In early May 1933 reports that some kind of monster had been spotted in Loch Ness, in the Scottish Highlands, near Inverness, reached the press. By the end of the year, national weekly publication The Sphere wrote:
When the Loch Ness monster first came into the news many believed that the stories published in the Press were nothing more than mere sensationalism. To-day this theory does not hold good. People, whose judgement can be relied on, have seen the ‘monster,’ and there is little doubt that some creature of unusual size does appear on the surface of the loch.
The Loch Ness monster legend of the 1930s had reached fever pitch, with hundreds travelling to the Scottish loch hoping for a sight of the mysterious creature. And so, in this special blog, we will investigate the Loch Ness monster fever of the 1930s, which captivated the nation and beyond, permeating popular culture to become one of the world’s most intriguing and notorious unsolved mysteries.
Early Sightings of the Monster
Newspapers from the 1930s abound with accounts of sightings of the Loch Ness monster. By 23 May 1933, approximately three weeks after the first sighting of the monster, the Aberdeen Press and Journal was reporting that:
People who have come forward with the most effective stories speak of a ‘monster’ between twenty and thirty feet long with a body like that of a huge overgrown eel.
One such sighting was described by a Mr Shaw of Whitefield, Inverfarigaig, which lies on the south-east shore of Loch Ness, where ‘the water reaches a depth of 700 feet.’ The Dundee Courier, 23 May 1933, reports how Mr Shaw had ‘previously disbelieved that there was a monster,’ but he had caught sight of something in the loch only a few days previously. He called a friend and his son to take a look, and ‘they watched it for about ten minutes through a telescope.’
Throughout the summer of 1933 and into the autumn there were yet more sightings of the unidentified creature, the Falkirk Herald on 18 November 1933 reporting how the ‘Loch Ness ‘monster’ was seen frequently’ over the preceding weekend, once by Mrs Arthur Pimley. From a bedroom window at Kilcumein Lodge, Fort Augustus, she compared the creature to a ‘small boat.’
Meanwhile, the same newspaper describes how:
At noon on Saturday Messrs John Cameron, chauffeur at the Caledonian Hotel, Fort Augustus; James Macksimming, timekeeper with a Glasgow firm of road contractors; and William Grant, motor driver, Invermoriston, watched the creature disport itself for 20 minutes about two miles east of Fort Augustus. The loch was calm and the sun shined brightly. The men said that the creature seemed to be eight or nine feet long and that about 18 inches of its back protruded above the water. It seemed to turn right ever occasionally, and the under part of the body was silvery and the top brownish black.
In early December 1933 the creature was again seen, the Aberdeen Press and Journal relaying how it had been spotted by young Alastair Bisset ‘in the vicinity of Dores Bay,’ which lies on the north-eastern side of loch. He was alerted by a ‘great wash on the loch, and then he saw the ‘monster’ careering at great speed from Abriachan, on the north side, to Holly Bush on the south side.’
The Sightings Continue
And into the new year, sightings of the so-called monster continued to occur, and to fill the pages of the press. In May 1934 the Illustrated London News included two artist’s impressions of the creature, one as seen by Miss A. Simpson, and the other, captioned ‘Two Humps,’ as seen by Miss Jane Goodbody back in the December of 1933.
Perhaps the most remarkable artist’s impression of the monster came from a description provided by Mr Arthur Grant, of Drumnadrochit, which was published in the Dundee Courier in May 1934. He professed to having seen the monster out of the water, ‘on the road about eight miles from Inverness.’ The same newspaper report, meanwhile, alluded to testimony from a Mrs Maclennan, who had seen the monster at Drumnadrochit, on the western shore of the loch, and described it as having ‘a mane like that of a horse.’
By June 1934 further credence was given to the sightings when none other than a monk came forward to say that he had seen the monster too. Brother Richard Horan of St. Benedict’s Abbey, Fort Augustus, allegedly watched the creature ‘for over twenty minutes,’ as it ‘moved leisurely about the surface of the water,’ as reported The Sphere.
Brother Horan related how:
…the monster is not the fearsome thing some have declared, but a graceful creature whose head and neck were above the water at an angle of 45 degrees. The head, he states, was beautifully shaped and the under side of the neck was silvery in the middle and black at the edges.
Meanwhile, three other witnesses were said to have seen the monster at the same time, and they described it ‘as a black, shiny, object.’ The sightings kept on coming, with Mr William MacDonald, owner of a handloom weaving business in Fort Augustus, seeing something peculiar in the lower basin of the Caledonian Canal, ‘where the water is very deep.’ The Fife Free Press, & Kirkcadly Guardian featured on 28 July 1934 his testimony:
Suddenly…a creature appeared only 100 yards away, and it was not unlike a huge heron. It turned gracefully, and in a second it was racing for the centre of the loch. When it turned I saw two distinct humps one behind the other, but whether this indicated two creatures I cannot say. Before the object disappeared in the distance three men hikers and another gentleman with binoculars were in time to see the last of the monster.
Like other witnesses, William MacDonald was ‘impressed‘ by the ‘remarkable speed of the monster.’
By August 1934 the Illustrated London News was reporting how the Loch Ness monster had been seen ‘twenty-one times in four weeks,’ whilst featuring a remarkable series of photographs taken ‘under the auspices of Sir Edward Mountain, and not retouched.’ Insurance magnet Mountain had organised a search for the monster, and photographs of ‘creature with humps’ was obtained in July 1934 at Brackla. More photographs of the monster were obtained at Abriachan, which appeared ‘to indicate beyond all doubt that a creature of considerable size is in Loch Ness.’
On 25 July 1934 another photo was taken of the monster from Temple Pier, near Drumnadrochit, where it had ‘approached until it was almost in front of the camera,’ sinking with a ‘loud splash.’ On the whole, Sir Edward’s party agreed that:
…the ‘monster’ displays a very small head relative to the size of its body, and moves along the water in such a way as to show two or three humps. Further, all agree that when it is on the surface the creature moves with remarkable speed, which complicates attempts to photograph it.
On The Track of the Monster
The race was on, then, to catch sight if not to catch the monster itself. When news of the first sightings broke in May 1933, bus driver Alex Gray identified himself as the man for the job. The Foyers inhabitant, as reported the Aberdeen Press and Journal, was going to make ‘an attempt to catch it,’ having had ‘special tackle’ made for the task, usual fishing equipment not being strong enough.
Rumours of the monster, meanwhile, were attracting visitors from far and wide. In November 1933 the Dundee Courier published a picture of Commander R.T. Gould, the author of The Case of a Sea Serpent, ‘on track of the monster,’ seated on his motorcycle complete with pipe.
But there were those who worried that the creature in the loch could be harmed by such attempts to catch it. Again in November 1933 a concerned Sussex angler wrote a letter on the subject, which was then published in the Falkirk Herald:
The Fishery Board for Scotland and the County Council of Inverness both advise me that they have no powers to protect this weird creature. In the meantime it is fair game for Tom, Dick or Harry, armed with a rifle, and it seems to me of paramount importance that no time should be lost in introducing a short Bill to protect the creature and its kind.
The issue was then brought to the attention of local M.P. Sir Murdoch Macdonald, who said that although there was likely to be great difficulty in getting such an act passed, he was discussing with the Secretary of State for Scotland ‘on the question of police precautions against anyone molesting or attempting to destroy the ‘monster.’ He had some strong words, however, on the subject:
I am not very much afraid of a fool taking a pot shot at the ‘monster’ and killing it. Certainly if one did I think – although I believe I am a very humane man – I would willingly see him hanged, drawn, and quartered, in addition to any other form of Chinese punishment which would fit the crime.
And by December 1933 the Dundee Courier was reporting that the police had been ‘called in as ‘guardians” to the monster, with a ‘hands off’ warning given to the public. The newspaper detailed how:
It is understood that the Inverness-shire police have instructions to strictly warn the public that no attempt must be made to molest or shoot the monster if it is sighted. Policemen who are on duty in the vicinity of the loch are to intimate to residents and visitors that they are not in any way to attack the creature.
These measures had been put in place so that authorities might have a better chance of identifying the monster, with efforts even being undertaken by air to do so. In the same month The Scotsman pictured a group, which included Inverness Town Clerk Mr. G.S. Laing, Provost Mackenzie and Baillie H. Mackenzie, ‘in quest of the monster,’ who were photographed ‘before a flying visit over Loch Ness.’ The group, flown by Captain E.E. Fresson, were not, however, treated to a sight of the monster.
The lure of catching the monster had gone global by May 1934, with the Linlithgowshire Gazette reporting that an offer of $25,000 had been made by an American ‘for the capture of the Loch Ness monster.’ This provoked Sussex based ‘veteran zoologist’ Mr. A. Russell-Smith to write to Inverness-shire M.P. Sir Murdoch Macdonald to ask:
Is there anything in the police protection regulations to prevent Americans or any other parties from making an attempt to capture the Loch Ness monster?
By 1934 Macdonald’s fervour for the unidentified creature appeared to have waned, as he commented ‘the loch is a public loch’ and ‘the monster could be caught if anyone went to the trouble to do it.’
Hoping to gain more information on the monster in October 1934 was another American, John E. Williamson, an undersea photographer and scientist. The Dundee Courier related how he hoped to ‘throw light on the mystery of the Loch ness monster by photographing it under the waters of the loch.’ Williamson, however, was not successful in his quest.
With so many sightings of the monster, it was unsurprising that theories pertaining to the creature’s identity abounded in the press at the time.
One of the most simple explanations as to the creature’s identity was printed in the Aberdeen Press and Journal in August 1933 with the caption ‘Is it the Loch Ness Monster?’ It was a picture of a tree trunk, and the newspaper elaborated how:
A tree trunk, which has certainly the characteristics of the horse with a ‘knobbly back,’ has been washed ashore near Foyers. It is feasible that this may be what has been seen by so many eyes, except perhaps those that saw the ‘monster’ cross the road with a lamb in its mouth!
Indeed, it could not explain the sightings of the creature on land, but in December 1933 The Sphere concurred, noting how it was ‘easy’ for people to mistake a tree trunk floating on the loch for a monster.
Another popular theory was that the monster was in fact a plesiosaurus, an extinct reptile from the Jurassic Period. Our concerned Sussex angler wrote in November 1933 that the creature bore ‘an amazing resemblance to the supposedly extinct plesiosaurus,’ as reported the Falkirk Herald. This theory was again aired by The Sphere in its article ‘The Mystery of the Loch Ness Monster,’ where the publication noted the plesiosaurus’s long neck, which tallied with witnesses’ descriptions of the monster.
Others believed that the monster was no monster at all, and was instead a fin whale. This theory was touted by the Aberdeen Press and Journal in December 1933, in relation to a photograph which had been taken of the creature by Hugh Gray at Foyers:
Close study of the first actual photograph of the ‘monster’ suggests that the vague outline of the ‘monster’ in the water bears a resemblance in many ways to the fin-whale, while the habits of the fin-whale tally to a remarkable extent with the habits of the ‘monster’ as reported by a number of its observers. The white area on the photograph, at first thought to be spray, may well be the white belly of a fin-whale, and on the original photograph what appears to be a strange, whale-like mouth is clearly visible.
Experts from Manchester University had been invited to inspect the picture, but ‘they stated they could not make any definite statements on the evidence it produced,’ and that ‘the theory that this photograph represented a fin-whale must remain only a theory.’
The Sphere, meanwhile, presented a plethora of other theories. Was the monster a Florida manatee? The publication cited a case of one such manatee being sighted ‘far out in Atlantic shores,’ whilst it also posited the idea of the monster being a ‘giant tunny,’ a creature of ‘immense size,’ although this was dismissed as being very unlikely.
‘Enthusiastic investigators’ were combing museums across the country in an attempt to ‘couple the various models of prehistoric creatures with the scanty data so far revealed regarding the Loch Ness monster,’ with the portheus mollossus, a ‘powerful marine monster’ exhibited at the Natural History Museum, a candidate for the creature’s identity.
Other theories were not so far fetched: the Illustrated London News in May 1934 suggesting the monster might be a basking shark. Dutch expert Dr. A.C. Oudemans, also in May 1934, publicly denounced theories that the creature was a plesiosaurus, as the Dundee Courier reported. Dr. Oudemans was a former director of the Zoological Gardens at The Hague, and he believed that the monster was a sea serpent, putting forward his theory in a booklet entitled ‘The Loch Ness Animal.’
Oudemans claimed the support of Commander Gould, our pipe-smoking investigator, in this theory, and outlined what a sea serpent is like:
…it is from 18 to 200 feet long, at an average of 100 feet. It has a small head, which is, however, broader than the neck, which increases in girth as it approaches the body. There is a long, muscular tail somewhat thinner than the trunk, and tapering to an end, with two huge flippers at the shoulders and two small ones at the end of the trunk. A mane like a horse on the neck, with a smaller one running down the back and two brilliant, light-reflecting eyes add to its ‘beauty.’
Oudemans went on to outline the sea serpent’s similarities to eyewitness accounts of the monster:
It seems to be as flexible as a snake, hence the variety of reports regarding the number and size of its humps. The animal has lungs and is warm-blooded. It can do about 20 miles an hour, and this may account for the impression that there are two of the animals when seen at places from 15 to 20 miles apart. The possibility of there being two of the creatures, however, is not remote. There may even be a family!
The loch, however, was not an ideal home for the sea serpent, as it is comprised of fresh water, rather than salt water. Meanwhile, submarine explorer John E. Williamson, as reported in the Dundee Courier in October 1934, believed the monster to be a ‘giant squid, which has ten tentacles and two long feelers reaching sometimes a length of 60 feet.’ He believed it was these feelers which had been mistaken for the creatures ‘humps.’
But how could such a creature get into Loch Ness? Williamson believed there ‘might be an ocean hole leading to the loch,’ whilst The Sphere in December 1933 reported:
There are three possible channels of access, and it has been suggested that it came in at a time when there was a heavy spate of water running through one of the weirs connecting with the River Ness.
Our final theory also comes from The Sphere, this time from June 1934. It was reported by the inhabitants of St. Benedict’s Abbey that they had often seen mirages on the surface of the loch, owing to its ‘particular physical characteristics.’ They had seen steamers and mountains ‘playing over its surface,’ so why not a monster too?
In Popular Culture
With Loch Ness monster fever spreading across Britain and the world, soon the legend had seeped into popular culture, and the loch would be forever tied with the mysterious creature. M.P. Sir Murdoch Macdonald proclaimed, with some foresight, in November 1933, how:
If it turns out that the ‘monster’ is not really dangerous in the ordinary sense, then it is the finest advertisement the Highlands have ever had.
By November 1933, the Loch Ness monster was already serving as a tourist trap for the Highlands, the Falkirk Herald reporting how:
Hundreds of people in the Great Glen, most of them sceptical, hurried to Loch Ness-side by motor car and other modes of transport on Sunday to try and get a glimpse of the ‘monster.’
Meanwhile, people dressed up at Halloween as the monster, the Aberdeen Press and Journal in October 1933 picturing ‘the prize-winning duo at Rathven W.R.I. Halloween party.’
There were even songs dedicated to the Loch Ness monster, as relates the Dundee Evening Telegraph in January 1934. Visitors to B.G. Forbes in Victoria Road, a music and radio seller, were treated to a duet by pantomime performers of ‘The Loch Ness Monster Song,’ one quipping:
If ye don’t keep in tune…I’ll fling ye to the monster.
And so whether fact or fiction, hoax or hysteria, the Loch Ness monster fever of the 1930s permeated the press, popular culture, spawned hunts and searches, and fuelled tourism to the area. But why exactly did it capture the world’s attention in such a way? Well, aside from being a wonderful tale of monsters and mystery, the world at that time was suffering from the devastating effects of the Great Depression, and sat under the shadow of another impending war. There was no wonder then, at the time, that the cinema was so popular, a wonderful world of glamour that offered an escape from the harsh realities of everyday life. So did the monster. And as long as the monster was never caught, never identified, it could always be an escape from the mundane, and it continues to delight, excite, and intrigue people across the world do this day.
Find out more about the Loch Ness monster, the Highlands, the 1930s, and much more besides by starting your journey into the past with us here today!