Sunday 28 March 2021

Back to the Surgeon's Photograph

It is time to look over some recent debate on this photograph and perhaps some new information that leads to the true location of the picture. It is the most iconic photograph that purports to be of the Loch Ness Monster and it just about features in every documentary or major article devoted to the monster. Since 1994 and the publication of "Nessie: The Surgeon's Photo Exposed" by Alistair Boyd and Dave Martin, it concluded that the photo was a hoax perpetrated by big game hunter. Duke Wetherell, his family and associates in revenge for how the Daily Mail handled his expedition.

Most have accepted that theory but others have not and scrutinized the hoax story suspecting it is a hoax itself. I must admit, having read the book, that I side with its evidence and reasoning, but I always keep an eye open for any thinking on the matter. So, well known cryptozoologist, Karl Shuker, recently posted his thoughts on why the Boyd-Martin hoax theory should be treated with suspicion. His article is here.

He has various things to say in his long article, but there are some main points which are worthy of discussion here. The first is his objection that there is no evidence that the submarine toy used to mount the plastic wood monster neck was ever used. No photos of it, written notes of the time or pieces of the contrivance. I agree with him, there is absolutely nothing of that kind to back up what Wetherell's stepson, Christian Spurling, said about his monster model. You basically either accept it or reject it.

That the components for such a hoax were available at the time is not disputed or perhaps even the engineering to make such an item float in the water (though Karl is not totally convinced of that without a demonstration). I myself do not doubt that the model would float, I am not so sure they could make it submerge with that long neck attached, but I am also not sure it had to. In this case, I am quite happy to accept such a model could be constructed and accomplish its task, unless someone can provide evidence to the contrary.

Karl also has doubts about how the model would look in a photo at Loch Ness and thinks the item looks further out than is suggested in the hoax account, perhaps too far to wade out. That is a difficult thing to establish without knowing where the actual location was. Robert Wilson's statement that it was somewhere near the Altsigh Burn is nigh on impossible to prove. However, Boyd and Martin conducted their own experiment with their own model which established that a similar photograph with similar foreground and background could be done from only a few metres from shore.

That may sound like deep water, but you can walk out on level ground in the water for such a distance before the ground begins to worryingly recede from you at the loch. The original uncropped Surgeon's Photograph and the Alastair Boyd experiment are shown below (original first) and you can see the similarities. There is one caveat to these, Boyd said he had to crop his picture to match the original one.

Since he thinks Wilson's accomplice, Maurice Chambers, transferred from a Leica 50mm film to a quarter plate, he thinks this involved cropping as well. Though why he says the top was cropped and not the bottom is not made clear. Apart from that,  I do not think the way the Wilson picture presents itself poses any issues. The only quibble is how different the two cameras sixty years apart were, which could present different results for the same view.


But let us move on the main contentious issue of divergent testimonies. There are at least three people testifying that the photograph was faked. The first was Ian Wetherell, son of Marmaduke, who confessed to his participation in an article written by Sunday Telegraph columnist Philip Purser on 7th December 1975. He said he went up with his father and Maurice Chambers to stage the shoot. Ian himself took the pictures and Chambers took the pictures to be developed. However, the article was largely ignored and lost in the noise of the anticipation of the Rines underwater pictures.

The second is the star witness and step-brother of Ian, Christian Spurling who was interviewed by David Martin in 1991 and subsequently by Alistair Boyd. Some of the interviews were recorded but, to my knowledge, have not been made publicly available in any form. Spurling died shortly after in 1993. He said he did not go to the loch and manufactured his hybrid monster-submarine for the Wetherells at his home in Twickenham, London.

The third witness was a Major Norman Egginton, a colleague of Robert Wilson, who wrote to Nicholas Witchell in 1970 claiming that Wilson had boasted of his involvement in the hoax. This letter constituted quite an amazing coincidence as Witchell had merely written to a bookshop seeking some Loch Ness Monster titles. One of the bookshop directors was Egginton who opened up to Witchell how Wilson had confessed all in 1940 to him and two others. Why Witchell ignored this letter in his subsequent book on the monster is not clear, did he doubt Egginton or was this an inconvenient story?

Now the problem is that these three witnesses do not deliver testimonies that are in complete harmony with what is known and this forms a major basis for objections to the hoax theory.

  • Wetherell and Spurling disagree on the material for the neck. Ian said rubber tubing while Spurling said plastic wood.
  • Both of them agree that the photo is a model but Egginton claims Wilson said it was a monster cut out superimposed on an empty photo of the loch.
  • Ian Wetherell says Chambers handled the development of the pictures while Robert Wilson (the "surgeon") himself said he took the plates to a chemist in Inverness.
  • Ian Wetherell claimed they shot the model moving to create a V-wake but the photo evidently shows a stationary object.
  • Ian Wetherell stated the model neck was a few inches high while Spurling said it was a foot high.

Now let us get onto the general subject of contradictions between witness testimonies as this is not an unfamiliar subject to myself and other researchers on the subject of the Loch Ness Monster. By way of example, a recent case I looked at from September 1933 concerned multiple eyewitnesses to a large creature seen in the loch. That article is here and once read you will note that despite looking at the same object, the eyewitnesses drew and described a creature that was not quite the same. 

Does this mean their accounts are not to be regarded as honest and trustworthy? Of course not, and one will find these degrees of inconsistency throughout the literature where imperfect humans are involved. This leads us into the issue of how to handle parallel stories as one should not just receive them all as acceptable just because people make mistakes. Some people do not make mistakes - they tell lies.

To my mind, there are different levels of inconsistency that exist. The first is a person's testimony which is at variance with empirical facts. For example, they may state that it was a fine, sunny day on the date in question whereas the weather report states it rained all day or they stated a person they met later was named John Smith where in fact it was Reginald Perrin.

The second instance is where a person's testimony is at variance with themselves in what the person recounts at another time. The other accounts may not be related entirely to the first account, but may contain elements which pose a contradiction to the other. For example, the person may state they were at a certain place at a certain time, but in another text they state they were somewhere else.

Finally, there are the testimonies of multiple people which are at variance with each other in the whole or the part. The multiple testimonies of Wetherell, Spurling and Egginton being the prime example here and we also mentioned the group who saw the monster in 1933.

Now in my estimation, when assessing claimed events, these three levels are ranked in importance. So the first level poses more problems for a story than the second. Likewise, the second poses more problems for it than the third. I say that because it is more likely for separate minds to produce disharmony than one mind and if a story does not line up with reality, there is little hope for it (unless in our example, the witness got the dates wrong).

So, it is really down to one's tolerance levels as regards inconsistencies. I tolerate the inconsistencies in group accounts because we are not perfect recording machines, but if the inconsistencies become too great, a judgement call has to be made. When that call is made is different for all of us depending on our levels of reasoning, prejudice and how much data is at one's disposal.

So what about Wetherell, Spurling and Egginton? In the case of rubber tubing and plastic wood, we assume Spurling is right as he used the material and Wetherell never asked him and guessed it was rubber when he inspected the submarine at the loch.

Egginton has Wilson stating it was a photographic overlay which makes one wonder how much Wilson was in on the details of the creation of the photo as his role was to hand in the final negatives to the chemist in Inverness and repeat the story given to him? There is a degree of compartmentalization amongst the participants in this story.

The discrepancy between Chambers developing the pictures or Wilson may be explained by Chambers (said to be a keen amateur photographer) developing the originals, checking they were up to the job and rephotographing them for development by Wilson in Inverness. Here we have two distinct but separate developments processes. 

The V-wake versus stationary object is on the face of it not resolvable. Either Wetherell made it up or he had an imperfect recall of events 41 years on and the same goes for the few versus twelve inches for the neck. Spurling must be more likely correct as he made it and Wetherell is again making it up or not recalling properly. Make up your own mind on these and weigh the pros against the cons.

However, there is no reason why someone (like Karl Shuker) should not stick to these objections as a basis for doubting the story behind the hoax. As Karl says, this may not preclude any hoax, but it would preclude this particular hoax story concerning a toy submarine and a moulded head-neck.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but the main reason for me why it is true is because three or more people have come forward claiming either direct participation in the hoax or hearing a confession to the deed. Despite the problems with points of testimony, this counts more for me than the finer details. If one person came forward and claimed they did it, I would be dubious about it. If they came forward, not claiming participation, but heard a confession, I would be even more dubious. But these three are separated in time and space. Egginton did not appear to know Wetherell or Spurling and Wetherell had died some years before Boyd and Martin met Spurling, so no chance of collusion or preparation.

That is the way I see it and that leaves us with the issue of the second photograph which is raised in objections to the hoax story. This is not a contradiction per se as no witness mentions it. To be frank, this doesn't surprise me as it never entered the public view until Constance Whyte published it in 1957, and even then, I am not sure it ever appeared in the newspapers.

Nevertheless, the photo exists and a satisfactory explanation for it, if one believes the main photo is a fake, is still beyond our grasp. The claimed differing head shape is not conclusive to me as it is a bit more blurred than the main one (see overlay above). The wave patterns are certainly different, indicating a sufficiently different time or place, unless a gust of wind opportunely came in to ruffle the waters. It is possible they are indeed pictures of the same object.

Boyd and Martin do not offer an explanation, but cast some doubt on the story of the chemist who developed the Wilson plates who claimed he kept the second photo after Wilson expressed no interest in it. Perhaps there is something there to explore, but currently there is no evidence to take it further and there we leave it.


Moving on from the current arguments for and against the Wetherell hoax, I thought I would take another look at the photograph itself and see if there were any clues in it. And why not? There have been plenty of opinions given as to what is visible in the picture beyond the main subject. These range from wires to seagulls to monster limbs to second animals. That is on top of the general views that the main object of interest is a bird, an otter's tail, a branch and so on. I was once told eyewitness testimonies were subjective but photographs were objective. The truth is more likely to be somewhere in between for both cases.

Like the three witnesses to the hoax, there may be three "witnesses" to where the photo was actually taken. So, there are three observations I wish to make which I may class as speculative or even deductive, but not perhaps empirical. The first concerns waves. Below is an uncropped version of the photo and below I add lines to give a clearer view of where the waves are coming from. They are coming in at a slight angle from the left. I estimate (in the absence of a protractor) about 5 degrees from the horizontal.

Now the thing to point out about Loch Ness is that the prevailing wind is from the south west as low pressure fronts from the Atlantic come in rotating anti-clockwise and air currents are forced through the funnel of the Great Glen complex. As the waves that are pushed north east by these winds travel up the loch, the waves weaken as they bend into the two shores along the loch until they roll onto the shore in a parallel fashion. I believe the waves we see coming in from the left in the photo are those weakening waves.

What has this to do with the Wilson monster debate? If Robert Wilson was near Invermoriston on the northern shore as he said, the photo would have the south on its right and the north on its left. Therefore, the prevailing south westerly wind would be coming in on the right and so would the waves they are pushing along. The main reason that they would be coming in from the left is because the photo was taken from the opposite shore where the south is to the left.

Of course, that cannot be presented as a cast iron argument. Perhaps there was some unusual wave generation going on due to boats or a rarer weather front coming in from the east. Perhaps one could even argue the photo is inadvertently reversed. I would deem it unlikely it was boats as Ian Wetherell and his co-conspirators would have sought a place where there was no one else around. However, on the balance of probabilities, the normal prevailing wind is causing those waves.

Now let me move onto the second observation. If the hilltops on the opposite shore had been visible, there would have been a good chance of establishing the general vicinity of the picture. Unfortunately, the hilltops are cropped out and it would be no surprise that this was the intention of Maurice Chambers. But there is a feature present that may offer help. It is the white line on the upper left of the photo above. 

It doesn't look like a stream or the main road which would be largely flat along that stretch, so what is it? With this in mind, I began to search through old photos and postcards for a feature that would match this. I searched both sides of the loch in this case and the best feature I came upon is best shown in this postcard from the 1950s (click on the image to enlarge it). Notice the line heading up at angle on the opposite shore on the right of the postcard. This was taken from a vantage point high up near the village of Foyers which is to the left and out of sight in the postcard. The land feature on the near side of the loch is the spit of land surrounding the estuary of the River Foyers. The old aluminium works is beyond the bottom left near the shore.

This would imply the photo was taken from the shore nearest to Foyers, somewhere near where its river empties into the loch. As to what the feature on the opposite side is, it may be a logging road or something similar, but that is secondary to the fact it is there and a good match for the Wilson photo feature. Now, I could be wrong and someone may come up with some other feature on an old photo, but let us carry this a bit further. A modern satellite picture shows the feature on the left (marked A) starting at the loch and rising into the hills.

Which leads me to the third and final observation. Ian Wetherell was quoted in the 1975 Mandrake article as saying:

We found an inlet where the tiny ripples would look like full size waves out on the loch.

If we draw a line across the loch from the track to Foyers where this feature would be to the left of the field of view, we do actually come to an inlet marked at B, one I have visited on many an occasion at the end of Foyers beach. Could this be the very location where the Surgeon's Photograph was taken those long years ago?

The proposed location obviously fits the prevailing waves theory I presented and it kind of fits in with what we know of the Wetherell expedition. When Marmaduke Wetherell was commissioned by the Daily Mail in December 1933, he started along the south shore going from Dores down to Fort Augustus, so he knew it was a quieter part of the loch and offered better spots to stage a later hoax with less likelihood of interference. In fact, Wetherell's infamous hippo tracks were made on a beach somewhere south of Foyers. Let us just say he was familiar with the area.

When the Wetherells headed to the loch with their toy monster weeks later, they sought that inlet to create the impression of a larger object. How that subplot panned out is not clear. There may be some others inlets around the Foyers river, but the further north you go, the closer you get to the busy aluminium works and the power station (though I suspect this happened on a Sunday). The fact that a water bailiff turned up (Alex Campbell?) suggests it was indeed near the river where anglers are more likely to fish and perhaps closer to April than January as the fishing season ramps up.

All speculation, of course, but food for thought. Eighty seven years on, I camp by the River Foyers once or twice a year and walk along that stretch of beach to its very south end, watching the loch, enjoying the views, contemplating various things. Could it be that yards away, the minuscule remains of a toy submarine with a plastic wood neck now lie amongst the rocks and pebbles, beyond detection but still causing a controversy which echoes down the decades even unto this day?

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