The Minister and the Monster

For most of my life I’ve had a passion for cryptozoology.  One of the first books I read on the subject in the early 1970’s had a chapter on the Loch Ness monster and I was hooked. I’ve visited Loch Ness twice now and thoroughly enjoyed the mood and mystery of the place.

As the years go on, it looks less and less likely that there is anything like a plesiosaur still swimming about, but nonetheless I’ve always found some of the eyewitness reports fascinating and quite compelling. The possibility is still high that there is something unusual resident in Loch Ness. Just not a plesiosaur.

There is an Australian connection to one impressive early case. The witness was the well-known Australian clergyman and broadcaster, the late Reverend Gordon George Powell. Tony Healy and I both investigated the Minister’s story back in 2001 and this post is completely based on Tony’s notes. The Rev. Powell died in Melbourne in 2005.

The paths of Christian and cryptid crossed at 5.30 p.m. on June 21 – the longest day of the year – in 1936, when the then 25 year old Gordon Powell was touring Scotland with two other Glasgow University students. Fortuitously, when the creature surfaced, the young man was poised, pen in hand, ready to record his immediate impressions.

Gordon Powell in Scotland in 1936.

“I was”, he told us, “sitting on the bank about 50 yards above Urquhart Castle. It was an uncomfortably hot day, the sun was behind me, and the loch surface was like glass. Not only was it the Sabbath, but it was the six-monthly Communion Sabbath, a specially sacred day at that time in that part of Scotland. Consequently there was not a boat to be seen.”

“I was writing my weekly letter to my parents in Australia, looked up, saw a ripple – and then Nessie broke the surface. I nearly pushed the pen through the paper!”

A transcript of his letter conveys the excitement:

“Here we are parked on the ban..

By Jings, I’ve seen it

I was just about to say that I was parked on the bank of Loch Ness writing this and waiting for the monster when the jolly thing showed up. From where I am you can see about 10 miles up the loch. The wind is ruffling the surface in patches but about 300 yards out [in Urquhart Bay] there was a great area as smooth as glass. Suddenly, in the middle of that, a ripple appeared and then something like a huge eel appeared…”

The letter he was writing as he saw Nessie. ‘By Jings I’ve seen it’.

What emerged was a small, smooth head on a neck about six feet long. The head was like that of a calf but without horns or ears.

“It looked away and then straight towards me. I felt it was looking at me but I couldn’t swear that I saw eyes. It looked ahead and then…my theory is that it spotted a school of salmon…it chased something, anyway. The head and neck went under and at least three humps, possibly four, appeared and moved at tremendous speed towards the tip of the point on which the castle stands.”

“It as very much alive and bucketed along the surface throwing up a lot of spray. I’ve sometimes likened it to a swimmer doing the butterfly stroke – one moment the shoulders heave upwards, then the rump: a bucking, vertical action. It was very large – roughly twice the size of a cow which was browsing on the shore below me.”

The smooth humps, all roughly the same size and shape, protruded a foot or two out of the water and were, like the head and neck, dark grey or black in colour. After the creature had covered two or three hundred yards, Gordon grabbed his camera and took a picture which – thanks to the ever-vigilant Loch Ness gremlins – shows an expense of Urquhart Bay, what could be a long white wake – and no monster.

The Rev. Powells photograph and explanatory notes.

The Rev. Powell believed the creature must have submerged at the critical moment, but only briefly, because he then watched it proceed another 200 yards or so before submerging completely. He regrets not taking a second photo, “…but it was an old fashioned camera and I would have had to take my eyes off Nessie to watch the window.”

Although the creature had been in sight for less than a minute his memory of it remains crystal clear: “I had 20/20 vision, visibility was perfect, with no mist or fog. The sun was behind me and shone directly on Nessie and the spray she created. The head and neck as I first saw them were similar to the ‘Surgeon’s Photo’, which we now know was a fake, but which was based on eyewitness reports”.

Unknown to him at the time, three other people apparently saw Nessie in Urquhart Bay that day: “On Tuesday [June 23] I bought a newspaper in Crianlarich which reported two cyclists and a hairdresser seeing what I saw, at the same time .”

Rev. Powell remarked that back in 1936 many local people exhibited great fear of the monster(s). One young man to whom he mentioned his sighting “literally shook with fear. He kept repeating ‘Don’t talk about it! Don’t talk about it!’. The monster was believed to be an omen of bad luck or even death.”

Coincidentally [or was it?] the reason the Rev Powell’s friend were not with him during the sighting was that the brother-in-law of the lady with whom they were staying had died that very morning. His friends had driven her to the house of mourning, leaving him beside the loch alone – to meet the dragon.

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