The Curious Story of Dr McRae and his Films.
This is of necessity a story without an ending. The beginning is shrouded in mystery, and the middle is confused. This is not even the definitive version of it, as new, or old, material may yet come to light. It is not an area of research where I expend much effort, but as I may have a contribution to make, there seems little need to wait any longer before telling what I know.
The main players are a Dr McRae, who had worked in London but retired to the Highlands of Scotland, and the Kirkcudbright landscape artist Alastair Dallas. It would appear from the story that the the doctor had a practical interest in cinematography. Mr Dallas was a widely travelled landscape artist with a wide circle of friends. After the "new" road along the north-west shore of Loch Ness had been completed he contacted the main contractors, Carmichaels, with a view to a commission to record the works. Unfortunately, the commission had already been awarded, but due to the original artists preference for sweeping curves over straight lines, Mr Dallas was later invited to the contractors offices and given the commission by the proud builder of the straight roads. It was during this commissioned work that the sketch is believed to have been made. Mr Dallas the artist died in 1983, but I am indebted to his family for the background information given here. One interesting point made was that Alastair Dallas invariably carried a camera, and field glasses, to help him in his work, and the question naturally arises, - " If he had time to make the sketches, why didn't he just take a photograph?" As a professional photographer I know only too well that one does not always carry the entire contents of one's tool-kit... One carries what one expects to need. As a landscape artist, a telephoto lens may not have been an essential item.
My familiarity with the story goes back to my first time as a member of the Loch Ness Investigation expedition in June 1967, exactly 33 years ago as I write this. I was on the team from June 3rd to June 17th, and this coincided with the presence of the author F.W. “Ted” Holiday. I was a 17 year old enthusiast who had made the 500 mile drive from Lincolnshire, and he was the seasoned writer and expert who had exchanged letters with the Spicers over 30 years earlier.
Loch Ness Investigation
Ted Holiday fishing from the Fussy Hen at Strone, 1969
Ted was pursuing a hypothesis about the identity of “Nessie” which was radically different from the “standard” plesiosaur theory of the time. I should add that in the mid sixties, the subject was populated almost entirely by non-Highlanders. The general opinion of the local population at that time was that the monster was just a story dreamed up for the tourists, and that anyone claiming to believe in it was either exploiting their gullibility or simply daft. Neither proposition has, as yet, been disproved. In Ted Holiday’s opinion, the discovery of some worm-like fossils called Tullimonstrum the previous year was significant and he tended towards the possibility that Nessie might be some kind of gastropod mollusc. A Giant Slug. He was in the final stages of preparing his book “The Great Orm of Loch Ness”, and he was the first person to publicise the McRae story, which goes like this.
In 1936 a general practitioner (medical doctor) called Dr McRae had retired from his London practice and gone to live on Loch Duich**. This is a deep sea loch on the West Coast of Scotland, only 36 miles (58 km) from Loch Ness. (A route, incidentally, once proposed by Thomas Telford for the construction of a navigation canal.) Early one morning, during a visit to Loch Ness he saw the “Orm” and sent a man running to fetch his camera. He then filmed the “thing” in full view at a range of about 100 yards. The film lasted for several minutes and the creature showed three humps together with the head and neck. The neck was held low over the water and seemed to be writhing to and fro. During the sequence a bird flies down and lands on a stone in the foreground, which helps to give scale to the picture. The Orm’s head appears to be bluntly conical in profile, like half a rugby ball, (or US football).
On the crest of the head are two horn-like sense organs. Starting between these, and running down the neck, is a bristly mane. Slit-like eyes could be made out on the head but they are not very distinct.
Occasionally, the Orm rolls on the water and one of the forward flippers makes an appearance. It is thick and fleshy in appearance and seems to be capable of independent movement. The skin looks tough and leathery. Another interesting feature was that the head seemed to be in a continuous state of flux or movement, apparently due to the play of muscles under the skin.
The second film taken by Dr McRae shows a creature lying in the shallows in Loch Duich itself, writhing its head over a bed of seaweed. It differed from the Loch Ness creature in having a longer neck and a mane, which looked tufted.
In view of the scorn with which “monster” witnesses were treated at the time, and the certainty that those handing it out would be the first to capitalise on its proven existence, Dr McRae decided he would not give them the satisfaction of commercialising the subject. He chose to withhold the films from public view, and to form a Trust so that, after his death, the films could be released only when the public was ready to take the matter seriously. The films were only shown to a few close friends. There were three trustees appointed, of whom Ted Holiday* named two as the late Sir Donald Cameron of Lochiel, and Mr Alastair Dallas, the Kirkcudbright landscape artist. Holiday visited Dallas in 1965, and it is his (Holiday's) story that appears above.
Some ten years later the story took another turn, when Alan Wilkins, a Dumfries-shire schoolteacher, observed and photographed a very sizeable object at a distance of several miles. Following my meeting and interview with him on behalf of the continuing investigation, a friend visited Alastair Dallas and was told a rather different story. In this version there was only one film by Dr McRae, but Mr Dallas himself had had a sighting, and had made some sketches. A copy of this drawing was given to the friend, who passed it on to me in October 1975. As attempts to pursue the alleged film failed, it might be useful to study the sketch.
Over the past quarter of a century I have shown this sketch to numerous zoologists, naturalists and serious researchers and there is no consensus view. Superficially the animal appears to be a plausible member of the sirenian group, (and in a moment of weakness I coined the phrase "plausiosaur") although the neck length is of unclear benefit to a member of a group which eats seaweed, a commodity for which the supply greatly exceeds any potential demand, making adaptive evolution seem unlikely. Let us examine the sketch in a much detail as possible. It consists of four components:
Sketch A – upper left, a right side view of the fore-part of the creature.
Sketch B – upper right, a frontal view of the head only.
Sketch C – lower centre, the most complete view
Sketch D – lower right, the head apparently sucking a rock
Alastair Dallas's Sketches
Copyright 2000 Alastair Dallas. Reproduced with permission.
The animal appears to have the following characteristics
1. It has a relatively long neck, like a horse or deer
2. It has a rather conical head in the horizontal plane
3. There are thick lips around the mouth, typical of browsers
4. There are nostrils just behind the mouth
5. The eyes are large, but closed
6. There are ear apertures behind the eyes
7. There are two wattle-like appendages hanging down below but not from the ears
8. There are heavy jowls or distended cheeks
9. Although not obvious from the sketch, the animal was described a “sucking the rocks" (a)
10. There is a mane down the centre line of the neck, with the suggestion of long strands of hair depending from it.
11. The fore-limbs look like paddles, and the creature is apparently supporting itself on them.
12. There is the suggestion of breast-like organs between the fore-limbs
13. The central part of the body seems quite thick
14. There are two fin-like objects on the centre-line of the back
15. There is a patch on the flank where the surface is different, and this has been described as a “mangy patch with hair missing” in one interview .
16. There is no visible sign of rear limbs.
17. The artist has shown where the tail disappeared from view, but stated that it extended for some distance beyond this point.
18. The sketch is annotated “Drumnadrochit 1936 Sept.” at the top and is initialled AAKD/36 at the bottom.
(a) : It is believed that the creature was observed, possibly through field glasses, to be "eating lichens or weeds on the rocks". This also hints that the observer may have been at some distance from the creature, which might also explain why the camera was not used. Even at about 100 yards or metres, a standard lens camera would not have recorded much detail, and the view of the creature may have been obscured by intervening branches. The duration of the episode is believed to be 20 or 30 minutes, occuring while the artist was taking a picnic lunch. How the episode began or ended is not recalled.
There is a whole spectrum of explanations available to account for the sketch, ranging between acceptance of this as an accurate record of a new and unidentified species in Loch Ness and dismissal as an outright and total fabrication. It might be useful to list a few possibilities, including ones which we might loosely call “lawyers tactics”, in which what was stated or written was the truth, but what the listener or reader infers is something quite different.
1. Mr Dallas had the incredibly good fortune to witness the last of a race of freshwater sirenians which was dying out as the increasingly peaty loch water finally reduced plant growth to a level which could no longer sustain the population. (Sympathy is an under-researched subject, and on the 7th day of that same September, 1936, on the other side of the planet, Benjamin, possibly the last Thylacine on Earth, died in Hobart Zoo, and his species became "extinct".)
2. The artist was shown an unclear film taken by Dr McRae and drew the sketches afterwards while in Drumnadrochit. Artists are entitled to "interpret" blurred or unresolved images and produce their own versions.
2a. The film itself may or may not have been "genuine" and there is a whole spectrum of "genuineness". Dr McRae may have filmed the last of the sea cows on a journey in the High Arctic where there are still tantalising reports of their survival. Mr Dallas may have seen such a film in Drumnadrochit, thus justifying the annotation..
2b. Dr McRae may have filmed a seal, or a drowning deer or horse as a real, naturally occurring event, or contrived it for the benefit of his camera, and then shown the film to Mr Dallas while in Drumnadrochit, who then made the sketches from memory and in good faith.
3. The artist briefly or at a distance, or under obscured viewing conditions saw either a seal or a deer or other large animal on the beach and failed to recognise it. He then drew from memory his recollections, to the best of his ability. ref 1, ref 2.
4. As an act of innocent fun, the artist produced a skilful "zeitgeist" drawing, and soon realised that it was "too good", and likely to be taken seriously. He then simply put it away for thirty years, and only then decided to pit his skills against those of the scientific establishment.
There is no obvious conclusion to be drawn from the material available. I have no information at all at this time about Dr McRae beyond what I have stated above.
Mr Dallas emerges as a competent and respected artist, and, judging from events, a person to be trusted. Ted Holiday discovered that he evidently also had what is called a "short fuse", and did not suffer unwelcome visitors with begging bowls gladly.
If Alastair Dallas did see an unusual animal on the beach at Loch Ness, two obvious candidates would be seals and deer. His sketches and reported comments are not inconsistent with an encounter with either animal under conditions in which clear observation were not possible. Anyone can make a mistake. In September, the common seal Phoca vitulina moults, looks rather shabby and is in a generally bad mood. Being aware of the "monster" story, and spotting a seal sleeping on the beach in the distance, the artist could be forgiven for not wishing to get a closer look. The photograph below illustrates this.
Copyright 2000 Paul Thompson, University of Aberdeen.
Moulting Common Seal
The other obvious candidate, a deer in the process of expiring on the beach, has not been photographed to my knowledge, but below is a deer swimming in Loch Ness.
Deer Swimming in Loch Ness
If we take another still picture of a deer swimming in Loch Ness and artificially remove its horns, the outline of the head does bear a faint resemblance to the Sketch, but no more so than many other animals.
Image of deer with no horns
There is so much we do not know.
It seems that Alastair Dallas did not know for a long time that he was a trustee of anything, and even then did not know who the other trustees were, even though they were in his circle of acquaintances. Yes, Dallas may have known Cameron of Lochiel, but he didn't know that he was another trustee! Perhaps Dr McRae never wanted the film released, and went to great lengths to protect it. And who was the third trustee? Dr McRae was a personal friend of the Prior at St Benedict's Abbey, Fort Augustus...who could be of better repute? But we may never know. The Prior of that time is long dead, the Abbey is closed down, the brethren dispersed. The one member of the brethren who was most closely associated with the Monster was Father Aloysius, perhaps better known as J.A.Carruth, the author of the booklet "Loch Ness and its Monster", published by the Abbey Press in the fifties and sixties. The last I heard of him was that he was engaged in missionary work in southern Africa. Significantly, perhaps, the Dallas family received a letter from a Catholic mission in southern Africa asking if the McRae film could be used to raise funds for their work. Clearly, it is not in their hands, nor those of the Dallas family.
The film, if it ever existed, may well have been recorded on nitrate based stock. By now it would be very unstable, and likely to spontaneously ignite at the merest draught of the can being opened. Perhaps the only clue will come when we hear of a bank burning down....
Postcript: 9th November 2001
In the course of my "day job" as a photographic technician, I was surprised to discover yesterday that some old negatives handed to me for printing were embossed with the words "Eastman Nitrate Kodak". When small slivers from the end of the negs were "flame tested" they burned with a spluttering yellow flame as expected. Some of them were exposed as early as 1924, and were still entirely printable. This suggests that there may still be hope for any "McRae Film" which may exist, even if it was recorded on "nitrate" film, depending on its storage conditions.
* “The Great Orm of Loch Ness” by F.W.Holiday Faber and Faber 1968 £1.16.0
ref 1. The Common Seal, Phoca vitulina, moults during August and September, and these are also months when they have been seen in Loch Ness.
ref 2. Deer have often been seen swimming in Loch Ness in September, and they will sometimes have short horns.
**Loch Duich is a fascinating environment where I have dived many times, seen many strange creatures, and taken the occasional pretty underwater photograph. Diving with George Brown and others I have seen unrecorded species of anemone, brachiopods unchanged for 600 million years and much besides. I cannot resist the temptation to finish this page with my photograph of a worm and a holothurian, taken near Inverinate Church, Loch Duich. Like so much that we find underwater, they are totally alien to our terrestrial existence. Most worshippers would have no idea of the beauty beneath the surface just 100 metres from their church door.
Pachycerianthus multiplicatus and Psolus phantapus
Copyright Dick Raynor 1980, 2000