Making a career out of the Loch Ness Monster
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BLAME Dan Dare.
Tony Harmsworth reckons it was reading the adventures of the stiff upper lipped space hero in The Eagle that sparked his life-long fascination with the possibility of something monstrous in Loch Ness.
True, the giant serpent in the comic was in the swamps of Venus instead of a Highland loch, but somehow the fearsome looking creature became linked in Tony’s mind with Loch Ness.
“Maybe that week there was a monster story in the newspaper, but that started my interest,” Tony suggested.
That interest was fuelled by family trips from the south of England to his Scottish mother’s homeland. Years later, when his wife Wendy was offered a job with Highland Regional Council, it made sense for the couple to find a home on Loch Ness.
Tony soon put his interest in the Loch Ness mystery to good use by approaching local hotelier Ronnie Bremner to create the first ever Loch Ness exhibition in the former stables at the rear of the Drumnadrochit Hotel.
At first this took the popular view that Nessie might be some kind of pre-historic survivor such as a plesiosaur, but after meeting Adrian Shine of the Loch Ness and Morar Project, Tony and the exhibition adopted a more ambiguous attitude towards the monster’s existence.
Until he became used to the wind and wave patterns of the loch, Tony admits he might wonder if what he was seeing might be an unknown creature, but he was soon able to recognise instantly that he had not seen anything out of the ordinary.
Which gives his own mysterious sighting all the more intriguing.
“I saw something moving diagonally through the water. Most times I can dismiss something like that instantly. On this occasion I couldn’t,” he said.
“I ran off a series of photos on the Canon Sureshot, but when I looked at the surface again, it had vanished.
“I was left with my objectivity completely gone, but because the science says you can’t have an air breather here and the only real alternative is some kind of fish, I have to think that my sighting must have been a mistake. There’s just no evidence for the Nessie we would all like to think we have.”
The exhibition grew to include all the major photographs and the underwater sonar work as well as working models and some of the equipment used by Loch Ness researchers.
“People liked it. The problem was that we made so many changes that my original copyrights didn’t hold,” Tony said.
Though Tony regarded the exhibition as his brainchild and intellectual property, he says he never earned more than £10,000 a year, despite its success.
Eventually his relationship with Robbie broke down and he just walked out. Though he had another business in Fife making figurines, its biggest customer was the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre, which is why he says he was reluctant to pursue his grievances with Robbie in court.
Eventually, Adrian Shine took over as director of the centre, increasing emphasis on the science rather than the legend.
“Some people say that the exhibition tells you there is no monster,” Tony said.
“It doesn’t do that at all, but when you come to Loch Ness do you want to learn how the mystery developed or do you want to be fed dinosaurs?”
His book “Loch Ness, Nessie and Me”, which combines autobiography with the story of the hunt for the monster takes a similar approach.
“I had to write this book,” Tony added.
“Whether it makes any money or not, I’m not bothered — though it would be nice if it did. I wanted the story of Fort Augustus Abbey to be in there along with the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre and the monster. On the exhibition centre, I wanted to put the record straight, with the Abbey I wanted to fill in the gaps in people’s knowledge and with the monster I wanted more than anything to expose the American research as not supporting anything in Loch Ness.”
One of the latter, a former Bigfoot hunter, would enlarge photographs of the loch to the extent that all that could be seen were individual pixels — then claim to see monsters within the pixels.
Tony’s experience in setting up the Loch Ness Exhibition resulted in an invitation to create another tourist attraction at Fort Augustus Abbey which had just closed down its boys’ school and was looking for new way to raise revenue.
At relatively short notice he had an exhibition on the story of Scotland up and running by the end of the summer and was commissioned by the local enterprise company to come up with a rescue plan.
“It quickly became apparent that the buildings needed such a vast amount of money spent on them that the Abbey couldn’t survive with anything small scale,” Tony said.
Tony’s plan would have seen the demolition of the 1960s buildings at the Abbey, leaving it with an easily maintained core.
However, when a new Abbot was appointed, he vetoed the plans and the Benedictine Abbey was eventually closed.
His decision was a great disappointment to Tony who believes that with the support of funding from Historic Scotland, the National Lottery and other sources, the building might continue as a working Abbey today.
“It’s a shame that the heritage of the Abbey is lost to the general public,” he added.
Despite suffering a stroke in September 2007, Tony now runs his own tour business, recently rated number three in Scotland on tourism website Trip Adviser.
“It would be very easy to just be a taxi driver and take clients to Culloden or Cawdor and drop them off, but that’s not a tour,” he said.
“Each of the guys I work with has expert knowledge. When you go out with us, you get something unique.”
At the end of the day, though, he returns to his home with Wendy above Loch Ness where those old monster hunting instincts have not yet been completely lost.
“Looking at the surface of the loch, I suppose you are always looking for something,” he said.
“If you do see something, it can be easily explained away. But I still look.”
* “Loch Ness, Nessie and Me” by Tony Harmsworth is available at some local booksellers, on Amazon and via Tony’s own website www.LochNessNessieAndMe.com as a book or for download.