The north-west Highlands run north from the geological fault line that cuts diagonally across Scotland like a sabre-cut. This fault, known as the Great Glen, is a series of lochs linked together by the Caledonian Canal, a magnificent relic of 19 th century engineering. The largest of these lochs is the dark and mysterious Loch Ness, with the brooding ruins of Urquhart Castle clinging to its banks. 24 miles in length, about 1 mile wide with an average depth of 400ft, it is home, possibly, to a colony of as yet unidentified creatures, known the world over as the Loch Ness Monster. No newcomer this; an inscription on a 14th century map tells vaguely, but chillingly, of "waves without wind, fish without fins, islands that float". Seldom has the ‘monster' been better described.
‘Monster' sightings are not limited to Loch Ness: Lochs Awe, Rannoch, Lomond and Morar have all been said to contain specimens. The Loch Ness Monster owes its wider appeal to the opening of a main thoroughfare along the north shore of the loch in 1933. Since then, distant sightings of, ‘four shining black humps', ‘brownish-grey humps', ‘a wave' that shoots across the loch at 20 miles per hour, have ensured that visitors flock to the loch. So far, the creature has presented itself only in tantalising glimpses. To believers it has been an unknown fish, a giant slug and a plesiosaurus, which was (or is) a fish-eating dinosaur. Unbelievers are equally imaginative. They suggest that the ‘monster'is really a mat of rotting vegetation propelling itself by released gases; waterfowl such as red-throated divers swimming in line ahead; a group of otters playing ‘follow the leader'; even the remains of a First World War Zeppelin that appears periodically on the surface of the loch. In Gaelic folklore there is no mystery - the beast is an Each Uisge , one of the fearsome water-horses that haunt almost every sheet of dark water in the Highlands. Tales of a ‘beast' in Loch Ness date back at least to the 6 th century, when it was recorded in Adamnan's biography of St Columba that in AD565 the saint prevented a River Ness water monster from eating a Pict. According to another legend, the beast towed St Columba's boat across the water and was granted perpetual freedom of the loch.
Loch Ness has one direct outlet to the sea, the shallow River Ness and it is fed by eight rivers and innumerable streams, each of which pours the peaty soil of the hills into the loch. Consequently, the water remains unusually dark; divers working with powerful arc lamps 50 feet (16 meters) below the surface have been unable to see for more than 10 feet around them. Legends of caves supposedly the home of a colony of monsters has yet to be disproved; these are said to be situated in the gloom beneath the sullen ruins of Urquhart Castle. If there is some creature in the loch, for it to have survived for centuries would mean, most likely, the existence of a large colony; discrepancies in reported sizes could be accounted for by the presence of adults and young. The colony theory is also supported by nearly simultaneous sightings in different parts of the loch.
Though most zoologists discount the possibility that a large and unknown animal might be living in Loch Ness, it is remarkable that reports of creatures in other Scottish lochs, and in lakes in Ireland, Norway and British Columbia, should be so similar in detail. People who have witnessed the phenomenon more closely agree that it is ‘slug-like' or ‘eel-like', with a head resembling a seal's or a gigantic snail's, while the long neck is embellished with a horse's mane. Its length has been estimated at anything between 25 feet and 70 feet with skin texture that is ‘warty' and ‘slimy'.
On a lighter note, the official Loch Ness exhibition centre, located on the outskirts of the tiny Highland village of Drumnadrochit, just behind Urquhart Castle, makes its living on visitor's ready acceptance that ‘Nessie' does undoubtedly reside nearby. However, that being said, the exhibition is both focused and objective in its approach to the material presented as ‘evidence' for the existence of a creature in the loch. Nor is it lacking in interest, for the exhibition is so constructed that visitors follow through a sequence of creatively designed rooms, being well informed as they go by means of imaginative audio-visual displays. The interest quota is high, if at times a little technical, but the sequences on the environment of Loch Ness as a possible long-term habitat for a monster; the multitude of monster-hunting methods and the alternative explanations for some of the most famous ‘monster' photographs is utterly absorbing.
Urquhart Castle sits uncomfortably close to the dark waters of Loch Ness, the deep recesses of which, directly beneath the castle, are supposed to harbour the cave dwelling creatures so illusive to find. It is, quite possibly, this close proximity to the monstrous waters that make the ragged remains of Urquhart so popular an attraction - the third most visited castle in Scotland after Edinburgh and Stirling. It can be no coincidence that it is from this stretch of loch, around the castle, where ‘Nessie' has most often been sighted. Urquhart castle, it must be said, despite the historicity of the site, strikes a most dramatic pose; its romantically crumbling ruins, set off by the tumbling wooded hillside behind, gaze blindly at its own wavering reflection in the mysterious loch before it.
Originating in the medieval period the ruined castle, one of the largest in Scotland, sits on a promontory overlooking Loch Ness; although often rebuilt part of what remains provides evidence of its Norman beginnings. After a steep climb to approach the castle entry is over a drawbridge, through the remains of the gatehouse and into the grassed over upper and lower baileys. The best-preserved part of the castle is the late 14 th century section of tower house that remains to us, rearing-up dramatically, broken but unbowed, this dark silhouette perfectly complements the mysteries of the deep. In later years, before its destruction, the castle was transformed from being a purely functional stronghold into a more comfortable residence.
Urquhart may well have been a stronghold as far back as Pictish times, and it does enjoy a long and bloody history, playing a leading role in the debilitating Scottish Wars of Independence. The Chiefs of Grant owned the castle in 1509, and most of the existing building dates from that period. The castle was employed as a bulwark to combat the powerful Lords of the Isles on their periodic invasions from their powerbase in the west. Castle Urquhart's final acts upon the Scottish stage of history came during the first Jacobite rebellion in 1690, as a result of which the Grants blew up the castle in 1692 to prevent it from becoming a Jacobite stronghold. In point of fact they only partially destroyed it, weather damage and local plundering of the stonework finally did for it. The archaeological work around the site is ongoing, but does not impede visitor enjoyment of the ruin; a model siege engine has been erected near the castle walls.