Friday 11 August 2017

Nessie Tourist Season Drawing to a Close

As I drive the streets of Edinburgh, you will see them almost every day. Buses of various shapes and sizes zooming towards the Forth Road Bridge to deliver their cargo of tourists to Highland destinations. But there is one destination that is always on the itinerary and that is the famous Loch Ness. Or should that be rephrased as the one destination of the Loch Ness Monster?

Having disgorged their contents at Fort Augustus and Urqhuart Castle, the buses wait as the tourists take in the splendid views, stretch their legs and perhaps indulge in some local cuisine. Of course, you can do these things at Loch Lomond, but it doesn't have a monster. The creature is plastered everywhere in forms which draw in the eye and the wallet, but has little to do with what the actual creature looks like.

Meantime, businesses around the loch invite the tourist into their shops to inspect the tat and garish items that fill their shelves. If a green, fluffy Nessie is not to your liking, then perhaps a Nessie adorned mug or a Nessie T-shirt or a Nessie figurine or ... well, you get the picture.

Having lightened your wallet and purchased a memorial of your visit, you may want to risk going onto the loch and see the monster face to face for yourself. There are plenty of boats moored up at the castle bobbing and waiting to take your cash and give you their version of what lies beneath. Some of these crew may believe, don't believe or pretend to believe in a monster, but either way, the monster means big bucks to them and so they're happy to be part of the great mystery. 

For me, going to Loch Ness in early August is chalk and cheese to an April visit. In April, the cruise boats are still in hibernation, the roads are quiet and car parking is easy. If you turn up four months later, you are met with bedlam. Fort Augustus car park is likely full, walking along certain roads is like dodgem cars as a phalanx of tourists marches towards you and queues form for various events.

Well, I guess I wouldn't have it any other way, because vast hordes of tourists means there is still an ongoing interest in the Loch Ness Monster amongst the peoples of the world (whatever their view of it may be). And, of course, millions of eyes are trained on the loch armed with cameras ready to snap Nessie breaking to the surface from the deep depths.

I say that somewhat tongue in cheek as the reality is a bit different for various reasons. Firstly, you may have noted the recent story concerning the overgrown nature of the trees along the loch side. Gary Campbell lamented that this was leading to a drop in sightings and even Adrian Shine was in agreement (as far as bare bone eyewitness accounts go). The old postcard below shows the fabulously unhindered view of the loch afforded to tourists and monster hunters many moons ago.

Today, those days are gone as you can drive for miles and only see a loch almost or totally obscured. Laybys are being increasingly added and so the situation will improve, but the days of drive-by Nessie sightings are largely gone. The situation for the monster hunter is different to that of the tourist. The cryptozoologist seeks places for surveillance and is generally unconcerned about tree cover as he or she will find the open views they need.

The tourist is in rather more of a hurry. Tour buses have schedules and so times at the loch are of short duration and generally at fixed locations such as the Castle, Fort Augustus Pier and one or two other places. Those in cars will have more freedom, but very few of them are going to sit down by the shore and scan the loch for extended periods of time. 

The point is that even if the average "eyes on loch" time of a tourist is only 15 minutes, multiply that by half a million per year and that adds up to a rough and ready estimate of over 5000 man days per year. Of course, that is not unique "eyes on loch" time as several hundred pairs of eyes looking at the same spot, such as Urquhart Bay, is a lot of wasteful duplication and may be no more effective than 50 pairs of eyes doing the same thing.

Moreover, if Nessie decides the quiet stretch between Foyers and Inverfarigaig is her favourite spot, far less eyes will be on those few miles than the Castle area. Nevertheless, the tourist is an important part of evidence gathering, even if those mobile phone cameras are not up to the job.

As for me, I think I will be far from the maddening crowd this Summer as I plan to be at the loch in late September rather than late August. All the schools will be back to work, the weather will be chilling a bit but it will be peace, perfect peace.

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Monday 7 August 2017

The Mythology of the Hambro Tragedy

It is a story woven into the tapestry of the Loch Ness saga, but whether it has anything to do with the monster of said loch has been a matter of debate and speculation. In its own right it is a story worthy of publication - famous sporting wife of rich banking husband dies in a boat explosion on Loch Ness. Four people survive and one does not. Searches were made for the body and divers were sent down into the inky depths of the loch to find and recover the body, but no body was ever found.

Winifred Hambro is shown above and the basic story can be read from a contemporary account in the Yorkshire Post of the 31st August 1932. Mr. Hambro's final act was to erect a memorial to his wife which stands above Glendoe to this day.

Other contemporary sources of the time tell us that the Hambros were likely regular visitors to Loch Ness as an older report from the Inverness Courier (12th August 1930) describes the first trials of a 60mph speedboat by Mr. Hambro. As to the actual search for the body a few days later, we are told of how the Scott II was involved but the search was postponed for a week as stormy weather threw water into the boat's wheelhouse. Ultimately, the search was given up when soundings showed that the depth of the loch 12 feet from the shore was a remarkable 342 feet.

However, after this, more sinister stories began to weave themselves around the tragedy. We're talking about tales of divers being confronted by great cavernous underwater caves and ashen faced divers racing to the surface after being terrified by giant eels. Moreover, there was the question of why Mrs Hambro, an accomplished swimmer, simply disappeared from view? Was she taken by the monster and dragged down to a grisly death?

Heady stuff, but what is fact and what is fiction?


Speedboat Tragedy on Loch Ness 


Lost After Leap from Burning Craft

The body of Mrs. Hambro, wife of Mr. R. O. Hambro, the banker, who lost her life after a speedboat burst into flames on Loch Ness, Inverness-shire, on Sunday, had not been recovered last evening.

Mrs. Hambro and her husband, their two sons and a governess set out for a trip down the Loch in beautiful weather, with Mr. Hambro at the wheel of the speedboat, which was of the most modern type. When they were six miles down the Loch, where it is over 100 feet deep, and when the speedboat was over 40 yards away from shore, there was a loud explosion and the boat burst into flames.

Mr. and Mrs. Hambro, both excellent swimmers and their two sons jumped into the water. The nurse, although a swimmer, decided to stay in the burning boat, which began to drift slowly towards the shore. Mr. Hambro, looked after the two boys and kept them afloat, and he soon swam the 40 yards to the shore.

Mrs Hambro was swimming strongly behind, but before reaching the shore she disappeared. The governess was still in the burning vessel, but when it went near the shore she leaped into the water and ultimately reached the edge. The tragedy was seen from the Inverness-shire side of the Loch, over a mile distant, and Mr. J. M. Kydd. son of Mr. Kydd, of the Invermoriston Hotel, set out in a fast motor-boat to the scene. When he arrived Mr. Hambro, his sons and the governess had reached the shore, but no trace of Mrs. Hambro could be found.

Mr Hambro has been Chairman of Hambros Bank since March 31 last, and is also Managing Director. Mrs. Hambro, was formerly Miss Winifred Martin Smith, a prominent woman golfer. In 1919 she won the Ladies' Parliamentary Handicap, and, with Miss Wethered the "Eve" foursome in 1923. The same year she represented England in the international matches against Scotland. In 1929 she won the Sussex Women's Championship at Cooden Reach. Mrs. Hambro was a member of several well known golf clubs, including Ashdown Forest Ladies' Club, of which she had been captain.

To this we may also attach the report from the Scotsman for August 30th 1932 (the Colonel Lane mentioned just happened to become the author of the first book on the monster):

Details of a speedboat accident which occurred on Loch Ness on Sunday afternoon reached Inverness yesterday. Mrs Hambro, wife of Mr R. O. Hambro, of Glendoe, a shooting lodge above Fort Augustus, was drowned, and her husband, two young sons, and a governess, had a miraculous escape with their lives. 

As the afternoon was sunny, the party left for a run down Loch Ness, which was as placid as a lake. Mr Hambro steered the boat, and when it was speeding along about three miles down the loch, just opposite Invermoriston, there was a loud explosion, and the boat became enveloped in flames. 

Mr Hambro and Mrs Hambro, who were both good swimmers, decided to abandon the boat and swim ashore, a distance of over 100 yards, and at a very deep part of the loch they tied a life belt round the two boys, who were aged 6 and 13 years. Miss Calvert, the governess, decided to remain on the burning vessel. Mr and Mrs Hambro leapt into the water with the two boys, and Mr Hambro, pushing the boys in front of him, was successful in reaching the shore. Mrs Hambro, who was swimming strongly behind, before reaching safety suddenly collapsed and disappeared. 

The boys' governess was still in the boat, which after a bit drifted towards the shore. When the hull got near the rocks she left it, and was able to get to the land. 

The accident was observed on the opposite side of the loch by Lt.-Colonel Lane, Invermoriston, who raised the alarm. Another eye-witness, Mr Ian Kydd, son of the hotel-keeper at Invermoriston, set out in his father's motor boat, but by the time he reached the scene of the tragedy the occupants had reached the shore, all but Mrs Hambro. A search was made, but no trace of her could be found. 

The survivors were later taken aboard Mr Kydd's motor boat, and it recrossed the loch to the Invermoriston side, where the party were quickly conveyed to the hotel. Other boats arrived on the scene. Up till last night a search was being made for Mrs Hambro's body, but without success. The depth of the water where the accident took place is from 150 to 200 feet.

The tragedy has created much pain in the Fort Augustus district, where Mrs Hambro was very popular, and had, when North at the shooting season, taken a keen interest in local activities. She was at a flower show held in Fort Augustus on Saturday.


In his book, "The Loch Ness Monster and Others", Rupert Gould picks up on the story two years later addressing the issue of underwater caverns. It seems the Press had publicised comments from divers claiming they had seen such structures, but Gould pooh-poohs the story suspecting the story "emanated from persons who knew very little about diving". One such media story came from a letter by Harold Frere to the Inverness Courier (20th October 1933) in which he states "the divers who looked for Mrs Hambro's body reported that they discovered an overhanging shelf deep down under the loch surface." and it seems this soon became rather more cavernous.

However, the matter is not too difficult to resolve as Paul Harrison tells us in his "The Encyclopaedia of the Loch Ness Monster" that the diver employed by Hambro went down to a depth of 150 feet in pursuit of the body. Since visibility at that depth is virtually nil, it is highly unlikely anything of a cavernous nature would be visible. Of course, one could say that the diver may have inferred the presence of such a gaping maw by feeling his way around. However, tracing out a huge cavern by foot and hand sounds a major task. Nevertheless, the door is left slightly ajar.

Subsequent sonar investigations have not found such caverns, though it is possible the diver did indeed encounter rocky outcrops or overhangs and decided (without going further in) that there was a void beyond. Note that Gould makes no mention of rumours of giant eels, since in 1932 such stories were still in the womb of the yet to be born Nessie story.

Such was the story and rumours in 1934 and the Hambro episode disappeared from view for thirty years as other stories dominated the lore of the loch. By 1969, the story took a new twist when David Cooke in his "The Great Monster Hunt", took up the tale of the Hambros once again.

Cooke had done the rounds of the loch in preparation for his book, picking up stories and collating them for publication. He recounts the tragedy (getting some things wrong such as stating Mrs. Hambro was the only swimmer) and tells us that divers had been sent down by an insurance company to recover not only the body but also valuable pearls Mr. Hambro said his wife was wearing and wished to put a claim against.

Cooke then tells us of divers going down once but coming up with whitened hair refusing to dive again and babbling of giant eels and treacherous currents. Cooke, having tantalised, dismisses the talk about whitened divers and giant eels by again referring to the blackened depths as well as the disorienting effects of not knowing which way is up. He also refers to long ribbons of "clinging slime" at such depths, as if to suggest this could simulate the effect of giant eels brushing past you.

The source of these stories seems clear enough as Cooke says "some people tell that" which suggests he had picked up these from either locals or LNIB people. Nicholas Witchell is his 1974 work, "The Loch Ness Story", says pretty much the same thing but excludes references to giant eels.

A year later, Tim Dinsdale wrote of the Hambro story in his book, "Project Water Horse" and acknowledged the wild swings in this story, citing a dozen variations he was aware of. Tim had got in contact with an elderly Highlander who had a relative that was in service at the Glendoe Lodge  when the Hambros were living there and recounted a story similar to the one quoted from the Yorkshire Post above. He added that Mrs. Hambro "just disappeared, suddenly and without sound or splashing".

However (unlike Tim's musings about the death of speed boater John Cobb), he ascribes no cryptozoological suspicions to this, citing the icy cold water as that which dragged her down. The story of the unnerved divers is again ascribed to the blackness of the darkness that surprised them.

Now quite where the story of giant eels came from is not seen in any primary source and I will assume for now it was more likely the speculations of 1960s monster hunters rather than any direct report from divers.


But what about the idea that Mrs. Hambro herself was the victim of a large, unknown animal? I don't see that quoted or discussed in the list of books I consulted (though that does not preclude it lying in the corner of some book somewhere) and wonder if it is more the product of the Internet age, finding its origin in some article or discussion forum?

Be that as it may, is there any merit to this idea? Clearly, there is no direct evidence of such a thing but, on examining the original reports for the first time, several questions were raised in my mind. Firstly, Mrs. Hambro was evidently an athletic woman and a capable swimmer. How did she not manage to swim the forty yards to shore? Indeed it seems she was only a few yards from shore when she sank.

Tim Dinsdale above talks of her succumbing to the cold waters and I accept that finding yourself in the loch is a life threatening situation if you do not get yourself out within 30 minutes (as attested to in this modern report of a rescue). But in that case how did her six and thirteen year old sons and Mr. Hambro escape this predicament?

Also, if she did get into trouble, she was near her family swimming as a group towards shore, how did they not manage to come to her aid? After all, people do not simply sink like a stone.

Moreover, what was it the governess, Miss Calvert, saw that made her decide the better option was to stay on a burning boat rather than swim to shore (she is also described as a swimmer)? Surely an odd choice given the circumstances. If only one could talk to Miss Calvert today and clear up this matter as I regard her as the main witness to these unfortunate events (perhaps a coroner's report exists somewhere).

Of course, none of this proves a large creature was involved and we may rather speculate that Mrs. Hambro suffered a heart attack due to a cold shock which would seal her fate. That seems unlikely given her youth and athleticism, but again, one would say that this is less unlikely than being dragged underwater to your death by a thirty foot predator.

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