Monday, 8 April 2013

A Report on the 80th Year of Nessie Symposium

Photo Credit: Alison Rutter

Nessie fans converged on Edinburgh this Saturday past to hear various speakers hold forth on different aspects of the mystery that has held the public attention for years. And it all began when a couple saw something whale like rolling in the loch in April 1933. The headline it generated has since spawned an untold stream of reports, articles, books, photos and films and there is no sign of the Nessie culture abating eighty years on.

The Guardian ran this story on the symposium. But writing this from my own perspective as a speaker and attendee, I hopped on the number 31 bus with my daughter and sister from my home nearby which helpfully dropped us off right beside the symposium venue. The PowerPoint file was duly submitted and the lectures began.

The symposium began with the news that speaker Paul Harrison had to pull out due to health concerns, so we wish him well and a good recovery.

First up was Adrian Shine, curator of the Loch Ness Centre at Drumnadrochit, Loch Ness. Adrian gave an overview of the loch geography, biology and ecology explaining how some of the natural events and objects at Loch Ness can fool people into thinking they are seeing monsters. However, he also postulated the visiting Atlantic Sturgeon as an additional reason why people may be fooled.

Now though I am a more traditional monster "believer", I do agree with Adrian that many sightings can be put down to such phenomena, the unresolved question is how many? I am also glad that he feels these alone are inadequate and that a "special beast" such as the sturgeon is required to complete the whole picture (well, no doubt there is room for more speculation). However, in my case, that "special beast" is something more mysterious than the Sturgeon.

I was up next with a talk on the pre-1933 folklore of the Loch Ness Water Horse. The material was taken mainly from my book though perhaps the "Loch Ness Kelpie" would be more appropriate as the beast of old was so named in nearly two thirds of the literature mentioning strange beasts in Loch Ness. I will be posting material from the talk on this blog in the weeks ahead. In the absence of Paul Harrison, I also added a few slides on 1933 since that was the reason we were here. Mention was made of key sightings (Mackay, Spicers, Gray) as well as the mania that unfolded as monster fever hit the British Isles. One clipping I have talks of the local authorities fretting over the application from 65 bus companies for excursion licenses (and that was just the companies and not the number of buses they hoped to run). This was despite the Loch Ness road being improved and widened. The mania of that time was also shown in a contemporary postcard which showed cars queueing along the loch as far as the eye could see.

Other notable sightings of that time were mentioned such as the curious double hump seen by a Mr. and Mrs. Simpson in late 1933. The painting below was executed by an artist under their direction for the Illustrated London News in May 1934.

After a good lunch, some free rum from the sponsors (Kraken Rum) and Gordon Holmes showing us his interesting video of an object in Loch Ness from 2007, it was onto to the next talk by Tony Harmsworth who was the first curator of the Official Loch Ness Exhibition Centre. He concentrated his talk on the 1970s and 1980s with particular emphasis on the Rines expeditions up to Operation Deepscan in 1987.

Needless to say, he was very critical of the way the Rines expedition had been conducted and the way they handled the material publicly. Of particular interest was the now notorious retouched flipper photograph from 1972 and the so called head and body pictures from 1975. The Operation Deepscan remarks ended on the note of the three mysterious sonar contacts that were obtained at the time which (unlike other contacts) were not there when a follow up boat went back to examine the locations.

What were they? Tony ended with the comment by a marine sonar specialist at the time that they were bigger than sharks but smaller than whales. And there we left that since in Tony's own words, sonar does not conclusively prove anything, a position I hold myself due to the lack of resolution in the sonar data.

However, the unknown contacts still stand and how one interprets them depends much on the beholder. Sonar has been improving over the years and the hope is that as resolution improves, it may yet pick up enough detail of anomalous images to be more decisive in a judgement.

David Martin Jones was next up with a talk on the cultural aspects of Nessie films and how they reflect the times they were made in as well as how they represented the Highlands and Scotland to the world. Emphasis was placed on the 1934 film, "Secret of the Loch" and the 1996 film "Loch Ness" with shorter references to other films including a 20 minute amateur Scottish production which I had no idea existed! I must track it down for a viewing sometime.

Following David was co-organiser Charles Paxton who specialises in statistical analyses of Loch Ness Monster reports. This is an evolving topic as he grows the database of sightings in search of patterns that may be seen in the sightings record. Charles is looking for clues that may help assess the human side of the monster stories and will publish his final conclusions in the months ahead.

The final speaker was co-organiser, Gordon Rutter, who despite being under the weather, manfully strove on with his talk on the photographic evidence for the Loch Ness Monster. Now this can be a contentious area as people have their own "favourites" which they may even hang their beliefs on. Gordon started at the Hugh Gray photograph and was mindful to mention the eel like head that this blog pointed out a couple of years back.

Most of the famous pictures were covered but time did not allow for all to be covered. Most were dismissed as hoax or misinterpretation but the jury was out on the Hugh Gray and Peter MacNab pictures (which I personally accept as genuine).  Some of the others I hope to address before the year is out.

So the symposium came to the final part which was a panel "Question and Answer" session composed of myself, Adrian Shine, Gordon Rutter and Steuart Campbell. In terms of big beast belief, my view held to a resident amphibious-like fish, Adrian a visiting sturgeon, Steuart nothing there and I am not sure about Gordon's views. Below is a picture of us taken from Steve Feltham's facebook page. I am the gormless looking one on the far left.

Questions were varied such as the future of Nessie in terms of research and as a cultural icon of Scotland and beyond. The latter seemed to be safe whilst the former was very much down to the funding of outside bodies. My own take was that we required another "Dinsdale Event" which would once again stir the public interest and move things forward. Such an item would have to be better than what Dinsdale filmed and take evidence to a new level. Whether it will come is a different matter.

The question of physical evidence was raised and there was a consensus that things that die in Loch Ness tend to go straight down never to rise again. In a piece of possible circular reasoning, I suggested dead Nessies may be cannibalised by other Nessies. Well, food is tight down there!

The subject of food supply was inevitably raised and the view of the panel majority was that there was not enough. I took issue with that pointing out the lack of real data on the total food supply and the equally vague subject of how much food the Nessie biomass requires. The normally quoted figure of 10 tonnes of fish for every tonne of Nessie is in my opinion too pessimistic, but I have covered this topic in a previous article.

So the symposium ended and I would put it down as a success. It was also good to meet people involved in the Loch Ness debate such as Dick Raynor, Tony Harmsworth, Adrian Shine, Steve Feltham, Gordon Holmes, etc. A special mention for enthusiasm must also go to Alexander Lovcanski who came all the way from Serbia for the symposium - and he doesn't even believe in the monster!

Going by the number of newspaper articles published prior to the event and the presence of a Japanese film crew at the event, I hope interest in the creature will be renewed, increased or even started for the first time.


  1. Good to hear it went so well. I was really looking forward to being at this event which is the first of its kind in a long time. Sadly it fell on the day I was still abroad on holiday. I hope some video of it pops up somewhere!

    1. The talks were recorded but I am not sure if they are available publicly or on request.

  2. Sounds like a truly wonderful day, and one I dearly wish I didn't have to miss. Thank you for the report GB, and your insights into how it went. Quite good to hear "the jury" couldn't rule out the authenticity of the Gray photo, nor could the MacNab photo be dismissed, which I think is even harder for the more skeptical folk to swallow. And doubly glad you were there both to contest the food supply argument on one hand, and support the amphibious nature of our mystery species on the other.

  3. I cannot help but notice that the Inverness Courier article reproduced above, published on May 2nd, places the event on "Friday of last week", which would have been the 28th April. It is generally accepted to have occurred on 14th April. It is interesting to observe the Courier invoking its "journalistic licence" so early in the story.

  4. Just looked back on this and again astonished: A symposium on Nessie without any discussion of the Dinsdale film? Like the 3 sonar contacts of DeepScan, it does exist. and showing that something much bigger than any known Ness resident was moving round quite fast, partly above water and then entirely submerged. NOT a sturgeon, some other "special" entity.

    1. As I recall, Tim's film was mentioned but only to debunk as a boat. My own talk covered folklore and 1933, so no scope there.