Saturday 26 October 2019

Legend of the Loch (1958)

Documentaries on the Loch Ness Monster seem to turn up every year these days, some good, some bad and some indifferent. The popularity of the monster continues to this day despite the attempts of some to consign it to history. But going back into that history, there was a time when there was only one documentary on the creature - the first one.

It took the introduction and uptake of TV and perhaps the publication of a book to finally convince a film team to head off to the loch in 1958, twenty five years after Aldie Mackay had her two humped sighting. There were only two TV channels broadcasting back them, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the nascent ITV, which had yet to celebrate its third birthday.

It was the BBC that took up the challenge and it was 61 years later that I was given the chance to watch this documentary and grab a few screenshots for this article. The documentary is, of course, black and white and last about 45 minutes and starts with the title card shown above. The scene opens with a narration of Highland geology accompanying an aircraft flying south to north above Highlands past Ben Nevis past Fort William on way up the Great Glen to Loch Ness (below).

The BBC were stationed at Urquhart Bay as the shot changed to their presenter, Neville Wilson, at a location that appears to be Temple Pier with the Castle in the background. With a plummy English accent that would characterise everyone involved with the BBC team, he informs the audience that it was "a particularly filthy evening" as the rain descended on the loch.

Wilson tells us he was informed that the piermaster thought the monster had stirred up the weather and put the evil eye on the investigation. Ancient legend met modern scientific investigation as one anticipated what would be revealed by the underwater camera and echo sounder equipment that the BBC had brought to the loch.

But first it was to the eyewitnesses as Neville Wilson interviewed a succession of people who claimed to have seen the beast of the loch. Firstly, we were assured that it wasn't only Scotsmen who saw the monster as Mr. Harper Smith of England (below) told us about his sighting of the 27th June 1951 while fishing for salmon. His son exclaimed "is that a periscope over there?" as he saw six feet of dark neck and a sheep like head moving side to side. He said it moved at pace at 15-20 mph until it moved within 500-600 yards of them. It was in view for 17-18 minutes.

Next up was a Mr. Richard Synge, joint winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1952. His sighting was in August 1934 when he was aged 19 and up at the loch with his parents. As he was looking out the window of a Fort Augustus hotel, he saw a stationary black hump three feet wide and a foot high. It was a quarter of a mile out and then moved off at about 15 mph. This was determined from the fact that they ran out into their car and paced it for two miles.

Witness number three was an eyewitness well known to this blog - Marjory Moir. Her story is recounted on this blog here and here and it was a AAA sighting of a three humped, long necked creature ploughing up the loch. But it was here that I got to see here for the first and her picture is shown below.

The next witness was perhaps the most interesting as it was none other than Alex Campbell. However, he was not called in as an eyewitness, but more as an expert witness as he recounted his part in the story as the journalist who first brought the story to the public in May 1933 via the pages of the Inverness Courier. He also revealed how the Courier Editor, Evan Barron christened the beast with the title "The Loch Ness Monster".

As a local expert, he was then asked why there was a drop off in sightings since the beginning of the War and onward, which Campbell attributed to the fear of ridicule by locals who decided just to stay silent. Since the BBC had brought up a team of divers, Alex mentioned the divers who searched for the Hambro body and recounted how one came up quite pale and would not go back down. At this point I wondered if he was going to mention apocryphal tales of giant eels brushing round divers' legs, but this was rather attributed to the disorienting effects of the dark depths of the waters.

Before we finish with Alex Campbell's interview, one may wonder why his own hump and neck sighting from 1933 was not related in the program? I mentioned a book at the beginning which may have influenced the decision to produce this program and that was Constance Whyte's book, "More Than a Legend" which was published the year before.

In that 1957 book, Alex Campbell recounts his experience, but did so anonymously. One can only assume he wished to maintain this stance the following year and only speak on other matters related to the loch and the monster. As seasoned observers will know, Campbell initially gave an anonymous account of the monster to the Scotsman newspaper and then downgraded it to cormorants to Rupert Gould.

He then, again anonymously, returned to his original account in Whyte's book and then finally admitted to the experience in Dinsdale's 1961 book. My explanation for this change is laid out here. But what happened specifically between 1957 and 1960? He had gone from cormorants in 1933 to anonymous in 1957, but three years later opened up to Tim Dinsdale. My own speculation is that he was still employed as water bailiff in 1958 but was close to retirement. By the time we got to 1960, he left his job and could speak freely. Well, like most things at the loch, that's speculation.

The documentary then broke off from interviewing to hunting. It was time for the BBC to dive into the depths in search of the monster. The view switched to the ancient castle peering down on modern technology as Raymond Baxter (below), whom readers may recall as the erstwhile presenter of the popular "Tomorrow's World", took us through the dive. Once again, plummy English accents prevailed.

The camera rig did not look too different from the ones which would be employed by the Academy of Applied Science about 15 years later. Looking at the picture below, it employed three lights with a live feed camera below them. Obviously, the AAS cameras were still image cameras, but the general idea was there for all to see. The rig was lowered, the echo sounder was ready and the team of frogmen dived into loch.

As you can guess, the divers described conditions as dark, peaty and "unfriendly". Just located over a point before the loch bed begins to shelf down steeply. the divers went down with fresh air and oxygen tanks. Wired for sound, the divers reported visibility to 15-20 feet, presumably with the aid of the light rig. The rig was lowered to 40 feet with the boat just visible above. As our intrepid divers got down to the shelf at about 80 feet, they became more muffled and the camera focused on the silt that was stirred up by the diver's hand. At this depth, they stopped and concluded this was indeed a difficult environment for getting pictures (below).

Then we switched back to shored and Lachlan Stuart was interviewed regarding his three humped picture taken seven years earlier. His was one of only two photographs considered, but when I though about it, the Cockrell and MacNab photos were over a year away and prior to that there was only really the Wilson and Gray pictures. It was unlikely that Wilson would have turned up and it was a pity Hugh Gray was not contacted or available.

The story Lachlan related was familiar enough and can be read here. I don't think he added or changed anything new to what was related previously. As a bonus, the BBC also interviewed professional photographer Mr. MacPherson who developed the Stuart picture. In the screenshot below, McPherson is on the left and Stuart in the middle.

Mr. McPherson described the development process and intimated he had processed other purported pictures of the monster before but most came in underexposed and too far away. It is not easy getting close up shots of the creature. 

The documentary then showed the Hugh Gray picture which was commented upon by Constance Whyte (below). She described the incident and how she knew Hugh Gray very well and then discussed the worldwide impact of her new book, "More Than a Legend". Clearly, it had stirred up a lot of interest. Asked how science could get involved, she suggested a line of boats should conduct a sonar sweep of the loch. It looks like Mrs. Whyte foresaw Operation Deepscan thirty years before it came to be.

At this point, it was back to the ship and the Marconi sonar machine they had employed in aid of the search. I believe it was called a "fish-o-graph" or similar, the operator's words were indistinct. Note this device pinged the waters directly below it. The side scan sonar we saw employed by the likes of Marty Kline was still a few years off. The demonstration of the echo-sounder showed some traces, including one which showed 72 fish swimming about. How that number compares to modern traces, I could not say.

However, it was a trace shown above that they had recorded earlier that generated the most interest of the expedition. It was an unknown trace just off the ledge before the  roughly 45 feet deep shelf. The Marconi operator did not know what it was and he said it was a substantially stronger signal that the fish they had got used to seeing on the trace. It was deemed to be submerging at the time of detection.The mark is seen in the screenshot above the edge where the loch bed begins to rise sharply and meet the shallower edge.

This was compared with another trace made later of the submerged camera rig calculated to be about 80 feet down. The unknown trace was at about the same depth and the commentator said the boat positions were approximately the same. The camera rig trace is shown below and one may assume that if the circumstances were indeed similar and the camera rig was a kind of calibration test against a known object, then it was unlikely the unknown trace was an occurrence of the ubiquitous "spurious side echoes" so often wheeled out when unknown traces are publicised.

So a fascinating sonar event and one wonders where that roll of echo-sounder trace paper is today? After this, the program ended with two more witnesses. The first was a Peter MacMillan, a stalker from Invermoriston, who had a good view of the creature near the mouth of the River Moriston. He had spied it through his stalker's scope and described it as having a dark, brown, rough skin and about thirty five feet long. He said it  was certainly not a wave as he had seen many waves over the years at the loch.

The final word went to Colonel Patrick Grant of the Knockie Estate who had seen it himself, as had some of his friends and other locals. They knew it existed as much as the surrounding hills and hoped that science would eventually provide answers to what they were seeing. Unfortunately, sixty one years on, science has not provided such an answer, despite what people may say about misperceptions. These people interviewed back then were adamant they had seen a large, unknown creature and I doubt they would have had much time for the theories that have been doing the rounds for decades since.

All in all, this film is an important historical document in the story of the Loch Ness Monster and I am glad this was one item that did not fall victim to the BBC's policy of re-using old video stock during subsequent years (as fans of Doctor Who and Dad's Army will testify to).

The author can be contacted at