Saturday 20 February 2016

Is the Hugh Gray Photograph a Swan?

The dog is dead, long live the swan!

In the midst of preparing a review of Darren Naish's new sceptical book,  "Hunting Monsters", I noted an opinion on the 1933 Hugh Gray photograph stating it was a picture of a swan.

The author is somewhat contradictory about the photo in that at one point he speaks of the "sheer ambiguity" of the picture yet later states with the usual sceptical certainty about these matters that it is "almost certainly" a swan. For about thirty years prior to this opinion, the prevalent sceptical view was that Hugh Gray had photographed a labrador dog swimming in the loch (or even elsewhere).

Apparently, that dog is now canem non grata (or whatever the latin is). It looks like the sceptics have finally accepted the "believers" were right about the "dog" in the picture being nothing more than an example of pareidolia (like seeing a face on a slice of toast). Don't expect them to thank us.

Now, I had actually been aware of this opinion doing the rounds on the Internet forums for a number of years. When it appeared I thought someone was having a joke. But now that someone is trying to elevate it to the ranks of not just plausible, not even probable, but certainty. In that light, it is time to expose the problems with this argument.

The first thing to note is the modus operandi of the sceptic. I have debated with and observed sceptics for over five years now and think I have a good handle on the way they try to persuade people of their arguments. To say it is all based on "logic" and "science" would be simplistic and naive. Too often, one will encounter more of the psychology, sleight of hand, straw men and ad hominems when dissecting sceptical arguments.

This particular sub-plot is no different. Observe the two pictures below which were published in defence of Darren Naish's reinterpretation of the Hugh Gray photograph. The top picture is a common image of the Hugh Gray photograph and the bottom picture is an idealised drawing of a swan in the "Hugh Gray" position.

We would be invited to note the apparently common features. The long neck, the body and the white feathered tip at the posterior. But, at best, this is a misrepresentation of the facts. At worst, it is deception. When I saw this pair of images, I asked myself two questions. The first was why they used this particular version of the Gray picture? It is a poor quality image and there is a far better one available. It is called the Heron-Allen image and is shown below against our theoretical swan.

Using this picture, we can discern some features which puts the swan interpretation on a  shaky foundation. If we zoom to the far right side, things become decidedly un-swan like. One is immediately confronted with something that looks like a fish head. Do fish heads grow out of swans' butts? Not unless genetic engineering is older than we thought! Those who unthinkingly say "pareidolia" may not have noticed that this "pareidolia" is casting a shadow on the water.

In fact, that whitish area that looked like the feathered tip of a swan's posterior is now resolved to something less substantial. It looks like spray water heading up vertically or it may be a light defect on the film. I am open to either, but it has nothing to do with swans.

A further examination of the superior Heron-Allen image betrays another problem. Where are the feathers? Try as I may, I cannot see anything that suggests feathers or anything avian. On the contrary, the image suggests a surface that is more smooth in appearance and contour.

There are other issues I would point out, but I will leave those for a follow up article as I expect an "academic paper" (I use the term loosely) to be published trying to push this fast crumbling theory. For example, someone is going to suggest (or rather tell us) that this is a double exposure and that opens a wonderful vista for sceptics as it allows them to tack on almost anything in their agenda against this picture. But that is for another day.

So why did the author use the inferior image when this superior image was available? My own opinion on this is that if the superior image was used, it would simply destroy the swan argument. The feathered tail would disappear and the curious fish head would appear. However, the more ambiguous inferior image better suits their case.

Darren Naish and his advisers on this matter know this superior image exists. Why did they not use it? After all, Steuart Campbell in his book "The Loch Ness Monster: The Evidence" was using it years ago. You now see what I mean by the psychological tactics of convincing readers as well as the scientific.

The second question I asked myself was why they used a drawing of a swan instead of a real one? The problem with drawings is that they can easily be drawn to fit the theory. It is no surprise that Darren Naish's swan looks like the Hugh Gray object.

Or does it? A quick use of picture software allowed me to overlay the swan drawing over Hugh Gray object. You know what? They don't even fit. If you align the neck and shoulder to fit in proportion, the problem becomes apparent. The Hugh Gray creature is far more extended that our theoretical swan. So we have a swan with a fish head growing out of its butt which is about twice as long as a normal swan. This bird gets more cryptozoological than the Nessie it is trying to get rid off!



Whatever you may think of the object in the Hugh Gray photograph, you should remove "swan" from your list of possibilities. I am astounded at the level of scepticism today when such explanations are trotted out with no proper due diligence on their validity. Critical thinking has grown fat, lazy and complacent in its pursuit of truth. In fact, do sceptics even believe these theories themselves or is it all a matter of getting rid of that troublesome monster?

Why Darren Naish allowed himself to be suckered by whoever he consulted on this matter is a mystery. Sceptics do not critique each other, I established that years ago. He should have asked me about this picture, but I won't be holding my breath over sceptics asking believers about anything. They hold us in too much intellectual contempt to "lower" themselves to that level!

Thursday 18 February 2016

And the Winner is ...

The votes are in for the Inverness Courier and William Hill Best Nessie Sighting of 2015 and it goes to Conor McKenna and his sighting of September 15th. He saw what he described as a 15-20ft long object lying in the water which had a wave breaking against it before it disappeared.

A good sighting, though since Mr McKenna was driving, I doubt he could concentrate on the sighting as long as necessary for fuller details. Note the comments about people being reticent about coming forward with their sightings for fear of sarcasm. Such is the repressive atmosphere sceptics have created with their dumbing down of witnesses. We salute those who still come forward with their accounts.

Original link here.

AS a former Gulf War veteran, Conor McKenna often notices things which seem out of the ordinary. His sighting of “something” inexplicable on Loch Ness as he drove along the A82 has now netted him first prize in the annual Best Nessie Sighting contest, sponsored by bookmaker William Hill and decided by Inverness Courier readers in an online vote.

The Inverness lorry driver was one of four contenders in the competition for sightings during 2015. Although his was one of two verbal accounts, while the other two were accompanied by photographs, his encounter was reckoned by voters to be the best.

He wins £1000 cash prize plus a £100 bet to place on the winner of the William Hill Scottish Cup. The other three entrants will receive a £50 bet. Mr McKenna, who previously served with 1st Royal Irish Regiment and saw action in the Gulf War in 2003, was delighted but surprised when told the news.

“It’s not often I am stuck for words but I am this occasion,” said the 32-year-old, who lives with his wife Eilidh and their eight-year-old daughter in Maclennan Crescent, Merkinch. “We have a baby due in April and we are also having to get a new bed for our daughter. We have been scrimping and saving, so this has come just at the right time.”

Mr McKenna, who works for Helmsdale company EM and T Rapson, recalled his encounter on September 15 when he was on one of his regular routes north along the A82. About a mile south of Urquhart Castle he spotted a dark-coloured 15-20ft long object in the water. “It was long enough, whatever it was, to leave a crest,” he recalled. “A wave broke on the left-hand side and I wondered if it was a log or a tree, but then it disappeared.”

As he was driving at the time Mr McKenna was unable to take a photograph. “I don’t really know what it was except it was big enough to make me question myself, and I don’t like that,” he said. “I didn’t discuss it at the time with my wife as she would have thought I was mad. Also, she gets annoyed because I am ex-army and always observing and spotting things which don’t seem quite right. I told two other people who just laughed and asked whether I was driving or sitting in the pub!”

Mr McKenna regularly drives along the A82 but has not spotted anything unusual since. Eventually he registered his sighting with Gary Campbell, who keeps the official register of sightings of the Loch Ness monster. Mr Campbell said of Mr McKenna’s entry: “What it shows is that there is a guy local to the area who drives up and down Loch Ness and sees something different.

“He is willing to stick his neck out and say he saw something but doesn’t know what it was. “I am sure there are lots of people who see things and don’t tell anyone because they are too embarrassed.”

William Hill spokesman Rupert Adams agreed. “People are always nervous about saying they have seen something because they don’t want to be a figure of fun,” he said.

Sunday 14 February 2016

The Peter O'Connor Photograph (Part III)

In the previous article on this famous photograph, we considered a test photograph taken in 2010 which claimed to cast doubt on the stated time of O'Connor's 1960 picture. Aside from doubts that O'Connor actually knew the time with any accuracy, that 2010 photo was shown to have its own problems.

Now moving on, the same article by Dick Raynor also proposed a theory which speculated on how O'Connor allegedly faked his picture. It has been suggested for years that O'Connor had a canoe and the sceptical article tries to leverage that fact to its advantage.

It turns out that the O'Connor family went to Loch Ness in 2010 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the photograph and had brought a folding canoe which Peter O'Connor had apparently used back in May 1960 (by the way, it seems the O'Connor family were no help in offering proof that Peter faked the story or even providing an uncropped photo). Later, Raynor tried to identify the canoe and decided it was a model called the "Tyne Prefect" which is shown below.

From this he suggested that O'Connor had actually used this canoe to reproduce and photograph a fake monster. Enquiring further, he found the owner of a current Tyne Prefect on the Internet and asked him to sent a photo of it in an O'Connoresque position. This is shown below.

Now if we imagine this theory to be a three legged stool, we are now going to remove each leg in turn until this theory has none to stand on. 


The author of the theory had used image overlays in the article to establish the minimal uncropped area of the photo. However, when he comes to this canoe theory, he strangely decides not to do the same procedure. When I did it myself, it became apparent why - the comparison is, at best, unconvincing. The overlay below lines up the top rudder attachment with a point of interest in the photo (as explained below).

Note the canoe is eleven feet long while O'Connor estimated his hump to be upwards of 16 feet or more, so a "shrink to fit" has been done for overlay comparison. So aligning end to end and allowing for part submergence of the canoe gives us this image.

At this point, anyone would say they don't fit and so this is not a particularly good theory. However, Dick Raynor decides not to ditch this theory as a bad idea and does something which should be avoided - he begins to add layers of complexity. In other words, he begins to paper over the cracks.

How does he do that? Using the fact that these kayaks had a canvas skin to contain an unfolded wooden skeleton, he speculates that the canoe was somehow filled out. But that brings us to the problem that rubberised canvas is not very elastic. In fact, just like this theory, it would be stretched beyond the breaking point to achieve the dimensions of the O'Connor object.

I made an enquiry to a canoe forum which was discussing the very subject of restoring these old canoes. I asked how elastic these canvas covers were and got this answer:

These things have some stretch in them, but really very little that you would notice just handling the skin. As you say, just enough to contain the frame. Maybe of the order of a centimetre or two along the full 12ft of the boat. I don't think of them as elastic, but when you press down heavily on the 'scissors' join between front and back of the frame, it levers the bow and stern into the ends of the skin and that lever creates the tension that provides the rocker and ensures a smooth fit to the skin. If you bang on the skin it is tight like a drum.

So, the difference in height between the O'Connor object and our presumed canoe looks too much to overcome. But Dick says, just remove all or part of the wooden skeleton. Nonsense, canvas is not rubber, it will not sufficiently stretch no matter what you take out. That brings us to the problem of the hypothesised stuffing material. Raynor tries to rehabilitate Maurice Burton at this point and talks about the plastic bags, string and stones Burton found. 

Stones are not exactly "found" as they litter the entire beach. The bags found by Burton amounted to no more than a few fragments, hardly enough to stuff an eleven foot canoe. That leaves rocks and pebbles and I do not see them achieving the smooth appearance of the O'Connor object. But that is irrelevant as the canvas won't stretch to accommodate the proposed size. It was sewn together to hold a certain wooden framework.

Conclusion? Remove one leg of the stool.


The theory then points out that the canoe has two points jutting out with which to attach a rudder. You can see them to the left on the canoe picture. Dick Raynor thinks he can see one in the O'Connor photo and points an arrow at it (below).

You know, sceptics often laugh at Nessie believers when they find significance in small, obscure features in a photo. It seems the practise is not limited to their ilk. As it turns out, this is just a water effect, probable a wave breaking behind the object. Why do I think that? Because the second rudder point is not visible in the picture. It should be just below or above the other one and I see nothing.

No layer of extra complexity has yet been added to prop up this "evidence". Conclusion? Knock off that other leg.


Dick rightly points out that this proposed structure has a problem. It will topple over on its own. This leads to another layer of complexity as it is proposed that O'Connor's accomplice, Fred Fulcher, held up the canoe for O'Connor as he took the picture. But this is easily shot down when it is pointed out that Fulcher is not visible in the picture.

So, we have another opportunity to flush this theory down the toilet. But, no, more complexity comes when it is suggested that Peter O'Connor painted Fulcher out of the picture! Layer upon layer of complexity, assumption and speculation is heaped up as this theory threatens to collapse under its own weight. Dick speculates the "blotchiness" of the dark background proves the use of black ink or paint (or whatever).

Now just hold it right there for a second!

I thought the dark background was proof that the photo has been taken in the dead of night. Now we are being told the original background has been painted out with black! Joined up sceptical thinking? I don't think so. There goes the final leg. What do we do with the stool seat?  I guess it would make a good frisbee because it is fit for nothing but chucking away.


I wonder if Dick Raynor has read Tim Dinsdale's book "Loch Ness Monster"? Perhaps not, but if he consults Dinsdale's first edition on page 164, he will find these words of Peter O'Connor regarding a stretch of water on Loch Ness:

I crossed the same part by two-man canoe and it took approximately six times as long.

But wait a minute, Dick Raynor is using a one-man canoe for this analysis. These words of Peter O'Connor date back to July 1960 when he went back to the loch (if you think you have had a close encounter with the monster, it is no surprise that you are drawn back to the loch so quickly).

But it makes sense, after all, Peter O'Connor and Fred Fulcher formed a two man expedition and so a two-man canoe was a more suitable vessel to take. Did the O'Connor family make a mistake back in 2010 when they brought a one-man canoe? Probably, and I would take the words of O'Connor himself mere months after the event than that of his family 50 years later.

Either way, we can no longer be sure about what canoe was taken to Loch Ness in May 1960, I am not even sure it can be proven he took one at all. Dick Raynor may "sprint" to a new conclusion, but the identity of the two-man canoe is a mystery which further invalidates his theory.


A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I have seen it elsewhere many a time; you get a hold of a piece of information, you think it could form a theory that enhances your CV and you begin to erect a structure around it ignoring the problems that mount up as you try to prop up that theory. I have no doubt done it myself and no one is immune from it - be they sceptic or believer.

The trouble with these incomplete theories is that they are based on plausible deniability. People will have trouble accepting a large creature exists in Loch Ness. However, they will have no trouble accepting the existence of canoes at Loch Ness. That is how sceptical theories get their leverage as the ingredient to their theories consist of common objects framed in uncommon circumstances.

Most people will accept them as plausible but very few will take the time to critique these theories and find that, though plausible, they are not always probable for reasons stated here and in similar articles elsewhere.

Part four of this series will follow in due course.

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