Monday 30 January 2023

The 1880s Diver Incident - Evolution of a Story

What diver Duncan MacDonald saw under the waters of Loch Ness has fascinated researchers for decades since the story came to light in the Nessie "era" (i.e. 1933 to the present day). I have mentioned it before, mainly in the context of some other divers stories and would like to give it a fuller treatment here. Certainly, I would say that alongside land sightings, this genre of sighting is the most intriguing class of eyewitness reports and the rarest of all. I think most fans of the mystery would have been introduced to the story via the pages of Nicholas Witchell's book, "The Loch Ness Story" which related it thusly:

An experience by another MacDonald in 1880 was of an altogether different nature and terrifying in the extreme. As a diver, Duncan MacDonald was sent down to investigate a ship that had sunk in the Caledonian Canal entrance at Fort Augustus. Not long after, he sent urgent signals on his line to be immediately brought back to the surface. 

Shaking and ashen faced, he refused to say what he had seen for several days. When he had sufficiently composed himself, he told the tale of how he had seen a “very odd looking beastie ... like a huge frog” lying on the rock ledge where the wreck was lodged as he examined its hull. He refused to ever dive in the loch again though it would appear this encounter was where Loch Ness ends and the canal begins.

The account has been mentioned in other books, though the rather un-plesiosaurian description of the strange beast perhaps restrained its use in other publications of the time. Furthermore, I see no mention of it in the earlier works of Gould and Whyte, though it is very likely that they knew about it. The story is still repeated in our time such as Paul Harrison's entry for MacDonald in his "Encyclopedia of the Loch Ness Monster" which recounts:

Curious tale of a diving incident said to have taken place in 1880. MacDonald was a diver sent to examine a sunken ship off the Fort Augustus entrance to the Caledonian Canal. He entered the water and was lowered into the murky depths where the wreck lay, but within a few minutes he signalled to his team on the surface to pull him clear. When he reached the surface MacDonald was pulled from the water a ‘gibbering wreck’, his face as white as chalk. His service crew could make no sense of his ramblings, but he eventually told how he had been examining the keel of the ship when he suddenly noticed a large animal lying on the shelf of rock where the ship was lodged. He claimed it was ‘an odd looking beastie’, almost like a huge frog. It is said that MacDonald never dived in Loch Ness again.

Likewise, it has been covered in Malcolm Robinson's "The Monsters of Loch Ness" (2016) and my own book, "The Water Horses of Loch Ness" (2011). But what prompted this article was another recounting of this tale some years before in the letter column to the Fishing Gazette in early 1955. This was written under the pseudonym of "Vera Cruz", which apparently was the name of a popular Burt Lancaster Western film at the time. The relevant section says:

Many years ago I was intrigued by a story that a diver employed by the Caledonian Canal authorities used to tell. He was sent down in Loch Ness to examine the hull of a herring drifter (a wooden boat) that had run on some sunken reefs at a place called "Johnnie's Point," well known to salmon anglers from all over Britain. He came up in double quick time, and when the face-plate of his helmet was removed he was asked what went wrong.

"Wrong?" he said, "I got the fright of my life down there, and won't go back for love or money." Pressed to state exactly what had frightened him he replied: "Well, down there on a ledge just aside where the keel is resting, I saw the most horrible looking beast I ever set eyes on. It glared at me with two wicked-looking eyes, and was yellowish in colour and not unlike a big frog. If you don't believe me," he added, "go down and see for yourself." There were no takers, and that ship lay there for years and rotted away. 

I thought for a time I had found the earliest recounting of this tale, but Karl Shuker's article on this matter in his ShukerNature blog shows that this was not the case. Going back to Witchell, Peter Costello had coincidentally published his book, "In Search of Lake Monsters", about the same time in 1974 and gives an even briefer account of this incident:

An item in the Northern Chronicle on January 31, 1934, claimed that 45 to 50 years before, a diver investigating a small ship which had sunk off Johnnies Point, while down about 30 feet, saw on a ledge “a queer looking beast, which he described as something in the nature of a huge frog”. It was as big as a goat or a wedder, and just stared at him with neither fear nor ferocity. (This story came from the divers grand-nephew, Donald Frazer, lock-keeper at Fort Augustus.)

The oldest account is in that 1934 edition of the Northern Chronicle and cryptozoologist Richard Muirhead had managed to track it down for Karl and publish it online for the first time. This is the primary source and hence the most important document in this analysis. The relevant text is reproduced below.

Some forty-five to fifty years ago a small sailing vessel carrying a cargo of guano, when making the passage through Loch Ness, struck a submerged reef known as "Johnnie's Point," and sank, fortunately without loss of life. The mishap occurred during the night, and when dawn broke it was seen that the tops of the masts were still above water. Realising that the vessel might be raised, a squad of men was quickly on the scene, and chains were passed underneath the hulk.

But ere the job was completed the action of the water suddenly dislodged the craft, and she vanished into the depths. Still hoping to salve the wreck, the owner secured the services of Mr Duncan Macdonald, a noted diving expert, who was at the time employed at the Crinan Canal. Mr Macdonald duly arrived, and it was from the Caledonian Canal Company's diving-barge that he carried out operations.

After having made a descent of thirty feet, Mr Macdonald signalled that he wished to come up, and, on being questioned as to whether there was any sign of the ship, he said there was none. From this it was obvious that further attempts would be useless, so he was undressed, and the party prepared to make for Fort-Augustus, their headquarters. Now one man in the party, having heard stories of a strange creature which was said to live in the loch, began to question the diver. The latter, however, was at first rather diffident about taking any part in the conversation.

Yet, since the others knew that anything he might tell them would be perfectly true, they persisted, and finally the diver said that he saw a strange creature that day. It lay, he said, on a ledge of rock, on the self-same ledge, apparently, on which the keel of the wrecked vessel had rested, about thirty feet down. There, he continued, lay a queer-looking beast, which he described as something in the nature of a huge frog.

It stared at him, but, as it showed neither ferocity nor fear, he did not disturb it. In his own words he "saw that the beast made no effort to interfere with me, and I did not interfere with it." As to size, the diver said the creature was "as big as a goat, or a good wedder [Scots dialect word for a castrated male sheep]." The story, exactly as given, was told by Mr Donald Fraser, lock-keeper, Fort Augustus, who often heard the diver (his own grand-uncle) tell it many years ago.

There is a lot more in this than any other of the subsequent retakes which leads us to the first observation regarding a canard of the sceptical variety. It is often said by those seeking to discredit such reports that writers on the Loch Ness phenomenon, be they journalists, book authors or article writers, had jazzed things up a bit. Indeed, exaggerating things up to the point of grievous bodily harm. 

Now there is truth in that, but not to the degree that is claimed which makes it a half truth. Quite often a half truth can be more damaging that an outright fabrication, if you know half of what is said is true, then why not the rest? But the argument is more nuanced than that and certainly not all writers should be dragged down to the same level, as is the case when all eyewitnesses are also dismissed as ineffective observers.

In fact, the group of writers here can be assembled and analysed to look for what may be called the "evolution" of the story, though it may be more of a devolution. I first attempted this form of "textual criticism" in my booklet on the 1973 Richard Jenkyns story. Basically, you take a set of documents related to a common subject and attempt to create a relational tree with the original event at the top, branching out to the most recent versions.

Now as those familiar with this historical discipline in reconstructing far more older texts will know, changes can be introduced as time goes on and copies are made and copies of the copies are made. At the top lies the so called autograph which is the original account. For our purposes, that would be the retelling of the account by Duncan MacDonald to his grand-nephew, Donald Fraser. That may have been written down near the time of the incident or just orally transmitted, which going by the 1934 newspaper article occurred no earlier than 1884 to 1889.

When did Donald Fraser get to hear about it? One can only make an educated guess, but if he was a grand-nephew, there could be sixty years between their births and if diving required a fit man in his 30s to 40s, then Duncan MacDonald was likely born in the 1850s and so Donald Fraser was born just after the turn of the century and could have begun hearing from his grand-uncle in the 1910s or a thirty year gap.

Then we have a further gap to the Northern Chronicle piece in 1934 when written records begin. Tracking the differences between texts can give us a clearer picture of how the events in different accounts can vary by the deletion, addition or alteration of words and phrases. Similarities between accounts can also indicate from what preceding accounts a newer account may have been most influenced by. Cross comparing accounts led me to create this relational chart.

Compiling a table of similarities and dissimilarites between accounts leads to some deductions. The Northern Chronicle account is the best account as it is said to be "exactly as given" by Donald Fraser. It is still more than likely that some minor errors occurred as the journalist cleaned up the original transcript for publication. Some unintentional misspellings may have slipped in and some items were omitted for the sake of brevity. 

In fact, we see this in Peter Costello's rendering of the account where, even though he must have had the original Northern Chronicle account in front of him, manages to change "Fraser" to "Frazer". I suspect that was an unintentional cultural slip as Frazer is a more common rendition of the name outside Scotland. Otherwise, the only things of note are the inevitable omissions as Costello edits it down to a smaller account. What remains is consistent with the original.

Karl Shuker derives his text direct from the Northern Chronicle and presumably reproduces the entire account verbatim without error as I have not seen the original clipping. However, most of the action is on the other side of the graph beginning with "Vera Cruz". He or she says that that they were intrigued by a story a diver used to tell without saying who told them. Their account differs mainly in the dramatic effect that has been added. The diver now comes up rapidly in a frightened state who won't go back into the loch for love nor money.

Three details are added or changed to the description of the "big frog". One is anthropomorphic as the human attribute of wickedness is used to describe the gaze of the creature. The creature goes from queer looking to most horrible. The more important addition is found nowhere else in which the creature is described as "yellowish". What more can be deduced? How about the fact that the identity of "Vera Cruz"  is none other than the well known monster man and water bailiff, Alex Campbell. This is clear when the anonymous letter says:

I was the person responsible for bringing this strange creature (through the medium of the Press) to light, as it were, away back in May 1933.

This tells us a few things (apart from Alex liking cowboy films). Firstly, that as a resident of Fort Augustus, Campbell would have been well acquainted with Fraser as the local lock keeper and it is a reasonable conclusion that Fraser told the story directly to Campbell. I would guess they would be men of a similar age as well, though one cannot discount entirely that Campbell may have talked to Duncan MacDonald himself, but that depends on when MacDonald passed away.

In that light, it is also a safe assumption that Campbell was the source for Witchell's account. I say that because of the way Witchell diverges from the Northern Chronicle and converges to Campbell. For example, Witchell places the incident in 1880, when the Northern Chronicle places it at least four years later. Witchell also repeats the terrified response of Campbell's account while the Chronicle does not. He also repeats the vow of MacDonald never to go back as does Campbell, while the Chronicle does not. Likewise, the Vera Cruz line of accounts all state he was examining the boat while the Northern Chronicle states the boat was no longer there.

However, Witchell omits the yellowish colour of the Vera Cruz letter. Either Campbell or Witchell could have omitted that detail.  Witchell also contradicts Vera Cruz in saying MacDonald recounted the experience after several days while Vera Cruz says it was immediate. Also, Witchell gets the location completely wrong, it was not at the loch entrance to the canal, it was at Johnnie's Point which is about half a mile up the north shore from Cherry Island and over a mile and a half away from the canal entrance as the crow flies (see map further down).

However, since there was nearly twenty years between the Vera Cruz and Witchell accounts, it is not clear whether Campbell had changed anything or Witchell when they talked. It is likely to be a combination of the two. My own speculation is that if Witchell had said "Johnnie's Point" in the account to a general readership, they would have had no idea where that was. When Witchell asked Campbell where it was and he said near the canal entrance, I suspect a misunderstanding over how far or close "near" was came about.

Whatever happened, Witchell's account became the de facto account for years. As mentioned, future writers such as myself, Malcolm Robinson and Paul Harrison used it. Did that new layer of transmission lead to any further alterations? The answer is yes. Harrison increases the drama of the event by describing MacDonald as a "gibbering wreck" and "his face as white as chalk" and his colleagues "could not make sense of his ramblings". All of this is embellishment for dramatic effect and unlike the more quiet and diffident figure of the Northern Chronicle account.

Malcolm Robinson is truer to the Witchell text and only makes one change when the "several days" of Witchell becomes "seven days". This looks more like a typo than an attempt to pin down the actual number of days. I just looked at the text I transmitted in my own book and it is a basically a requote of Witchell's text.

Where does this leave us? The fact that texts can alter as they are re-expressed in later documents is a given fact of general history and certainly in this story as well. The most noticeable change concerns not the creature but the man himself where there is an increasing dramatisation of his reaction from a near silence to a gibbering wreck. The difference in location is also apparent and there are variations in when he told all. The only real variation in the beast itself is the addition by Campbell of its yellowish colour. It is impossible to tell whether this was told to Campbell by Fraser or was a later embellishment. 

In the light of claims that monster stories get distorted out of all proportion, this would not apply to this account (as was discovered with the Jenkyns account). The real essence of the story across all the documents is pretty much preserved. Namely, that some time in the 1880s, a ship sailing through Loch Ness struck underwater reefs and sank somewhere near Fort Augustus. A diver by the name of Duncan MacDonald was sent down to inspect the vessel. He signaled in a short time that he wished to be brought back up where he then told of seeing a strange looking beast sitting on the ledge beside the vessel. He described it as looking like a huge frog.

That is it and with that in mind, one can begin to look at the account with a greater degree of confidence. The only question that could be raised is the matter of forty five to fifty years. Duncan MacDonald may have passed on his story to his grand-nephew perhaps twenty or so years after the incident. What effect would this time gap have on his powers of recall? Likewise, a similar time may have passed between Fraser receiving the story and passing it on to the Northern Courier. The same question of memory recall can be applied to him.

In regard to Duncan MacDonald, if he did see such a creature underwater, there can be no doubt it would leave a powerful impression upon him, the kind of impact that lays deep tracks in the memory of a man and are not easily forgotten. Think back yourselves to major incidents in your own lives decades ago and how these things linger long in the memory as opposed to mundane events such as what you had for breakfast twenty years ago. In that light, I would expect MacDonald to recall and recount the incident in all its major points, right up to the end of his life or when his faculties began to seriously diminish with age.

But what about Donald Fraser? He would not have been as impacted by the story as he was not down there looking at the beast with all the fears and concerns that such a thing would arouse. Nevertheless, the retelling a such a spooky story to a young person would leave an impression and when it was reinforced with the retelling over the years. In that regard, one would see the link from Donald Fraser to his listeners in the 1930s as the weakest link. The problem is we do not know how weak it may be and it is really down to the reader to form their own opinion on that.

So looking at the account itself, we would mainly focus on the Northern Courier report. The likely location is within the area marked with an ellipse on the map of south Loch Ness. The circle to the left is the area wrongly implied in the accounts springing from the Witchell text. Along this line there are indeed hazardous shallow points where boats can run aground. In fact, the general advice to vessels is not to go within 300 metres of the Loch Ness shoreline. 

I am not aware of any contemporary record of a vessel sinking in that area in the 1880s, though records of others are available, such as the schooner "Margaret Wilson" which sank in 1861 just up the loch at Port Clair with a similar cargo of guano fertilizer worth £1400 (or about £125,000 in today's money). The Merchant Shipping Act of 1854 required all ship losses to be officially recorded, so a deposition by the captain was made and mentioned in the Inverness Courier. There should be a similar record for our boat and a search of the appropriate shipping register may be appropriate to this end.

Now when such diving accounts are found, the first thing that should spring to mind is the viewing conditions underwater. As we know, the peat stained waters of the loch make viewing more difficult. The account states the diver as being at a depth of thirty feet when he encountered the creature. How good is viewing at ten metres down? That depends on a number of factors, such as the diver's eyesight, how far away the creature was, what lighting aids he had, how strong the sun was and how settled the silt was. 

With those factors in mind, I looked around at the various stories of people diving in the loch and I think he could have had visibility up to 20 feet away. That is not much distance between you and a strange looking creature. As to the actual description, there is not a lot to go on. It was lying on the same shelf of rock the boat had been, it was staring at him, it was like a frog in appearance, it appeared to be placid and perhaps motionless, it was as big as a sheep or goat and may have been yellowish in colour.

Run your mind through the classic representations of the Loch Ness Monster and a frog like creature the size of a goat does not readily spring to mind. What was it that made Duncan MacDonald liken it to a frog? Was it the posture, the wide mouth, the colour or the large eyes that we normally associate with a frog? Since the creature was portrayed as lying down rather than sitting up like a frog, we may exclude that.

The colour described as "yellowish" by Alex Campbell does not sound very frog-like. One wonders if the peat stained water which has its own yellowish hue may have contributed to the perception of colour? In fact, the only physical characteristic mentioned are the eyes. If the creature was staring at him, that would suggest the stereoscopic eyes of a predator. The fact that he could see the eyes does not necessarily imply they were as big as a frog. 

Maybe we just go literal and say this was a frog the size of a goat? Well, we know the Goliath Frog can grow up to 12 inches long and even comes in a yellowish colour. Then there was the extinct Devil Frog which may have added another 4 inches to that length. Ordinary frogs or toads have been photographed in Loch Ness, but one cannot quite see how these tropical frogs could make it to the loch let alone reach the size of a goat.

One could speculate that the diver was just looking at the front head of the Loch Ness Monster looking at him but the rest of the long body was lying on the rock shelf and just vanished into the peaty darkness beyond his limited visibility? Perhaps, but Karl Shuker offered one theory that is interesting and suggests that Duncan MacDonald met a Silurus Glanis or Wels Catfish. This is based on the idea that the face of a catfish has a frog like look to it with that wide mouth shown below.

Indeed, as you can see in the picture, some catfish can be leucistic or lacking skin pigmentation to give that yellowish look further accentuated by the aforementioned peaty water. Though this condition is rare in nature, it is possible one left in the dark waters of the loch could lose their pigmentation over time. The eyes are not affected by this and so would appear more pronounced against the lighter skin. Now though I do not think the Loch Ness Monster is a Wels Catfish, that does not preclude the idea that someone dumped one or two in the loch back in Victorian times. I quoted such an instance of British introduction in an older article where a book from 1853 states:

Through the indefatigable exertions of Mr. George D. Berney, of Morton, Norfolk, the silurus was last year introduced into England, and consequently is now included in our Fauna.

However, Loch Ness is too cold for catfish to breed and so the likelihood of a viable breeding population is small. Nevertheless, perhaps the original individual(s) could have lingered for a number of years finally to be seen in their underwater abode by a diver - and before the Loch Ness Monster grabbed them for a snack (lol!). One may think it unlikely that our diver would bump into one or two catfish in a body of water as big as Loch Ness, but perhaps all that lovely guano attracted the fish which have a very well developed sense of smell?

So much for speculation. Was it the Loch Ness Monster, a Wels Catfish, an illusion seen through hazy waters or something else entirely? Whatever the solution, tales of divers encountering large unknown creatures in dark waters has all the ingredients for a visceral tale.

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