Thursday, 21 April 2016

Nessie On Land: The MacGruer-Cameron Case

It's back to the high strangeness of land based Nessie reports and we now look at an intriguing story from around the time of the First World War. The first account of this came to light on the 3rd October 1933 as monster fever was beginning to rise across the United Kingdom and a certain William MacGruer from Fort Augustus told Alex Campbell of his strange encounter some twenty years before. The report made its way to the Inverness Courier and is reproduced below.


Fort-Augustus Resident's Description

Over twenty years ago, writes a correspondent, a party of five or six young people, whose ages ranged from ten to twelve years. went for a walk one Sunday afternoon near Fort-Augustus. They followed the main Inverness road for nearly a mile, which took them to Inchnacardoch Bay, where the Loch Ness Monster has recently been seen by several people.

There the little party began to explore the densely growing scrub which fringes the loch-side. in the hopes of finding some birds' nests. They had not proceeded very far off the beaten track, i.e. the public road, when they were astonished to see a queer-looking creature emerge from some bushes and make for the loch, only a few yards distant and disappear in the water. Thoroughly alarmed, the terrified children made tracks for home, where they related their strange story. From the excitement they showed it seemed obvious that theirs was no cock-and-bull story.

However, the incident was quickly forgotten and it was only on Saturday that the writer, who happened to be talking with one of the party, learned of that extraordinary adventure. Asked to describe the creature he had seen, Mr Wm. Macgruer, Oich Bank, Fort-Augustus (who was one of the children concerned), said that it reminded himself and the others of nothing so much as a camel. It had a long neck, a small head, a humped-up back, and fairly long legs.

It was, however, considerably smaller than a camel, but its skin or coat was almost the same colour - pale yellow. Mr Macgruer's parents remember the incident perfectly, and although they were inclined to scoff at the time, they think now that the children did actually see something strange. But children, as a rule, are reliable witnesses, as many grown-ups can testify. The majority of those who have heard Mr Macgruer's story now accept without reservation, the description of a strange creature which was seen this summer near Dores, Loch Ness, by Mr Spicer, of London, whose letter to the "Courier" caused such widespread interest at the time. 

The story was later reproduced in the Scotsman of the 17th October and in the Northern Chronicle of the 11th October, though little in the way of extra detail was added. After that, the story sinks into obscurity, and, given, the irregularity of what is described, this is not surprising. As regards the witness mentioned, the only picture I could find of William MacGruer on Internet archives is shown below. He is at the far right in the middle row. I have since spoken to his grand-daughter and nephew who still live near the loch and they vouch for his sincerity. As his grand-daughter told me:

My granda was a very level headed man and a rather private man who would not have made up fanciful tales as this was not in his nature. 

William MacGruer (far right, second row)


Before proceeding further with the story, a look at the location of this tale may be informative. The actual location is at the southern end of the loch near Fort Augustus. This is circled on the map below along with a picture taken from off the road showing the small forested area to the left from which the creature emerged into the loch.

I visited the bay recently and took some further pictures to get a sense of the immediate context of this eyewitness report. The bay itself is a mixture of boats old and new as you can see from the first picture of this less than pristine vessel. Nice picture of a whale though.

Looking out onto the bay itself, I was standing just off the main A82 road, where I suspect at least one of the witnesses may have been standing themselves. The reports suggest that the creature emerged from the woods to the right of the picture below before submerging into the waters of the bay.

Making my way into the woods proved a more difficult proposition. I don't know what the conditions were like underfoot for those kids one hundred years ago, but I certainly had to contend with rather boggy conditions and some sure footing was required to negotiate some of the rotten logs strewn around. Mind you, it had been previously raining.

We don't know exactly where this creature was first seen, but the small peninsula of land in the next picture is a candidate.

One eyewitness also mention the "crackling of trees" made by the creature. In the next picture, it is quite easy to see how that would have been accomplished.


However, there was another account of kids seeing a strange creature on land in Inchnacardoch Bay. Though some list these as separate accounts, they are undoubtedly referring to the same event. The other witness was William's sister, Margaret, who later recounted the event under her married name of Margaret Cameron. Her account is first mentioned in the Loch Ness literature by Constance Whyte in her book "More Than A Legend". As it turns out, Mrs. Cameron's account was actually first made public in a letter to the London Times some twenty years before. The Times letter as quoted in Whyte's book now follows:

When a girl of fifteen she and her two young brothers were spending a sunny September afternoon on the lochside close to the boathouse of Inchnacardoch House and about three-quarters of a mile from Fort Augustus. The loch shallows at this point forming a narrow bay with a marshy peninsula. The children were exploring the bushes at the water's edge, when, far from the road, they disturbed a creature which Mrs. Cameron describes as having a small head and long neck.

The head was rather like that of a camel, the colour too reminded her of a camel. It had a humped back and four limbs. They saw the beast lurch down into the water 'humping its great shoulders and twisting its head from side to side'. The bairns were terrified and never stopped running until they reached home where the parents realised from the state they were in that this was no cock-and-bull story and scolded the youngsters, telling them that 'Old Nick was after them for gathering nuts on the Sabbath'. 

Constance Whyte got in contact with Margaret Cameron in 1955 who wrote back to confirm the Times account of that strange day 36 years ago. I have no access to that letter, which I presume is now in a lock-up somewhere in the south of England belonging to Nicholas Witchell.

The Times newspaper is digitally archived and online, so I thought I would see what the original letter had to say. Constance Whyte's book said the letter was printed 6th May 1936. That was way out as it was actually printed 7th June 1938! Thank goodness for online text searching or I would have been at it for hours. The letter is reproduced below.

The original letter was from a Lieutenant-Colonel Guy Liddell, who had visited the Youth Hostel near Fort Augustus where Margaret Cameron was the warden. She told him her story and he relayed it in his letter to the Times as follows:

In 1919, when she was a girl of 15, she and her two young brothers were spending a sunny September afternoon on the Loch side quite close to the boathouse of Inchnacardoch House, about six furlongs from Fort Augustus. The loch at this point shallows, forming a narrow bay with a marshy peninsula, on the north side of which a ruined steam launch is stranded.

As the children were playing on the strand they saw the monster on the shore of the marsh opposite, lurching down to the water, "humping its shoulders and twisting its head from side to side." Mrs. Cameron said it walked like an elephant. I asked her what the back looked like. She said they did not wait to see, as the bairns were terrified and never stopped running till they reached home. They were scolded by their parents. who told them that "Old Nick was after them for gathering nuts on the Sabbath." Mrs. Cameron saw the monster again in July, 1934, when returning from Inverness by motor-bus, and so did all the passengers.

This is where this story takes an interesting turn. The quoted letter in the book does not fully match the original source and that is why I like to see the original sources where possible. Some details have been added and some have been deleted. The Whyte reproduction adds items not mentioned in the letter such as a long neck, humped back, camel-like head and colour. The mention of the creature walking like an elephant is deleted in the Whyte book as is the mention of the witness having no idea what the back looked like!

What appears to have happened here is that the Times letter has been conflated to include any details in the letter Constance Whyte received from Margaret Cameron. Presumably, this was done as a space saving operation by the publisher. However, it is merely an educated guess on my part that every detail added to the conflation was a detail from the Cameron letter. Without that letter, this is impossible to verify.

The Times letter is also mentioned in Peter Costello's "In Search of Lake Monsters", but adds nothing new in the way of information, so we move onto another episode in the history of this story.


The issue of what those children saw nearly a century ago is muddied by another account. Margaret Cameron was interviewed by Nicholas Witchell in 1971 and this appears in his 1974 book, "The Loch Ness Story". I reproduce that account below with a photograph of Mrs. Cameron and her sister Elizabeth MacGruer from the same book.

I was with my two brothers and my young sister Lizzie, who was in the pram. We were waiting for some friends and were passing the time by skimming stones across the water when we heard this awful crackling in the trees on the other side of the little bay. It must have been something awfully big we thought; and of course we had been warned not to go near the loch by our grandparents as there were these wild horses in the loch and we thought now this must be one of them!

So we sat for a wee while and this crackling seemed to be coming nearer and nearer, and then, suddenly, this big thing appeared out of the trees and started to move down the beach to the water. I couldn't tell you if it had a long neck or a short neck because it was pointing straight at us. It had a huge body and its movement as it came out of the trees was like a caterpillar.

I would say it was a good 20 feet long - what we saw of it. Now, the colour of it - I hadn't seen an elephant in them days, but it's the colour of the elephant and it seemed to have rather a shiny skin. Under it we saw two short, round feet at the front and it lurched to one side and put one foot into the water and then the other one.

We didn't wait to see the end of it coming out - we got too big a fright. When we got home we were all sick and couldn't take our tea. So we had to explain what had happened and we told our mum and dad, and grandfather was there and I can see him banging the table and telling us not to tell anybody about it. Anyway, we were put to bed with a big dose of caster oil . . . It's still so very vivid in my mind - I'll never forget it.

Margaret Cameron and Elizabeth MacGruer

I must say that when I read this version, I wondered if I was reading an account of a different event (which may explain why some list it as a separate story). Here we now have a twenty foot creature, colour like an elephant (not a camel), with short round feet. No long neck is described as the creature was facing towards the witnesses. This is clearly more like the standard model of the creature but what Margaret and her brother, William, described in the letters to the Inverness Courier and the Times over thirty years before is somewhat different.

Gone is the sandy coloured, camel-like creature with "fairly long legs" and "considerably smaller than a camel". In comes the standard huge, grey monster of modern lore. Other details are added which are new to the account but do not contradict the original sources or are incidental to it.

So what caused this transition to a more acceptable Nessie? When I first thought about this, I excluded Margaret Cameron from this as the account in Constance Whyte's book was more in line with William MacGruer's account. It also described the camel-like creature and made no claim to a twenty foot animal. One may propose that she had misremembered after so long, but her letter to Constance Whyte suggested otherwise.

Did Nicholas Witchell or the publishers of the book revise the account wanting to avoid Nessies which didn't get too out of kilter with the standard plesiosaur model of the time? I did think one of them could have until I a reader pointed me to further information I examine below.

Having said that, I noted with interest the overlap between monsters ancient and monsters modern as Margaret Cameron made two allusions to the "Each Uisge" or Water Horse. This is evident in her reference to the warning that "wild horses" inhabited the loch. Now the violent reaction of her grandfather may seem over the top to us, but it is perfectly in keeping with Highland folklore literature which states that it was regarded as unlucky to see a Water Horse or even to talk about it. I say more about Loch Ness Water Horses here.


Subsequent to this article being published, an experienced reader pointed out that Tim Dinsdale had also featured the Cameron land sighting in his book, "Project Water Horse". I checked this out and he had indeed interviewed Margaret Cameron in 1972 (the year after Nicholas Witchell). After talking with Mrs. Cameron, the year 1909 was settled upon as opposed to 1919 as the date of the event. The quoted words of Mrs Cameron from that book are given below.

When, my dear, what an awful rustling noise was coming out of the trees - when you walk in a wood you know how you can sort of hear things crackling, and the breaking of old branches -well this was the same as that - as if it was splitting and breaking of the branches of the trees themselves - so of course we looked, and the loch was quite calm, and there couldn't be any wind knocking the trees, you see, when - oh, my dear, out of the trees came this huge thing!

Broad, broad, here. . . . I saw it deliberately lift one leg and put it into the water - and thinking of the baby - well I was eleven years of age, and thinking of herself, I just grabbed her, I didn't wait to see the end of it, or the rest of it coming out of the trees which was - have you ever seen a caterpillar walking on a cabbage leaf? That's what it seemed to be, like that - I saw two of its big parts, and that was quite enough, because it was a huge thing - I hadn't seen an elephant in them days, but I've seen one since - and that was the colour. The colour of an elephant. 

Tim Dinsdale adds these further comments.

The memory of this experience was obviously still very clear to Mrs Cameron, and together with Murray Stewart, another monster-hunter of long experience, I questioned her in detail about it. She had seen no long neck, but as she explained, the creature was coming directly towards them and they couldn't tell if it had one or not. The forelimb was thicker than an elephant's and 'stumped' at the end. She held up a big frying pan, to indicate the end of it, and said it was bigger than that. 

What is the conclusion from this last account of the case? It looks that Margaret Cameron introduced some alterations to the account that differed from what she recounted to Constance Whyte 16 years before. I don't agree with Tim Dinsdale's assessment that the experience was "still very clear to Mrs Cameron" as some artificial memories had replaced original ones after what now appears to be 63 long years (if the 1909 date is correct). This is one of the longest periods of time between event and recall in the annals of Loch Ness Monster accounts.


This leaves us with the non-trivial task of reconstructing what actually happened that day in September 1919. It first has to be said that the whole affair is open to the problem of memory recall issues. Now this is one of the foundational aspects of the sceptical theory, but it is one that is overstated (I hope to address this in a future article). Normally, I do not see this as relevant when eyewitness testimony are recorded within hours, days or weeks of the event. The vividness and perceived danger of the event also helps imprint the details more deeply into the memory.

However, William MacGruer's account was related 14 years after it happened and Guy Liddell's letter was 19 years on. Stretching out further, Margaret Cameron wrote to Constance Whyte 36 years after and the Nicholas Witchell interview was conducted 52 years after. How much this passage of time distorts the original "data" is open to opinion, but there will certainly be deviations from the original reality.

The approach is to proceed chronologically and allow older statements to take precedence over newer statements if the newer contradicts the older - unless there is good reason to to think otherwise. Additional details which do not contradict older details need to be assessed in a more indirect way.

So first we compare the earliest testimonies of the eyewitnesses - the two letters from the 1930s. It will be apparent that the Times letter is a second hand account, so we will have to assume it is an accurate retelling. These two accounts do not overlap much at all, so we can combine their features as below. The only apparent contradiction is that one account says the back was not visible but the other says it was humped. This can be resolved by the observation that the witnesses were most likely at different points in the bay. A pram was mentioned in the 1971 account which suggests somebody had to stay behind (nobody was going to push a pram through that thick foliage).

Camel-like in appearance.
Long neck.
Small head.
Humped back.
Fairly long legs.
Considerably smaller than a camel.
Pale yellow colour.

Humping its shoulders in a lurching motion.
Walked like an elephant.
Twisting its head from side to side.
Back not fully seen.

Bringing in the later Whyte account, there is much agreement again with the only new item being the mention of four legs. This time, however, Margaret Cameron states she did see a humped back which we accept since Guy Liddell's contrary statement is second-hand.

Head like a camel.
Colour like a camel.
Humped back.
Four limbs.
Small head.
Long neck.

Coming to the final 1971 Witchell interview, the contradictions in this story with what had passed will be ignored for the reasons stated above. What does not contradict the previous accounts are:

Shiny skin
Caterpillar like motion

Bringing all these jigsaw pieces together gives us a draft description of what was seen by these children:

Camel-like in appearance.
Long neck.
Small camel-like head.
Humped back.
Four, fairly long legs.
Considerably smaller than a camel.
Pale yellow colour with a shiny appearance.
Humping its shoulders in a lurching motion.
Walked like an elephant.
Twisting its head from side to side.
Caterpillar like motion.


What are we to make of this story told decades after it was first experienced? I have already mentioned the potential for misremembering after such a long time. However, what was actually seen is beyond objective analysis and retro-fitting one's favoured theory generally amounts to no more than an exercise in speculation. You basically pick your theory according to your bias and plug the appropriate shapes into the memory holes.

However, what can be said in this regard is that the descriptions from William MacGruer in 1933 and Margaret Cameron in 1955 are very consistent. If false memories had been introduced to their individual memories, I would expect there to be a greater degree of inconsistency. In other words, witness agreement is consistent with original, preserved memory (though one may argue that some memory cross-pollination would have had an influence, but, again, quantifying this objectively is far from trivial).

One could jokingly suggest they did actually see a camel escaped from one of the circuses that occasionally visited Inverness. Why a camel would dive into the loch is a moot point, but I would note that a variation of this theory is suggested by researcher Dale Drinnon when he postulates that it was an elk that the children saw moving into the loch. However, these animals have been extinct in Britain since about 1500 BC.

Staying on the sceptical theme, Steuart Campbell in his book, "The Loch Ness Monster: The Evidence", classes this report under the section on "otter like" reports. Whatever the MacGruers saw, an otter seems a very unlikely candidate. Roy Mackal in his book, "The Monsters of Loch Ness", is also dubious of this report and suggests it was a case of mistaken identity.

Looking at the description itself, some things leap out at me. For example, how does one reconcile the two statements "humping its shoulders in a lurching motion" and "walked like an elephant"? They both can't be correct and one would be tempted to let the former have priority over the latter which is a second hand account.

That brings us to the "fairly long legs" description. What did William MacGruer mean by this? Camel length legs or something else? This is what makes this story odd, even by Nessie standards. The description of something long necked with a humped back is consistent with what has been reported elsewhere but "fairly long legs" is left of field and reminds us of the curious case of Lt. Fordyce with it's very own strange long legs.

Something also described as "considerably smaller than a camel", though not excluding the Loch Ness Monster, begins to put us in the domain of other animals such as seals and deer. Of course, when something is described as twenty to thirty feet long, we begin to exclude deer, seal and otters.

There is also the issue of the colour of pale yellow. One could argue that the difference between pale yellow and a deer's light sandy brown is not too far removed. But why children should panic over an all too familiar deer is a matter of debate. Needless to say, the colour of the Loch Ness Monster is mainly described as black or grey with the odd divergence to a dark shade of some other colour such as brown.

Checking the database, I found only four eyewitness accounts describing a similar colour. Those are the G.E.Taylor film of 1938 ("straw"), the Birmingham University expedition of 1962 ("light brown"), a Mr. Fallows in 1963 ("light brown") and Nessie author, Ted Holiday in 1965 ("yellowish brown").

So, though light coloured Nessies are possible, one needs some kind of biological theory to explain why a small proportion may have this colour. Is it related to age, albinos, gender or mating? There is not enough information to make a plausible theory.


This is an odd case, made a bit more opaque by some editorial gymnastics. Nessies with fairly long legs and coloured pale yellow are not going to form the foundation for any monster theory. The temptation is to write this off as a misremembered event, but one is left with the question as to what those children saw at close range those long years ago which caused them to flee in terror and render them physically sick.

A deer, a seal, or something else?

The author can be contacted at

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The Year of the Monster

Here is a short but enjoyable video clip from artist Bradford Johnson, who has spent some time working on a portfolio of paintings with his take on the great year of 1933, when the Loch Ness Monster hit the national and international headlines. In his own words:

This is short vid of recent paintings I've been working up around images from 1933 - the year that the Loch Ness Monster caught fire in the press. It's an embrace of legendary flimflam into order to glimpse the substance and evidence of things lurking just below the surface.

Year of the Monster from Bradford Johnson on Vimeo.

You can also see Bradford's works here.