There can be few people anywhere who have not heard of Loch Ness, and the main reason for its fame is what has become known as the Loch Ness Monster: popularly referred to as "Nessie" or, in Gaelic, "Niseag". Nessie is a "cryptid", one of those creatures which feature in popular culture in various parts of the world but whose existence has not been proven by science.
Nessie first came to public notice on 2 May 1933 when the Inverness Courier published an article, by local reporter and Loch Ness water baliff Alex Campbell, about a sighting of "a beast" in Loch Ness by unnamed locals on 14 April. The locals involved were Mrs Aldie Mackay, who at the time was manageress of the Drumnadrochit Hotel (the building now housing the Loch Ness Centre) and her husband. Then, on 22 July 1933, a George Spicer and his wife, visitors from London, saw "a most extraordinary form of animal" cross the road in front of their car and enter Loch Ness. A month later a motorcyclist said his 1am crash on a lochside road was caused by avoiding a similar animal. On 21 April 1934 the Daily Mail published a photograph believed to have been taken by Robert Kenneth Wilson, an eminent London doctor, showing what appears to be a head and long neck projecting above water. The "Surgeon's Photo" became famous, and was only exposed as a probable hoax in the late 1990s.
Over the years many other people have seen, photographed or filmed Nessie, but never so convincingly as to prove its existence beyond question. From the 1960s a series of studies and projects, in many cases using the best underwater technology available, have tried to establish beyond question whether (or not) a population of large previously unknown creatures lives in Loch Ness. Proving the absence of such creatures is logically impossible, and to date no one has been able to prove their presence. Meanwhile, supporters of the historical existence of Nessie point to a passage in "The Life of St Columba", written in the late 600s by Adomnán of Iona in which St Columba quells a "water beast" which has killed a man swimming in the River Ness.
Nothing is as attractive as a mystery, and the Loch Ness Monster has spawned many books, films and TV programmes that have been see and read around the world. Whether or not Nessie exists he, or she, or they, exert a powerful draw which brings large numbers of people to Loch Ness. Not many necessarily say they come here to look for the monster, but it is interesting how traffic seems to flow most slowly on the roads along the lochside where the view of the loch is best. You can be the world's most confirmed sceptic, but it is difficult not to keep looking at the surface of the loch, just in case...
The Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition stands at the northern end of Drumnadrochit in a fine stone building once home to the Drumnadrochit Hotel. Today the Drumnadrochit Hotel occupies a much more modern building next door, and the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition has become a "must see" attraction for anyone with an interest in the story of the Loch Ness Monster: a category which probably includes the overwhelming majority of visitors to the area.
Here you can see and hear the story of Loch Ness and of Nessie, told in a series of well produced audio visual displays supported by exhibits and artefacts. Visitors enter at the right hand end as you look at the centre from the road, and from here you progress through, area by area, each time gaining an understanding of a different aspect of the story. The aim is clearly to give a rounded and objective picture, highlighting both the evidence in favour of the existence of Nessie and the problems that have emerged with at least some of that evidence. Areas of the exhibition also look at the various systematic and scientific efforts to explore the story over the decades.
The story opens with "From the Beginning of Time", a look at Scotland's geological evolution and an assessment of the pros and cons of the chances of survival of "prehistoric" creatures in Loch Ness. The second area examines the "Legend of a Water Horse", and tries to draw together the common strands that emerge from over a thousand reported sightings of something strange in or around the loch. The other side of the argument emerges in "Hoaxs, Illusions and Eye Witnesses", revealing some of the hoaxes that have been exposed and illusions that have misled people.
"The Secrets Beneath" is an area looking at the scientific studies of the 1970s, in which you can see, and touch, "Machan", the world's smallest submarine, used to take underwater photographs during this period. "Operation Deepscan and the Laser Effect" examines the scientific work of the 1980s and includes the vessel used in some of that work, the "John Murray", the world's largest inflatable boat. The final area, "The Loch Ness Timecapsule" looks at more modern work which suggests that the available nutrients in the loch could not support a population of large animals, and at the Rosetta project to drill into the sediments at the bottom of the loch.
The tour concludes in the rather fine range of shops to one side of the Centre behind the Drumnadrochit Hotel, which can also be visited separately. You emerge from the exhibition far better informed than you entered it, and much better able to form your own opinions about the pros and cons of Nessie actually existing: which adds a great deal to the experience of exploring Loch Ness and the surrounding area. For those wanting to get even closer to Nessie, the centre also offers cruises aboard "Deepscan", the Loch Ness Project research vessel.