Thursday 13 June 2024

Fordyce's Monster walks over Sceptical Theory


When examining the techniques used by sceptics in debunking claimed eyewitness account, there are at least four major factors involved in this process:

  1. The involvement of known objects and effects in and around Loch Ness.
  2. The imperfections of human observation and recall.
  3. The role of dishonesty and exaggeration up to hoaxing.
  4. The psychological factor of expectation.

These combine into a general theory that all observations are misperceived objects whose description is exaggerated by one or more of the three factors in the list. The exception is when someone fabricates the entire incident and no misperception is required. It is fascinating to note that almost everything that has ever been near the loch (apart from maybe the insects) has been used as an explanation for what people claimed to have seen.

Indeed, a published list of explanations for monster sightings cites twenty-two natural and man-made items that occur around the loch. I am sure that is just the minimum and indeed new explanations can be manufactured by grouping individual explanations together (for example, "otter" and "mirage" have been combined to provide the explanation for an apparently oversized animal). 

Now there is no problem in employing the basic premises of this theory and researchers who believe in the existence of large animals in Loch Ness have used them to assess and filter out inferior testimonies from the very start of the phenomenon back in the 1930s. What is not acceptable is the misuse of the theory and this is because practical applications of it can run into their own issues of objective versus subjective analysis, skewed by bias.

Such applications stretch credibility to the breaking point and we find their explanations almost as lacking in credibility as the monster scenario they attempt to explain. However, one recent application seems to have rendered one of the four factors irrelevant. Last week, the Loch Ness Exploration Facebook group posted a rather nice rendition of the Fordyce Monster shown at the top of this article. I covered this story in my book, "When Monsters Come Ashore" and part of Lieutenant McP Fordyce's original account from The Scots Magazine of June 1990 is reproduced below:

The following morning we set off on our journey back to England. The weather was fine, a beautiful spring day, and we had a lovely run by the side of Loch Ness as far as Foyers where we spent a short while admiring the famous waterfall. Shortly after leaving Foyers, the road to Fort William turns away from the lochside and runs through well-wooded country with the ground falling slightly towards the loch.

Travelling at about 25 mph in this wooded section, we were startled to see an enormous animal coming out of the woods on our left and making its way over the road about 150 yards ahead of us towards the loch. It had the gait of an elephant, but looked like a cross between a very large horse and a camel, with a hump on its back and a small head on a long neck. I stopped the car and followed the creature on foot for a short distance.

From the rear it looked grey and shaggy. Its long, thin neck gave it the appearance of an elephant with its trunk raised. Unfortunately, I had left my camera in the car, but in any case I quickly thought discretion the better part of valour and returned to the vehicle. This strange animal occupied our thoughts and conversation for many, many miles and we came to the conclusion that it was an escaped freak from a menagerie or zoo. We felt that a beast of such tremendous proportions would soon be tracked down and captured.

The original sketch of the creature in the 1990 article is shown below. Now this account also presents a problem to believers in a large aquatic creature for obvious reasons. Whatever Fordyce saw bears little resemblance to a creature equipped to live in a large body of water like Loch Ness. Nevertheless, this does not give the green light to accept any explanation for what he saw and everything has to be examined.

So when this new artwork appeared, arch-sceptic, Dick Raynor repeated his theory on this story saying:

The sketch was made from a verbal description of an oblique hind view of whatever crossed the road 150 yards ahead of their car, not a side view as in the sketch. The description has all the key hallmarks of a deer carcass being transported by a pony fitted with a deer saddle. Red deer cannot be legally shot in April so the local worthy leading the pony would be keen to avoid scrutiny.

When I challenged this opinion, Dick posted to my own Facebook group with some other interspersed observations:

I have never suggested a stag on a deer saddle as an explanation for any other incident near Loch Ness, so I don't see it as a "usual sceptical explanation", neither have I suggested that the witness was drunk, or a complete idiot. Those are your words. I partially agree that he was a good distance away from it, but more importantly he was seeing something totally novel to him, so it was impossible for him to 'recognise' it. With my background and experience, I can recognise the described activity from his own narrative, and I think he would welcome it.

Ah, big sigh! This is the correct way, and to spell it out in simple terms for Nessie-huggers the chap leading the pony/horse with a deer saddle would be out of sight to an observer behind or to the right of the activity. Another land sighting bites the dust, I'm afraid. (In the real world)

After a very busy day driving 130 miles south to Inverness, I am so pleased that you have posted a query involving a 6-legged Fordyce creature, which L McP Fordyce should have reported. This was answered more than a day ago on other FB groups, and explains from which side horses and ponies are led and why the other legs have been seen . Thank you. Go look at the snaps again.

So, Dick posted some photos of dead deer on ponies being led by someone. Dick wished to emphasise that the person would be leading the pony from its left hand side and thus the person would somehow not be visible to Fordyce driving towards the other side of the pony if it and owner were crossing the road towards the River Foyers.

Let's unpack this theory unveiling a progression of layers of complexity which are added to save this theory from being binned. So the basic theory is that Fordyce thought he saw a giant, black hairy "camel" cross the road ahead of him but it was actually a man leading a pony with a dead deer on its back.

Objection 1: Fordyce should have seen the man leading the pony.

Add layer of complexity 1: No, the man would always be obscured by the pony.

Reality Check 1: It did not take long to find photos which contradicted this argument. In fact, I only needed to go to one website, In these images the person would not have the pony between him and Fordyce. In other words, not hard to miss. Given how easy it was to find these images, one could assume that Dick was only interested in finding images which fitted his theory. I would also point out that the pony does not totally obscure the taller person even if in Dick's favoured position.

Objection 2: As you can see from all these pony and deer photos, they are out on the moors where the deer are, but this "pony" is coming out of forest, crossing the road to where the River Foyers is and onto Loch Ness. Why?

Add layer of complexity 2: The man was poaching deer because it was not hunting season and so had to take a sneaky route.

Reality Check 2: So where exactly was this incorrigible local and his heavily laden pony heading? A look at an ordnance survey map of the time raises an issue. The River Foyers bisects the image below from top to bottom. Once they cross the river, there is either more forest or its all uphill towards Loch Ness with several hills hundreds of feet high with a precipitous drop down to the loch beyond. If I was poaching, I would just wait till nightfall and take a more sensible route.

Objection 3: In general, perceiving a pony carrying a dead deer as a giant, black hairy "camel" makes no sense from any perspective.

Add layer of complexity 3: Fordyce "was seeing something totally novel to him, so it was impossible for him to 'recognise' it." which (somehow) transformed it into a freak monster.

Reality Check 3: Leaving aside the question of why Fordyce's wife also saw what he saw, why wouldn't Fordyce figure out it was a pony carrying a deer with a man leading? Dick quotes Fordyce saying "from the rear it looked grey and shaggy." but interprets that to mean Fordyce never saw the beast fully side on. This is not correct. Fordyce said it crossed the road in front of them but then got out the car and pursued the beast on foot, only to then say it presented a rear view.

For the two statements to be consistent, he first saw it side on from the car as it crossed the road but by the time he had finished his approach on foot, it had crossed the river and was now walking away from him full rear view. That would then allow Fordyce to see the alleged owner if he had not seen him earlier. Therefore, Dick is forced to posit an oblique rear view to keep his proposed human out of sight.

Was the sight of a pony carrying a deer so "novel" to Fordyce that he utterly failed to process what he was seeing? Break this down into its constituent parts. Would he had been flummoxed by an unburdened pony crossing the road? I doubt it. Add the owner leading it. Would confusion reign? Not likely as Dick claims the person was out of sight. Add some load onto the pony like some bags. Was it now "impossible to recognise"? I will go out on a limb here and suggest Fordyce had seen beasts of burden carrying loads before. Replace the bags with a dead stag. Now Fordyce is thrown into a state of confusion. Convinced? I am not and the burden of proof definitely does not lie on this side of that debate.


But still there is the unanswered question of why Lt. McP Fordyce would mistake a pony carrying a deer for a bizarre, giant camel-like creature. Well, the usual answer is the fourth item in our list - the psychological factor of expectation. This piece of psychology takes on magical properties in the hands of sceptics as normal objects such as boats, branches, dogs, birds, waves, otters, insects, canoes, buoys, seals, swimmers, rubbish and pipes bamboozle people into thinking they just saw an enormous creature. If they saw the same things in Loch Lomond, Loch Tay or Loch Rannoch then they usually wouldn't give them a second glance. But according to debunkers, some magical mist descends on visitors as soon as they reach Loch Ness turning them into incompetent observers.

As I said above, the theory is true as far as it goes and is usually reserved for instances where the amount of visual information is limited by time, distance, rain, mist, etc. Somebody claiming to see a large hump at one mile away for two seconds in driving rain is not going to get much attention. But here was Lt. McP Fordyce and another witness on a fine day at 150 yards and decreasing. Whatever you may think of his unusual description, the creature was Nessie-like from the top half up - long neck, small head, dark in colour and a humped back. So you would say it is a candidate for a bit of Nessie Expectation reimagining and that is what Dick has done.

Right? Wrong!

Fordyce says two important things:

In April 1932 while living in Kent, my ļ¬ancee and l travelled to Aberdeen to attend a family wedding. ... At the time of the sighting we were quite unaware of there being anything strange in Loch Ness ...

You only need to know two words here - "April" and "1932". It would be over a year before stories of large creature in Loch Ness appeared and took hold of the public imagination. The Aldie Mackay story was print locally in May 1933 and it gained UK interest around September 1933 or 17 months later. So there was no "Nessie Expectation" psychology to floor eyewitnesses because there was no "Nessie" in the mind for any alleged psychology to play with. A pony carrying a dead stag would have no more effect on him that one seen near any other loch.

Yet Dick treats this sighting as if it happened a year or two later and applies the theory nonetheless. After all, Fordyce mentioned a long neck and hump! What is the conclusion of this surprise methodology? I would say it implies that a number of sceptics don't believe the theory either, else they wouldn't be retro-fitting it to pre-1933 accounts. It is just another means to an end in the mission to debunk all and every account of that most inconvenient monster.

But where does this leave Nessie believers? The account of a Nessie but with long legs and a shaggy hide is also a tad inconvenient - depending on what you think the creature is. It doesn't exactly fit the giant eel theory, for example. In fact, one may be tempted to erase it by taking Dick up on his offer, but his alternative explanation isn't solid enough. So what does one do? Assume Fordyce made it all up? That is the easy option and requires about zero intellectual effort. 

Strangely though, it is not the only member of this camel-like genre, as seasoned fans will be aware of the MacGruer land sighting from about 1919 where the creature was described thus:

Asked to describe the creature he had seen, Mr Wm. Macgruer, Oich Bank, Fort-Augustus (who was one of the children concerned), said that it reminded himself and the others of nothing so much as a camel. It had a long neck, a small head, a humped-up back, and fairly long legs. It was, however, considerably smaller than a camel, but its skin or coat was almost the same colour - pale yellow.

Two similar accounts from between the two world wars, but nothing I am aware of since. How many are required to take this genre seriously? Not enough as it stands I would say. One other option I favour is the matter of time. I mentioned time under observation was a factor in ranking a report but time between observation and recording it is also a factor. Unless an observation is recorded as close to the time of the encounter as possible, the memory of it will fade, even accounting for the fact that such an event imprints itself deeper into the memory. That fading will depend on the individual, but in the case of Lt. McP Fordyce, the gap is over sixty years. 

But by how much would recall of this unusual event degrade between 1932 and 1990? If you are into your 70s, 80s or 90s, you may be able to answer that question better than I could. Or did the subsequent flood of stories from 1933 onwards colour the memory of what he saw? Apparently not much, if at all, considering the non-standard nature of the description. What is certain is that he saw something with his Nessie-free mind that jolted him and his wife. 

When I first covered this account in 2013, I did consider the escaped camel theory where one of the darker haired species of dromedary somehow escaped from one of the visiting zoos to Inverness or even from a nearby private menagerie. I discounted it as a most improbable event which was not even reported by any newspaper I could find and Fordyce would probably have figured out it was a camel anyway. However, his stated forbearance to not get too close to the creature suggests it was no more than camel-like in his mind.

Fordyce himself though the creature he saw was amphibious but frequented the nearby  Monadhliath mountains. I am not aware of any other stories from that region corroborating such a creature. We have a description of a creature which is too Nessie-like to be other animals but not Nessie-like enough to be  the aquatic creature which occupies the main debate. For me, this creature, whatever its actual objective form was, remains a non-Nessie creature, until someone comes up with some theory that does adequate justice to the integrity of the two Fordyces as eyewitnesses.

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