Saturday, 22 April 2017

Poor Old Alex Campbell (Part III)

 Alex Campbell (right) with Bernard Heuvelmans

It was May 1983 and Alex Campbell was nearing death. He had been in increasing ill health having been forced to retire from his work as an Inverness Courier correspondent in September 1981. He was to die the following month, perhaps aware of a book that had just been published that was making various accusations against him.

Fortunately for the author, Alex Campbell was probably too weak to answer the charges. The author's name was Ronald Binns and his book was entitled "The Loch Ness Mystery - Solved". I actually gave a small review to Rip Hepple's Nessletter the month after its publication. A fuller review was printed in issue 70 (June 1985) by Henry Bauer. You can read that here from page 4 onwards (note this book was co-authored with an R.J.Bell of whom not a lot is known).

This was not the first sceptical book on the monster to be published. That honour goes to Maurice Burton's 1961 tome, "The Elusive Monster". But these two books have some symbolism as they bookend the hectic era of the Loch Ness Monster between 1961 and 1983. Back in 1961, nobody was listening to Burton as monster fever began to grow. By 1983, people were more receptive to Binns' almost convincing logic.

What the books share is the predictable attempts to portray eyewitnesses as people easily fooled by drifting logs, swimming birds and passing boat wakes finished off with an overstated dash of expectation. It wasn't a convincing mish-mash of theories in 1961, nor 1983 and certainly not today, but the sceptical meme dominates today and so gets an easier audience - just like the monster meme did in the 1960s and 1970s.

But my aim is not to review all of this dubiously titled book, but to concentrate on those parts which discuss Alex Campbell. Indeed, an entire chapter titled "The Man Who Discovered Monsters" is devoted to Campbell.  Some people think Binns has done the business on Campbell. It is now time to present a different view.


Binns devotes a lot of pages to Alex Campbell in his book and undertakes a multi-pronged attack on Campbell's character. The first method of attack is one that is generic to the whole tone of the book and it is the style of writing. In the context of Campbell, the style is basically a timeline narrative which is a mixture of facts, deductions and speculations.

There is nothing particularly wrong with that approach, it is rather the assertive style which tries to browbeat the casual reader into swallowing whatever he writes. In that sense, the text is often that of the politician rather the researcher. To that end, you will find phrases which seek to put down and exaggerate.

For example, Binns describes Campbell's written account of the first Nessie sighting as a "cumbersome and stilted piece of prose". Why this is relevant to the Nessie debate is unclear as Campbell was writing a short newspaper column, not a novel to compete with G. K. Chesterton.

However, the reason becomes clear on further thought as Binns' tactic is psychological as he attempts to make Campbell look small in the eyes of the readers by criticising anything about him. It's a filthy tactic and others have picked up on this acidic approach in past reviews of the book.

Other examples include his suggestion that Alex Campbell was "deeply committed" to monsters in the loch and whose Mackay report was "by no means a neutral, detached account". What Binns means by deeply committed is unclear and opens the door to all kinds of unwarranted speculations. The reference to not being neutral or detached is a laugh coming from someone who I could also claim is deeply committed to his sceptical cause and is hardly neutral or detached in the subject either!

There is no neutrality in this subject and Binns needs to come clean on his own prejudices in the matter. To me, Binns is again attempting to plant the meme that all this makes Campbell unreliable and possibly even untruthful.

The unproven ad hominems directed at Campbell are too numerous to mention here and this machine gun approach is a form of Chinese water torture designed to beat the unsuspecting reader into submission. Fortunately, this reader had his armour on as he waded through the mire.

One repeated ad hominem I will finally mention on this style topic is Binns' continual reference to Campbell as a zealous publicity seeker. Again, Binns unsuccessfully tries to portray Campbell as a person driven by ego. Indeed, on page 82, Binns labels Campbell as "the self appointed high priest of the loch's mysteries". Where he gets the proof for this vacuous accusation is entirely unclear. Binns tells us that Campbell "became the man everyone went to when they wanted to learn more about the monster".

Indeed, Campbell is held up as the focus of a "pilgrimage" by Tim Dinsdale when he first visited the loch in 1960. Note Binns' tactical use of religious metaphors as he tries to elevate Campbell to some kind of mystical figure presiding over an irrational cult of monster hunters.

The truth of the matter is that Alex Campbell was just one amongst a number of people Tim Dinsdale visited during that week. These were Hugh Gray, Constance Whyte, Aloysius Carruth and Colonel Grant. But by omitting these other people, Binns gives the misleading impression that Campbell was somehow a special visitation.

So, when Binns says on page 83 that Campbell "had a great zest for publicity" by virtue of various radio, TV and newspaper interviews, I have somewhat to say on that matter. Again, where is the proof of this? I say that because when I was searching online newspaper archives for references to Alex Campbell, I found none! So much for the self-serving publicity seeker.

That does not mean Alex Campbell is to be found nowhere in the media, but I suggest that it is less than Binns makes out. Indeed, some other figures came to mind. Father Gregory Brusey was another go-to man at Loch Ness who frequently recounted his tale of a long neck sighting to the media.

Does that make him a self serving publicity seeker? What about the modern day example of Steve Feltham? Are his numerous interviews a sign of a big ego? Or what about leading sceptic Adrian Shine? He has been on numerous TV, radio and press interviews for years now. Will some sceptic now come forward and tell me that Adrian Shine has a big ego? Or does this argument only apply to monster believers?

I think the truth is more a matter of media laziness than Alex Campbell desperately banging on the door of the media for attention. When the press invariably turn up at Loch Ness for the film and photo ops, there is a default list of people to visit in their limited time, be they sceptic or believer. Alex Campbell had one advantage over Tim Dindale, Ted Holiday and Robert Rines. It wasn't a driven ego, it was the plain fact that he lived at Loch Ness. So let's just drop the hyperbole about egos and high priests.


Moving on, Binns takes Campbell to task over his reporting of the creature to the Inverness Courier. Alex Campbell was the man behind the very first Nessie era report on a "strange spectacle at Loch Ness". That was the reported sighting by the Mackays on the 2nd May 1933. Now, Binns on page 12 accuses Campbell of producing a report that was "wildly exaggerated" and therefore proof of his over zealous mission to promote the monster.

I covered this seminal Loch Ness Monster report back in 2013 as part of the 80th anniversary of the monster's first modern appearance and you can read that here. However, in that article, I diverted to Binns' less than satisfactory handling of the case and concluded he was the one who was wildly exaggerating. First, I quote Campbell''s 1933 report on the Mackays:

Now, however, comes the news that the beast has been seen once more, for on Friday of last week, a well-known businessman who lives in Inverness, and his wife (a University graduate), when motoring along the north shore of the loch, not far from Abriachan pier, were startled to see a tremendous upheaval on the loch, which, previously, had been as calm as the proverbial millpond. The lady was the first to notice the disturbance, which occurred fully three-quarters of a mile from the shore, and it was her sudden cries to stop that drew her husband's attention to the water.
There, the creature disported itself, rolling and plunging for fully a minute, its body resembling that of a whale, and the water cascading and churning like a simmering cauldron. Soon, however, it disappeared in a boiling mass of foam. Both onlookers confessed that there was something uncanny about the whole thing, for they realised that here was no ordinary denizen of the depths, because, apart from its enormous size, the beast, in taking the final plunge, sent out waves that were big enough to have been caused by passing steamer.

The  watchers waited for almost half an hour in the hope that the monster (if such it was) would come to the surface again; but they had seen the last of it. Questioned as to the length of the beast, the lady stated that, judging by the state of the water in the affected area, it seemed to be many feet long.

Binns alludes to another recounting of the Mackay story "months later" and uses this to pick out two discrepancies in Campbell's account. One was that Mr. Mackay actually saw nothing and that Mrs. Mackay had only seen a "commotion in the water" akin to "two ducks fighting". That's it and these are the justification for Binns applying the accusation of wild exaggeration. In fact, the other unnamed account was Rupert T. Gould's interview with the Mackays in November 1933 which was reprinted in his June 1934 book, "The Loch Ness Monster and Others" which is reproduced below:

Mrs. Mackay and her husband were driving from Inverness to Drumnadrochit. At a point of the road almost opposite Aldourie Pier [which is on the other side of the Loch] Mrs. Mackay caught sight of a violent commotion in the water nearby, about 100 yards from shore. She thought at first that it was caused by two ducks fighting; but on reflection it seemed far too extensive to be caused in this way. 

The commotion subsided, and a big wake became visible, apparently caused by something large moving along just below the surface. This wake went away across the Loch towards Aldourie Pier. Then, about the middle of the Loch [some 450 yards from her], the cause of the wake emerged, showing as two black humps moving in line - the rear one somewhat the larger.

The rear hump appeared first, and Mrs. Mackay took it for a whale on account of its blue-black colour [she has often seen whales at sea]. The two humps moved with the forward-rolling motion of a whale or porpoise, but always remained smooth in outline, exhibiting no traces of fins. They rose and sank in an undulating manner [as if sliding along a submerged switchback] but never went entirely out of sight.

Mrs. Mackay estimated the overall length of the two humps at about 20 feet. X, after rising, continued to move towards the pier for some distance. Then it turned sharply to port and, after describing a half-circle, sank suddenly with considerable commotion. [Mr. Mackay, who was driving the car, only stopped in time to see the final commotion, and a noticeable "wash" which came rolling on to the shore after X had sunk.

Now, I might be going out on a limb here, but Campbell's account hardly looks like a wild exaggeration of what Mrs. Mackay recounted to Gould. Indeed, Binns is the one in the dock here for executing a hatchet job.

Observe that Binns claimed that Mr. Mackay "had seen nothing". That is not true, as Gould's version says he saw the final commotion. Binns also tries to make out that Mrs. Mackay only saw two ducks fighting and completely ignores the two humps that she recounted to Gould.

In a last futile act to discredit this sighting, Binns indulges in some guilt by association mud slinging by stating that Mrs. Mackay's brother "was a major source" for pre-1933 monster stories. On investigating this claim further, it turns out that Kenneth Mackay had told Rupert Gould about a monster account in 1913 involving a James Cameron.

And that was that! Just one story passed onto Gould. Please tell me how that makes him a "major source" of stories and please tell me what on earth this has to do with the sighting by the Mackays. Binns is playing mind games here and his credibility over this so called analysis is already halfway out the window.

As an aside, Binns mentions the letter of a Captain John MacDonald which the Courier published ten days later. Binns, in one of his frequent meme-enforcing metaphors, tells us that Campbell's report was "squashed flat" by MacDonald lengthy critique as a man who had fifty years experience as a boat captain on the loch.

Now, I am being kinder to Binns here and will not presume that he deliberately omitted information that did not suit his case. For as it turns out, Captain MacDonald changed his mind some months later when he told a Daily Mail reporter:

If so many reputable people say they have seen 'the beast' one inclines to the belief that there is something in it.

I am only too glad to keep Ronald up to date where his research falls short. I note there is currently at least one other boat captain likewise claiming fifty years experience on the loch. Perhaps one day he too will be inclined to the belief "that there is something in it" ... but I doubt it.

Binns asserts that Campbell "made no reply" as if to imply that no reply was possible. But he did, by reporting on the continued eyewitness reports and letting the monster do the talking for him.

On the subject of newspaper reports, Binns also tries to make some mileage out of a report filed in the Northern Courier on the 27th August 1930 in which the creature made an appearance to three anglers. His basic accusation is that Alex Campbell authored the report and again indicates his obsession with getting the monster into the public eye.

Now this 1930 incident is worthy of a whole article itself; but whether Campbell authored it or not is a matter of debate, but not one that is important as the three witnesses were subsequently interviewed by Gould for his 1934 book to confirm it as a genuine incident and not something made up or even exaggerated by Campbell (curiously this story also made it into some international newspapers!).

So what is the big deal here and why does Binns throw around the hyperboles in claiming this is "very revealing"?  If Campbell was the author, he was just reporting an incident that had come to his attention. Where was the deception or so called over-fostering of a so called non-existent monster? The only thing Binns can nail on Alex Campbell is an enthusiasm for a strange creature he believed inhabited Loch Ness. In that, he was no more different from a range of people from various walks of life from decades past.


Now as intimated in the previous part of this series, Alex Campbell claimed to have seen the creature in late 1933. He then retracted it in a letter to his employees and then retracted the retraction by claiming it as a genuine sighting some years later. From that point on until his death he continued to insist it was his first and best sighting of the creature.

Clearly, this double "volte face" was a golden opportunity for Binns to put the boot in as he employs another irritating hyperbole dubbing it as "so extraordinary". Well, actually it is not extraordinary. Seeing a 30 foot beast in a Scottish loch is extraordinary, this is not. Why Campbell so uncharacteristically wrote this sceptic letter is beyond Binns as he deems it "inexplicable" and "obscure".

The explanation is a bit more mundane than Binns' elaborate psychological monster theories when we understand that Campbell's employers were taking a dim view of the whole monster thing and it would not do that an employee would be claiming to have seen it. Campbell obliged them with a sceptical letter and his job during those Depression era years was safe. Read my previous article for more details. Another poor piece of research by Binns is his statement that:

Unfortunately for Campbell his letter came to the attention of Rupert Gould, a monster investigator and author, who promptly splashed it across the pages of his book ...

Now I must admit I am disappointed with this piece of subterfuge by Binns. Throughout his book, Binns quotes and footnotes Gould's 1934 book, so he must have been quite familiar with its contents. Yet here he twists something he should have been clear on as Gould clearly states that he obtained permission from both Campbell and his employer to print the letter! This is footnoted by Gould right below the letter Binns examined!

Indeed, it is most likely that it was Campbell that told him about his letter when Gould met him at Loch Ness in November 1933! Yet Binns again tries to make Campbell look small by stating the complete opposite to what had transpired. Thus, this untruth allows Binns to create another when he says:

Campbell's discomfiture at finding himself quoted against the existence of a monster must have been immense.

Really? I would suggest Campbell was quite happy to have his letter quoted as it kept him on the right side of his employers. When the time was right, Campbell would eventually come clean on his sighting.

Binns on page 81 finally takes Campbell to task for not being accurate enough in the recounting of his 1933 sighting over the span of three decades. The first issue is there are at least three dates for Campbell's sighting: 7th September 1933, 22nd September 1933 and May 1934. Only the last one is actually a direct quote from Campbell, the other dates are stated by secondary sources. This does not bother me as Campbell himself says of May 1934, "If I remember aright", and the 22nd September may actually be an entry date in Cyril Dieckhoff's diary.

But it seems to bother Ronald Binns, who does not seem to take the fading of memory after a quarter of a century into account. Likewise any discrepancies in the retelling of the actual account. I re-read the three accounts I have of this story from the Scotsman newspaper of 1933, Constance Whyte's 1957 quote of Cyril Dieckhoff's 1933 diary entry and Campbell's letter to Tim Dinsdale in 1960. You can read these yourself in my previous article.

Based on those re-readings, I am convinced Binns is again being reckless in his comparisons. One problem with his assessment is that if one account does not mention something, but another does, then this is apparently a contradiction. I see no logic in that, because if a detail is omitted in one account, that does not make it a contradiction. Rather, a contradiction appears when two statements are made that cannot both be true at the same time.

One example will suffice in that Binns claims one account says Campbell saw the creature's flippers and another says he saw no flippers. The actual texts are "he could see the swirl made by each movement of its limbs" (Scotsman 17/10/33) and "Noted front paddles working, on either side alternately, as it turned about." (Dieckhoff 22/09/33). If these are the accounts Binns is referring to, then I see no contradiction. In fact, it is unclear from these whether Campbell did or did not see any part of the limbs.

I will only briefly mention Binns' handling of Campbell's seventeen claimed sightings. Binns, in his usual manner, calls this an "astonishing sightings record". But Binns (or anyone else for that matter) is in no position to make such a statement as we only have a record of perhaps five or six accounts. We have no idea what the other eleven or twelve accounts contain and they seem to have been unworthy of any publicity, making me wonder how "astonishing" they actually were?

Looking further, two of the accounts we know of did not actually involve eye contact with a monster. One was the rocking of his boat and the other was a strange night time noise. Without eye contact, Alex Campbell could not say for sure these were Loch Ness Monsters. That just leaves about three visual sightings of note and these recorded accounts are the only ones we should take seriously.

Three visual encounters with the Loch Ness Monster over the space of 35 years is not so "astonishing" and Ronald Binns should acknowledge that. However, Mr. Binns' overall analysis has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.


In conclusion, others have waded in on this debate since Ronald Binns published in 1983 and to be fair to him, he has not gone to the ridiculous lengths that these people have. For instance, somebody called Josh Bazell goes further in claiming that Alex Campbell wrote anonymous letters to the Highland newspapers making up eyewitness accounts to bolster the case for the monster. Not surprisingly, he does not have a shred of evidence to back up any of this, it is just a speculative tautology based upon the a priori assumption that Campbell was an inveterate liar.

Speculation becomes deduction and deduction becomes fact in the less than logical world of some so called analytical sceptics.

The last time I looked, Ronald Binns was still around and was still a sceptic. You can find him here reviewing Gareth William's book, "A Monstrous Commotion". His was a generation who went to the loch with a "Veni, Vidi, Vici" attitude to the mystery of the Loch Ness Monster. It appears the monster had other ideas as it refused to bow down to their demands for final, conclusive evidence.

Naturally, some became sceptical and some became vindictive about the whole thing when they left empty handed. That bitterness is still evident today when you engage with such people. Others continued to accept there was a large, unknown something in the loch; some because they had seen it and others because they were less cynical about the evidence.

One such person was Alex Campbell. I visited his grave near Fort Augustus last year and as I paid my respects, I resolved to dismantle the untruths that have swirled around him since his death. He no longer has a voice to defend himself, but I hope these series of articles will do justice to a man who helped propel that mysterious denizen of the deep into the public limelight.

The author can be contacted at