Saturday, 22 April 2017

Poor Old Alex Campbell (Part III)

 Alex Campbell (right) with Bernard Heuvelmans

It was May 1983 and Alex Campbell was nearing death. He had been in increasing ill health having been forced to retire from his work as an Inverness Courier correspondent in September 1981. He was to die the following month, perhaps aware of a book that had just been published that was making various accusations against him.

Fortunately for the author, Alex Campbell was probably too weak to answer the charges. The author's name was Ronald Binns and his book was entitled "The Loch Ness Mystery - Solved". I actually gave a small review to Rip Hepple's Nessletter the month after its publication. A fuller review was printed in issue 70 (June 1985) by Henry Bauer. You can read that here from page 4 onwards (note this book was co-authored with an R.J.Bell of whom not a lot is known).

This was not the first sceptical book on the monster to be published. That honour goes to Maurice Burton's 1961 tome, "The Elusive Monster". But these two books have some symbolism as they bookend the hectic era of the Loch Ness Monster between 1961 and 1983. Back in 1961, nobody was listening to Burton as monster fever began to grow. By 1983, people were more receptive to Binns' almost convincing logic.

What the books share is the predictable attempts to portray eyewitnesses as people easily fooled by drifting logs, swimming birds and passing boat wakes finished off with an overstated dash of expectation. It wasn't a convincing mish-mash of theories in 1961, nor 1983 and certainly not today, but the sceptical meme dominates today and so gets an easier audience - just like the monster meme did in the 1960s and 1970s.

But my aim is not to review all of this dubiously titled book, but to concentrate on those parts which discuss Alex Campbell. Indeed, an entire chapter titled "The Man Who Discovered Monsters" is devoted to Campbell.  Some people think Binns has done the business on Campbell. It is now time to present a different view.


Binns devotes a lot of pages to Alex Campbell in his book and undertakes a multi-pronged attack on Campbell's character. The first method of attack is one that is generic to the whole tone of the book and it is the style of writing. In the context of Campbell, the style is basically a timeline narrative which is a mixture of facts, deductions and speculations.

There is nothing particularly wrong with that approach, it is rather the assertive style which tries to browbeat the casual reader into swallowing whatever he writes. In that sense, the text is often that of the politician rather the researcher. To that end, you will find phrases which seek to put down and exaggerate.

For example, Binns describes Campbell's written account of the first Nessie sighting as a "cumbersome and stilted piece of prose". Why this is relevant to the Nessie debate is unclear as Campbell was writing a short newspaper column, not a novel to compete with G. K. Chesterton.

However, the reason becomes clear on further thought as Binns' tactic is psychological as he attempts to make Campbell look small in the eyes of the readers by criticising anything about him. It's a filthy tactic and others have picked up on this acidic approach in past reviews of the book.

Other examples include his suggestion that Alex Campbell was "deeply committed" to monsters in the loch and whose Mackay report was "by no means a neutral, detached account". What Binns means by deeply committed is unclear and opens the door to all kinds of unwarranted speculations. The reference to not being neutral or detached is a laugh coming from someone who I could also claim is deeply committed to his sceptical cause and is hardly neutral or detached in the subject either!

There is no neutrality in this subject and Binns needs to come clean on his own prejudices in the matter. To me, Binns is again attempting to plant the meme that all this makes Campbell unreliable and possibly even untruthful.

The unproven ad hominems directed at Campbell are too numerous to mention here and this machine gun approach is a form of Chinese water torture designed to beat the unsuspecting reader into submission. Fortunately, this reader had his armour on as he waded through the mire.

One repeated ad hominem I will finally mention on this style topic is Binns' continual reference to Campbell as a zealous publicity seeker. Again, Binns unsuccessfully tries to portray Campbell as a person driven by ego. Indeed, on page 82, Binns labels Campbell as "the self appointed high priest of the loch's mysteries". Where he gets the proof for this vacuous accusation is entirely unclear. Binns tells us that Campbell "became the man everyone went to when they wanted to learn more about the monster".

Indeed, Campbell is held up as the focus of a "pilgrimage" by Tim Dinsdale when he first visited the loch in 1960. Note Binns' tactical use of religious metaphors as he tries to elevate Campbell to some kind of mystical figure presiding over an irrational cult of monster hunters.

The truth of the matter is that Alex Campbell was just one amongst a number of people Tim Dinsdale visited during that week. These were Hugh Gray, Constance Whyte, Aloysius Carruth and Colonel Grant. But by omitting these other people, Binns gives the misleading impression that Campbell was somehow a special visitation.

So, when Binns says on page 83 that Campbell "had a great zest for publicity" by virtue of various radio, TV and newspaper interviews, I have somewhat to say on that matter. Again, where is the proof of this? I say that because when I was searching online newspaper archives for references to Alex Campbell, I found none! So much for the self-serving publicity seeker.

That does not mean Alex Campbell is to be found nowhere in the media, but I suggest that it is less than Binns makes out. Indeed, some other figures came to mind. Father Gregory Brusey was another go-to man at Loch Ness who frequently recounted his tale of a long neck sighting to the media.

Does that make him a self serving publicity seeker? What about the modern day example of Steve Feltham? Are his numerous interviews a sign of a big ego? Or what about leading sceptic Adrian Shine? He has been on numerous TV, radio and press interviews for years now. Will some sceptic now come forward and tell me that Adrian Shine has a big ego? Or does this argument only apply to monster believers?

I think the truth is more a matter of media laziness than Alex Campbell desperately banging on the door of the media for attention. When the press invariably turn up at Loch Ness for the film and photo ops, there is a default list of people to visit in their limited time, be they sceptic or believer. Alex Campbell had one advantage over Tim Dindale, Ted Holiday and Robert Rines. It wasn't a driven ego, it was the plain fact that he lived at Loch Ness. So let's just drop the hyperbole about egos and high priests.


Moving on, Binns takes Campbell to task over his reporting of the creature to the Inverness Courier. Alex Campbell was the man behind the very first Nessie era report on a "strange spectacle at Loch Ness". That was the reported sighting by the Mackays on the 2nd May 1933. Now, Binns on page 12 accuses Campbell of producing a report that was "wildly exaggerated" and therefore proof of his over zealous mission to promote the monster.

I covered this seminal Loch Ness Monster report back in 2013 as part of the 80th anniversary of the monster's first modern appearance and you can read that here. However, in that article, I diverted to Binns' less than satisfactory handling of the case and concluded he was the one who was wildly exaggerating. First, I quote Campbell''s 1933 report on the Mackays:

Now, however, comes the news that the beast has been seen once more, for on Friday of last week, a well-known businessman who lives in Inverness, and his wife (a University graduate), when motoring along the north shore of the loch, not far from Abriachan pier, were startled to see a tremendous upheaval on the loch, which, previously, had been as calm as the proverbial millpond. The lady was the first to notice the disturbance, which occurred fully three-quarters of a mile from the shore, and it was her sudden cries to stop that drew her husband's attention to the water.
There, the creature disported itself, rolling and plunging for fully a minute, its body resembling that of a whale, and the water cascading and churning like a simmering cauldron. Soon, however, it disappeared in a boiling mass of foam. Both onlookers confessed that there was something uncanny about the whole thing, for they realised that here was no ordinary denizen of the depths, because, apart from its enormous size, the beast, in taking the final plunge, sent out waves that were big enough to have been caused by passing steamer.

The  watchers waited for almost half an hour in the hope that the monster (if such it was) would come to the surface again; but they had seen the last of it. Questioned as to the length of the beast, the lady stated that, judging by the state of the water in the affected area, it seemed to be many feet long.

Binns alludes to another recounting of the Mackay story "months later" and uses this to pick out two discrepancies in Campbell's account. One was that Mr. Mackay actually saw nothing and that Mrs. Mackay had only seen a "commotion in the water" akin to "two ducks fighting". That's it and these are the justification for Binns applying the accusation of wild exaggeration. In fact, the other unnamed account was Rupert T. Gould's interview with the Mackays in November 1933 which was reprinted in his June 1934 book, "The Loch Ness Monster and Others" which is reproduced below:

Mrs. Mackay and her husband were driving from Inverness to Drumnadrochit. At a point of the road almost opposite Aldourie Pier [which is on the other side of the Loch] Mrs. Mackay caught sight of a violent commotion in the water nearby, about 100 yards from shore. She thought at first that it was caused by two ducks fighting; but on reflection it seemed far too extensive to be caused in this way. 

The commotion subsided, and a big wake became visible, apparently caused by something large moving along just below the surface. This wake went away across the Loch towards Aldourie Pier. Then, about the middle of the Loch [some 450 yards from her], the cause of the wake emerged, showing as two black humps moving in line - the rear one somewhat the larger.

The rear hump appeared first, and Mrs. Mackay took it for a whale on account of its blue-black colour [she has often seen whales at sea]. The two humps moved with the forward-rolling motion of a whale or porpoise, but always remained smooth in outline, exhibiting no traces of fins. They rose and sank in an undulating manner [as if sliding along a submerged switchback] but never went entirely out of sight.

Mrs. Mackay estimated the overall length of the two humps at about 20 feet. X, after rising, continued to move towards the pier for some distance. Then it turned sharply to port and, after describing a half-circle, sank suddenly with considerable commotion. [Mr. Mackay, who was driving the car, only stopped in time to see the final commotion, and a noticeable "wash" which came rolling on to the shore after X had sunk.

Now, I might be going out on a limb here, but Campbell's account hardly looks like a wild exaggeration of what Mrs. Mackay recounted to Gould. Indeed, Binns is the one in the dock here for executing a hatchet job.

Observe that Binns claimed that Mr. Mackay "had seen nothing". That is not true, as Gould's version says he saw the final commotion. Binns also tries to make out that Mrs. Mackay only saw two ducks fighting and completely ignores the two humps that she recounted to Gould.

In a last futile act to discredit this sighting, Binns indulges in some guilt by association mud slinging by stating that Mrs. Mackay's brother "was a major source" for pre-1933 monster stories. On investigating this claim further, it turns out that Kenneth Mackay had told Rupert Gould about a monster account in 1913 involving a James Cameron.

And that was that! Just one story passed onto Gould. Please tell me how that makes him a "major source" of stories and please tell me what on earth this has to do with the sighting by the Mackays. Binns is playing mind games here and his credibility over this so called analysis is already halfway out the window.

As an aside, Binns mentions the letter of a Captain John MacDonald which the Courier published ten days later. Binns, in one of his frequent meme-enforcing metaphors, tells us that Campbell's report was "squashed flat" by MacDonald lengthy critique as a man who had fifty years experience as a boat captain on the loch.

Now, I am being kinder to Binns here and will not presume that he deliberately omitted information that did not suit his case. For as it turns out, Captain MacDonald changed his mind some months later when he told a Daily Mail reporter:

If so many reputable people say they have seen 'the beast' one inclines to the belief that there is something in it.

I am only too glad to keep Ronald up to date where his research falls short. I note there is currently at least one other boat captain likewise claiming fifty years experience on the loch. Perhaps one day he too will be inclined to the belief "that there is something in it" ... but I doubt it.

Binns asserts that Campbell "made no reply" as if to imply that no reply was possible. But he did, by reporting on the continued eyewitness reports and letting the monster do the talking for him.

On the subject of newspaper reports, Binns also tries to make some mileage out of a report filed in the Northern Courier on the 27th August 1930 in which the creature made an appearance to three anglers. His basic accusation is that Alex Campbell authored the report and again indicates his obsession with getting the monster into the public eye.

Now this 1930 incident is worthy of a whole article itself; but whether Campbell authored it or not is a matter of debate, but not one that is important as the three witnesses were subsequently interviewed by Gould for his 1934 book to confirm it as a genuine incident and not something made up or even exaggerated by Campbell (curiously this story also made it into some international newspapers!).

So what is the big deal here and why does Binns throw around the hyperboles in claiming this is "very revealing"?  If Campbell was the author, he was just reporting an incident that had come to his attention. Where was the deception or so called over-fostering of a so called non-existent monster? The only thing Binns can nail on Alex Campbell is an enthusiasm for a strange creature he believed inhabited Loch Ness. In that, he was no more different from a range of people from various walks of life from decades past.


Now as intimated in the previous part of this series, Alex Campbell claimed to have seen the creature in late 1933. He then retracted it in a letter to his employees and then retracted the retraction by claiming it as a genuine sighting some years later. From that point on until his death he continued to insist it was his first and best sighting of the creature.

Clearly, this double "volte face" was a golden opportunity for Binns to put the boot in as he employs another irritating hyperbole dubbing it as "so extraordinary". Well, actually it is not extraordinary. Seeing a 30 foot beast in a Scottish loch is extraordinary, this is not. Why Campbell so uncharacteristically wrote this sceptic letter is beyond Binns as he deems it "inexplicable" and "obscure".

The explanation is a bit more mundane than Binns' elaborate psychological monster theories when we understand that Campbell's employers were taking a dim view of the whole monster thing and it would not do that an employee would be claiming to have seen it. Campbell obliged them with a sceptical letter and his job during those Depression era years was safe. Read my previous article for more details. Another poor piece of research by Binns is his statement that:

Unfortunately for Campbell his letter came to the attention of Rupert Gould, a monster investigator and author, who promptly splashed it across the pages of his book ...

Now I must admit I am disappointed with this piece of subterfuge by Binns. Throughout his book, Binns quotes and footnotes Gould's 1934 book, so he must have been quite familiar with its contents. Yet here he twists something he should have been clear on as Gould clearly states that he obtained permission from both Campbell and his employer to print the letter! This is footnoted by Gould right below the letter Binns examined!

Indeed, it is most likely that it was Campbell that told him about his letter when Gould met him at Loch Ness in November 1933! Yet Binns again tries to make Campbell look small by stating the complete opposite to what had transpired. Thus, this untruth allows Binns to create another when he says:

Campbell's discomfiture at finding himself quoted against the existence of a monster must have been immense.

Really? I would suggest Campbell was quite happy to have his letter quoted as it kept him on the right side of his employers. When the time was right, Campbell would eventually come clean on his sighting.

Binns on page 81 finally takes Campbell to task for not being accurate enough in the recounting of his 1933 sighting over the span of three decades. The first issue is there are at least three dates for Campbell's sighting: 7th September 1933, 22nd September 1933 and May 1934. Only the last one is actually a direct quote from Campbell, the other dates are stated by secondary sources. This does not bother me as Campbell himself says of May 1934, "If I remember aright", and the 22nd September may actually be an entry date in Cyril Dieckhoff's diary.

But it seems to bother Ronald Binns, who does not seem to take the fading of memory after a quarter of a century into account. Likewise any discrepancies in the retelling of the actual account. I re-read the three accounts I have of this story from the Scotsman newspaper of 1933, Constance Whyte's 1957 quote of Cyril Dieckhoff's 1933 diary entry and Campbell's letter to Tim Dinsdale in 1960. You can read these yourself in my previous article.

Based on those re-readings, I am convinced Binns is again being reckless in his comparisons. One problem with his assessment is that if one account does not mention something, but another does, then this is apparently a contradiction. I see no logic in that, because if a detail is omitted in one account, that does not make it a contradiction. Rather, a contradiction appears when two statements are made that cannot both be true at the same time.

One example will suffice in that Binns claims one account says Campbell saw the creature's flippers and another says he saw no flippers. The actual texts are "he could see the swirl made by each movement of its limbs" (Scotsman 17/10/33) and "Noted front paddles working, on either side alternately, as it turned about." (Dieckhoff 22/09/33). If these are the accounts Binns is referring to, then I see no contradiction. In fact, it is unclear from these whether Campbell did or did not see any part of the limbs.

I will only briefly mention Binns' handling of Campbell's seventeen claimed sightings. Binns, in his usual manner, calls this an "astonishing sightings record". But Binns (or anyone else for that matter) is in no position to make such a statement as we only have a record of perhaps five or six accounts. We have no idea what the other eleven or twelve accounts contain and they seem to have been unworthy of any publicity, making me wonder how "astonishing" they actually were?

Looking further, two of the accounts we know of did not actually involve eye contact with a monster. One was the rocking of his boat and the other was a strange night time noise. Without eye contact, Alex Campbell could not say for sure these were Loch Ness Monsters. That just leaves about three visual sightings of note and these recorded accounts are the only ones we should take seriously.

Three visual encounters with the Loch Ness Monster over the space of 35 years is not so "astonishing" and Ronald Binns should acknowledge that. However, Mr. Binns' overall analysis has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.


In conclusion, others have waded in on this debate since Ronald Binns published in 1983 and to be fair to him, he has not gone to the ridiculous lengths that these people have. For instance, somebody called Josh Bazell goes further in claiming that Alex Campbell wrote anonymous letters to the Highland newspapers making up eyewitness accounts to bolster the case for the monster. Not surprisingly, he does not have a shred of evidence to back up any of this, it is just a speculative tautology based upon the a priori assumption that Campbell was an inveterate liar.

Speculation becomes deduction and deduction becomes fact in the less than logical world of some so called analytical sceptics.

The last time I looked, Ronald Binns was still around and was still a sceptic. You can find him here reviewing Gareth William's book, "A Monstrous Commotion". His was a generation who went to the loch with a "Veni, Vidi, Vici" attitude to the mystery of the Loch Ness Monster. It appears the monster had other ideas as it refused to bow down to their demands for final, conclusive evidence.

Naturally, some became sceptical and some became vindictive about the whole thing when they left empty handed. That bitterness is still evident today when you engage with such people. Others continued to accept there was a large, unknown something in the loch; some because they had seen it and others because they were less cynical about the evidence.

One such person was Alex Campbell. I visited his grave near Fort Augustus last year and as I paid my respects, I resolved to dismantle the untruths that have swirled around him since his death. He no longer has a voice to defend himself, but I hope these series of articles will do justice to a man who helped propel that mysterious denizen of the deep into the public limelight.

The author can be contacted at

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

That Dorsal Fin Again

As I was reviewing some old e-clippings I had acquired over the previous months, I noted one that revived an ongoing conundrum for me. Has one or more of the Loch Ness Monster individuals sported a dorsal fin at varying points over these past eight decades. The clipping in question was taken from the Dundee Evening Telegraph dated the 19th July 1938. This is a sighting that was not on my database, so I presume it is one that has gone under the radar of the general Nessie literature.

It is not a high grade sighting by any means and one wonders what these two men saw that day. I would suggest that their sighting was "of short duration" due to the fact that they were driving and saw the object in a gap between trees. The alternative is that they had stopped to survey the waters and had seen it shortly before it submerged. The fact that it was described as "some distance out" does not help either. Low duration and high distance do not make for classic sightings,

Be that as it may, this reminds me of last year's dorsal fin photograph which evoked much controversy as the sceptics tried to interpret it as an osprey. To me it is a dorsal fin and the best proof that something with such an appendage is at various times to be found in the loch.

And then there is the famous Adams/Lee fin photograph which clearly shows a dorsal fin and the only argument is where it was taken. Attempts to find the uncropped picture have failed, but there are good reasons to think it was taken at Fort Augustus.

We have had such experts as Jeremy Wade suggesting a finned Greenland Shark as a visitor to the loch and there is the older controversy over whether dolphins or porpoises were in the loch in September 1914. Are these real cetacean visitors to the loch, distinct from any mysterious monster or are they one and the same? If we accept that something as water dependent as a dolphin can get into Loch Ness, the case for something else getting in which is more amphibious strengthens.

Anyway, this is also a bit of a preamble before an overdue article on whether Nessie is a visitor to Loch Ness rather than a resident.

The author can be contacted at

Friday, 7 April 2017

Things That Deceive

I was sent some pictures a few days back of a different type of "Loch Ness Monster", the kind that fool people into thinking they have seen the real thing. Well, I say fooled, but in this (and the vast majority of cases), the deception is but for a short while. George and Josh were at the loch in 2015 and describe the event thusly:

I'm not sure whether you'll find these pictures of any interest but my brother and I visited the Loch in July 2015 and stayed at the Clansman. We decided to go for a walk along the shoreline after our evening meal (so would have been about 7.00pm) and were skimming stones across the water. We got a bit of a shock when we turned a bend and saw what was in these pictures floating down the Loch towards us. It only took a few seconds to see that it was an upturned log, but the current seemed to take it very quickly and it moved pretty rapidly past us.

I had my camera phone so took these photos, which was as close to seeing anything unusual as we got. Still, thought these may be of interest/useful if you decided to do any more articles about mis-identifications or logs in the Loch?

This all happened at the shore by the Clansman Hotel, which, by coincidence, I had been at the day before George's email arrived. We know all about tree debris and they often get trotted out to explain away monster sightings. Sometimes this is justified, sometimes it is just an excuse.

I wrote on these objects as a form of misidentification back in 2011 in this article and they got the name of Log Ness Monsters in a witty comment. You can be sure these "monsters" are never going to go away.

The author can be contacted at

Monday, 3 April 2017

eDNA and Nessie

I received a phone call from a Sunday Post journalist last week asking for my opinion on an upcoming project at Loch Ness. They have now run this article on attempts to DNA profile the loch using the proven technique of Environmental DNA retrieval or eDNA. Some of my comments appear in the article but I wanted to flesh out some of them here.

The journalist had contacted me through an article I had written three years ago on the search for Nessie carcasses and I had suggested eDNA may be a tool for finding clues to unidentified species in the loch. Coming to the present day, I welcome such a scientific endeavour, even as I did back then. My comments to him with additional thoughts are set out below.

Firstly, the water sampling needs to be planned properly. Loch Ness is the largest body of freshwater in the United Kingdom.  How many water samples have to be taken and where? I note that a similar study done at England's largest lake, Windermere, last year involved more than 60 two-litre samples. Since the water volume of the lake is 314 million cubic metres compared to 7.4 billion cubic metres for Loch Ness, does this mean an equivalent sampling of 1400 buckets will need to be done?

In terms of large, unknown creatures, their biomass will generally be a fraction of the biomass they predate. How does that affect the required sensitivity of the sampling? Also, if they are mainly benthic or littoral residents rather than open water pelagic dwellers, then sample locations have to take this into account.

Secondly, the eDNA experiment would have to prove its worth by detecting those indigenous species we already know about such as Arctic char and European eels. One may even include such things as human DNA from sewage works discharges! But how will the experiment fare when attempting to detect rarer populations such as Pike and Lamprey?

If a known species cannot be detected, then this has to be highlighted as a limit on the experiment. That particular survey on Lake Windermere successfully identified 14 out of 16 of the known resident species. The rarest two were not detected, so it is not perfect, but it is more efficient than live samples using nets.

Thirdly, there is the matter of occasional visitors such as Atlantic salmon, Sea trout and seals. Will their DNA persist in the loch long enough to enable detection? I understand that DNA in water can degrade in a matter of weeks, depending on various factors. Obviously, this has a bearing on the theory that the Loch Ness Monster is actually not indigenous but itinerant and visits the loch in the same manner of seals. In this sense, eDNA is more a technique for monitoring the ebbs and flows of species permanently resident in aquatic regions.

Fourthly, having identified and eliminated known DNA traces from the water samples, what will be left? This is clearly the part that interests everyone the most and would potentially consist of known and unknown DNA samples. It is clear that no one knows what Plesiosaur DNA looks like. A hit on sturgeon DNA would be interesting but is dependent on point three. Indeed, what about the Wels Catfish hypothesis?

Moreover, if Nessie was indeed a giant eel, could this be distinguished from the DNA of the indigenous European eels? It is likely that any DNA that has no clear parallel in available DNA databases could still be placed in a higher taxonomy. So what would we deduce if a DNA sample classified as "reptilian" was found?

Fifthly, there is the side subject of Sedimentary Ancient DNA or sedaDNA. This is an aspect of eDNA which looks for ancient DNA traces in sedimentary deposits and if the sediment is sufficiently deprived of oxygen, allows the resident DNA to survive longer. Where one would obtain such samples is not clear. My thoughts turned to the core samples done by Adrian Shine in years past, but I doubt any DNA in them would have survived to the present day.

In conclusion, those who believe in an itinerant or paranormal Nessie will predict nothing will be found. Those who believe in a giant Nessie eel may not be able to conclusively detect such DNA.  Those who are more sceptical may yet hold out for giant catfish or a surprise sturgeon. My own view is that the creatures are part itinerant and part resident, but the time proportions are not known to me.

For the rest, if the tests are done properly, the idea of a present and continuously breeding, indigenous herd of large predators may yet receive its stiffest test. Note I say "present" as this will give no indication of the past in Loch Ness when any population in the loch may have been higher than it is now.

The author can be contacted at

Text of Sunday Post Article (for archive purposes):

IT is a mystery that has persisted for more than a thousand years.
But now a scientist is hoping to use cutting-edge dino-DNA technology to determine once and for all whether the Loch Ness Monster exists or not.

Professor Neil Gemmell wants to solve the mystery by looking for traces of unusual DNA in the water of the loch.

The study would involve gathering water samples from various locations at different depths of Loch Ness, before analysing them using the same techniques police forensic teams use at crime scenes.
Prof Gemmell, from The University of Otago in New Zealand, believes his scientific study could solve the enduring, world famous monster mystery.

He said: “Our group uses so- called environmental DNA to monitor marine biodiversity. From a few litres of water, we can detect thousands of species ranging from whales, sharks to plankton.
“Essentially all large organism lose cells from their skin, or digestive system, or whatever, as they move through their environment.

“New genomic technology is sensitive enough to pick this up even when rare, and we can use comparisons to large sequence databases that span the majority of known living things. If there was anything unusual in the Loch, these DNA tools would likely pick up that evidence.”

News of the potential DNA study has sent shockwaves through the Nessie-monitoring world.
Researcher and enthusiast Roland Watson, 54, welcomed the study.
He said: “I’m all for scientific inquiry and trying to find this thing by any means we have.
“I’m not aware of anyone having done a DNA test before.

“I’d want to know if the test would be sensitive enough to detect animals that are visitors to the loch, such as seals and Atlantic salmon. The monster could be visiting. There are some monster supporters that would not care about the result because they believe it is something paranormal and so wouldn’t expect to see any DNA.”

Naturalist Adrian Shine is the leader of the Loch Ness Project and has carried out field work on the loch for a host of universities and researchers since 1973. He said he and his team could potentially help gather samples for the study.

He said: “I would be very interested in the results.
“We would certainly be able to help getting samples.”

Steve Feltham has spent 26 years trying to solve the mystery from his base on the shores of the loch. He said: “If anyone thinks they can identify it – bring them on.
“Anything that gives us more knowledge is to be welcomed.”

Steve also said that he wouldn’t give up his hunt even if the study suggested there was nothing there.
He said: “I can guarantee you someone would see something the next day.”
Dores Community Council chairwoman Ella Macrae said she would be interested in the study but said the results won’t change the popularity of the myth.

She said: “The mystery will still be spoken about in decades to come when this study is done.
“I don’t think they will ever get to the bottom of it.”

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Poor Old Alex Campbell (Part II)

Moving onto the next instalment of this series on Alex Campbell, the previous article had reproduced a "confession" letter which could not be taken seriously. However, the next accusation needs a bit more attention as it concerns an allegation of outright lying by Campbell. But first, let me give the background on this particular story.


The first reference in this episode is Rupert T. Gould's "The Loch Ness Monster and Others", published in June 1934. In it he recounts how he met Campbell on his first circuit of the loch on the 14th November 1933 and how Campbell presented a sceptical view of the whole affair. Campbell also gave him permission to reprint a letter he had written to the Ness District Fishery Board. I quote it from pages 110-112 of the first edition:

One day early last month, at about half-past nine in the morning, I was watching this end of the Loch. The light was very uncertain, there being a fairly thick haze on the water, and along with this the sun was shining directly in my eye through the mist, making the visibility very bad.

I had not been watching for more than a minute before I noticed a strange object on the surface about six hundred yards from where I stood. It seemed to be about 30 feet long, and what I took to be the head was fully 5 feet above the surface of the Loch. The creature, if such it was, and at the time I felt certain of it, seemed to be watching two drifters passing out of the Canal and into Loch Ness; and, whether it was due to imagination or not, I could have sworn that it kept turning its head and also its body very quickly, in much the same way as a cormorant does on rising to the surface. I saw this for fully a minute, then the object vanished as if it had sunk out of sight. . . . I ran back to where my boat was anchored; but by the time I got back to where I could see the object—if it had re-appeared—there was no sign of it.' . . .

Last Friday I was watching the Loch at the same place and about the same time of day. The weather was almost identical—practically calm and the sun shining through a hazy kind of mist. In a short time something very like what I have described came into my line of vision and at roughly the same distance from where I stood. But the light was improving all the time, and in a matter of seconds I discovered that what I took to be the Monster was nothing more than a few cormorants, and what seemed to be the head was a cormorant standing in the water and flapping its wings, as they often do. The other cormorants, which were strung out in a line behind the leading bird, looked in the poor light and at first glance just like the body or humps of the Monster, as it has been described by various witnesses.

But the most important thing was, that owing to the uncertain light the bodies of the birds were magnified out of all proportion to their proper size. This mirage-like effect I have often seen on Loch Ness, although not exactly in the same form as I have just described. Other people, who know the Loch, can verify my statement as to the mirage,' but it only occurs under certain conditions and if the Loch is calm. Then it gives every object—from, say, a gull or a bottle to an empty barrel—a very grotesque appearance provided that such objects are far enough away from the observer. . . .

So, the letter seems rather matter of fact as Campbell explains to Gould how one can be fooled by a combination of mist and birds into thinking there is a monster before you. However, the stakes are raised in this story as Alex Campbell appears to go back on this letter and tout the event as one of his best sightings of the monster.

The earliest reference I can find to Campbell's recantation is in Whyte's "More Than A Legend" which takes us back to 1957 at the latest. On page 203 of the first edition, we read of witness "A.C." retelling his sighting: 

22nd September 1933. A. C. Observer was on a point of land between the Canal and the River Oich at Fort Augustus. About 9.30 a.m. saw the animal towards centre of loch in Borlum Bay, distance 500-600 yards—dead calm—estimated length to be 30 feet. Head and neck about 5 feet long, neck 1 foot thick and head size of cow's but flatter, head about 2 feet above water. Skin dark grey —black and rough looking. Seen for several minutes. Noted front paddles working, on either side alternately, as it turned about. Points which chiefly struck the observer were: (1) great size and bulk, back about 18 inches above water, (2) alertness, it turned its head and neck about as quick as a hen, appeared to listen and to try to locate the sound made by two drifters steaming down the Canal, (3) instantaneous way it sank—not dived—as the front drifter showed beyond the point of land.

By way of confirmation, the tale is told four years later in Dinsdale's "Loch Ness Monster" in which Campbell says this (p.126 1st edition):

I enclose a sketch of what I saw away back in 1934 (my first view of the Monster), and the description of the incident is as follows: I was standing at the mouth of the river Oich (which flows past my door) one beautiful morning that summer —May, if I remember aright, and was gazing across the loch in the direction of Borlum Bay.

Suddenly my attention was drawn to a strange object that seemed to shoot out of the calm waters almost opposite the Abbey boathouse. As you can see from the sketch, the swan like neck reached six feet or so above the water at its highest point, and the body, a darkish grey glistening with moisture was at least 30 ft. long. I gauged this carefully in my mind's eye by placing two ordinary rowing boats of 15 ft. overall length end to end, and I don't think I was far wrong, because I have had lots of experience of that sort of thing, because I have lived on the shores of the loch all my life—apart from the last war years.

Still watching and wondering if I would have time to run for my camera, I heard the noise of the engines of two herring drifters (they call them trawlers in England) which were proceeding down the lower basin of the Caledonian Canal, which enters the loch almost alongside the Abbey boathouse. The animal certainly must have heard, or sensed, the approach of these vessels too, for I saw it turn its head in an apprehensive way, this way and that, and, apparently being timid, it then sank rapidly out of sight, lowering the neck in doing so, and leaving a considerable disturbance on the mirror-like surface of the loch. The animal would have been some 400 yards from where I stood, possibly less, and I had a very clear view of it which lasted several minutes.

So here we have a situation where Campbell tells us his years of lochside experience helped confirm it was a monster, yet his 1933 letter says the opposite. The book helpfully supplied this artistic rendition of the monster, based on the sketch supplied by Campbell. You may be wondering at this point what the other monster sketch at the top of page refers to, but we will get to that further on.


So, the accusation runs as follows. Alex Campbell wrote concerning birds in the mist which almost fooled him into thinking he had seen the monster. Later he decided to turn it into a monster sighting and began to tout it as genuine. Therefore he lied, therefore he is not to be trusted as a source of Loch Ness Monster information. 

End of story? Move on? No.

Now when I decided to look again as this story, I realised it was a bit like an archaeologist who digs up some incomplete shards of pottery and has to reconstruct the shape of the jar. The problem is we do not have a direct confession or denial from Alex Campbell on this volte face and so it is down to forensics and drawing out conclusions based on indirect "evidence" from newspaper clippings and books.

The opponents of Alex Campbell have certainly taken this reconstruction approach (especially Ronald Binns who we shall address in the next article) and so I think I will do the same. But, you know, it is rather a pity that all these sceptics who were at the loch at the same time as Alex Campbell never seemed to bother to ask the man about this conundrum. Certainly there is no written record anywhere I can see.

Perhaps they had already pre-judged him and decided that any answer he gave would be worthless? Imagine a court of law proceeding in that way. I call this botched and incomplete research. I could call it a few other things, but back to the story at hand.

Looking back at the letter that Gould reprinted, a few questions arose that the sceptics did not seem to address. The first question is why the letter was addressed to the Ness Fishery Board rather than Gould? Secondly, why was this so called self-publicist and monster-pusher suddenly turning witness for the prosecution and playing the sceptic? Thirdly, why was a man who had thirteen years experience as a water-bailiff around Loch Ness coming across as so easily duped?

In fact, another question raised from this is which of the two accounts is false? The monster one or the cormorants one? If you asked certain sceptics this, they may look at you as if you just emerged from a cave and say "the monster one - obviously!". Well, if you think there is no monster in Loch Ness, I guess that is the only course to take.


So, as regards the letter to the Ness District Fishery Board, it is appropriate to get some chronological context to this cormorant/monster sighting. Using the kindle edition of Patrick Gallagher's "Out of the Depths", a relevant timeline was drawn up stating the newspaper, date and headline, including other milestones we already know about:

7th September 1933 - Date of Campbell's sighting.

27th September - Dundee Courier - Appeals made to Scottish Fishery Board to investigate the monster.

17th October - The Scotsman - Campbell's anonymous monster account is published.

20th October - Dundee Evening Telegraph - Scottish Fishery Board may investigate - Ness District Fishery Board to meet soon.

24th October - Dundee Courier - Statement from Scottish Fishery Board.

24th October - Edinburgh Evening News - Text of Scottish Fishery Board statement.

28th October - Campbell writes sceptical letter to the Ness Fishery Board.

15th November - Scotsman - Campbell's anonymous monster account retold.

17th November - No action taken by Ness District Fishery - no evidence of harm to fish stocks.

Some things need to be clarified here. There was the Scottish Fishery Board based in Edinburgh which oversaw matters relating to sea, river and loch fish stocks. The Ness District Fishery Board was the sub-department which oversaw the region around Loch Ness with the emphasis on salmon.

A further important clarification is the entry for the 17th October where Alex Campbell anonymously recounts his sighting as a bona fide monster one to The Scotsman reporter (who I believe was Philip Stalker). Curiously, he was the only witness in the article to request anonymity. This is the earliest text of his account and is as follows: 

Mention of the working of the legs also comes into a description which, to anyone who is at all sceptical, must appear to be very fantastic. It was given recently by a man who up to that time had refused to believe of the existence in the loch of anything other than a seal or a large marine animal of some kind. He stated that one afternoon a short time ago he saw a creature raise its head and body from the loch, pause, moving its head—a small head on a long neck—rapidly from side to side, apparently listening to the sound of two drifters coming from the Caledonian Canal, which was out of its sight, then take fright and sink into the water. While it was above water, he said, he could see the swirl made by each movement of its limbs, and the creature seemed to him to be fully 30 feet in length. The description he gave of its form was like that of a plesiosaurus, and when shown a sketch of a "reconstructed" plesiosaurus, he stated that it was very like the animal he had seen.

That needs to be pointed out since if one reads the Gould account on its own, one may assume Campbell had not reported anything to the media. The story was rerun in the November 15th edition of the Scotsman in which the sketch at the top of this article was printed (as an aside these Scotsman articles were important in raising the profile of the monster to a wider audience and led to Fleet Street picking up the story too).

This is the earliest sketch of Campbell's monster and therefore should be taken as the most accurate. But, strangely, Binns rather pointed out another sketch done much later in 1970 as being "bird-like". I prefer sketches done four weeks later rather than forty years later. Can't imagine why Binns preferred to go with the 1970 version ...

Moreover, another sceptic said of Campbell's "cormorant" letter that:

The earliest version, below, is logically the most accurate, written down in a letter to his employers ...

Well, the earliest version was actually our Scotsman newspaper eleven days before Campbell's letter. So it is logically the most accurate - this sceptic should have known that since it was footnoted below the text of the letter he copied! With sceptics, it is often what they do not say that is important, rather than what they do say. Be careful out there, folks.

Note our so called self-publicising bailiff asked for anonymity when his sighting was first published. In fact, Constance Whyte adds an interesting note in her book (p.75) quoting Fort Augustus monk and monster hunter, Cyril Dieckhoff:

Dom Cyril Dieckhoff made the following note a day or two after his interview with A. C. (see p. 203, Appendix A): 'Later modified his statement to say that sun was in his eyes and a misty haze on the water, so that visibility was poor or only moderate light not too good gave impression that for some reason was anxious to minimise what he had previously said and absolutely refused to allow name to be mentioned to anyone, though previously had expressed willingness to give his evidence to any scientific inquirer, though not to the press.'

Why would Campbell do that? The answer is in the increasing calls for the Scottish Fishery Board and hence the Ness District Fishery Board to investigate this monster. Campbell's employers, the Scottish Fishery Board, finally made their decision not to investigate the matter because there was no evidence that fish stocks were posing a problem. However, this quote from the above Edinburgh Evening News of the 24th October was more apposite to this article:

“We have not the slightest intention, however, of engaging in a wild goose - or wild monster - chase merely in order to pander to local sensation and curiosity.”

The official was frankly sceptical of the existence of a “monster” and suggested that it might be a whale or grey seal which had reached distorted size through the powers of imagination.

Four days after this sceptical, no-nonsense pronouncement from the Fishery Board, Campbell sent his sceptical, no-nonsense letter to their Ness District branch. Nessie sceptic, Ronald Binns, dismissively says that Campbell wrote to the Board for "some obscure reason". If he had temporarily suspended his zeal to nail Campbell, it would be obvious to him why Campbell wrote this letter - he was afraid of losing his job!


Here is the scenario. Campbell sees the monster on the 7th September. He openly tells people such as Cyril Dieckhoff about it. However, by mid-October it becomes apparent that his employers are taking a dim view of the whole thing but he still tells the Scotsman reporters about it, but under condition of anonymity (the only witness to ask this of the newspaper).

Meantime, he goes back to Dieckhoff and tells him in no uncertain terms to keep his name off the record. However, unlike his letter to the Fishery Board, he does not tell Dieckhoff it was a misidentification, but rather diminishes it. But it is clear to Dieckhoff that something is wrong here as indicated by the word "anxious".

The heat is on when the Scottish Fishery Board openly derides the whole affair and Campbell now fears he may be found out and not deemed a fit and proper water bailiff if he continues to see and promote imaginary monsters in the waters he is meant to police.

Let me give you some context here. It was the back end of the Great Depression, the greatest economic downturn since the Industrial Revolution. If Campbell lost his job over this, he could struggle to find employment and the Welfare State was, shall we say, minimal. He was aged about 32 and may have been married with kids. A man may love promoting the Loch Ness Monster, but the day job is always going to be more important. 

In that light, he wrote that letter to present himself as the water bailiff the Fishery Board wanted to see and it may well have saved his job. Did he lie? Yes, he did; but not about monsters. He fabricated a misidentification report to annul the monster report that the Fishery Board may well have gotten wind of. If we had been in that precarious position, would we have done the same thing?

We still see a trickle of monster reports being sent to the Inverness Courier through November and December, but under the same anonymous conditions as his own monster report to the Scotsman. Did he try and bow out of those? Who knows? Perhaps the increasing fame of the monster led to the Courier making him an offer he couldn't refuse and guaranteed his anonymity.


But Alex Campbell finally recanted his sceptical version and began to wax bold about his original 1933 account, even giving up anonymity.  When this began is not clear. I note that the Scotsman for the 15th November still carried his monster account (though still anonymous). Did Campbell miss this reprint or allow it? Certainly, he was allowing the monster version to be retold in Whyte's 1957 book, but that is a gap of 24 years. Did he just drift back into it over the years or did he snap back into it soon after 1933?

By December of 1933, a radio review of the year mentioned in Gareth William's "A Monstrous Commotion" (p.285) has him declaring that he gave the monster its name (though Campbell is not named). But this may have been recorded back in early October before he got cold feet and again was used without his permission.

Whenever he finally went back to his monster version, was he not still concerned about his job? What could have changed this? I suggest things may have begun to change with an event on the 30th December 1933. It was on that date that a Mr. Goodbody had a 40 minute view of a 16 foot multi-humped creature through binoculars. Coming away from that experience with the conviction that he had seen a strange, unknown animal had gained Campbell a friend in high places because Goodbody was no less than a former chairman of the Ness District Fishery Board and a current board member.

Campbell could rest easier now that at least one of his overseers was sympathetic to the monster cause. How many more of the board members would join that merry band through a sighting themselves or knowing a trusted friend who did is a matter of speculation.

According to the Inverness Courier of 19th January 1934, there was to be no further investigation of the situation by the Ness District Fishery Board. Mr. Goodbody attended that meeting and the agreement was that since there was no perceptible disruption to salmon stocks, the Board had no legitimate jurisdiction in the matter and washed their hands of it. Alex Campbell was free to continue his pursuit of the Loch Ness Monster.

But I have found no further reference to his encounter between 1934 and 1957 and the reason for that may be the consequence of his job-saving lies. Quite simply, if he came out in public declaring loudly that he had indeed seen the Loch Ness Monster on the 7th September 1933, then he was guilty of lying to his employees because of his mist-wrapped cormorant letter.

In other words, he could face the sack again for deceiving the Scottish Fishery Board. Let's face it, Alex Campbell was best just sitting on this story for a long time until all who had seen his letter had moved on to other things. That time appears to have been sometime in the 1950s.


While we are on the subject of Campbell's 1933 sighting, I ought to address his other claimed sightings since these are also used as ammunition against him by the sceptics. Various sources tell us that Alex Campbell claimed up to 17 or more sightings of the Loch Ness Monster. I don't doubt that claim since I believe he has been recorded saying it himself.

There are only three other people I am aware of claiming such a run of accounts and that is Winifred Cary, Alex Ross and Frank Searle. Now the rather flawed logic runs likes this. Frank Searle claimed a large number of sightings, but he was proven to be a liar and a hoaxer. Alex Campbell claims a similar number of sightings, therefore he is a liar too. 

Another piece of exemplary logic there from the Campbell bashers. Now if you ask these people how many times a person is allowed to see the monster before being labelled a liar, you won't get a answer that could be defended. But since they don't countenance anyone seeing a monster even once, I don't know what they are on about.

Now looking at the sightings I have on record, I see at most six accounts. Certainly, I do not see anywhere near the 17, 18 or 19 claimed. Where are the rest, you may wonder? One suspects they were not worth reporting and further study bears this out. After all, Alex Campbell had described the sighting which occupied this article as his best sighting.

In that case, the rest may not have been particularly "Grade A". Indeed, though I have demonstrated the problems with sceptical views of this account, that does not mean it becomes the greatest ever Nessie sighting. Looking at the various renditions of the sighting, it is generally stated that the creature was 400 yards away in Borlum Bay.

At such a distance, I would class the sighting as good, but not in the top tier with the likes of John McLean and so on. If this was the best, then the other sightings were presumably inferior in terms of distance, time, amount of creature exposed and viewing conditions. In fact, a lot of them may have just been wakes or a long way off.

In that light, I suggest the quality rather than the quantity of the sightings should be of prime consideration. Since it seems we may now never know the contents of those sightings, the matter must rest there.


Thus ends my own particular reconstruction based on the shards of "pottery" available. Whatever way you look at it, Alex Campbell was guilty of lying. Either he lied about seeing monsters or he lied about seeing cormorants on a misty morning. The first, they say, was to promote a monster. The other, more importantly, to keep his job. Author Ronald Binns, swerves round the issue of the strange letter to the Fishery Board. Gareth Williams gets closer with his speculation about tensions between the two parties. Here was the nub of the matter - job or monster?

To me, it is clear enough. In the next article, I critically examine Binns' allegations about Alex Campbell.

The author can be contacted at

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

ITV Drama "Loch Ness"

I may be wrong, but I think the new six part ITV murder drama, "Loch Ness" will air its first episode on Sunday, 30th April. The brief blurb for the show is as follows.

On the beautiful, haunting shores of Scotland’s iconic Loch Ness, amid a community sustained by myth and bordered by untamed nature, the search for the truth becomes a matter of life and death in this gripping murder mystery.

I doubt the old girl herself will put in an appearance but it wouldn't surprise me if there is a scene where something perplexing is seen on the loch, but an "expert" pops out of the bushes to calmly reassure them it is only a group of distressed ducks being chased by a hungry seal.

Readers may recall the show's publicity stunt with butcher's offal and suitably arranged bones last summer. Anyway, I look forward to watching this show. I don't know if the show will be available outside the UK.

The author can be contacted at

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Nessie Artwork Exhibition

If you are in the Boston area between the dates of March 24th to April 29th, you may want to consider visiting the Barrington Center for the Arts who are hosting an exhibition by Nessie man, Bradford Johnson. The title of the exhibition is "1933—Year of the Monster: Painted dispatches of wonder, chicanery, and optics on the shores of Loch Ness".

More details can be found here and here.

The author can be contacted at


Sunday, 19 March 2017

Nessie Sceptics at work in 1934

I have masses of e-clippings going back to 1933 and before detailing Nessie and her kelpie predecessor. This particular one is taken from the Hull Daily Mail of 23rd January 1934. The Natural History Museum had not long declared Marmaduke Wetherell's Loch Ness spoors to be the product of a hippo foot.

In that light, two investigators got a hold of their elephant foot waste basket and headed to the beach, as I reproduce below. One thing that escapes me though, didn't the Natural History Museum say that one of the other Wetherell spoors belonged to a rhinoceros? Perhaps someone can confirm that?

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Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Poor Old Alex Campbell (Part I)

If you had to pick one local person from Loch Ness that was most influential in the story of the famous beast, then it would be Alex Campbell. There were, of course, more famous men that came up from England and across from America. There were also other locals that were influential such as Constance Whyte, Cyril Dieckhoff and I would also include our present day Steve Feltham, who more than qualifies as a local after 25 years by the loch side.

However, Alex Campbell was there at the birth, so to speak, of Nessie. Indeed, he had a hand in the delivery by writing up the first story of the modern era that appeared in the May 2nd 1933 Inverness Courier. That "strange spectacle on Loch Ness" endures to this day and Alex continued to investigate and report these matters to the Courier for years after that.

However, this series of articles will not purely be a biographical tribute to the man, but rather a response to the critics that rose up (conveniently) after his death. Having been respected by the monster hunting fraternity for decades, a different group rose up from the 1980s onwards to accuse him of fraud. Let us see how weighty these libellous statements are.

We first begin with a letter that appeared in The Scotsman dated 5th September 2003. It is anonymous and appears to come from someone claiming to be a confidant of Campbell:

IT IS September, and the end of the tourist season is upon us. It has been a very good year by most measures - save one. Sightings of the Loch Ness Monster were nearly absent. I detected only three appearances. All lacked drama or conviction. The BBC even broadcast a programme saying there is no beastie in the depths. Cheek.

Of course there is no Loch Ness Monster in the peaty waters. The monster swims in our imaginations. We need monsters to animate our minds. 

I was privileged to befriend the man who invented the leviathan in the Great Glen. Alex Campbell was not only the water bailiff at Fort Augustus at the south end of Loch Ness, he was also the local stringer for the Inverness Courier. He confided it had been worse than a slow news week in 1933. There was absolutely no news, even on the shinty field. 

He told me he decided to file his copy about seeing a strange and enormous creature from his row boat. Harmless fun and the source of happy my-mying and tut-tutting amongst the Courier’s readers. 

Alex Campbell said he had not reckoned on the power of the media. If there was no news in Glengarry there was very little in Fleet Street. His innocent fraud was transmitted by the night sleeper by two young journalists who retold the glimpse of a monstrous reptile. Nessie has swum on ever since that exciting week.

The London press defined the enigma as very much like a plesiosaur. This was topical, not just because dinosaur skeletons were prominent at the Natural History Museum and everyone has a notion of these long-gone lumberers. More importantly the best fossil of a plesiosaur had just been found at Barrow. The real bones seemed to match the thrashing flesh reported up in the far north. 

The suggestion his creation was a left-over from aeons before startled Alex Campbell. He told me he had no thoughts of a reptile nature and that he had indeed seen a monster caught in the canal basin at Fort Augustus earlier that spring. What had been trapped was a sturgeon. 

They are rare in Scottish waters but not unknown. Their Caspian cousins can exceed 20 feet ... good enough to count as a monster to me. The struggling freelance said that he thought the sturgeon could only breed in the shallow bit of Loch Ness at Urquhart Bay by Drumnadrochit. 

Alex Campbell alternated between wry amusement at the phenomenon he had created with the occasional feeling perhaps there was a big something at home 800 feet down. He preserved his dignity. He was not being a fraudster. He was being a reporter, or more kindly perhaps, a storyteller. 

What Campbell had tapped into was our appetite for dragons. Of course the Gaels had their waterhorse myths and St Columba had demonstrated his saintlihood by admonishing a great kelpie in Loch Ness, according to his public relations adviser St Adamnan. 

I take pleasure in recalling the last pair of Scottish beavers were killed on Loch Ness in the 1650s. I like the romance that a few survived to waddle across the view of gullible visitors. A family of beavers provide a perfect set of humps, though they can’t do serpent-like necks. The tourist bodies might invite beavers back into the waters. 

It is banal of the Americans to sweep the loch with sonar and show there is very little life of any sort in the loch. Good manners should inhibit them. It is equally wrong-headed to say the Loch Ness Monster was devised by clever tourist marketing folk. They are not that bright. It was an accident. A glorious accident.

Take the monster away and the Highlands are much more dull. The biggest wild creature is the stag. It is noble but it has little mystery quality. 

Just as the Stone of Destiny has lost its power to provoke now it is back in Edinburgh, so a freshly stuffed plesiosaur in the Museum in Chambers Street would have only a mild curiosity value. The essence of the monster is never to be caught in nets or on film. It exists just over the horizon of proof. 

I think Alex Campbell should be feted amongst journalists. His creation was perhaps the best Scottish story of the 20th century. He was paid one shilling for his creation. That is footling but he also secured a kind of immortality no other journalist can.

Having read this, I can quite confidently say it is not Alex that is guilty of telling stories, but this anonymous author. Seasoned monster-philes will have perhaps noticed some glaring errors in this letter already. In fact, there are enough inconsistencies in it to completely dismiss it as a fabrication. Any rookie lawyer would have a field day in a court of law ripping it to pieces.

It seems clear to me that the 2003 sonar survey sponsored by the BBC may have been the catalyst for this letter. Perhaps the author thought the so called demise of the monster merited another tall tale about Alex Campbell.

Getting to the gist of this first of multiple attacks on Alex Campbell, we can cut through the psycho-babble about people needing monsters. Mankind has spent millenia eliminating monsters from their horizon. Be it the woolly mammoth or today's magnificent whales, mankind's perverse interpretation of being the superior species gives the exact opposite sense of a need for monsters.

On the Nessie narrative, the author here speaks utter nonsense when he claims that Campbell had confided in him that on a "slow news week" he:

"decided to file his copy about seeing a strange and enormous creature from his row boat"

This is simply not true, Alex Campbell had actually written a short report on a sighting by another person, a Mrs. Aldie Mackay who had seen the creature from her car. The idea that Campbell decided to indulge in a 1933 version of Fake News has already alerted us to a possible hatchet job in progress.

Untruth is rapidly followed by untruth as our anonymous confidant of Alex Campbell then claims the story was virtually in the Fleet Street newspapers by the next day as his alleged story "was transmitted by the night sleeper by two young journalists".

Again, this is Fake News. This story did not make its way into the national newspapers. In fact, it was a letter written three months later to the Inverness Courier that raised greater awareness of the monster. It had nothing to do with Alex Campbell and was written by a George Spicer.

We could stop right there and throw this letter in the digital dustbin, but I shall continue.

As an aside, the author mentions "the best fossil of a plesiosaur" that had been unearthed at the town of Barrow around that time. Though not Nessie related, this looks wrong as well. There was an almost complete fossil of the species "rhomaleosaurus megacephalus" found at Barrow Upon Soar, but that was eighty years before in 1851! Perhaps someone could enlighten me as to whether something even better was found around 1933 in Barrow, but I think this is wrong as well.

It is then related that Alex Campbell had seen a monster of sorts in the spring of 1933. It was a sturgeon caught in the canal basin at his home town of Fort Augustus. Now when I read that, I had to admire the gall of this writer. Let us see now. Slow news in the Glen, nothing to write about and then a sturgeon is caught at the mouth of the loch!

It seems pretty strange to me that Alex Campbell, our "struggling freelance" writer, totally failed to write this one up for the Inverness Courier because no sturgeon had ever been recorded as being seen in Loch Ness, let alone caught. Are there any reports of this more than interesting account in the local newspapers in the spring of 1933?

I have never seen such a report and no one I have read has ever found such a thing. You can be sure that if it was in the papers, our sturgeon loving sceptics would have found it and trumpeted it long ago.

Conclusion? More Fake News and going by the style and prose, I suspect it was another "stringer" who wrote this particular piece.

The anonymous storyteller then drifts off into more psychology about monsters, finally holding up Alex Campbell as the creator of the Loch Ness Monster. No, he wasn't, but he certainly had his part to play in the mystery as he examined eyewitnesses and reported his findings back to Inverness.

Why did our anonymous writer produce this badly researched piece of garbage? I don't know. You may argue that the passage of time had clouded his or her memory. That is an arguable point, but there is so much wrong with this piece, it is beyond redemption.

This is not the first attempt to label Campbell as a fraudster, but it is certainly the most brash. I will pursue several more as this series of articles unfolds. The time has come to put Alex Campbell back in his rightful and former place in the Loch Ness mystery.

The author can be contacted at

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Early Reports about Morag the Monster of Loch Morar

It isn't often I put up guest posts on this blog; come to think of it, I don't think I've ever done it. However, long time cryptid and general anomaly researcher, Ulrich Magin got in touch with me about new information he had found on the Loch Morar Monster, also known as Morag (or Mhorag).

Ulrich is known in Loch Ness Monster research circles from decades back. In fact, by coincidence, I recently found a letter he wrote to me back in the 1980s concerning Scottish sea serpents. Amongst the various articles and books he has written, he is to be thanked for the prodigious task he undertook as a youth of going over to Scotland to find and collate the hundreds of Nessie reports from the Inverness Courier and other papers.

In fact, he didn't start at 1933, but went back into the 19th century to find the 1852 account of kelpies, ponies and somewhat concerned natives. You can find his list of sightings in Henry Bauer's "The Enigma of Loch Ness". Going back to Mhorag, these are mainly pre-1933 Nessie era stories which range from the mythical to something more in keeping with the format of modern reports.So, without further ado, I hand you over to Ulrich.

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The monster, or mermaid, of Loch Morar was news long before its cousin from Loch Ness hit the headlines. I have fond personal memories of a bed & breakfast at Morar where I stayed in 1980, only to be lent the first book to ever mention the creature, James Macdonald’s “Tales of the Highlands” which contained an encounter between its author and a mermaid or monster-like creature in Loch Morar in 1887. The landlady said it was the very same copy Elizabeth Montgomery Campbell had used, the lady who wrote “The search for Morag”. I was still a schoolchild then, and when I returned, my parents urged me to send the valuable book back. When I visited Morar for the second time in 1981, the lady who had lent the book to me had died, and her children had thrown it away. I only hope there are further copies out there.

James Macdonald said Morag was a mermaid who only appeared when members of a certain family died. That is the siren of ancient lore, yet when he himself encountered Morag he gave no description at all. Still, mermaids were sometimes seen in Scottish lochs.

Then there are the mermaids, the kelpies of the south and the water bulls and horses of the north, of the lochs and streams, as stoutly believed by the peasantry who now live beside them as they were centuries ago. […] As to the mermaids of the lochs, they still exist past all dispute – at least with their friends the Highlanders. The railways, telegraphs and newspapers, like the heartless poachers they are, have sweeped or seined them well out of the lowland shires. They are and were both dangerous and beneficent personages. In olden times they were not above giving recipes for rashes, ringworm and other common ailments. Today they have all retreated to the shadowy Highland lochs, where they find comfortable flat stones to sit upon, and there, while combing their masses of long, yellow hair, sing in plaintive tones much that is ill or good to be heard. I know one canny auld wife of northern Perthshire who gets along very comfortably through her confidential relations with a mermaid that at present passes the summer season at Loch Ranoch.” (Kentucky New Era 18 July 1891, also Los Angeles Times, Jul 19, 1891)

First news about a monster in the loch come from the end of the 19th century, in the decade following Macdonald’s book. As reported by Mike Dash in Fortean Times 267, p.71, he discovered a mention of Morag in the notes of Father Allan McDonald from 1896/97. McDonald writes:

The monster called ‘Morag’ that is said to live in Loch Morar has many eyewitnesses … I heard the names of several living witnesses given but I had no opportunity of testing them at first hand.

These early testimonies were confirmed when Alexander Carmichael collected local folklore at the turn of 20th century. His informer was a certain Ewan MacDougall. His notes were found in 2013 by Dr Donald Stewart, a senior researcher on the Carmichael Watson project at the University of Edinburgh library while reading a “mad mixture” of tales from 1902, as reported in the BBC News of 25 February 2013 (to which Andreas Trottmann drew my attention). These snippets read:

Morag is always seen before a death and before a drowning. There is a creature in Loch Morar and she is called Morag. She is never seen save when one of the hereditary people of the place dies. The last time she was seen was when Aeneas Macdonnell died in 1898. The Morag is peculiar to Loch Morar. She is seen in broad daylight and by many persons, including church persons. She appears in a black heap or ball slowing and deliberately rising in the water and moving along like a boat water-logged. The Morag is much disliked and is called by many uncomplimentary terms.

Great distress. Like the other water deities, she is half-human, half-fish. The lower portions of her body is in the form of a grilse and the upper in the form of a small woman of highly developed breasts with long flowing yellow hair falling down her snow white back and breast. She is represented as being fair, beautiful and very timid and never seen save when one of the Morar family dies or when the clan falls in battle. Then she is seen rushing about with great speed and is heard wailing in great distress, bemoaning and weeping the loss of the House of Morar laid desolate. The Morag has often brought out of their houses at night the people living along the shores of the lake and in the neighbourhood of her haunts, causing much anxiety to the men and much sore weeping to the women.

Here, Morag is still part-time mermaid, part-time monster. Loch Morar became news globally when it was found that the lake was of immense depths.

Careful soundings just taken of Loch Morar, in Moidart, show that its greatest depth is 1000 ft. As its surface is only 31ft above sea level, its bottom is 989 ft below the latter, which is stated to be ‘the greatest depression to be found on the British plateau.’” (Otago Witness 1 October 1896, p. 54)

This was confirmed later:

The survey of the fresh-water lakes of the United Kingdom which is now in progress, under the superintendence of Sir John Murray, reveals the fact that Loch Morar, in Inverness-shire, is the deepest lake in the kingdom.

The complete chart of the loch shows that the greatest depth observed was 1009 ft, or 168 fathoms. For a distance of over seven miles the floor of Loch Morar falls lower than 600 ft beneath the surface, and the deepest part of the loch sinks 972 ft below the surface of the sea, from which the loch is separated by a narrow strip of land.

(Otago Witness 10 December 1902, p. 58; the news was also in the Sydney Mail, a little belated on 24 December 1902) 

We come across Morag again in the first decade of the 20th century, with three reports, all of them about a monster. The first is from a novel, Ethel Forster Heddle‘s The secret of the Turret, published by Sir Isaac Pitman in 1905. The book has 229 pages; the quote is on p.56. The characters discuss Scottish folklore.

"The fairy trees keep off evil. Màri told me. She says in Skye you can see the fairies dance on Midsummer Eve in the Cave of Gold, if you go with a naked dagger, or a bunch of rowan. The lilies are cold and faultless, and the stems are so long, and cold, and slimy. One thinks if one fell in — how the long arms would suck one down, and drown one — and how one might die unseen!

Now, in this context, there is word of a monster in Loch Morar:

Almost mechanically he began to tell me a story of Loch Morar, and its deep, deep waters, and how a man had been drowned there, pulled down by the long arms of the water plants, and hidden in the great leaves — held as in the dreadful embrace of a mythical sea-monster.

A review of the book, in the Otago Witness, 31 January 1906, says this: 

“THE SECRET OF THE TURRET. By Ethel Heddle. London: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons. This is precisely the style of story one expects to find eagerly followed through the weekly pages of such journals as Forget-me-not, Home Notes, and others of a similar class. It is the story of a charming girl - they always are charming; an American heiress and orphan - they are always heiresses, these Americans, - and her stay in a romantic castle in the Highlands of Scotland. All the proper accessories to a modem mystery are considered, glibly grafted on to the stage properties of the earlier romance, so that the ‘Secret of the Turret’ may lack nothing in the way of accessories.

But ‘the kilts’ are the real ‘piece de resistance’ of the picturesque attractions! The crumbling stair and narrow plank which lead to the turret room; the stormy loch, with its ‘sea horses’; the old bell with its, quaint inscribed instructions to the traveller — these are all the well-worn, threadbare accessories, but the kilts - new kilts, worn kilts, dress kilts, kilts of all sorts, these are the everyday interpreters of romance!"

It would possibly be interesting to get a copy of the novel for a rainy afternoon and see what more could be found in it. The next story was in The Cairngorm Club Journal, published by the Cairngorm Club (vol. 5, 1908, p.73–74). We learn that Loch Morar is difficult to visit

as the owners and tenants of deer forests have decided objections to intrusion upon their fastnesses.

this is followed by:

“But a sail on Loch Morar from the lower end is unhindered, and the scenery of the loch itself is very fine. Permission to fish may also be obtained, and the successful angler will be much pleased with the size and beauty of his captures. He may be thankful if he escapes the fear of capture himself. For the lake is the haunt of a remnant of the old- world monsters that till recently - if all tales be true - frequented our lonely lakes and streams. Mòrag - little Sarah, though why I do not know - seldom shows herself, and, so far as I have ever heard, has always been satisfied with frightening the intruder out of her realms. The best authenticated tale that has come to my knowledge was given me by a man who had made Mòrag's acquaintance. He was rowing across the loch, in going from Meoble to Tarbet on Loch Nevis. Glancing over his shoulder to see if he was nearing the shore, he saw between him and the landing-place the apparition. But, evidently believing that Mòrag was as shy of the company of human beings as they were of hers, he held on his course and landed without skaith.” 

Still in 1908, the monster is mentioned in William T. Kilgour’s "Lochaber in War & Peace: being a record of historical incidents, legends, traditions & folk-lore with notes on the topography & scenic beauties of the whole district". (Gardner, 1908, p.173–174).

Morar Loch – the deepest lake in the three kingdoms – has gained the reputation of harbouring a monster so mysterious and uncanny that the dwellers in these parts live in perpetual terror of it. ‘Morag,’ as the apparition has been christened, is said to have been seen by a number of persons of unquestionable veracity. One of them in recounting his experience alleges that early on a summer morn when rowing across the loch, he happened on nearing the further shore, to catch sight of ‘Morag’ — ‘a huge, shapeless, dark mass, rising out of the water like an island.’ It suddenly disappeared, and the disturbance of the water sent a ripple towards his boat, which caused it to roll slightly. The belief is prevalent among the residents by the lake, that the sea monster in Loch Morar never rises save when some MacDonald or a Gillies is about to exchange the barren hills of Morar for a fairer and more salubrious clime.

Morag here still announces local deaths, but she is transformed into a version of the kraken or island beast, much closer to what we would expect from a lake monster.

The Highland News, on 14 April 1917, p.5, carried an article about the folklore of the Highlands entitled “Traditional Monsters of the West”. The long article lists goblins, the pterodactyl-like Lochhourn monster, the one-legged humanoid of Glen Etive and then refers to Morag, the Loch Morar monster:

A monster is still located in Loch Morar. Some places are pointed out where it feeds; the marks of its feet are found at Camus-nam Bràthan; traces of it exist at Ruidh nan Deorcag and Coll-nam-muc. This Loch Morar creature gets from the natives the name ‘Morag’. It appears only when one of the natives of the place die (‘aon de dhùthchas an aite’). The last time it was seen was in 1898, when Aonghas an Traigh died. ‘Morag' is seen in daylight. As its appearance foretells a death, it is called ‘Morag Dhubh’'; ‘Morag Odhar’.

Montgomery Campbell’s book has several mentions after this, and I will now only note material I have found by accident, and which might not be well known. "Fear by Night", a woman’s thriller by Patricia Wentworth (published in 1934 in Philadelphia and London by the J. B. Lippincott Company, refers to the monster (I regret but I forgot to note the page): the

monster of Loch Morar, whose appearance is believed to presage disaster. So much for folklore.

On 27 November 1948, the first sightings appeared in newspapers. the Pittsburgh Press had this story on p. 15: 

“Scottish Monster Sighted On Loch.
GLASGOW – It’s back, folks – the ‘monster’ of the Scotch lakes. A party of nine on Loch Morar, deepest lake in Scotland, called the attention of boatmen John Gillies to an unusual object a quarter of a mile away. ‘Through my binoculars,’ says Gillies, ‘it appeared about 20 feet long and had prominent humps. Neither head nor tail was visible.’” 

This is sighting no 7 in "The Search for Morag". In 1949, Doré Ogrizek had this to say in his Great Britain: England, Scotland, and Wales in the “World in colour series” (Whittlesey House, 1949, p. 431):

“Not far from Mallaig are two unusual pieces of water. One is Loch Morar, the deepest hole in Europe at more than 1000 feet. The other is Loch Hourn, the ‘Loch of Hell,’ and there is said to be a monster in it which bears a distinct resemblance to the monster in Loch Ness.”

The English Review magazine, vol 2–3, Eyre and Spottiswoode 1949, also refers to

“Loch Morar, in depth just under 1000 ft and the haunt, like Loch Ness, of a Monster.”
In 1955, the New York Times on July 3, reviews a book titled “Folk-Tales and Tall Tales” which contained:

“many stories that were new to me, such as ‘Morag and the Water Horse’ (surely a foreshadowing of the legend of the Loch Ness monster).”
I want to finish with two brief further quotes. One, from a letter-to-the-editor in the New York Times of July 30, 1960, on p. 16, which says:

“As a Scots visitor to the United States whose home is not far from Loch Ness, I was interested to read in your paper about the famous monster which inhabits this loch [Ness]. […] It is only because Loch Morar is so isolated that monsters there are rarely seen.”

And in 1961, The Scottish Naturalist (vol 70-71. p.88) tantalizes with:

“The ‘beast’ of Loch Morar was named Morag. Father Allan says it had been seen by reliable acquaintances of his.”