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 lochnesskelpie@gmail.com







41 comments:

  1. Why did the anonymous author write that letter is a great question. He seems to be aware of aspects of the history, even name checking Adamnan, but gets almost everything wrong. Other things, like the sturgeon tale, do indeed seem false altogether. He claims to have been a friend of Campbell's; and I don't think he was trying to cast Campbell as a "fraud", but as the Catalyst Of The Legend. It is clear the writer does not believe, but he does allude that he thought Cammpbell might have. So I think he was trying his best to write a clever letter that out his friend in the light that the writer saw him in, with details mixed up and clouded by time...

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    1. Some hack on a "slow news day" to quote the article.

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  2. Campbell's odd role in the whole saga is worth investigating, however GB is hardly unbiased and obviously regards Campbell as unimpeachable, honest and straight.

    Campbell was a keen self publicist, a plausible blether and a canny purveyor of centuries old Nessie lore based on nil evidence.

    He could be straight from the film Local Hero.

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    1. I'll admit I have my own bias, but so does everyone else, the trouble is the other side do not admit it. The reader is invited to read both sides and make up their own minds (unfortunately influenced by their own bias!).

      As far as this piece is concerned, even a sceptic would have his doubts about this one.

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    2. Yikes - some people will look for, and find, any reason to attack you GB. I do not always agree with you, but keep on posting the fascinating information you dig up. I wish I had enough spare time to follow blogs on topics which I think are "lore based on nil evidence", let alone post comments there. I can barely keep up wiht the all things I am interested in...

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    3. Thanks, hopkarma. Looking at various comments elsewhere, Alex Campbell clearly gets it in the neck from various peoples, so far next to no one has actually addressed this odd letter in the Scotsman!

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  3. I was born in Barrow-upon-Soar and can assure that there was only one Plesiosaur discovered there. Its celebrated in the large stone marker displayed in the village known as the Barrow Kipper

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  4. Alex Campbell was certainly one of the most influential individuals involved in this subject.

    However, having met him several times I can give my opinion. He was not deluded or fanatical about Nessie, but a fairly accomplished liar. Not as good as Searle and certainly less toxic, but a liar none the less.

    When you consider that he later said that one of his sightings of a thirty-foot plesiosaur was probably only a cormorant, you get an idea of his invention.

    He was charming, funny, great for tourism and a wonderful story teller. Sadly they were all just that, stories.

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    1. I'll address the cormorant/plesiosaur issue soon enough. Leaving that matter aside, did you decide he was a lair because he talked in a certain way, because he talked about a monster in Loch Ness or because there were inconsistencies in those conversations?

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  5. He is mooted to have tried to start the LMN ball rolling in 1930 with a Inverness Courier fishy tale about boatmen's encounter with a large aquatic creature. It failed to ignite the world's interest.
    He kept his vestas dry till 1933 and tried again with the MacKay story, this, plus the defoliage of the entire NW shore of the loch were the kindling that started the Nessie inferno.

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    1. I think you are indulging in eisegesis rather than exegesis. Assuming Campbell did pen that 1930 report, he was writing up a genuine encounter claimed by three men. Gould interviewed these men three years later for his book. No fabrication - someone claimed they saw something in the loch, Campbell wrote it up and Gould confirmed it independently.

      Doubtless, Campbell had an interest in the monster and would have been glad to meet witnesses, but to claim there is deception on his part cannot be deduced from your comment.

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  6. The 1930 story that you are referring to was indeed reported and is directly referenced in Campbell's now more famous report of 1933. Campbell can be seen as reporting the news but the fact that the news didn't ignite the world is not proof that he made it up to ignite the world - he could have, but it was the actual letter in response to the 1933 story that kicked it all off, not Campbell's report in the first instance which was, let's face it, relatively banal and unimaginative if you your aim was to convince the world that a prehistoric creature lived in LN.
    The 1930 boatmen story is identified and reproduced by various writers (Makall et al) and the sources is credited as The Northern Chronicle (Aberdeen) of 27 August 1930 with a headline of 'What Was It?'. Presumably Campbell wrote this too given it's direct reference in the 1933 story and a headline exactly the same as the 1933 byline. Clearly by the tone struck, he is a bit miffed that there was only 'scant attention' and one can understand that this was most likely because he felt people weren't paying attention to something he thought was both genuine and remarkable. However...as far as anything fishy goes, I do smell a whiff. Has anyone actually seen this 1930 report as an actual clipping and, was there actually a Northern Chronicle? A quick google doesn't register any tangebile links and, being an Aberdonian, I have never heard of a Northern Chronicle - I think there may have been one in the 1700s but which was swiftly gobbled up by Aberdeen Journals and rolled into the then fledgling P&J.
    I'm not sure what the significance of it may be but I do think it is important with regards to the overall narrative showing that things did occur on LN before Fleet Street got into a lather for the 1930 report to be documented and verified (as well as examined for any letters and comments and response to it in the following weeks). If it doesn't actually exist then I am afraid that this could indeed chime with Campbell being a self-publicist whereby he is referencing fictional reports (ones that he may have actually penned but couldn't get published).
    Anyone care to point us in the direction of the original and verified newsclipping of the story 'What Was It?' from The Northern Chronicle (Aberdeen) of 27 August 1930?

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    1. It does exist, though I have not seen the clipping myself. The 1930 story did get some international attention as it was reprinted in the 12th October edition of the Hartford Courant of Connecticut, USA (!). I do have a copy of that clipping plus a letter of that time to the Inverness Courier which some have averred was written by Campbell.

      As for the Northern Chronicle, I have examined old microfilm copies of this now defunct newspaper in Edinburgh.

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    2. I think 'Aberdeen' is a red herring (or sturgeon). 'The Northern Chronicle and General Advertiser for the North of Scotland' was a weekly newspaper published in Inverness between 1881 and 1964. There is a run in the National Library of Scotland, but – as far as I can tell – it hasn't been digitised.

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    3. Before it was published in the Hartford Courant on October 12, it was published in the Evening Tribune (San Diego, California) on October 2, and The Kokomo Tribune (Kokomo, Indiana) on October 8, 1930. I suspect it was published in more US newspapers.

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  7. Can we have some examples of his lies please Tony? Yes Alex was a big player on the nessie scene so for me as person who has a huge interest in the mystery it would be nice for you to clear up this chapter for me. I was always under the opinion that yes Alex exaggarated a few stories but really did believe in nessie and probably had a couple of genuine sightings. If you have proof he was a liar then I would be grateful for you to share it so maybe i could rethink Alex's role in the mystery. Thanks Tony.

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    1. Lies
      Alex exaggerated..
      Liar ( again)
      Rethink alex's "role" in this ( implying slex is a liar,again)
      Very slick

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    2. The one potential lie is when he went from claiming he saw cormorants to monsters in 1933. I cover this one in the next article.

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  8. Not ony did Campbell write the 1930 story for the Chronicle he probably was the author of two anonymous letters to the paper, one recounting the " long " history of unexplained beasties in the loch. This was news to many lochside residents who'd never heard any rumours about exotic loch inhabitants.
    Campbell's many sightings [ 17 according to one source ] even accounting for his job as bailiff, seem very fortunate or very suspect.

    Yes, an interesting man, looking forward to Pt 2 of GB's article.

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    1. It sounds like you are consulting Binns here. That'll be addressed in part 2 or 3. As for your statement that many locals had never heard of an exotic loch inhabitant before Campbell ... simply not true (unless you discount kelpie tales which is disingenuous).

      I only see at most 8 sightings recorded in the database I use. I'll go with that for now.

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  9. There is a video of Alex Campbell relating a night time experience he had along with a Constable he was taking across the Loch. In the dark they heard something nearby their boat breathing loudly and creating a large commotion. Apparently the Constable was alarmed. This sounds like a good story but on film Alex Campbell seems to be recounting a genuine experience. Who was the constable accompanying Alex that night across the Loch?
    I never had the pleasure of meeting the man but he seemed genuinely honest in all the films explaining his sightings. The TV show " In search of " is when he recalled hearing ( and imitating ) the monsters breath.

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  10. So Tony Harmsworth didnt answer my question on Alex Campbell being a liar! That tells me he had no evidence and it is just his opinion.I find this disappointing from a man who wrote a book on the mystery and lets the reader make his own mind up.There are a lot of people trying to find out the truth on the mystery, some in a scientific way and some like myself in a humble way, so these comments off somebody supposedly in the know are rather disappointing in my opinion.It is no worse than somebody playing a hoax to decieve people.I think we need a sceptical view as much as positive view but these comments are just cheap and only give harm to the people who are researching the Nessie story.

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  11. Gezza, Mr. Harmsworth did state that he was offering his opinion of Campbell. You yourself stated that Campbell exaggerated a few stories. How does one determine which of Campbell's stories were exaggerated and which were not? I think that Campbell genuinely believed there was something unusual in Loch Ness, but this belief caused him to become a zealous propagandist for the LNM. Particularly when the notion of Nessie as plesiosaur began to take shape, which had (and continues to have)an appeal for romantic types, which Campbell seemingly was. Nessie as plesiosaur was also an image the press picked up and ran with as it made for good copy, and Campbell, as the experienced water bailiff and local correspondent for the Inverness Currier played a crucial role in fostering that image.

    Jack, the thing to bear in mind about Campbell and the Constable's nighttime incident on Loch Ness is that neither man actually saw anything. The water disturbance and the breathing could very well have been caused by a big grey seal. The episode was inconclusive, but Campbell attributed it to Nessie and that's an example of why he was a propagandist.

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  12. No paddy he clearly stated Alex was a liar. Read his comment again.

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  13. A Highland gentleman by all accounts and so what if he followed in the great tradition of highland storytellers.

    His contribution was a net positive to the Loch Ness story in my view. I'd rather be entertained by Alex than have to wade through any of Mr Harmsworths dull books.

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    1. He could tell a good story, but stories can be true as well as false.

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  14. I dont mind reading sceptical books or listening to the views of the sceptics. Adrian Shine and Dick Raynor make a lot of sense of things to a certain degree, but i couldnt listen or read a book by someone who calls someone a liar without any evidence....just nonsense in my view. And yes i always take a peep at Harmsworths book when im in loch ness its always in the garage at fort augustus and yes i agree its one of the poorer ones on the subject. I might take another peek as im up there again in may.

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  15. Gezza, Harmsworth did call Campbell a liar, but said it was his opinion after having met the man several times. But since he hasn't saw fit to respond to your query it comes across as a drive-by accusation, so I can see your point.

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    1. As an author of a book on the subject and a so called name on the scene i just find it disappointing he lets people think Alex is a liar without any evidence.A lot of people have an interest in the mystery and some are split down the middle so its wrong in my opinion. In fact i see Tony Harmsworth as the liar for saying Alex was without any evidence. Not good for the sceptics either when one of their own has to resort to lies to get people to think there is nothing to the nessie legend.

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    2. I don't know Tony Harmsworth, despite living on Loch Ness-side myself, but i find his online persona to be smug and antagonistic and i think he elevates his standing on the scene beyond what it actually merits. I would hope the guy is not like that in person.

      There's not much George Edwards has said that i agree with, but he was right when he said there are no 'experts' on Loch Ness - just a lot of people with varying opinions.

      I'm a sceptic myself, but i have always loved the subject and the place. I'll listen to anyone who i find entertaining / interesting on the subject, be they sceptic or believer.

      I would much rather listen to Alex Campbell's tales than most others.

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    3. Internet personas can sometimes match the real life personality, sometimes they don't.

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    4. Your dead right there RP, nobody is an expert, after all its just a large body of water that might hold a large aquatic creature and nobody knows if thats true or not.And yes i have met George Edwards a couple of times and he was a friendly man although in his position he should no better than to try and con the public. He would of got away with it if it wasnt for a sharp eyed welshman who told his friend it was the hump he owned then the friend reported it to Steve Feltham.I wonder if the friend of a friend had not of spotted it would we still be thinking George had captured a large creature on camera? Would George have one day in the future admitted the hoax? I doubt it.But we know 100% that a face on the nessie scene z( George) is a liar, unlike Alex Campbell as we dont know for sure so Tony Harmsworth in my opinion should not be saying it.

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    5. I've known Tony H online for years now, and we've had some friendly back and forths in agreement and not. I was hoping to see his reply to both GB and GEZZA's questions, but I do understand why he may be so quiet - I comment here from time to time, but do not always get back to follow up. Unless I go every day to each post here that I have commented on, and scroll down to the comments, I do not know if people are calling me out. I enjoy GB's posts, but I also enjoy music, politics, and yes, cats, so my online time is spread all over the place. It may very well just be that Tony does not check here every day...

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    6. There was a similar furore with TH on a facebook form where people also demanded proof. His response was to leave the group!

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  16. Fair point Hopkarma.We shall see if Tony gets back to us on this. I have a big interest in the mystery from positive to sceptical so if one of the biggest players on the nessie positive side of things is a liar then i would like to know personally.The likes of George Edwards and Frank Searle can be eliminated from the mystery from my point of view so lets see if Alex can be aswell. I know Tony has also called Rines a liar so im not quite sure wether he is just giving his opinion or he has got evidence.I dont think the middle man or a 50/50 person on nessie should be given false information on the subject if you see what i mean. Im sure Tony is a decent chap and i have no axe to grind with him, i suppose like most people, sceptic or believer....
    Im just searching for the truth. Cheers.

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  17. Campbell was totally at it. He saw the monster 17 times did he when no othere credible witness claimed to see it more than twice? When I was a kid, long before I knew much about who he was or fully understood the timeline of events, I thought he was suspiciously lucky. As I became a man everything I've ever read points directly or indirectly to him being the progenitor of the entire myth. Now, it's a myth and story I happen to adore so I personally love the guy. But he created it don't kid yourselves otherwise.
    -Kyle Titterton

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    1. Hmmm, nah! I will publish my next instalment soon.

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  18. Im quite satisfied Alex Campbell did not create the loch ness monster mystery.

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