Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Loch Ness Trip Report July 2020

After a long wait, we finally arrived at Loch Ness last week. The coronavirus restrictions had made it nigh on impossible to get to the loch at my usual dates in April and May. By April, I would have usually collected the trail cameras I had left wintering beside the loch. By late May or early June, we would have made our first full trip to the loch. So everything was delayed by about three months until the Scottish Government finally allowed travel beyond five miles from home and facilities, such as the camp site we use, were allowed to open to the public with some social distancing and hygiene rules.

Now we do not usually go to the loch as this time of year simply because it is so busy. The place is heaving with tourists and it is harder to get things done in the quiet and lonesome way that we monster hunters like to do things. However, turning up at the camp, it looked about as busy as it does in May due to the owners having to close down some pitches for social distancing purposes plus the usual rules such as wearing face masks indoors and all the urinals were taped off. The shops were also enforcing these rules. The drive up from Edinburgh was also somewhat easier than usual due to lighter traffic, so I got there in about three hours, which looked like a record time. In fact, we got to the loch early enough to pick up the trail cameras before checking into the camp site.

The cameras had been there three months longer than anticipated, which would normally raise concerns that the increasing number of tourists clambering around the shores would find and steal them (as has happened before). Since there were no tourists at the loch during lockdown, that fear was allayed as all five cameras were retrieved safely. The only annoying thing during that process was a small cloud of flies that had taken a liking to me and followed me down the road. Yes, the midges head net was left in the car.

Once at the site and we had erected the tent, I took my first walk along the beach at Foyers, as is my habit. I strolled to the far end near where Hugh Gray had taken his photograph of the monster in 1933. The loch was in a choppy mood, so it required a bit more concentration to see anything out of the ordinary amidst the churning waves. As it happened, a long but small neck arose from the surface some 30 yards out from me. It was evidently a bird, I would say a cormorant, which quickly dived back below the surface, presumably in search of food. I waited for a few minutes for it to come back up, but with no success, the choppiness of the waters made visual contact harder. I also had a look around the estuary of the river Foyers beside "Dinsdale Island". I had my waders with me and I mused whether I should go over there some time. I also recalled it was the 60th anniversary of the Dinsdale film back in April and his sons had planned to go up for this but were prevented by the lockdown. I wondered if they were due up anytime soon.

A quick check of the trail cameras proved that four out of five had recorded a gamut of images. One had failed to record any images at all, so that would have to be carefully checked before it is deployed again. The other cameras displayed the perennial problem. They record three images on every motion detection. That is great as only boats, birds and you know what will trigger close up images. However, waves coming inshore can also trigger the cameras and produce a glut of useless images unless something coincidentally passes by. The unfortunate result of this effect is that the SD memory card normally fills up within two months and the camera stops, despite the batteries being charged.

Just one camera actually achieved the best balance and recorded only boats and canoes. It is a matter of setting the cameras at the best height above breaking waves but not so high that objects fall outside the conical area of detection. I am still working through these images, though the one of most interest so far was an object or wave in the water which was strongly reflecting the sun behind it, making identification of whatever is was somewhat difficult (see below). The two images are one minute apart as the reflection fades.

The next day, I had a watch at the site where Lachlan Stuart took his famous 1951 picture of three humps. I also brought my metal detector to see if I could find anything of interest, Nothing turned up apart from a wire clip and some old tin cans. I then noticed a helicopter approaching from the south in a manner suggesting they were looking for something in the loch below. I recalled later on that a man had fallen into the loch off Dores the week before. I had no idea whether they had retrieved him dead or alive and whether this helicopter was looking for him. Just as the helicopter passed beyond me, a jet fighter from the nearby RAF base roared past from south to north. I thought, did they know a helicopter was in the area at the same height? That was a potentially unhappy combination of events. As it happened, the jet stayed on the north side of the loch as the helicopter stayed on the south side and both eventually disappeared from view. I leave it as an exercise to see if you can spot the jet fighter in the picture below.

The day was broken up with a trip to Inverness and I went into the Waterstones bookshop. A perusal of their Inverness and Highland section had one paltry booklet on the Loch Ness Monster. This was the slim Pitkin edition I had reviewed before. This was pretty pathetic I thought for the main bookshop of Inverness. Shouldn't they, of all bookshops, be promoting Inverness' main tourist attraction? However, a look at the adjacent Folklore and Mythology section had Gareth Williams' "A Monstrous Commotion". Folklore and mythology, my ....! I quietly moved Gareth's book to the Inverness section, facing front forward, not spine!

Back on the road to Loch Ness, I decided to check out an area where there had been an alleged land sighting in 2003. I covered that story in a previous article back in May where the witnesses described something akin to a giant eel, but which one Nessie expert had decided was just black plastic piping from the local salmon farm. As I drew up beside the Dores septic tank I thought something did not smell right and I went for a walk along the shore where I think they had their encounter.

I walked for a mile and encountered no such piping, old or new. I guess the salmon farm must have cleaned up their act since 2003. I found one three foot section of green corrugated plastic pipe which may or may not have had its origin at the farm. So I had no opportunity to be surprised by a plastic pipe masquerading as a thirty foot giant eel. As I indulged in a kind of combination of beach combing and monster spotting, I came across the various body parts of a deer (below). I wondered what had made a meal of that unfortunate creature. It was here that I first thought of that man who fell off the boat at Dores some days back. Not knowing his fate, I became slightly more vigilant about finding something more macabre on the shore but then there was the old saying that the loch never gives up its dead. If he had not been rescued, I suspect the poor chap was a long way down never to come back up. But then again, how did the deer parts get to shore?

As usual there was too much rubbish on the beach. Some had been washed shore, which is fair enough, but the dinghy like object (below) I saw looks like it was just discarded. Did the truck tyre wash in or did it roll in from the road? have Mind you, there was also this monster like visage which glared at me as I headed back. Was it scowling at litter bugs?

One more stop on Friday was inspired by a chapter I always read when I come up here. It is the chapter entitled "Sunrise at Foyers" from Ted Holiday's "The Great Orm of Loch Ness" published in 1968. It describes his first expedition to the loch in August 1962, which also included his first sighting of what he called the "Orm" of Loch Ness. It sums up the mood of the hunt perfectly for me and so I read it as a form of inspiration to me and no doubt other monster hunters throughout the decades. In that chapter he says he pulled up for the first night on the south shore almost opposite Castle Urquhart. I drove back looking for that spot and I plumped for the parking lay-by beside the old ruin of the Change House. I don't think Holiday's spot was just a grassy bank as he says a truck pulled up beside his van with a dinghy on board or in tow. It sounded like a proper lay-by to me and so I took the picture below to complement his inspiring chapter.

After tea there was an evening walk to the spot where Frank Searle used to live and have his rather modest exhibition hut. He left the area in 1984 but I recorded a video clip of the area with a commentary on Frank's last days there which complements the podcast I did with Scott Mardis on famous fakers of whom Frank Searle is numero uno. You can see that video clip here. Saturday brought intermittent rain and shine and I intended to finally visit the Hambro monument on the Glendoe estate. Armed with some directions from a Nessie fan who had been there previously, we got there and followed the main track straight to the hill on which the pyramid-like monument stands to this day since the death of Winifred Hambro in 1932. I covered that tragic story three years ago at this link. The only mystery in that story is how a fit athletic lady like Winifred failed to swim to the near shore whilst her children and husband managed to do so.

The inscription on the monument reads:

AUGUST 28TH 1932

Some of the letters are now missing and it is not clear what "WH-ROH" means. I assume the "WH" is "Winifred Hambro". Now just below the monument is Corrie's Cave where the notorious sheep stealer, Alexander MacDonald (nicknamed "Corrie"), hid from English soldiers for some years after he shot at the Duke of Cumberland's army about three hundred years. It is a cleft in the rock perhaps about 15-20 deep. It was somewhere directly below the monument as it faces the loch, but the place was completely overgrown with ferns and heather. I made a somewhat sheepish attempt to descend into the ferns of unknown depth but decided to give up and let the ticks find another victim. Nevertheless, the view of the loch looking towards Fort Augustus is splendid, as the picture below shows.

However, not to deprive you of a view inside the cave, Doug, who gave me the instructions, had kindly sent me his video of his descent into the cave which I include here. He descended during the month of February, when I suspect the vegetation was decidedly more sparse.

After that, it was time for some monster watching at Borlum Bay and a walk past the spot where Margaret Munro's land beast was seen to move about the shore in 1934. There was then a visit into Fort Augustus and the place was pretty much like a ghost town despite the easing of the coronavirus lockdown. I asked a shop attendant what normal month the crowd outside would suggest and she said February. It was certainly quieter than when I am usually there in May. We did our bit for the local economy by buying at a few local establishments. After a time at the pier and trying to spot the Hambro monument in the distant hilltops, we went to pay my respects to the great Alex Campbell at his cottage in the town. Actually, I did more than that, I brashly and boldly went up to the door and knocked to the consternation of a growling dog who perhaps thought I should not be there.

The owner opened up and I asked about Alex Campbell. He knew all about him and the history of the man and was quite happy to talk. He never met him, but since the reason I knocked was to find a living relative who knew Alex, he helped me by pointing out one relative who knew him and may still be alive. I took some notes, we chatted in general about the man and his monster and I left with some detective work to do. As you may know, some sceptics give Alex Campbell a hard time. Well, they give anyone who claims to have seen the monster up close and personal a hard time. This blog defends Campbell against these attacks on his character and reputation.

Come Sunday it was time for an unexpected change of itinerary. I was off to Loch Morar. I had hummed and hawed about taking my drone to that loch with its monster reputation and clear waters and was inclined just to use the drone at Loch Ness. So we drove early from Foyers and I shall expand on that trip in a separate report soon. After tea in Fort William, we got back to Loch Ness about 7pm and I did my usual walk around the Foyers beach. However, as I turned to walk along the river, I was arrested by an unusual sight - a large area of flattened reeds right beside the River Foyers. Some obvious thoughts did go through my mind, but I first had to evaluate the situation and go through all the possibilities. The area is shown below and it tape measured out as about 30 feet by 9 feet, with the thirty feet parallel to the river. As you can see, the reeds beyond are untouched as are the ones in the water. A survey of the ground revealed no tracks of any kind, be it deer or larger. There were some human tracks but not much. It was tempting to conclude some massive weight had dropped on this vegetation and crushed them, i.e. they were horizontal with the stalks bent just above the soil.

Here is a video clip of the depressed area.

So it was time to go through the options. Had a storm caused the river to flood and flatten them? That seemed unlikely as the reeds around them were perfectly vertical. I then remembered there were canoeists camping beside me. I told them about this area of flattened vegetation and whether they had launched from there. The answer was they had not, as they take off from the main pebble beach further back where all the boats are moored. Thinking further, I recalled the campsite owners conduct nature tours around the area and have a den building activity for the families, but they don't go there either.

How about wild campers who had pitched their tent and then moved on? That was a possibility as I had recently noticed two groups of wild campers nearby, further up the river and further along Foyers beach. In fact, wild camping seems to be a bit of a problem in Foyers just now with more wild camping than usual due to the lockdown and some of them selfishly leaving waste and rubbish behind (of which I found none). With that in mind, I surveyed the spot and quickly sketched the directions of the various flattened reeds (below). The distribution of the flattening was not consistent with a large object moving from the water to the land which would have the majority of stalks pointing away from the water, but that assumes a scenario akin to a bull elephant seal coming ashore. Of course, I could probably conjure up a scenario where a large beast could contort to produce this pattern.

My main doubts about the tent scenario was that it was right on the water's edge which is usually a dumb move as a windy night can result in a waterlogged tent and a night time evacuation. There were other spots right beside this one that were good enough to pitch a tent and be away from water. Also, a 30 foot by 9 foot tent footprint looked unusual as wild campers usually move around in smaller tents. It just didn't look right as there were better places to camp nearby, but it seemed to be the explanation that "sucked the least". I left it at that and began packing up for our return home the next day.

On the final day, we stopped by in Drumnadrochit and headed to the Loch Ness Centre Exhibition. I was curious to see if anything had been added since we were last there some years ago. Going in, I noticed the usual covid-19 precautions were in place. We had to supply our names and phone numbers in case someone there turned out to be infected with the virus and we would be phoned and told to self isolate for two weeks. I wonder what Marmaduke Wetherell would have made of the exhibition and the fact that his infamous hippo ashtray was on display? He died about seventy years ago, so we will never know. 

I don't think it had changed much, but perhaps I had forgotten parts of it. We went through various rooms highlighting various stages of the Loch Ness Monster story in a chronological fashion ending up in the penultimate room with the sturgeon theory being expounded. The various propositions delivered to us via the PA system were that the loch was too nutrient poor for large predators and practically all witnesses were fooled by waves, birds, logs, deer, boats and so on. The rest were liars and a few, perhaps just a few, saw an errant sturgeon at some unspecified locations and times in the loch. I found this all just too simplistic and dismissive, but what else do they have to explain the strange things people are prepared to swear they saw?

It was, as it has been for decades, an exhibition designed to kill the monster in a hail of logic bullets. For me, the bullets miss the target. For others, they may wonder why they came here only to be told they were wasting their time. To my disappointment, my favourite feature of the exhibition was closed off. It was the dashboard of eyewitness testimonies. You put on the earphones and press the button to hear the eyewitness recount their own story of what they saw that day. It is the part of the exhibition which is least touched by the hand of scepticism, it is just you and that person from decades past telling a story which raises a defiant fist against logs, birds and boat wakes.

Alas, it was closed due to coronavirus since it involves pushing buttons. Speaking of monster exhibitions, we went outside and I wondered what had become of the competing Nessieland exhibition 100 yards away. I think the business has been sold as I noted that the polystyrene Nessie that dominated the tour was lying in two pieces inside an adjacent alleyway. Perhaps they will appear on eBay soon or end up in a skip along with the other artefacts of the exhibition. I was tempted to take the head home with me, a Nessie discovery in a kind of artificial way.

After that amusing epilogue it was off back home and the end of another trip. Perhaps the thousands of trap camera images will yet give a cryptozoological end to the trip, otherwise it is time to think ahead to the next trip which will be later this year.

The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com