Saturday, 14 April 2012

Loch Ness Trip Report April 2012


I loaded up the car and headed north to Loch Ness on the 6th April with my son in tow as well as various pieces of equipment (which were described in a previous post). The five day weather forecast was pretty variable and so the feeling was that each day had to be taken individually depending on conditions. Nevertheless, the drive up from Edinburgh was pleasant enough and took three and a half hours to Fort Augustus at the southern extremity of the loch.

We turned into the Cumberlands Camp Site and pitched the tent by late afternoon under thankfully a dry sky. We then tucked into a healthy portion of monster hunting food (mince and rice) before going into Fort Augustus to check out the town. It was a strange feeling passing by the old Fort Augustus Abbey which is now residential flats. I remember going into the Abbey in the 1980s when it was still a monastery and looking down the cold, dark corridors that spoke of frugal and devoted lives. The monks were long gone and I wondered if there were new witnesses to the Loch Ness Monster in those rooms or whether their fast, consumer lives precluded such activities?

The town was its usual tourist self as Easter visitors from Britain and the wider world arrived in their cars and coaches. That is one aspect of Loch Ness that won't be changing anytime soon. A visit to a local shop betrayed the new Nessie-speak as two sceptical books by Adrian Shine and Tony Harmsworth lay side by side on the shelf competing with one another for the tourist pound. One other book took a more mysterious approach to the loch and I wondered which of the three was more likely to be bought by tourists to aid their journey.

At this point, we then headed off to the loch via a quieter route past the camping site and on to the bridge overlooking the River Tarff. The word "Tarff" is Gaelic for "Bull" and I have mused in the past whether there is a reference there to the old water-bull legends that once held the locals in awe of the place. However, the modern soon overtook the ancient as a powerful odor assailed our nostrils as we walked along the river to Loch Ness. But it was not the sulfurous stench of aquatic demons, but the unappealing whiff of the local sewage works.

Holding our noses we pressed onto Borlum Bay and walked along its shingle beaches. The loch was now before us and opened up into a grand vista that stretched northwards to the distant horizon. The hunt was now on but what were the chances of anything presenting itself to view over the next few days? Statistically, some have suggested an average of 300+ hours of quality surveillance but in reality people have sighted the beast on their first visit while others continue to wait after decades of watching. By the very nature of the mystery I knew the odds were stacked against us, but if you don't go and look, the probability of seeing anything is exactly zero.

Presently, we came upon a fire fuelled by various pieces of driftwood and engaged some anglers in conversation. They were there to hopefully catch some trout but also get ahead of the various fishing clubs that would soon descend upon the loch. Apparently, the catch is not so good once these clubs have had their way with the loch. I asked one man whether he had seen anything bigger in the loch (i.e. the Monster), but he said he didn't believe there was anything in the loch. At this point he told me that he had watched a documentary on TV which stated that only 24 tonnes of fish were in it - not enough for Loch Ness Monsters. I was tempted to correct him on a few matters related to fish stocks and predators but decided to just leave on amicable terms. As we walked along the beach and past some very Nessie-like pieces of driftwood the sky began to darken and the only long necked creatures on display were the slow moving white swans standing out against the dark waters.

We soon arrived at the spot on the beach where in 1934 Margaret Munro claimed to have seen the Loch Ness Monster lying on the beach from her employers' house. I took some footage and pictures and will use those for a future posting but again there was that sense of standing on Loch Ness History. Had a long necked creature of thirty feet or more really lounged 78 years before on the very spot I now stood on? If it had happened yesterday, I would be looking for anything that looked like a DNA sample. Back then, her employers could only visit the beach and note the unusually large depression in the shingle.

Trudging back to camp, I settled down to read a book perfectly suited to the Monster Hunt, "The Great Orm of Loch Ness" by Ted Holiday. In my opinion, no book better captures the romanticism and mystique of the Loch and its legendary inhabitant. As I considered my own current trip in a cold tent on a dark evening, I empathised with Holiday as he took us through his own expeditions of the early 1960s with their cold nights on the beach and the lonely vigils during the long Scottish Summer evenings. His first visit in 1962 ended with a hump sighting at Foyers, I wondered if I would have such a stroke of luck or be forced again to admit the loch does not give up its secrets so easily.

With day dawning on Saturday, the first task was to install the trap camera at a suitably quiet spot. This time I was more minded to place it near river mouths where the creature is reputed to chase its food but nothing suitable was forthcoming in the short time available, so I left it strapped to a tree at a previous spot to be picked up again in two days. Having armed the camera to snap anything that moved within 50 feet of it, I stopped off at the shop run by the Hargreaves who had a sighting of the creature last Summer. One of the witnesses gave some details and she also drew what she saw (which I shall post in due time). Apparently, since the sighting got such large publicity, they regularly get lots of enquires about it, more than they can handle!

In the afternoon, we headed to the village of Bunloit near Drumnadrochit to ascend Meall Fuar-mhonaidh, the highest point around Loch Ness at about 2100 feet. It was a battle between us and snow, bog and rocks but we got to the summit two hours later and were rewarded with a superb view of Loch Ness from Fort Augustus in the south up to the north end and beyond to the Moray Firth. Legend has it that a small loch near the summit is unfathomable (perhaps Loch Nam Breac Dearga) and that once a stick thrown into it appeared some days later in the River Ness. Such were the local tales of underground caverns and channels, but this was not some ultimate water funnel ride we were about to test so we pressed on back downhill while the weather was still dry and on our side. Modern technology intruded again as I managed to make a mobile phone call back home from this most barren of landscapes!



When we got back nearer to sea level, food was more on our minds than monsters and after such ardour I was not particularly minded to cook and so we drifted over to the restaurant run by the Drumnadrochit Hotel. This is just beside the Loch Ness Centre which runs an exhibition designed by Adrian Shine and emphasises the complete story of the loch rather than just its famous resident. I often wonder what tourists expect to see when they go in - a 100% Nessie presentation or something more balanced? I found out just before this that almost 300,000 visitors went through its doors in one recent year. I reckoned that was a turnover of nearly £1.5 million, who said cryptozoology didn't make money? But then again, how much has that exhibition got to do with cryptozoology? But thanks to the vagaries of free enterprise and competition, there is the Nessieland Castle Monster Centre just down the road which proclaims that "We believe in the Monster!". So you can check up on food chains and plankton at one exhibition and then check out the plesiosaurs in the other. Personally, I think I prefer something in between - but they were both closed anyway.

After battling Meall Fuar-mhonaidh, I woke up on Sunday feeling the worse for wear but we got moving eventually and headed for a gentler walk by Alltsigh Burn (just north of Invermoriston). This river has some odd stories attached to it (as I outline in my book) and so I was keen to take a closer look as its torrents plunged down in spate towards the loch. There have been some good sightings of the monster at this river mouth and perhaps it is worthy of closer attention in the future. The Youth Hostel beside it also brought back memories as the place I stayed at during my cycling visits of the 1980s.



Moving south, it was famous Nessie places again as I stopped first opposite the Horseshoe Scree where Torquil MacLeod had his well known sighting of the monster in 1960. As I trained my binoculars on that feature one mile away (pictured below), I tried to put myself in the place of Torquil and what he described that day. As I sized up the scale of the trees and the various boats that passed near its shore, I realised how inadequate the various goats and boats explanations were that attempted to discredit this event, but that is for another day and another posting.




After some more watching of the loch and its whipped surface, we headed back for pasta carbonara via the small burn where Jean MacDonald and Patricia Harvey claimed to have seen a large creature hastening past them on a brilliant moonlit night in 1934. With the food finished, we headed out on the evening road back to Drumnadrochit to attend the evening worship at the local presbyterian church. Afterwards, the minister confessed he had not seen any monster in sixteen years to which I half-seriously suggested that sixteen years was not long enough. We then discussed other incredible subjects such as the Edinburgh Trams project finishing on time and under budget, but even I have my limits of credulity and suggested that to err was human, but to forgive was divine.

It was again darkening nicely over Loch Ness, so it was time to deploy the night vision equipment. We pulled in at the same layby that was opposite the Horseshoe Scree and brought out the tripod, IR binoculars, cables and recording devices. The rain was gently falling so I used the opened tailgate of my car as a shelter for the equipment and trained it on the loch. I connected the laptop to the video out port of the binoculars and used the video capture software to set the correct focus. I could have done this looking through the eyepiece but there is a greater latitude for error here as the brightness of the eyepiece can dazzle the eyes which are now accustomed to the night light levels. By using the laptop, one is assured that the device is recording the correct scene.

As I surveyed the darkening loch, I recalled Ted Holiday's words about how the loch was a place best left alone at night and wondered what use he and other famous monster hunters would have made of the technology that is now available to modern Nessie hunters. In olden times, this was the hour of the Water Kelpie, but I pressed on regardless of any supposed demons out there. The loch was dark and it was now difficult to make out features on its surface with the naked eye but the night scope was relaying a good picture to the laptop and anything which broke surface would have registered nicely. I put the IR illuminating laser on but I did not notice a discernable difference on the display which I put down to the large distances involved.

At the start of the watch, I tried out the mini-DVR with its motion detection capability and left it to run for a bit. A walk in front of the binoculars and the record LED lit up on the DVR and I knew it was active. A clip is shown below which I felt was a better quality to the experiment I tried at Dores last October, but the light levels may have been different. I also think the recorded feed to the laptop was of a better yet quality.



However, I had a slight problem. If a black hump or head and neck broke the surface, would the mini-DVR go into record mode? It was correctly remaining inactive in response to the numerous waves rippling across the loch but there was a bit of a chicken and egg issue here since I required Nessie to surface in order to calibrate the device in order to record her in the first place! I could not even rely on a similar sized boat passing by since there is no boat traffic at night time on Loch Ness. I was beginning to think the mini-DVR was more a device to be combined with a daytime camcorder or settle for continuous record at night time. With some more recording on the devices done, we headed back to camp along the now lonely stretches of dark roads.

Monday came and it was time to pack up the tent. I don't know how fitfully the intrepid monster hunters of old slept in the wild, but I don't think I will ever get used to this less than superior form of sleeping. We then headed up along the south side of the loch to retrieve the trap camera and take it home. It was still there after two days but I had the feeling that a more secure way of setting up these cameras was necessary as, given enough time, it would surely be spotted and stolen. On the way back, I stopped off at the spot where Lachlan Stuart took his famous photograph of three triangular humps in 1951. This is another Nessie picture that has been dissed by the critics from day one but I shall put something out on the blog in due course.

By now rare sunshine had given way to rain as we approached Fort Augustus for one final time. The car tank was topped up and we headed back south to the big city. Unlike Ted Holiday and 1962, we did not spot the "Orm" as he called it. The images from the trap camera and night vision may yet show something but the assumption is they will not and the hunt will resume again for myself and others as a hopefully hot summer unfolds before us in the months ahead.

10 comments:

  1. A great read; very nice to vicariously travel the loch with you.

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  2. Bodge from Suffolk16 April 2012 at 12:33

    Great trip very well described , it almost made me dump everything in the car & drive up myself !! can't wait til yout next visit..I hope you caught something on the trap camera...

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  3. Interesting report. The Presbyterian Minister will probably be eaten by the monster or a haggis, I feel its predestined.

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  4. Love the post,great read but a few points you missed out on,when hunting a elusive mythical creature(Nessie the Loch Ness Monster}you got to get lucky and think right out of the box,and pit your wits against the elusive mythical creature,i am going set a trap cam up and watch from a distance all will be done after the Ritual of course?.

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    1. You mean I should call in Kevin Carlyon to bless the camera?

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    2. I am so old that I have forgotten what "get lucky" means, and I don't think even Kevin the Witch can help me there, but maybe John is implying that your chances improve if you have a "kerry oot" after the Temple closes. Sadly, the medical evidence is contra-indicative.

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    3. Well, I did mention loading up the whisky in a previous post, it would have proven quite warming on a cold watch.

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    4. GB,everyone has has there own Rituals to carry out,some like charms some call it luck,i call it the knack, some people have a uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time.

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  5. A great read, sound like a lot of fun.

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  6. Thanks, made me nostalgic for well remembered places and scenes, like the Shell station and large shop in Ft. Augustus where we found a few good books and pamphlets over the years; and of course the two Centers in Drumnadrochit. Never climbed Meall Fuar-mhonaidh, but fairly often enjoyed the high lookout on the other side of the Loch.
    best of luck for future visits!

    Henry

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