Excerpt from “In Defense of Nessie”


BJ Hollars


When classifying the creature, many scientists point first to the plesiosaur, believing Nessie to be the last of her herd from the Cretaceous period. After all, Nessie sightings fit well within the profile of the ancient beast, and more importantly, provide the underpinnings for an evolutionary answer to her existence. Yet despite what seemed like a mostly logical assumption, the plesiosaur theory proved to be just one possibility among many.

Throughout the 1930s, Commander R.T. Gould, a retired British naval officer, became one of Nessie’s staunchest defenders (though he never pegged her for a plesiosaur). Instead, he described the 50-foot creature with the “grayish-brown body” as a “vastly enlarged, long-necked, marine form of the common newt…”

While a newt (Salamandridae pleurodelinae) seemed an unlikely alternative to a plesiosaur, so too, did Terrence McGrath’s assessment—that the creature was actually a downed German blimp (Blimpus downus). The shipping executive announced his theory in September of 1934. Soon after, divers from the British Admiralty identified a blimp in the water, providing at least a momentary answer.

However, later that year Nature magazine declared the monster a wayward gray seal (Halichoerus grypus), likely from a breeding ground in the nearby Orkney Islands. And just days after that, at the Fortieth Annual Zoological Society meeting in New York, Dr. William Beebe declared her a giant squid (Architeuthis). Not to be outdone, at a garden party in June of 1934, Dr. W. Reid Blair, director of the Bronx Zoo, jokingly informed guests that he would pay $25,000.00 for a live capture of the alleged beast—whatever it was. Yet the joke soon turned serious as monster hunters throughout Europe began taking him up on his offer, contacting Blaire to inquire on the particulars of receiving the bounty. Blair humored them, adding, “The conditions are that it be forty feet long, weigh two tons and be brought here alive.” While the zoo director admitted that there seemed to be “something unusual in Loch Ness,” he was not inclined to call it a monster.

Nor was Neil Clark, curator of paleontology at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum, who in 2006 released his own classification theory: Nessie was a circus elephant (Elephantus circus) out for a leisurely swim. “The circuses used to take the road up to Inverness and allow their animals to have a rest, swim about in the loch and refresh themselves,” Clark explained in a recent BBC interview. “It’s quite possible that the people around Loch Ness saw some of these animals.” He went on to describe how an elephant’s trunk (along with the hump of its head and back) might easily be mistaken for a sea monster fitting Nessie’s description.

The plot thickened when it was revealed that Bertram Mills, an eccentric circus promoter, regularly marched his traveling circus (elephants included) directly past the loch, adding further credibility to Clark’s theory. Throughout the early twentieth century, Mills had become famous for discovering oddities the world over and integrating them into his act. A showman himself (Capitalus showmanus), he understood the importance of getting one’s name into the papers, and in one instance, did so at the creature’s expense—offering a $100,000 reward for Nessie’s capture. As Mills’ obituary reported, “Nobody ever succeeded in delivering the reptile.”

The circus still enjoyed the free publicity.


(read the rest in In Defense of Monsters)