The Secret of the Loch

This is another article by my Uncle, John Alldridge. In addition to writing for the Manchester Evening News, he also wrote many articles for the BBC (back in the 50s and 60s when it was a very different organisation from what it is today), and was a frequent contributor to their afternoon programme “Children’s Hour”. He would have written and broadcast it in about 1955 and it concerns a trip he made to Loch Ness in about 1945 as a result of the latest sighting of the Monster. It was subsequently published in his book “Special Assignment”. Jerry F

Looking from Fort Augustus down Loch Ness
© Jerry F 2021

Every newspaperman has his favourite story. I call mine The One that Got Away.  All I’ve got to show for it now is a note-book full of notes I can’t read, and a drawing, no more than a ‘doodle’, really. An odd little pencil sketch that looks like. . . looks like what? Something between a swan, very down in the mouth, and one of those rubber sea-horses.

Yes, I toiled all that week and caught nothing. And yet, you know, when I look back I still rate that search for the Loch Ness Monster as one of the most fascinating stories I’ve ever been on.

Mind you, I thought from the start I was off on a wild goose chase.

But this was May, and May is usually a pretty thin month for news; I don’t know why, but it is. And the opening of the Monster season – well, I suppose that would fill the bill well enough until something bigger came along.

The Monster – or Nessie as they call her on her home ground – usually shows up in the headlines around this time of year. As regular as the cuckoo, is the Monster.

But there was something a wee bit more news-worthy about her first sighting that year. She had been seen speeding across the loch that sunny Sunday afternoon by no less a person than Mr. J. W. McKillop, County Clerk of Inverness-shire; and Scots County Clerks are not given to flights of fancy.

What’s more, others had seen her too: his son, and Mr. John McKay, chief sub-editor of the Inverness Courier.

Mr. McKillop was very positive about it. Yes: there she was, speeding diagonally across the Loch, her body gleaming in the sunlight, her head and one hump above water.

Mr. McKillop stuck to his story, and repeated it at the next session of the Inverness-shire County Council; whereupon the County Council was profoundly moved. So moved, in fact, that it suspended the usual standing orders so that the Convener, Sir Donald Cameron, could state his firm belief that on the trustworthy evidence of his County Clerk, he was convinced at last of the Monster’s existence.

And so Nessie, the Lady of the Loch, went on record. As far as Inverness-shire was concerned, she was now a Fact.

That was why I was in the train speeding North to Inverness, shuffling through a sheaf of faded old clippings. Studying – if you like – the Case History of a Monster.

I didn’t believe a word of it, of course. Just before I left I checked with the London Zoo. And they didn’t believe it, either.

“The Loch Ness Monster is nothing but a newspaper stunt and has never been anything else,” the Zoo wired back. Just that. Short and Sweet.

Now it’s one thing to be cut-and-dried and down-to-earth in Regent’s Park. It’s quite another to keep an open and impartial mind up there in those enchanted Highlands; where the very air whispers of old, forgotten far-off things and battles long ago.

The first thing I hadn’t reckoned with was Loch Ness itself. For Loch Ness is one of the most impressive stretches of water in the world. Twenty-three miles long, almost 2 miles wide at its widest, going down to 700 feet at its deepest, it lies like a silver scabbard dividing the mountains; lovely, lonely, infinitely mysterious. A bird landing on the water sends out a ripple which becomes a great arrow-head that widens and widens until it links shore with shore.

Easy enough to imagine anything out there on those empty waters. Particularly at dusk when a salmon leaping sounds like a bomb.

The second thing I hadn’t reckoned with was the attitude of the folk who live round the Loch. You’ve got to remember that they’ve lived with the Monster for generations. To them it’s always been there. They have a word for it in the Gaelic which means water-horse. And the legend of the water-horse is as old as St. Columba who was once nearly bitten by one. Or so the story goes.

A quiet, polite, you-mind-your-business-and-I’ll-mind-mine people.

Of course, they believe in the Monster; but that’s their business, and they won’t talk about it unless you press them. And if you do press them – well, don’t say I didn’t warn you, you’ll hear stories that will make your hair curl.

There was old David Cameron, I remember. David Cameron, of Fort Augustus. David at that time was still master of the Caledonian Canal company’s tug, Scott the Third. As long ago as 1933, while standing at the wheel, David had seen the monster “swimming out from the Fort Augustus side of the Loch” – I’m trying to read my notes now – “and rapidly overhauling the tug in a wave-like manner.” David Cameron”s words, not mine. And he, too, had his fellow-witnesses to prove it: his engineer and fireman. In the most casual way imaginable – as if he were talking about his married daughter in Fort William – he told me how he had seen her then and never gave her a second thought. (Notice how the Monster is always a ‘she’.)

Then there was Alexander Campbell, water bailiff of Fort Augustus. Mr. Campbell must hold the record for monster-spotting. When I met him he’d already seen her four times.

His best viewing occurred around half-past nine on a June morning in 1934.

I’m reading from my notebook again:

“The Loch was dead calm and visibility ‘perfect’. I was standing on the bridge near the mouth of the little river Oich which runs into the Loch at Fort Augustus. Near the Benedictine Abbey Church I saw the monster rise suddenly all in one piece.”

I remember so vividly how Campbell took my note-book and pencil and without a moment’s hesitation drew from memory what he had seen that morning. Here’s my description of it, as he drew it:

“A long, dun-coloured body about 30 feet long, rising at the most to the height of a full-grown man. A thin neck topped by a head in shape rather like a horse’s. The head moved constantly and nervously, for all the world like a highly-strung racehorse waiting for the off”.

Quite a beast, in fact. . . .

Campbell was lucky that time. For the Monster remained in view for several minutes. Then the noise of two steam drifters passing out of the canal lock apparently startled it, for it crash-dived like a submarine with a tremendous splash.

I have memories, rather painful memories, of going round and round that loch on a bicycle: collecting many strange stories but never hair nor hide of the Monster.

And talking about her hide: a retired Engineer-Commander living at Inchnacardroch Bay watched her one morning through binoculars. He told me she looked:

“Rather like the rear of a large cart-horse and black-grey in colour. There was a high ridge along the back which appeared to taper down – the skin was knobbly and warted, like that of a great toad”.

A pretty girl, our Nessie!

Since the Monster was first promoted to headline news in 1933 more than a thousand people have solemnly testified to seeing her. I personally took statements from thirty-one. The most fantastic came from an old lady living near the ruins of Urquhart Castle, one of Nessie’s favourite playgrounds. Believe it or not, she had watched it throw up not one hump but six!

The impression I got was this: that although no one living round the Loch was going out of his way to sell you the Monster, all had simple and plausible answers ready for the obvious questions.

I asked, for instance, how it’s possible for so huge a beast – considering the average length given is about 45 feet, which would make it as big as a fair-sized whale, how is it possible, I asked for so huge a brute to have lived unobserved for so long in a fresh-water lake where there is no outlet deeper than a canal lock or a shallow stream?

And what did they do? Why sent me to have a look at the map in the library of the Benedictine Monastery at Fort Augustus  – a map which in fact is a Bathymetric Survey of the Loch made by Sir John Murray, K.C.B., F.Z.S. in 1903.

That survey shows that the average depth along the Loch’s centre-line 23 miles long – is more than 500 feet; the maximum depth in the middle actually goes down to 750 feet. Which means in effect that at that depth – providing they could stand the enormous pressure – a school of whales could live there undetected for years.

And they tell strange stories too of a honeycomb of caves, far below the surface, burrowing deep into the loch-side. With air-holes conveniently provided. In one of those caves, they say, the monster – or monsters – live, and bring up their young. And the odd thing is – there are caves under the Loch. I interviewed a retired diver who’d been down and found his way into one.

Can you explain – I remember asking – can you explain why, after such a long period of inactivity, the Monster suddenly showed herself in 1933? And what answer did I get? Why, this:

Between 1931 and 1934, a new motor road was being built around the narrow fringe of the Loch which joins Inverness to Fort Augustus. Thousands of tons of rock were dynamited straight down into the Loch.

The theory is that these ceaseless depth-charges finally brought the frightened beast to the surface. And from that moment she has been a homeless wanderer on the face of the Loch.

You see how it is? You ask a silly question and you get a silly answer. Or is it so silly? It’s more than ten years ago now, and frankly, I still don’t know.

For if it isn’t the Monster then what is it?

Is it a tree-trunk, curiously twisted and gnarled, driven on by a flood tide?

Is it a flock of birds rising from the water in a v-formation?

Is it, perhaps, a giant tortoise? Or a white whale? Or a giant sturgeon: or only a line of playful otters?

Its been everything in its time – from a fresh-water version of the sea-serpent to a floating tar-barrel. . . .

Of course there is always the possibility that it may be one long practical joke. Not all investigators have been  received as civilly as I was.

There was the White Hunter who was brought all the way from Kenya by a national newspaper to track down and capture the Monster. For weeks they kept the story going: with precious little to show for it. And then one morning, splashed all over the front-page was a photograph of giant footprints. “The Spoor of the Monster”, the paper called it, dramatically. And went on to explain how, one morning at dawn, the White Hunter had come across these splay-footed five-toed prints marking a trail across the shore of the loch to the water’s edge.

That photograph was a nine-days-wonder; it was copied and reprinted all over the world. But not everybody who saw it was satisfied. To some experts on wild life the footprints looked remarkably like those of a rhinoceros. And the thought of a rhino in Loch Ness was almost as incredible as the Monster herself.

Now I don’t want to spoil a good story. But on the headmaster’s desk in Fort Augustus College which adjoins the Loch, there is a very imposing ink-well, made from a handsomely-mounted rhinoceros foot. And – the headmaster told me this himself – the day before those mysterious footprints were found on the sands of the Loch that inkstand had unaccountably disappeared. . . .

Well, that was all ten years ago. And I still don’t know the answer to that infuriating, frustrating, fascinating Secret of the Loch.

But two things are pretty certain. One is that Nessie the Monster will be on view again next May. And if she is, then the first man to take note of it will be her most faithful admirer, Mr. Alexander Campbell – watching the water at Fort Augustus.

You might try for yourself next summer. But take my advice: don’t go after her with a gun, or a net; you see, she’s got police protection now. As for me? Well, this I do know. The Secret of the Loch is still my favourite assignment.

If only because – it was The One that Got Away.

Jerry F 2021

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