Sunday, 7 August 2016
The Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition
In a way the Loch Ness Centre is another example of the Scottish skepticism I was talking about last week. This is particularly noticeable in the case of the best-known theory of the Loch Ness Monster, that it is a long-necked marine reptile such as a plesiosaur which has somehow managed to survive since Jurassic times. Admittedly the Loch Ness Centre features this image in their logo (which you can see in the photo above), and in innumerable toys and other souvenirs for sale in the gift shop. But inside the exhibition they stamp on this theory right at the very start. Any creature that managed to emerge unscathed from the Mesozoic would have been definitively killed off during the ice age, when the whole of Scotland was covered by a kilometre-thick block of ice for tens of thousands of years. Anything in the loch today that is larger than a single-celled micro-organism must have arrived after the ice melted. And why plesiosaurs anyway? They were pushed out of their ecological niche by whales and dolphins, which are found in plentiful numbers in the waters around Scotland.
The seemingly deep-rooted idea that a long-necked monster inhabits Loch Ness only dates from about a hundred years ago. Prior to that, mysterious sightings in the loch always referred to a “huge fish” or a “strange fish”. The word “monster”, prior to the early 20th century, only cropped up in the context of St Columba – the 6th century monk who brought Christianity to Scotland from Ireland. According to legend, Columba “drove away a water monster” in the River Ness near Inverness. It’s important to note, however, that this is a legend relating to a specific event – a miracle associated with a saint – and not recurring monster sightings by ordinary people.
A later development in Scottish folklore were the “water-horses” that were said to inhabit various lochs, including Loch Ness. Called kelpies, these creatures would drag unsuspecting travellers into the water and devour them. A pair of kelpies are the subject of a huge modern sculpture near Falkirk, about a hundred miles south of Loch Ness. At 30 metres (100 feet) in height, this is currently the largest statue in Britain. I only glimpsed it a few times from the M9 motorway, but my cousin, who stayed in Scotland longer than I did, sent me the following photo that she took after I left (she sent it via Facebook, which has the annoying habit of converting good quality, high resolution pictures into small, low resolution ones):
First Minister, of course).
As for modern sightings of long-necked or serpentine creatures – most, if not all, of these can be explained as misidentifications (together with a few deliberate hoaxes). The visitor centre gives plenty of examples of floating logs, swimming deer, waterbirds and boat wakes all looking like convincing Loch Ness Monsters. I only spent a few minutes looking at the Loch, but even in that time I took the two pictures below which give an idea how misidentifications might arise. The one on the left contains a few dark specks which, if you zoom in on them, you can see are birds in flight. A couple of them have distinctly arc-like shapes which could be mistaken for “monster humps” under different viewing conditions. The second picture shows a boat trailing a wake, with another long wave that has been churned up by the boat in the foreground. Again, under different conditions (e.g. in foggier weather) the latter could be mistaken for a long, serpentine creature just below the surface.