The lady of the loch
For as long as humans living in the Highlands of Scot an left written records, stories have persisted of giant creatures lurking in the murky depths of the region’s peat-darkened lakes. The Picts, a fierce tribal people subdued by the Romans in the ist century A.D., left many stone carvings of local animals. All are easily identifi-able by modern scholars, except for one: it shows a large beast with an elongated neck, small head and long tail, as well as a thick trunk whose legs ended in flippers, rather than feet. Five centuries later, when St. Columba brought Christianity to Scotland, he is said to have awed the Picts by subduing a sea monster on the River Ness. According to an account written a century later, Columba “raised his holy hand … and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, ‘Thou shalt go no further …’Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes.” The amazed locals quickly converted to Christianity. The Loch Ness Monster is named for Scotland’s most voluminous lake, which holds more fresh water than can found in England and Wales combined; locals have long called her Nessie for short. She became a 2oth century obsession in t933, when game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell, who had been hired by a British tabloid newspaper eager to boost sales, “discovered” the footprints of a giant animal in the mud by the side of the lake. Plaster casts of these tracks were shipped off to London’s Natural History Museum, where they were found to have been made by a stuffed hippopota-mus foot, then fashionable for umbrella stands and ashtrays. In the months it took researchers to debunk the footprints, Wetherell ensured that events on the Nessie beat stayed hot. His son and stepson faked the classic photo of the monster at right, using a toy submarine fitted with a toy sea-serpent head as a stand-in for the monster. They gave the undeveloped photo to Robert Wilson, an eminent London gynecologist interested in the case, who had it developed and released it to a newspaper in Scotland as his own. The image persuaded generations of Nessie hunters that their prey was alive, if elusive. It wasn’t until 1994, 6i years after the photo was first printed, that two investigators coaxed a deathbed confession from Wetherell’s stepson. Wilson, front man for the hoax, either believed the photo was real or thought the prank would only reach a local audience rather than an international one. He once said there was room for “slight doubt” about the photo’s authenticity. Tales of Nessie endure, for she has become a sort of folk hero.
Local merchants have an especially soft spot for the beast: imaginary or not, she pumps a very real $40 million into the region’s economy each year. In recent decades, numerous sonar scans of the loch have failed to find Nessie. However, several scans have found “anomalies” that might be large schools of salmon or might be something else. In 2003, an intact specimen of four fossilized giant vertebrae was found on the shores of the loch. The bones were later identified as those of a plesiosaur, an ancient sea reptile that had a small head, elongated neck and tail and four paddle-like flippers for limbs.
Scientists cannot explain how the fossil got there. Many sightings of the Loch Ness Monster sound uncannily like descriptions of a plesiosaur—including its length of about 35 ft., tallying with accounts of Nessie. But there are serious problems with proposing that Nessie is—or was—a plesiosaur. Those big reptiles lived in the oceans, not fresh water; they were cold-blooded animals adapted to a subtropical temperatures—meaning they probably could not survive the frigid depths of the loch. And then there’s the dating problem: the last plesiosaurs lived around 65 million years ago, but the loch itself was formed at the end of the last Ice Age and is
only about io,000 years old. Scientists say chances the specimen originated where it was found are slim; it may have been deposited by a glacier—or planted to ensure the saga of Nessie lives on. So the debate continues, as happy tourists flock to the loch. Perhaps the last word belongs to G.K. Chesterton, the British intel-lectual of the early loth century, who wrote, “Many a man has been hanged on less evidence than there is for the Loch Ness Monster.”
FRAM The image above ranks near the top among the most famous photo hoaxes in history. One of its perpetrators confirmed it was a fake in a deathbed confession six decades after it was forged —on April Fool’s Day,1933
In 2003 an intact specimen of four fossilized gaint vertebrae was found on the shores of Loch Ness. The bones were later identified as those of the plersiaur