Thursday 28 August 2014

Sceptics, Steamships and Nessie

A comment appeared on the Internet recently concerning Victorian steam boats and the Loch Ness Monster. It is not the first time it has appeared, and I think I ought to address this from my side of the Nessie debate.

The argument runs that steam ship tourism was popular on Loch Ness during the time of Queen Victoria, so why do we not hear of any sightings from these passengers in the archives of books and newspapers? The argument is a corollary of the general argument that Nessie was just a 1930s fiction inadvertently created by fevered tourists whilst aided and abetted by a story-hungry media.

Now, we do have stories of people seeing the monster from 19th century steamers. We have the accounts of Roderick Matheson and Alexander MacDonald but since these were brought to light post-1933, sceptics dismiss them as lies and exaggerations.

But the argument, like most sceptical arguments, looks plausible on a cursory examination. However, when it is more closely scrutinised, it does not look probable. The word "plausible" is qualitative, but "probable" is more quantitative. We need some numbers here and the problem revolves around observers and sightings.

Today, many more people visit Loch Ness and as a consequence, there are more than a thousand recorded reports of the Loch Ness Monster. Some will be misidentification, some will be hoaxes and others will be genuine sightings of our famous monster. But how does that map to mid-19th century Scotland? Before we can make the semblance of a quantitative assessment, we need an idea of numbers.


The story of Highland tourism is one of a journey from seclusion and inaccessibility to one of improving infrastructure and prosperity. At the time of Samuel Johnson in the 18th century, most travellers either had a scientific, economic, religious or military purpose. In other words, Highland tourism back then was a bit like excursions to the Antarctic or Amazonian rain forests today. This was a worthy setting for our Loch Ness Kelpie to reside and rule.

The building of General Wade's military roads after the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion eased access to major population centres, but the infrastructure for travellers such as places to rest and eat were in very short supply. The other hindrance was the native language of Gaelic and the lack of English speakers to communicate with.

It was not until the mid 19th century that the pioneering explorer group gave way to the romantic traveller and aristocratic sportsman. This was aided by the building of the Caledonian Canal, railways, the popularity of Walter Scott's romantic novels and the deployment of steam powered boats. Many parts of Scotland opened up to the traveller, but it was far from the massed hordes we see today.

One source I have consulted for this article is the paper “Evolution of Tourism in the Scottish Highlands” by R. W. Butler published in 1985 as part of the "Annals of Tourism Research", vol.12. To quote Butler: 

A continuing improvement in roads and steamer services, and particularly the extension of rail service to Glasgow and Edinburgh, greatly eased this burden, such that “thousands of summer tourists every year and from every part of the civilized world” [Murdoch 1867:l) ranged over the Highlands and Islands by 1867.

It is here we first get a hint of the numbers involved as "thousands" made their way north every year. Indeed, the travel agency, Thomas Cook, was arranging travel packages to Scotland beginning in 1846 with a notable increase in the "middle and humbler classes". We are told he arranged parties of up to 200 people, the majority of whom, it seems, were ladies. In contrast, we are told he only ran four annual excursion trains from London (two each to Edinburgh and Glasgow).

However, the main reasons for travelling to Scotland were not exactly those of the modern tourist. Many made the trip to fish the rivers, shoot the grouse and bag a stag. It seemed the ideal Scottish souvenir was one that could be stuffed and mounted on the wall. Others were attracted to the alleged therapeutic benefits of certain locations or grand vistas to indulge their artistic hobbies.

By the end of the 19th century, major tourist hot spots had been established. We had Oban, Inverness, Strathpeffer, Fortrose, Tain, Golspie, Portree and so on. From our point of view, it is noted with interest that Inverness was described more as a route centre than a final destination in itself. However, by this time, Groome's Gazetteer only lists 170 inns and hotels in the area (not including fishing and shooting lodges) and their distribution reflected the high demanding for game.


Hardly the number we would expect of hundreds of thousands annually thronging the Highlands. As Butler states:

In general, the numbers of visitors at the turn of the century were still extremely small ...

Moreover, he elaborates:

The relatively high cost of travel, and the time involved, the generally expensive nature of most of the accommodation, and at least until the early twentieth century, the absence of holidays with pay, meant that for the most part the Highlands and Islands remained the holiday area for a fortunate elite and were not subjected to the pressures of large numbers of visitors.

So, we have indications of lower than supposed tourist traffic in the 19th century Highlands. Butler attempts to quantify that number by comparing the 1921 census with that of 1911 and 1931. The advantage to us is that the 1921 census was conducted in June whereas the others were done in April. Therefore, the difference in numbers should reflect the increase in tourists between April and June. As it turns out, the difference between April 1911 and June 1921 in the Highlands turns out to be 3,043 individuals.

I'll say that again - only 3,043 individuals. Butler statistically alters that number to 7,143 to account for the average rate of decrease between 1911 and 1931, but it is still a surprisingly small number. Of course, we would expect July and August to be busier with a drop off into autumn. Assuming modern tourist flows all year round, what would the total projected number of tourists be? The graph below denotes traffic flows between Fort William and Mallaig in the years 2006 and 2009.

Now, I have no idea how well this maps to changes in monthly Victorian tourism, but given the weather is the main driver of holidays, I suspect it will not be much different. So, given the known proportions for the other months relative to June we get the projected numbers below based on the assumption that the tourist season runs from May to September. So we estimate about 36000 tourists in the Highlands in 1921 and presume that this was pretty much the way of it in previous decades.

April 0
May 6428
June 7143
July 8095
August 8333
September 5952

But what proportion of these visitors went to Loch Ness? Comparing this to a recent study on Highland tourism, we note that there were 2.1 million visitors to the Highlands in 2010. How many went to Loch Ness? I have seen estimates ranging from 400,000 to 1 million. Clearly, the monster attraction of modern tourism does not apply to Victorian tourism, but the picturesque Great Glen and the "Royal Route" up the canal popularised by Queen Victoria still made this a top destination.

Applying our modern numbers of 0.4 and 1 million to 2.1 million Highland visitors, would equate to about 6,800 or 17,100 annual visitors to Loch Ness in Victorian times. Compared to up to a modern million, that is not a lot.

By way of confirmation, while I was researching, I found the book "From Sea to Sea: A History of the Scottish Lowland and Highland Canals" by Len Paterson. In this well researched publication, I found some hard numbers for Caledonian Canal traffic.

We find that tariffs charged by the Caledonian Canal authorities changed in 1860. Whereas they were previously calculated by ship tonnage, they were now calculated by passenger numbers. From this we learn that in 1863 15,500 passengers used the Caledonian Canal. This proved to be a bit of a watershed year as the railways were beginning to reach the Highlands and this alternate form of transport was beginning to eat into steam ship numbers.

Our calculation was an estimate between 6,800 and 17,100 (an average of nearly 12,000). So we were not far from the more accurate 15,500. So how does all this relate to the supposed absence of monster sightings in the mid 19th century? From this we can make an estimate as to how many Nessie sightings there may have been based on modern accounts. 

First, we need two numbers from the modern era of accounts. The first is the number of sightings since 1933. This is not too difficult to ascertain and we end up with a number close to 1250. The next question is how many people visited Loch Ness over that period of 80 years. That is not so easy to calculate as tourist numbers have varied quite a lot over that time frame.

For example, we have the manic period of 1933-34 when hordes of expectant travellers went to Loch Ness. In contrast, we have the period of 1939-1950 which included the Second World War and the subsequent rationing of petrol and other items which hindered long distance travel to the Highlands.

So 1933-1950 was a pretty volatile period and one is tempted to exclude it and concentrate on 1951-2013. Feel free to guesstimate tourist numbers for that period as I continue with a more statistically stable data set.

So between 1951 and 2013, I estimate 806 sightings were recorded. If we assume the lower range for visitors over that 62 year period of 400,000 per annum, that is 30,769 visitors per sighting. Using that ratio for the Victorian steamship period of 1860 to 1900, the projected number of sightings is:

15500 * 40 / 30769 = 20 sightings

That is one sighting every two years on average. Hardly a rate of sightings that would propel a Victorian phenomenon to escape velocity.  Moreover, the actual number of sightings could be lower for two further reasons.

Firstly, a proportion of the 806 sightings will be misidentification. Since there was no "Nessie Effect" back in the 19th century, these would have to be discounted. What that proportion could be is very much in the eye of the beholder. For example, if you think it is 10%, the 20 drops to 18.

Secondly, tourists between 1951 and 2013 would likely be spending more time per person watching the loch, because, after all, there is now a monster in the loch. One should not assume that just because a Victorian steamer was in the middle of the loch, that passengers were more consistent observers of the loch. You had the distraction of the restaurant, the bar and your friends. In fact, the third class fare payers were normally kept below to keep them apart from the higher value customers who had more privileged access to the open areas.

If you don't think there is a monster to look for, you're better off admiring the changing landscape rather than the repetitive wave patterns below. Indeed, boat passengers see less of the loch compared to land observers. Watch the loch from Urquhart Castle and you will know how far your vista expands before you.

Being on the loch near surface level makes observation more difficult as a dark coloured object can be lost against the backdrop of the opposite shoreline (this argument is used by sceptics against Tim Dinsdale when he drove to the shoreline to find the creature after his famous footage).

What this all means quantitatively is uncertain, but it seems clear to me that the only advantage of being on the water is that one in theory could be closer to the monster. But then there is the argument that Nessie stays away from noisy, threatening steam ships.


But there is one final item that confirms this analysis. Paterson in the aforementioned "From Sea to Sea" mentions that the steamer ship trade experienced something of a revival in the 1930s. No prizes for guessing why - the Loch Ness Monster. He goes on to say that,

In that decade tourists numbered never less than 9,300 and were as many as 14,800. After a gap this trade revived and grew back again to pre-war numbers, cynics attributing this to the publicity give to the myth of the Loch Ness Monster.

So here we have a perfect opportunity to put Victorian era passengers numbers into a Nessie era setting. How many sightings were made from these boats? Paterson does not state which years these two numbers refer to, but I have no doubt that the high of 14,800 passengers were on the loch in the most manic year of 1934.

Looking at the database of sightings I have, the total number of reported sightings in 1934 from steamships was exactly zero. That is despite there being nearly 200 reports for that year. There are three reports from boats (Donald Williamson, crew of "Sedulous" and A.G. Chambers), but none of these were excursion steamships. If anyone cares to tell me of any steamship based sightings for 1934, leave a comment below.

The calculations here predicted one sighting every two years in the Victorian steamship age. Zero sightings in the one year of 1934 is consistent with that. It seems monster hunting from steamships is not all it is cracked up to be.

In fact, this is a bit of a mystery. Why so few reports from boats? After all, even witnesses on boats can mistake birds, otters, waves, deer, etc from their vantage point. Why do we not even have a goodly number of lightweight reports that can be dismissed as known phenomena?

It would be naive to simply suggest witnesses can better assess objects in the water. After all, an object 400 metres away is no more easier to judge than an object at a similar distance seen from land. Indeed, it could be argued it is harder to judge from the water.

It would be tempting to suggest this has monster connotations, but the truth seems to be that there are simply not enough boat witnesses in proportion to land based witnesses to generate the expected number of reports.

In conclusion, the claim that Victorian steam boat tourists should have been a rich source of sightings is not borne out by the numbers. Doubtless, some did see the monster. If they reported it to the Highland newspapers, they would have been dismissed. What their local newspapers back down in England made of these "kelpie" stories is unknown. It is not even known what proportion were reported to the media and what proportion of that proportion made it into print.

What seems to be certain is that the supposed issue is not as big as some make out.

NOTE: A follow up post has been posted here.


  1. It's wonderful to be able to benefit from your dedicated research that brings FACTS instead of the usual "skeptical" speculation and innuendo. THANKS! Please keep up the good work.


    1. I agree, though to be fair GB does conduct all of his research with the sole aim of finding references and data to either back up Nessie sightings, or to find excuses for no Nessie sightings. Henry, you cannot say GB sets out to research and write up his articles with an open mind - he always triex to present a case FOR Nessie. Does this weaken the research somewhat? For me, yes it does. But still this is an interesting read.

      One facet of this is missing, however. We often see reference to reasons why we don't see Nessie much in the modern era of a busier loch. A reason given is that Nessie surfaces less frequently since boat traffic increased. Surely, then, this should be factored into the calculations and should result in a higher number of surfacings in the 19th century? Ok, far fewer people to see them, but shouldn't there be more surfacings per year back then if we follow the logic that a busy loch = fewer surfacings?

      Let's also not forget the crazy times of the 1930s when - as GB's previous article noted - the "monster" was seen 5 times in 1 day! Nothing like that before or after the 30s? I wonder why.

      Henry, I own a book written by you. I feel it could have benefitted from a touch more scepticism. In fact I think I'll get it from my bookcase this evening and have another read.

    2. One man's reason is another man's excuse.

      I will post arguments against the monster on the blog, but then critique them. I don't see articles on sceptical websites that are pro-monster, so this cuts both ways.

      Yes, it is posisble the monster surfaced more in Victorian times, But that can be couuntered by the lack of misidentifications that would have prevailed and the lack of people in "monster hunting" mode.

      1933-1934 was indeed a unque period and a staistical quirk compared to the rest of the record. We can argue about why that was the case, but along with the dead 1940s, it was not a suitably representative sample period.

    3. GB, I'm not even suggesting you actually should post sceptical articles. What I'm saying is that the reader should be aware that you set out with a very clear aim when writing your articles. I feel this leads to you cherry picking the pro-Nessie data and discarding some of the other material. Or at least not representing both sides equally when discussing the data you've unearthed.

      This is entirely your prerogative, but I would urge readers to bear this in mind when visiting this site.

      Like you say, GB, you're endeavouring to rescue Nessie from the current tide of scepticism, and for that you are to be saluted. But for scientific objectivity? I think you'd agree there will be no Nobel prize heading your way soon. :-)

    4. Cherry picking the data? If you would provide these other numbers (e.g. ferry passengers numbers, visitors to Loch Ness in the modern era), I would be happy to consider them. And state your sources.

    5. Ok, by *cherry picking" I was more referring to the cherry picking of explanations - a prime example being "Hardly any reports during the years when the loch had little tourism? Oh, that's because hardly anyone was there." ...coupled with "Hardly any reports during the modern times with lots of tourism? Oh, that's because it's too busy."

      What I'm saying is there's a tendency to cherry pick explanations more than data. Circular arguments. Similar to the one which says the reason for far too few sonar contacts is because Nessie might not show a sonar trace.... but when a sonar trace IS detected, well we'll say that's Nessie, thanks.

      Personally I am way too busy to do my own new research on Nessie, so I'm pretty much at your mercy when it comes to data. However, I'm not at your mercy when it comes to interpreting the data you produce.

      Though obviously I am at your mercy when it comes to you publishing my submitted posts. :-)

    6. Let me explain something here. It is not a case of "Hardly any reports during the years when the loch had little tourism" being some kind of circular reasoning. It is countering the claim at the top of the article that there should have been loads of sighthings.

      It is also a bit illogical to then link this to your second statement "Hardly any reports during the modern times with lots of tourism". This was rather more focussed on a subset of boat reports. Why excursion steamers in 1934 registered no sightings is straight from the raw data, not my speculations.

  2. "It seems monster hunting from steamships is not all it is cracked up to be.
    In fact, this is a bit of a mystery. Why so few reports from boats? After all, even witnesses on boats can mistake birds, otters, waves, deer, etc from their vantage point. Why do we not even have a goodly number of lightweight reports that can be dismissed as known phenomena?"

    As regards creatures that live in the water, the "Nessie repelled by sound" argument has been put forward on here. As regards creatures that live on dry land isn't the lack of bogus reports a possible blind check on the truthfulness of tourists? I've tended to go for the bulge in reports in the 1930s as largely being caused by the "15 minutes of fame" effect, but this might argue against it.
    (And not forgetting the other traffic on the canal. As I've said its use by fishing boats was on the slide in the 1930s.)


    P.S. Love your 'escape velocity' reference. You are Shinzo Abe and I claim my £ 5 (In post-referendum gold crouns).

    1. Post referendum gold crowns? It's all digitised money now!

      If Salmond gets his way, Nessie would be the only thing keeping me here! (well, not quite).

  3. Roland wrote "From this we learn that in 1863 15,500 passengers used the Caledonian Canal. This proved to be a bit of a watershed year as the railways were beginning to reach the Highlands and this alternate form of transport was beginning to eat into steam ship numbers."

    Yet, 3 years later... (from Am Baile website) ...
    PS 'Edinburgh Castle' had been plying between Banavie and Inverness, through the Caledonian Canal, since 1847. The popularity of the route led to the introduction of a second ship, PS 'Gondolier', in 1866. Built by Clyde-based shipbuilders, J & G Thomson, she was designed specifically for working in and out of canal locks."

    These data seem incompatible. Perhaps "this blog" will reconcile them?

    And of course these two vessels were engaged on the Banavie to Inverness
    service. There was also the daily passenger and mail service between Inverness and Fort Augustus, reaching as far back as 1820.

    1. It was a watershed year in terms of railways, not steamships. A spur line was added in 1863 which connected the Inverness-Aberdeen line to the Perth-Glasgow line. This opened up the Highlands to more rail travel and the beginning of the end of steamship dominance.

      Of course, the owners of the Gondolier and Glengarry would not have been aware of that. Over-investment is always made at the top of bubbles.

      The passenger numbers for mail steamers would have been already included in the number given.

    2. Here's something from A.D. Cameron's "The Caledonian Canal" to throw into the debate:
      "…in the 1860s it [the canal] was just paying its way. Passenger steamers were as busy as ever but the trade in herring and potatoes to Ireland and the West of England began to decline.
      …The period of the American Civil War (1861-5), however, helped to increase the number of through voyages. Cut off from the usual sources of raw cotton in America, some West of Scotland manufacturers turned again to linen production, using flax from the Baltic. In addition, considerable cargoes of iron passed through the Canal for railway-building in the north. In 1866 the total number of voyages through the Canal by sailing ships and steamships carrying passengers and cargo was over two thousand."
      There's also the point about the effect of loch infrastructure changing over time. For example, the author Katherine Stewart talks about the "Gondolier" first calling at Abriachan Pier in 1866. I don't see the pier on the earliest Ordnance Survey maps, so that may be more or less the time when it was built.


  4. Not to change subject, but did anyone see the show about LN with that 'ancient aliens' character, Giorgio Tsoukalos? The 'I'm not saying it was aliens, but it was aliens" guy?
    He hung out with Steve Feltham on that show. I think he winds up coming to the conclusion Nessie is brought here by.... can you guess.... aliens or something, lol


    1. I was meaning to listen to that. I covered the "Nessie as Alien" theory in a post a few months back.

    2. I wonder if David Icke has a Nessie theory on his website?!

  5. good work.......thank you ........

  6. I would suggest that you are under-informed regarding the steamer business. Again from Am Baile "Commencing in 1847, the 'Edinburgh Castle' (later re-named 'Glengarry') plied the Caledonian Canal for eighty years sailing the 66 miles from Banavie Hotel, near Fort William, through the Caledonian Canal linking Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and Loch Ness, to Dochgarroch, a little south of Inverness. She had been built in 1844 and sold to the shipping empire of Messrs G & J Burns in 1846.
    On 13 February 1851 Messrs Burns sold their fleet of West Highland steamships to a partnership of David Hutcheson, who had been managing them for some time, his brother Alexander, and the Messrs Burns' nephew, David MacBrayne. Their fleet comprised eight ocean-going paddle steamers and two track boats on the Crinan Canal.
    The success of the Banavie to Inverness route led to the introduction of a second ship, the 'Gondolier', in 1866, designed specifically for working in and out of canal locks. In the 1870s the 'Edinburgh Castle' was lengthened, provided with saloons and given a new name - 'Glengarry'. The volume of passenger, cargo and mail on the Banavie to Inverness route continued to increase and a third ship had to be introduced in 1877. From 1895 the 'Glengarry' was placed on the Loch Ness mail run from Fort Augustus to Inverness where she remained until her last run on 29 October 1927 and was broken up three months later. At 83 she was the oldest steamship in the world."

    "... a third ship had to be added in 1877..."

    The owner of the Gondolier and Glengarry and many other Glasgow-based vessels was David MacBrayne, a very astute businessman, and according to the CalMac website the company continued to expand *due to* the new railway links to the West Coast rather than in spite of them. I believe your analysis of passenger numbers in Victorian times is flawed and that there were far more boat passengers on Loch Ness then than you calculate.

    1. I will address your objections in a follow up article. So watch this space.

    2. Would it be awfully cheeky of me to quote Henry but with a little twist?

      It's wonderful to be able to benefit from Dick's dedicated research that brings FACTS instead of the usual "believers" speculation and innuendo. THANKS! Please keep up the good work.


    3. I suggest you wait for my reply before you go down the sycophant route, GS.

    4. Why didn't you call Henry sycophantic for just accepting everything you wrote as fact and not waiting for any replies?

    5. I know him better than you.

      Let's see you critique some of your sceptical experts if you are not a sycophant, GS.

    6. I'm pretty sure I've disagreed with something Dick has said on your pages in the past.

      I also remember thinking a sceptic who said the Bright photo involved computer manipulation had lost his marbles, as that photo blatantly just shows a wave, plain and simple.

    7. GB, if you have the time to search for them it would be of interest to see the naval architects drawings for the Gondolier, built by J & G Thomson, Glasgow or for the extended Glengarry that plied the Caledonian Canal from the 1860's if they still exist.They might show indications of seating arrangements which might give a clue regarding passenger capacity.

    8. Well, I don't know if the guy you thought had lost his marbles was an expert in Loch Ness research, but what did you disagree with Dick on?

    9. Seeing the seating plans would be of interest, as would the facilities on board that would divert the passengers from staring at the loch. Some of the seating would surely be below deck for the "lower classes" and thus preventing a consistent view of the loch.

    10. I'm not sure who I would consider to be "Loch Ness experts". The only "experts" I can think of are yourself (GB), Adrian Shine, Dick Raynor and Tony Harmsworth. None of these are the person I thought had lost their marbles.

  7. Where's the Colin Baxter booklet photo by the way?

    1. I think it appeared on the "lake Monsters" facebook page some months back. It was suggested is was one of George Edwards' pictures.

    2. Suggested by who GB ??????? and what facebook ' lake monsters ' page??????? The photo im talking about has nothing to do with george edwards. What about the video that goes with it???? Never mind GB only trying to let people see good photos of the mystery and not usual rubbish ie wakes twigs and hoaxes.

    3. The usual suspects, Jake. Where was that video link?

    4. I still want to see it! I feel like you feel about Mr Shine and the stuff you want to see from the archives.

  8. Dont know. After a bit of investigation ive found out it was as someone suggested taken by a member of the AAS bout ten years ago whilst they wer at the loch !

  9. Jake asked what facebook lake monsters page. Just go to facebook and type lake monsters in the find friends box. It works.