Thursday, 30 July 2015

On the Horns of a Dilemma

Before I went on holiday, somebody posted on Facebook an excerpt from Peter Costello's book "In Search of Lake Monsters". I reproduce that piece below.

Now it is not a new thing that deer have been suggested as misidentified Nessies, but that is not the problem. Every "believer" accepts people misidentify objects for the Loch Ness Monster, but not to the ridiculous proportions demanded by sceptics. The problem lies in this particular treatment of three reports.

Peter Costello stated that reports of monsters with horns could actually be deer because younger stag had short unbranched antlers in August and that was when these three horned monster sightings were reported. Maurice Burton, in his book, The Elusive Monster, echoes this theory by printing a photograph of the proposed type of deer.

With this in mind, I decided to update the list of horned reports forty years on. The list is shown below, beginning with the original three.

1. Mr. A.H. Palmer 10th August 1933
2. Peter Grant 12th August 1934
3. Mrs Greta Finlay 20th August 1952
4. Kenneth A Key 11th September 1952
5. Pupil from Fort Augustus School November 1960
6. Helen McNaughton 8th September 1965
7. Farmer and wife May 1982   
8. Jan Erik Beckjord 6th August 1983

There are some horned sightings which I have excluded. The first is the legendary MacRae film which cites horns, but we have no proof that this eyewitness event even took place (if it did, it may have been in July).

The second is the (in)famous 1975 Rines underwater photograph which alleges to show a horned head. Since deer don't tend to travel 40 feet under the surface of Loch Ness, it's not a valid report for this type of discussion.

Finally, Maurice Burton mentions account number five. It was a sighting involving multiple schoolboys but not all describe horns. I include it nonetheless, because if one starts stripping out sightings based on various objections, one assessor may keep all them and another may reject the lot.

So the monthly distribution is now:

August - 4
September - 2
November - 1
May - 1

Looking at the cases in general, the most famous horned case is number three - Greta Finlay. You can read more about that report in my previous articles here and here.

Case number one may also be familiar to readers as it is a curious affair involving what seems to be no more than a head. Maurice Burton tried to present this as another deer event as the following scan from his book demonstrates. However, this time a hornless deer is invoked rather than a horned one (which rather begs the question as to why Peter Costello used it in his August Antler theory).

Maurice Burton also discusses the second case in his book involving a Mr. Peter Grant. I went to the closest source for this particular case, which was printed in the Northern Chronicle of 15th August 1934 and is reproduced below.

No sketch accompanied this account, so Maurice Burton sent the report to some artists he knew and asked them to draw what they thought was being described. These drawings are again reproduced below, though one must be aware that there will always be a degree of subjectivity when one is attempting to draw an animal which one has not personally seen or is not under the supervision of the one who did. The variation in the drawings exemplifies this.

So what are the problems with Peter Costello's analysis? The first is the chart below which shows the monthly distribution of monster reports. The peak month is August which coincides with the peak month for horned monster reports. The explanation behind this chart is simple, more people are watching the loch in the Summer months right up to a peak in August which then tails off into Autumn as the tourists leave, the locals stay indoors more and daylight hours decrease.

So to treat this theory properly, the data has to be weighted to take into account the increased number of observers in the Summer months. So, for example, we note that there almost twice as many reports in August as there are in September. It is also noted that the number of horned reports is again twice as much in August as it is in September. In other words, the proportions are similar which suggests the variation is not down to deer with velvet horns in August, but the number of observers in each month.

Having said that, I won't attempt a reweighting as we come to the second problem.The issue here is the size of the dataset and its useful in finding statistically significant results. Eight reports of horns over eighty years is really not a lot and one wonders if anything statistically useful can be done with it. Overall, this eight constitutes only about 0.6% of the entire sightings record.

This inadequate dataset is demonstrated by the fact that there are no horn reports for the next busiest months of June and July. That signifies an inadequacy in the dataset and hence making observations about August reports is not a valid approach.

Thirdly and finally, I question whether deer horns in August is in fact a viable theory at all. When you read Peter Costello's statement again, you may be led to think that August was the only month in which deer display monster-significant antlers.

So, we are told that these short antlers are covered in velvet in August and this somehow makes the deer more monster-like. But what about June, July, September and October? Of course, the antlers will be growing throughout gaining and then losing this velvet covering, but I fail to see how deer in these other four months are significantly less deceptive. 

The table of antler growth below charts the development of deer antler. I note that the deer sheds its first set of antlers in April/May of its second year of life and the new set grows to full size by August. This suggests that antlers that are so-called "monster-significant" should be present in July and perhaps even June. The absence of horn reports in these months suggests it has nothing to do with deer antler but other non-deer factors.


I don't doubt some people have been fooled by deer, but my own conviction is that these are more likely for sightings seen at further distances or hampered by other factors such as brevity of time or poor observational conditions. In the case of reports such as Greta Finlay where the creature was 20 yards away, we can reject deer explanations as forced and naive.

What we can see is that horns are not a significant part of the Loch Ness Mystery. This may be in part due to the fact that most sightings are not amenable to seeing such a small feature. Other close sightings (such as John MacLean) do not mention any such antennae.

In fact, the idea of horns on the monster only really became popular with the 1975 underwater "gargoyle" picture which in turn inspired the "Courtship in Loch Ness" painting by Sir Peter Scott. From thereon in, they occasionally appear in the cultural representations of Nessie, such as the recent Water Horse film.

But since I accept that sightings such as those by Greta Finlay are genuine, then I accept the concept of "horns" whatever they may be. And there lies the horns of a dilemma, what exactly are we seeing here? One suggestion is that these are snorkels to take in air and are even retractable (which would seem to be their default position).

Since I believe the monster is a water breather, I don't see them as snorkels, though retractability is acceptable. More likely to me is the idea that they may be sensory organs akin to barbels which are useful for sensing the dark environment of the loch waters.

Of course, one's interpretation depends on how one views the Loch Ness Monster phenomenon; be you fish, plesiosaur, salamander or sceptic oriented. But then again, perhaps the sceptic at the top of the page had no business submitting this argument?

It seems that some of that ilk have declared that you can't trust witnesses or the newspapers that report them not to embellish their stories with lies. So, the big question is, how does a sceptic know that horns were not added by the witness or reporter for dramatic effect? They don't, so they have no business giving an opinion on any eyewitness testimony.

But, five years on and still going strong, this blog will continue to give its views on what eyewitnesses have seen and will continue to expose sceptical arguments for what they are.

See you next article!

The author can be contacted at


  1. Interesting. Now we have retractable hornlike appendages to go with the retractable neck/pproboscis. This monster gets crazier by the month.

    Regarding your challenges to skeptical arguments, I've yet to see you come even close to dealing successfully with any skeptics. You seem to acknowledge it by mentioning skeptics more and more in your articles. Have Have you considered ending your blog? I feel it had run its course about a year ago.

    1. Just speculation, just like some of the crazy sceptical arguments I have come across and addressed many a time on this (continuing) blog. I just knew you would zero in on the easiest parts of the article to criticise.

      Instead of vacuous bluster why don't you tell me exactly where the arguments in this article have gone astray? Should be easy since you declared this article has not even come close to dealing successfully with the sceptical argument under consideration.

      Now get your brain out of neutral and engage properly, Sherlock.

    2. Another loud skeptic goes AWOL as soon as you ask a simple question.

  2. Michael Alberty30 July 2015 at 12:20

    I have to confess, Fig. 17 of Burton's book has always reminded me of a large, open-mouthed catfish swimming toward me.

    1. A topical observation, Michael. That must be some big mouthed deer!

  3. To me Fig. 17 looks like a manta ray smiling for the camera. The fact that they don't have teeth nor have I heard reports of Mantas living in the loch make that a moot point but that's just my two cents.
    - Javiere

    1. Funnily enough, Gould made the same comment:

  4. BTW, if you read around the Burton quote in Peter's book, the context was an August 1967 photo handed into the Loch Ness Investigation which they enlarged to show it was a deer.

    Costello revives Burton's August Antler theory and then says this photo was supportive of that theory. I am not so sure without seeing the original sighting report (if any) and the original photo. Since the photo was enlarged that suggests the deer was a long way out and therefore I am not sure the witnesses would have made out any horns (and how exactly would they distinguish them from ears?).

    If it was indeed a long way out that just goes along with my statement in the article about deer possibly being misidentified at longer distances.

    Costello felt the photo should have been commented upon by the likes of Dinsdale, Holiday, Witchell in their books and sees this as an omission. I don't agree, they probably didn't see Burton's theory as convincing, so why give it airtime?

    It's also ironic that the person who posted this scan from Costello's book stopped the scan at "scientific rigour". If you read the next sentence in the book, Costello goes onto argue that horns/antennae were actually the ears of his favoured long necked seal!

    In other words, Peter Costello, was arguing that "horns" were a genuine feature of LNM sightings and he endorses the Greta Finlay sighting as a monster report earlier in the book!

  5. Anonymous -
    Seeing as you object to the idea of an aquatic animal with a retractable, elongated neck and hornlike protuberances I suggest you google Florida Softshell Turtle. This turtle has a retractable elongated neck and a hornlike snorkel tube for a proboscis. My point being that you shouldn't be so quick to mock GB's speculations regarding the LNM's physical traits, as the animal kingdom is full of creatures with remarkable morphologies.

    1. Anonymous will also be interested in GBs previous post “What is Nessie? The Long Neck Problem” here:

      I know we are not suggesting that the LNM is a giant turtle, although others have, but it just confirms the diversity in animals of the same species.

    2. Ok John, if "we" are not suggesting a turtle, what animal are "we" suggesting that bears any precedent within the fossil record? Or are "we" just creating a fanciful, multi-faceted animal to try to justify the extreme diversity of eyewitness reports?

    3. Well, I don't know, you don't know. Nobody for certain knows. The fossil record could be incomplete. Maybe something evolved out of something from the prehistoric past that is in the fossil record. And, I am not talking about an evolved, mutant plesiosaur either. I just believe something is there.

    4. Out of curiousity, what is the estimate of what proportion of all species ever did not make it into the fossil record?

    5. I hope your question is rhetorical GB, cause I wouldn't know, who does. In our modern world the greatest variety of animal life, so naturalist tell us, is in the insect world and every so often a new species is discovered.

    6. Pete (original)2 August 2015 at 04:18

      I'm glad you raised this question GB as the fossil record only scratches the surface of what is known, even in modern times. More info can be found here

    7. If there really were big animals in Loch Ness we wouldn't even need to discuss all this stuff. There would be no need to create growing and shrinking appendages, no need to sidestep the fossil record. We would have film and specimens long long ago. It's all in the mind dudes.

    8. Thanks, Pete.

      Palmerston, it's a mind thing for all concerned until the fnal conclusive evidence lands. Others propose large creatures such as sturgeon and catfish, no film, no specimens, but strangely no complaints!

    9. Pete (original)2 August 2015 at 12:00

      Hi GB. The l is missing from the end of the link I provided. Should be html. Oops, sos about that.

    10. Yeah, found that out Pete, got a “Error 500 View not found” but I just went to the Home page, navigated to Sections: Evidence for Evolution, then Sub-menu 16 The Fossil Record. Raises some interesting questions and doubts about the fossil record. Thanks.

    11. Rather than dreaming up ever more unlikely extendable/retractable properties for our beastie, have you considered that the contradictions in eyewitness reports might actually be caused by something far more mundane and more likely, namely misidentification? Pointing out the weird and wonderful in nature and fossil record gaps seems to be allowing your imaginations to run wild, dudes. None of this sounds even slightly plausible to this gnarled old science teacher.

    12. Pete (original)3 August 2015 at 09:59

      I agree John. Life has been on Earth for hundreds of millions of years yet there are still some who believe we have found most of the answers in the last 150 years or so. I think there are still many surprising finds to be unearthed, and as a cosmetic surgeon might say, "a few eyebrows may be raised". Lol.

    13. Mr. Science teacher,

      I am all too well aware of the contradictions in the sightings database. Anyone analyzing it has to contend with a proportion which are:

      gross misidentification (logs, waves, etc),
      fine misidentification (witnesses not describing true LNMs properly)
      LNM variation (different LNM aspects)

      Not a simple task to disentangle.

    14. Yes, Pete. Mankind often gets too far ahead of itself.

    15. Certainly when it comes to creating fantasy monster scenarios, yes Glasgow Boy!

    16. No fantasy when it comes to the monster being there, but one's speculations (or fantasies as your pejorative implies) are that and no more.

      A bit like claiming someone can mistake a deer at 20 yards for a monster. Now that is fantasy!

    17. It's certainly possible that they could. It's also possible that they just plain lied.

    18. It's also possible a plane could land on my car today, but I am not going to take it seriously.

      Saying someone lied just because you don't personally believe them is not a strong argument.

    19. If I may interject (science teacher here again), a logician would conclude that the mystery can be accounted for by a combination of mistakes and hoaxes. It is by far the most likely cause, when one considers how many people have visited Loch Ness every year for over 80 years in search of the beast. If an animal which behaved like the one in Greta Finley's report really did exist and was a previously unknown species, then it categorically would have been filmed on multiple occasions and we would not be talking of a mystery.

    20. This seems to be the main question that those sceptical of LNMs will continue to ask and its not the first time I have addressed it.

      The first problem is (and I have asked this before with no replies) how many "good" videos are you expecting? Can you quantify this? If you can't quantify it (as the word "logician" would imply) then one is left with the suspicion that this is an argument based on feelings and gut instinct rather than critical thinking.

      The other point is that using exceptional cases like the Finlay case as the benchmark to judge such theories as video opportunity is not a good idea. Such cases are extremely rare.

      The final point for now is that sightings are down and have been decreasing since the 1960s. That alone suggests a large decrease in video opportunities (though the image/sightings ratio is up in recent years).


    21. Thank you for your reply. Firstly, it would be possible to arrive at a likely range of films or videos we would now have if Nessie were real. The calculation would be based on sighting frequency, duration, and proportion of people at Loch Ness with cameras including phones. This would most definitely be possible using established principles. If this calculation has not yet been forthcoming from those sceptical of the Loch Ness monster, that does not mean the real answer should be zero. Such a conclusion would require equally strong proof. Doing a few basic calculations based on the figures I have seen, there should have been multiple clear videos by now. However, your final point about sightings dropping off since the sixties could point to a phenomenon you don't seem to have considered, namely that it becomes rather more absurd in the current day of mass camera ownership for someone to report a clear sighting without a clear video to support their tale. That, rather than an actual drop off in appearances of Nessie, could well be behind the big fall off in reports.

    22. Well, you have advanced slightly on those who don't even reply. But to use a mathematical analogy, you have stated the input parameters, but not told me the equation which produces the output parameters! I await your "formula".

      Your observation about camera ownership and reticence of reporting is not correct. Sightings have been dropping since the 1970s, not since mass mobile phone camera ownership took off (a much later phenomenon).

      The drop in sightings is a more complex matter and will most likely involve multiple factors. These are covered in the article I mentioned above. It does not appear that you have read it.

    23. Your position on this matter appears to be that it's possible for the hundreds of sightings to have included a considerable percentage of monsters, whilst at the same time for no clear films or videos to ever have been captured. I would ask you to mathematically/statistically prove your case too.

    24. I don't even know if you are the same "Anonymous" I am addressing, but you have ventured into the forbidden domain of "deflection".

      That is, it appears you cannot answer my question, but rather admit that, you try and deflect the problem back onto me. No doubt you will wave your hands and talk about "burden of proof" but I asked you a simple question and I think I am entitled to an answer - even if it is "I don't know".

      You began to answer the question, so why not finish it?

    25. I am none of the above anonymous posters. I made the effort a long time ago to show this calculation, submitted it, and it conveniently failed to appear.

      As for the above person being accused of deflection, may I remind Roland Watson that his original challenge was in fact a deflection away from himself when skeptics challenged him to prove his completely ridiculous "shock and awe" excuse for no films.

    26. As I said to you before, no such post or email has crossed my inbox. I asked you to resubmit it before, but you did not.

    27. And I would add my "shock and awe" theory was not suggested to explain away the absence of films. I guess your version of it is more convenient to your agenda?

  6. Regarding the A.H. Palmer sighting, Roy Mackal had a similar sighting. In his book Professor Mackal described seeing an object surface. The object was convex shaped and about a foot long. At each end there was a vertical projection of about an inch in diameter and an inch or so in height. The object rode heavily in the water (in other words, it didn't bob up and do with the waves) and after about 10 minutes disappeared below the surface. At the time he regarded it as interesting but inconclusive, but in later years he thought it was possible that the object could've been the top of a head with the projections possibly being some type of snorkel tubes. In any event, what Mackal witnessed and described sounds very similar to the Palmer sighting. Personally, this is the kind of circumstantial evidence that I find compelling. Granted it's anecdotal, but when two unrelated witnesses describe seeing practically the same thing, and over 30 years apart, that to me is strongly suggestive.

    1. Any evidence that eyewitness 2 didn't know about the earlier report?

    2. You'd also have to accept that if Nessies look like the thing in these two reports they can't look like various other reports including Greta Finley's. Unless you also want to add a shapeshifting head to the growing list of extraordinary traits assigned to this beast.

    3. The Finlay and Grant sightings are close enough.

      I note Burton suggests the Palmer sighting is a deer, which does not exactly possess a wide head either!

      Gould quotes Palmer as being a very poor sketcher which is borne out by the fact that he states the mouth was 12-18in wide and opened as high as 6in. That's a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio for the horizontal to vertical, but the drawing is more like 7:1.

      So perhaps the verbal description suggests a more "normal" Nessie head.