News from the Depth of the Loch

January 01, 1994

Cutting Scotland in two, from the Moray Firth in the northeast to Loch Linnhe in the southwest, is a gash in the land filled with peaty water. Canals dug after the last Highland rising make it an unbroken waterway from the North Sea to the Atlantic, letting in the occasional stray aquatic animal from a saltier habitat.

In the center, between Inverness and Fort Augustus, is a long, narrow, deep lake. The water is brown from the peat, impenetrable to the eye. This is Loch Ness. Where myths from time immemorial tell of monsters. Where the Inverness Chronicle in 1868 reported the sighting of a huge fish. Where imagination has placed a remnant of aquatic dinosaurs, resembling either medieval woodcuts of sea serpents or three seals in single file. Where the local industry is tourism based on the search for the Loch Ness Monster, or Nessie.

Serious folk are sucked in. The New York Times sponsored a sonar search a few years back, and stationed a science writer on a pier for the summer (a good assignment, if you like haggis and black pudding). On the northwest side of the lake is a cheap cafe, small hotel, gift shop and a museum of monster sightings. This is Drumnadrochit, seething heart of the quest for Nessie. The best place for sightings: Castle Urquhart, a picturesque ruin on the shore a mile below Drumnadrochit. If you miss Nessie, you have at least climbed all over the marvelous Castle Urquhart.

Now a monster hunter named Adrian Shine, who has exploited the Loch Ness myth for decades, has completed a search of the loch by reputable scientists who were not hunting an elusive large animal but studying the ecology. Their scientific papers conclude the sparse fish in the lake could not sustain a colony of large predators numerous enough to be viable. The existence of unknown large fauna is improbable. Mr. Shine thinks that most sightings are boat wakes and some may be misguided sturgeon from the North Sea.

Still, on a gloomy, overcast, windy day with the mist whipping your face, with RAF fighters roaring down the glen on training runs, standing on Castle Urquhart, staring long enough at the choppy water, you will see a shadow, a form, a flashing something, and then it is gone. Keep staring. It will return, a little further out.

Mere science and probability cannot kill Nessie. As long as there are questioning, probing, restless young minds -- unwilling to accept uncritically on mere faith the nonexistence of a large animal posited by unthinking adults -- a wisp of hope remains. Surely, more investigation is needed.

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