6 February 2016


Gareth Williams. A Monstrous Commotion: The Mysteries of Loch Ness. Orion, 2015.

First things first, this is not really a book about whether the Loch Ness Monster exists or not. It’s much more Magonian than that. It’s about the people who have seen, hunted and believed in the Monster and how they have created and directed the phenomenon.
By far the most exotic life forms we meet in this survey are the remarkable collection of characters who have searched for the monster from the days when it first came to national and international attention in the 1930s, largely via the pages of the Inverness Courier and its wildlife correspondent who seemed to keep a vary careful eye on the waters of the Loch.

In fact this was Alex Campbell, a water bailiff for the Ness Fisheries Board, and regular contributor to the Courier. Campbell is central to the development of the Ness Mystery and seems to fill the role that Arthur Shuttlewood did for the Warminster Mystery - the authoritative local, feet firmly on the ground, who knew everything and everyone around the Loch. It was Campbell who reported the sightings of the often anonymous witnesses to the early sightings of the monster.

It was not long before these reports began to drawn interested outsiders. Probably the first was Rupert Gould, famed as the restorer of the historic Harrison’s Chronometer at the National Maritime museum, and author of the proto-Fortean collections Oddities and Enigmas, as well as The Case for the Sea Serpent, and of course it was his research for the latter which provoked his interest in the Loch and coloured his conclusions.

Gould’s trip was financed by another colourful character, Dundee marmalade millionaire Alexander Kieller, described by Williams as being “fond of sex, sometimes on a near industrial scale”. Not surprisingly he was chummy with another character who was spending some time at Loch Ness, Aleister Crowley, who gained extra notoriety by complaining to the local police committee about the scarcity of prostitutes in the locality.

The famous ‘Surgeon’s photograph’ of 1933 brought a burst of publicity when it was published in the Daily Mail on its front page, and soon the elusive creature was infiltrating popular culture, with the first books on the subject being published and the creature appearing in films and even ladies’ fashions. Elite culture was less enamoured when it was announced that the dragon Fafnir, in Covent Garden’s production of Siegfried would be redesigned to resemble the Monster.

Gould’s book The Loch Ness Monster and Others, appeared in 1934 and made it clear that he thougth the Loch Ness creature was linked to the sea-monsters he had previous written about, but a rival book by retired army colonel W. H. Lane, claimed that it was a giant salamander such as those from the mountains of Burma. After all, Lane had been out East and seen a thing or two!

The monster was soon becoming something of a celebrity, questions were being asked in Parliament, and the Inverness Chief Constable was concerned that his officers might be unable to protect the creature in the event of an attack on it. Its credibility grew with the discovery of a ‘living fossil’, the Coelacanth, in 1938, giving hope that creatures once thought extinct might still be lurking around in the deeps.

But the Monster seemed too frivolous and did not really belong in the dark atmosphere of World War II. Sightings and interest dropped like a stone into the Loch’s unfeasible depths. But after the war, a new era brought it into the spotlight again. Radio and later television was showing the wonders of nature to a mass audience, and one of the programmes that did this was a radio show called The Naturalist, featuring an ornithologist and wildlife artist called Peter Scott, son of the great Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott.

Scott claimed that his interest in the Monster was aroused by the book More Than a Legend, by Constance Whyte, a (non-practising) doctor who lived near the Loch, which recorded dozens of sightings and aroused public interest in the beast from its post-war slumber. In fact he had been aware of the monster’s story for a long time, but his interest was awakened by a letter from an aeronautical engineer named Tim Dinsdale. This provoked a correspondence which drew Scott more deeply into the subject, leading him to set up a showing of a film Dinsdale had made allegedly of the monster to a panel of experts at London Zoo. They were not impressed.

Scott gave the monster a new notoriety when he proposed a scientific name for it - Nessiteras rhombopteryx - in the mistaken belief that this was necessary for the creature to be listed as a protected species. Although Scott was quite sincere about this, his reputation took a bit of a dive when the ‘eccentric’ (i.e. permanently pissed) MP Nicholas Fairbairn pointed out that the name was an anagram of "Monster hoax by Sir Peter S". Another MP, David James, took a more constructive approach and promoted the Monster in meetings at the House of Commons where Scott and Dinsdale were able to present their evidence.

Scott and Dinsdale continued to promote the cause of the Monster, or at least the idea that it was a topic suitable for serious scientific study. This led to Dinsdale devoting most of his life to the quest, through a number of books and the establishment of a permanent research centre on the banks of the Loch. Here he was joined by a gallery of characters devoted, with varying degrees of rationality to finding the elusive evidence.

There was Frank Searle who spent fifteen years by the Loch accompanied by, in the now legendary phrase, “a bevy of nubile female acolytes”. His main legacy seems to have been a collection of very dubious monster photographs and the enmity of every other Loch Ness investigator. Roy Mackal was an American professor of biochemistry who spent some time at the Loch as a ‘scientific adviser’ and writing a book about it, before heading off to the Congo to hunt for dinosaurs. Ufologists will recognise the name of ‘Ted’ Holiday, author of The Dragon and the Disc, linking the Monster and UFO mysteries, presenting Nessie as a multi-dimensional ‘tulpa’ with psychic powers.

Some serious scientific work did take place at the Loch, notably by Adrian Shine, whose careful investigation techniques revealed a great deal of very useful information about the topography and ecology of Ness and neighbouring waters but unfortunately little evidence towards demonstrating the existence of the Monster.

The resemblances between the search for the monster, and the activities of ‘serious ufologists’ are quite remarkable. We have various underwater searches with cameras, microphones, radar and sonar, all ambiguous and inconclusive, which remind me of the brave souls who spent long dreary nights on hilltops around Warminster with cameras and a range of instrumentation, of variable efficiency, looking for the elusive ’physical evidence’.

At Loch Ness as at Warminster a community developed, bringing both friendships and life-long enmities. People moved homes and jobs to be close to their magic location.

There are the same problems of the assessing the value of eye-witness testimony, and the same dangers of underestimating the likelihood of hoaxing. Long-standing cases crumble under the harsh glare of hindsight.

Gareth Williams ‘Last Word’ sums up the frailty of the evidence for the Monster in a sentence which echoes Magonia’s ufological conclusion: “The Loch Ness Monster that thousands of people have seen, photographed, filmed and echo sounded is not a single entity, but a rag-bag stuffed with non-monstrous animals, tricks of nature and hoaxes.“

Earlier I compared Alex Campbell, the water bailiff for the Loch, to Arthur Shuttlewood, the doyen of the Warminster phenomenon. Did his journalism, like Arthur’s, shape the phenomenon, seeding its earliest manifestations with a little imagination, allowing a vague report to come to life in the mind of his readers and listeners? Williams’ careful re-evaluation of the earliest reports suggest that without the encouragement and enthusiasm of the man on the spot the mystery may have been still-born.

This is an important book, perhaps the first true social history of the Loch Ness phenomenon, and reveals the human side of the mystery. There is tragedy here - the expert from the Natural History Museum whose career was wrecked by his monster-hunting; and humour - trying to catch the creature with an ox carcass baiting a giant fishing line, as well as the rather unconvincing footprint made using a rhinoceros-foot umbrella stand. Between the hoaxing and the madness though there was also some serious scientific method being utilised, and ultimately although a lot of dreams were shattered, the hope still remains.

An essential and enjoyable read for all Magonians. -- John Rimmer

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