OF all the strange creatures turning up at COP26, possibly the least surprising was Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, to use her Sunday name. After all, Nessie doesn’t drive a diesel car, only flies on aeroplanes when she has an important business meeting and generally has a low carbon footprint, even if it’s fair to say the only footprint supposedly discovered of her turned out to have come from either an umbrella stand or a hippopotamus leg.

The Nessie at the recent climate summit in Glasgow was a 26ft inflatable designed to highlight the “monster debt” of Third World countries. Poor Nessie. Doesn’t even have a tax-free ISA. But here she/they/it was being used as an easily recognisable symbol of something jolly large.

Indeed, the beastie’s whole story has been inflated, ever since yon St Columba gave it a stern rebuke way back in the 5th century. Bear in mind that the tale from Adomnán’s biography of St C, written in 565 AD (i.e. 100 years after the supposed incident), has been claimed for Nessie retrospectively. It could have been any old monster, as they were 10 a penny back in the olden days when dinosaurs and dragons went aboot chewing on folk’s legs.

At any rate, the story goes that Columba, an Irishman, was over in Pictland visiting their famous tattoo parlours, when he was told that a “water beast” had killed a local man. The monk then courageously sent one of his followers into the water and, sure enough, the monster turned up for dessert.

However, St C made the sign of the cross and instructed the beast: “Do not touch the man. Go back at once.” And it said, “Oh, all right”, and disappeared back under the waves. Well, that’s me convinced.

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Fast forward, past the centuries when there appears to have been little to report (probably because of a lack of newspapers), until October 1871 or 1872 – better start getting used to details being hazy, folks – when a D. Mackenzie of Balnain saw something “wriggling and churning up the water”. Yes, that would be it.

Seventeen – as in 18 – years later, one Alexander Macdonald of Abriachan saw “a large stubby-legged animal” surfacing on the loch and swimming towards the shore. (Nessie, looking anxiously in the mirror: “What d’you mean ‘stubby’? They’re just well defined.”) Mr Macdonald said the monster looked like a salamander, which was unfortunate, as these are usually 6in long.

Never mind. It was in the year 1933 that everything kicked off properly. That year, the Inverness Courier’s weirdness correspondent reported that a “strange spectacle” had been seen by a couple, who denied that they’d had a couple, on the loch.

The report noted for the record: “The creature disported itself, rolling and plunging for fully a minute, its body resembling that of a whale, and the water cascading and churning like a simmering cauldron.” Cauldron, aye.

A few months later, the same paper reported another couple, the Spicers, seeing “a most extraordinary form of animal” cross the road – why? – in front of their car. Mr Spicer said it was “the nearest approach to a dragon or prehistoric animal that I have ever seen in my life”. Apparently, it had an animal in its mouth, so one thing we can say for sure is that Nessie isn’t vegan.

After this, the story took a sinister, spine-chilling turn: the Daily Mail got involved. In December 1933, it commissioned Marmaduke Wetherell, a big-game hunter or nutter, to find Nessie. Wetherell claimed to have found huge footprints on the loch’s shore but, on analysis by zoologists at the Natural History Museum, these turned out to have been made by the aforementioned umbrella stand or hippo tootsies.

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The Mail uncharacteristically disassociated itself from its former ally, who later had his revenge. On 21 April 1934, the controversial paper published the photo that soon became iconic of the creature’s head and neck. It was taken by Robert Kenneth Wilson, a gynaecologist with wide experience of looking in strange places. He didn’t want his name associated with the snap, so it went down in Loch lore as “the surgeon’s photograph”.

The picture went round the world, but is now widely regarded as a hoax, almost certainly perpetrated by the aforementioned Wetherell, who made a model Nessie from a toy submarine bought at Woolies, with a head and neck made of putty, and put it on the water for photies as revenge on the Mail.

Nevertheless, in succeeding years till the present day, supposed sightings have continued. Just this week, Eoin O Faodhagain, from County Donegal, claimed to have see Nessie on his webcam, diving beneath the water as a boat approached.

Most sightings are attributed to driftwood, algae, a funny bird, a big catfish, a newt with a particularly long neck, dogs fetching sticks, otters not fetching sticks, deer that have taken up wild swimming, eels, or a plesiosaurus. An elephant has also been mentioned, as if that would be any less fantastic (unless it came from a travelling circus)

Sonar explorations have revealed little beyond the aforementioned eels, which are probably the current frontrunner for an explanation (in the sense of a right big eel). As for plesiosaurus, they went extinct 66 billion years ago, though it’s possible this one was in the cludgie when the skies went dark and climate catastrophe struck.

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You have to factor in that kelpies are a longstanding part of Scottish folklore and also that people see what they want to see. It’s the X-Files phenomenon: “I want to believe.” Anything other than face the fact that life on Earth is prosaic.

As with UFOs, despite huge advances in photographic technology, images remain mysteriously blurry. One picture became known as the Loch Ness Muppet. Still, Nessie remains a huge tourist draw, contributing millions to Scotland’s economy. Quintessentially Scottish – it’s got some neck and frequently takes the hump – Nessie is our monster and we love her as much as our national unicorn.

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