BOB BONE'S TravelPieces   


Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness -- Photo by Robert W. Bone

Nessie and the Tourists
 

© By Robert W. Bone

LOCH NESS, Scotland -- “Oh my God! What's that? Out there in the water!”

We had stepped off the public bus just minutes before at Urquhart Castle on the edge of Loch Ness, and had barely begun walking the paved pathway down the hill toward the ruins. I glanced at Sara to smile indulgently at her little joke.

The smile froze on my face. Following her shaking finger, I looked toward the lake and then  honestly felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

There seemed to be something big and black heaving up out of Loch  Ness, breaking the surface near the shore. Then, just as suddenly, the form fell away into nothing.

Had the legendary monster -- or at least its roughly ridged backbone -- put in a brief appearance and then dived again to its underwater lair? We looked around for reassurance from others who may have shared our experience. But on this typically rainy October day, the path was empty. There was not another witness for my wife and me to draw comfort from. And our cameras were still snugly tucked away from the dampness in their bags.

We remained in place a minute or two and continued to stare at the water, coming up with an explanation for what we had seen. We then tried to convince ourselves that we'd solved the mystery of the Loch Ness Monster, the creature dubbed in recent years ``Nessie.''

Under this light -- what film instruction sheets call ``cloudy bright'' -- together with the current wind conditions, little black waves seemed to be forming on the Scottish loch. Now and then two, three, and maybe four of these small waves would merge and form a larger one. When they did, it looked as if something dark was beginning to rise up from the murky surface.

The Station Hotel is a funky old public palace in Inverness. A bar and cafeteria-style restaurant are located near the foot of this grand staircase leading up from the lobby.

As our eyes swept over the lake, we saw that sure enough, little monsters were forming everywhere -- not a single beast but a virtual swarm of Nessies appearing and disappearing hither and thither over the water.

Over the previous few days in Scotland, as we became familiar with the lay of the land, it began to seem plausible that a prehistoric creature could have become trapped in Loch Ness in very ancient times. That is, long before anyone invented a tam-o'-shanter, a plaid kilt, a highland fling, a finnan haddie, or even a single-malt whisky.

Loch Ness is extremely long and narrow, forming the center of a deep and often-misty valley called the Great Glen. On the map you can see that it could have been connected to the sea at either or both ends millions of years ago, actually dividing the Highlands into two parts. One theory is that during the Mesozoic period, a pod of plesiosaurs swam into the narrow channel or fjord only to become land locked in later centuries. Today the Loch Ness Monster has a scientific name, ``Nessiteras rhombopteryx,'' applied so that Nessie can be added to the official British list of endangered creatures.

Loch Ness was a sudden inspiration. We had been enjoying a visit to Edinburgh when we decided to take the train up north to visit Inverness, the unofficial ``capital of the Highlands'' for a couple of days. The four-hour ride provided some terrific views through a panoramic window.

Inverness was initially disappointing, although it was interesting to see a few men actually wearing kilts on the street. But the weather was rainy, and the kind of historic old structures we had marveled at in Edinburgh were absent in this relatively modern community. Its castle dated only from the nineteenth century, and it is today used as a city hall.

The building we enjoyed most in Inverness was the Station Hotel, a funky old public palace that seemed to hold up one wall of the railroad station -- or vice versa. Our room was around $100 a night, with no extra charge for a hearty breakfast -- or for listening to the sound of old boards creaking under our feet while walking along carpeted hallways.

The creaking seemed to repeat in the wee hours, giving credence to the belief that a lonely spirit might also be wandering the long corridors and passageways of the establishment.

There was a grand staircase leading upstairs from the lobby, and at its foot a bar and cafeteria-style restaurant. The food was good, and the pub operation was enhanced by the old gentleman, his back slightly bent, who bustled good naturedly to and fro carrying trays of beer or whisky. It was he who told us the kilts we had seen outside were formal attire donned by city fathers because a member of the royal family -- Prince Andrew -- was currently visiting Inverness.

In order to travel from there to Loch Ness, Sara and I each bought a $6 ticket to reach Urquhart Castle, a landmark on the lake about a 30-minute bus ride outside Inverness.

Urquhart Castle is the traditional center of the monster-viewing area. In the nearby village of Drumnadrochit are two competing commercial visitor centers -- one called "the Official,'' the other called "the Original.'' Each has audio-visual shows, and a collection of fuzzy photographs, diagrams, sonar soundings and other associated monsterabilia collected over the ages (along with adjoining souvenir and coffee shops).

For those who insist on being photographed with Nessie, there is a plaster model, presumably life-size, outside one of the museums.

After putting the monster issue at rest, we forswore all that stuff in favor of a thorough exploration of Urquhart Castle. It is the epitome of a romantic ruin, clinging to a rocky promontory overlooking the murky waters of Loch Ness. Its construction was begun in or about the year 1230, although some evidence suggests the earliest occupant of the property lived there in the mid-sixth century, and that he was converted to Christianity by the traveling Saint Columba.

In 565 A.D., the peripatetic saint was also just about the earliest known person to sight a mysterious creature in the lake.

The extensively fortified complex figured prominently in the wars between Scotland and England in the fourteenth century. Along with other castles in the area, it was visited by Robert the Bruce, who was crowned king of Scots in 1306.

The structure was frequently plundered in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in raids by the Macdonalds, the rampaging rulers of the Hebrides Islands. Though often rebuilt, the castle was last occupied in 1692 by a garrison of Highland troops, who blew up much of it when they left.

Our visit ended just in time. As we trudged back to the bus stop, a tour bus deposited about 50 noisy passengers, who began their own invasion of Urquhart Castle.

“Look, Honey! What's that out there in the water?”

We didn't turn around.