Happy birthday, Nessie – the legend lives on

SWATHED in mist, the grainy image depicts the brooding water of Loch Ness and captures the exact moment the Nessie legend was born.

It is 75 years since the mysterious shape was first photographed and more than 1,000 people have been spurred on by the iconic picture, claiming to have caught a glimpse of the world's most elusive monster.

References to a creature in Loch Ness date back to St Columba's biography in 565, but the myth only took hold in the modern era after reports of a strange object and then a series of inexplicable photographs appeared in the press during the 1930s.

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It was this picture, snapped by Hugh Gray on 12 November, 1933, that is credited as being the first photographic evidence of the Loch Ness monster.

Adrian Shine, designer of the Loch Ness Exhibition, has led many scientific studies to the depths of the loch but has not found evidence of a monster.

"In terms of starting the trail of classic photos from the 1930s to the late 1950s, it was the first," he said. "But it is very difficult to interpret. Some have speculated that it was a double exposure of a Labrador with a stick."

Over the years, local rumours reinforced ancient Scottish myths about water creatures called "kelpies" and the "each uisge", or water horse.

In the 1930s, talk of the monster reached fever pitch and Nessie-hunting took hold after a string of sightings. It was reported that circus impresario Bertram Mills offered 20,000 to anyone who could capture the monster for his circus, sparking international interest.

In 1933, a newspaper hired a big-game hunter, Marmaduke Wetherell, to track down the monster and he claimed to have uncovered its enormous footprints by the banks of the loch. However, researchers from London's Natural History Museum declared the tracks fakes.

Nessie was in the news again after a smudgy photograph was apparently taken by a London surgeon, Colonel Robert Wilson, purporting to show a slender head and neck rising out of the water. Published in 1934, the "surgeon's photo" became an international sensation and was for decades the best evidence of the presence of a sea monster.

But in 1994, the truth finally emerged when Christian Spurling, 90, Mr Wetherell's stepson, confessed to his part in a plot involving both Col Wilson and Mr Wetherell to fake the "surgeon's photo" using a toy submarine fitted with a sea-serpent's head.

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After the advent of colour photography, Nessie photographs stopped appearing.

A ten-year project to analyse the surface of the loch in the 1960s turned up no evidence of a monster. But sonar expeditions and the hi-tech 1987 Operation Deepscan reported several unidentified moving objects.

The appeal of Nessie is as strong as ever, with tourists heading to the loch as part of a multimillion-pound industry.

A spokeswoman for VisitScotland said those early pictures of Nessie had captured the imagination of thousands of visitors and contributed to the enduring phenomenon.

"Nessie still has a lot of appeal," she said. "The first picture had a kind of snowball effect in terms of the myth.

"These photographs put a solid image in people's minds."

Loch bids for World Heritage status

A CAMPAIGN to secure World Heritage status for Loch Ness was launched yesterday.

While Nessie, the world-famous monster, may be its top draw, it is the loch's other attractions – particularly the outstanding natural beauty of its landscape – that are being used to spearhead the campaign.

The independent tourism group Destination Loch Ness (DLN) wants Britain's largest area of fresh water designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco.

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If approved, Loch Ness would join 162 sites across the world that are on the World Heritage Committee's list because of their outstanding universal value. These include the Great Barrier Reef, the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, the Galapagos Islands and St Kilda.

Yesterday, at a special briefing on the shores of the loch, it was revealed that DLN had recruited Professor Terry Stevens, who has managed three World Heritage Sites, and View Marketing, a leading consultant, to provide strategic advice to the campaign and secure support, funding and sponsorship.

Independent research, commissioned by DLN earlier this year, found that, if successful, the bid for World Heritage status would result in an estimated economic boost for the area of 25 million over the first three years, and create up to 300 full-time jobs.

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