, still infuriated. On that short, very long ride home, something about my father’s silence kept me from asking the question I suddenly knew the answer to. And how strange that was. The people I loved most, the entire culture I lived in, had systematically set out to deceive me, and I had no idea why. The confusing, unfamiliar way in which this hurt, my desire to believe in something that part of me always knew was not real and could not be real—I remember it so clearly.