Steve Feltham, Following Your Dreams and The Loch Ness Wars

Two things happened to me at University that forever shaped the course of my life. The first was to take part in an online quiz assessing how rational I was. As a third year Philosophy undergraduate I considered myself to be the epitome of rationality and I was quite surprised when after answering a series of apparently unrelated questions, the quiz informed me that I was only 80% rational. 

After throwing a small tantrum in which I denounced the quiz itself as the one behaving irrationally, I went back to find out which answers had prevented me from getting me a 100% score, at this point a prize worth more to me than my degree. The question that had been my downfall was: "Do you believe in the Loch Ness monster?" I had answered I didn't think there was enough evidence to choose either way; I was a Nessie agnostic. Apparently this conflicted with another answer I'd already given on religion, and as such I was 20% irrational.

You'll be pleased to hear I recovered from this knock to my confidence. Eventually. But when I did I started to wonder about my old pal Nessie, bringing me to the second thing that rocked my world. One of my childhood obsessions was the supernatural, and Nessie was a big part of that obsession. My parents and grandparents, pleased I wasn't interested in killing insects or shooting guns, encouraged this interest by buying me all sorts of books on the subject. One particularly fascinating tome was The Story of the Loch Ness Monster by Tim Dinsdale. In this book there were some brilliant pictures of Nessie taken by the always reliable and upstanding folk that abound in Nessie lore, bar the odd exception like Frank Searle and more recently, George Edwards (more on these gents later). The photos were captivating, and what made them so compelling is that they had all been independently verified by photography experts. Photography experts! How could you argue? 

Years passed and I didn't think about Nessie much and my childhood belief that it was a legitimate unsolved mystery sort of followed me into adulthood. So when I was told that those beliefs might be irrational, I went onto the internet to do a bit more research. That was when I stumbled across Tony Harmsworth's brilliant website, and in particular, this page analysing the surface photographs that had been taken of Nessie over the years.  

That afternoon, my inner child was given a good kicking. The page didn't just raise questions about one or two of the photographs I'd been promised were genuine by Tim Dinsdale and others, it systematically shredded each and every "mysterious" Nessie photograph ever taken. They weren't mysterious at all, they were all fakes. Full stop. MacNab? Fake. Hugh Gray? Fake.What about the muppet picture? Surely not the— Fake. All of them, fake. The End. By Tony.

So what? you're thinking. You must have been pretty stupid to have ever thought they were real. Well, yes. But also no. Maybe I'm a bit gullible, but those pictures were something tangible. I get being a bit tight lips, wonky mouth about eye-witness testimony. I'm with Hume there, always believe the lesser miracle. Boat or beast? I'm thinking boat. But how could so many people have gone to so much effort to deceive others and themselves. I wasn't cynical enough to believe in that much deceit. Which is probably where the rationality test was right. And 80% was rather charitable.

While losing a little faith where Nessie herself is concerned, my adult reintroduction to the Nessie story  introduced me to the fascinating human characters involved in the hunt for the Loch Ness Monster. Which brings me to Steve Feltham. Steve gave up his house and his job 20 or so years ago to go and solve the mystery of the Loch Ness Monster and to this day he keeps watch over the Loch from a converted mobile library on Dores beach. Steve is one of the good guys, and in all the years he's been watching the Loch he hasn't had much to report by way of sightings. What he has done is come out fighting when he smells a rat instead of monster, as evidenced here: 

I recently made my first visit to Loch Ness (on my Honeymoon) and had a chance to meet the great man. I bought one of his excellent Nessie models (it now sits on my writing shelf to inspire me, if you fancy one you can visit his website and had a brief chat with him about the latest monster evidence. Whatever you think of Nessie, you can't help but admire Steve and his rejection of the 9-5 life he left behind him. 

This documentary about the start of his adventure is worth more than an hour of your time and actually a little bit inspirational.

My introduction to Steve was via a 2005 documentary on Channel 4 called The Man Who Captured Nessie. I had to hunt high and low for a copy of this as it was only shown a few times before vanishing into the vaults, but it documents the exploits of the previously mentioned hoaxer Frank Searle who was sort of the anti-Steve Feltham. He was a fixture around the Loch way before Steve's time and came to be known as the go-to guy for Nessie photographs-mainly because he was faking them all. The documentary is wonderful and brings to life the warring factions of Nessie hunters that lived by the Loch during the '60s right up until the point when Frank allegedly resorted to terrorism before promptly leaving the Loch forever.

I've always had the idea I might one day write something about the Nessie wars of the 1960s, so it was interesting to discover when I went up there that they were still going on. There appears to be a legitimate divide between researchers like Steve Feltham, Adrian Shine, Tony Harmsworth, Dick Raynor and others on the one hand, who see their job as assessing the evidence for Nessie's existence and throwing out what doesn't stand up to scrutiny, and folk like George Edwards (Captain of a Loch Ness Monster boat cruise, run out of a museum called Nessieland), who sees his job as promoting the Nessie story by any means necessary, including faking pictures and making up stories. This article from the Scotsman outlines how Edwards links the decline in tourism in Scotland to the activities of monster "debunkers".

"How many people come here to see the Loch Ness Big Fish or the Loch Ness Big Wave?" asks Edwards, which I suppose is quite funny. And I also think there is something quite amusing about watching Adrian Shine pretty-much disprove Nessie at the Loch Ness Exhibition in Drumnadrochit only to walk into a three-room gift shop selling bright green Nessie toys, and monster emblazoned T-shirts. However, what Edwards--and a few other local industrialists by the sound of it-- thinks, is that the local economy depends on characters like himself hyping up the Nessie story in order to keep people visiting the area and it is the sceptics that are ruining it for everybody.

I'm not sure that George Edwards is right here, even if I can see there is something self-defeating about making a living from Nessie while using that living to disprove her. If anything is likely to put off tourists it's being hoodwinked and lied to. Grown adults spending fortunes on visiting the area don't like to be made fools of by those profiting from their misplaced trust. The strangest thing about the Edward's logic, as noted by Adrian Shine, is that "Mr Edwards does not believe in the Loch Ness Monster, [stating] ‘Most of the people I talk to on my boat know that it’s just a bit of fun.’ and speaks of ‘my little stories about Nessie.’ He clearly doesn’t think that many other people believe in it either." Which amounts to the interesting situation of the fusty old debunkers being the ones that truly believe there is a Loch Ness monster, and the anti-debunkers being the ones that are actually cynical old capitalists.

It's certainly the Felthams and the Shines at the Loch that I find myself siding with. Because at the heart of their interest in the mystery of Loch Ness, is a deep love of the area itself, monster or not. Adrian Shine does his best, while disproving the existence of a monster, to raise other interesting mysteries about the Loch such as the historical data to be gleaned from the sediment at the Loch floor, or the idea that large Sturgeon might account for some of the sightings. And what do the thousands of eye-witness statements tell us about ourselves is they aren't really reports of an actual beast? Steve Feltham clearly loves the life he has chosen, monster or not, because every day he gets to look out onto this vast, humbling and beautiful body of water. And I don't think they see their efforts as being to the detriment of the Loch's attraction to tourists because they so clearly see all the other amazing things about it. 

Ultimately, the mystery of the Loch Ness Monster is just a tiny part of this geographically and historically intriguing place. And if the latter two things don't interest you at all, I would certainly suggest going up there to try and get a glimpse of that rare and fascinating breed: The Honest Loch Ness Monster Hunter, of which there are still a few.