Many a man has been hanged on less evidence than there is for the Loch Ness Monster.
— G.K. Chesterton
When the Romans first came to northern Scotland in the first century C.E., they found the Highlands occupied by fierce, tattoo-covered tribes they called the Picts, or painted people. From the carved, standing stones still found in the region around Loch Ness, it is clear the Picts were fascinated by animals, and careful to render them with great fidelity. All the animals depicted on the Pictish stones are lifelike and easily recognizable—all but one. The exception is a strange beast with an elongated beak or muzzle, a head locket or spout, and flippers instead of feet. Described by some scholars as a swimming elephant, the Pictish beast is the earliest known evidence for an idea that has held sway in the Scottish Highlands for at least 1,500 years—that Loch Ness is home to a mysterious aquatic animal.
However, the modern legend of the Loch Ness Monster was actually born on today’s date, when a sighting made local news. The Inverness Courier ran a story about George Spicer and his wife who had been taking a leisurely drive around the Loch when they spotted something strange on the water. According to Spicer “[it was] the nearest approach to a dragon or pre-historic animal that I have ever seen in my life.” The IC story was the first time that Nessie had been called a “monster” hence the title “Loch Ness Monster” was born. The story of the monster became a media phenomenon, with London newspapers sending correspondents to Scotland and a circus offering a 20,000 pound sterling reward for capture of the beast.
Within a year the first photo of Nessie was taken by Hugh Gray (on December 6th 1933). Later that month, the London Daily Mail hired an actor, film director, and big-game hunter named Marmaduke Wetherell to track down the beast. After only a few days at the loch, Wetherell reported finding the fresh footprints of a large, four-toed animal. He estimated it to be 20 feet long. With great fanfare, Wetherell made plaster casts of the footprints and, just before Christmas, sent them off to the Natural History Museum in London for analysis. While the world waited for the museum zoologists to return from holiday, legions of monster hunters descended on Loch Ness, filling the local hotels. Inverness was floodlit for the occasion, and traffic jammed the shoreline roads in both directions.
The bubble burst in early January, when museum zoologists announced that the footprints were those of a hippopotamus. They had been made with a stuffed hippo foot—the base of an umbrella stand or ashtray. It wasn’t clear whether Wetherell was the perpetrator of the hoax or its gullible victim.
The famous Surgeon’s Photograph taken the following April (which has now been proven fake) was published spawning even more interest in the legendary beast. For the next three decades, most scientists scornfully dismissed reports of strange animals in the loch. Those sightings that weren’t outright hoaxes, they said, were the result of optical illusions caused by boat wakes, wind slicks, floating logs, otters, ducks, or swimming deer.