A letter from Loch Ness

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IT IS September, and the end of the tourist season is upon us. It has been a very good year by most measures - save one. Sightings of the Loch Ness Monster were nearly absent. I detected only three appearances. All lacked drama or conviction. The BBC even broadcast a programme saying there is no beastie in the depths. Cheek.

Of course there is no Loch Ness Monster in the peaty waters. The monster swims in our imaginations. We need monsters to animate our minds.

I was privileged to befriend the man who invented the leviathan in the Great Glen. Alex Campbell was not only the water bailiff at Fort Augustus at the south end of Loch Ness, he was also the local stringer for the Inverness Courier. He confided it had been worse than a slow news week in 1933. There was absolutely no news, even on the shinty field.

He told me he decided to file his copy about seeing a strange and enormous creature from his row boat. Harmless fun and the source of happy my-mying and tut-tutting amongst the Courier’s readers.

Alex Campbell said he had not reckoned on the power of the media. If there was no news in Glengarry there was very little in Fleet Street. His innocent fraud was transmitted by the night sleeper by two young journalists who retold the glimpse of a monstrous reptile. Nessie has swum on ever since that exciting week.

The London press defined the enigma as very much like a plesiosaur. This was topical, not just because dinosaur skeletons were prominent at the Natural History Museum and everyone has a notion of these long-gone lumberers. More importantly the best fossil of a plesiosaur had just been found at Barrow. The real bones seemed to match the thrashing flesh reported up in the far north.

The suggestion his creation was a left-over from aeons before startled Alex Campbell. He told me he had no thoughts of a reptile nature and that he had indeed seen a monster caught in the canal basin at Fort Augustus earlier that spring. What had been trapped was a sturgeon.

They are rare in Scottish waters but not unknown. Their Caspian cousins can exceed 20 feet ... good enough to count as a monster to me. The struggling freelance said that he thought the sturgeon could only breed in the shallow bit of Loch Ness at Urquhart Bay by Drumnadrochit.

Alex Campbell alternated between wry amusement at the phenomenon he had created with the occasional feeling perhaps there was a big something at home 800 feet down. He preserved his dignity. He was not being a fraudster. He was being a reporter, or more kindly perhaps, a storyteller.

What Campbell had tapped into was our appetite for dragons. Of course the Gaels had their waterhorse myths and St Columba had demonstrated his saintlihood by admonishing a great kelpie in Loch Ness, according to his public relations adviser St Adamnan.

I take pleasure in recalling the last pair of Scottish beavers were killed on Loch Ness in the 1650s. I like the romance that a few survived to waddle across the view of gullible visitors. A family of beavers provide a perfect set of humps, though they can’t do serpent-like necks. The tourist bodies might invite beavers back into the waters.

It is banal of the Americans to sweep the loch with sonar and show there is very little life of any sort in the loch. Good manners should inhibit them. It is equally wrong-headed to say the Loch Ness Monster was devised by clever tourist marketing folk. They are not that bright. It was an accident. A glorious accident.

Take the monster away and the Highlands are much more dull. The biggest wild creature is the stag. It is noble but it has little mystery quality.

Just as the Stone of Destiny has lost its power to provoke now it is back in Edinburgh, so a freshly stuffed plesiosaur in the Museum in Chambers Street would have only a mild curiosity value. The essence of the monster is never to be caught in nets or on film. It exists just over the horizon of proof.

I think Alex Campbell should be feted amongst journalists. His creation was perhaps the best Scottish story of the 20th century. He was paid one shilling for his creation. That is footling but he also secured a kind of immortality no other journalist can.