Saturday 2 June 2012

Nessie on Land: Making an Impression

Moving on from our overview of Loch Ness Monster Land Sightings, we have an aspect of these cases which turns up now and again and is best exemplified by the one case ascribed to the late monster hunter, Ted Holiday in 1962.  We take up the story in his own words from his book, "The Great Orm of Loch Ness" (p.11 1st Ed).

Passing the stony beach I moved on to prospect the wooded shore beyond Inverfarigaig which is hard to reach and seldom visited. A black fir-wood led down to a tract of bracken which ended in a beach. It was narrow, steeply-angled and overgrown with saplings. I examined this beach for some distance in both directions but the only organic object discovered was the drowned carcass of a wildcat. However, at one spot there was a curious patch of bent and broken bushes several yards wide beside the water for which it was hard to think of an obvious explanation. Years later, I learned that local people do occasionally find these patches and they associate them with the Orm.

The "Orm" was Holiday's own name for Nessie. The maps below shows the houses of Inverfarigaig and the circle is where I think Ted Holiday's beach was (I take "beyond Inverfarigaig" to mean west towards the shore and not south on the road). Though it may not be the only candidate it certainly is out of the way of the main road and looks hard to get to. Some may think the locals were pulling Ted's leg but whatever you think of this story, it stands to reason that if the Loch Ness Monster takes to land then it is going to leave evidence of its journey.

Therein lies an opportunity for research, albeit a very rare one. But what is the opportunity and how does one know they are looking at it? Several of our cases mention forensic evidence of the creature's fleeting appearance on land. The Margaret Munro case mentions a large depression being found on the beach by her employers when they went to investigate her claims. The E.H. Bright case mentions a three toed foot impression being left by the creature and the Alastair Erskine-Murray case involves a large depression the size of a "bull walrus". Meanwhile, the story of Alec Muir has our witnesses following a trail through the undergrowth to a a bubbling loch surface. We also have the case from the 1970s involving teenagers camping and hearing strange noises outside their tent at night which revealed crushed vegetation around them in the morning.

After Arthur Grant's famous encounter in January 1934, H.F. Hay (a fellow of the Zoological Society of Scotland) visited the spot with Grant and claimed to have seen evidence of body and appendage marks on the beach. The Grant case had the misfortune to have the yet to be discredited "hunter" Marmaduke Wetherell getting involved. There is a photograph of him and Arthur Grant examining wool or something similar attached to bushes. On the subject of tracks, Wetherell is associated with the infamous "Nessie footprints" found on a beach between Foyers and Fort Augustus in December 1933 (picture below). The footprints were declared by him to be genuine but the Natural History Museum examined a plaster cast and decided it to be the right foot of a hippopotamus! Wetherell and the Daily Mail investigation folded shortly after and Wetherell apparently vowed revenge (which seemed to imply the Mail was in on the act but had made Wetherell take the bullet alone). Years later in the Surgeon's Photo expose by Alastair Boyd and David Martin, it turned out that Wetherell had owned a silver hippo foot cast made into an ashtray.

So much for fake tracks but what about the genuine articles? There are three ways the Loch Ness Monster could leave evidence of its terrestrial lumberings, the first are ground depressions left by its body, the second is fecal material (i.e. droppings) and the third is organic material. We will look at each in turn.


Depressions can be any marks in the ground left by the creature. The problem is what do they look like and how rare are they? Primarily we are looking for main body marks and secondarily appendages due to their lighter and smaller impressions. In that light, we are looking for either oval, concave impressions and possibly gully like impressions for more serpentine morphology. The "canvas" of such impressions is important and indeed we should regard such depressions as rare given the shoreline features of Loch Ness. We can class the types of potential ground as:

  • Heavy and light shingle
  • Sand
  • Grass
  • Bracken type undergrowth

As far as my investigations went, the typical shoreline will consist of some feet of shingle or sand beach followed by level or slightly rising grass or undergrowth which is itself terminated by road or rockface. In fact, because of the roads, the combined  beach-vegetation strip may not be very wide at all and may only be a few feet across. The problems with depressions left by large creatures weighing one tonne or more becomes apparent on closer examination. With grass and heavier undergrowth, there is a time limit on depressions as the vegetation's resilience will spring back to close the gap. In other words, after days or even hours, one may not be aware that anything huge passed that way. The only exception is undergrowth snapped and killed by the sheer weight. Note that the type of undergrowth we are talking about would perhaps be less than two feet high, a large creature with a low centre of gravity and limbs designed primarily for moving underwater is not going to be a great negotiator of typical Loch Ness shoreline.

The problem with shingle is that heavier shingle will not be sufficiently moved to produce anything noticeable. Referring to the Margaret Munro case, her employers noticed the depression in the ground after hearing her story but if she had said nothing and they went for a walk on the beach later, would they have noticed the depression and attached any significance to it? Lighter shingle (i.e. stones less than a few centimetres) and sand offer the best hope of an out of the ordinary depression which would have a long time limit to it (until it is broken up by waves, humans, animals). As it turns out such beaches are not common at Loch Ness but this at least helps focus ones attention on where to look. Sand beaches are the least common compared to shingle but would offer the best hope of tracks being left which have some detail to them. Clearly, the bigger the stones get, the more detail is lost.

By way of example, I came across some curious marks on the shingle beach at a spot on the south side of the loch recently. The photographs below shows a kind of 20 foot long arrow head shaped arrangement of shallow trenches converging at a bush. A comparison photo of the beach further down is shown last.

Now I would normally just say that wave action was depositing lighter shingle on top of heavier but I would then expect all lines to be parallel, so to my uninformed mind, something else was at play to produce these marks. It was also unclear to me how far the water could forcefully progress up the beach as the loch level rises with rainfall and stormy weather. Now I am not saying that this was produced by a serpentine like creature writhing on the beach, I am rather saying that coming across depressions on the beach needs some thought applied to it rather than jumping to conclusions. An examination of the depressions did not reveal any further clues but it would be interesting to visit the marks in a few months time to see if they have been eroded away by natural and artificial means (I saw a group of canoeists dragging their canoes onto shore at that time though I felt the marks were not made by lightweight canoes).


Moving onto fecal material, it is clear that if Nessie eats then Nessie defecates. As with Bigfoot hunters, finding such material could prove to be decisive in the Loch Ness Monster hunt as DNA material from intestinal cells could be obtained, but what exactly does one look for (or smell for)? What do Nessie faeces look like? Does she even do her "business" on land? Pertinent questions I am sure have raced through your mind many a time! One would normally give a dung heap a body swerve, but a Nessie one? It's worth its weight in gold!

Assuming faeces do end up on land, they will be even rarer than the actual land excursions themselves. But unlike the creature, they do not go back in the water. If the dung is slurry like (as it is with animals such as sharks in the clip below), then it will be absorbed into the ground and the thin layer of solids will eventually be washed away by some typical Scottish rain or dry and flake off.  Nevertheless, if people actually look for these things, there may be a chance of finding one.

 If it is more solid, the chances of discovery heighten. In fact, one would have presumed a large pile of solid Nessie faeces would have been pretty noticeable after 79 years unless people are mistaking them for livestock dung! My bet is that Nessie faeces are more slurry than solid (and I managed to type that while eating my lunch).


But the prized item above all is a piece of the Loch Ness Monster. By that we would mean a piece of skin, tooth or claw being found in or near our depression site. Finding these small items in any other context would be next to impossible in my opinion. Indeed, it seems quite unlikely that a piece of tooth or claw would find its way onto the shore - animals tend not to shed teeth and claws as they are important to survival. But skin is a different matter, some animals shed their skin at regular intervals as they outgrow them. This moulting process occurs with snakes, lizards, salamanders and frogs. The skin can either come off in one piece or fragments. 

Whether the Loch Ness Monster sheds its skin as it grows is unknown. What is clear is that a lot of moulting animals eat their shed skin for nutrition so the evidence may be eaten as soon as it is produced! However, as such a creature drags itself along the rough shingle ground, it is possible that some skin would come off and be left behind. These may be quite small and may even be scales, again a thorough search of the suspected depression area (including under shingle) would be required.


Looking for depressions, faeces and skin fragments - the theory is simple enough but the practise may not be. There is approximately 85,000 metres of shoreline along Loch Ness. The beach and vegetation may extend out 2m to 10m and more from water to road or rock. Using an average of 6m gives us an initial surface coverage of about half a million square metres. That is about equivalent to the area of 100 American football fields and very inaccessible in parts. Some parts are very difficult to access such as beyond Foyers to Fort Augustus and Urquhart Bay northwards due to no road access or sheer height. These stretches alone take out a third of the available shoreline so we have more like 57,000 metres.

However, thousands of tourists access the shoreline every year (albeit for very short periods of time and not to look for faeces and skin). What are the chances of something being found? If one creature takes to the available shoreline (340,000 sq m) every month at random at night then one depression of say 6 sq m is made. Assume also the depression erodes away within that month. Now one trained and dedicated person actively searching this shoreline full time for one month would find the depression (assuming the creature does not land on the beach he has just surveyed!). However, such a person does not exist and so we are down to a mix of tourists, locals and monster hunters.

Take Steve Feltham as an example. He is a dedicated monster hunter who lives on the beach at Dores. Assume he surveys 200m of his shoreline every morning for a month. The odds of our creature landing on his stretch in any given month is about 285 to 1 against (57000 / 200). In other words, it would take 285 months to happen or 24 years. Steve has only been there 20 years so perhaps his time has not yet come!

Now take 10,000 tourists over one month parking their cars randomly along the loch and going down to the shore to spend a few minutes taking pictures. Their survey area is much shorter as their focus is on the loch ahead of them but let us assume 5m either side of them (i.e. 10m). However, their coverage is greater than our lone person due to their dispersal around the loch but in practise they tend to focus on key areas such as the location of parking laybys. So their coverage is not 10,000 * 10m but something less than that, I would say less than 5% given how far apart laybys are. That gives them a maximum coverage of 5,000m which suggests the odds of a Nessie depression being near a tourist is no better than 11 to 1 against. That suggests it would take at least a year for a tourist to be within eye shot of a Nessie landing spot. Thereafter other factors dictate:

  • the individual's powers of observation to notice the depression as being noteworthy
  • the quality of the depression given the sand/shingle/bracken factor
  • the odds that the tourist will realise the depression has Nessie significance
  • the odds that this event will get reported and be investigated

Of course, one can play around with the numbers and come to some other conclusion, but I hope I have put across the idea that it is not a given that something will be easily discovered or even make it into the public domain.


During the heady days of Loch Ness Monster expeditions in the 1960s and 1970s, I think it is fair to say that searching for land markings and other traces was not high up on the agenda. In fact, I am not even sure it featured at all. Given that those water based searches did not produce the final evidence, what have we got to lose by moving the search onto the shore?

Admittedly, the resources required to do this are large and so I do not expect any large scale effort in these more sceptical times. Indeed, even finding a "plesiosaur-shaped" depression may just elicit explanations that range from natural formations to someone digging it out. The marks I found myself could almost be a test case in that regard, natural, human, what? Going back to Ted Holiday's crushed bracken, we can never be quite sure when it comes to these slightly less than obvious intrusions on the loch shoreline. The prize may ultimately lie in what is found in the immediate vicinity.

However, I hope I have added a useful task to the list of those dedicated and occasional Loch Ness Monster hunters who still make their way to the loch looking for that decisive piece of evidence.

Sunday 27 May 2012

A Strange Sight in Loch Duich

Whilst perusing some old copies of the popular Scots Magazine, I came across this in the Letters page of the November 1959 issue.

Dear Sir,

I was interested to read the article about Killer Whales (September issue). In July 1953, when at Letterfearn, I took a photograph of a strange creature in Loch Duich. I saw the dorsal fin several times as it travelled - quite fast - first up the loch (to the right of the picture) and then down.

I would estimate the distance from the shore at about thirty yards, and the height of the fin at two feet or more. Since reading J. L. Campbell's article I have wondered whether it was not a Killer Whale that I photographed. I would say it had most of the characteristics ascribed to the Killer Whale. The whole aspect of the animal and its movements were belligerent beyond doubt, and had I been in a small boat in its path my first reaction would have been to get as far away from it as possible.

Its movements in Loch Duich recalled these of an otter in a river pool - to seek and kill on sight. Unfortunately, it did not surface sufficiently to allow the skin markings to be seen. It came up only when it had to, and went straight back to the job on hand which seemed to absorb it completely.

Yours faithfully.
W. H. Findlay.

The pictures above are what Mr. Findlay took that day. Admittedly, if he had not stated what he saw in detail, we would be left with a photograph that would be described as a serpentine head and neck by some. However, the blunted top of the appendage plus Mr. Findlay's own account of its motion does indeed suggest it is a killer whale of some description. In fact, some of the blighters were shot (with a camera) in hot pursuit of dolphins only a week ago further up the Scottish coast. See article and photograph here.

Of course, killer whales have never frequented Loch Ness at any time, so we do not include them as an explanation of Nessie sightings.