Friday, 17 October 2014

The Treasure of Urquhart Castle

Strange creatures in Loch Ness are not the only legend to be associated with this dark stretch of water. During my research for "The Water Horses of Loch Ness", I found various stories which, though unrelated to the Kelpie legend, proved interesting nonetheless.

One of these concerned Urquhart Castle, as I found when looking at "In the Hebrides" authored by Constance Gordon-Cumming in 1883. 

Taking passage by the steamer, we sailed up beautiful Loch Ness, taking a farewell look at Castle Urquhart, once an old holding of the Clan Cumming, and in later days one of the royal forts of Scotland, besieged by Edward I in 1303. Many a hard tussle with the English did it witness, but for the last three hundred years there has been no mention of it in any chronicle of fight or fray.

It is now a picturesque ruin, rising from the loch on a rocky promontory. The Highlanders call these grey ruins Strone Castle, and believe that two mysterious vaulted cells are hollowed in the rock below. The one contains a countless treasure of gold; but in the other a fearful pestilence is sealed up, which, if once released, would stalk forth in irresistible might and depopulate the land, having first slain the rash hand that opened its prison door. So the dread of liberating so dire a scourge has even subdued the covetous craving for gold, and the treasure-chamber remains inviolate.

The same story is told in the 1893 book, "Urquhart and Glenmoriston; olden times in a Highland parish" written by William Mackay:

It is believed in the Parish that there are two secret chambers underneath the ruins of the Castle — the one filled with gold and the other with the plague. On account of the risk of letting loose the pestilence, no attempt has ever been made to discover the treasure. This myth, in various forms, and associated with various places, is as old as the classic fable of Pandora. 

Looking at this story, one is reminded of similar treasure curses, such as the tomb of King Tut. But one wonders if there is any truth behind this legend. Just as many believe there is a real creature behind the poetical Each Uisge, could there be a real trove of gold, silver and precious stones under Urquhart Castle? Given that the castle was raided, pillaged and finally blown up, there would seem to be little room for hidden treasure.

But there is another legend of a local treasure hoard, and that is the Jacobite gold of Bonnie Prince Charlie. It is told that Spain had financed the Jacobite Army to the tune of 400,000 gold livre a month. Seven boxes of these coins had arrived after the defeat at Culloden in 1745 and they were reputedly hidden in the forests not far from Loch Arkaig, over thirty miles from Castle Urquhart as the crow files. Could some of this have found its way to Loch Ness?

We could speculate further on the Templars and the treasure of King Baldwin the Second (died 1131). His treasure was allegedly taken to Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh, but there was also a Templar house near Urquhart Castle (now only remembered in the location of Temple Pier). This one is a bit of a longer shot.

In general, troubled times usually impel men of wealth to carefully hide their worldly goods and so I would not entirely dismiss the story out of hand. The curse part of the story can be seen as a deterrent to treasure seekers, but is it possible that some owner of the castle was forced to leave the castle in haste without his hidden treasure and his secret died with him in some distant place?

Who can tell, but it is to be noted that the level of Loch Ness rose by six feet with the building of the Caledonian Canal in the early 19th century. Perhaps our fabled hoard is now only accessible to divers? Or perhaps a long sealed door of stone lies undetected, now overrun by bushes and trees?

Today, a kind of modern combination of plague and treasure may be argued for the castle. With record numbers paying record prices to visit the site under the aegis of Historic Scotland, the uncovered treasure is certainly there to behold. On the other hand, some locals certainly regarded the plans to expand the site some years back as a plague of sorts upon the landscape. 

All in all, a fascinating story, but one beyond verification; until someone stumbles upon a strange looking rock one day ...

Sunday, 12 October 2014

The Hugh Gray Picture And Turtles

So this monster starts popping up in Loch Ness and the articles and letter begin to fly off the typewriters (remember them?). By the time the media speculation began to subside in late 1934, just about everything that was big and could swim had made it onto the Nessie identity parade.

The turtle was no exception and got into the public Nessie consciousness as early as 8th December 1933. This clipping from the Daily Record is reproduced for your edification. Note the editor throws in a few antediluvians while he is at it (namely, the elasmosaurus, clidastes and mosasaurus).


Polmont Man's View Of Photo

Close study of the exclusive Daily Record photograph of the Loch Ness monster, together with a considerable knowledge of the habits of certain amphibian animals; has led to a theory being propounded by Major Meikle, Governor of the Borstal Institute at Polmont.

Major Meikle, who has done a fair amount of travelling, in an interview with the Daily Record, last night, said he was of the opinion that the monster is a giant turtle.

"I strongly believe that it is the Leathery or Green turtle. The former species can grow to a gigantic size, and often weighs over a ton."

Pointing to the Daily Record photograph, Major Meikle said that the shadow at the right hand end of the object bore an unmistakable resemblance to the head of a turtle.

"The white expanse could be accounted for if this was the case,  because it would be the shell of the creature. Of course, I am not a naturalist," continued Major Meikle, "but when I was in the United States, during the last year of the war, I had a Terrapin, which is another of the turtle species, gifted to me by an old General of the American Army, and who described in detail to me the habits of these animals.

"I consider the report in the Daily Record of a London director's experience, to be something in the nature of a testimonial to my turtle theory. Mr. Spicer states that, in crossing the road, he saw the object had a long protruding neck, with no mouth. That coincides with the turtle which walks with its head and neck rigid."

"What Mr. Spicer saw was not a deer on the creature's back, but probably the turtle's hump. The turtle moreover enters the water without a splash, and swims with a swaying motion, which seems to correspond with the various reports which have appeared relating to the monster."

The Atlantic Green Turtle and Leatherback Turtle are indeed big creatures. Though the Green Turtle is the largest hard shelled turtle, it rarely gets longer than five feet. It also tends to inhabit warmer waters, but some could make their way to more northern waters. 

The Leatherback Turtle lacks a bony shell but is the largest turtle at lengths approaching ten feet. Again, a Leatherback could be found as far north as the seas around Loch Ness.

But the reason for Major Meikle's letter is his observation that a turtle like head can be seen in the picture.  He is no doubt referring to this image which has been promoted at this website. However, if he was looking at the inferior image printed in the Daily Record then I take my hat off to him.

The reason for that is simply because various modern sceptics who have looked at this image profess to see nothing, say nothing or declare it is nothing (this despite it casting a shadow). Strangely, they have no problem seeing a dog which has no visible back or paddle wake.

Now I have compared this head to an eel and other fish previously. How does a large turtle fare in this regard? I found a suitable picture which I show here compared to the Hugh Gray picture.

Clearly, there are differences in the two specimens. The eyes look roughly in the same place, but the turtle eye is larger. The Loch Ness Monster's buoyancy capabilities also exceed that of the Leatherback (an ability we have spoken of before on this blog). There is also the matter of the tail which we see above the surface here. A look at the Leatherback's tail shows there is not much there to speak of.

So if the Loch Ness Monster is a variant of the turtle (as discussed in a previous article on the "plesio-turtle"), the Hugh Gray photograph is perhaps not the best place to start. Neither can it be convincingly argued that the Spicer creature could be a form of turtle. Though Major Meikle speaks of the turtle neck being held rigid, the neck described by George Spicer was in fact undulating in a most un-turtle like manner.

A lot of the theories which arose in the ferment of 1934 are now long gone whilst some still provoke debate. Indeed, whatever the time or place, let not any sceptic (or believer) stifle the conversation which clothes this phenomenon known as "The Loch Ness Monster"!

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Early Depictions Of Nessie

The way men have represented the creatures of Loch Ness has varied over the centuries, be it in oral or visible form. I wrote on the basics of this process in an earlier article. But today, I would like to concentrate on some tangible examples.

I was researching some old newspapers which are not available online and came across some interesting media uses of the Loch Ness Monster over the period of weeks between December 1933 and January 1934. Now we should understand that the Nessie phenomenon was still quite young at this time. In fact, it was only seven months old as of early December.

In terms of influences on how people perceived the Monster, these were few and far between. There was the Spicers case which gained traction over the months since August 1933, Rupert Gould’s report to the London Times on the 9th December and the King Kong film.

But for the Scottish Daily Record and competing papers, things took off when the first purported photograph of the creature was published by the Record on the 6th December 1933. This was the Hugh Gray picture which (to some) showed a long neck lying low in the water. In fact, the impact of this picture should not be underestimated in assessing the public evolution of the monster.

The Daily Record was onto a good thing here and began a series of articles. In fact, the Spicers’ land sighting was printed the day after the Gray picture was published. After this followed various reports and visits to the loch. Indeed, the normally quiet cloisters of Fort Augustus Abbey were invaded as the Record’s correspondent was allowed in to photograph the monks at their daily activities.

Furthermore, once the Record published the Gray photo, readers were invited to draw their pictures of Nessie in a national competition. The entries flooded in and some of the drawings printed are shown below.

Quite an assortment of imaginative representations, and not all as we may expect. But then again, when folklore (ancient and modern) begins to weave a tapestry, the original truth can begin to fade somewhat. Going back to my initial comments about how people represented the Loch Ness creatures, it is evident that people were either not quite sure what was in the loch or were employing a wide diversity of artistic licence. Clearly, we have a mix of short neck, long neck and serpentine monsters here. 

Did Hugh Gray's photograph have an influence? It undoubtedly must have as people, with pen in hand, pondered what this strange beast must look like. The professional cartoonists employed by the newspapers seemed to be a bit more resolute in representing the monster. In fact, the long neck creature seems to be moving up in preference quite quickly. Here are two political cartoons from that short time period.

The first is from the Daily Record of 27th December 1933 and depicts the then British Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, towing some political monsters of his own. The cartoonist's curious Nessie looks like a cross between a plesiosaur and an anteater. Why it should emit dog-like barks is another idiosyncrasy (I am aware of no reports to that time which mention the monster making such a noise).

The Loch Ness Monster was often employed in political cartoons to add some light heartedness and topicality to the message behind the drawing. The second one below is from the Glasgow Evening Times on the same day. Again it shows that Britain had its own economic and political monsters to contend with during the Great Depresssion. I like the depiction of St. George the Dragon Killer being confronted by a Nessie like dragon. Was this Scottish paper implying that the various social problems had to be solved by England (Scotland's Patron Saint is St. Andrew)?

The long necked theme continued in foreign publications as we see here from the American Salt Lake Tribune of the 14th January 1934. The Hugh Gray photo is again mentioned as well as the Scotsman's propensity for whisky and its after effects. Clearly, the images that began in the British Isles were easily propagated abroad as other cartoonists considered how to depict the Loch Ness Monster. The trend was now very much in evidence.

Moreover, commercial advertisers in newspapers saw an opportunity to recruit Nessie without any fear of invoices over image rights being sent to them. Two advertisers from the Daily Express for the 9th, 13th and 25th January 1934 carried these images of the beast.

Meanwhile, other witness testimonies continued to be reported and inform people as to the nature of the Loch Ness Monster. It was not just the Hugh Gray photo that promoted the long neck theory. Other papers published sketches of what witnesses were claiming to see. The example below is from the Singapore Strait Times of the 29th December 1933. What long necked sightings it is referring to, I am not quite certain as it does not supply enough details. Readers' suggestions are welcomed.

So, by the time the famous Surgeon's Photograph appeared three months later in April 1934, it seems the die was cast. The Loch Ness Monster had a small head perched on a long neck. The lasting image of the Surgeon's Photo did not create the long neck stereotype, but it was certainly the hook upon which the particular coat was hung. 

I have not yet found any media representations of the Monster in the May to November 1933 period prior to our study here. It would be interesting to see how diverse the interpretations were or whether the long neck candidate was one which took the lead from the start. That will await a future article.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Nessie and the Falkirk Kelpies

Our local artist, Jack Rumney, hits the ball out of the park again with another great painting of our favourite lake monster. In his own words,

I have seen pictures of the Falkirk Kelpies illuminated so I thought I would send you a painting of Nessie giving them her seal of approval (this is the long necked paranormal variety).

You can watch the official opening of the Kelpie statues below.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Loch Ness Trip Report - August 2014

I must admit that this excursion to Loch Ness proved a bit of a wash out. As it turned out, the remnants of Hurricane Bertha was about to greet me as I made my way up the high road. Going by the lashings of rain that came upon us, I was grateful that we rarely experience such storms in their full vigour. So, it was a period of almost continuous rain, but the old tent held up well as we camped over the weekend of the 9th August at Foyers.

Given the weather, some of my activities were curtailed and I also failed to get in touch with some people I intended to talk to. However, some people I did talk to, such as Ala MacGruer who is a long time resident of Foyers and knows the area like the back of his hand. He is a keen fisherman and is old enough to remember Frank Searle. In fact, he featured in the 2005 documentary, "The Man Who Captured Nessie", in which he reminisced as a local on Frank's time there.

Ala was an independent witness to a head neck sighting made by the Hargreaves in 2011. He was sticking with that story and I have no reason to doubt him.  As an experienced and down to earth observer of Loch Ness, he has one of the better tales to tell of strange sights at Loch Ness.

I also chatted with him about other things, such as the memories of his neighbour, Hugh Gray, who took the first photo of the monster. Ala was also the nephew of William MacGruer, whose experience of a strange animal lurching into Loch Ness around the time of World War I has long formed part of the Loch Ness story.

Apart from the usual surface watches for anything unusual breaking the surface, I also tried out some new trap cameras. However, the aim of these was not to capture the monster in the water, but on the land. So, in  a sense, they are pointing in the "wrong" direction. But my reasoning is that the creature is more likely to trigger the camera on land since the motion/heat detection area is much smaller (i.e. the creature is not 300 metres away in the water). Also, you'll get a far more interesting and decisive picture than a hump in the water.

The problems dictating against an installation are manifold. Firstly, car traffic will continuously trigger the camera and wear out the batteries over a multi-month period. The trick here is to set the camera to night mode (between 0000 and 0700) since it is highly unlikely that the monster will venture onto land during daylight hours. I know it did in the past, but the loud presence of fast moving cars is now a deterrent. 

Also, the camera has to be in a hidden spot so it is not easily spotted by parked cars or hikers. So I will run those for a few months but the rarity of land sightings dictates against immediate results. One trap camera experiment that did not go as well as I thought was the Covert Code Black Special Ops camera (or the UM565).

Now this is an expensive camera and offers leading edge new features such as sending MMS pictures over the 2G/3G mobile phone network to your phone or email account. It also has a remote control command set using SMS text messaging so that you can request immediate snapshots or reconfigure your settings.

All in all, a great set of features, but no good for my research. I have to first say that it was a bit of a pain to set up for mobile networking. I bought a rolling monthly SIM contract from Vodafone and eventually got it sending pictures to my gmail account and mobile phone. I set it up and left it for a few months.

So, I was regularly getting pictures from the camera as events such as birds and waves triggered the detection software in the camera. I must admit I felt a sense of satisfaction being able to conduct monster hunting from wherever I was located in Edinburgh. Also, the occasional SMS message would automatically send me a view of the loch at that time.

However, the problem began when the camera began to send multiple images from sun glare. This was not an issue in and of itself but it became clear that the act of sending an image across the network was a bigger drain on battery power than simply saving the image to a file on the SD card. Within six weeks, the camera shut down! This was despite running on twelve AA batteries.

I retrieved the camera and took it back home. On further thought, I realised this was not going to improve in the autumn and winter months as sun glare would be replaced by continual shots of heightened wave activity. So I will sell the camera and replace it with two or three simpler SD card cameras. We live and learn.

Meantime, the other usual experiments continued. Infrared recordings of the loch at night, the car dashcam recordings and beach searches. There is nothing to report there on the monster front (though I am still reviewing the night videos). Even though technology has improved and cheapened immensely, the monster hunter of today has the same problem as the monster hunter of old - a creature that rarely breaks the surface is not beholden to any such technology.

However, Loch Ness continues to bring up other interesting images. Firstly, one wonders how tourists manage to forget things so easily?

Walking along one of the beaches on the south side of Loch Ness, we came across this bivouac pictured below. We wondered if someone was down on their luck or was at the loch without a tent. The owner was nowhere to be seen and there was no sign of food  - just an empty bottle of whisky.

Beside it was a bottle filled with small stones with a plastic bag below. Presumably this was an improvised rainwater collection system. I left wondering what the purpose of that person's visit was and whether they had any tales to tell of their lonely nights sleeping on the shores of Loch Ness.

But it was not all negatives from the downpour. A visit to the Falls of Foyers presented a raging torrent which I had not witnessed before.

That video clip was taken from the upper viewing area beside the waterfall. However, attempting a shot from the lower area proved impossible as the spray being thrown up threatened to drench us quickly. A quick retreat from that spot was the best tactic. Below is a clip of the nearby River Farigaig in spate also providing an impressive display.

But this particular trip was not all about Loch Ness. On the suggestion of Doug, a blog regular, I took a detour to Loch Morar on the way home. Doug had not long been back from Loch Ness and Morar and felt that this was a loch that has not been as watched as it should be. Indeed, I read that Adrian Shine thought there was a better chance of a large creature in Loch Morar than Loch Ness.

I have to confess that I have never been to Loch Morar in my long time here in Scotland, so it was finally time to remedy that omission. The main purpose of the trip was to install another trap camera as I had to get back home the same day. The loch is quite a contrast to Loch Ness and its tourist noise. At Loch Morar, it was a quiet single track road along the north of the loch with not much in the way of activity at all.

Having installed the camera, I visited the site of the Mhorag sighting I wrote on a while back. The video clip below is a quick survey of the area where the creature allegedly lumbered over a sandbar before disappearing into the loch.

So, as the tourist season winds down for another year and cryptozoological interests are pursued from home, it is hoped those silent trap cameras will snap something that doesn't quite look normal.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Tim Dinsdale's Operations Newsletters

Tim Dinsdale spent over 25 years in his quest for the Loch Ness Monster. They were exciting times, frustrating times and challenging times, but something drove him on for a quarter of a century. That something was the prospect of another glimpse of that thing that had seized his attention long before in April 1960.

He wrote occasional books, magazine articles and gave lectures, but he also kept Nessie people up to date on his activities via his Operations Newsletters. I have some of these from 1973 to 1977 and have now put them up for public viewing on my Google Drive. Most of them were sent alongside Rip Hepple's Nessletter but the 1977 one was sent to me by regular reader, Brad. 

That one is particularly fascinating as it was owned by that other monster pursuer, Roy Mackal, whose collection is up for sale. Brad had bought Mackal's copy of Dinsdale's "Leviathans" and the newsletter was found between its pages. 

I am sure there are other newsletters and similar items published by Tim. If anyone cares to provide scans of these, I will add them to this archive.

The newsletters can be found at this link.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Nessie says "No!"

Scotland's most famous citizen (not Alex Salmond) says "No". Mind you, forming a "Yes" would be an interesting proposition. Good on yer, Nessie! It is easier to believe the Loch Ness Monster exists than the promises of the "Yes" camp as far as I am concerned.

Exclusive from Loch Ness here.