The Darker Waters of Loch Ness

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Like a lot of things I’ve written about at length, the Loch Ness Monster was a huge obsession of mine growing up. Well into my teens, I wanted to follow the example of Steve Feltham, who jacked in his job selling burglar alarms, stuck two fingers up to the rat race, and parked up on the banks of the Loch in a mobile library, where he could spend all day scanning the water with binoculars. Twenty-six years later, he’s still there. And I’m still here.

Aside from a brief holiday as a boy in the mid 90s, I never made it. But it’s still an incredibly appealing notion. The simplicity. The magic of an unsolved mystery. The solitude. Even though I live by the sea, some days, when I’m repeatedly having to pause Netflix to wait for the deafening roar of a motorbike to buzz out of earshot, it feels like there’s nowhere I’d rather be. I often think about how much I’d love to do it, if only just for a year, to write a book or shoot a film about my hunt for a monster that I don’t even really believe in any more. Maybe I should do a Kickstarter.

Even as a kid, in the storm of my obsession, the Monster felt like a mystery from a slightly bygone era. Time, and belief, had moved on, leaving much of its power back in the 1970s, alongside black and white photos of flying saucers on strings, Leonard Nimoy in a roll-neck talking about Bigfoot, and the unexplained mystery cards given away with Brooke Bond tea. The evidence I pored over back then is stronger now in its hauntology than it was even at the time. The grainy video of eyewitness reports featured weathered Scotsmen talking of ‘upturned boats’ rising from the waters in concrete-thick accents, most memorably, with Father Gregory from the monastery demonstrating the movement of a long neck through the waves with a buckled, arthritic finger. My favourite of all was an underwater picture taken through the murk by a team of American scientists, dubbed ‘The Gargoyle Head Photo,’ (seen at the top of this post) which suggested that, whatever species Nessie was, she was capable of screaming.

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While definitively silly season filler material to the real news, Nessie was a genuine enigma back in the day. There’s a plucky Britcom movie to be made of the story of the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau, which formed in the early sixties in response to the flood of sightings, and existed for a decade, with over 1,000 members at its peak. The enormous cast of bearded men in macs, their necks bent by heavy cameras, spent many thousands of rainy man-hours sat on wooden watch-platforms along the 23-mile length of the loch, watching, waiting; though I fear the only thing they found was violent haemorrhoids.

The eventual winding down of the project must have been reflected in their notepads. From the early days, full of youthful excitement, feeling as though they were on the verge of some great discovery, and the thrill of those first sightings; a distant row of humps, a shape cutting through the water; sights which, over time, became familiar; explained. Converging boat wakes. Native ducks. An otter. The longer you spend looking, the less you’ll see her, until she’s almost entirely disappeared. For many, rationality — and the elements — must have chipped away at the mystery, leading towards the central truth of Nessie; that she is many things all at once. Waves, ducks, otters; shapes that elsewhere hold little meaning, in a place imbued by such folklore became the embodiment of the fable about the blind man and the elephant; disparate necks and humps and wakes, converging into a single entity; an entity which soon appeared more often on boxes of shortbread than on rolls of film. Like everything always does, the Loch Ness story got distilled down to a handful of specific beats. The surgeon’s photo. The Dinsdale film. The flipper. The sonar sweep, as shown on Newsround. But lost in these classics, are a whole heap of singular, weird tales, half-forgotten because they were too creepy or wacky, or didn’t fit the established canon.

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“Can’t sit back down. I’ll burst ’em”

While beautiful, Loch Ness can also be a dark, foreboding place, and is almost a tale of two shores. The north side of the Loch is the one you know, home to the ruined castle, and perpetually feuding museums and gift shops. Shelves of stuffed green plesiosaurs in tartan, gift bags of chocolate pellets purporting to be her poos, boat rides for tourists; it’s where you imagine the Family Ness might live, or where The One Show could shoot a short VT, before quickly shifting topics and asking a confused Russell Crowe for his thoughts on bladder cancer. This is the Loch Ness of postcards. Across the water — freezing, peat-thick waters that could swallow a man — away from the £7.99 tam o’shanters with comedy ginger hair, are mile upon mile of empty, rolling fields and ancient woodland. And the former residence of Aleister Crowley.

The years have been particularly kind to Crowley’s reputation, with the label of ‘Wickedest Man in the World’ having stuck for over a century, rather than a more truthful descriptor, say ‘World’s Dirtiest Old Fucker’. His incredible skill as a self-publicist sees Crowley, to this day, held up as the great (and real) black magician, his poster on the walls of sixth form goths, his figure looming over every mention of the spooky dark arts, and inspiration for countless occult murderers in novels and episodic detective shows, each with similarly wicked-sounding names — always Lucien Ravens or Anton Devilscratch, and never just ‘Bill’.

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Not a magician in the traditional sense –“please don’t show your appreciation by throwing coins in the top hat; it’s full of cum!” — in reality, Crowley was mainly a prodigious enjoyer of sex and drugs, whose ‘magick rituals’ consisted almost entirely of prolonged bumming sessions that went on for days, in an effort to pull down the walls of consciousness. It’s little wonder that participants in these ‘workings’ generally didn’t skip happily back into everyday life once they’d clocked off for the day. Crowley’s first wife, party to all manner of black ceremony and possession, was committed to an asylum, where she died some 21 years later, while Victor Neuburg, frequent partner in his rituals for many years, would eventually be broken, both mentally and physically, after, to borrow a phrase from my previous work, Crowley smashed his back door right off its hinges.

None of this is to diminish the life of the man, who was incredibly culturally influential, and one of the most fascinating characters in human history. Grandfather of the counter culture, and a true polymath who walked every corner of the globe, it’s a tragedy he didn’t live into the age of the chatshow, to swap patter and innuendo with Kenneth Williams about alien gods like a Mephistophelian Ustinov. Perhaps subject to the greatest collection of rumour and tall tale of any historical figure, Crowley’s reputation spread far beyond the years of his own life, weaving him deep into the fabric of history. Stories of his influence, and his excess, only seemed to grow after his death; some true, others not. Crowley, it’s said, was a double-agent working for British Intelligence. He was part of a plot, along with Bond-creator Ian Fleming, to influence the Nazis via faked horoscopes. He committed human sacrifice. He was friends with L. Ron Hubbard and Jack the Ripper. He’s the real father of Barbara Bush (and grandfather of George W). The poet Dylan Thomas, in the midst of an affair with one of Crowley’s initiates, would often talk of the time Crowley had turned Neuburg into a camel.

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In August 1899, aged 23, Crowley purchased Boleskine House, on the banks of Loch Ness; but not because of the monster. There was no monster then, at least, not in popular legend. People talk of Water Kelpies and Saint Columba — who saved a local man from a “water beast” in 565AD — but those are folkloric backfills, and despite plenty of sightings from the late 19th century onwards, the Nessie of myth began in 1933. Not that Boleskine was without its ghoulish charms, said to be haunted by a severed head which could be heard rolling across the floor, and built on the ruins of a 10th century church that mysteriously caught fire, burning the trapped congregation alive. With its own personal graveyard, linked to the main house via hidden tunnel, the relator must have kissed the ground when Aleister Crowley walked in, and true to form, paid twice the asking price.

But like Alan Partridge’s cast-iron egg-tree, these gothic accoutrements were happy accidents. For a number of months, Crowley had been seeking a location in which to perform the Abramelin Operation; a six-month-long occult ritual designed to summon his personal Holy Guardian Angel. Boleskine House had been chosen as it fulfilled a number of specific requirements; an isolated location overlooking the water; a room set aside for the ritual, with a north-facing exit onto a terrace containing sand from a riverbed, two fingers deep (to record the footprints of invoked beings), and a lodge at the north end, into which conjured spirits could be contained.

Moving in on November of that year, the self-titled Laired of Boleskine Manor wasted no time getting up to general mischief, writing a letter to the National Vigilance Association — a Victorian society devoted to the halting of decaying public morals — complaining that prostitution in the nearby village of Foyers was “most unpleasantly conspicuous” by its absence. Even before the rite-proper had begun, preparation was stirring up cosmic unpleasantness, with workmen at Boleskine claiming they were unable to complete their tasks due to the unruly presence of half-formed beings, while on a return trip to his London residence, Crowley found the contents to have been thrown all about the place, and witnessed the same entities “marching around the main room in almost unending procession.”

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But now settled, it was time to get down to business, for the sixth-month ritual of Abramelin. This would require all of Crowley’s commitment, stamina and focus, as well as abstaining from alcohol and sex, which must have been tough going for someone who so loved pulling on his penis. The purpose of the ritual was summoning demons — more specifically, the 12 Kings and Dukes of Hell — and cowing them into submission; into serving the Lord of Light, in a weird occult version of the face-turn trope, like when Vader throws the Emperor down the reactor shaft. In turn, they would summon their own minions, to also serve, then, using the combined power of the now-good forces of Hell, the Holy Guardian Angel could be invoked, to impart the operator of the ritual with blessings and wisdom.

As the rite got underway, Crowley reported the movement of shapes within encroaching darkness. The air became thick with shadowy spirits, choking the daylight, even on the sunniest afternoons. Local labourers started to go mad. Crowley’s housekeeper disappeared. His lodge-keeper, tee-total for twenty years, went on a three-day bender and tried to murder his wife and children. But on he went, inviting the Lords of Hell into his home and trying to whip them into obedience. This demanded all of his fastidiousness, though one story tells of a local butcher who interrupted the Operation, and chopped off his own fingers after taking Crowley’s hastily-scrawled order for sausages on a scrap of paper with an old spell written on the back. But the spreading madness aside, all seemed to be working as it should. The demons were coming, thick and fast. And then Crowley received a missive from the head of his magical order, The Golden Dawn, calling him to Paris. He left immediately.

As any occult expert or Most Haunted viewer will tell you, rule one of performing any supernatural ritual is shutting things down properly. Even usually-sensible folk will scream at you to “make sure you say goodbye when using a ouija board!” as though ghosts will come pouring out, like when Peck shut down the containment unit in Ghostbusters. Open the doors, I say. Life would be way more exciting if there were ghosts everywhere. Anyway, Crowley’s mid-ritual scarpering to Paris was the equivalent of going on holiday while leaving the gas on, with gaping portals left wide open, and Hell’s denizens free to come and go as they pleased, without so much as the common courtesy to turn to the good side once they were through.

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In his absence, the property was said to be under a looming dark cloud, weirding out locals, who went out of their way to avoid the place. When finished with his business in Paris, Crowley briefly returned, writing of rooms now so thick with spirits that you couldn’t see a thing, even with the lights on, before other matters took him away to various locales, such as New York, Mexico, Egypt, and China. Three years later, he returned again, now disillusioned with the universe, and leaving the ritual to lay unfinished.

On and off, when he wasn’t travelling, Boleskine served as Crowley’s home for over a decade. In 1904, Boleskine found itself under magical attack from a fellow black magician in Paris, which Crowley claimed had killed his dogs and laid sick his servants. In response, he summoned Beelzebub, and his 49 servitor spirits, one of whom, according to his clairvoyant wife Rose, took the form of a large red jellyfish. Finally, in 1906, while Crowley was on his world travels, the Abramelin Operation was performed to completion, putting him in contact with his Holy Guardian Angel, ‘Aiwass’, who dictated to him The Book of The Law, aka the sacred bible for Crowley’s religion, Thelema. Despite further Boleskine ‘workings’ with Neuburg, he never closed down the half-finished Abramelin ritual there, nor did he banish back whatever demons he believed to have summoned.

Boleskine changed hands a few times over the next century, with the events that followed adding to its grim legend. Two of the subsequent owners committed suicide, with one of them shooting his own skull off in Crowley’s old bedroom. His housekeeper found a fragment of it in his dog’s mouth, throwing it for the dog to fetch before realising what it was. Besides Crowley, its most famous owner was Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, who was fascinated with the occult, but spent little time there. Page’s house-sitter, plagued by noises and shadows, once heard a monster snuffling against the bottom of the door. But then, Crowley did claim to have left one of the demons bricked up in the walls. In December 2015, a mysterious fire razed much of the manor to ashes. All that remains is blackened timber and a few free-standing walls. And whatever Aleister invited in.

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Curiously, though the notion of a prehistoric monster lurking in the nearby waters was some decades away, while in residence, Crowley had a warning sign posted outside the house. It read “Beware the Ichthyosaurus!

1933 was the Monster’s true date of birth, with most of the classic sightings and photographs hailing from a two-year period of prolific reports, both in the water, and on land. There had been many odd stories in the preceding decades, but the trademarks of a long neck, broad back, and multiple humps first coalesced into the Monster during the flap of 1933-34. She was subject to daily column inches, in newspapers like the Daily Express and Daily Mail; of whom the latter’s persistent front-page championing of the beast suggests they believed a surviving British dinosaur to admirably represent the farthest possible thing from an immigrant.

Of all the sightings, my absolute favourite occurred before all of this. In fact, it’s my favourite eyewitness account because it pre-dates the rest; a singular event before the established folklore was written, before the parameters were set, which doesn’t fit Nessie-lore at all, and consequently, is weird as shit. On April 1932, a Lieutenant Fordyce was driving back to Kent from a highlands family wedding with his fiancée, along the shoreline of Loch Ness. It’s there that he saw something, not in the water, but on the road. As you might expect, it did have a long neck, but as for the rest…

Travelling at about 25 mph in this wooded section, we were startled to see an enormous animal coming out of the woods on our left and making its way over the road about 150 yards ahead of us towards the loch. It had the gait of an elephant, but looked like a cross between a very large horse and a camel, with a hump on its back and a small head on a long neck. I stopped the car and followed the creature on foot for a short distance. From the rear it looked grey and shaggy. Its long, thin neck gave it the appearance of an elephant with its trunk raised.

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Pleasingly muppet-like illustration from the June 1990 issue of Scots Magazine

With zero frame of reference for craziness at Loch Ness, what did Fordyce think he’d seen?

Unfortunately. I had left my camera in the car, but in any case I quickly thought discretion the better part of valour and returned to the vehicle. This strange animal occupied our thoughts and conversation for many, many miles and we came to the conclusion that it was an escaped freak from a menagerie or zoo. We felt that a beast of such tremendous proportions would soon be tracked down and captured.

To digress slightly for a paragraph, though Fordyce was just offering a vague explanation to sooth his troubled mind over something he couldn’t explain, the old ‘escapee from a zoo’ idea is a classic Fortean problem-solver which crops up time and again, most often in the hypothesised form of a crashed circus train. Everything from big cats to the Dover Demon have been instantly rendered as ‘case closed!’ by the conjecture of an event that’s never happened outside of The Beano. Similarly, a few years ago, there were big headlines about Nessie being solved, with the theory that simpletons had merely misidentified elephants from a nearby circus, swimming beneath the surface of the Loch, with their trunks raised above the water. At every turn of the Fortean landscape, you find blind acceptance of the first ‘rational’ answer that’s proposed, rather than equal levels of investigative thought into explanations both rational and preternatural.

Interestingly, though Fordyce made his sighting in 1932, he kept quiet about it until 1990, and despite years of pop-culture Nessie bombardment, didn’t relent on what he’d seen, second-guessing his memories, or reshaping them into a more palatable, populist image of the monster. ‘Our’ Nessie doesn’t have fur, or spindly legs, but regardless, that’s what he saw. So what else could it be? Let’s revisit that description again. …like a cross between a very large horse and a camel, with a hump on its back and a small head on a long neck. Where else in this piece have we seen talk of a camel? Ah yes, Crowley, said to have magicked his associate into such an animal. Interestingly, if we investigate where the sighting took place…

…we had a lovely run by the side of Loch Ness as far as Foyers where we spent a short while admiring the famous waterfall. Shortly after leaving Foyers, the road to Fort William turns away from the lochside and runs through well-wooded country with the ground falling slightly towards the loch.

Foyers falls, you say? Along the road that leads into the woodland. Let’s take a look.

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Fordyce’s creature was coming from the woods on the left, and moving towards the loch, which indicates they were driving away from Boleskine, but this still puts the incident within walking distance of Aleister Crowley’s old home. Perhaps this strange, camel-like creature was one of Crowley’s enemies, transformed into a beast and left to forlornly wander the shores. Or maybe something that had crawled from Boleskine’s shadows while he was away gallivanting in Paris. Or perhaps it spilled out with the clowns and strongmen and monkeys on little bikes when a passing circus train flew off the tracks.

Though Fordyce’s experience was far from the last time Nessie was seen waddling about on land, reports of these excursions dried up decades before their aquatic counterparts. After a rash of land sightings during the boom of ’33-’34, there have been only a handful since the 1970s. In fact, it was another report of the beast on land, one year after Fordyce’s encounter, where an enormous prehistoric creature was seen slithering across the same stretch of road near Boleskine, that first started the media furore, and the whole Nessie phenomena.

As a child, I sent fan-mail to three celebrities. One was Norman Lovett from Red Dwarf; another was WCW wrestler Johnny B. Badd. Both replied with signed photos. The third was newsreader and royal correspondent, Nicholas Witchell. Now best-known for being called an “awful man” whom Prince Charles hates, when the future King was caught muttering on a hot mic, or for the time he sat on a lesbian protester live on the news, back in the day, Witchell was Nessie’s biggest evangelist. An active member of the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau in his youth, Witchell’s book, The Loch Ness Story, was taken out of the library by me, every two weeks for about a year, until my mum finally bought me a copy of my own.

Eventually, I sent him a letter, telling him how much I loved the book, and that I was sure he’d one day see Nessie for himself. Enclosed was a drawing I’d made, of Nicholas Witchell astride the monster like a valiant knight, rearing up out of the water, his shining ginger hair lovingly rendered in felt tip. The brief reply of thanks was CC-signed by his secretary, but I was sure my portrait took pride of place in a golden frame on his desk. Such was my Witchell fandom, for that year’s birthday I requested, and self-decorated, a Loch Ness cake, where green humps arose from a spread of blue icing. Loch-side, represented by a plastic Subbuteo-fan with little binoculars, a dob of orange icing for hair, was Witchell himself, ever watchful. Ironically, by the time I wrote to him, Witchell had disowned his book, considering Nessie an embarrassing youthful misadventure, and long-since stopped believing.

If you enjoyed that, check out my book of similarly-themed pieces about weird Fortean stuff, Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal. Or, my new novel about the Manson Family, Charlie and Me, on Amazon UK, and Amazon US.

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~ by Stuart on October 24, 2017.

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