In June 1995, the summer heat broke records in Scotland and the British Isles. Our visit coincided with the solstice and a combination of long days, relentless sunshine, and high temperatures. The local population bared soft, pale flesh unaccustomed to exposure and sought shade in in the parks, putting their bare feet into the water that ran around the weedy tussocks that made low islands in the broad, shallow streams. Lambs bleated piteously as the ewes wandered off in search of their own relief from the sweltering temperatures.
We had come for the scenery, but absorbed the history of the Highland Clearances, of the timber being stripped from the land exposing the bare hills, and of the wretched fate of the crofters, dispossessed under British rule after centuries on the same site. James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner provided a leit-motif for our travels with its dark gothic critiques of pre-destination and Calvinist doctrine. Who knew such a work could have been spawned by a rebellious early 19th century author?
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The scenery was remarkable, from idyllic Inverness with its homes fronted by deep gardens, Aberdeen built of granite as if in defiance of the rough North Sea, and Edinburgh with Arthur’s Seat and its castle in view above tightly curved historic streets. Everywhere, the sheep grazed. The abundant greenery of flowering hedges and verdant grass was present even in the merciless summer, but we gave up trying to climb Ben Nevis, the famous hiking site, because even at the very early hour of the morning when we set out it was too hot to bear. By 6 am, the picture-postcard beauty of deep blues and lavender hillsides of the peak was beset with glare and threat of exposure from the heat. We turned back, and were not the only ones discouraged by the intensity of the sun.
We went north along Loch Ness and stayed at a venerable hotel with bathroom fixtures in a design I had never experienced—the shower was plumbed with twin brass pipes which each had multiple spouts directing spray along one’s entire body. The presence of these antiquated fixtures was echoed in the dignity of the carpeted dining room and its view of the Loch through multi-paned windows. These sites fulfilled all expectations and called forth echoes of my family’s trip almost four decades earlier when, age six and dressed in a clean frock and Mary Jane shoes I had entered similar rooms in submission to strict decorum. The impression of tartan plaid rugs, heavy linen tablecloths, and place settings from what was already then another era had stuck with me. I wanted to touch them again through this visit, as if by picking up a weighty fork I might reconnect across the years to that earlier moment, itself encapsulated and displaced in time.
Among the scenic wonders of the region were the exhibits in the Loch Ness Centre. They made a compelling speculative argument for the existence of Nessie in terms seemingly designed to engage a ten-year-old with a scientific bent. In 1995, the time of our visit, none of the evidence was digital, holographic, or designed with virtual reality effects. Instead, we were presented with the sober, serious materials–grainy photographic images, records of radar and sonar. The arguments were made with vintage mid-20th-century technology. The famous blurry photograph asserted its charismatic effect as the earliest evidence. In its enlarged frame, the long sinewy neck of the monster rose from the waves, its profile unmistakable in grainy black and white. What else could it be but a giant living creature seen from a distance, breaking the surface of the water with unconscious grace and deliberateness.
The depth and length of the Loch contributed to the mystery. Impossible to deny the possibility, the interpretative materials suggested, that somewhere in its dark cold shadowy depths a mysterious creature might be concealed. Eight hundred feet of murky darkness stretch for twenty-three miles in a thin long line all of which cannot be surveilled at one time.
The search for the monster began in earnest after a touring road along the lake was completed in the early 1930s. Images of the long-necked creature had been made by the ancient Picts in the region during the early middle ages. An local tribe, identified by the Romans, the Picts made carved stones and other decorative objects with zoomorphic imagery, including rocks standing in the water of the Loch where they might–just might–have glimpsed the monster. Legend has it that in the 6th century St. Columba banished the creature with a prayer and the exhortation “Go back!” after it had killed a man.
But it was 20th century technology that invented the believable Nessie. First a credible local couple told a tale of sighting the creature rolling in the waves. That was soon after the road had been completed and no doubt the thrill of creating a media sensation played a role in this “discovery”—complete with rewards offered if the living monster were delivered into the hands of a circus prepared to exhibit it with full publicity. When a big-game hunter with the charming name of Marmaduke Wetherell found footprints along the edges of the lake, the factual existence of the monster was proclaimed. Unfortunately, staff scientists at the Natural History museum ruined the fun when they determined the prints had been made by an umbrella stand crafted from the foot of a hippopotamus. Oh my. And the famous photograph of the neck and head emerging from the waves, taken by a physician, Robert Kenneth Wilson, turned out to be an image of a carving attached to a toy submarine. But by this time, dinosaur classification was well established and the mythic creature became identified as a plesiosaur, a long-extinct aquatic species. To have arrived in the Loch it would have had to survive not only the 65 million years since all its brethren vanished, but also the last ice age. Loch Ness was frozen 11 thousand years ago during the last glacial maximum. Odds are small…
But all of this did not deter the earnest authors of the Centre’s exhibits. The most convincing evidence of all was the sonar imagery created in 1987. Blips and spots, dark blurs and a rhetoric of mystery all supported the possibility that something might—must—be moving in the dark waters of the lake.
The form of the evidence was just enough, the video crafted from the old photographs and newer sonar, the discussion of oversized eels, and of course the persistent dinosaur story all constructed a credible-enough tale to be amusing—and tempting. Belief is so intimately wedded to technological imagination, to what it takes to cross the line between what is and isn’t credible. Photography hardly weighs heavily in this moment of deep fakes, but only this week, in spring 2023, a “Nessie-hunter” used a web cam to capture a long line of wake breaking the surface of the Loch’s water. The footage is making the rounds of the myth-making media, though apparently it has not yet passed muster sufficiently to be entered into the Official Loch Ness Monster Sightings Register. But the fact that the Register itself exists is worthy of comment. Official Sightings? If they are in a Register they must be credible. And so the circular reasoning supports the improbable arguments.
The connection between technology and belief runs deep. The imagery created from electromagnetic signals captured by the James Webb Telescope and processed into photo-realist mode create a “visible” version of data. They pass for photographic images, as if they were taken with a camera recording visible light. But they are complex information visualizations created to match photographic visual conventions most viewers expect. Elaborately processed from signals, they provide a legible image of otherwise invisible phenomena, not faked, but fabricated to meet audience expectations. So the Loch Ness monster could be imagined as real when she was photographed with her head raised above the waves, or her body caught as a sonar blip, and her faked footprints credible for those moments of historical time when a few tracks in the mud could serve as a credible witness to events. The technological imaginary always aligns with the belief systems of its time.
Now, from the website information, it seems the Centre boasts a story of 500 million years of history, complete with lasers, digital projection, and god-spare-us, “special effects” as well as an entire shop devoted to Nessie. The dimly lighted galleries still exist, but their well-crafted cases have apparently been updated with additional documents and artifacts. A Deepscan vessel continues to monitor the waters of the Loch. The terms of credibility may have shifted, but they are always met with an equal capacity to extend the grounds of belief.
As for my Nessie fob, she has been on my keychain for almost thirty years, persistent in her unflappable enameled presence, as if we share a joke for which she is the obvious witness.
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