Apr 29, 2019 I Micah Hanks

Of Lochs and Long Necks, Part One: A Second Look at the Sighting That Put Nessie on the Map

Since she first began making international headlines in 1933, Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster has remained an item of intrigue, and one of much controversy.

In fact, all this holds true, regardless of whether there is really any kind of “monster”, in the completely physical sense. Even fairly recently here at Mysterious Universe, my good pal Nick Redfern has been discussing his own interpretations of what might be at the root of the entire Loch Ness situation. Although Nick and I have slightly different ideas about what may be behind the Loch Ness phenomenon, I think he would agree with me (having discussed it with him plenty in the past) that our mutual interests, as well as our separate conclusions, stem from two shared observations. They are as follows: 

1. The tales of a “monster” at Loch Ness present a singularly fascinating circumstance, where an accumulation of reports of something unusual has occurred in a fairly localized  geographical area, and

2. That despite the amount of information that exists about phenomena occurring at Loch Ness, there is both remarkable inconsistency from one report to the next, and also a damning lack of physical evidence to substantiate the reports.

For these reasons, Nick has suggested in the past that such phenomena border the nonsensical, and therefore may require other, more out-of-the-box interpretations. Admittedly, while I remain outside the “supernatural” camp on such matters (specifically, my feeling is that we first must look for physical evidence, and rule out all such possibilities before looking to speculative, and thereby less-productive solutions to the problem), Nick and I completely agree on the fundamental premise: simply chalking eyewitness reports up to there being some extraordinary, flesh-and-blood “monster” in Loch Ness has failed us time and time again.

Such long-winded pursuits have driven once-hopeful searchers like Adrian Shine—arguably among the most recognizable authorities on the subject—to the heart of skepticism over the years. In fairness, Shine’s is a critical attitude, but one that nonetheless remains welcoming to further evidence, should it ever arise (for this, it’s an attitude that I share with him, as well).

However, with the paltry data that we’ve seen in recent years (and yes, that even goes for the photos of long-necked cormorants that appear in the British tabloids every few months to keep their readerships awake and alert), perhaps it would actually serve us to look back at some of the “classic” reports of the creature. Specifically, I would hope to see whether there is room for new, and perhaps more careful interpretation of old data, and whether there is any evidence for faulty observations that might have shaped our ideas about a “monster” in the Loch over time.

At the outset of this article, I noted that Nessie has been a worldwide phenomenon since 1933. Of course, there are many claims of earlier sightings of the creature. Arguably, my favorite among these were stories recounted by one Alexander MacDonald, who as far back as 1880 recalled seeing a large creature swimming playfully in the Loch in the early mornings. MacDonald had even given a nickname to the animal, calling it “the salamander” for lack of any better identifier. He would not be the last to offer the interpretation that the animal might be some kind of amphibian akin to a large newt; researchers Rupert T. Gould and Roy P. Mackal would place similar weight behind the idea decades later, once Nessie made her big splash as an international news item.

Another notable early account came courtesy of the Duke of Portland, who wrote to the Scotsman newspaper about how he recalled tales about a “horrible great beast” the locals spoke of going all the way back to 1895. However, as commentators like Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero point out in their skeptically-driven, but highly enjoyable Abominable Science: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids, the Duke’s compelling story didn’t appear in print until after 1933. This is arguably the most significant year in the unfolding story of Nessie; it was, after all, the year that stories like that of George Spicer, and his land-based sighting of something weird and writhing, began to make headlines.

The Spicer story, in addition to being one of the earliest notable sightings of the alleged beast of Loch Ness, is also one of the most bizarre. Much has been said of the sighting over the years already, but to summarize it here briefly: on the afternoon of June 22, 1933 at approximately 3:30 PM, George and his wife were driving along the main roadway, a portion of General Wade’s Military Road, which hugs the Eastern bank of the Loch between Dores and Foyers when they noticed what appeared to be a large animal crossing the road some distance ahead of them.

The animal was only in view for a matter of seconds, and far enough away that several of the animal’s features were indiscernible (such as its primary means of locomotion). From their brief observation, Spicer summarized that the creature resembled “a huge snail with a long neck”, the latter appendage undulating such that, at times, it sounds more suggestive of a tail or a tentacle than an actual neck.

"It was horrible--an abomination," Spicer told Manchester’s Daily Sketch tabloid in its December 1933 edition. "The first I saw of it was an undulating sort of neck, a little thicker than an elephant's trunk. It did not move in the usual reptilian fashion but with three arches in its neck it shot across the road until a ponderous body about 4 feet high came into view."

"I have motored thousands of miles. I am a temperate man. I cannot think of any undertaking, any pledge, that I would not accept to vouch for the truth of my statement.”

"I am certain this creature is of a prehistoric species,” Spicer stated emphatically.

Here, I would like to suggest a possible alternative interpretation about the “undulating” appearance of the neck; it seems reasonable to argue that at the distance Spicer and his wife were from the animal at the time they saw it, the creature’s appearance could have been distorted from the Spicer’s vantage; a simple cause for this might be from heat rising off the roadway itself.

Weather data that gives historical monthly averages for Loch Ness in June indicates an average temperature high of around 60 degrees Fahrenheit in this region of the Scottish highlands, with humidity at around 75%. An inferior mirage resulting from “heat haze” might at least be a reasonable consideration with regard to the peculiar undulations of the neck of the animal in question, which even Spicer noted, “did not move in the usual reptilian fashion.” In fact, based on his description the thing didn’t move like anything known to science, let alone how an actual plesiosaur or similar extinct species would have moved (plesiosaurs were once thought to have greater mobility with their long necks, but recent findings indicate they apparently had stiff necks, a reality which has perplexed more than a few paleontologists).

Another question that came to mind here, innocuous though it may seem, had been whether the road in question had been paved—and thus more prone to heat buildup—at the time Spicer and his wife had their encounter (this might seem a silly question to non-natives of Scotland, of course, but as an American attempting due diligence in the matter, I would ask my kind readers to bear with me). Looking into this turned up an interesting bit of trivia: not only had the roads in the region been paved, but according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the very first use of concrete pavement anywhere in the world had been at Inverness, Scotland, just 35 minutes away from the general location where the Spicers had their encounter.

So yes, it at least seems plausible that pavement conditions at the time and date of the Spicer’s encounter might have allowed visible distortions from heat rising off the pavement, which doesn't always require tremendous summer heat (something one doesn’t generally see a lot of in the Scottish Highlands). All it really requires is a road surface temperature of around 10°C hotter than the air above it in order for the mirage to occur.

Spicer’s rather indistinct observation of a creature—whatever it might have been—was more than just the sighting that put “Nessie” on the map; it also appears to be the earliest of the reputable modern reports (that is, the widely publicized sightings since 1933) that introduces what appeared to be a long-necked animal.

In fairness, heavier emphasis might be placed on the notion that it only appeared to have possessed a long neck, given the circumstances outlined above. However, the sudden introduction of a long-necked animal with the Spicer sighting presents other problems in the broader Loch Ness narrative, as we will soon see.

Notably, prior to 1933, there were stories of “salamanders” at Loch Ness, as we have seen, as well as the appearances of the ever-popular humps resembling “upturned boats.” There were also a handful of sightings which offered vague descriptions of something resembling a “serpent” or an eel. However, it was only after Spicer’s sighting appeared in British papers that similar descriptions of a long-necked beast with a large body began to appear; any claims of such sightings prior to 1933 only appeared in print after Spicer’s report.

salamander 640x373
Given the long-necked appearance of some species of salamander, as with the small-mouthed salamander (Ambystoma texanum) seen above, the idea of a large amphibian in Loch Ness might not seem quite so silly! (Credit: Lance Merry/DNR.Illinois.gov).

Apart from the open-ended interpretation that Spicer’s fleeting observation of a creature leaves us with, there are other reasons one might begin to doubt the appearance of the long neck in Spicer’s account. Significantly, while Spicer’s description of the creature first appeared in print in August 1933, in a letter he wrote to the Inverness Courier, its long-necked appearance was further encouraged during later interviews by Rupert Gould.

“While discussing [Spicer’s] experience,” Gould later wrote, “I happened to refer to the diplodocus-like dinosaur in King Kong: a film which, I discovered, we had both seen. He told me that the creature he saw much resembled this, except that in his case no legs were visible, while the neck was much larger and more flexible.”

The fact that both men had seen the film King Kong, with its depictions of various prehistoric monsters (including the long-necked dinosaur Gould mentions above) has not been missed by other critically-minded researchers. Adrian Shine has suggested this film had been what inspired Spicer’s observation, a point further emphasized by Loxton and Prothero in Abominable Science. In fact, King Kong appeared in theaters throughout the United Kingdom around Easter in 1933, just a couple of months before Spicer’s June encounter. It’s hard not to argue that some kind of connection exists between the two.

I would absolutely agree that Spicer’s awareness of the King Kong film and its monsters is of obvious significance, in terms of how he may have interpreted the experience he and his wife reportedly shared later in June of that year. However, some further argue that this fact is sufficient to explain Spicer’s entire experience, a theory I find slightly credulous. More likely, in my opinion, is that Spicer and his wife probably did see something; but with monster talk around Loch Ness all the rage at the time, and the antediluvian beasts of Kong’s Skull Island still fresh on his mind, these things no doubt influenced how Spicer interpreted what he saw… whatever that actually was.

There's much more to be said about the early 1930s-era sightings at Loch Ness. Therefore, in the second part of this article, we'll turn our attention to how the Spicers and their description of an animal seen near Loch Ness gave rise to one of the most famous photographs in the history of Forteana... and a remarkably successful hoax that might have forever changed the way people would see Loch Ness and its famous monster.

Micah Hanks

Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.

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