The Legend of The Loch Ness Monster | History Hit

The Legend of The Loch Ness Monster

Amy Irvine

09 Nov 2023
The Loch Ness Monster - the 'Surgeon's Photograph'
Image Credit: Alamy / Chronicle

The Loch Ness Monster, affectionately known as ‘Nessie’, is a captivating mystery. Said to inhabit the deep, dark waters of Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands, this enigmatic creature has been a source of fascination, speculation, and debate for generations.

The sheer size of Loch Ness, which extends over 23 miles, is over 200 metres deep in places, and can hold more water (7,452 million cubic metres) than all English and Welsh lakes combined, poses a challenge for exploration.

In 1933, a series of sightings sparked the modern Loch Ness Monster phenomenon. Indeed 2023 marks 90 years since the first known photos of Nessie were taken, by Hugh Gray. Since then, numerous sightings have emerged; some have turned out to be hoaxes or natural phenomena, yet some remain tantalisingly unexplained.

Here we delve into the history of the legend, sightings, and theories surrounding Nessie, and some of the measures undertaken to try and uncover the truth about what might lie in the loch’s murky depths.

Historical roots and first sightings

The legend of the Loch Ness Monster has ancient roots, with stone carvings by the Picts in the Highland region hinting at strange aquatic creatures.

Indeed stories of a monster in the vicinity of the loch date back to the Middle Ages, when Irish monk St Columba is said to have encountered a beast in the River Ness that flows from Loch Ness in 565 AD. While there were a couple of alleged sightings in the 19th century, the modern legend began to take shape in the early 20th century.

In 1933, several reports of Nessie emerged, starting with the Drumnadrochit hotel’s manager Aldie Mackay’s claim of witnessing a ‘whale-like creature’ in the loch. The Inverness Courier reported the story, with their editor, Evan Barron, reportedly suggesting calling the creature a ‘monster’.

Later that year, George Spicer and his wife claimed to the same paper they had witnessed a large, long-necked creature crossing their car’s path near the loch, then disappearing into it. This fuelled public interest, triggering a series of reports of similar encounters.

Nevertheless, it was Hugh Gray’s sighting that marked a key moment in the search for Nessie. When walking his dog near the village of Foyers on 12 November 1933, Gray took the first photograph alleged to depict the ‘monster’. However, it was suspected his photograph merely depicted his dog fetching a stick from the loch, and was later revealed to be an otter rolling on the loch’s surface.

Sketch of the Arthur Grant alleged Loch Ness monster sighting in January 1934

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Famous sightings

The official register has now logged 1,156 sightings from records and other evidence stretching back through the centuries, many by credible witnesses. Among the most famous of these are:

  • Arthur Grant (1934): Veterinary student Arthur Grant claimed to have nearly hit a creature with a long neck and small head when riding on his motorbike while approaching Abriachan around 1am. He produced a sketch of the creature that was examined by a zoologist, who deemed it to have been an otter.
  • The Dinsdale Film (1960): British aeronautical engineer Tim Dinsdale captured a film that appeared to show a dark, hump-like object moving through the waters of Loch Ness. Although the film is grainy and inconclusive (with some thinking it showed a boat), it added to the Loch Ness legend’s allure.
  • The Rines and Wyckoff Sonar Scans (1972-1975, later 2001, 2008): In the early 1970s, researchers used sonar equipment to scan the depths of Loch Ness. These scans indicated large, unexplained underwater objects (which some interpreted as plesiosaur-like animals), sparking further speculation about Nessie’s existence. However, these findings remain inconclusive. Later searches in 2001 and 2008 led to discoveries of a carcass and a fungus-like organism not normally found in freshwater lochs, suggesting a connection to the sea and a possible entry to the loch for a creature.

Known fakes and hoaxes

The Loch Ness Monster legend is not without its share of hoaxes and fraudulent claims, with some individuals seeking to perpetuate the mystery for financial gain, amusement, or notoriety.

One of the most iconic images of Nessie was taken by Dr Robert Wilson, a respected London surgeon, in 1934. The photograph, showing a slender neck and a small head, became widely circulated via the Daily Mail and contributed to Nessie’s fame. (Wilson refused to have his name associated with the photograph, leading it to be known as the ‘Surgeon’s Photograph’.) However, this was later revealed as an elaborate hoax by one of the participants, Chris Spurling, on his deathbed. The ‘creature’ was actually a toy submarine with a sculpted head. Nevertheless, this image helped popularise the Nessie’s image internationally.

The ‘Surgeon’s Photograph’ of the Loch Ness Monster, 1934

  • Despite the existence of known fakes and hoaxes, not all sightings and claims related to the Loch Ness Monster can be dismissed outright. Some witnesses may have genuinely seen something unusual or unexplained, even if their accounts are difficult to corroborate.


Over the years, many official and unofficial searches have taken place to try and uncover the truth. Significant searches include:

The Loch Ness Investigation Bureau (1962-1977) – This was set up to find proof of a large beast in Loch Ness, but wound up in 1977 after failing to find any significant evidence.

Operation Deepscan (1987) A team of researchers equipped 24 boats with echo-sounding sonar equipment to sweep the length of the loch to detect any unusual creatures. While they registered some unexplained sonar contacts on three occasions, their findings remain inconclusive. One sonar expert claimed this indicated there was something in the loch larger than a fish that could be a new species, but critics argue that various factors, including seals, logs or large debris, could have produced false sonar readings.

‘The Quest’ – Loch Ness Centre / Loch Ness Exploration search (August 2023) – In the largest Nessie hunt in over 50 years, more than 100 volunteers helped document natural and unusual sights on Loch Ness. An additional 300 volunteers monitored the live stream, searching for breaks in the water and inexplicable movements over a two-day period. Drones equipped with infrared cameras were flown over the loch, and a hydrophone used to detect unusual underwater sounds. The search resulted in 4 distinct noises and several reports of possible sightings, but nothing conclusive. However, organisers maintain that the data collected will require extensive evaluation.

In 2018, Chie Kelly was taking photos of her husband and daughter while on holiday, and captured intriguing images of a strange eel-like creature briefly moving across a 100m distance near the loch’s shore. Fearing public ridicule, she didn’t share the images until The Quest took place. Steve Feltham, recognised by the Guinness Book of Records for the longest continuous Loch Ness Monster hunting vigil (over 32 years), hailed the photographs as the ‘most exciting’ he had ever seen. He remains convinced there is something unexplained in Loch Ness.

Loch Ness with Urquhart Castle in the foreground

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Sam Fentress / CC BY-SA 2.0


The Loch Ness Monster has been the subject of various theories regarding its true nature. Some of the most prominent include:

  • Giant eels: One theory proposes that the Loch Ness Monster is, in fact, a population of unusually large eels. While eels are known to inhabit the loch, the idea that they could grow to such enormous sizes remains a point of scientific contention.
  • Plesiosaur: The plesiosaur theory suggests that Nessie is a surviving prehistoric marine reptile. Advocates point to the long neck and humped back described in some sightings as reminiscent of a plesiosaur. However, the lack of physical evidence and the plesiosaur’s presumed extinction for millions of years cast doubt on this hypothesis.
  • Seiches and natural phenomena: Some sceptics argue that Nessie may be a product of natural phenomena, such as seiches – oscillations in water level that can create strange, serpentine wave patterns. These could potentially be misinterpreted as a creature’s movement.
  • Hoaxes and misidentifications: A more sceptical perspective posits that most sightings are the result of hoaxes, optical illusions, and misidentifications of known objects or animals, such as seals or giant sturgeons. Furthermore, fairs and circuses were common in the area from the early 1930s, leading some to think travelling carnivals may have allowed elephants to swim in the loch. These explanations, while compelling in some cases, do not account for all reported sightings.
  • Unknown species: A more optimistic viewpoint is that Nessie could represent an undiscovered species of aquatic creature, possibly adapted to the unique environment of Loch Ness. Proponents of this theory argue that new species are still being discovered in remote and inaccessible regions of the world.


The lack of concrete evidence, such as carcasses or DNA samples, makes it challenging to prove or disprove Nessie’s existence definitively. However, unsurprisingly, scientific consensus leans heavily toward scepticism, with several factors cited that make the existence of a large, unknown creature in Loch Ness highly unlikely, including:

  • Lack of food supply: Loch Ness’s ecosystem could not support a large, apex predator. The water body lacks the necessary prey species and resources to sustain a population of large, unknown creatures.
  • Biodiversity assessment: Numerous scientific studies have examined Loch Ness’s biodiversity, and none have provided evidence of a large, unknown species. Environmental DNA (eDNA) studies (in 2018), which can detect the presence of organisms by analysing water samples, failed to find any conclusive evidence of an unknown creature or large animals present.
  • Prehistoric survivors: The plesiosaur theory is especially problematic from a biological standpoint. The notion that a population of ancient reptiles could remain hidden for millions of years in a small, well-studied loch is highly improbable.
  • Cultural and commercial interests: Loch Ness has become a major tourist attraction due to the Nessie legend. This has created commercial incentives for businesses related to the myth, making it challenging to separate genuine investigations from those motivated by financial gain.
  • Optical illusions and misidentifications: Many reported sightings can be attributed to optical illusions, misinterpretations of natural phenomena such as water ripples, or hoaxes, further muddying the waters in the search for Nessie.

Since its first sighting, the legend of the Loch Ness Monster has inspired books, TV shows and films, as well as sustaining a major tourism industry. Whilst evidence overwhelmingly suggests Nessie is likely fictional, or at least an as yet unexplained phenomena, ‘sightings’ continue to create an aura of mystery surrounding Loch Ness, capturing imaginations worldwide.

Amy Irvine