Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Thoughts on the Alfred Cruickshank Land Sighting




As part of the promotion for my new book on land sightings of the Loch Ness Monster, I thought I would cover the curious case of Alfred Cruickshank and his encounter on a lonely road during an April night in 1923. Before I proceed, may I ask readers who have bought the book to consider posting a review to amazon.co.uk or amazon.com?

But what of that event 95 years ago and the closest we have to primary sources? Alfred Cruickshank of Buckie, Banffshire near Loch Ness wrote a letter to famous monster hunter, Tim Dinsdale on the 9th January 1961 regarding his curious encounter. That communication made it into Tim's first book, "Loch Ness Monster", which I reproduce verbatim here:

I thank you for your letter about our famous `Nessie'. I usually went from Buckie to Speanbridge to meet a train from Glasgow at 8 a.m. This meant leaving home about 3 a.m. as the roads at this time were very narrow and rough, 112 miles. The car I had was a Model T Ford and the headlamps were off the low tension magneto. The faster your engine ran the better the lights, so that when you slowed down at a corner (there were hundreds of them) your lamps faded.

I have done this journey hundreds of times but I have had only one view of the Monster, and I believe I was the first to see it, but I never told anybody (bar my wife) what I had seen (also my boss). If I remember rightly it was on a Monday morning in April, 1923, when I was going to Speanbridge, that I had the encounter with the Monster, of which I got a very good view as it crossed the road in front of me; but as I was nearing a corner of the road I was slowing up and the headlamps dimmed. I can still show you the place although the road has all been remade and widened.

If the road had been wider I would have turned the car for a further look but it was too narrow. My view of the Monster was: Body 10-12 ft. long, 5 ft. 6 in.-7 ft. in height, tail 10-12 ft. Colour, green-khaki resembling a frog, with cream coloured belly which, trailed on the ground. It had four legs thick like an elephant's and had large webbed feet, in reality it looked like' an enormous hippo, but arched back and long trailing tail which was on the same level as the belly, as you will see in my rough drawing. It gave out a sharp bark, like a dog, as it disappeared over the road into the water.

I think this is all the information I can give you. I wrote the B.B.C. about the Monster when they put down divers to photograph under Loch Ness for the Monster, for one bite of its large mouth would have halved any man, but they never replied. Hoping I have been of some assistance to you ...

A second source comes from the chapter on land sightings in Nicholas Witchell's "The Loch Ness Story", published 13 years later in 1974 which is reproduced below. Since I believe Mr. Cruickshank lived about 60 miles from Loch Ness in Buckie at the time, this looks a visit from Nicholas Witchell rather than a letter.

It was still dark and Mr Cruickshank's route was being illuminated by the car's rather primitive headlamps as he bumped and wound his way along the deserted road. About two miles north of Invermoriston he crested a small hill and his headlamps picked out a large object on the outside of a bend in the road about 50 yards ahead of him. "I could see something moving - it had a large humped body standing about six feet high with its belly trailing on the ground and about 12 feet long, to which was attached a long thick tail which was ten to 12 feet in length. It was moving slowly, sort of waddling away from the road on two legs which I could see on the near side.

I saw the outline of what appeared to be the head which was big and pug-nosed and was set right on the body — in other words it didn't seem to have much of a neck. I was slowing down to go round the corner so the lamps faded but as I went round the corner 1 heard a grunting noise from where it was. I stopped the car once I was round the corner but I couldn't turn the car round and I certainly wasn't going back on foot." Mr Cruickshank described the colour as dark olive to khaki and lighter underneath although obviously in the poor light it was difficult to determine colour clearly.

When Mr Cruickshank arrived at Speanbridge station and met his employer, the latter apparently asked him what was wrong since he was looking very pale. "He thought I must have had an accident," recalled Mr Cruickshank, "but I told him what had happened and he said I must have been dreaming. A couple of other friends who I told about the sighting said I must have been drunk. Apart from them I just told my wife and then kept quiet about it all." 

So what are we to make of this extraordinary account of a huge beast upwards of 25 feet crawling across a dark Highlands road during the inter-war years? The sceptics will of course dismiss it out of hand and we shall come to their theories later. However, even those who accepted there was a large beast in the loch were a bit non-plussed by the account as it did not include the obligatory long neck of Nessie lore.

Be that as it may, as researchers, Dinsdale and Witchell were honest enough not to sweep it under the carpet and both published the account for the world to read. What disappoints me is that we do not have any sketch to accompany either account. From the above, we know Cruickshank sent Dinsdale a sketch which, rather than printing, describes as:

a squat and bulbous creature with a large doglike head, little or no neck, four stumpy legs with flipperlike endings with fingers or claws, and a huge tail ...

I contacted the Dinsdale family regarding the possibility of this sketch still being in their father's archives, but nothing was found. But gone is the small head perched upon the long slender neck and to summarise the statistics:
  • larged humped body 10 to 12 feet long and 5.5 to 7 feet high
  • tail about 10 to 12 feet long
  • big, pug nosed head
  • little or no neck
  • four thick legs like and elephant with webbed feet 
  • belly and tail trailed along ground
  • emitted bark or grunting noise
  • colour dark olive to khaki with lighter cream coloured underbelly

What are the mitigating factors that may compromise this description? The first is that the event (according to Witchell) happened about 0500. The specific day in April is not given, and so we can only surmise that sunrise occurred between 0643 and 0529. A mid-April date gives a sunrise of 0605 which suggests there was not much natural light around and Mr. Cruickshank was largely dependent on his headlights.

As stated above, the headlights were driven by the engine in a manner similar to wind up torches today. As Mr. Cruickshank initially saw the creature fifty yards ahead of him, he was not about to take a corner and so the headlights were at normal brightness for his given speed. However, I am pretty sure a combination of seeing this hulking beast and knowing he was about to reach a familiar corner was sufficient for him to start applying the brakes. So, though Alfred says he had "a very good view" of it, this would have only lasted for seconds.

I say seconds because we are told he regularly undertook a 112 mile journey in 5 hours for an average speed of 22.4 mph. At an initial distance of 50 yards from the creature, he would be upon it no sooner than five seconds. In terms of movement, our creature had to move its 25 foot length across a road probably 15 feet wide in about the same time which gives a probable speed of five feet per second or about 3.4 miles per hour to avoid a collision. As a comparison, bull elephants seals can comfortably manage such a speed.

Apart from brevity and light levels, there is also the memory question as Alfred Cruickshank's letter to Tim Dinsdale was 38 years after the event happened. As stated before, whatever the eyewitness testimony, the passage of decades is going to have some effect on the powers of recall. I say that asking the reader what events they can recall from 38 years ago in 1980?

And herein lies the rub, the vast majority of what we saw in 1980 is long gone and beyond recall, but what is memorable, exciting or traumatic is not so easily eroded. Seeing a large form filling the road in front of you on a lonely road is what I would call "traumatic" and is more permanently encoded onto those ancient memory paths which carry those things which had to be recalled for the purposes of survival and preservation of life and limb. That he arrived at Spean Bridge looking like a sick man sums it up.

I think a large, unknown monster fits that bill nicely and note that the two accounts given about 13 years apart do not differ greatly in detail. Having said that, even this will not be subject to perfect recall in regards to exact details as I note that the two accounts differ in who Alfred Cruickshank told his story to (but note details omitted in one account do not constitute a contradiction). One also describes the noise emitted by the creature as a "grunt" but the other says a "bark".

One may think I am using brevity, light and memory factors to wriggle out of this lack of a long neck, but the Witchell account states that he only saw the "outline" of a head which suggests the full beam of the headlights was concentrated on the middle portion of the creature and weakened towards the sides of the road putting the "head" in relative darkness.

Thus, Nicholas Witchell asked whether the neck may have already progressed out of view into the trees or perhaps the neck had turned to look at the approaching car to give the impression of no neck. Mr. Cruickshank did not think so and thus some Nessie researchers are left with an incongruity. Others are not, such as advocates of a giant salamander like creature or those who think the creature is not resident in the loch but is actually several differing cryptids that occasionally find their way into the loch over the centuries.

But where did this all happen? I made some provisional deductions and visited the potential site back in April 2015 when I was investigating the nearby John MacLean sighting of 1938. As Alfred Cruickshank rightly pointed out, the road has been remade and widened since 1923 and so comparing his account to the current road is not a good idea. However, the incident is said to have occurred about two miles north of Invermoriston and happened near a cornering of the road. Using a pre-1933 Ordnance Survey map of the area will help narrow down the options as shown below.



As you can see, there is not much in the way of bending roads closer to Invermoriston (out of view to the bottom left). Also, as the road heads south to Invermoriston the road rises away from the loch and provides less of a comfortable route for the kind of creature described unless it was into high board diving. With that in mind, my gaze turned to Altsigh which is about 2.5-2.9 miles from Invermoriston, depending from where you start your measurements.

At Altsigh, we find a bending of the road which is not so much pronounced on today's A82 road (as suggested by Cruickshank). Zooming in gives us this view of the road below and I would suggest the event occurred at the first northernmost bend above the "A" of "Alltsigh" on the map. I say that because the witness stated that the creature became visible on the "outside bend" of the road which suggests a bend pointing towards the loch rather than away from it (as we see over the Altsigh burn).




Actually, this location is very near the spot where the old Half Way House hotel was located which later became a Youth Hostel. It is not visible on this old map nor the later 1921-1930 "Popular" OS map series, so I suspect it was built to take advantage of the later improved road. That would suggest this was a much lonelier road in 1923, though the credibility of the case hardly hinges on this.

With that location in mind, I did a reconnaissance of the area to see what lay beyond the road, mindful that topology may have changed somewhat between 1923, 1933 and today. Below is the road looking south as Alfred would have travelled, just before the now renamed Hostel (just out of sight to the left).




The outside bend you see is where I speculate the older dog leg bend once existed and the creature would have crossed ahead of it. To the right are some houses and I had an interesting conversation with one of the owners at the time concerning frightening events. To the left was the loch and I made my way down to the general view of the shingle beach shown below. It was a short trudge down from the road, perfectly consistent with the kind of quick escape route back to the loch that our favourite cryptid likes.




Looking back to the road from the beach I inspected the rising hillside back to the road. My first impression was that this would be an easy enough incline for a beast to slide down, but it was unclear how scalable it was in the opposite direction. But then again, I have no idea what the elevation of the road was like in 1923 or where the sweet spot for ascending/descending was. That particular answer is now lost in the mists of time.



 
OPINIONS
 
Given the knowns and unknowns, I was quite comfortable with this as a possible location. But let us get back to the varying views on this curious event. First, there is the matter of the greenish colour of the beast. Admittedly, it is a departure from the usual darker shades of the monster, and this led Tim Dinsdale into the speculation that the car's ancient magneto lights as they faded gave the creature a green tint.

That sounds reasonable but I emailed the owner of a Model T Ford enthusiast's website and asked if the colour of a magneto headlight emitted any colour in full or fading luminance. His reply was this:

"The bulb was a typical light bulb of the time. It was bright white at full brilliance but turned a bit yellowier as the engine slowed down. Looking at it, it just dimmed ... a color change was not too evident."
 
That doesn't totally exclude this as an explanation, but for me it is not likely to turn a grey/brown creature into a khaki green one. Looking back at the sightings record, I can find only three other explicitly green skinned events - the Lowrie family (August 1960), Christie (May 1962) and Kennedy (November 1974). So they do happen, but very infrequently. 

How much this colour variation is an issue partly depends on one's bias in the subject. Sceptics want multi-coloured Nessies to bolster their case against a single variant creature. The other extreme is to liken the Loch Ness Monster to a chameleon, which is going to far in the opposite direction. But these are both missing the point.

The vast majority of sightings are dark brown/grey/black and one cannot not always be sure how many grey-blacks are due to shadow rather than skin colour. So the green (and yellow) variants are a very small percentage which hardly swings the case. If 25% were green, 25% brown, 25% black and 25% yellow, that would constitute a bigger problem. These green outliers suggest to me a variant in monster morphology that does not happen very often. 

Meantime, sceptical interpretations are a bit thin on the ground. Steuart Campbell slots this case into the "otter like" category without explaining how an otter can fill the road or appear green. Unfortunately for the sceptics, otters in a heat haze cannot be wheeled out here! One could try and invoke larger creatures such as deer or seals, I leave the defense of such shaky theories to their protagonists, though I don't recall a seal ever being reported on a road by Loch Ness or ever out of the loch (and of course seals are not 25 feet long - unless a very large walrus got into the loch).

Perhaps an admission that this case is not amenable to natural explanations is found in Ulrich Magin's sceptical analysis of pre-1933 cases done for Fortean Studies Volume 7. He suggests that the whole thing was just a joke by Alfred Cruickshank based on the less than compelling observation that the month of the event was April and hence may be an April Fool's joke. A look at the calendar for 1923 shows that none of the Mondays in April fell on the 1st.

CONCLUSION

Otter, seal, hoax or monster? Make up your own mind. If Mr. Cruickshank did want to fabricate a report, you would have thought he would have played safe and gone for the standard grey, long necked beast. Seals and otters are far too small which leaves little room for any other explanation.

Alfred Cruickshank died in 1978 and so I leave the final word to Alfred Cruickshank's grandson who I tracked down to the same town of Buckie and had a phone conversation with a few years back. He acknowledged he knew of the story bit didn't have much to add. But he reminisced with me how his grandad often used to sit him on his knee and tell him the tale of how he once met the Loch Ness Monster on a dark, lonely road.


The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com






30 comments:

  1. Hearing a tale of encountering a large unknown creature at night alone close to the shore of Loch Ness from a Grandfather would be amazing, even after hearing it 500 times or more which I would have to demand lol
    The absence of the long neck really changes the view on this creature, Alfred states a bite from this animal could " halve " a man diving in Loch Ness - that is some mouth!! Strange though is another variation of this animal. A pug like face is just so weird. The large body is consistent with eyewitness reports. Feet instead of flippers, odd again.
    I will be ordering a copy of your most recent book Roland in the coming weeks on Amazon. Cheers and thanks for another interesting article.

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    1. Thanks. I am not denying a large head was evident, but rather he only saw an outline which is more open to interpretation and suggests to me the head was already out of beam to the left and would be the first feature to disappear from view.

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  2. 1923? This is an old one. It seems he kept it quiet at first, when did he actually report it or put it public? do you know?

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  3. Wonderful account. The variations from the norm, to me, add to the veracity of the account - he doesn’t cave in to repeat what he might be ‘expected’ to witness, but gives his own honest account of what he physically encountered & watched that day. Oh for a vehicle delivering the mornings Warburtons loaves to make such a similar encounter today...with Xenon headlights & airbags to boot ! Lol...

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  4. We don't know the quality of eyesight from Alfred either. A sighting that lasted seconds which occurred at night with the only light source being that of a car built before 1923. Maybe some foliage or the position of the monster mislead Alfred into thinking he was observing what he thought was a head. George Spicer in broad daylight saw an animal that was not perfectly outlined in silhouette also as it seemed to be partly obscured.
    Speaking to family of Mr Cruikshanks is a great benefit and may lead to additional info on sightings. I always find it interesting hearing about accounts of kin verifying first hand stories from their own family.

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  5. I don't put much, if anything, in these Nessie out of water sightings, but I love all the information you've dug up and compiled here. As for the April Fool's hoax idea - Alfred would have only been trying to hoax Dinsdale, and decades later. Cruickshank did not report his sighting to the press when it happened, though I'm not sure how Dinsdale found out about the account in the first place...

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    1. It's in the article above, Cruickshank wrote to Dinsdale with his account. Witchell tracked him down 10 years later and he related the story again to him. He also said he wrote the BBC which I would place about the time they did their "Legend of the Loch" documentary in 1957.

      There are various accounts which do not surface for decades, Cruickshank is not unique in that respect.

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    2. Yes, I know AC wrote to TD - I did read your article after all. But AC's letter to TD begins with
      "I thank you for your letter about our famous `Nessie'." That implies to me that somehow Dinsdale heard about Arthur's sighting and wrote him a letter inquiring about it. So how did TD find out the sighting in the first place? It may be in Tim's book, but I don't remember...

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    3. Well, a few scenarios could unfold. AC may have written to TD on the back of his film going public and send him further info in a 2nd letter or perhaps the BBC showed him the letter AC said he sent them a few years before ...

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  6. Most of the old road was widened and improved, some parts are buried under the rubble from the blasting that took place during the construction of the new road alignment, however in some locales the old roadbed can be found 6-10 foot below the current A82 on the loch side.

    Also the 1933 road builders used parts of the old alignment to make the handy laybys that are prevalent along the north shore.

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    1. Sounds like a "geological" search for road strata is in order!

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  7. Well, this one is either true or false. Either he saw an unknown animal, the details of which could be comprised by poor lighting, or he didn't. I don't think there's a middle ground here. His account is detailed enough to almost guarantee (to me anyhow) that it's not a misidentification.
    Providing he's not making it up. I had plenty of stories told to me as a child of creatures that weren't there. Maybe that's the Celtic flair for storytelling. Unfortunately it's always a possibility. His dealings with investigators make things a bit more compelling, and the stories tally.
    Maybe loch Ness is some kind of crossroads for weird beasts. Morar had several very different descriptions of unknown creatures, suggesting that there was more than one type present, so this is not unprecedented. And the eyewitness were generally not forthcoming with the information, lending credence to this notion.

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    1. I agree, it's either fake or real, no room for clever arguments about otters and seals. And whether you think it is fake or real depends on your response to the question "is there a large unknown creature in Loch Ness".

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  8. One also has to wonder why it took Alfred so long to bother relating his experience, the 1933-34 boom blithely passed him by as did the late 1950s spike, only waiting til Dinsdale's book pricked his memory of the event.
    This reticence by some witnesses to come forward at the time of the sighting can't ALL be due to the fear of ridicule and derision.

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    1. I think the fact that he didn't latch onto the early boom is a positive thing. Sometimes people turn things over in their head for many years before making a decision.

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    2. Alfred's letter is in Dinsdale's book, so the book isn't what pricked his memory. Tim's film? Perhaps. But do note that it seems from his letter that Alfred was contacted by Tim first...

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  9. In the article above, he states he wrote to the BBC when they were mounting an expedition which dates that to the lates 50s, 1957 probably.

    As for the 1933-34 spike, he may well have written to somebody, but it wasn't published. Who can tell when it comes to what-ifs?

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  10. GB I don't totally agree with your earlier comment that belief as to whether this is fake or real is determined by whether you believe 'there is a large unknown creature in Loch Ness'. Although I can easily swing into a negative mindset I can also find a lot of credible evidence to suggest there's a monster - or was one - in the loch whilst also treating each case individually.

    This is not a strong piece of evidence for me simply for the reason it was reported so late. Let's think seriously - it's the 20s, and you see a 25 foot monster on the road? In which scenario would you NOT report this to the authorities? You cannot say that everyone will think you're an idiot because that is not an issue in the 20s. The Loch Ness Monster as we know it doesn't exist, specifically the ridicule that can accompany sightings. If anyone saw a 25 foot monster m anywhere on the planet that wasn't potentially open to ridicule you report it immediately - mostly because you don't want your friends and family/neighbours to be eaten by said 25 foot monster that could, as he says, bite someone in half. I'm not buying it for a second. He's at it.

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    1. Fair enough, but also note the Forsyth land sighting did not make it into print for nearly 60 years after! Some people just don't do it - but it cannot be excluded that he did try earlier to have his account printed. There are loads of general pre-1933 reports that were not reported.

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  11. Regarding the color aspect of this and your comments that he would have made it gray or black if it was a hoax - wouldn’t green be a classic “go to” color for any sort of monster?

    Interesting article... just bought the book and looking forward to reading it.

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    1. In that case, would green not appear in more monster accounts instead of the 1/4 of 1% we have in the overall database?

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    2. What is this “database” of sightings you have? Something put together of collected accounts or just books on the subject? Is it a personal database or shared by others, since you refer to multiple people with “we”?

      How can you accept Cruickshank’s account (and others) if descriptions vary so wildly from each other? If there really were monsters in the lake, wouldn’t you expect more consistency?

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    3. The database was compiled by Charles Paxton and a private copy given to me which I have added to as I find new/old data.

      A lot of animals go through various changes/appearances for various reasons. I do not think it is wise to be dogmatic on this point. Moreover, there are mitigating factors in this case which dictate against forming a complete and detailed picture of what we think his creature was. Big and filling the road? Yes. Other finer details can be debated till the cows come home.

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  12. On a logistical non-monster aspect I've always wondered why Alfred's boss took a train service to Spean Bridge rather than a Glasgow to Inverness service ?

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    1. How do you know his boss wanted to go to Inverness?

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  13. One man's green is another's brown.When i was in school we had a huge frog in the classroom and had to write a piece on it. Most of the class described it as brown, some green, and even two said grey.

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  14. As far as "turn[ing] a grey/brown creature into a khaki green one," is concerned, do you know if Mr. Cruickshank is colour blind? I am disabled in that way (as are about 8% of all men). I once painted a repair on our car, after carefully matching the colour, only to have my wife ask, "why did you paint our brown car green?"

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  15. what colour is a tortoise?

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  16. Regarding the question on colour its an interesting question. What colour would everyone describe a tortoise if you had a quick glimpse of one at night.Ive just asked a few people im in company with and 2 said brown, one said green and one said yellow! I think there we have the answer.

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  17. Whenever my belief in Nessie wanes I visit this blog and am reminded of the many, many accounts and stories, sonar contacts, and pieces of evidence supporting the existence of the LNM. I have just ordered a copy of your most recent book on amazon Roland and I look forward to reading it. You have done much to preserve the credibility of Nessie with your mountain of gathered information.

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