There is a mad look of triumph in my eyes. I spent a day in Drumnadrochit!.
You may remember, in a previous post I reported that the name “Drumnadrochit” resonates with me. I speculated that it awakened a primitive memory of my Celtic past. You can’t say “Drumnadrochit” without sounding sorta Gaelic, especially if you can gargle the /ch/. It has pretty much escaped being spray-painted in an Anglicised beige by the English language. Most Gaelic place names in Scotland have not been so lucky. The name Inbhir Nis, for example, has been beige-washed into the form “Inverness” so that it harmonises with English nouns like goodness, happiness, kindness etc. and proper names like Harkness. The Gaelic Chuil Lodair – scene of the famous battle near Inverness in 1746 – has become the nice tame Culloden. The Gaelic Ceann Gronna has become the pure English Kinghorn, Obar Deathain has become Aberdeen, and so on. The capital of Scotland, Edinburgh, was once known as Dun Eideann – the hillfort of Eideann. The Gaelic dun (hillfort) was chopped off and replaced with the English borough (in the eccentric spelling burgh) which was then nailed to the rear end of Eideann to make it conform with the morphological conventions of English.
For the past fifteen years the Scottish government has implemented a policy of bilingual (Gaelic and English) road signs in highland Scotland and in the western islands. These signs are now general and they are spreading to the names of buildings and organisations, indeed to public signs and announcements in general. When we crossed by ferry from Mallaig to the Isle of Skye, announcements on the ship’s public address system were in English and Scottish Gaelic. Gaelic signage is now reaching beyond the highlands and the traditional Gaelic-speaking areas into the southern regions of Scotland too. And the BBC’s Gaelic-language TV channel BBC Alba can be seen in all parts of Scotland. As I write these lines in Edinburgh, I am watching the cartoon program Transformers on BBC Alba with robots bouncing across the screen speaking gruff but fluent Gaelic.
Drumnadrochit has come under pressure from English too. The “real” form of the name is Druim na Drochaid (the ridge of the bridge), so “Drumnadrochit” is a partial Anglicisation. But worse, much worse, many people abbreviate the name to “Drum”. This abomination even appears on a couple of signs in the village, including in the name of the main supermarket.
Nevertheless, it is good to see Gaelic fighting back. It is part of a wider yearning among Scots – especially in the highlands – to have their unique identity mainstreamed. This is one of the most powerful drivers of the Scottish independence movement. Unfortunately it is no longer possible for Scottish identity to be purely Celtic. The English language and England’s often barbaric domination of Scotland are now part of Scotland’s heritage. You can’t press a cultural reset button and go back to pre-Sassenach times. So Gaelic will continue to live side by side with English, and given the global authority of English, Gaelic (like Welsh and Erse) is likely to remain the language of a small minority in its own homeland.
On the morning of Tuesday, August 11th the siren call of Drumnadrochit (if you will permit me to be even more pretentious than I usually am) lifted Emmy and me from the three-pronged junction at the centre of Invermoriston village and dragged us up a long, very steep, zig-zag climb. It was tough going. We had to stop often with our chests heaving. But there was a morale-boosting moment too. We came across a group of cyclists – four men and four women in their early twenties – struggling to push their heavily laden bikes up the steep incline. Flaunting our fifty-year age advantage and twirling our walking poles we pirouetted past them on twinkling toes (ahem… some exaggeration here, you understand, but very minimal).
It was a long, slow ascent but eventually we surfaced above the tree line. Inadvertently we had chosen to walk the high road to Drumnadrochit. There is also a low road – a path through dense stands of conifer forest running close to the shore of Loch Ness – but somehow we missed the turn-off and didn’t realise our mistake until the cold of the high hills began to pinch our faces and slither in a clammy trickle down our backs. But we were amply rewarded with silence and the exhilaration of walking across empty spaces without fences or boundaries. The treeless earth rolled away to the horizon, then to more horizons beyond. The hazy sky withdrew high into the air above us. The path faltered as if it too wanted to disappear into the vastness.
Luckily we didn’t get lost. After a couple of hours the path dipped down to the rim of the incline that nose-dives into Loch Ness. Here we could look left and right and see practically the whole length of the lake. It stretched out below us like a giant silver sword lying deep in cushions of moss-green velvet hills. A few tiny V-shapes in the water showed us where yachts were creeping up and down the lake.
Our path sloped gently away to the north east. The walking became easier. Around mid afternoon we caught our first glimpse of Drumnadrochit. It was not what I expected. Where were the two or three smoke-filled stone hovels I had seen in my mind’s eye? Where were the sharp-faced, crabby old crofters cutting peat and living a subsistence existence with their ragged sheep? From a distance Drumnadrochit was a sizable settlement. Rows of neat picturesque houses with grey slate roofs over white stone walls stood amid lush trees and fields. I learned later that more than 2,000 people live in the village. Farming and tourism are the main sources of income, but Drumnadrochit is also a dormitory community for people who work in the offices of Inverness, a mere half an hour’s drive away on the A82 highway.
The village hasn’t lost contact altogether with its rural remoteness. Left and right of the A82 highway right in the centre of the village, flanked by souvenir shops, a pub and the supermarket lie fields filled with grazing cattle and big rolls of fresh-cut hay. Many old houses are still standing too, with low doorways that open directly on to the footpath and small upper-floor windows you can almost reach up and touch. In some streets they line up opposite brand new developments that more-or-less maintain the architectural character of the village but offer more room. As we breakfasted in the bright conservatory of the Tramps B&B we looked out over a neighbouring paddock filled with rust-coloured highland cows – the ones with sharp-pointed handlebar horns and a fringe of hair that covers the face. Twice during our stay a cow managed to jump the sagging fence and go meandering down the middle of the street. The local community seemed to enjoy shooing it back into the paddock… it was an opportunity to stand in groups in the middle of the road and catch up with local gossip.
Drumnadrochit is riding into the future on the humps of the Loch Ness monster, known affectionately as Nessie. We took a cruise on the lake with George Edwards, a local identity who has been out on the waters of the lake almost every day for the last fifty years. In 1989 he discovered the deepest point in the lake a murky 248 metres below the surface, “much deeper than the North Sea” George stressed several times. Today the spot is known as the Edwards Deep.
George is a true believer, a stalwart of the Nessie industry. He thinks there are several of the creatures in the lake, not just one.
“I have seen them myself several times, most recently in 2009 when I took a photograph of one of them.”
The photo was displayed in the cabin of the boat. It showed an indistinct, blackish, fish-like shape on the surface of the water. Under pressure from sceptical passengers George admitted the photo was far from conclusive evidence, but he also emphasised that the technology did not yet exist to rule out the existence of the creatures.
“The water is simply too turbid,” he said. “Sonar can’t penetrate it.”
As he said this he was using the boat’s sonar to show interesting images of the lake’s bottom. Loch Ness is shaped like a bathtub with almost vertical walls and a flat featureless bottom. There is very little life in the lake: not many plants and just a few freshwater crustaceans and tiny fish. Not enough – one would have thought – to sustain a herd, or even a small family, of large prehistoric animals. Eventually George Edwards made a revealing statement. As we floated close to the shore near the ruins of Urquhart Castle he swept his arm airily over the lines of tourists trekking ant-like among the castle’s tumbled walls and towers.
“Do you think swarms of tourists would ever come to Drumnadrochit just to see another mouldy old ruin? They want Nessie, and they certainly won’t come here if all we can tell them is… Nessie doesn’t exist.”
Drumnadrochit’s Loch Ness Centre provides an interesting overview of the lake and its mysterious inhabitant. In a series of deft and attractive multi-media presentations it sketches the history of monster sightings. It also gives interesting and attractively packaged information on the geological and biological character of the lake. And most importantly, it sums up the damning scientific evidence against the monster’s existence. But unfortunately even this scientific presentation fudges its conclusion.
“So does the Loch Ness monster really exist?” it asks as if the question was still open. “You be the judge.”
Just down the road at the Nessie Centre the question is not even asked. Here fantasy has routed science and chased it from the battlefield. Nessie kitsch rules in a thousand different guises. Disney-style cuteness has moved in. You can buy a dozen different cuddly stuffed Nessies, all bright green with big eyes and goofy grins. There are Nessie cartoon story books, Nessie tee-shirts, Nessie fridge magnets and shot glasses, even Nessie cushions. Outside the Centre there is a nice big fibre-glass Nessie where children can have fun hugging its neck and sliding down its humps.
Yes, the monster really exists, but it is a carefully designed commercial monster. And there are thousands upon thousands of customers eager to embrace its “reality.” Why?
Why even ask the question… after all, the Nessie myth just a bit of harmless fun, isn’t it?
Well, yes and no. On the face of it Nessie is indeed fun, but is it wholly harmless? The Loch Ness monster is disputed booty in several wider culture wars. For a start, Nessie seems to be swimming up and down at the boundary between science and fantasy. The impulse to fantasise – to tell stories – is instinctive and powerful and healthy. But it can produce an undesirable side-product – the idea that scientifically verifiable evidence doesn’t matter. The story’s the thing. Myth is inevitable so the anthropologists tell us and maybe (just maybe) Nessie is a myth that must exist. But anti-science is a big, and apparently growing, problem in so-called technologically advanced societies and Nessie seems to have been captured by the science-deniers.
Diving a little deeper, it also looks as though Nessie embodies the yearning of many for some kind of uncivilised wildness. (It is a yearning that pumps the legs of certain elderly long-distance walkers.) Civilisation has not been around long enough to completely erase our instinctive impulse to connect with a wild environment. We want Nessie to exist so that she (he? it?) can reassure us life’s not just nine-to-five. But modern commerce – regimented, regulated, tunnel-vision focussed on profit – is the implacable enemy of wildness. So Nessie can exist but must be regulated for commercial ends. The “monster” of wildness must be made cuddly, cute and efficiently saleable.
As we walked the streets of Drumnadrochit I said to Emmy:
“Let’s sell our place in Canberra and move to Drumnadrochit. I want to reconnect with my wild Gaelic past.”
She didn’t need to say anything. “Withering” is a strong word but it is much too feeble to describe her look. Ah well… another great idea bites the dust.