Tuesday 30 April 2013

Classic Sightings: Aldie Mackay

Date: April 14th 1933
Time: about 3pm
Location: Off Aldourie
Witnesses: Mrs. Aldie Mackay.
Type of sighting: Double Hump
Conditions: Sun shining brightly, loch absolutely calm

As the various events surrounding the 80th anniversary of the first modern sighting of Nessie recede, it is only fitting that this blog finally gets round to investigating this seminal sighting from the Loch Ness Monster saga. The story itself first appeared on the 2nd May 1933 in the local Inverness Courier and the text is reproduced below.

Loch Ness has for generations been credited with being the home of a fearsome looking monster, but, somehow or other, the "water kelpie", as this legendary creature is called, has always been regarded as a myth, if not a joke.
Now, however, comes the news that the beast has been seen once more, for on Friday of last week, a well-known businessman who lives in Inverness, and his wife (a University graduate), when motoring along the north shore of the loch, not far from Abriachan pier, were startled to see a tremendous upheaval on the loch, which, previously, had been as calm as the proverbial millpond. The lady was the first to notice the disturbance, which occurred fully three-quarters of a mile from the shore, and it was her sudden cries to stop that drew her husband's attention to the water.
There, the creature disported itself, rolling and plunging for fully a minute, its body resembling that of a whale, and the water cascading and churning like a simmering cauldron. Soon, however, it disappeared in a boiling mass of foam. Both onlookers confessed that there was something uncanny about the whole thing, for they realised that here was no ordinary denizen of the depths, because, apart from its enormous size, the beast, in taking the final plunge, sent out waves that were big enough to have been caused by passing steamer. The  watchers waited for almost half an hour in the hope that the monster (if such it was) would come to the surface again; but they had seen the last of it.
Questioned as to the length of the beast, the lady stated that, judging by the state of the water in the affected area, it seemed to be many feet long.
It will be remembered that a few years ago, a party of Inverness anglers reported that, when crossing the loch in a rowing boat, they encountered an unknown creature, whose bulk, movements, and the amount of water displaced at once suggested that it was either a very large seal, a porpoise, or, indeed, the monster itself!
But the story, which duly appeared in the press, received scant attention, and less credence.  In fact most of those people who were aired their views on the matter did so in a manner that bespoke feelings of the utmost scepticism.
It should be mentioned that, so far as is known, neither seals nor porpoises have ever been known to enter Loch Ness.  Indeed, in the case of the latter, it would be utterly impossible for them to do so, and, as to the seals, it is the fact that though they have on rare occasions been seen in the River Ness, their presence in Loch Ness has never been definitely established.

Though not the first story to appear about monsters in Loch Ness, it set a mark in the timeline of the modern phenomenon of the Loch Ness Monster. However, being an iconic story in the Loch Ness saga, it has not escaped the attention of Nessie sceptics. The problem is they can't seem to agree on what Mrs. Mackay (pictured below in the 1980s) saw.


Dick Raynor, at his sceptical website suggests they saw two seals in the midst of a mating display. To see one seal in Loch Ness is rare. To see two seals in Loch Ness is even rarer. To see two seals in Loch Ness indulging in a mating display ... well, perhaps someone could compute the odds of that happening. The point being that one may propose an alternative explanation that is "more probable" in relative terms, but if that explanation is also of low probability in absolute terms then it should be rejected as well.

As far as I know, there were no media mentions of seals in Loch Ness at that time. On the same website is an article by Gordon Williamson on seals in Loch Ness. He suggests that seals probably enter the loch on average once every two years. Curiously, he mentions a seal sighting in 1933. Thinking this may be relevant to our sighting, the reference given is the same Inverness Courier article above! I was actually expecting a report where a seal was positively identified, not a monster report.

Others reasons for being sceptical of two mating seals:

According to the Scottish Natural Heritage website,  grey seals will mate between October and December whilst common (harbour) seals mate earlier in the Summer. According to an interview Mrs. Mackay gave to the BBC on the 50th anniversary of her sighting she said it had occurred in March and not April. This does not appear to be the right time for the mating season.

Secondly, looking at the picture at the top drawn under Mrs. Mackay's directions, the two humps are each about 6-7 feet long. A seal would typically only show about 2 feet of back. This requires Mrs. Mackay to have over estimated the length of an alleged seal by a factor of three (it is to be noted she was a local salmon angler and so would have had some familiarity with the waters and perhaps had seen seals in the Inverness area herself).

Thirdly, the Courier reports states the witnesses waited a further half hour for something to appear which is inconsistent with the observed dives of 3-8 minutes noted in the Williamson article.


Ronald Binns, in his 1983 book, "The Loch Ness Mystery - Solved", is typically dismissive of the sighting and suggests the newspaper reporter "wildly exaggerated" the account. That reporter was Alex Campbell whom Binns accuses of "being deeply committed to the belief that Loch Ness was the home of monsters".

Now I could describe myself as "deeply committed" to the same cause but that does not mean I start fabricating portions of eyewitness testimony. However, Binns' assertion is completely unfounded as we have a second and better source for the story in Rupert Gould's book "The Loch Ness Monster and Others".  Gould visited the loch at the end of 1933 and conducted interviews with various witnesses to the phenomenon which he called "X". With the Mackays handily situated at the Drumnadrochit Hotel, they too were interviewed by him.

So what we have in Gould's book is an expansion of the shorter report from the Inverness Courier. He recounts the sighting thusly:

Mrs. Mackay and her husband were driving from Inverness to Drumnadrochit. At a point of the road almost opposite Aldourie Pier [which is on the other side of the Loch] Mrs. Mackay caught sight of a violent commotion in the water nearby, about 100 yards from shore. She thought at first that it was caused by two ducks fighting; but on reflection it seemed far too extensive to be caused in this way. 

The commotion subsided, and a big wake became visible, apparently caused by something large moving along just below the surface. This wake went away across the Loch towards Aldourie Pier. Then, about the middle of the Loch [some 450 yards from her], the cause of the wake emerged, showing as two black humps moving in line - the rear one somewhat the larger.

The rear hump appeared first, and Mrs. Mackay took it for a whale on account of its blue-black colour [she has often seen whales at sea]. The two humps moved with the forward-rolling motion of a whale or porpoise, but always remained smooth in outline, exhibiting no traces of fins. They rose and sank in an undulating manner [as if sliding along a submerged switchback] but never went entirely out of sight.

Mrs. Mackay estimated the overall length of the two humps at about 20 feet. X, after rising, continued to move towards the pier for some distance. Then it turned sharply to port and, after describing a half-circle, sank suddenly with considerable commotion. [Mr. Mackay, who was driving the car, only stopped in time to see the final commotion, and a noticeable "wash" which came rolling on to the shore after X had sunk.

An account of Mrs. Mackay's experience appeared in the Inverness Courier, 2.v.33. No names were mentioned like Mr. Milne, Mrs. Mackay wished to avoid the suggestion of self-advertisement. Her husband is proprietor of the Drumnadrochit Hotel.]

Based on this account and other information, a rough sketch can be made of the sighting and its progress on a map of the top of Loch Ness. The position of the witnesses are marked with the cross. No claim to 100% accuracy can be made on my attempt at reproduction!

Note when comparing familiar wildlife to the phenomenon, she choose the whale rather than the seal. Now Ronald Binns had obviously read the Gould version as he footnotes the book but strangely only mentions the commotion in the water and Mrs. Mackay's initial assumption it was two ducks fighting. He fails to mentions the two humps later seen and the fact that Aldie Mackay dismissed the idea of two ducks as the commotion was too large. This is poor form in critical analysis.

The Gould version also clearly demonstrates that Campbell did not "wildly exaggerate" the story as Gould produced a similar account but with more detail.

This is not the first time I have taken Ronald Binns' book to task for mishandling stories. Right at the end of the Mackay story, he mentions an Alexander Mackay as a "major source of stories" to Rupert Gould. This Mr. Mackay was the proprietor of the Drumnadrochit Hotel twenty years previously and I would assume was related to the then proprietor John Mackay (Binns says they were brothers).

Why he should mention this "factoid" at this point is a matter of conjecture. As it turns out, Alexander Mackay was not a major source of stories. Gould mentions on page 31 how Mackay related to him a tale from 1913 involving a James Cameron. That's it, no other stories are mentioned as coming from Mr. Mackay. So can anyone explain to me how relating one solitary story to someone else makes you a "major source"?

The insertion of Alexander Mackay at that point is clear to me. The implication is that Alexander Mackay was a teller of tall tales and being Aldie Mackay's presumed brother-in-law, there is guilt by association. No one should accept this line of logic for one second, but we move on.


Mrs. Mackay did not quite fade from the limelight after those days in the 1930s. As stated above, she was interviewed on the 50th anniversary of the beast in 1983. I have a 1990/2005 DVD documentary called "The Loch Ness Story" narrated by John Sheddon which has a video excerpt of her talking about her sighting, presumably around that time. I dug out that DVD and replayed it again with the information above in mind.

The account is consistent with what was said 50 years previously, though after such a long passage of time, I would expect some details to be garbled and the lady must have been in her eighties by my reckoning.

Alongside this was Tony Harmsworth's account in his book "Loch Ness Understood" which details how he heard in 1986 that Aldie Mackay was still alive and went with Nicholas Witchell to interview here (which makes me wonder if the 1983 date is accurate).

During the interview, Nicholas Witchell asked Mrs. Mackay how big the object was and she said "six to nine feet". Tony expressed some disappointment at this and began to think that the creature in Loch Ness must be something less than monstrous.

Now a creature showing up to nine feet of back out of the water can hardly be described as small but this raises the only point of confusion for me in this story since in the earlier Gould account, the creature is estimated at 20 feet long. How do we reconcile these?

Normally, unless there is an overriding reason, one would choose the account closer to the event as memories do indeed fade over time. So, the account given to Gould some eight months after the event clearly has preference over an account given all of 53 years later. However, the two numbers can be reconciled if Mrs. Mackay was describing the size of each object. I repeat what I said above:

"Looking at the picture at the top drawn under Mrs. Mackay's directions, the two humps are each about 6-7 feet long."

Whether one or two creatures were in view and what Mrs. Mackay's opinion on that may have been is a matter of speculation that is not likely to be resolved.


Another interpretation is that Mrs. Mackay merely saw some standing waves produced by a boat that had previously passed. In this respect, Nessie sceptic, Steuart Campbell, recently commented on the sighting for an article in The Scotsman. Having explained the phenomenon of these waves, he says:

I conclude that the Mackays saw Scot II’s wakes interacting as they collided with the shores of the narrower north-east end of Loch Ness and that the only monster in the lake at the time was Scot II.

Scott II was a ferry boat with an ice-breaker hull which produced bigger waves and therefore (when conditions allowed), bigger standing waves. In fact, Scott II seems to have been a favourite of sceptics having been employed to explain away a number of sightings, including Alastair Boyd's good sighting of 1979.

However, his explanation lacks in two areas. The first is that standing waves do not change direction as stated in the report or cross over from Abriachan to Aldourie. The assertion that standing waves are reinforced by reflection from the shore is also debatable. Referring again to loch watcher, Dick Raynor, he said this about reflection:

I often read about the divergent waves bouncing off the steep shores and being reflected back into the the centre of the loch to produce standing waves, but I have never seen that myself; I just see the waves break on the shore and the energy is dissipated.

While I am on the subject of quoting Mr. Campbell and in the light of Mrs. Mackay and her belief in the Kelpie of Loch Ness, he says this in the same article concerning such beasts:

There was a similar belief about every Scottish lake, but because of the size of Loch Ness, its kelpie was thought to be the biggest. 

This is inaccurate on two points. Firstly, there is no evidence that every Scottish lake had such a belief. This is an assumption, and as my own studies of the contemporary literature revealed, I could only find fifty such lochs out of the hundreds written about. It would be more accurate to say "there was a similar belief about many Scottish lakes".

Secondly, it cannot be assumed that because of its size, Loch Ness had the biggest Kelpie. In fact, I am not sure what is meant by biggest. If he means physically bigger or more powerful, that is unwarranted. If he means it had the biggest reputation, then that is demonstrable but cannot be assumed from loch size. This can be proven from the fact that Loch Lomond has a larger surface area to spot Kelpies on than Loch Ness but has far less tradition attached to it. This also applies to other large lochs in Scotland and hence the size link is tenuous at best.


Seals, boat wakes, lies or something a bit more mysterious? Mrs. Mackay was adamant that it was no seal and her time as an salmon angler must count for something in separating wave effects from the less ordinary. I don't think she was fooled by anything at all, what she saw was what she said when she uttered that cry "It's the Beastie!".

The record of that day is true and this blog stands with Mrs. Mackay when she saw the first of hundreds if not thousands of sightings, recorded and unrecorded, of the great Monster of Loch Ness.