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Do the dark, rippling waters of Loch Ness hold a secret? Is there a monster lurking in the sunless depths of Scotland's most famous lake, or is it just a myth carefully nurtured by the canny Scots pleased to welcome the throngs of curious visitors?

The stories about an unidentified marine animal first surfaced 1,400 years ago. Saint Columba, the great Irish missionary, was on his way to convert Brude, king of the Picts, when suddenly a titanic creature broke the surface of the water. "With a great roar and open mouth the monster struck terror into the hearts of all but one of the travelers, Saint Columba, who faced down the fish with the sign of the cross," according to the annals of the time.

The creature sank back into the peat-rich gloom of the lake's waters, and over the next 1,400 years, its rare appearances were both silent and unthreatening. Today it is referred to as "Nessie," in a Disney fixation that has turned the monster into a friendly sort of beast. But is it?

Stories of a strange beast in Loch Ness resurfaced in the late nineteenth century, but it was not until the 1930s that there were several reported sightings. This culminated in the publication in local and national papers of several photographs purporting to show the head or the body of the monster.

The most common description is of a creature with one or more humps, a long neck with a small head, flippers, and a tail. Indeed, the local road signs directing the visitor to Loch Ness do feature a head, neck, and two humps.

The monster mania of the 1930s erupted after the opening of a new road on the north side of the twenty-three-mile long lake. Now it could be viewed from an angle at which patterns of light and shadow leave you pointing to long black patches and asking, is that it? Many people, not all of them cranks, are totally convinced that they have seen a being moving in the water.

In 1933, the circulation-seeking Daily Mail newspaper in London commissioned M.A. "Duke" Wetherall, an actor, film producer, and self-styled big game hunter to spend weeks cruising the loch.

Astonishingly, less than forty-eight hours after his arrival he announced that he was returning with proof that the monster existed. Wetherall said he had stumbled across two footprints in soft mud on the south shore of the Loch. He reported that the animal was an amphibian, "A four-fingered beast...feet or pads about eight inches across...a very powerful, soft-footed animal about twenty feet long." Plaster casts were taken of the footprints for scientific analysis and on January 4, 1934, the verdict came back--the prints were those of a young hippo. It was decided that the footprints were the work of pranksters.

With Fleet Street laughing its socks off, Wetherall returned to London with his tail between his legs and plotted his revenge. He turned to Christian Spurling, a twenty-one year old model maker and asked him to build a monster. Wetherall's son Ian purchased the raw materials--plastic wood and a toy submarine. The "monster," modeled on the idea of a sea serpent, took eight days to make. "Sea" trials for the monster were conducted and photographs taken. Wetherall then needed to find a coconspirator--someone who was well respected and trusted--who would take the photographic plates to be processed. Wetherell confided in a friend Maurice Chambers, who found just the man in Dr. Robert Wilson, a respected surgeon. And with the resulting photograph, the Loch Ness monster myth grew. The story remained concealed for more than sixty years and was only uncovered in the 1990s by zoologist David Martin and researcher Alastair Boyd. The pair tracked down Christian Spurling who revealed the details of the hoax before he died in 1993. Today, all those involved are dead, but the myth of the Loch Ness Monster lives on.

The locals are all too glad to keep "Nessie" alive. In 2000, the Official Loch Ness Exhibition Center was Scotland's eighth most popular paid attraction, drawing 200,000 visitors