Twenty-three miles long, unfathomably deep, cold and often moody, Loch Ness is bounded by rugged heather-clad mountains rising steeply from a wooded shoreline with attractive glens opening up on either side. Its fame, however, is based overwhelmingly on its legendary inhabitant Nessie, the “Loch Ness monster”, who ensures a steady flow of hopeful visitors to the settlements dotted along the loch, in particular Drumnadrochit. Nearby, the impressive ruins of Castle Urquhart – a favourite monster-spotting location – perch atop a rock on the lochside and attract a deluge of bus parties in summer. Almost as busy in high season is the village of Fort Augustus, at the more scenic southwest tip of Loch Ness, where you can watch queues of boats tackling one of the Caledonian Canal’s longest flights of locks.
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The world-famous Loch Ness monster, affectionately known as Nessie (and by aficionados as Nessiteras rhombopteryx), has been a local celebrity for some time. The first mention of a mystery creature crops up in St Adamnan’s seventh-century biography of St Columba, who allegedly calmed an aquatic animal that had attacked one of his monks. In 1934, the Daily Mail published London surgeon R.K. Wilson’s sensational photograph of the head and neck of the monster peering up out of the loch, and the hype has hardly diminished since. Encounters range from glimpses of ripples by anglers to the famous occasion in 1961 when thirty hotel guests saw a pair of humps break the water’s surface and cruise for about half a mile before submerging.
Photographic evidence is showcased in the two “Monster Exhibitions” at Drumnadrochit, but the most impressive of these exhibits – including the famous black-and-white movie footage of Nessie’s humps moving across the water, and Wilson’s original head and shoulders shot – have now been exposed as fakes. Indeed, in few other places on earth has watching a rather lifeless and often grey expanse of water seemed so compelling, or have floating logs, otters and boat wakes been photographed so often and with such excitement. Yet while even high-tech sonar surveys carried out over the past two decades have failed to come up with conclusive evidence, it’s hard to dismiss Nessie as pure myth. After all, no one yet knows where the unknown layers of silt and mud at the bottom of the loch begin and end: best estimates say the loch is more than 750ft deep, deeper than much of the North Sea, while others point to the possibilities of underwater caves and undiscovered channels connected to the sea. The local tourist industry’s worst fear – dwindling interest – is about as unlikely as an appearance of the mysterious monster herself.