Peter Rogerson looks back on his first encounter with everyone's favorite cryptobeast and the books that sowed the seeds of doubt.
Tim Dinsdale. Loch Ness Monster. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961.
Maurice Burton. The Elusive Monster: An Analysis of the Evidence from Loch Ness. Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961.
Nessie would have been 80 this year if she had still be around as a living legend, but of all the old standard Fortean phenomena she is the one that has been most comprehensively debunked, mainly by the combined efforts of Ronald Binns, Steuart Campbell, Adrian Shine and Christopher Spurling. Things were not always thus, and here are two books that I first read back in 1963, when the LNM appeared to be alive and well.
Dinsdale’s was, I think, the first book on the LNM that I read, probably in late spring or early summer 1963. It all looked very convincing, after all Dinsdale was an aeronautical engineer, which must mean he was someone reliable. He read about the LNM in a magazine, and decided to investigate for himself. In a week-long trip to the Loch he met witnesses and more importantly he took a film of the thing. There were other photographs also, including the famous Surgeon’s Photograph, which Dinsdale examined and proved was genuine (he was an engineer after all) and a close-up of the beastie taken by a Mr O’Connor, who Dinsdale thought was terribly sincere.
And there was the eyewitness testimony. Of course this tended to disagree in places, but that was alright because there were several monsters of various sizes, and if not exactly shape-shifters, could change the number of humps on their backs by some process.
Dinsdale followed the path taken by Rupert T. Gould and Constance Whyte, whose books I was to encounter in later years, he gave eyewitness testimony, he mentioned traditions, and he gave brief accounts of sea serpents and monsters in other lakes. It seemed all so real, and so I was hooked. I probably agreed with Dinsdale that the LNMs were plesiosaurs, and dreamed of going on holiday to Loch Ness to see the beasties for myself.
Looking back on this book after 50 years, the cracks are more obvious, Dinsdale greatly overestimated his ability to read photographs, to read people and greatly underestimated the role of misperception in all of these fields. The idea that the LNM was some sort of prehistoric monster became the default position among the Nessieologists, and anyone who disagreed was a debunker.
One such was Maurice Burton, formerly on the staff of the Natural History Museum, and an author who had several times skirted the edges of what was to become known as cryptozoology. Burton had earlier been a supporter of the idea that LNM was a plesiosaur, so his defection from that position, to that argued in this book, that most sightings of Nessie were due to mats of rotting vegetation forced to the surface by gasses didn’t go down too well. He became to Nessie believers what Donald Menzel came to be to ufologists, the bête noire that they loved to hate. Obviously his change of view had to have some sinister motivation, either he had lost his nerve, or was part of the establishment, or they had got at him.
I don’t think that I was terribly impressed with Burton’s conclusions at the time, and in retrospect he, like Menzel, was too quick to jump to a catch-all explanation, rather than accepting that Nessie reports were generated by lots of different things. He did concede this to a point, he regarded Dinsdale’s film as being that of a boat, argued the O’Connor photograph was a fake, and put down some sightings to deer. His main argument was that the descriptions of Nessie in many cases were just not compatible with those of a living creature, and he based this on a detailed study of the more reliable descriptions available at the time.
The great sceptic was in fact not all that sceptical, he accepted the Surgeon’s photograph (now known to be a fake) at face value, and also accepted the various tales of the beast being seen on land. From these stories and some others he speculated that some Nessie stories were generated by giant long necked otters. Evidence for these has not yet been forthcoming.
As time went on, the evidence began to fade, first one photograph then another was discredited, it became clear that the LNM story had started as a publicity stunt, and then sheer weight of time dragged the beastie down. 30 years, 40 years, 50 years, 60 years, 70 years, 80 years without any definitive evidence, not a single carcass, and this from a finite location. Ultimately a psycho-social type of explanation for the sightings became much more likely.
Behind all of these stories, was the idea of something prehistoric, archaic and deeply “other” emerging from deep, dark depths. It is, I suspect, not entirely a coincidence that this myth was born in the year that Adolf Hitler came to power.