Sunday 19 February 2012

Analysis of the Peter MacNab Photograph

Today I look at the next photograph in the series on classic Nessie pictures. Previously I had examined the Hugh Gray picture and hopefully shed some new light on it. The research on that classic continues but today it is the Peter MacNab photograph that has my attention and we are not ashamed to say this is another genuine picture of the Loch Ness Monster. It could be argued that after the Surgeon's Photograph, this is the second most iconic picture of the Loch Ness Monster. With its classic humps creating a wake as they move towards Urquhart Castle, it sums up the mystery of Loch Ness more than any other picture.


Mr. MacNab's account of that day is taken from Nicholas Witchell's "Loch Ness Story" published in 1974.

"I was returning from a holiday in the north with my son and pulled the car up on the road just above Urquhart Castle. It was a calm, warm hazy afternoon. I was all ready to take a shot of Urquhart Castle when my attention was held by a movement in the calm water over to the left. Naturally I thought of the 'Monster' and hurriedly changed over the standard lens of my Exacta (127) camera to a six-inch telephoto.
As I was doing so a quick glance showed that some black or dark enormous water creature was cruising on the surface. Without a tripod and in a great hurry I took the shot. I also took a very quick shot with another camera, a fixed-focus Kodak, before the creature submerged.

My son was busy under the bonnet of the car at the time and when he looked in response to my shouts there were just ripples on the water. Several cars and a bus stopped but they could see nothing and listened to my description with patent disbelief."

Having taken the pictures, Mr. MacNab sat on them for over three years because of the ridicule he says he received when showing them privately to friends. This changed when the Hugh Cockerell photograph was published by the Weekly Scotsman on 16th October 1958. Putting aside fears of ridicule, he was emboldened by the publication of that picture to come forward with his own which was published in the next issue on the 23rd of October. The rest as they say is history.

You may ask where this second photograph is, for as far as I know, it has never been published. Like the second less well known picture of the Surgeon's Photograph duet, it seems to have been lost to the media and consigned to oblivion. Unlike the second Surgeon's Photograph, it seems this picture did not have the fortune to be privately retained for future discovery as Peter MacNab was so frustrated by the ridicule that came his way that he threw it away. We may assume Mr. MacNab also had no print made from it else he would have shown it to subsequent Nessie researchers such as Constance Whyte and Nicholas Witchell.

I made enquiries to the Scotsman newspaper archives about any uncropped version of the first picture and the mysterious second picture but they no longer have any records relating to the story. They suggested that any prints they received would have been returned to Mr. MacNab. If anyone has any information that may lead me to a copy of this second picture or an uncropped version of the first, send me an email to


The reaction to the picture has been understandably mixed. Whyte, Dinsdale and Witchell regard it as important evidence. Others give it a fleeting mention while sceptics such as Burton and Binns suggest a combination of boat wakes. Roy Mackal rejects it as inadmissable as evidence and as a result Binns and Campbell deferred to his analysis. The most detailed investigation of the photograph was carried out by Roy Mackal in his 1976 book, "The Monsters of Loch Ness". He had asked Mr. MacNab for a copy to include in his book and Mr. MacNab duly obliged. However, instead of the picture ending up in Dr. Mackal's category of "Positive Evidence", it was demoted to "Unacceptable as Evidence" with further details shunted to an appendix.

To summarise Roy Mackal's argument, he compared his copy against what had been published in Constance Whyte's book "More Than A Legend". The two are shown below.

Whyte Version

Mackal Version

The first discrepancy was the presence of a foreground tree in the Whyte version which was absent in his version. The second concerned the reflection of the castle upon the loch in his version. Using the picture below, he demonstrated how the shadow in his copy was skewed from the normal vertical position in the Whyte version. He went back to Peter MacNab with some pertinent questions but says that MacNab was unsure what to say and suggested the difference in the two might be because one was the first photograph he took and the other was the second picture he took with the Kodak camera.

Unsatisfied with all this, Roy Mackal labelled the photograph as not suitable as evidence and moved on. And so it was that Peter MacNab's photograph became marked as dubious. A look around the web will reveal plenty of sites restating Roy Mackal's analysis. Indeed, leading Loch Ness researcher, Tony Harmsworth, cites this analysis as finally removing any doubts he had about this photograph. Let us however take a closer look.


I also read and accepted Roy Mackal's analysis but it is good to go over our old assumptions from time to time. So I had a recent closer look at it and noticed something odd about the version of the picture sent to Roy Mackal. Basically, the castle in the Mackal version is slightly bigger than the one in the Whyte version. Intrigued by this small discrepancy, I started up my standard image editing software package on Windows (this is the same software used for the Hugh Gray analysis). I read in the Whyte version of the picture and then the Mackal version. I then increased the transparency of the Mackal image so as to allow me to drag it over and shrink it to fit the size of the Whyte castle.

The first picture below shows the image overlay process and I ended up with the second picture. What I saw gave me something of a shock. It became immediately apparent that the missing tree problem was not a problem at all. The Mackal version was a zoom-in which was sufficient to exclude the foreground tree. The tree had not been edited out by nefarious means, but rather was just out of view in the new version.

My thoughts then turned as to how this situation could have come about. I had a look around and noted on Dick Raynor's website (see link) that he had also requested a copy from Peter MacNab and the picture he shows is the same as the "Mackal version". So it appears that what Roy Mackal shows is what Roy Mackal got from Mr. MacNab. So any comments would be appreciated on this obscure matter. But in case anyone thinks this is a post aimed at vilifying Roy Mackal then know this - the aim is rather to vindicate Peter MacNab who died some ten years ago and can no longer speak for himself. So in the absence of clarification, this argument against the picture must be dismissed.

But what about the second part of the analysis which concerns the difference in the castle shadows? That there is a difference in shadow angles is not in dispute as this further overlay of Roy Mackal's drawing shows. The difference in shadow angles is about 4 degrees.

However, having discharged Mr. MacNab of suspicion on the first count, it may be this will help us resolve the second count in a manner that does not require conspiracy and deception. If the "Mackal version" was the current complete print that Mr. MacNab had, then the absence of the "tree" bottom strip plus a distortion of the shadow in the same region implies a simpler solution than elaborate hoaxing. We know that Peter MacNab stated to Nicholas Witchell that he threw away the negative of the second photograph and nearly destroyed the negative of the main photograph. Therefore, it is reasonable to theorise that the negative could have sustained some damage to its bottom portion and Peter MacNab later attempted to restore it.

How he did this is not known but nothing suspicious is required to form a conclusion. He may have cut off the bottom strip or he may have created a new zoomed in negative from the original. Meanwhile, a print made from the previously undamaged negative was used in subsequent newspapers and books. However, it is also entirely possible that an even simpler explanation exists which is that the bottom of the negative merely warped due to poor storage conditions. These are all entirely plausible explanations which need no conspiracy to explain them.

This may not convince the hardened sceptic who requires this photograph to be a hoax but nevertheless in this regard the hoax explanation is no longer compelling. Peter MacNab's confusing explanation to Roy Mackal can also now be explained - especially since Roy communicated with him about 20 years after the event and Mr. MacNab was by then over 70 years old and not exactly at the prime of his powers of recollection. Roy Mackal had essentially posed a problem to Peter MacNab that did not exist. It is not surprising then that a confusing question elicited a confusing answer from this confused septuagenarian.

As an aside, I actually found Peter MacNab's suggestion of the second photograph quite encouraging as it suggests the possibility that a copy may yet still be out there somewhere. Note that he said he destroyed the negative but not necessarily any prints made from it. Time may yet prove fruitful in this matter.

But it has to be noted (and Roy Mackal also points this out) that these so called discrepancies are not of the first order because the monster is already on both Whyte and Mackal versions. A warped shadow is no proof of hoaxing as the alleged hoax would have already been perpetrated between a hypothetical photograph of a boat with wake and the now famous Whyte version.


Which brings us nicely to the next objection that Peter MacNab doctored a photograph of a boat near Urquhart Castle to produce his alleged fraud. The allegations made above were used as a foundation on which to further build this accusation, but now it has to stand on less firm ground. Nevertheless, the accusation stands and so we examine its claims. One technique cited is that a picture with a boat producing a decent sized wake is overlaid with a "Nessie". Thus, the boat image is obscured and the "Monster" appears. The main problem for a hoaxer is to avoid retouching the surrounding waters as this is no trivial task and an expert eye could detect such artifacts. However, using our trusty ruler and Mackal's estimate of the castle height, it is established that the main hump is 2.6 feet high at its maximum and the smaller hump comes in at a top 1.8 feet. This height is too low to overlay an image of the type of big ships that ply their way across the loch.

One may suggest a smaller craft like a dinghy or outboard motor fishing boat but even here the occupant would still be three to four feet above the surface and the large wake in the picture is not produced by such crafts (see picture). There is also the problem that such a 15 foot boat is uniformly higher than the object across its entire bulk (about two feet). The problem of fakery is further compounded in that there is clearly two wakes visible in the photograph - one from the small hump and the other from the main hump - they have different structures. Indeed, I would concur with Peter MacNab's suggestion that there are two creatures in this picture for the two humps are not in perfect alignment.

Finally, suggestions about other matching boat wakes being faintly visible on the loch are irrelevant since it is clear that there is no wake ahead of what may be presumed to be the head of the object.

But I would reiterate a statement made in an earlier post that claiming a Nessie photograph is a fake is a somewhat futile exercise. All Nessie photos are reproducible given enough time and money. However, in the case of the MacNab photograph, it would take a bit more effort. Indeed, it should be pointed out again that Peter MacNab's photograph was published one week after he was prompted to act by the Cockerell picture. Could he have faked the picture in seven days given the additional time required to inform the newspaper and send it off to them in time to prepare for the next edition?

And just to show you what a good job he must have done in "faking" it, Walt Disney produced a documentary in the early 1970s called "Man, Monsters and Mysteries" which actually shows a reproduction of the MacNab photograph (below). It is evident from this picture that even the multiple and professional talents of the Walt Disney special effects team could not reproduce MacNab's photograph to the same degree!

As an aside, when I saw this Disney picture, I thought it was the second MacNab picture because the object is closer to the castle than the first. However, a comparison of the pictures shows that the tree to the left of the castle is substantially bigger in the Disney version which implies this picture was taken years later by Disney when they visited the loch and faked up their own inferior version (presumably because Peter MacNab refused them permission to use his picture in what was a fairly infantile production).


The final objection concerns the presumed size of the object in the picture. If the object is one creature then it is huge even by normal Nessie standards. A size of 60 to 70 feet would not be out of place. This is too much for some and so is rejected. However, it is clear to me from what I said above that this is in fact two creatures as the humps are out of alignment and the wave structure is different between the two. In that light, the bigger hump is about 30 foot long and the smaller one about 13 feet long which brings the total dimensions of these creatures within the historical record.


Now this photograph is put forward as proof that the "reliable character witness" scenario is bunk. After all, if a respected bank manager and local councillor such as Peter MacNab (pictured below) could indulge in such deception then who can you trust? But this is a stance we should seek to defend on the simple premise that those who have much to lose have little to motivate. In other words, there is no equality when it comes to Nessie witnesses (as in any category of witness testimony).

So that assertion may be true if the original premise was true but there is no proof that Mr. MacNab hoaxed the photograph. In fact, looking at his CV, it would have been extremely foolhardy of him to have attempted such a risky endeavour.

So, Peter MacNab had a lot to lose in such a venture. Just previous to the time he claimed to have taken the picture, he had been elected as the President of the Clan MacNab Society. In fact, we'll let extracts from his obituary in The Scotsman for the 17th October 2002 do the talking for us.

Peter Angus Macnab, writer

Born: 1 November, 1903, in Portmahomack, Easter Ross Died: 3 October, 2002, in Ayrshire, aged 98

PETER Macnab was one of Scotland’s oldest active writers and authors, renowned for his unparalleled knowledge of and passion for the island of Mull and its people. This special interest came through in his writings, lectures and broadcasting over the past 70 years and resulted in his becoming probably the most authoritative source of information on the social history and folklore of the island.
He is the author of the standard work on Mull and Iona. He also covered a wide range of subjects related to Scotland in addition to local history and was the author of a number of successful books and guides.

He had contributed to a variety of national and international magazines and publications since the Second World War, including The Scotsman. He was probably the longest-serving, as well as the oldest, active contributor to The Scots Magazine, having been associated with it for more than half a century.
His last book, Tobermory Teuchtar, a personal account of life in Tobermory and Mull in the early years of the last century, was published when he was 95.

He was actively engaged on another at the time of his last illness, together with a number of articles. Peter Macnab saw his knowledge and writings on Mull as an attempt not merely to remind us of past times and values but also to encourage interest in what Mull and the Highlands and Islands can offer today to visitors. In addition, he stressed the importance of retaining viable communities, which hopefully might retain something of the Gaelic culture - something that his local school had done its best to discourage during his boyhood days.

He joined the Clydesdale Bank and although predominantly based in Glasgow served in numerous positions in the west of Scotland. During the Second World War, when his medical history ruled him out of military service, he travelled to many parts of Scotland on banking duties. Banking never quite fulfilled his restless ambitions, however, and he used his natural ability and restless energies to expand his interests in writing, lecturing, and broadcasting in addition to a range of social interests and hobbies.

He had set up home in West Kilbride in 1930 and he was active in public life for over 70 years in Ayrshire. Retirement from the bank in 1963 was merely an opportunity to expand on his favourite pursuits, including local community work. He was a county councillor for North Ayrshire, a district councillor and a special commissioner; a past captain, long-term committee member and honorary member of West Kilbride Golf Club. He had been an elder of Overton Church, West Kilbride, since 1941 and an office-bearer for many years for various local societies.

He lectured on the history of the Scottish clans and the history of Scottish banking, was a professional guide for the Ministry of Information, a former president of the Clan Macnab Society, a skilled photographer, keen angler, beekeeper, horticulturist, maker of rams’ horn crooks and walking sticks and, not least, a vintage car enthusiast - the family black and primrose Swift, which he nicknamed "Rosinante", was until a few years ago a familiar sight on roads in the west of Scotland and beyond.

Would a man of this breadth and experience risk it all for a practical joke which could blow up in his face if exposed and branded a liar and a thief (if he accepted payment from the newspapers)? I don't think so, the burden of proof lies with the sceptical position here.


In the realm of Nessie photographs nothing is clear cut. Accusations are made and defenses are mounted. The case for this photograph is I hope stronger after today. Tony Harmsworth in his analysis of this picture hoped that one day Mr. MacNab would come clean and tell us all how he managed to fool us. He did not volunteer such information because in my opinion he is guiltless in the matter.

At the aforementioned Dick Raynor website, there is a photograph of Mr. MacNab with other Nessie witnesses at the making of a Loch Ness documentary in the early 1980s. Is this an example of brazen cheek after 25 years or a man who simply believed he took a photograph of something mysterious that balmy summer day in 1955?

The author can be contacted at

Is there enough food for Nessie?