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Nessie: the truth at last

Nessie: the truth at last

The longest-serving investigator of the Loch Ness monster has concluded that the beast probably is – or was – a catfish

What gave rise to this pessimism?

After 24 years living on the shores of Loch Ness, selling models of the monster to curious tourists, Steve Feltham, the most dedicated of all hunters of the beast, has said it may not be a monster after all. Feltham, who used to install burglar alarms for a living, gave up his girlfriend and his home in Dorset, in 1991, to head north and find Nessie. His best sighting occurred soon after arriving in the Highlands, but he didn’t have his camera to hand. Since then, evidence has failed to accumulate (even though a million or so people visit the loch each year), and the number of claimed glimpses has steadily dropped. “I’ve had to change my mind slowly over time,” Feltham admits.

What is his conclusion?

That Britain’s most famous living dinosaur, paranormal creature, hoax, or what you will, is likely to have been a small population of very large fish. Wels catfish, to be precise. The catfish, native to central, southern and eastern Europe, can grow to huge sizes – up to 4m (13ft) in length and as much as 390kg (62 stone) in weight – and generally live for at least 30 years. With an eel-like scaleless body and a large head and mouth, Wels catfish were first introduced to Britain by Victorian aristocrats for sport; and Feltham believes there may have been a population in Loch Ness that reached maturity just as sightings of the monster peaked, in the first half of the 20th century. “What a lot of people have reported seeing would fit in with the description of the catfish with its long curved back,” he says. “Its natural decline in numbers over time would also explain the tail-off in sightings in recent years.”

What made people think there was a monster?

Legends of terrible spirits and beasts in Scotland’s rivers and lakes go back millennia. When Roman soldiers reached the northern edge of their empire in the first century AD, they found Pictish carvings of strange creatures with long beaks and flipper-like feet. Scholars have disputed whether these represented kelpies or “each-uisge”, horse-shaped water spirits that dragged people to their deaths. In the year 565, Saint Columba, who introduced Christianity to Scotland, was said to have encountered a monster as he navigated the waters of Loch Ness. When he reached the bank, he witnessed a funeral being held for a local man who’d been “bitten most severely” by the creature. Columba sent one of his followers into the water to investigate, at which the beast surfaced again “and, giving an awful roar, darted after him”. But the saint ordered it back. “Thou shalt go no further,” he said. The beast withdrew, it was said, for 1,000 years.

What happened next?

Loch Ness fever really got going in the 1930s, after a new road was built along the lake’s northern shore. In July 1933, the Inverness Courier reported a sighting by a Mr and Mrs Spicer, who claimed to have seen “a huge snail with a long neck” crossing the road in front of them. “It had disappeared into the loch by the time I reached the spot,” said Mr Spicer. “I am a temperate man, but I am willing to take any oath that we saw this Loch Ness beast.” In response, the Daily Mail despatched a celebrated game hunter, Marmaduke Wetherell, to track it and, sensationally, he found a set of huge prints. But these, the Natural History Museum decided, had been made with a dried hippo’s foot – popular then as umbrella stands and ashtrays. Wetherell withdrew, humiliated. Or so it seemed.

Was Nessie still taken seriously?

Yes, despite the hoax, claims of sightings poured in. In 1934, the most famous image of Nessie, the “Surgeon’s Photo”, was published (see box). In the following decades, some 4,000 sightings were reported, often describing similar features: humps, a long neck, flippers, the shape of an upturned boat. In the 1950s, Constance Whyte, a local doctor, recorded some of these in a book, More Than a Legend, which sparked a scientific phase of research. In 1962, the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau was set up to mount a constant vigil of the lake; and the BBC and Cambridge and Oxford universities all sent researchers armed with sophisticated kit in the 1960s and 1970s, in a bid to solve the mystery.

What kind of kit?

Sonar, mainly, to scan the depths of the lake for large and moving objects. One of the most successful Nessie hunters was Robert Rines, an American lawyer and inventor who claimed to have seen the monster while attending a tea party on the loch’s banks on 23 June 1972. Through a telescope, Rines saw “a large, darkish hump, covered… with rough, mottled skin, like the back of an elephant”. He later deployed a side scan sonar, underwater strobes and cameras to track the beast. On 8 August 1972, Rines obtained a grainy image that looked like a flipper, which was published in the journal Nature. Sir Peter Scott, a renowned naturalist, claimed the creature was a surviving dinosaur, a plesiosaur, and even gave it a Latin name, Nessiteras rhombopteryx.

Was that remotely plausible?

“If I didn’t trust the people I’ve talked to and our own scientific evidence, I’d say I was crazy,” Rines said in 2000. “But I know there was a plesiosaur in Loch Ness because I saw it.” The theory proved too much for most scientists, however. After Rines presented his evidence to Westminster in 1976, Willie Ross, the then Scottish secretary, declined to offer the species wildlife protection. “I do not think that it is in immediate danger in the present session,” he said. The best supporting evidence for the theory that a dinosaur could survive for so long, undisturbed, remains the rediscovery of the coelacanth, a fish thought to have become extinct 70 million years ago, in the oceans off South Africa in 1938. But where Nessie goes, there are often tricksters too. After Scott gave Nessie her Latin name, it didn’t take long for sceptics to find an anagram in it: “Monster hoax by Sir Peter S”.

“We’ll give them their monster”

For decades, the main evidence for the Loch Ness monster was an eerie black-and-white photograph that seemed to show the beast raising its looping neck and serpent’s head above the waters of the lake. The picture first appeared in the spring of 1934, in the Daily Mail – which had sent trophy hunter Marmaduke Wetherell to find Nessie the previous year – after the paper bought the photo from a respected London doctor, Robert Kenneth Wilson. He refused to be named, so the image was known as the “Surgeon’s Photo”, and became a vital piece of monster lore.

The claims held up until 1984, when a report in the British Journal of Photography stated that analysis of the dimensions in the image proved the “monster” among the waves was only two or three feet long, and was probably an otter or a bird. A decade later, the 90-year-old stepson of Wetherell, Christian Spurling, revealed the more shocking truth: he and his stepfather had grafted the head of a beast onto a toy submarine in order to trick the public and get back at the Daily Mail. Dr Wilson, a family friend, was a willing, and credible, means to get the photo to the paper. “We’ll give them their monster,” Wetherell had said.

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