Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Legend of Loch Ness

Great Britain Trip: Part 7 – The Legend of Loch Ness

Two weeks ago I embarked on my first trip to Europe, specifically to Great Britain. This journey had two aspects. First, it is the closest I’ve had to a vacation in at least four years. But honestly, I don’t really do vacation. The primary reason for the trip was to assist several projects I’m working on, including a volume I’m currently writing on why archaeology has the “spooky” image it has in the public imagination.

The following images are not in precise chronological order, though the general narrative does roughly follow the order of places I visited. I spent four days in London at the beginning and another two at the end, and these materials are something of a chronological jumble for thematic purposes. These images are a fraction (specifically, about 7%) of the images I took. Many of these were for research I am not discussing in depth here, or for teaching purposes. The images and text here are instead a rough tour not so much of where I went as why I went, what I learned, and why that might be of interest.

This travelogue is broken into seven sections

Rule Britannia!

Archaeology of Empire

Mysteries of London

Time in Bath

A Green and Magical Land

Investigating Inverness

The Legend of Loch Ness

The Legend of Loch Ness

The last destination of my trip was Loch Ness. It is the largest lake in the United Kingdom, 24 miles long, a mile wide, with steep banks that drop down over seven hundred feet in depth

But I didn’t have to go look these numbers up. I’ve been able to rattle those statistics off since I was a young child. Because Loch Ness is world famous for its legendary monster, and the popularity of that monster when I was growing up was the gateway for my interest in weird quasi-scientific or esoteric topics that I’ve since researched, taught, and written about. I mention at the time, as I think that’s important. The video below is an episode of the first major paranormal-themed documentary show in television history, In Search of … about Loch Ness.

This is the grand-daddy of all the programming that fills the so-called educational channels on basic cable today. Going back and watching a few episodes of the show is interesting in comparison. The show was widely mocked for being speculative nonsense (slight language on the second video below)

Yet it showed restraint and some responsibility to facts in comparison with much of the paranormal and “scientific” or “historical” material on television today.

More importantly for this particular case, the Loch Ness episode acts as a frozen moment in the history of the legend of Loch Ness. If you don’t have time to watch the In Search of ... video, you’ll note that there are several serious scientific teams or individuals at the lake, looking for the monster. Well, sort of. It would be far too much to get into here, but several of the individuals and projects involved aren’t quite how they are presented. Roy Mackal was a tenured professor of biology at the University of Chicago, but his monster hunting is largely chalked up to a mid-life crisis. The Rines expedition has been heavily criticized for problems with its underwater photography and even most Nessie believers don’t put much stock in such today, but what is less commonly mentioned is that Rines’ background and Applied Sciences team had more to do with patent law than with biology or scientific investigation. And so on. But imagine being a documentary producer and going to a lake and finding scientists from MIT, University of Chicago, and other serious institutions researching this legend. How skeptical would you be? Then imagine being a young child seeing all of this.

Despite this priming that made me as a young boy embarrass people when I’d go about spouting all the Loch Ness “facts” I had learned from books in my public library, the same aspects of my personality also drove me to become someone who is serious about evidence. Evidence of the sort that I came to realize was against the popular conceptions of a “monster.” I knew this would make visiting this place quite charged for me on a personal level.

I left Inverness fairly early in the morning, and went to Drumnadrochit. While there have been monster sightings all around the lake, the greatest concentration have been around Drumnadrochit, and especially near the iconic Urquhart Castle about two miles walk from the town. After arriving early in the morning, I immediately wanted to get on the water, and booked passage on the M.V. Deep Scan, the guided tour boat of the Loch Ness Project.

The Loch Ness Project is headed by Adrian Shine, who was recently profiled by Google as part of their project to put Street View on the lake itself.

The Project works with several other groups conducting non-monster related research on the lake (again, as the biggest freshwater lake in the UK, there is ecological and historical work to be done here, including a paleoclimate coring project that has produced a deep historical record of year-by-year conditions in the region).

But the Project is most famous for its scientific examination of the Loch Ness Monster legend, including a survey of the biomass which suggests there isn’t enough food in the lake for a viable population of large predators, and Operation Deep Scan (for which the boat is named), that swept the loch with sonar-equipped boats and didn’t find clear evidence of any large creatures.

You may have noticed the yellow flora on the hills around the loch.

This is broom, and it greatly livened up the otherwise drizzly day

Captain of the Deep Scan John Minshull led a tour of the area around Urquhart Castle, and after I showed some interest and knowledge about the legend and the history of its investigation, began to talk a bit more in detail about some of these efforts. It was a fascinating conversation, and I am still impressed with how they were able to undertake coring in such deep water.

A ubiquitous part of any hunt for the Loch Ness Monster is sonar searching.

There are a number of other boat tours available of Loch Ness. The big two boats of Jacobite cruises cater to tourists who engage with the Loch and its legend from Inverness. They may visit Urquhart Castle during their tour, but otherwise take the tour and then buy stuffed Nessies in a gift shop back in the city. I will note that the parking lot of Castle Urquhart itself was full, and the place quite busy.

Here are both the Jacobite boats on the lake. The catamaran is quite large, and produces a significant wake, something I’ll return to in a moment.

The Deep Scan is attached to the Loch Ness Center and Exhibition, the biggest and best known of the tourist attractions associated with the Loch Ness Monster

As someone who has visited Roswell, Salem, Point Pleasant, and other spots with more than a shade of paranormal or esoteric aspect to their touristic attraction, I had been expecting more sensationalism, and I will return to this. But I was aware before I visited that the Center is largely skeptical in approach.

Shine’s efforts to apply science to the legend are front and center. Much of the exhibit is multimedia and not easily photographed, but a few points are worth noting

An early part of the exhibit focuses on archaeology and folklore. I felt for a moment like I was back in Glastonbury. This narrative also points out how the legend changed to become more prehistoric, more material, more evolutionary. The “materialization” of legends to create cryptozoology (a word I did not see nor hear at Loch Ness, btw) in the 20th century is a theme addressed in the volume Abominable Science, which also suggests a particularly intriguing cultural influence on the rash of sightings that created the modern legend in 1933.

One of these sightings, the Spicer sighting, is depicted above along with ties to the Kelpie legend, press clippings, and the influential promotion of the monster by Alex Campbell.

The press interest which is so important to the legend is noted near the end of the exhibit, and like the In Search of … example I give above, it is hard to blame people for being interested with headlines like these. Especially since we now know that there was significant interest in the creature. Both the Royal Scottish Museum and the Natural History Museum were seriously interested in getting samples of the monster, as shown in recently uncovered documents.

The “spoor” that was transported in a securely locked box to the Natural History Museum in London was a cast of the monster’s footprint. It had been secured by Marmaduke Wetherell, a big game hunter hired by the Daily Mail to find the monster. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that the footprint was that of a hippopotamus, likely produced by an ashtray like the one above, the sort of thing that would be owned by a big game hunter.

The Mail and others scorned Wetherell, and the legend could have receded into obscurity.

Until April 1934, when a London surgeon provided the Daily Mail with the most famous photo of the monster, the “head and neck” that fit conceptions of a prehistoric beast such as a dinosaur or plesiosaur

We now know that the image has been carefully cropped and that in original form looks far smaller. This coincides nicely with testimony that Wetherell orchestrated a hoax as revenge on the Mail. And we also now know that plesiosaurs couldn’t move their necks in such a swan-like fashion.

But this didn’t matter, the legend was reborn. A nice exhibit in the Center shows video testimony of some of the most famous sightings

Nevertheless, the Center emphasizes the biological and cultural background already discussed, and shows off its other exploratory efforts that make it clear underwater data is far easier to come by today

The sonar we used on the boat is dramatically superseded by the mapping and side-scanning sonar capabilities available for research. Note the details in the side-scanning sonar imagery of the wrecked boat depicted above

Nevertheless, a mix of hope and hoaxing continues to support the legend.

These continue into the present, with proponents and opponents arguing about the potential gain or harm to local tourism, never minding concerns for damaging evidence of the monster.

I found that to be a particularly interesting point. These are images of the gift shop associated with the Exhibition Center, but they only differ in scale from others I visited. Plush Nessies are plentiful.

Many of the books sold in such shops are unsurprisingly aimed at children, but what was surprising was the lack of cryptozoology or “speculative” books and DVDs. None were to be had anywhere. The handful of volumes above are small volumes aimed at tourists.

This bookshelf in the Center’s exhibit is more representative of the Nessie “literature.” Below are two pictures of the store attached to the Roswell UFO Museum and Research Center when I visited in 2002.

A vast array of books and videos on UFOs, alien abductions, and other “mysteries” were bought and sold here. This is above and beyond the many books sold by UFO researchers and promoters who spoke at the UFOMRC and in other venues in town year round but especially during their annual UFO festival. While a lot of people go to Roswell to buy a plush green alien or a t-shirt, clearly there is a significant component of belief and pilgrimage. The same is true for Salem and other esoteric tourism spots I’ve visited. I haven’t taken part in the paranormal tourism in Gettysburg, but that has (to the disgust of quite a few people) taken on a significant un-life of its own, prompting conferences on top of the ghost tours and bookstores in town.

None of that is to be found at Loch Ness. Nessie has become a cartoon legend, a thing that people visit to say they’ve visited, a popular icon. You can consume it as plush toys, t-shirts, a boat tour, or a nice cider at lunch. Critics of Shine have suggested his scientifically-oriented Exhibition and Center have threatened the tourism industry in the area. From what I saw, I don’t suspect this is the case. For Drumnadrochit specifically, the massive boats from Inverness have probably done more harm, I imagine. But the bigger issue is that despite Google’s recent campaign of noting how Loch Ness is a symbol of wonder and discovery, much of the legend rested on the Surgeon’s photo. The highly public debunking of the photo as a hoax, was the turning point, I suspect.

But I haven’t answered the biggest question you probably have: did I see the monster? The answer is: Yes, sort of. The video I have embedded above is one of several instances during the day in which I saw the effect that boat wakes and other waves have in the steep-sided loch. While smaller, the similarity to the famous MacNab photo is suggestive.

While clearly the best “sightings” are more involved and more impressive, many sightings can be attributed to this effect. All of these pictures are mine from the day I visited

Does this mean I’ve given up? No, I have instead followed the evidence, and realized there is an interesting and important cultural story to be explored here. One of science, frustration with modernity, perception, and how we make the world.

Though, this is still probably true as well

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