Tuesday 16 June 2015

The F. C. Adams Photograph

Here is a photograph that has been on the periphery of the Loch Ness literature for decades, yet for Loch Ness Monster researchers, it has remained an ambiguous image. I would rank it as one of the "classic pictures" in the Loch Ness panoply, being one of those seminal black and white pictures taken between 1933 and 1960 that so often formed the backbone of many a Nessie book. However, one may be forgiven for getting the impression that this one was made the "runt of the litter".

Opinions have been varied as to what it shows. Dr. Roy Mackal declared it as "positive evidence" of the creature in his 1976 book, "The Monsters of Loch Ness". He mused that the object is akin to a flipper or fin comparable to the [1972] underwater photograph of an appendage”.

Likewise, Peter Costello found in its favour in his 1974 work, "In Search of Lake Monsters", where he reflects the opinion of A. C. Oudemans in saying the head is turned away from us” in the manner of forced perspective. This was offered in explanation of why the presumed neck looked so foreshortened.

But others pro-monster authors have barely given it a mention, neither declaring it monster, misidentification or hoax. Of such, we find that Holiday, Dinsdale and Whyte act as if the photograph never existed.

Perhaps Nicholas Witchell best summed it up in his 1974 book, "The Loch Ness Story". He reproduced the picture, but adds the simple description: "An unidentified object in Loch Ness". One suspects the problem lay in the fact that the object on view did not fit into the normal plesiosaur mould. But then again, it didn't have to.

Sceptical authors, of course, will have a different opinion on the object's identity. Maurice Burton, ever keen to promote his vegetable mat theory in the 1961 work, "The Elusive Monster", tells us that the picture is like a trunk or a branch brought up from the depths by some underwater explosion.

Finally, Tony Harmsworth, in his recent work, "Loch Ness Understood", plumps for the dorsal fin of a species such as the dolphin.

So much for the variety of opinions, but what more can we learn of this picture? The picture itself came to light in the form of two press articles. The first was published by the Daily Mail on the 25th August 1934. In this regard, good old fashioned research trumped over online and digital as I paid for a photocopy of it from the British Library and reproduce it below for your interest.

The short text under the picture runs thusly:

This exclusive and latest photograph of the Loch Ness Monster (which has been in retirement for some time) was taken recently by a reader of "The Daily Mail" on holiday at Fort Augustus. The picture has been enlarged, but not retouched. On the right we reproduce, for the purposes of comparison, the picture of the monster published in "The Daily Mail" last April. It was a photograph taken by R. K. Wilson, a surgeon, of Queen Anne Street W., at a distance of 200 yards.

The picture was again printed in the 1st September issue of the Illustrated London News (picture at the top of this article). Its even briefer text says:

The latest photograph of the Loch Ness "Monster", after an interval during which it had not been seen for some considerable time: an enlargement of a picture taken recently by a visitor on holiday at Fort Augustus.

As an aside, I would point out that the monster had not been in retirement or been unseen for a considerable time. July and August of 1934 proved to be the most monster intensive period in the history of the phenomenon. After that, apart from Maurice Burton dismissing it in 1961, the picture sunk without trace until Peter Costello included it in his aforementioned work forty years later.


Thanks to Peter Costello, the authorship of the picture seems to have landed by default at the feet of a Mr. F. C. Adams. If we look back at the press clippings of the time, there is indeed an F. C. Adams who claimed to have seen and photographed the creature. The account below is from the 3rd August 1934 edition of the Inverness Courier, three weeks before the picture appeared in the national newspapers.

Mr. Adams was in the tower of Urquhart Castle when he took his picture. A recent picture of my own from that vantage point shows the vista that formed the back drop of his picture. I would imagine that the creature he photographed would have occupied the top centre of the waters. An attempt to pinpoint the creature's location based on the account is reproduced further down.

Now since the object is stated to be mid loch and in a line with Whitefield, this would suggest the object was at a distance of  over one mile away from Mr. Adams. This leads me to question whether the photograph under consideration was indeed taken by him. I say that because the clarity of the object is not consistent with a photograph of an object over one mile away. Mr. Adams himself was quoted as being sceptical of anything coming out on film at that distance and I do not doubt his word on that matter.

Moreover, the two newspaper articles suggest that the incident may have actually happened closer to Fort Augustus, over ten miles away. I would also add that the photograph was taken side on whereas the object described by Adams should be heading away from him.

In that light, I do not agree with Peter Costello's assessment that Adams is the photographer. I suspect Peter took this line because the Adams story was the one closest to the Daily Mail article that mentions a photograph being taken. That is a logical deduction, but the internal evidence suggests we need to look elsewhere.

I did make an attempt to find the true Adams picture during the course of this investigation with no success. Given the distance of the object involved, I am of the view that the potential prize is not worth the effort (apart from the historical aspect of the story). Mr. Adams lived in Clapham, London and the wartime census of the 29th September 1939 still placed him at Granville Mews (or Granville Mansions). That census actually names him as "C. F. Adams" but the census administrator (despite my payment to submit a query) would not give me any further details unless I could prove he was deceased. A chicken and egg situation ensued as I needed his full name to confirm his demise! 


So I moved on. Going back to the original articles, the first clue I had was that the picture may have been taken at Fort Augustus. The second was a comment in Witchell's "The Loch Ness Story". Though he makes no commitment as to what the object is, he does attribute the picture to not F. C. Adams but to a Dr. James Lee.

So we have Fort Augustus and Dr. James Lee. What could be found out about this doctor? A search of the online British Newspaper Archive website turned up only one Dr. James Lee from that period. He was the senior surgeon at the Buchanan Hospital at Hastings, Kent.  Here is one clipping regarding him and a dispute over an unpaid bill from the Hastings and St. Leonards Observer for June 13th 1936.

However, further searches of the various archives proved unfruitful in connecting him in any way with this photograph or even Loch Ness. However, I am certain that he is the man who took this picture and how ironic that we have a second "Surgeon's Photograph" taken only four months after its more famous predecessor!

How Nicholas Witchell came by the name is not certain. My own guess is that he got it from Loch Ness researcher, Constance Whyte, author of More Than A Legend. He had consulted her for his book and since she was old enough to have been researching the monster in 1934, I suspect she had asked the Daily Mail (or perhaps Rupert Gould) for the name of the person behind the picture.

But could I find a descendant of James Lee to find further information? By a fortuitous sequence of searches which linked Dr. lee to nobility and the peerage, I managed to find the grandson of James Lee, who still resides in that general area of England. I must say that it is normally a bit of a trial trying to find existing descendants of Loch Ness characters, so I was glad to make his acquaintance via email.

As it turns out, Dr. Lee was born James Carrell Lee in Quebec, 7th March 1888 which means he was 46 years old when he took this picture of the Loch Ness Monster. He lived at St Leonard-on-Sea and was married to Ethel. Unfortunately, his grandson had no knowledge of the photograph or whether he had visited Loch Ness. In his own words:

 "I'm afraid I have no idea whether or not my grandfather ever visited Loch Ness ... I have one old photo album, but there are no pictures of anywhere looking like Loch Ness.

However, I have left it to his grandson to discover any further information, be it by accident or design. Admittedly, I could not tell you what my own grandfather was doing in the 1930s, so I cannot expect other people to have ready answers. It is the kind of scenario that either requires the living descendant to have been explicitly told about it or some tangible item such as the photograph being preserved.

Let me say that the main thrust of this kind of investigation is to uncover specific information. In this particular case, the most important item of information is the uncropped photograph. What we have seen in books and newspapers is again the bane of research, the blown up photograph which excludes all other detail which can aid the researcher. But let us move on.


But the investigation into this photo may yet produce another witness. According to the newspapers, the taker of the photograph was on holiday at Fort Augustus. However, a search of newspaper reports prior to the publication of the picture in the Daily Mail turns up nothing in that area. That scenario changed when I looked out beyond the publication of the picture in the Daily Mail. This clipping from The Scotsman of 1st September 1934 proved illuminating.

So here we have a nobleman with family and guests spending a holiday at Fort Augustus who saw something resembling a fin careering up Loch Ness. Could this be the very same fin that appeared in the Daily Mail taken by someone the paper says was "on holiday at Fort Augustus"? The story does not date the incident, rather using the vague term, "the other evening", and so could have occurred a week or so before. The account also states the object was creating a wash comparable to a speed boat to which I suggest the Mail photo also gives a hint of water turbulence to the right of the object.

But who could this "well-known Scots Baronet" have been? There are over a hundred such people in Scotland, but the clues led me to conclude it was Sir Alistair Gordon-Cumming, 5th Baronet of the Altyre Estate near Forres, Morayshire (only 60 miles on the road to Loch Ness). He was born in 1893 and died in 1939 and so fits our timeframe. Here he is pictured below with his family from the Aberdeen Press and Journal dated March 28th 1933. As you can see, he was married and was the father of two daughters, which fits in with the description of our Scots Baronet from The Scotsman account.

Moreover, Sir Alistair was a keen naturalist and I'll wager was also a follower of the stories coming out of Loch Ness. By way of example, a story concerning him was found in The Scotsman for the 22nd May 1934. Here we read how he drove twice from his estate to Findhorn Bay to investigate a "sea serpent" like creature which turned out to be a ribbon fish. So, it seems from this story that accounts of sea serpent like animals in Loch Ness would doubtless also encourage some visits to that nearby loch!

Finding the grandson of Sir Alastair Gordon-Cumming was always going to be an easier affair as he is now the 7th Baronet and still based in Forres. But, an email to him did not elicit the desired response when asked about this story: 

Never heard this one! Sorry, Alastair


But can James Lee and Sir Alistair Gordon-Cummings be linked? Was James Lee a guest of Sir Alistair on that day, and did he take that famous alternative "Surgeon's Photograph" while Sir Alistair examined the object through a spyglass? As you can see, answers from descendants have not taken us further. However, when I asked Dr. Lee's grandson about the Cumming connection, he did say that although he was not aware of any connection to his grandfather, there was one snippet of information.

By strange coincidence, when I looked up the Cumming baronetcy, I found a member of the extended Cumming family living in the house where I spent 12 years of my childhood, 1946 to 1958.

So were the two families indeed linked? This does not prove who was present on that August evening in 1934, but it provides enough incentive to continue to pursue the matter. In fact, putting this information into the public domain may yet elicit further information as people search for related facts about Dr. Lee or Sir Alistair.


Whatever the connections with this photograph, I am sure Sir Alistair would have taken an interest in the picture under discussion. What can we glean from the picture as we have it? First, the idea that it was a branch being forced to the surface by gases should be discounted. I have a hard time conceiving of that dark, smooth object as being part of a tree.

But when I first began to delve further, I had the hypothesis, like Costello, that this was the head and neck of the creature. Unlike the other researchers, I take the view that the neck is non-skeletal and can shorten and retract. However, even allowing for a theoretical retraction and extension of this part of the anatomy, I concluded the way the object extended into the water was not indicative of such a feature. So, could it be another appendage such as a fin or flipper? Again, a flipper did not look likely which left us with a fin.

This leads us to the prevalent sceptical position that this is no more than the dorsal fin of a species of dolphin or whale.  Let us compare this object to the dorsal fin of a generic Bottlenose Dolphin by overlaying it against this image taken from Wikipedia.

The problem here is not whether it is a fin, but what kind of fin? Note that the Lee fin when overlaid upon our dolphin is more blunted at the top and narrower as it extends downwards. This is a pattern I have discerned with various other fins I have compared it against.

Now, I am told that dolphin dorsal fins are a bit like human noses and come in all manner of shapes and sizes. I may also be accused of merely picking the dorsal fin images that suit my case. In fact, if it was merely the dorsal fin of a local dolphin photographed off the Scottish coast, it should not be a problem looking for a match. To avoid the charge of selection bias, I point readers to a photo catalogue of dolphin dorsal fins compiled by the universities of Aberdeen and St Andrews between 1990-2012.  These dolphins inhabit the coastlines of Scotland and so are an appropriate group.

All in, there are just under 200 separate images of dolphins. As far as I can see, none of them are a good match for the object in the Lee photograph. They are either more pointed or broader than our object. I show a small montage of 24 of these fins with the Cumming-Lee fin as a comparison, the rest are pretty much the same.

One could try and present a dolphin at an angle in an attempt to flatten its fin, but that does not work either. In fact, the object in the picture is evidently being photographed side on as my white line suggests along the waterline.

So, it is not likely to be a Bottlenose Dolphin. However, I did find one image that was a reasonable fit and that was Rossi's Dolphin. I found this image and overlaid it. This candidate still has two problems. Firstly, the fin has that "sharp" end to it, unlike the blunted Loch Ness object. Secondly, the overlay suggests we should see more of the upper body, and I do not think that is convincingly seen in the Loch Ness photo (one also wonders how hydrodynamic (streamline) is the Loch Ness object compared to other fins?).

I would point out that the majority of dorsal fins from this species were not a good fit. Indeed, I did not find this image using the search phrase "dolphin scotland" or "dolphin dorsal fin scotland" but rather had to focus on narrower terms. Now, in terms of selection bias, one has to be careful. The fact that I found a reasonably fitting image is not the whole story. The use of Google Images can be an abused tool despite its apparently logical use.

The problem is statistical and can be summed in the phrase "The harder the image is to find, the less likely it is to be the solution". That is a generalisation and one may argue for specific cases, but a rare image can be taken to mean a rare circumstance in terms of time, location and object. If that is the case, one may present it as a plausibility, but the probability is harder to argue.


With that in mind, suppose we do find that elusive uncropped photograph and we confirm the picture was taken at Loch Ness? I would suggest that dolphin candidates should immediately be discounted. This blog has talked previously about an alleged sighting of porpoises in Loch Ness in 1914, but even some sceptics are not convinced that such creatures could negotiate the various obstacles to get into Loch Ness. 

In that case, a dorsal fin in Loch Ness is not likely to be a known animal, but the problem is that most Nessie researchers do not believe the Loch Ness Monster has such a dorsal fin.  It seems we have a sighting which is a square peg to round holes. We are told plesiosaurs do not have such fins, nor giant eels, sturgeons, long necked seals or super sized invertebrates.

This is no wonder since witnesses explicitly describing fins can probably be counted on all your fingers with some left over. But there is one curious and potentially open door to Loch Ness Monster dorsal fins. I am referring to eyewitness reports that describe triangular "humps". Are these objects in fact fins seen side on, giving the impression they are bulkier than they really are? 


So, it cannot be deduced from a blow up whether the picture was taken at Loch Ness. There is only the merest hint of a distant shore on the picture, but certainly not enough to say it is at Loch Ness. This is the sine qua non of this case and without which the subject settles into abeyance.

This is a supposed boon to sceptical researchers who can merely turn around and say "there is no evidence this was taken at Loch Ness" without having to exert themselves any further. In fact, the photo cannot be proven to have been taken anywhere, let alone Loch Ness. The drawing below traces out a suggested route for the creature seen by Alistair Gordon Cumming and James Lee.

If this route approximates to the truth and the photographer was located in the general vicinity marked by the circle, then it is a fair bet that the familiar backdrop of Loch Ness and its hills will be in the uncropped picture.

I have searched high and wide for this uncropped picture. I have enquired of the Daily Mail and Illustrated London News archive departments, the online British Newspaper Archive, descendants of witnesses, private archives and reverse image Internet searches. As an example of private archive research, I found some of Alastair Gordon-Cumming's personal letters at the National Library of Scotland. As it turned out, they were of no consequence, but who knows what that line of enquiry may yet reveal?

A few avenues are still open, but the options are rapidly running out. Nevertheless, it is great that we live in an age where a vast library of literature can be analysed and searched so easily via online and digital websites. So, a final verdict on the matters covered here escapes us and the search for the uncropped picture continues.