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The name Loch Ness is synonymous all over the world with Scotland, the landscape and, of course, the monster. Writer Jonny Sweet takes a closer look at what really lies beneath the surface of this landmark.
Text: Jonny Sweet
Country: Scotland

och Ness isn’t the longest loch in Scotland; nor is it the deepest. Still, it contains the largest volume of water of any lake in Great Britain by some distance; in fact, there is more water in Loch Ness than all of the lakes in England and Wales combined! Though this might be an impressive statistic in its own right, it’s not the reason why Loch Ness is considered the most famous lake in the world. There are far bigger and more impressive lakes elsewhere on the planet, but none with quite the mystery and romance of this Highland body of water. So what’s its secret? Nessie, of course.

The origins of the myth

The legend of the Loch Ness Monster— colloquially known as Nessie—has been around for well over a thousand years, as naturalist and Loch Ness expert Adrian Shine explains. “There was always the water horse tradition in Scotland, in the Highlands particularly, which has applied to a number of different lochs (not just Loch Ness) and which is very different to the stereotype we have now,” he says. The water horse, or Kelpie, is a mythological sea creature capable of taking the form of a horse. An evil spirit, the Kelpie would entice humans down to the depths of the sea, where it would devour them whole.

“I speculate that one of the reasons that Loch Ness has a pre-eminence in terms of monsters is because people around Loch Ness were only fourteen miles south of the Highland capital [Inverness] and might have been less superstitious, less reticent, more cosmopolitan and would have been inclined more to talk about these things, and may have regarded it simply as a tale to keep children away from the water.” The first documented sighting of Nessie arrived in the 7th century, when an Irish missionary known as Saint Columba is said to have banished the monster from the adjoining River Ness forever. Seeking shelter, the monster took refuge in the nearby lake.

Whatever its origins, it’s clear the legend of Nessie was not invented for tourism, but tourism has certainly benefited from it. Nowadays, more than 1 million visitors come to Loch Ness every year in search of the elusive creature, a huge economic boost for the area. Adrian works as the leader of the Loch Ness project, which has spent over a quarter of a century exploring the lake for clues to the monster’s existence and possible whereabouts.

The science behind the story

Adrian’s work involved constructing and testing bespoke diving equipment designed to explore the depths of the loch, much of which is now on display in the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition. “All of the exhibits in there are real; some people think they’re props,” says Adrian. “We once had a comment that the sonar research vessel replica in the exhibition was built of cheap plywood; actually, of course, it was the real thing!” Health and safety would surely put a stop to such research vessels today, but back in the heady ’80s, Adrian and his team would spend hours under water waiting patiently for signs of the beast.

“We used to be able to stay down for about two hours before the rather cramped position we had to adopt got the better of us. Of course, air was pumped down to us; that wasn’t one of the problems. Neither was pressure, because we were more or less at atmospheric pressure or only slightly above,” he explains. Indeed, the main problems seem to be a lack of comfort—and a lack of a monster. In all those years of study and investigation, did they ever turn up any evidence of Nessie at all? “I can’t say we did,” Adrian concedes.

Notwithstanding the lack of evidence, many visitors to the area have claimed they have seen something stirring beneath the waves; there have even been plenty of photos to back up the story. Unfortunately, all of these are either too unfocused to be conclusive or have since been proven to be fakes. Perhaps the most famous of these was the “Surgeon’s Photograph”, taken in 1934, which was engineered using a toy submarine and a fake head and neck. The hoax was put to bed after the remains of the model were found in 1975, over 40 years after the publication of the original snapshot.

The legacy endures

If there’s no evidence of a monster in the lake, why does it remain such an attractive tourist destination? “I think we’d all love to believe in prehistoric monsters in Loch Ness; we always have. Just look at the popularity of ‘Jurassic Park,’ the film,” says Adrian. “I think it’s something we’d all like.” Indeed, some visitors are still firmly entrenched in their beliefs. Just last month, Adrian was asked by a Japanese film crew if the exhibition contained any physical remains of Nessie. “It’s the first time I’ve actually been asked for physical remains. If we did have physical remains, there wouldn’t be a mystery, would there?”

As well as providing a much-needed financial boost to Drumnadrochit, the town where the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition is located, the story of Nessie can also help to shine a light on concerns that are more grounded in reality. “We don’t want to be a sideshow at Loch Ness; we are the public face of the mystery, of the controversy, but we have to be more than that,” explains Adrian. “We need to contribute to the sense of place, and in doing that, what we do is to use the monster controversy as an interpretative thread to bring in all the elements that we can about the environment itself and the loch itself.”

“For example, we orientate people about the origins of Loch Ness through evolutionary history; how likely is it that plesiosaurs or any prehistoric monsters (so-called) could exist in the loch; we talk about the Ice Age; we talk about the vital statistics and characteristics of Loch Ness; we talk about the food chain; we talk about the habitat and the deep waters with its relic species (Ice Age relic species); we talk about the physics of Loch Ness.” In this way, Adrian is able to use the legend of the monster to educate visitors to the area about the region and its ecology as a whole.

Not just for kids

So while the story of the Loch Ness Monster is certainly a great bedtime story for little ones, it can be leveraged to communicate so much more about the lake, about Scotland and about the environment in general. With that in mind, Adrian aims to cater to children at the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition (kids under 6 enter for free and there are plenty of interactive exhibits for them), but he also has one eye on keeping the adults entertained and informed, as well.

“In fact, there is something in it for everybody once you understand that we are looking at it from the angle that we do,” says Adrian. Adults, children, believers, sceptics, naturalists, historians—everyone can come to Loch Ness (and to the Exhibition) and go away feeling enriched and informed. And who knows, they might even catch a glimpse of something beneath the waves. After all, seeing is believing…

Loch Ness factfile

· The word “loch” is the Gaelic (or Scottish) word for lake.

· Loch Ness is 39 km (24 miles) long; the longest loch in Scotland is Loch Awe at 41 km (25 miles).

· At its deepest point, Loch Ness has a depth of 230 m. It is second only to Loch Morar (310 m deep), which also has a similar monster tradition.

· Loch Ness contains 7.45 cubic km (1.8 cubic miles) of water, which is almost three times more than the next biggest lake in Scotland, Loch Lomond. It has more water than all of the lakes in England and Wales combined.

· There is enough water in Loch Ness to drown every human on Earth ten times over.

· The first documented sighting of Nessie came in the 7th century, when Saint Columba wrote that he had expelled the monster from the River Ness.

· Approximately 1 million tourists visit the loch every year, resulting in a £25 million boost for the local economy.

· There are more than 200,000 Google searches for the Loch Ness Monster every month.

· To date, there have been over 1,000 reported sightings of Nessie, or roughly 20 every year.

· The BBC sponsored an investigation into the existence of Nessie in 2003. It found no evidence.

· Adrian Shine has been searching for traces of Nessie for over a quarter of a century. To date, he has found no evidence of a monster in any lake in Scotland.




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What'’s in the world'’s most famous lake?


Loch Ness contains the largest volume of water of any lake in Great Britain. In fact, there is more water in Loch Ness than all of the lakes in England and Wales combined. But that is not the reason it is famous. It is famous because it is the home of Nessie, the Loch Ness monster.

The legend of the Loch Ness monster began over a thousand years ago. According to Loch Ness expert Adrian Shine "There was always the water horse tradition in Scotland, [...but it was] very different to the stereotype we have now." The water horse, or Kelpie, is a mythological sea creature capable of taking the form of a horse. The Kelpie was an evil spirit that would entice humans down to the depths of the sea, where it would devour them whole.

The first documented sighting of Nessie was in the 7th century. Saint Columba, an Irish missionary, supposedly banished the monster from the adjoining River Ness forever. The monster then took refuge in the nearby lake. Shine speculates that the tale survived as a way to keep children away from the water.

In the nearby town of Drumnadrochnit there is a Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition where you can learn more about the legend and see the different equipment used to search for the monster. There are many photos to back up the story, but these are either too unfocused or proved to be fakes. The most famous one is the "Surgeon's Photograph", taken in 1934, which was engineered using a toy submarine and a fake head and neck.

Although there is no concrete evidence that the monster is real, people continue to flock to Loch Ness. Shine believes it is because everyone loves to believe in prehistoric monsters. You should go see for yourself. And who knows, you might even catch a glimpse of something beneath the waves. After all, seeing is believing…

 

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What’s in the world’s most famous lake?

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Loch Ness Monster

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