I was nominated on Facebook to come up with a book that makes me happy and I’ve opted for a bit of a weird choice: Nessie, Seven Years in Search of The Monster, a 1976 paperback written by Frank Searle and published by Coronet.
Along with Harry Price’s the End of Borley Rectory, and Dennis Wheatley’s non-fiction The Devil and All His Works, Frank’s book acted like a gateway drug for the teenage me into the world of the supernatural and a lifelong interest in the subject. Okay, technically the Loch Ness Monster isn’t supernatural (or is it?) and falls instead into cryptozoology, but bear with me.
There was a huge supernatural counter culture going on in the late seventies. An occult revival was underway, with all the classic books and grimoires back in print and a host of new titles cashing in on the new age readers. Witchcraft covens were commonplace, along with serious groups who practised ritual magick and, week after week, the Sunday papers were filled with suburban witchcraft wife swappers, Satanists desecrating churchyards, and poltergeists terrorising council houses.
Crop circles were appearing in British fields, young people were into ley lines, crystals, Erich von Daniken, stone circles, zodiacs, Atlantis, auras, and visits to Glastonbury Tor. Music, or prog rock, at any rate, was certainly on this wavelength, and cinema events like Close Encounters of the Third Kind boosted an interest in UFOs and alien abductions.
In the USA, Bigfoot was seen more than ever before, probably thanks to the famous Patterson-Gimlin film footage showing the creature strolling through the woods, Amityville was big news and Hollywood films depicted the horrific reality of hauntings, possession, the antichrist, and devil worship. SETI was searching for extra-terrestrial life, and the secret military archives of UFO sightings Project Blue Book could now be read. The magazine Fortean Times appeared in 1976, which reported on strange phenomena and did its best to provide a realistic balanced viewpoint, although most people seemed to prefer the tabloids and the hundreds of paperbacks which lifted the lid on the hollow earth, the hole at the North Pole, the aliens who built the pyramids, Hitler’s occult Reich, etc
Of course, all of this ties in with the progression of the modern age – as we learn more and satellites map every inch of the planet, our romantic side yearns for something unknown, mysterious and fantastic - but it was a magical time back then. It really DID feel as if something magically ‘big’ was about to happen – earth ‘energy’ from standing stones would soon be tapped, the reality of ghosts or reincarnation would finally be proven, an alien race would make contact, or America would finally give in and reveal the craft and bodies from the Roswell crash.
In the midst of all this there was Loch Ness.
Ever since the ‘Surgeon’s Photo’ appeared in 1934, the Loch Ness Monster had been the poster boy for Scottish tourism. There had been many possible sightings and blurred pictures of humps, but now top people were taking the creature seriously and ‘scientific’ photographs of ‘flippers’ appeared on the BBC that showed the animal underwater.
Eminent naturalist Sir Peter Scott, a man who everyone respected, openly claimed the lake creatures were genuine and spoke of a breeding herd, probably travelling to and from the North Sea through submerged caverns. Nessie was no longer a ‘monster’, but a survivor from the dinosaur age, most probably a plesiosaur. Scott even came up with a scientific name for it - Nessiteras rhombopteryx - and famously painted a pair of the beasts in exactly the same way he painted genuine wild animals.
The Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau had been set up, many serious investigators and academics were searching for the creatures, and now Sir Peter Scott was endorsing them too. It felt like there HAD to be something real in this enormous stretch of deep water.
There was, however, another 'investigator' on the banks of the loch, a chubby little man with a cockney accent and a prosthetic foot named Frank Searle, who lived in a small caravan below the village of Foyers. Ex-soldier Frank had spent years taking photographs of the ‘monster’ and in 1976 I read his book.
Nessie, Seven Years in Search of The Monster isn’t particularly well written, but there was something about it which, to the seventeen-year-old me, felt very real. Frank speaks completely openly about his life on the loch and talks of the creatures in the way a Londoner might speak of pigeons in Trafalgar Square. He saw them all the time and you got the impression he was too normal and down-to-earth to make it up. He had scores of photographs of his sightings, but many encounters were when he was off walking without his large camera and telephoto lens.
One particular episode amazed me. He was strolling by the loch at dawn and arrived at a stream that fed into it from the hillside. A barb wire fence needed to be climbed before he could jump the water and he was about to do this when he saw an incredible sight. Young plesiosaurs were swimming at the mouth of the stream, ‘treading water’ by paddling with their fins and eating the bits of food that were washed down in the torrent. Frank decided to catch one by diving in and wrestling it out, but he snagged his jeans on the wire and unfortunately startled them. The youngsters spotted him, turned and swam away into the depths before he could free himself. All of this is told in a perfectly natural way, as if he were talking about catching rabbits.
He mixes in such stories with tales of swimming in the icy lake every morning, shagging the various young women (mostly American and Australian students) who would inexplicably stay with him in the caravan for weeks at a time, and looking after a Scottish wild cat that he’d managed to tame. He was definitely quite a character.
In 1976 at 17 years old I drove up to Loch Ness from Yorkshire with Frank’s book in my pocket. I wanted to meet him and also hoped to see the Scottish birds and wildlife. Another ‘supernatural’ draw was Boleskine House near Foyers, the former home of Aleister Crowley and, at that time, owned by Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page. Everything fell perfectly into place. On my arrival in the Highlands I saw all the birds in the first two days – crested tit, crossbill, golden eagle, osprey, peregrine, capercailzie, ptarmigan – and as I stood on the empty lane looking at Boleskine, the gates opened and who should drive out, but Page himself. He smiled and nodded as he cruised past.
I walked from here down the road to the water's edge and immediately saw Frank Searle too. This all felt bizarre and strangely magical – the birds, Jimmy Page and the author of the book in my pocket. From Frank’s narrative, I knew how easy it was to see the monsters and I expectantly settled down on a rock to watch the water, genuinely convinced I’d see ‘something’ very soon.
I didn’t, as it turned out, although Frank assured me I'd been unlucky. I later discovered I’d been incredibly fortunate to spot Page; he hardly ever visited Boleskine, despite Frank claiming he dined with him all the time. Actually Frank claimed a lot of things.
By his caravan, Frank had constructed a large homemade shelter of wood and corrugated plastic that rattled deafeningly in even the gentlest breeze - his Loch Ness Monster Exhibition. Hundreds of photographs covered the walls with autographed pictures of famous people wishing him well on his cryptozoology crusade. The only ones I now remember were Neil Armstrong (I saw the surface of the moon, but I really envy the things Frank has seen) and Tom Baker who’d filmed a Doctor Who story up there. I now wonder if these were fake or not, because most things about Frank turned out to be somewhat iffy.
I spoke with him for hours on that first visit (he signed my book) and on several occasions over the next few years. He always came across as an eccentric and genuinely nice man, although not everyone shared this view. One visitor, I’ve since read about on the internet, tells of how he introduced himself only to be completely blanked as Frank headed for a young blonde tourist in a low-cut top. After leering at her breasts, he asked if she liked his T shirt. The shirt had a cartoon of a hiccupping drunken cat with a bottle, and the caption: I love ‘tight’ pussies.
The problem was that, for over a decade, Frank had effectively been the only investigator on the loch. He’d become quite famous and made quite a bit of cash from his pictures, the book I’d bought and donations from his many fans. Now there were other, far more ‘reliable’ investigations setting up, his nose was pushed out, and experts had finally begun to look at his photos.
All were found to be fake, and most of them very poor fakes – one was a postcard of a dinosaur that he’d cut out and crudely pasted onto a picture of the loch. He’d also been in talks with a London publisher and was about to bring out a second book, a sequel to the one I’d read, and when this was cancelled, he blamed his rivals at the Loch Ness phenomena Investigation Bureau, especially their leader, the very reputable Adrian Shine whom he’d openly libelled in the text.
Frank may, or may not, have painted six-feet high graffiti on the walls of Urquhart castle claiming Shine to be a conman and then later, er firebombing the boats owned by the bureau with Molotov cocktails. The police had a lengthy chat with him, but although no charges were brought, he vanished from the loch in 1983 and, for many years, from history. Some claimed he’d crossed the Glasgow underworld and was dead at the bottom of the lake, some had seen him illegally metal detecting on Scottish battlefields, some said he was lecturing in America, and some said he was hunting for treasure in Cornwall. In 2005 the film maker, Andrew Tullis decided to bring out a documentary about his eccentric life and managed to track him down. He was eventually found in a Fleetwood bedsit, but incredibly just days after he’d died there at 83.
One of the best epitaphs I read was by Gordon Rutter, head of the Edinburgh Fortean Society who told me: I had a signed book by Frank Searle, but the signature turned out to be fake. Brilliant.
Every time I see Nessie, Seven Years in Search of the Monster, or read chapters, I’m instantly transported back to those more innocent ‘new age’ days in the late seventies. It’s odd, but knowing now that the entire book is bullshit doesn’t detract from the feeling. The thing that destroys the entire period for me was when I realised that Sir Peter Scott’s scientific name for the creatures, Nessiteras rhombopteryx, is an anagram of Monster hoax by Sir Peter S.