Saturday, 23 April 2016

Has the Loch Ness monster been found?

Well, one version of it has!

Cartoon drawing of the loch ness monster
CC0 image by ArtsyBee/Pixabay
Deep, deep down in Loch Ness something intriguing has been found. The monster? No, at least not the one everybody is looking for! The ''monster'' which has been discovered lying at the bottom of the loch is an old 30-foot-long movie prop used in a Sherlock Holmes movie filmed in 1969. During filming it sank to the bottom of the loch and was never seen again until recently when images of it were captured by an autonomous underwater vehicle - Munin - which has been commissioned to search Loch Ness in yet another attempt to prove the existence of the world-famous Loch Ness Monster.

graphic of the great glen fault line
For anyone who hasn't heard of the legend, the Loch Ness Monster is an (as yet) unidentified creature which is said to inhabit the depths of Scotland's second deepest loch, the largest volume of fresh water in the British Isles. Loch Ness is a long, narrow loch lying within the confines of the Great Glen Fault, a fault line which virtually cuts Scotland in two (see on map). The loch runs between Inverness and Fort Augustus and a well-used main road follows its northern shore.

''Nessie'' to give her her colloquial name (everyone assumes the monster is female but there is not one shred of evidence either way) made her first documented appearance in the early 6th century but since then there have been very few reports of appearances by Nessie until modern times that is and the advent of the motor car, the camera and tourism. The most famous time she was photographed was in 1934 (the so-called ''surgeon's photo'' which has now been revealed as a hoax) and there have been a number of photographs taken since then claiming to be of the monster
but none of them offer definitive proof.                                                                                       Image by Hellinterface/Wikipedia
                                                                                                                                                                               CC-BY-SA 3.0
There are many theories as to what Nessie might be. A relict population of the marine reptile the Plesiosaur perhaps. This seems to be one of the more popular theories based on the reported shape of Nessie - a long-necked, humpbacked creature as she appears to be when swimming at the surface.

skeleton of a plesiosaur
Photography by Kim Alaniz/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 2.0
Other theories say that she is a giant eel or a giant catfish (or even an elephant!) but all of these theories (guesses, more like!) can't explain how a population of any such creature could survive in Loch Ness and where did they come from? They can't have been in the loch for millions of years because Loch Ness hasn't existed for millions of years and how do we account for them surviving through the last ice age which finally ended in Scotland about 10,000 years ago? It wasn't just the land that was frozen. Even the deepest lochs (which did exist by then) were also probably frozen from top to bottom. No creature could have survived tens of thousands of years locked under an ice-bound land and they can't have arrived in the loch after the ice age because Loch Ness has no outlet to the sea.

The cynical amongst us might question how it is that sightings of Nessie have really only been in the last 80 years or so. Actually, that's not hard to explain. It's only in the last 80 years or so that large scale tourism has come about with the growth of a more affluent population, the easier availability of cars and cameras and improvements in the road network leading to an increase in the numbers of people visiting Scotland and looking for the ''monster in the loch'' which they have heard about from other tourists with cars and cameras!

The really cynical amongst us might question why Nessie is often spotted at the beginning of the tourist season. She seems to be strangely absent during the winter months (or maybe she is hibernating!) and why, despite the constant surveillance of the loch by Nessie hunters, no good quallty photograph has ever been taken of her.

Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness
CC0 photograph by Bruce777/Pixabay
The above photograph is of the ruins of Urquhart Castle, a popular Nessie-spotting place on the north shore of the loch and one from which she has been spotted frequently. Yet there is still no definitive photographic proof nor indeed any other kind of proof - no footprints, no remains washed up the shore, nothing except blurry photographs and eyewitness accounts with no proof to back them up. Is it any wonder that belief in Nessie's existence is, ummm, patchy?

Mind you, whether she exists or not she does still bring some benefit to the Scottish economy. I doubt if there are many tourists who come to Scotland specifically to search for Nessie - most are likely to include a trip to Loch Ness as part of a general touring visit - but there is sufficient interest in her to support a number of ''Nessie-spotting'' tours both on and around the loch. Although I have spent a fair amount of time in the area of Loch Ness I have never seen the monster but there are over 1000 recorded sightings of Nessie and this Key Sightings website contains some interesting photographs of what may or may not be the monster.

Perhaps one day the mystery will be solved but in the meantime I won't hold my breath!

Some information from Wikipedia (in-text links)

Monday, 18 April 2016

All the fun of the fair!

And it's right on my doorstep!

My former home town of Kirkcaldy in the Ancient Kingdom of Fife on Scotland's east coast plays host every year to the longest street fair in Europe and the oldest in Scotland. Known as the ''Lang Toun'' Kirkcaldy, and its neighbouring burgh, Dysart, stretch for more than three miles along the shoreline of the Firth of Forth, just north of Edinburgh and the annual Links Market occupies nearly a mile of The Esplanade, the dual-carriageway road which runs along the sea front of Kirkcaldy (see on map).

Commemorative plaque denoting the site of the Links Market
As you can see from the Kirkcaldy Civic Society plaque shown here there has been some kind of market on this site for 712 years - beginning some 188 years before Christopher Columbus ''discovered'' America! (By the way, the Scots word ''links'' refers to a sandy beach - which is why some Scottish golf courses are called ''links courses'' - because they are sited on sandy dune beaches).

The Market takes place around Easter time and lasts for six days (always from a Wednesday afternoon to the following Monday evening) but because it is so big it takes several days beforehand and afterwards to erect and dismantle all the attractions meaning that The Esplanade is cordoned off for almost two weeks. You can imagine the disruption this causes to residents and traffic - The Esplanade is a major through route for traffic using the coast road to travel between the many villages and small towns in this part of Scotland - but everybody seems to take it in their stride with good grace.

Diversion signs and road cones on The Esplanade

It is the first fair of the season in the Showman's calendar and The Market is a major social event especially with the younger generation but even old fogies like me and Mrs Kasman will take a walk through and marvel at the attractions on offer many of which seem rather wild to us and not at all like the more gentle fairground rides of our youth (dodgems were about my limit!). Over the course of the Market about a quarter of a million people will visit and the whole town can get very busy especially on Friday and Saturday with many minor roads near The Esplanade being restricted to residents only or closed altogether.

When it first started all those years ago no doubt it was a ''proper'' market selling livestock and produce and such but there were probably itinerant entertainers - conjurers, jugglers, bards, etc. - who made the market into an entertainment event for all and it stayed that way for centuries until the 18th century when the first ''rides'' appeared such as roundabouts (carousels) driven by ponies. Steam powered rides soon came along and electricity was introduced and the Market began to look less like a market and more like the fairground it is today - a cacophony of lights, loud music and screams!


A car park next to a busy road

Two big trucks and their cargo

A crane lifting a large metal girder into position on a fairground ride

Mobile homes parked on a grassy area near a main road

A mobile stall selling hot food

The Esplanade, Kirkcaldy and the Links Market


Kirkcaldy Links Market

Clouds above the Links Market

Two people high up on a fairground ride

A carousel with children riding on it

A big wheel at the fairground


This has just got to be the scariest fairground ride in the whole Links Market history. The ride lasts just under three minutes and it must be a looong three minutes for those brave enough to try it out. Just in case you are wondering, no, I didn't go on it! Watch this short video and ask yourself if you would you try it?

This years' funfair has just finished and all the attractions now move on to other fairgrounds throughout Scotland but they'll all gather together again next year for another annual Links Market and Kirkcaldy will be ready to welcome them once more!

 All photos and the short video clip by the author.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Fossils in Scotland

(No, not the Scottish government!)

Dinosaur signboard near the village of Staffin
When thinking of fossils and fossil hunting Scotland doesn't immediately spring to mind but some exciting discoveries have been made here ranging from dinosaur bones and footprints on beaches to some of the oldest fossils ever found anywhere in the world.

Scotland isn't exactly a hotbed of fossils discovery but a little exploration and observation in the right places and you could find something interesting enough to get your name in the papers - and don't forget that if you discover a new species never found before you get the privilege of giving it a scientific name!

Scotland is quite lucky, fossil-wise, since fossilised examples of extinct lifeforms can be found representing species from as recently as the extinction of the dinosaurs a mere 65 million years ago all the way back to what is believed to be the earliest-known land-living creature from 428 million years ago (the amateur fossil hunter who found that specimen had the honour of having it named after him). In fact, some people reckon that Scotland is the best place in the world to find very early pre-dinosaur invertebrates!

Dinosaur footprint fossilised in rock
Photograph by John Allan/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0

There are quite a few places in Scotland where your chances of finding fossils are good. The south of Scotland, with its good transport links and road system, is particularly handy since this closest to where most of Scotland's population live and some excellent fossil specimens have been found south of the central belt (that highly populated area lying roughly between Glasgow (Scotland's biggest city) in the west and Edinburgh (Scotland's capital city) in the east. The north of Scotland takes a bit more effort to reach. Distances are greater and the road network is not as comprehensive as it is further south but this has the advantage that there are rather less people around!


The islands also have their fair share of fossils and the current hotspot for dinosaur fossils is the Isle of Skye where bones and footprints (like the one picture above) have been found - not in any abundance but important in that there have been a number of ''first finds'' and links between time periods which have added to our understanding of dinosaur evolution.

Trilobite fossil like this one can be found in Scotland
PD image from Wikipedia
Trilobites similar to the one pictured here can also be found in many places in Scotland and although (due to their age) such fossils tend to be fragmented rather than whole it must still be an exciting find - to hold something which was last living many millions of years ago.

So where's the best places in Scotland to find fossils?

Well, it depends on what you're looking for. If you get excited by the thought of great big ferocious dinosaurs then the Isle of Skye is probably your best bet but if you are more interested in finding some really old fossils from well before the dawn of the dinosaurs then you could do worse than head for the east coast (where the oldest land-living fossil was found).

All up and down the eastern coast of Scotland you stand a pretty good chance of finding fossils - which, as far as I am concerned, is lucky because my home is in the Ancient Kingdom of Fife on Scotland's east coast (just north of Edinburgh) and there is a good place to find fossils a short 15-minute drive from where I live!

The section of coastline around the small fishing village of Crail (see on map) is one I know well and I have walked that area many times and I have stood and marvelled at some of the fossils to be found on the shore. None of them are particularly impressive - there are no teeth, no claws and no massive jawbones here - and indeed you could walk past them if you didn't know what they were but they are nonetheless interesting once you find them. I have never actually photographed any of Crail's fossils but Discovering Fossils/Crail is a website which illustrates some of the fossils to be found in that area including the tracks of this 4-foot millipede-like beastie Arthropleura:

Artists impression of a giant millipede
Image by Spencer Wright/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 2.0

and this fossilised tree stump on the shore line (it's bigger than it looks - about a metre in diameter at the top):

Fossil tree stump on the shoreline with Crail village in the background
Photograph by Callum Black/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0

There are many other fossils to be seen in this area and no doubt there are many others waiting to be found elsewhere - will you be the one to find them? If you do decide to go fossil hunting either in Scotland or in your local area then you should adhere to the Fossil Code - a short list of ''do's and don'ts'' pertaining to searching for and collecting fossils. This particular code is specific to Scotland but it's a good guide for fossil hunters everywhere.


This short video will give you an insight into what it's like to go hunting fossils on a seashore environment and how easy it is to find fossils once you ''get your eye in'' and know what to look for.