Monster Tales

Scotland: Is there a 'lady of the lake' lurking beneath the murky waters of Loch Ness? Maybe it doesn't matter.

Cover Story

April 02, 2000|By William Triplett

Say what you want about the Loch Ness monster, but it knows a thing or two about the importance of location, location, location.

The majority of the roughly 1,000 documented sightings have occurred amid the creepy ruins of Urquhart Castle. The decaying stone edifice, which looks as if it's been slowly crumbling since it was enlarged in the 16th century, sits atop a promontory on the northern banks of Loch Ness and overlooks its deepest point -- some 800 feet.

The surrounding hillsides of the Scottish Highlands, under windy, gray skies, are dark and foreboding even at midday. The loch itself is so full of peat around here that visibility underwater is less than a yard.

"So, have you seen it?"

That's my friend asking the cashier in the Urquhart Castle gift shop about the legendary monster, affectionately known in these parts as Nessie.

"We're not supposed to say," comes the reply.

"Aw, come on. Have you seen it?"

A pause, a glance to the side, and then: "Yeah. Once. At night."

Sounds good enough to me. Then again, I believe every "X-Files" episode I've ever seen. In the interest of good investigative journalism, I decide to get another source.

Not far up the road lies the town of Drumnadrochit, home to not one but two Nessie museums, both of which are open 365 days a year. Outside one of the museums is a long, narrow pool, looking suspiciously like a miniature Loch Ness. In the middle of it stands a model of the "lady of the lake." (Another nickname. How they know it's female is yet another mystery.)

Based on sightings, the model looks like a cross between a brontosaur and a tortoise -- the head and neck of the former attached to the shell-less body of the latter. She's a little green here, a little brown there, and decidedly prehistoric, what with her reptilian skin and all.

In one of the gift shops, I wend my way past Nessie T-shirts, Nessie coffee mugs, Nessie golf caps, Nessie key chains, Nessie playing cards, Nessie ashtrays, until I spot Nessie refrigerator magnets. I buy one. And on my way out I stop to talk with shop assistant Joyce Thompson.

"So, have you seen it?"

"Yeah," she says. "I'm its mother."

This is probably not true.

"No," she finally confesses, "I haven't seen it. But I do believe."

"How about you?" I ask the younger man standing next to her, a tour bus driver by the name of Billy Hardy, who ferries more than a dozen bus loads of the curious to the loch every day. "You believe it?"

Indeed he does, though, like Thompson, he has yet to see it.

How can they be so sure?

Well, there are all those eyewitness accounts, of course. But the clincher: Last year in an old abbey at the far end of the loch a set of monks' diaries were found.

"They'd been recording monthly sightings from the bell tower as far back as the early 19th century," Hardy says.

Would monks lie? Or collectively hallucinate? I brood over this while I'm in the museum men's room, which has Nessie silhouettes (trademarked) painted on the tiles. I'm still brooding when I leave and walk past a concession stand. Would I like a "Monster Coffee," as the sign offers? I think not.

Is there a Loch Ness monster? If there is, it needs an agent. But despite the numerous eyewitness accounts, which began in the 6th century and have all described essentially the same thing, conclusive proof remains elusive. Not that people haven't tried -- using everything from cheap cameras to sophisticated electronic equipment.

There have been a number of hoaxes along the way, most involving faked photographs. But there have also been several technological findings, like peculiar sonar images from the deeper parts of the lake, that remain unexplained. And the most famous photograph -- taken by a vacationing doctor in 1934, showing the neck and head of a dinosaur-like figure rising out of the water -- has yet to be fully debunked.

So why not find out for oneself? After all, the loch lies just southwest of Inverness in the Highlands, an area of uncommon beauty. Rugged hillsides, some embedded with slabs of exposed rock, alternate with wide swaths of loamy, green earth. Thick vegetation crops up in intermittent patches, usually between forests of towering Caledonian Scotch pines.

Then there's the heather -- everywhere, it seems -- botanical evidence that even Mother Nature pays attention to Martha Stewart. The plant's earthy browns, grays and greens laced with streaks of pale lavender couldn't be more color-coordinated if they tried.

The air is clear and crisp. The skies are always either ominously overcast or brilliantly sunlit. And amid all this is Loch Ness, a 24-mile-long, mile-wide trench holding the largest amount of fresh water in the entire United Kingdom (that much has been conclusively proved).

If that's not enough, the Culloden battlefield is within 30 minutes' drive. The last battle for Scottish independence (earlier fights for which were the subject of the movie "Braveheart") was fought there in 1746. The site is home to a detailed and sobering memorial.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.