The Monster of Loch Ness

The begining of the modern legend of Loch Ness starts in April 1933, A new road was finished along the shore, allowing for a clear view of Loch Ness from the north side. One afternoon, George Spicer and his wife were driving home along this road when they spotted 'a most extraordinary form of animal' cross the road in front of their car. Their sighting was published in the Inverness Courier, whose editor used the word "monster" to describe the animal. The Loch Ness Monster has been a media phenomenon ever since.

Newspaper clippings of Loch Ness MonsterBy October, several London newspapers had sent reporters to Scotland, and radio programs were being interrupted to bring listeners the latest news from the loch. A British circus offered a reward of £20,000 for the capture of the beast. Hundreds of boy scouts and outdoorsmen arrived, some venturing out in small boats, others setting up deck chairs and waiting expectantly for the monster to appear.

The excitement over the monster reached an all time high in December, when the London Daily Mail hired an actor, film director, and big-game hunter named Marmaduke Wetherell to track down the monster. After only a few days at the loch, Wetherell reported finding the fresh footprints of a large, four-toed animal. He estimated it to be 20 feet long. With great fanfare, Wetherell made plaster casts of the footprints and, just before Christmas, sent them off to the Natural History Museum in London for analysis. While the world waited for the museum zoologists to return from holiday, legions of monster hunters descended on Loch Ness, filling the local hotels. Inverness was lit by floodlights for the occasion, and traffic jammed the shoreline roads in both directions.

The Monster hunt died down in early January, when museum zoologists announced that the footprints were those of a hippopotamus. They were made with a stuffed hippo foot, the base of an umbrella stand or ashtray. It wasn't clear whether Wetherell was the perpetrator of the hoax or its nieve victim. Either way, the incident tainted the image of the Loch Ness Monster and discouraged serious investigation of the phenomenon. For the next three decades, most scientists disrespectfully dismissed reports of strange animals in the loch. Those sightings that weren't outright hoaxes, they said, were the result of optical illusions caused by boat wakes, wind slicks, floating logs, otters, ducks, or swimming deer.

20th Century Legend of "Nessie"

In the 65 years since the birth of the modern legend, dozens of people have come forward with photographs purporting to show the monster. Most were quickly dismissed as either outright frauds or images of ordinary objects mistaken for monsters. But one photo stood above the rest. Taken in 1934, it shows what appears to be the slender neck of an animal rising from the surface of the water. From the moment it was published in the London Daily Mail, it became the very image of the Loch Ness Monster and, for many, the strongest evidence that Nessie actually exists.

Newspaper of the Surgeons photoOne reason the photograph had such an impact on the Loch Ness legend was that it came from such a credible source. The photo was sold to the Daily Mail by a London physician named R. Kenneth Wilson, who said he had taken the picture when he noticed a commotion in the water as he was driving up from London to photograph birds with a friend near Inverness. Few believed that such a respected doctor could be party to a deception.

But in 1994, 60 years after the photo was first published, newspapers around the world reported the claim that the "surgeon's photo" was a fake, part of an elaborate plot to dupe the Daily Mail. The man behind the story was a former English art teacher named Alastair Boyd, who had become an avid student of Loch Ness lore after he and his wife had their own sighting of a large animal in the loch in 1979. Years later, a friend of Boyd's named David Martin discovered an old newspaper clipping in which Ian Wetherell (the son of Marmaduke Wetherell of hippo foot fame) claimed the surgeon's photo was a hoax. The article had attracted little attention when it was published in 1975, but two details caught Boyd's eye.

First, Wetherell said the plot had involved a man named Maurice Chambers—the very same man that Dr. Wilson said he had driven up from London to visit in 1934. Second, Wetherell mentioned that the surgeon's photograph included the scenery of Loch Ness in the background. In fact, the familiar Nessie photo includes only the protruding neck and the water around it. Boyd knew that the original photo had included a bit of the far shoreline in the background, because he had rediscovered the uncropped version in the late '80s. But that full photo had been published only once, in 1934. So how could Wetherell have known this detail? "Either he had a very long memory, or he took the picture," Boyd says.

Ian Wetherell had died by the time Boyd and Martin read the article, but they were able to track down his step-brother, Christian Spurling, in the south of England. Spurling, 93 and near death, confessed. Unhappy with the way he was treated by the Daily Mail after the hippo foot fiasco, Duke Wetherell had set out to get his revenge, enlisting his son and step-son in the plot. First Spurling built a model monster by grafting a head and neck onto the conning tower of a toy submarine. Then Wetherell and his son Ian drove up to the loch and staged the photograph, taking care to include the actual Loch Ness scenery in the background. Finally, to conceal his own role in the hoax, Wetherell persuaded Dr. Wilson, through their common friend Chambers, to have the photo developed and sell it to the Daily Mail as his own. The plot worked better than any of them could have imagined.

Not everyone accepts the Spurling story. American journalist Richard Smith, for example, notes that toy experts question whether the toy submarines of the 1930s could have performed as described, and he wonders why Boyd waited until after Spurling's death to reveal his confession. But in the aftermath of Boyd's 1994 bombshell, most people now believe the surgeon's photo was yet another Loch Ness hoax.

Model picture of the Surreon photoThe 93-year-old stepson of Marmaduke Wetherell told Boyd he made the monster in the picture by grafting a plastic wood neck to a toy submarine.

Does that finally disprove the monster's existence? Not at all, says Boyd. One of the great ironies of the Loch Ness story is that the man who brought down the most famous piece of evidence remains a firm believer in Nessie. "I am so convinced of the reality of these creatures that I would actually stake my life on their existence," he told NOVA. "I trust my eyesight ... I used to make my living teaching people how to observe, and I know that the thing I saw was not a log or an otter or a wave, or anything like that. It was a large animal. It came heaving out of the water, something like a whale. I mean, the part that was actually on the surface when it stopped rolling through was at least 20 feet long. It was totally extraordinary. It's the most amazing thing I've ever seen in my life, and if I could afford to spend the rest of my life looking for another glimpse of it, I would."

Loch Ness Monster Legend  |  The Loch Ness Monster Nessie