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Chasing Nessie – a Highlands Roadtrip

isle-of-skye

When I was seven, I stumbled across a battered copy of The Black Island in my primary school library. This was my first encounter with Tintin, the hugely popular comic-book hero created by Hergé in the 1930s. I was immediately captivated by the story, the characters and the brilliant illustrations.

Since then, I have read every Tintin book there is, literally hundreds of times. I have lived vicariously through Tintin’s adventures, and my wanderlust was born in the locales so stunningly brought to life in Hergé’s pages – the American Wild West, the jungles of South America, the deserts of Arabia, the islands of Indonesia, the mountains of Tibet, and the exotic Orient.

I may now be an adult, but I still have a complete set of Tintin books on my bookshelf. I will often pick one at random and flick through it. I no longer need to actually read the text, because I know the stories, and even most of the words, by heart. But losing myself in one of Tintin’s adventures, even if for only a few minutes, always makes me smile, and feel like a kid again.

Anyway, in The Black Island (or L’Ile Noir, as it was originally titled), a giant gorilla named Ranko guards an island off the coast of Scotland. Tintin puts on a tartan kilt and pom-pom beret, and travels there to bust up a counterfeit ring. In the process he befriends Ranko, dispelling the myth that a ferocious beast haunts the island.

Hergé’s brilliance was his ability to weave elements of popular culture of the day into the fabric of his stories, and Ranko is a great example of this. The Black Island was first published in 1937, a few years after the original King Kong movie had fired imaginations around the world. Ranko was thus an immediately identifiable salute from Hergé, in honour of the ape that had stormed New York.

But also on Hergé’s mind at the time was another mythical animal, a pre-historic creature that allegedly inhabited Scotland’s Loch Ness. This story had first surfaced in the early 1930s, and after several well-publicised monster sightings the famous “Surgeon’s Photo” of 1937 – a picture of a serpentine-like head protruding from the water – placed The Loch Ness Monster on the front page of newspapers all around the world.

Drawing on this public interest, Hergé included a few panels in which Tintin visits a local pub, in the fictional Scottish village of Kiltoch. There he talks to a white-haired old sea-salt before setting off for the island, who tells him about “the beast” that lives there.  Tintin asks: “The beast … what beast? … the Loch Ness Monster?” To which the old man replies: “Haud yer wisht, laddie. I’m spearin ‘o the beast that bides on the Black Island, ‘i the ruins o’ the castle ‘o Criag Dhui.  The critters for devourin’ ev’ry maun that’s sae bold as to gang neer the place”.

Now, apart from this having been my first introduction to the world of Tintin, my first introduction to the country of Scotland, and my first introduction to the impenetrability of the Scottish accent (is it really English? – see my previous blog Two Tales of Haggis), this was also my first introduction to the notion that our world might be inhabited by fabled monsters, talked about but never seen.

Something must have lodged itself in my young mind, because ever since then I have been inexplicably drawn to anything that involves mysterious creatures of myth and legend. From those that are well-known (Yeti, Bigfoot, the Kraken) to those that are well-loved (Mermaids and Unicorns); from the ancient (Hydra, Chimera), to the obscure (Gugalanna, Wendigo, Lagarfljótsormurinn – go on, look them up….), and even to the Jewish (Golem, the Dybukk).

And, in particular, I have always had a special place in my heart for the creature that started it all for me, the one Hergé had chosen to reference in that first Tintin book I ever read: Scotland’s now world-famous Loch Ness Monster.

Thus imagine my excitement, three weeks ago, on finding myself in Scotland for work on a Friday, and with nothing to do on the weekend. On the spur of the moment I rented a car and embarked on a brief Scottish road trip. The plan was to drive through the Highlands, to the Isle of Skye, and then, by way of grand finale, to finish at Loch Ness.

The time had come. Thirty-four years after first being introduced, I was finally going to meet Nessie.

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Loch- Lomond- etiqueta

The start point was Stirling, where the company I work for has a sizeable office. Stirling itself is a lovely Scottish town, surrounded by rolling green fields. The town is, however, most famous for its imposing castle, at least 500 years old, set high on a crag overlooking the surrounding countryside. This was, in days gone by, a castle not to be trifled with, protected on three sides by sheer cliffs and massive fortifications all round. Countless battles have been fought for control of Stirling Castle and the surrounding land, and the castle has been besieged eight times in its history.

From there it was on to Loch Lomond, the closest and most accessible of the Scottish lochs (or lakes). Many of my work colleagues had waxed lyrical about the beauty of Loch Lomond, its many islands, and the array of things to do there (sailing, fishing, camping, etc). But I was not at all interested in any of this. For me, Loch Lomond was all about one thing: Scotch whiskey. And not even a real one, at that.

You see, in many Tintin stories, his side-kick is a cantankerous sailor, Captain Haddock, a man particularly gifted with the art of delivering wordy insults. As a child I would sit in the corner of the library with a dictionary, painstakingly decoding the meaning of Captain Haddock’s diatribes (there are hundreds of them). As a result I can recite from memory many of the more colourful ones, like “ectoplasm”, “antediluvian bulldozer”, “two-timing troglodytes”, “diplodocus”, “pachyrhizus”, “slubberdegullions”, and “jobberknowl”. To an extent my love of words, and my daily crossword addiction, is all Captain Haddock’s fault.

Haddock’s other defining feature was his affection for the bottle (a.k.a. alcoholism), and his drink of choice was Loch Lomond Whiskey, which according to the good captain was the best of its kind. In the first black-and-white edition of The Black Island Hergé drew barrels of Scotch with a Johnny Walker label on them, but in the later coloured edition he replaced that with Loch Lomond, a completely fictitious whiskey brand he made up. This was Loch Lomond’s first appearance, but the whiskey subsequently features prominently in other Tintin stories. Even Snowy, Tintin’s fluffy white dog, develops a taste for it.

Made up or not, I can’t help it – Loch Lomond is what I immediately think of if someone says the words “Scotch” or “whiskey”, and so I wanted to see the loch with my own eyes. Which, as it turns out, is a very lovely lake, surrounded by scenic hills and meadows and colourful flower patches. Certainly a lake worthy of the whiskey Hergé named after it.

(As an aside, today it is now possible to buy single malt Loch Lomond Whiskey, produced by the Loch Lomond Distillery. Although only incredibly sad Tintin fanatics (ahem) will know that this distillery came into existence in 1965, long after Hergé drew its products into his stories).

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An-Abandoned-Croft-Loch-Stack-Sutherland-The-Highlands-S

After a night at a quaint roadside hotel, the road crossed over the River Orchy, the point at which the lowlands end, and the sparsely populated, Gaelic-speaking Scottish Highlands begin. This is the place mostly associated with Scotland – a land of fierce warriors and hardy peasants, tartan kilts, ruined castles, rugged mountains, glistening lochs and running mountain streams.

So often in life reality fails to live up to expectation. Although that day in the Highlands was the complete opposite, and reality blew expectation completely out of the water.

The scenery was magnificent. There were desolate rocky crags covered in green moss, not a tree on them, punctured by mountain streams that trickled down behind isolated whitewashed cottages at the foothills. There were cascading waterfalls – all raw power and foaming thunder. There were tiny seaside villages, small harbours packed with colourful fishing boats, and then there were ruins of ancient castles, romantically posed on stony fingers of land protruding out into bays and inlets.

On the main road heading towards the Isle of Skye a mini-traffic jam was being caused by the Glenfinnin Highland Gathering, and the throng of about five hundred people who had gathered around a big open field. Here, young girls (and one really brave young boy) competed in Highland dancing competitions, and people of all ages lined up to murder cats (otherwise known as a bagpipe contest).

In the centre of the field big burly men in kilts held tug-of-war contests, swung giant metal hammers around their heads, threw shot putts, and tossed the caber. I studied them all very closely as they twirled around, and I can absolutely confirm that no matter what they say, these Highlanders were definitely wearing underwear beneath their kilts. Or, to be more precise, Nike compression shorts.

Next came a sea crossing by ferry  to the Isle of Skye, where Scotland upped the ante even further. Around every corner was a new vista – often of something as simple as a thistle-filled meadow, a cove, a field of flowers – but always impossibly beautiful, and pretty soon I was in wow factor overload. It was pouring rain, but that didn’t matter at all. If anything, the rain added a shroud of mist and mystery to everything, making it magical almost beyond description.

And just when it couldn’t get any more amazing, while driving down a narrow country road tracking the coast the clouds parted ever so slightly and the rain stopped, and a rainbow chose that very moment to arc right across the sky. It touched down on the tower of a ruined castle, that just happened to be on an outcrop of rocks that poked out into the water, not more than a few hundred metres away.

I stopped the car, got out, and stared at the scene, in wonder. I mean, c’mon – a deserted country road, a ruined castle, and a rainbow right over your frikking head. It just doesn’t get much better than that.

Highlands Rainbow

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The next morning, literally quivering with excitement, I made straight for Loch Ness, a place I had never been to before, and yet a place that I knew so much inane trivia about.

Like that it has more freshwater in it than every other lake in England, Scotland and Wales put together. Or like that it never freezes, even in the depths of the Scottish winter. Or that visibility in its water is normally less than 4 inches. Or that Margaret Thatcher once looked into declaring the Loch Ness Monster a protected species (seriously). Or that in 2005 organisers of a triathlon purchased special insurance to cover swimmers in the Loch in case of attack from “unknown creatures”. Or that in 2012 a Buddhist monk moved to Loch Ness, so that he can devote the rest of his life to finding the monster.

You get the point. Like I said, I am a bit sad.

From the Isle of Skye the road followed the course of the River Sheil, across the most stunningly desolate moonscape imaginable. There were magnificent mountain lakes and streams, barren low hills, and then the road followed the course of the Moriston River down towards the Loch, the landscape getting more gorgeous at every turn. Finally the road turned and ran along the western side of Loch Ness, which, given the build-up, turned out to be the biggest anticlimax since my first French kiss.

To start with, believe it or not, there is not a single sign to let you know you’ve arrived. I had expected a giant billboard: “Welcome to Loch Ness, Eytan, home of the world famous Loch Ness Monster, thank you for finally coming”. At the very least, a small road-sign saying “Loch Ness” would have done, too.  But zero, zip, nada – no signs, no information boards, no tourist booths. Nothing at all to suggest that this was Nessie Central. Just a traffic-jammed road lined by trees so dense you can only get glimpses of the water on the other side.

There are some “scenic” vista points along the road, where almost everyone stops to look out over the Loch. I thought that perhaps at these spots I would be able to get a sense of the beauty and majesty of this world-famous lake. And, I must confess, deep down in me I had this teeny-tiny flicker of hope that the Loch Ness Monster might just come up from the water and finally introduce herself to the world at large, in honor of my visit.

Alas, not much was happening here either. Loch Ness is pretty ordinary to look at, especially after the magnificence of the lesser known Highland lochs from the day before. It is, truth be told, little more than a long and narrow passage of dark water, surrounded by dull, featureless hills. Even the ruins of Urquhart Castle, sitting imperially on some land jutting out into the Loch and looking spectacular from a distance, turned out up close to be completely overrun with tourists, like an infestation of so many ants. Plus a huge blue and white tourist boat had parked right alongside it, shattering the view and destroying any sense of magic the place might have otherwise had.

Most annoying of all, Nessie was not playing ball. Showing absolutely no respect for the journey I had undertaken, the beast of the lake was steadfastly refusing to show herself and prove her existence. I was feeling rather underwhelmed, and on approach to the small town of Drumnadrochit, I thought to myself: “Could it get any worse?

A stupid bloody question, if ever there was one.

och_ness

Drumnadrochit is the home of the Loch Ness Centre, an exhibition that opened thirty years ago and is devoted entirely to the subject of the Loch Ness Monster. It advertises itself as a “5-star” display, consisting of lasers and films and exhibits, taking visitors through seven themed areas that trace the story of Nessie from “the dawn of time to the third millennium”.

It was, I guess, kind of informative, in a boring, academic way. I learned that amongst believers, the most popular theory is that Nessie is a plesiosaur. I learned that the first modern sightings are attributed to Alex Campbell (2 May 1933) and George Spicer (4 August 1933) who said that he and his wife had seen “the nearest approach to a dragon or pre-historic animal that I have ever seen in my life”. Photos began appearing at around the same time, and in 1934 the first book on the subject was released (there have since been hundreds).

I also learned all about the various expeditions over the years to find the Monster. The first was in 1934, when Sir Edward Mountain paid twenty men to keep continuous watch on the Loch for five weeks. Between 1962 and 1972, the fabulously named Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau supported groups of volunteers in maintaining watch over the Loch, equipped with movie cameras and telescopic lenses. I learned of the various early sonar studies of the 1930s and 40s, and the more hi-tech expeditions that followed in the 1970s and 80s: sonar studies, underwater microphones and cameras, and submarine investigations, supported by big names like MIT University and defence contractor Raytheon. Continuing right up to the present day: in 2003 the BBC sponsored a study that deployed sophisticated sonar beams and satellite tracking technology, and in a sign of the times, a 2008 expedition set out specifically to locate Nessie’s carcass – the expedition leader believes that, due to global warming, the animal has now become extinct (I am not sure that this is even possible – becoming extinct before ever existing – but then maybe I am just being pedantic).

Information value aside, the Loch Ness Centre is unspeakably awful – an “attraction” of the sort that even the most decrepit of amusement parks would be embarrassed to claim as its own. A very badly made film is broken up into seven equally bad parts, each screened in a different room, and “spiced” up with amateur-hour lighting and props that even the children in the audience groaned at.

All of which would have been bearable, had these cretins not set out to systematically destroy any lingering faith in the existence of the Loch Ness Monster that I may have had. You know the famous Surgeon’s Photo – here’s why it is a fake; this other photo – a stick in the water; this other photo – an elephant’s trunk; this other photo – a hoax; these other photos – all fake, fake, fake. And when they were done with the photos, they moved onto the science: the sonar studies that claimed to identify large, fast-moving animals in the Loch’s depths – all wrong; echolocation sounds recorded in the water – shoddy analysis; unexplained movements in the water – all just a function of the unique thermal characteristics of the lake.

I couldn’t believe it. Around 1 million people visit Loch Ness every year, and are the pillar of the local economy. 85% of visitors say their decision to visit was motivated, at least in part, by the legend of the monster. And yet here, at the region’s “premier” attraction, it was all about explaining why everything associated with the Loch Ness Monster was bogus crap, from doctored photos to bad science.

As the final segment of the movie ended, the voice of the narrator said: “So there you have it, the Loch Ness Monster, all utter bullshit,  but thanks for coming, now why don’t you fuck off back home”. OK, maybe they didn’t say exactly that, but I still felt utterly deflated, like I had just been made to watch someone pulling down my prized childhood Lego creation, piece by piece.

It was time to go, to get to Inverness airport as quickly as possible, and to leave Loch Ness behind.

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Latest Loch ness Picture

So, what can I tell you from this trip?

Well, I can tell you that one of the most magical days of sightseeing I have ever experienced was that day in the Scottish Highlands, on Saturday, 17 August 2013.

And I can also tell you that undoubtedly one of the biggest disappointments of my travel life thus far was the very next day, at Loch Ness, on Sunday, 18 August, 2013.

But here’s the amazing thing – exactly one week later, on 25 August 2013, an amateur photographer took a photo of a large, unexplained solid black object moving just beneath the surface of Loch Ness. It is the most compelling snapshot of the Monster in over fifteen years. The story captured imaginations everywhere, appeared in every major newspaper in the UK, and was a leading item on the evening news.

When I saw this, I couldn’t have been more pissed off. This latest photo was taken almost exactly from one of the spots I had stood at, just seven days earlier. But at the same time I couldn’t have been happier: despite the best efforts of the Loch Ness Visitors’ Centre, once again people were intensely debating the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. My faith had unexpectedly been restored.

Only I won’t bother going back to Loch Ness any time soon. I am mindful of the words famously attributed to Mark Twain: “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story”.

bagpiper

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