(I had been in contact with Ricky regarding his picture and after a discussion, he offered to post a reply to the reaction and so on. So here it is and I will leave my comments to the comments section --- Ed.)
Why nothing prepares you for the Loch Ness Monsters…
(Ricky D Phillips)
Did I say “Monsters”? – I did – and not the long-necked variety either, but the bipedal kind with a phone in their hand or a laptop and a ready wit. Don’t get me wrong, since “that photo” some of the comments I have seen from people have been hilarious, complete with Gifs and memes, and I have even joined in on the joke with quite a few people, but there have been two or three really, really nasty comments too. Now, I’m no stranger to the press and to the odd moron chiming in, but as a historian, I have to prove every word I write, and I can back them all up: not so with “Nessie”.
If many comments be believed, of course, I am supposed to have a full film crew on standby and a concrete and referencable back-story to the whole thing, and that’s just not how it works. It isn’t like I actually tried to take a picture of it! However, a lot of these comments have been driven by the press and have been misunderstood from there, so I thought I’d set the record straight on “that photo” in my own words, and Roland has been kind enough to let me guest-blog on his site, since he seems to actually be the most decent, well-informed and impartial person I have met in this whole curious event.
What I have done is to write down the common questions or points so that I can answer them bit by bit. I’ll try to keep it humorous, because what else is the whole Nessie myth but fun? It strikes me that a lot of commenters on news sites must be lousy parents… every Christmas they must be debunking Santa to their bewildered children! So here are the answers in my own words, which if nothing else, will teach you not to believe what the press write about you!
So what actually happened? – I was in Fort Augustus, most of my tour group had gone on a boat cruise around the Loch and I went to grab a chippy then strolled along the Oich to take a look at the old wooden bridge there. Fort Augustus is a tiny place but pretty and it was one of few things I hadn’t seen up close. I went to take a shot across the river, heard a noise (the “Darth Vader noise” I will explain below) looked over and saw something with a long neck and head dive back under the water. I got my phone ready to take a picture, but I didn’t see it again. Then I realised I had snapped it by chance. That’s pretty much it…
Do I think it was Nessie? – Despite words such as ‘claimed’ and the Daily Mail’s addition of ‘insists’ I NEVER actually said the words “Loch Ness Monster”. In fact, when a journalist asked, I said that all I would say was “I saw this, it was on my phone, this is what it looked like” – which was as much as I could actually say. “But do you think it was Nessie?” was the reply and again, I answered that I simply couldn’t say what it was. I might as well have said “Absolutely guvnor, no doubt about it at all!” - because that’s effectively what they wrote anyway!
Is it a fake photo? – No, and of course there are so many ways to fake a photo, but I’m certainly no photographer (a few may have pointed that out in comments!) and no I don’t own Photoshop either. That is the original, as I saw it and as my camera phone captured it.
Is it a sock puppet? – I had to put this one down! Let me ask you something: could you please put a sock on your arm, wade into a freezing river in December and lay there whilst I take a photo of it? – If someone asked you that, you’d probably say no, wouldn’t you? I mean, it’s not even conceivable. Ah, say some, but could it be my arm instead? – So bear in mind I’m driving and guiding and won’t reach Edinburgh until about 8pm – about five hours later – and everyone in the group could see me dripping wet, I’m going to climb into a river, magically dry myself, change my clothes in front of loads of people and appear to my tour group 15 minutes after the incident, looking dry as a bone… and quite who this mystery accomplice is supposed to be, I have no idea. So, no… it isn’t a sock puppet!
Is it a log? – You know, it’s a funny thing about logs… they tend to look like logs! Forty years on this earth and I know what a log looks like, and a branch too, come to think of it! No it wasn’t… a wee bit of credit here for knowing the difference!
Why is the photo so grey and grainy? – An obvious question, this… it’s grey because it’s always grey! The Oich is grey, the Loch is grey, the sky is grey, the creature is grey and temperature fluctuations in the Loch and with the river meeting it, mean there’s usually a grey haze there. It’s grey, not black and white, it’s literally grey there. It’s grainy because that’s a zoom about three times in. It’s a phone camera, not a sniper scope.
What did you take the picture on? – A potato. There, I said it. Everybody else did! No, it was my Huawei mobile, and yes, it is old! I’ve got so many photos stored on it – I write military history and so I screenshot quotes from veterans or save photos for a few upcoming projects and I have THOUSANDS of pictures on it (not to mention thousands more of my dogs!) and last time I had an upgrade, I lost all of them, so I have deliberately ignored the upgrade… but it’s not that old!! Oh and apparently, tour guides are supposed to have great cameras? I’m not sure why. When you see the same stuff every few days, you don’t take pictures. Plus, you take your eye off the tour group for half a minute and someone will wander or do something usually suicidal, like try to take a selfie in the middle of the road.
Where’s the original photo? – Here’s your “Hmmm…” moment, doubters. That phone is so full of stuff that it doesn’t store any more photos. Occasionally, one gets through, for no reason that I can understand. So when I take a photo, if I like it, I have to immediately share to my social media in real time or send it to myself. I’m only lucky I remembered after I had zoomed in and screenshotted it, otherwise there’s a 99% chance it would have vanished. I can hear you all going “Hmmm…” from here… you’re lucky it’s all I got! But seriously, that’s it. If I had forgotten, we wouldn’t even be this far along!
But you run a tourism / guiding business, right? – No! I’m not sure where this comes from. I’m a military historian and author and yes, I also do guiding. When Mrs Ricky got made redundant, right as we were moving house, we needed more income. I’m a trained battlefield guide, I love history and I can make it relevant and interesting, so what else was I going to do? I genuinely love the Highlands, ever since I got to swing a sword around in the film Mary Queen of Scots, so it’s a pleasure to do something I love, in a place I love. It isn’t quite what I planned, but hey, we’ve all had to step up to earn the money. But Nessie or no Nessie, nobody gets paid more or gets more tours, so there was no advantage to the photo, it was just what was there.
Did you get paid for this? – Absolutely not. I didn’t ask, and nobody offered. It didn’t even occur to me. Despite the Sun advertising that they pay for stories, I was actually contacted by a freelance journalist, who obviously did get paid. It was what it was.
Some people have suggested you have a book to sell? – On the Loch Ness Monster? Multi-time #1 Best Selling Military Historian, famed for his work on the Falklands War… can you fit Nessie into that? Maybe it went down with the task force or popped up at Goose Green? No, I have no book on Nessie nor any plans to write one. A military historian actually doesn’t need Nessie in his life! Again, what can I say? It was what it was.
So why did you send the picture in? – I actually thought about not doing it. I joked with a mate about “career suicide” before I did, and I think it took five or six days to decide it couldn’t do any harm. I sent it in to Gary at the Nessie sightings register and asked if it was anything he’d seen before. He contacted the journalists and I was happy to help. I actually didn’t think many people would be so interested. That bit, I got wrong! That said, it was there, I have nothing to gain, nothing to hide, but there are also big Nessie fans out there, and small towns like Fort Augustus need Nessie. Without it, they might as well pack up and move away. So somewhere along the chain, it feeds families and I’m nobody to take that away. I thought about it and my conscience said yes, do it. That conscience is clear and the only gain I have is that my nieces and nephews think it’s just a bit cool to have an uncle who did it.
And the Darth Vader bit? – Let’s get it straight, I said it sounded like something blowing air, like a whale or dolphin does, but it sounded metallic, a bit like Darth Vader sneezing (not breathing!) and I made it clear. My guess is that some papers decided the distinctive Darth Vader breathing noise would sound more sinister, so put it in, but it wasn’t my doing. Like ‘claims’, ‘insists’ or other terms, it’s nothing to do with me…. But then I’ve been in a lot of newspapers and have even read “Exclusive Interviews” I have supposedly given to newspapers, who have absolutely never spoken to me! I’m used to it.
What do I think of the press reaction? – I went to bed on December 18th with it in the Scottish Sun and the Daily Record, and I was quite surprised at that. The first thing I had the next morning was a mate messaging me from Australia to say it had made the papers over there and I thought… “Oh God, they haven’t made this a huge deal, have they?” – They had. The Sun, Express, Mirror and then the Daily Mail. If you want anything to go viral online, it’s the DM. They have more online reach than anyone. The second I saw that, I knew we’d gone from snowball to avalanche. I’ve now read it in German too, in French, Greek, Italian, Vietnamese and even in India where (apparently) I am “a world-famous scientist”! I got a C for science at school, by the way! Famous historian? – Yes. Famous scientist? – Erm…….
And the public’s reaction? – It’s funny. In the history world, they always say never to read your reviews. Bernard Cornwell always says “A good review goes to your head and a bad review straight to your heart” but I always do. I always made it a thing to go back and answer people when discussing my history books, so I did it with this. The reaction is good, and I’m not asking anyone to “believe” but I’m joining in with the joke, because as I said, it is ultimately fun. One guy got verbally abusive, and there’s no reason for that. Another threatened to come over from Motherwell and give me a flying kick in the face! I just said I’d like to see him try and he didn’t answer back. It’s always painful when you read something about yourself which you know isn’t true. I should be used to it by now, but I’m just another normal person who does a job, and there’s no reason to abuse people or make stuff up about them or their families. On balance though, people have been great, but you’ll always find idiots. They get very brave online but the difference between me and other historians is that I’ll always answer you back. We’re all accountable for our words, just as I am for “that photo”.
Am I glad I took the picture? – I suppose yes, on balance. Nessie isn’t something a military historian needs in his life, and I do a lot of controversial stuff, so it could have impacted me adversely. Literally only one person has used it as a vague dig at me and my professional work, and it really wasn’t a big deal. On the whole, professional damage was minimal and I must say this: we military historians are nerds… everyone has an inner nerd and mine is history. But for those whose inner nerd is Nessie, it’s a great thing. Yes, I guess I’m glad I did it and took the plunge to send in the photo. It could have been anyone taking that photo, it just happened to be me. Before I sent it in, I did have a few words with myself about whether or not I really needed this in my life, but the argument which won, was “What right have I to censor this?” – Whatever it is, it’s there and that’s what it looks like. To some people, this is like Christmas day. I just happened to take the photo, and I considered that I really didn’t have a right to sit on it and just keep it for myself. Nessie belongs to everybody.
Do I believe in Nessie? – An obvious one for me to finish on. Nessie has been a story since St Columba. Now and then, we hear of a species believed extinct for thousands of years suddenly found alive and well, so I guess anything is possible. The sea is more unexplored than space for us humans, and Loch Ness goes down at its deepest over 800 metres. That’s beyond crush depth for some submarines still to this day. Certainly, a lot of money is being pumped into it, the Scottish government has a Nessie action plan should it be found, and you can find on the net pictures or videos of unknown creatures partially decomposed on beaches and things. Ultimately, I’d say you’ve got to have an open mind. As a historian, I’ve found things which the history books called “myths” and then I go looking and one day, I’m stood there looking at it right in front of me, so I’ve had to change my perceptions. If you ask me, “Is there a Loch Ness Monster?” I’m going to tell you yes, but it would be a fool to think there’s been only one for all of these years. A small colony of something we don’t know about, seems feasible. The Coelacanth survived sixty-six million years after it was supposed to have been extinct, so can we honestly say we know everything?
And Finally - In closing, I’d just like to add that this simply is whatever it is: a creature of some sorts, and that’s what it looks like. I’ve got nothing to gain, no reason to lie and actually it isn’t the best thing for a historian of all people to find: if anything, it’s probably the worst thing. There are a few times I wish I hadn’t, for all of the hassle involved, but then I don’t want other people to be put off doing it if they genuinely see something either… all I’d say is don’t fake it. People hunt for Nessie like I hunt for lost artefacts or battlefields or whatever… and a fake is not what people need. It just makes the whole thing ridiculous. In fact, if you take out all of the hundreds of fakes which have been debunked, Nessie as a concept looks plausible, so don’t become a fraud. There is something there and I’ve seen it. I’m not going to say what it is, because I don’t know, but there’s something there and I’m glad and perhaps even a bit privileged to have been a part of it. The only monsters I have found along the way, have been the human kind, and I have a clear enough conscience to bear them anyway. So don’t fake a Nessie sighting, but if one day, you should see her, you let people know, and don’t ever be ashamed… Nessie is more than a happy legend or a fun hobby, it is families and livelihoods in the Highlands and you’re never doing the wrong thing if you know you’re telling the truth.