There are many mysteries in life that will never be solved. Who makes the crop circles in farmers’ fields? Who built those statues on Easter Island? How did they build the pyramids? Do aliens exist? Why is Christopher Walken so scary?
One such mystery that has persisted over centuries is that of the Loch Ness Monster. In 565 AD, St. Columba, a Gaelic monk, had come to Scotland to spread the word of Christianity. He was the first person to have reported a Nessie sighting, claiming to have “drove away a certain water monster” by making the sign of the cross with his fingers and yelling religious verse at it. The “water monster” fled.
Centuries and centuries of sightings followed around Loch Ness. Old grannies, policemen, monks (Ed. Note: what is with all these monks sighting Nessie?), tourists, shopkeepers all claimed to have seen her. A photo of Nessie then surfaced, which disappointingly, proved to be a hoax. With so many sightings, and this one disputed photo, did or didn’t she exist?
Such a mystery brought me forward several hundred years to a little town named Drumnadrochit, Scotland, a little town in Inverness that finds itself the capital of the world’s most legendary lake monster. I arrived at the former Drumnadrochit Hotel, now The Loch Ness Centre, a multimedia exhibition of all things Loch Ness related. This centre is also the workplace of the world’s foremost expert on the topic, Adrian Shine.
Shine has been studying the loch for over forty years. Despite not being formally educated in any institution of higher learning, he has written over 60 academic papers and has had some of the best hands on learning from various naturalists.
“I became interested in the Loch Ness monster when I was a schoolboy in the 1960’s. I grew up in England and was unsatisfied with all the explanations I had been given about the loch, but was a lazy and somewhat mediocre student and decided to come see it for myself.”
Four decades later, Shine is still at the loch studying its mysteries. Below, he’s provided some of his five takeaways on Nessie and Loch Ness.
1) Nessie has been spotted as either a plesiosaur or a serpent type animal.
Over a thousand sightings of a “monster” have been reported since 565AD. Nessie has often been reported in two forms. One form is the plesiosaur, a long necked dinosaur, while the other reports have detailed Nessie as a sea serpent. The former has been more commonly portrayed, and as a result, souvenir shops all over Scotland have been quick to sell merchandise emblazoned with tartan cap sporting plesiosaurs.
2) Nessie is the world’s most pervasive lake monster due to the long timeline of sightings, the Scottish diaspora and lastly, the resurgence of interest in dinosaurs.
In the world of lake monsters, no lake monster has been as revered as Nessie. Certainly, lake monsters like the Ogopogo and Storsjon lake monsters have strong local followings, but do not even hold a candle to Nessie. The number of alleged lake monsters abound in Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America, and amount to around two hundred and fifty. I ask Shine why he thinks that the legend of Nessie has endured.
“First, there is the fact that the legend of Nessie has been around for a very long time. Very few lake monsters have been around since 565AD. The other thing I think is a large part of it is after the Jacobite wars in 1741, many Scottish people immigrated overseas – I think many of them took the story of Nessie with them. Lastly, I think that in North America and Europe, there is an unprecedented amount of enthusiasm for dinosaurs. This was especially the case after the release of Jurassic Park.”
Somehow, the movie captured the notion that Nessie, or other dinosaur like creatures, are still living in our midst.
3) Most of the sightings could actually be attributed to wakes, rocks, and waves.
Because the loch can be windy, foggy and choppy, many illusions are created. Many sightings reported over the centuries have been attributed to things as varied as mirages, windslicks, boat wakes, deer, logs, waterbirds, rocks, and boats. In one unusual case, a Nessie sighting turned out to be an escaped horse from a local barn.
4) Nessie could be a catfish or a sturgeon.
One explanation for a Nessie sighting could have been that of a sturgeon. It is not uncommon for strange fish to be seen in Loch Ness – for example, salmon live in salt and freshwater conditions, and come back through the loch to spawn. Although a sturgeon is not native to the area, there have been cases of Atlantic sturgeon found in the UK wandering through various rivers and locks throughout the 1800s and 1900s. Though the Atlantic sturgeon is extinct in the UK, Shine suggests that with a horse-like head, the sturgeon could certainly account for the strange fish or kelpie “Water Horse” sightings of some of these years.
Another hypothesis of Shine’s is that Nessie could be a catfish. There is a predatory European Catfish called the Wels, which lives to approximately 100 years and can grow to 9 feet and 300 lbs. Shine suggests that, like a salmon, which spawns in the Loch, the catfish eats nothing in fresh water. The catfish even matches the description of one of the sightings – “In 1932, the year before the monster sensation, a Miss MacDonald saw a crocodile-like creature swimming up the River Ness. It had a short neck but a long snout and most improbably, two tusks.” These two tusks could easily be the whiskers of a very large catfish.
5) Nessie could also be caused by underwater waves.
As part of Shine’s study of the topography and biology of the loch, he noted the existence of a thermocline. A thermocline is a sharp density change between warm and cold layers of water. Because the loch is aligned directly with the winds, it seesaws the warm and cold water layers, sweeping any debris along with it, causing objects to move in the opposite direction to the wind.
This would explain why certain sightings, where people were certain that it was Nessie since the object was swimming against the wind, could be explained by this natural phenomenon.
Interestingly, other lakes where thermoclines occur – Lake Okanagan, Lake Champlain – also have lake monsters.
Whether Nessie is a plesiosaur, serpent, wake, rock or result of a thermocline – no one will ever know. However, one thing is certain – Nessie will continue to befuddle people for centuries to come.