Tuesday 14 March 2017

Poor Old Alex Campbell (Part I)

If you had to pick one local person from Loch Ness that was most influential in the story of the famous beast, then it would be Alex Campbell. There were, of course, more famous men that came up from England and across from America. There were also other locals that were influential such as Constance Whyte, Cyril Dieckhoff and I would also include our present day Steve Feltham, who more than qualifies as a local after 25 years by the loch side.

However, Alex Campbell was there at the birth, so to speak, of Nessie. Indeed, he had a hand in the delivery by writing up the first story of the modern era that appeared in the May 2nd 1933 Inverness Courier. That "strange spectacle on Loch Ness" endures to this day and Alex continued to investigate and report these matters to the Courier for years after that.

However, this series of articles will not purely be a biographical tribute to the man, but rather a response to the critics that rose up (conveniently) after his death. Having been respected by the monster hunting fraternity for decades, a different group rose up from the 1980s onwards to accuse him of fraud. Let us see how weighty these libellous statements are.

We first begin with a letter that appeared in The Scotsman dated 5th September 2003. It is anonymous and appears to come from someone claiming to be a confidant of Campbell:

IT IS September, and the end of the tourist season is upon us. It has been a very good year by most measures - save one. Sightings of the Loch Ness Monster were nearly absent. I detected only three appearances. All lacked drama or conviction. The BBC even broadcast a programme saying there is no beastie in the depths. Cheek.

Of course there is no Loch Ness Monster in the peaty waters. The monster swims in our imaginations. We need monsters to animate our minds. 

I was privileged to befriend the man who invented the leviathan in the Great Glen. Alex Campbell was not only the water bailiff at Fort Augustus at the south end of Loch Ness, he was also the local stringer for the Inverness Courier. He confided it had been worse than a slow news week in 1933. There was absolutely no news, even on the shinty field. 

He told me he decided to file his copy about seeing a strange and enormous creature from his row boat. Harmless fun and the source of happy my-mying and tut-tutting amongst the Courier’s readers. 

Alex Campbell said he had not reckoned on the power of the media. If there was no news in Glengarry there was very little in Fleet Street. His innocent fraud was transmitted by the night sleeper by two young journalists who retold the glimpse of a monstrous reptile. Nessie has swum on ever since that exciting week.

The London press defined the enigma as very much like a plesiosaur. This was topical, not just because dinosaur skeletons were prominent at the Natural History Museum and everyone has a notion of these long-gone lumberers. More importantly the best fossil of a plesiosaur had just been found at Barrow. The real bones seemed to match the thrashing flesh reported up in the far north. 

The suggestion his creation was a left-over from aeons before startled Alex Campbell. He told me he had no thoughts of a reptile nature and that he had indeed seen a monster caught in the canal basin at Fort Augustus earlier that spring. What had been trapped was a sturgeon. 

They are rare in Scottish waters but not unknown. Their Caspian cousins can exceed 20 feet ... good enough to count as a monster to me. The struggling freelance said that he thought the sturgeon could only breed in the shallow bit of Loch Ness at Urquhart Bay by Drumnadrochit. 

Alex Campbell alternated between wry amusement at the phenomenon he had created with the occasional feeling perhaps there was a big something at home 800 feet down. He preserved his dignity. He was not being a fraudster. He was being a reporter, or more kindly perhaps, a storyteller. 

What Campbell had tapped into was our appetite for dragons. Of course the Gaels had their waterhorse myths and St Columba had demonstrated his saintlihood by admonishing a great kelpie in Loch Ness, according to his public relations adviser St Adamnan. 

I take pleasure in recalling the last pair of Scottish beavers were killed on Loch Ness in the 1650s. I like the romance that a few survived to waddle across the view of gullible visitors. A family of beavers provide a perfect set of humps, though they can’t do serpent-like necks. The tourist bodies might invite beavers back into the waters. 

It is banal of the Americans to sweep the loch with sonar and show there is very little life of any sort in the loch. Good manners should inhibit them. It is equally wrong-headed to say the Loch Ness Monster was devised by clever tourist marketing folk. They are not that bright. It was an accident. A glorious accident.

Take the monster away and the Highlands are much more dull. The biggest wild creature is the stag. It is noble but it has little mystery quality. 

Just as the Stone of Destiny has lost its power to provoke now it is back in Edinburgh, so a freshly stuffed plesiosaur in the Museum in Chambers Street would have only a mild curiosity value. The essence of the monster is never to be caught in nets or on film. It exists just over the horizon of proof. 

I think Alex Campbell should be feted amongst journalists. His creation was perhaps the best Scottish story of the 20th century. He was paid one shilling for his creation. That is footling but he also secured a kind of immortality no other journalist can.

Having read this, I can quite confidently say it is not Alex that is guilty of telling stories, but this anonymous author. Seasoned monster-philes will have perhaps noticed some glaring errors in this letter already. In fact, there are enough inconsistencies in it to completely dismiss it as a fabrication. Any rookie lawyer would have a field day in a court of law ripping it to pieces.

It seems clear to me that the 2003 sonar survey sponsored by the BBC may have been the catalyst for this letter. Perhaps the author thought the so called demise of the monster merited another tall tale about Alex Campbell.

Getting to the gist of this first of multiple attacks on Alex Campbell, we can cut through the psycho-babble about people needing monsters. Mankind has spent millenia eliminating monsters from their horizon. Be it the woolly mammoth or today's magnificent whales, mankind's perverse interpretation of being the superior species gives the exact opposite sense of a need for monsters.

On the Nessie narrative, the author here speaks utter nonsense when he claims that Campbell had confided in him that on a "slow news week" he:

"decided to file his copy about seeing a strange and enormous creature from his row boat"

This is simply not true, Alex Campbell had actually written a short report on a sighting by another person, a Mrs. Aldie Mackay who had seen the creature from her car. The idea that Campbell decided to indulge in a 1933 version of Fake News has already alerted us to a possible hatchet job in progress.

Untruth is rapidly followed by untruth as our anonymous confidant of Alex Campbell then claims the story was virtually in the Fleet Street newspapers by the next day as his alleged story "was transmitted by the night sleeper by two young journalists".

Again, this is Fake News. This story did not make its way into the national newspapers. In fact, it was a letter written three months later to the Inverness Courier that raised greater awareness of the monster. It had nothing to do with Alex Campbell and was written by a George Spicer.

We could stop right there and throw this letter in the digital dustbin, but I shall continue.

As an aside, the author mentions "the best fossil of a plesiosaur" that had been unearthed at the town of Barrow around that time. Though not Nessie related, this looks wrong as well. There was an almost complete fossil of the species "rhomaleosaurus megacephalus" found at Barrow Upon Soar, but that was eighty years before in 1851! Perhaps someone could enlighten me as to whether something even better was found around 1933 in Barrow, but I think this is wrong as well.

It is then related that Alex Campbell had seen a monster of sorts in the spring of 1933. It was a sturgeon caught in the canal basin at his home town of Fort Augustus. Now when I read that, I had to admire the gall of this writer. Let us see now. Slow news in the Glen, nothing to write about and then a sturgeon is caught at the mouth of the loch!

It seems pretty strange to me that Alex Campbell, our "struggling freelance" writer, totally failed to write this one up for the Inverness Courier because no sturgeon had ever been recorded as being seen in Loch Ness, let alone caught. Are there any reports of this more than interesting account in the local newspapers in the spring of 1933?

I have never seen such a report and no one I have read has ever found such a thing. You can be sure that if it was in the papers, our sturgeon loving sceptics would have found it and trumpeted it long ago.

Conclusion? More Fake News and going by the style and prose, I suspect it was another "stringer" who wrote this particular piece.

The anonymous storyteller then drifts off into more psychology about monsters, finally holding up Alex Campbell as the creator of the Loch Ness Monster. No, he wasn't, but he certainly had his part to play in the mystery as he examined eyewitnesses and reported his findings back to Inverness.

Why did our anonymous writer produce this badly researched piece of garbage? I don't know. You may argue that the passage of time had clouded his or her memory. That is an arguable point, but there is so much wrong with this piece, it is beyond redemption.

This is not the first attempt to label Campbell as a fraudster, but it is certainly the most brash. I will pursue several more as this series of articles unfolds. The time has come to put Alex Campbell back in his rightful and former place in the Loch Ness mystery.

The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com