We all love a road trip, so here’s one. Would you drive hundreds – or travel thousands – of miles to see an average-looking lake whose most famous and elusive wildlife you are guaranteed never to see? Thought not.
But you’ll visit Loch Ness, right? In fact, you’ll go to Scotland specifically to look for Nessie, the Loch Ness monster. I know I did.
The genius of monster-marketing
That’s the genius of monster-marketing. You don’t even need an actual monster – just the suggestion of one, backed up by a century’s worth of ‘sightings’. It helps if your monster lives in a country with a truly legendary backstory and a worldwide heritage appeal. Oh, hello Scotland, didn’t see you there.
We drove in to Fort Augustus on a summer’s day the Scots would descibe as ‘dreich’, which is basically any combination of dreary, dull, overcast, miserable, wet, cold and gloomy.
Despite the weather, hopes were still high at this point. It’s a handsome enough place, set on a series of stepped locks on the Caledonian Canal, which lead down to the shores of Loch Ness. There are cruise boats and cafés, a loch-side restaurant, and a great little backpackers called Morag’s Lodge.
We’re here for Nessie
So it’s pretty nice in Fort Augustus, but let’s face it, we’re here for Nessie – and if she wasn’t here, then neither would we be.
The cruise boats have to deal with the same dilemma. You know why you’re here. They know why you’re here. But even so, they have to make with the ‘let’s pretend it’s a proper lake cruise just in case we don’t see the monster’ routine.
So you get facts and figures and history, and close-up views of forested slopes, which no one is really interested in, because they’re all too busy peering into the murky water, trying to spot You Know Who. The boat has on-board sonar equipment hooked up to a monitor in the main cabin – some people spend most of the trip peering hopefully at this, rather than enjoying the pleasant but by no means dramatically beautiful lake scenery outside.
After this, it’s virtually obligatory to drive up the western side of the lake to Drumnadrochit and the Loch Ness Centre, where you’re relieved of monstrous sums of money to learn that Nessie probably doesn’t exist, but might do, you never know. In the monster-sized shop, the whole of ‘Bonnie Scotland’ has been sliced, diced and gift-wrapped, and if you only leave with a stuffed cuddly Nessie you’ve got away very lightly.
I know, I know. I’m a big old curmudgeon who should probaby lighten up a bit. What do I expect? That there are actually vampires in Transylvania, yetis in the Himalayas?
What’s the harm?
And I know, people have to make a living, and it’s all a bit of fun, and what harm does it do anyway?
Well, I’ll tell you. It’s all just so – disappointing. Coachloads and boatloads of visitors, rushing through one of the most beautiful countries in Europe to experience a thrill-free flirtation with a made-up monster.
And just to be clear, it’s not Scotland I’m complaining about here. It’s the whole lame, shallow British ‘heritage visitor experience’ that passes for cultural engagement these days. Yes, I’m talking about you, Cornwall and King Arthur. And you, London and just about anything royal.
But in the end, I don’t want to put you off. I’d much rather you go to Scotland than not go to Scotland.
Make no mistake – Scotland is fantastic
Scotland is fantastic – but it has lochs more dramatic than Loch Ness, and stories more enthralling than that of Nessie, and actual real-life wildlife, from otters to golden eagles. So drive on a bit more and see the highlands and islands and glens and coast, and the cities and castles and gardens and museums that make Scotland special.
We ended up sitting on a spectacular west coast headland, looking down on leaping porpoises; a piercing blue sky above; white-capped waves breaking over rocks where seals slid and clambered.
Keep your monsters. That’s what Scotland’s all about.