May 19, 2013


by Nicholas Witchell
238 pages, Corgi Books

Review by Pat Black

The Loch Ness Monster: one of the strongest creatures in the world. Able to carry an entire tourist industry on its humpfy back.

Yes, with a little bit of sunlight on the way and Britain’s hard-working politicians weighing up what to do with their enormous summer break, silly season will soon be upon us. That used to mean news stories featuring the elusive beast in the title – a large animal that breaches the surface of Scotland’s Loch Ness every now and again, startling a surprisingly large number of guest house owners. Sometimes, a picture would be involved – always grainy, out-of-focus, indistinct. Something that could be a monster.  

Nowadays, there are far fewer Nessie stories in the papers, but some tabloid reporters and editors still bite whenever a leaping fish, a rotten tree stump, a gaseous belch from the depths or even a jobbie makes for a convincing enough page 5 photo. The mystery endures.

Nicholas Witchell is a familiar face from BBC news. Incredibly ginger, he is now in the pre-retirement holding pen for many a distinguished journalist, otherwise known as “royal correspondent”. While he follows Wills, Harry, Kate, Charles and Camilla around on various junkets both at home and abroad, it’s easy to forget that he was a very big deal in the newsroom throughout the 1980s and 90s, anchoring prime-time bulletins and breaking stories. Indeed, he was one of the first reporters to confirm the news of Diana’s death in Paris. He has pissed off the Prince of Wales on occasion, so he is doing something right. At the very least he is holding true to George Orwell’s famous definition of good journalism: publishing material another person doesn’t want you to read.

Does the Loch Ness Monster believe in Nicholas Witchell? Maybe we’ll never know, but he’s probably one of the most well-known, and credible, Nessie hunters. This edition of his book, The Loch Ness Story, was printed in 1989, but it’s a revision of the book Witchell first wrote in the early 1970s when he was still in his teens. In reading through the early chapters, I was struck by the young Witchell’s romantic zeal, his desperation to turn up evidence of the legendary water horse. One summer during his undergraduate years, Witchell simply pitched up at Loch Ness, near the ruins of Castle Urquhart – a key location for Nessie-spotting – built a hut, and stayed there for the whole summer.

Now, we don’t know if that hut included proper toilet and washing facilities, and it may be wise to draw a discreet veil – or rather, a good quality acrylic curtain – over that side of the Loch Ness story. But what a brilliant endeavour! What balls! “I’m going up to Scotland to find Nessie, mum. I’ll be back in September.” Barely out of his teens, Witchell was soon taking part in subsequent scientific inquiries, as well as presenting talks on the creature, arguing in favour of there being an unknown family of animals in the peaty soup of Britain's biggest inland body of water by volume.

Witchell was a believer, and apart from a few good-natured jabs at Nessie photo fails of the past, the book is a sober attempt to gather facts, examine witness statements and engage in serious discussion over what the animal known as the Loch Ness Monster could be.

It’s lovely that he managed to get a book out of it and set his career up. But I do wonder what Nicholas Witchell thinks about Nessie now. In the book, he speaks of the epiphany of seeing for the first time the famous “Surgeon’s photograph” of 1934. You’ve almost certainly seen it: an uncharacteristically clear shot of a long-necked creature, moving serenely through the water. I used to feel the same as Witchell about that photo. In fact, as a boy I used it as incontrovertible proof that there was a monster in Loch Ness, flashing my copy of Usborne’s World of Unknown Monsters at scoffers and naysayers. “Look, it’s there, I tell ye! There’s a photo! How can you argue with that?”

Except of course, it seems that the photo was a hoax. Just a toy submarine, with a clay sculpture stuck on top. There is a grim, unintentional irony in reading Witchell’s rebuttals to sceptics, using this photo as a foundation stone for his conviction that Nessie exists.

Hey, for what it’s worth, Nicholas, I was gutted when I found out. There’s a part of me still in denial. “Well, the surgeon never said it was a fake when he was alive! You can’t prove it was a hoax! He may have had enemies whose offspring wanted to discredit him!”

Similarly, I find it difficult to get cynical about a number of other canonical pieces of photographic evidence – Robert Rines’ “flipper” photograph of the 1970s, or the equally famous Tim Dinsdale film footage. As part of Operation Deepscan in 1987, there were strange results taken from sonar sweeps of the loch, seeming to prove that there is something swimming around down there, “bigger than a shark, smaller than a whale”. Although Witchell comes across as no-one’s fool, and he is quick to point out and ridicule the more blatant frauds and hoaxes, we now have to wonder about the provenance of the more plausible manifestations of the creature. You can fake a photo. That’s for sure.

Although Witchell details the downright contempt of many members of the scientific community towards the search for Nessie, there were some who took up cudgels for the monster-hunters’ cause. Gerard Durrell and Sir Peter Scott provide forewords to this book, while the last word is left to zoologist Denys W. Tucker, who points out that the French naturalist Pierre Denys de Montfort was ridiculed by his 19th century peers for publishing papers on the existence of giant squid. Tucker hypothesises that the creature is some form of plesiosaurus, alive and well in the present day – an idea that still makes its way into picture books and movies about the creature.

The coelacanth analogy is drawn, which Tucker himself professed to be a little tired of even in the 1970s. “Hey, a coelacanth was thought to be extinct – but they found one! So why not a plesiosaurus?” runs the common argument. But a coelacanth is a fish, living in the ocean, where it is more easily concealed. Admittedly it was a fantastic find, a zoological bombshell. But if you want to look at another prehistoric fish which has survived to the present day almost unchanged by evolution, look at a shark. In fact, if you want to see a living prehistoric reptile, look at a crocodile. Flies, spiders and snakes haven’t changed their design much over the millennia, either. The commonplace notion of a species surviving over the ages more or less unchanged doesn’t quite fit the extraordinary circumstances necessary to support the idea of a large, lake-dwelling dinosaur still alive and well in Scotland.

The book’s a quick, entertaining jaunt, but the anecdotes are repetitive. There’s only so many ways you can inject a bit of excitement into the Nth description that goes something like: “There was a big splash, and then a long neck appeared in the water, followed by two or three humps. Then it was gone. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

To Witchell’s credit, he does wonder whether this points to there being a creature in the water which looks exactly as described, or whether it’s a form of confirmation bias (or autosuggestion, to borrow his diagnosis). In other words, you see a splash, a wake or indeed an object in the water, and because you’re so desperate to see a monster… well, you see a monster.

I should dearly like to own the painting which this book takes for its cover. It shows two “Nessies” just beneath the surface of the loch. There are long necks and giraffe-like heads topped with little space bopper-style protuberances. The creatures are benign, bovine. You’d swear one of them has an enigmatic wee smile on its face. The Monster Lisa?

They don’t look as if they’d eat you. Apart from Ferocious-Ness in The Family Ness, Nessie is often depicted as an unusually mild monster – and it’s usually referred to as a “she”. Terms of endearment. And maternal, too – a baby Nessie is often shown alongside a mummy Nessie. The Nessie myth must be among the most beloved in the world.

It’s curious that the story is only really 80 years old. We know of Saint Columba’s brush with the monster in Loch Ness in 565AD, but he’s not the first saint to have been mythologised as having defeated some kind of serpent. There is bugger all else about Nessie until 1933, when a road was constructed along the shores of the loch. Soon, reports about some strange animal in the water began to flood in. Then came the game-changer; the Surgeon’s photograph. From there, the national press got involved, and the rest is history.

How ironic, then, that just as the explosion of photography in the popular press made the myth, the ubiquity of mobile phones has almost killed it. Ditto ghosts, Bigfoot and UFOs. Surely if these things appeared in real life, then they’d be documented all the time? If I saw Nessie tomorrow I could have crystal clear video footage and photography at the instant – and my phone ain’t all that. Thanks to technological advances, it’s actually harder to take one of those classic grainy page 5 tabloid photos than a nice clean, clear picture - unless you’ve got an App which dirties it up for you. In fact, there’s probably a “Nessiefier” which inserts the beast into any body of water you like.  

Our stories and myths are a necessary sacrifice before the altar of truth, rationality and progress, but… You know, there’s a wee bit of me that enjoys tall tales, irrationality and mythology. Witchell hits the nail on the head early on in the book when he points out that we need a little bit of mystery, intrigue or plain amusement to make our simple, unspectacular and sometimes boring lives that bit more bearable. I’m not sure if Witchell’s hut is still there on the shores of Loch Ness, or whether he – like a number of other people – still spends a lot of his spare time poised by the water, camera at the ready, hoping to find conclusive proof of Nessie’s existence. I’m hoping to go to Loch Ness soon. And you can bet I’ll be on the lookout. Even if the most cynical person in the world saw something breaching in Loch Ness, their camera would be clickin’.

The waters are still murky enough to support the legend. We don’t know exactly how deep the loch goes, or what’s in there. It’s hard to survey and study adequately. The water is impenetrably dark with peat, so visibility is practically nil. Some research has pointed towards the existence of vast caves, and there’s a suggestion that the loch was connected to the sea until very recently in geological terms. There is no proper explanation for those sonar results and scans which do point to some unidentified, large creature patrolling the depths. Perhaps the explosion in tourism in the region in the past 80 years with its boatloads of monster hunters has scared the beastie back into the depths? There’s still much that we don’t know. And hey – the Highlands is a wonderful place to visit, monster or no monster. The scenery is so beautiful that you might take your eye off the surface of the water, for that one crucial moment…

I was a passionate believer in the Loch Ness Monster when I was a wee boy. Well, time hardens our hearts, and tightens the cogs of our minds. But even now, the closest you’ll get to outright scepticism from me on the question of whether or not there’s a monster in Loch Ness is a shrug of the shoulders and a “who knows?”

But I know, and you know, there probably isn’t a Nessie.

Unless it’s a type of giant eel. Or a sturgeon. Or an oarfish. Because unknown species of fish have been found in Loch Ness before.

And while the Surgeon’s photograph may be discredited, I’d point you towards a less well-known image, taken by a man called PA Macnab in the summer of 1955. It shows Castle Urquhart near Drumnadrochit, and the composition is suspiciously discrete, but…

Well. If the image is undoctored, then I don’t know what the hell that thing in the water is. 

Who knows? 

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