Steuart Campbell: Say goodbye to Loch Ness mystery

TOMORROW is the 80th anniversary of the first sighting of the Loch Ness Monster. Steuart Campbell debunks the myth with a scientific explanation

Eighty years ago tomorrow, the afternoon was sunny, cool and calm around Loch Ness when Aldie Mackay and her husband John were driving home from Inverness to Drumnadrochit, where they managed the hotel.

They were on the A82, near the seven-mile stone just beyond Lochend at the narrow, north end of Loch Ness. Aldie was looking out across the calm water, when she noticed what she thought was “an enormous creature with the body of a whale rolling in the water”. She yelled for her husband to stop the car, but, by the time he had done so, all he could see were ripples.

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It is reported that, as the commotion subsided, a big wake spread across the water towards Aldourie Pier on the opposite shore. Then, about halfway across, two black humps emerged, moving in line, the rear one somewhat larger than the front one. They moved forward in a rolling motion like whales or porpoises, but with no fins visible, rising and sinking in an undulating manner. Then the objects turned sharply to port (left) and, after describing a half circle, suddenly sank with considerable commotion.

The Mackay’s experience soon reached Alex Campbell, the water bailiff in Fort Augustus, who reported it to the local newspaper, the Inverness Courier. In his sensational report of 2 May, 1933, then editor Evan Barron described what had been see as a “monster” and the modern legend of Nessie was born.

Aldie’s immediate conclusion was that they had seen “the beast”, a reference to the legendary water kelpie or water horse that had long been reported to inhabit Loch Ness.

Kelpies were believed to be evil spirits that took a delight in luring travellers to their death by drowning. Because this explained why people drowned in lakes, the myth may have originated from a need to explain such drowning. Often the body never reappeared, leading to the conclusion that it had been taken to some other world, perhaps the “underworld” that prehistoric peoples saw reflected in a lake’s calm surface. It was believed that, while mankind possessed the land, water was the preserve of this other-world. There was a similar belief about every Scottish lake, but because of the size of Loch Ness, its kelpie was thought to be the biggest.

Since that first glimpse in 1933, there have been many more claimed sightings of Nessie, but also many sources of deception. Among them are animals such as otters, deer, seals, ducks, as well as boats, logs and vegetable mats. There have also been many hoaxes, starting with Marmaduke Wetherall’s spoof footprints in December 1933, created with the use of the stuffed foot of a hippopotamus. The next year, Wetherall and his son appear to have been responsible for the notorious “Surgeon’s Photograph”, now believed to show a toy submarine modified by the addition of a head and neck.

There was also a sonar hoax, when, in 1959, the crew of a fishing vessel “created” Nessie on their sonar chart. Sonar can be deceptive. In the 1970s, the (US) Academy of Applied Science mistook sonar reflections in Urquhart Bay and elsewhere for Nessie.

So, how do we explain this phenomenon? Surveys have shown that the predominant cause of reports of Nessie has been wake effects, necessarily only evident on a calm surface in what monster hunters naively call “Nessie weather”.

In rough weather, boat wakes are very soon broken up and dispersed by the waves. However, in calm conditions they persist and are very prominent, often displaying a series of wave tops.

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Such wakes can travel large distances and, on a lake, can be reflected back from the shores, interacting with each other, producing an interference effect, sometimes called a standing wave, far away from the boat responsible. Such a phenomenon is certainly seen on Loch Ness. In 1960, Bruce Ing witnessed such an occurrence, making a sketch afterwards, which was reproduced in The Scotsman.

Because the hump is the product of intersecting wakes, the “object” can appear to move on its own and produce its own wake, as if it were an animal making its own way along the lake. Researchers Peter Baker and Mark Westwood noticed that such a hump, after appearing to remain stationary for some time, would suddenly leap forward across the water, giving the impression of a bow wave and following wake.

They noticed that impressive “monsters” with one or more humps were formed and that the effect occurred up to half an hour after a boat had passed. In spite of regular traffic through the lake, it was rare enough to take even the most experienced observers by surprise. The researchers concluded that it was most likely that all the multi-humped Nessies were really such wake effects.

British Waterways’ chief engineer in Scotland (RB Davenport) had seen Nessie-like wave interference effects on Loch Ness. He noticed that an “eruption of humps” occurred when the outgoing wake of a craft intersected the return wake when the craft turned.

It could also occur when the wakes of two craft, travelling in opposite directions, met. A vessel’s stern wave also causes a “trail of obedient humps which seem to be towed by the vessel”.

Conditions on 14 April, 1933, were ideal for such a wake to travel up or down Loch Ness, so it is necessary to consider this as an explanation for what the Mackays reported. However, one has to ask what boat movement on that day could have created the disturbance seen?

One of the major causes of Nessie-like wakes on Loch Ness was British Waterways’ converted ice-breaker tug Scot II, which operated on the Caledonian Canal from 1931, carrying tourists from Muirtown in Inverness to Urquhart Bay and back.

It operated from April to September. It was almost certainly the cause of the object reported as Nessie in Urquhart Bay by Alastair Boyd in 1979.

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Scott II’s ice-breaker hull made it especially prone to producing powerful wakes, especially when stopping or manoeuvring. Although this ship was taken out of the water in 1991, there are plans to refloat it and put it back into operation.

I conclude that the Mackays saw Scot II’s wakes interacting as they collided with the shores of the narrower north-east end of Loch Ness and that the only monster in the lake at the time was Scot II.

• Steuart Campbell is a science writer and the author of The Loch Ness Monster: The Evidence (published by Birlinn)