I stood proud, one arm leaned against a fence post, squinting through the rain over Loch Ness. Below me, a famous sight—Urquhart Castle, its blue Scottish flag struggling against the wind. This is the iconic image of Loch Ness. It would be the last time I saw it.
Urquhart lies not far from the sight of the infamous 1934 photograph of Nessie, the lake’s most notorious resident and international claim to fame. From a small age, the prehistoric neck of a plesiosaur rising from the loch’s choppy water has given me nightmares. This, because my uncle delighted in building model skeletons, which littered the Birmingham house where I would visit him as a kid. I dreaded going to that house, sleeping beside the constant reminder that the world is not always as it seems. Mysteries are out there; and in my mind, Nessie could rise from the cove of any Tennessee bream bed frequented on afternoon fishing trips with my father.
25 years later, those skeletal images of Nessie came to mind as I stood over her home waters. Was she in the loch, as old stories say? Was she really out there, under the ramparts below? I abandoned the lake’s most popular destination to find out.
A drive around Loch Ness takes time. Hours, really, to do it right. The long, slender depths may only be a mile wide, but they stretch for 22 miles across rugged, mountainous terrain. As such, the loch is divided into roughly two areas—north shore, and south shore. The north shore is the one you know. Urquhart Castle is located there, as are several tourist shops, towns, and inns. And thanks to a modern highway—the A82—the north shore of Loch Ness offers easy access for tourist buses and caravans.
Most tourists turn around at Urquhart; a few carry on to the idyllic highland town of Fort Augustus, on the loch’s far side.
I’m going further.
I’m going to the south shore.
A narrow, one lane road transects this side of Loch Ness. Getting to the south shore from Fort Augustus requires navigation of a deadly, but beautiful highland pass. Long before Scotland, druids, vikings, and perhaps even a wandering Roman or two used this pass to circumnavigate the lake. Today, a narrow asphalt ribbon sits on top of their footsteps.
The loch is barely visible from its crest, and the boulder-strewn road manages to knock a muffler hanger off of my rental car en route.
Eventually, I arrive at a centuries-old inn, perched on a hill above the abandoned aluminum refinery of Foyers. In World War II, this refinery was a major source of material for the allied forces, remnants of the refinery can still be seen below, in the form of a sturdy concrete dock. Today, a few tattered fishing boats moor there, in the shadow of the relic. There are no tour buses here. The only souls enjoying this view are few travelers at the inn, some campers, and the ghosts in a nearby cemetery.
I wonder who among us is keeping watch for Nessie.
Night comes slowly in the highlands. The sun sinks below the mountains well before its glow leaves the sky; but when its blue hues fade to black, the night here is dark. Despite the lights from the nearby city of Inverness, the stars here truly shine. At times, the Northern Lights will make their way this far south, and under the canopy of stars, it’s clear why the lake has been revered for thousands of years.
Loch Ness is an ancient place. You can smell antiquity in the air, feel it under the blend of moss and mud that makes up the forest floor. Legends say the druids here had a name for every rock, peak, and tree lining its shore. An American archeological team found evidence of Stonehenge-like circles here in the 1970s. Those stones, built by the druids, could be over 3,500 years old. And yet, those same legends also say that something far more ancient lives in the lake—something living, breathing, and occasionally surfacing.
You know the story of the surgeon’s photograph, that famous 1934 photo taken on the lake’s north shore. If you’ve been keeping up, you also know that the photo was proven to be a hoax when its maker confessed on his deathbed in 1994. (That’s shortly after I would have been sleeping beside a plesiosaur skeleton in Birmingham.)
What you might not know, however, is that sightings of the Loch Ness Monster began much earlier than the 1930s, when—not without coincidence—the modern highway was built on the lake’s north shore.
Fourteen hundred years ago, in 565 A.D., Saint Columba reportedly banished a water monster from the River Ness, which feeds the loch, after encountering a group of Picts who were recently attacked. And even older Celtic legends speak of a group of lake monsters called the Kelpie, said to be a dark “water horse” inhabiting deep pools and rivers.
There is evidence of Nessie’s existence beyond a 20th century tourist trap. A book at the inn lists other Scottish lake monsters, kin perhaps, forgotten by Americans, who can be forgiven for their ignorance of remote reaches of the highlands. Each beast has a mythology all of its own. Their names: Morag, at Loch Morar; Wee Oichy, at Loch Oich; Beathach Mor, at Loch Awe; and the Lomond Monster, at Loch Lomond. All date back centuries.
As I sit on the shore of Loch Ness, watching the night descend in a Foyer’s graveyard, visages of a lost species cross my mind.
For the next two days, I keep a watchful eye towards the loch, but no plesiosaur rises from the deep. I watch how the wind interacts here with the waves, noting how mountain passes and gusts can create unusual wave patterns on this infamous lake. I try to cast a line as well, but there’s an ordinance banning bank fishing.
But as I point the rental car away from the loch, passing its waters for a final time, I do spot something odd: a lone, dark wave crossing Loch Ness against the wind. It’s not much, only a fleeting glimpse from the road, and it’s not enough to tell me what I did see.
Still, the glimpse is not enough to tell me what I didn’t see, either.
The reality of Loch Ness is this. This remote area of a sparsely populated country is steeped in endless layers of history. It’s easy to see how legends could run wild here; but through my own eyes, it’s equally easy to see how those legends might be true.