Sunday 8 April 2018

Monster Hunting Raw and Undefiled

I reached Fort Augustus, after a two-day drive from my home in West Wales, with the bare minimum of equipment and no fixed plan of action. Unlike Dinsdale, I intended to sleep on the shores of the loch. This was partly to avoid hotel routine, which interferes with field work, and partly because I believed that most forms of wildlife are active early in the morning and late in the evening. If anything happened I wanted to be on the spot, not in an hotel bedroom. 

My hunting-cabin was a light van and the accommodation was pretty spartan. Two Army mattresses covered the floor and were covered by a tartan blanket. A box held provisions and cooking-gear. By the rear doors was a cylinder of cooking-gas. Two fly-rods and some fishing tackle were tucked into a net strung below the roof. A terylene sleeping-bag, blankets and spare clothing along with a few books made up the balance of the living-quarters equipment. The rest of the outfit was equally down to the bone - a pair of 10 x binoculars, a Rolleiflex camera, a few filters and a light-meter. It was a sort of do-it-yourself expedition kit.

F. W. Holiday, 1968

As I stood at six in the morning on the beach besides the River Foyers this Saturday past, I was reminded of two men of renown in the pursuit of Loch Ness' most famous inhabitant. These were Ted Holiday and Tim Dinsdale. The two came to my mind for different but similar reasons as I was in the middle of one of my trips to the loch.

In what has become something of a habit now, I am minded to read some of Ted Holiday when I sojourn here. Certainly, one chapter entitled "Foyers at Sunrise" from his work, "The Great Orm of Loch Ness" has become required reading for me as it connects me with what gone before. Here we find the memoirs of a true solo monster hunter and Dinsdale's first book is not far behind in this regard.

I quote above from that chapter to relate the rawness of the search going back to August 22nd 1962 when he drove up from Wales. I was not even born then and Holiday would have been aged about 41 years. A light van, spartan accommodation, two Army mattresses and various other basics. Unlike Dinsdale, who had stayed in a hotel when he filmed his 1960 film, Holiday's austerity stretched to sleeping by the shore in his modest vehicle.

No defilement of the comfortable hotel bed for Ted as he explained that wildlife tended to be busiest around dawn or dusk, and he intended to sacrifice comfort for proximity if any action happened his way on the shore. Whatever you may make of such strictures, days later at almost the same spot as Dinsdale's film, Holiday found himself staring at the "Great Orm" of Loch Ness.

The time he saw it was about the same time I arrived near the inlet where his monster had appeared. I had not slept in a van, but as usual, had pitched my tent at the local campsite. Like Holiday, I resorted to a gas stove, unlike him, I bought my food rather than catch it from the loch. I wondered how much my approach to monster hunting was as raw and undefiled as his.

Loch Ness was not a far flung lake akin to a Lost World, but compared to today, it was very much underdeveloped when Dinsdale and Holiday scanned the waters between 1960 and 1962. The Clansman Hotel had just been built, but the choice of accommodation was far less than today. Tourists shops were less in number and Urquhart Castle was a ruin you could just walk into.

Those in pursuit of a profit have probably always outnumbered those in pursuit of monsters. There is nothing wrong with that per se,  but I sense the whole thing has gone beyond saturation point. I note that one campsite by Fort Augustus is building chalets for the monied tourists to rent. After all, why charge pennies for tent pitches when you can charge pounds for chalets?

That is a trend I have seen elsewhere. Perhaps one day I will end up parking my vehicle along the lochside like Holiday as tents and caravans are swept aside in the name of bigger profits? I assume the local authorities will note this in the various planning applications. Then again, perhaps all they are interested in is the tourist pound as well?  Time will tell.

The tourist shops likewise are shrines to tat and piffle. I would expect no less, but any kind of informed hat tipping towards the reason everyone comes is evident by its absence. There is next to nothing in the way of pro-cryptid literature and even the sceptical literature is barely visible. I guess they don't sell as well as Nessie shortbread or tartan monsters.

Going back 55 years to that raw and undefiled monster hunting, when Loch Ness seemed like a wilderness compared to the tourist mania of today, Britain was not long out of post-war austerity. Perhaps that was reflected in those monster hunters habits as I found myself standing at 6am on Dinsdale Island, scanning the loch before me.

Well, that is not actually its name. It is the small triangular island that bestrides the bifurcation of the River Foyers. We are told that Cherry Island is the only island of Loch Ness, but perhaps this is one as well? I suppose that depends, as it is not always separate from the mainland.

As it turned out, the water levels at the mouth of the river were at the lowest levels I could recall in years of coming here. The sandbar had been exposed and that meant I could walk over it unhindered to the island. Meantime, the River Foyers was almost becoming Loch Foyers as it was nigh cut off from Loch Ness (below).

A fellow enthusiast, by the name of Doug (pm me btw) reminded me that this used to be a haunt of Tim Dinsdale's back in the early days. He would be ferried over from the world of the Highland inhabitants to the raw and undefiled aloneness of the hunt. Once again raw, as Dinsdale lived off the basics he could bring over and the undefiledness of solitude. Not loneliness, but an apartness from the world around him. Just him and the Monster.

I believe Tim built a kind of hide to watch out for the creature. Whether Nessie would be fooled by such a contraption I cannot say. What I can say is that my almost unrelenting watch of the loch relented. Holiday alluded to this in his aforementioned book, the distractibility of water watching. It is not easy to stare at the waters of the loch once the initial enthusiasm ebbs away. 

I am no good at it, but had a remedy when I was there later in the day, I plugged a portable radio into my ears and listened to the commentary on the Scottish football. Monster hunting suddenly became a lot easier, especially when your team was winning. By coincidence, Holiday's book mentioned the temptation to flick on the radio!

So I explored the island, and when the waters began to rise again after some rain, I crossed in my wellington boots for my own bit of raw solitude. This time, however, I also brought a very un-1960s quadcopter; more on that in another piece. Doug had suggested I indulge in some crypto-archaeology if I ever got to the island. You mean, dig up a plesiosaur perhaps?

No, not at all. I was told that Dinsdale, in his book, had said he had buried an old pair of boots there. That was interesting. What should I do if I found them? Keep them as a souvenir of the great man or just leave them to moulder in their grave? I think the lie of the land answered those questions for me. Although small, the islet was still up to 200 feet long by 100 feet wide. 

A reconnaissance of the area was performed in the hope that an old boot lace may be seen to emerge from the ground like the proverbial morning worm. Alas, I think Dinsdale did a good job of burying his boots as nothing obvious was seen. I did find a shed antler to add to the deer skull I found last year, so all was not in vain, However, I think Tim's boots, of which I would suggest none of us are fit to fill, will nevertheless remain filled with soil.

Walking back to mainland about 7am, I had a Holiday moment as I met an angler about to push his boat out into the loch. Ted Holiday wrote about a similar episode when he chanced on an angler about to do the same early morning thing.

I had a brief chat with the man who was from Inverness and had a boat moored there. He was off to catch some salmon, but he had never seen the "Orm" as Holiday called Nessie and did not believe in it. In contrast, Holiday's angler matter of factly stated he had seen the creature twice and just accepted it was part of the loch.

In conclusion, Holiday and Dinsdale died in 1979 and 1987 respectively. Less worthy men stepped into the void and began to dismantle all that these two giants had worked for since those early 1960s. If both were alive today, they would be aged about 97 years old. I am glad they are not here to see the anodyne mess the whole thing has become.

Monster hunting, raw and undefiled. Old vans, gas stoves, grubby old boots and demob mattresses. Dinsdale and Holiday arrived with old style cameras and binoculars. I arrived with drone technology, digital SLRs, laptop, thermal imagers and image intensification hardware. In a fast changing world, I would like to think some of the old traditions are maintained by those who have not turned their back on the monster hunt, but continue the search to this day.

The author can be contacted at