Nessie’s enduring attraction

In A Monstrous Commotion, Gareth Williams describes the weird fraternity for whom finding the Loch Ness monster has become the ultimate grail

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

A Monstrous Commotion: The Mysteries of Loch Ness Gareth Williams

Orion, pp.400, £20, ISBN: 9781409158738

It wasn’t until I drove past Loch Ness a couple of years ago that I realised just how enormous it is. Over 20 miles long and deep enough to hide Blackpool Tower, it could hold the water from all the lakes in England and Wales combined. But it’s still not as big, I found myself thinking, as the human imagination.

Gareth Williams’s excellent book isn’t about the Loch Ness monster; it’s about the people who have looked for it. There is Alexander Keiller, rich from marmalade and ‘fond of sex, sometimes on a near-industrial scale’. There’s wing commander Basil Cary and his wife Winifred, known as Freddie, who can work out which pub her husband is in by dangling a pendulum over a map (she then rings up and shouts: ‘Send him home!’). There’s even the Daily Mail, who in 1933 tried tempting Nessie with a leg of mutton. Unimpressed, a Mr R.M. Green suggests six bullocks ‘impaled on appropriately sized hooks’. Needless to say the searchers frequently fall out. There are fisticuffs by the loch, and one believer ventures the opinion that another is ‘not quite 16 annas to the rupee’.

Some sightings, you’ll be amazed to learn, turn out to be hoaxes. A carcass discovered in 1868 is that of a whale, stripped of its skin and blubber then dumped in the loch by the ‘waggish crew’ of a sea-going boat. Some 1930s footprints are analysed: not only are they found to be those of a hippopotamus, but they’re all the same foot (back right): someone has been at work with an umbrella stand. But even though the monster might have been made up, you certainly couldn’t have invented some of those pursuing it. One expedition, in need of marker floats, cleans the Inverness branch of Woolworths out of orange and white footballs. An underwater camera’s mechanism is triggered by Polo mints: they take 15 minutes to dissolve, by which time the right depth has been reached (and all light has been lost, rendering the photographs pointless). Seasoned searcher Ted Holiday comes to believe that the monster telepathically knows when people are looking for it, so he tries to outfox it by turning round quickly. Someone arrives armed with a submarine. Inevitably it is yellow.

But this book is more than just a chuckle at the freak show. Some serious figures have taken an interest in the monster, notably Peter Scott, son of Captain and an eminent naturalist. He never said that the monster was definitely there; simply that the many credible eyewitness accounts deserved proper investigation by the scientific establishment. The young Nicholas Witchell adopted a similar view, criticising said establishment for its ‘pawky impotence’. His book on the subject was a bestseller, though a subsequent project at the Loch ‘got the monster out of my system’. All the time, however, the more sober investigators are struggling to contain their overly enthusiastic counterparts. Scott’s chief bugbear is Tim Dinsdale, a self-proclaimed expert who keeps writing to the Queen seeking her permission to name the monster ‘Elizabethia nessiae’. Scott warns Dinsdale against this, on the grounds that Her Majesty will ‘get browned off with the whole thing’.

Williams runs through the many possible explanations for sightings: light refraction, wave formations, lumps of vegetation brought to the surface by the gases of their own decomposition. But equally he’s aware that some people believe in the monster simply because they want to. (In this respect the book kept reminding me of Selling Hitler, Robert Harris’s masterly account of the fake diaries supposedly kept by the Führer.) As Williams points out: ‘Descartes noted that “chance favours the prepared mind”. So does wishful thinking.’ The monster answers

a basic human need… the insatiable hunger to be filled with awe by something so extraordinary that only those who have seen it for themselves could ever believe that it exists.

Meanwhile on the banks of the loch, Steve Feltham is into the 24th year of his vigil. Home is a mobile library van, no longer mobile and rusted into place, bearing a stove that in winter provides ‘nearly enough heat’. As Williams talks to him, Feltham’s eyes ‘constantly return to the water’. He came here at the age of 28, abandoning a safe family job and his ties in Dorset, because he ‘didn’t want to reach the age of 70 only to look back on a life unfulfilled’.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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  • blandings

    “simply that the many credible eyewitness accounts deserved proper investigation by the scientific establishment.”
    I have credibly eyewitnessed many strange things (well, in my own estimation that is).
    I have called for proper investigation of my sightings to no avail. My wife says I should just cut back on the gin. Sometimes, as I ruminate in the small hours, I think she might have a point.

    • Des Demona

      It might be an old wives tale but I was told that ruminating in the small hours is bad for your eyesight and this may have contributed to your supposed sightings?

      • blandings

        All the fun things in life are bad for your eyesight, sadly.

        • Rocksy

          in that case I must have been having one fun filled life.

          • blandings

            That’s our boy!

  • trace9

    I suppose a magazine called The Spectator felt it had to review This book. Like Nessie – no sale – even at Christmas..

  • ADW

    The problem is that the lake isn’t very old – maybe 10,000 years tops (formed by the ice age) meaning no dinosaur could live within it and there is not enough time for a new species of anything large to have formed

    • GoJebus

      Your rational approach to this is great, but I’ve actually seen the monster. It was just a flash as I was driving by the loch, but I had an artist’s set open on the seat next to me and was able to stop straight away and copy down what I’d seen (well as good as I could taking into account my eye-patch and only having one hand). The image I captured (below) still frightens me to this day.

  • Hello Mark. Unless I’m mistaken, didn’t someone mention that you were writing a book in time for Christmas? I read it here on the Speccie. What happened to that?

  • Precambrian

    I suspect that they have each caused less harm than your average politician….

  • GoJebus

    There’s a lesson for religious people in this story: “lumps of vegetation brought to the surface by the gases of their own decomposition”. “…no longer mobile and rusted into place”. Sounds like Christianity.