Tuesday 27 March 2018

Thoughts on the Alfred Cruickshank Land Sighting

As part of the promotion for my new book on land sightings of the Loch Ness Monster, I thought I would cover the curious case of Alfred Cruickshank and his encounter on a lonely road during an April night in 1923. Before I proceed, may I ask readers who have bought the book to consider posting a review to amazon.co.uk or amazon.com?

But what of that event 95 years ago and the closest we have to primary sources? Alfred Cruickshank of Buckie, Banffshire near Loch Ness wrote a letter to famous monster hunter, Tim Dinsdale on the 9th January 1961 regarding his curious encounter. That communication made it into Tim's first book, "Loch Ness Monster", which I reproduce verbatim here:

I thank you for your letter about our famous `Nessie'. I usually went from Buckie to Speanbridge to meet a train from Glasgow at 8 a.m. This meant leaving home about 3 a.m. as the roads at this time were very narrow and rough, 112 miles. The car I had was a Model T Ford and the headlamps were off the low tension magneto. The faster your engine ran the better the lights, so that when you slowed down at a corner (there were hundreds of them) your lamps faded.

I have done this journey hundreds of times but I have had only one view of the Monster, and I believe I was the first to see it, but I never told anybody (bar my wife) what I had seen (also my boss). If I remember rightly it was on a Monday morning in April, 1923, when I was going to Speanbridge, that I had the encounter with the Monster, of which I got a very good view as it crossed the road in front of me; but as I was nearing a corner of the road I was slowing up and the headlamps dimmed. I can still show you the place although the road has all been remade and widened.

If the road had been wider I would have turned the car for a further look but it was too narrow. My view of the Monster was: Body 10-12 ft. long, 5 ft. 6 in.-7 ft. in height, tail 10-12 ft. Colour, green-khaki resembling a frog, with cream coloured belly which, trailed on the ground. It had four legs thick like an elephant's and had large webbed feet, in reality it looked like' an enormous hippo, but arched back and long trailing tail which was on the same level as the belly, as you will see in my rough drawing. It gave out a sharp bark, like a dog, as it disappeared over the road into the water.

I think this is all the information I can give you. I wrote the B.B.C. about the Monster when they put down divers to photograph under Loch Ness for the Monster, for one bite of its large mouth would have halved any man, but they never replied. Hoping I have been of some assistance to you ...

A second source comes from the chapter on land sightings in Nicholas Witchell's "The Loch Ness Story", published 13 years later in 1974 which is reproduced below. Since I believe Mr. Cruickshank lived about 60 miles from Loch Ness in Buckie at the time, this looks a visit from Nicholas Witchell rather than a letter.

It was still dark and Mr Cruickshank's route was being illuminated by the car's rather primitive headlamps as he bumped and wound his way along the deserted road. About two miles north of Invermoriston he crested a small hill and his headlamps picked out a large object on the outside of a bend in the road about 50 yards ahead of him. "I could see something moving - it had a large humped body standing about six feet high with its belly trailing on the ground and about 12 feet long, to which was attached a long thick tail which was ten to 12 feet in length. It was moving slowly, sort of waddling away from the road on two legs which I could see on the near side.

I saw the outline of what appeared to be the head which was big and pug-nosed and was set right on the body — in other words it didn't seem to have much of a neck. I was slowing down to go round the corner so the lamps faded but as I went round the corner 1 heard a grunting noise from where it was. I stopped the car once I was round the corner but I couldn't turn the car round and I certainly wasn't going back on foot." Mr Cruickshank described the colour as dark olive to khaki and lighter underneath although obviously in the poor light it was difficult to determine colour clearly.

When Mr Cruickshank arrived at Speanbridge station and met his employer, the latter apparently asked him what was wrong since he was looking very pale. "He thought I must have had an accident," recalled Mr Cruickshank, "but I told him what had happened and he said I must have been dreaming. A couple of other friends who I told about the sighting said I must have been drunk. Apart from them I just told my wife and then kept quiet about it all." 

So what are we to make of this extraordinary account of a huge beast upwards of 25 feet crawling across a dark Highlands road during the inter-war years? The sceptics will of course dismiss it out of hand and we shall come to their theories later. However, even those who accepted there was a large beast in the loch were a bit non-plussed by the account as it did not include the obligatory long neck of Nessie lore.

Be that as it may, as researchers, Dinsdale and Witchell were honest enough not to sweep it under the carpet and both published the account for the world to read. What disappoints me is that we do not have any sketch to accompany either account. From the above, we know Cruickshank sent Dinsdale a sketch which, rather than printing, describes as:

a squat and bulbous creature with a large doglike head, little or no neck, four stumpy legs with flipperlike endings with fingers or claws, and a huge tail ...

I contacted the Dinsdale family regarding the possibility of this sketch still being in their father's archives, but nothing was found. But gone is the small head perched upon the long slender neck and to summarise the statistics:
  • larged humped body 10 to 12 feet long and 5.5 to 7 feet high
  • tail about 10 to 12 feet long
  • big, pug nosed head
  • little or no neck
  • four thick legs like and elephant with webbed feet 
  • belly and tail trailed along ground
  • emitted bark or grunting noise
  • colour dark olive to khaki with lighter cream coloured underbelly

What are the mitigating factors that may compromise this description? The first is that the event (according to Witchell) happened about 0500. The specific day in April is not given, and so we can only surmise that sunrise occurred between 0643 and 0529. A mid-April date gives a sunrise of 0605 which suggests there was not much natural light around and Mr. Cruickshank was largely dependent on his headlights.

As stated above, the headlights were driven by the engine in a manner similar to wind up torches today. As Mr. Cruickshank initially saw the creature fifty yards ahead of him, he was not about to take a corner and so the headlights were at normal brightness for his given speed. However, I am pretty sure a combination of seeing this hulking beast and knowing he was about to reach a familiar corner was sufficient for him to start applying the brakes. So, though Alfred says he had "a very good view" of it, this would have only lasted for seconds.

I say seconds because we are told he regularly undertook a 112 mile journey in 5 hours for an average speed of 22.4 mph. At an initial distance of 50 yards from the creature, he would be upon it no sooner than five seconds. In terms of movement, our creature had to move its 25 foot length across a road probably 15 feet wide in about the same time which gives a probable speed of five feet per second or about 3.4 miles per hour to avoid a collision. As a comparison, bull elephants seals can comfortably manage such a speed.

Apart from brevity and light levels, there is also the memory question as Alfred Cruickshank's letter to Tim Dinsdale was 38 years after the event happened. As stated before, whatever the eyewitness testimony, the passage of decades is going to have some effect on the powers of recall. I say that asking the reader what events they can recall from 38 years ago in 1980?

And herein lies the rub, the vast majority of what we saw in 1980 is long gone and beyond recall, but what is memorable, exciting or traumatic is not so easily eroded. Seeing a large form filling the road in front of you on a lonely road is what I would call "traumatic" and is more permanently encoded onto those ancient memory paths which carry those things which had to be recalled for the purposes of survival and preservation of life and limb. That he arrived at Spean Bridge looking like a sick man sums it up.

I think a large, unknown monster fits that bill nicely and note that the two accounts given about 13 years apart do not differ greatly in detail. Having said that, even this will not be subject to perfect recall in regards to exact details as I note that the two accounts differ in who Alfred Cruickshank told his story to (but note details omitted in one account do not constitute a contradiction). One also describes the noise emitted by the creature as a "grunt" but the other says a "bark".

One may think I am using brevity, light and memory factors to wriggle out of this lack of a long neck, but the Witchell account states that he only saw the "outline" of a head which suggests the full beam of the headlights was concentrated on the middle portion of the creature and weakened towards the sides of the road putting the "head" in relative darkness.

Thus, Nicholas Witchell asked whether the neck may have already progressed out of view into the trees or perhaps the neck had turned to look at the approaching car to give the impression of no neck. Mr. Cruickshank did not think so and thus some Nessie researchers are left with an incongruity. Others are not, such as advocates of a giant salamander like creature or those who think the creature is not resident in the loch but is actually several differing cryptids that occasionally find their way into the loch over the centuries.

But where did this all happen? I made some provisional deductions and visited the potential site back in April 2015 when I was investigating the nearby John MacLean sighting of 1938. As Alfred Cruickshank rightly pointed out, the road has been remade and widened since 1923 and so comparing his account to the current road is not a good idea. However, the incident is said to have occurred about two miles north of Invermoriston and happened near a cornering of the road. Using a pre-1933 Ordnance Survey map of the area will help narrow down the options as shown below.

As you can see, there is not much in the way of bending roads closer to Invermoriston (out of view to the bottom left). Also, as the road heads south to Invermoriston the road rises away from the loch and provides less of a comfortable route for the kind of creature described unless it was into high board diving. With that in mind, my gaze turned to Altsigh which is about 2.5-2.9 miles from Invermoriston, depending from where you start your measurements.

At Altsigh, we find a bending of the road which is not so much pronounced on today's A82 road (as suggested by Cruickshank). Zooming in gives us this view of the road below and I would suggest the event occurred at the first northernmost bend above the "A" of "Alltsigh" on the map. I say that because the witness stated that the creature became visible on the "outside bend" of the road which suggests a bend pointing towards the loch rather than away from it (as we see over the Altsigh burn).

Actually, this location is very near the spot where the old Half Way House hotel was located which later became a Youth Hostel. It is not visible on this old map nor the later 1921-1930 "Popular" OS map series, so I suspect it was built to take advantage of the later improved road. That would suggest this was a much lonelier road in 1923, though the credibility of the case hardly hinges on this.

With that location in mind, I did a reconnaissance of the area to see what lay beyond the road, mindful that topology may have changed somewhat between 1923, 1933 and today. Below is the road looking south as Alfred would have travelled, just before the now renamed Hostel (just out of sight to the left).

The outside bend you see is where I speculate the older dog leg bend once existed and the creature would have crossed ahead of it. To the right are some houses and I had an interesting conversation with one of the owners at the time concerning frightening events. To the left was the loch and I made my way down to the general view of the shingle beach shown below. It was a short trudge down from the road, perfectly consistent with the kind of quick escape route back to the loch that our favourite cryptid likes.

Looking back to the road from the beach I inspected the rising hillside back to the road. My first impression was that this would be an easy enough incline for a beast to slide down, but it was unclear how scalable it was in the opposite direction. But then again, I have no idea what the elevation of the road was like in 1923 or where the sweet spot for ascending/descending was. That particular answer is now lost in the mists of time.

Given the knowns and unknowns, I was quite comfortable with this as a possible location. But let us get back to the varying views on this curious event. First, there is the matter of the greenish colour of the beast. Admittedly, it is a departure from the usual darker shades of the monster, and this led Tim Dinsdale into the speculation that the car's ancient magneto lights as they faded gave the creature a green tint.

That sounds reasonable but I emailed the owner of a Model T Ford enthusiast's website and asked if the colour of a magneto headlight emitted any colour in full or fading luminance. His reply was this:

"The bulb was a typical light bulb of the time. It was bright white at full brilliance but turned a bit yellowier as the engine slowed down. Looking at it, it just dimmed ... a color change was not too evident."
That doesn't totally exclude this as an explanation, but for me it is not likely to turn a grey/brown creature into a khaki green one. Looking back at the sightings record, I can find only three other explicitly green skinned events - the Lowrie family (August 1960), Christie (May 1962) and Kennedy (November 1974). So they do happen, but very infrequently. 

How much this colour variation is an issue partly depends on one's bias in the subject. Sceptics want multi-coloured Nessies to bolster their case against a single variant creature. The other extreme is to liken the Loch Ness Monster to a chameleon, which is going to far in the opposite direction. But these are both missing the point.

The vast majority of sightings are dark brown/grey/black and one cannot not always be sure how many grey-blacks are due to shadow rather than skin colour. So the green (and yellow) variants are a very small percentage which hardly swings the case. If 25% were green, 25% brown, 25% black and 25% yellow, that would constitute a bigger problem. These green outliers suggest to me a variant in monster morphology that does not happen very often. 

Meantime, sceptical interpretations are a bit thin on the ground. Steuart Campbell slots this case into the "otter like" category without explaining how an otter can fill the road or appear green. Unfortunately for the sceptics, otters in a heat haze cannot be wheeled out here! One could try and invoke larger creatures such as deer or seals, I leave the defense of such shaky theories to their protagonists, though I don't recall a seal ever being reported on a road by Loch Ness or ever out of the loch (and of course seals are not 25 feet long - unless a very large walrus got into the loch).

Perhaps an admission that this case is not amenable to natural explanations is found in Ulrich Magin's sceptical analysis of pre-1933 cases done for Fortean Studies Volume 7. He suggests that the whole thing was just a joke by Alfred Cruickshank based on the less than compelling observation that the month of the event was April and hence may be an April Fool's joke. A look at the calendar for 1923 shows that none of the Mondays in April fell on the 1st.


Otter, seal, hoax or monster? Make up your own mind. If Mr. Cruickshank did want to fabricate a report, you would have thought he would have played safe and gone for the standard grey, long necked beast. Seals and otters are far too small which leaves little room for any other explanation.

Alfred Cruickshank died in 1978 and so I leave the final word to Alfred Cruickshank's grandson who I tracked down to the same town of Buckie and had a phone conversation with a few years back. He acknowledged he knew of the story bit didn't have much to add. But he reminisced with me how his grandad often used to sit him on his knee and tell him the tale of how he once met the Loch Ness Monster on a dark, lonely road.

The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com