a long, thin monster rising out of the water
Illustration by Gary Hanna

The Beast of Loch Ness

Is there a monster living in Scotland’s legendary lake?

By Lauren Tarshis
From the May 2021 Issue

Learning Objective: to evaluate evidence presented in an article

Lexiles: 940L, 840L
Other Key Skills: key ideas and details, compare and contrast, text structure, author’s craft, evaluating evidence
AS YOU READ

Look for evidence for and against the claim that the Loch Ness monster exists.

On an April afternoon in 1933, Aldie and John Mackay were driving along the shores of one of Scotland’s largest lakes, Loch Ness. (In Scotland, lakes are called “lochs,” pronounced locks.) The road—the A82—was brand new, and Aldie was enjoying the view from the car window.

The Scottish Highlands are often rainy, but this day was bright. The trees were vivid green, and even the murky waters of the loch seemed to sparkle.

Then Aldie saw something she would never forget. The water rippled. A giant creature seemed to rise out of the loch. It appeared to be black, with a humped back. Trembling with fright, Aldie grabbed her husband’s arm and pointed.

“Stop!” she gasped. “The beast!”

John screeched the car to a halt. For several minutes, the stunned couple stared as the creature seemed to be “rolling and plunging.” It disappeared and then reemerged in another part of the loch. And then—it was gone.

For a few days, Aldie and John kept quiet about what they had seen. After all, who would believe them? A monster in Loch Ness? It sounded preposterous.

Ultimately, though, the couple couldn’t resist sharing their remarkable story, and the news soon spread. As the Mackays had predicted, some people rolled their eyes and laughed. But many others listened with fascination. There had always been something mysterious about Loch Ness, something spooky. For centuries, people from nearby towns had whispered stories of a creature, a huge and terrifying beast that, according to some tales, lured children to their deaths. Another story, dating back to the sixth century, told of a water monster that sought to devour farmers working nearby. Because of these tales, to many locals, the Mackays’ story was completely plausible.

Over the next few weeks, more people claimed to have seen the creature.

“It was big as an elephant,” said one farmer.

“It was horrible,” reported a schoolteacher. “It had a head like a cobra.”

But . . . what was it?

On an April afternoon in 1933, Aldie and John Mackay were driving along the shores of one of Scotland’s largest lakes, Loch Ness. (In Scotland, lakes are called “lochs,” pronounced locks.) The road—the A82—was brand new. Aldie was enjoying the view from the car window.

The Scottish Highlands are often rainy, but this day was bright. The trees were vivid green. Even the murky waters of the loch seemed to sparkle.

Then Aldie saw something she would never forget. The water rippled. A giant creature seemed to rise from the loch. It appeared to be black, with a humped back. Aldie trembled with fright. She grabbed her husband’s arm and pointed.

“Stop! The beast!” she gasped.

John stopped the car. For several minutes, the couple stared. The creature seemed to be “rolling and plunging.” It disappeared and then appeared in another part of the loch. And then it was gone.

For a few days, Aldie and John kept quiet about what they had seen. After all, who would believe them? A monster in Loch Ness? It sounded preposterous.

Ultimately, though, the couple couldn’t resist sharing their unbelievable story. Soon the news spread. As the Mackays had predicted, some people rolled their eyes and laughed. But many others were fascinated. There had always been something mysterious and spooky about Loch Ness. For centuries, people from nearby towns had told stories of a huge and terrifying beast. According to some tales, the beast lured children to their deaths. Another story told of a water monster that tried to eat farmers worked nearby. Because of these tales, to many locals, the Mackays’ story was completely plausible.

Over the next few weeks, more people claimed to have seen the creature.

“It was big as an elephant,” said one farmer.

“It was horrible,” reported a schoolteacher. “It had a head like a cobra.”

But . . . what was it?

Jim McMahon/Mapman ® (map); Nadia Chi/Shutterstock.com (sidebar); Jan Holm/Alamy Stock Photo (Loch Ness Lake)

Finding Proof

Over the decades, several theories about the beast of Loch Ness have been proposed. One theory is that the beast is simply an unknown marine mammal or an enormous fish. Another theory is that it’s a prehistoric creature, such as a plesiosaur. These long-necked marine reptiles lived alongside the dinosaurs and died out 65 million years ago. Maybe a few survived, and one of their descendants is now living in the loch.

Or maybe not.

These are just the theories of a few passionate believers, theories that most scientists completely reject. Few plants or fish can survive in the dark and frigid waters of Loch Ness. What would the creature eat? And how could there be just one creature? There would have to be a family that breeds and raises its young. Is it likely that a group of giant animals lives in the loch, invisible to all but a few accidental witnesses?

Over the decades, several theories about the beast of Loch Ness have been suggested. Some say the beast is simply an unknown water mammal or a giant fish. Another theory is that it’s a prehistoric creature, such as a plesiosaur. Plesiosaurs were marine reptiles with long necks that lived alongside the dinosaurs. They died out 65 million years ago. But maybe a few survived, and one of their descendants now lives in the loch.

Or maybe not.

These are just the theories of a few intense believers. Most scientists completely reject these ideas. Few plants or fish can survive in the dark and cold waters of Loch Ness. What would the creature eat? And how could there be just one creature? There would have to be a family that breeds and raises its young. Could a group of giant animals really be living in the loch, seen only by a few people?

Courtesy of The New York Times (headline); Nadia Chi/Shutterstock.com (sidebar)

This 1934 New York Times headline grabbed some serious attention!

Perhaps no one has been as interested in these questions as Tim Dinsdale, a British engineer. Dinsdale led 57 Loch Ness expeditions between 1960 and 1987. In 1960, he saw a “long oval shape” in the water and captured it on film for 60 seconds. The image was blurry, but Dinsdale was convinced it was the creature.

He gave the film to experts from the British government. After scrutinizing the footage, they concluded that the object was probably alive and that it was between 12 and 16 feet long. Believers in the Loch Ness monster—or Nessie, as the creature came to be known—cheered. But skeptics were unimpressed with the footage of a blurry blob moving slowly through the water.

Another respected Loch Ness investigator was an American lawyer named Robert Rines. In the 1970s, Rines captured an image that seemed to show the flipper of a large underwater creature. But as with Dinsdale’s film, the image was too blurry to provide clear answers.

In 2003, scientists studied the loch using sonar and satellites. They were hoping to prove the plesiosaur theory. They investigated the 22.5-mile-long loch “shoreline to shoreline, top to bottom,” said scientist Ian Florence. “We have covered everything in this loch, and we saw no signs of any large living animal.”

Florence’s colleague Hugh MacKay added, “We got some good clear data of the loch . . . nothing unusual I’m afraid.”

Perhaps no one has been as interested in these questions as a British engineer named Tim Dinsdale. Dinsdale led 57 Loch Ness expeditions between 1960 and 1987. In 1960, he saw a “long oval shape” in the water. He caught it on film for 60 seconds. The image was blurry, but Dinsdale was sure it was the creature.

He gave the film to experts from the British government. After scrutinizing the footage, they said that the object was probably alive and that it was between 12 and 16 feet long. Believers in the Loch Ness monster—or Nessie, as the creature came to be known—cheered. But skeptics were not impressed with the footage of a blurry blob moving slowly through the water.

Another respected Loch Ness investigator was an American lawyer named Robert Rines. In the 1970s, Rines captured an image that seemed to show the flipper of a large underwater creature. But like Dinsdale’s film, the image was too blurry to provide clear answers.

In 2003, scientists studied the loch using sonar and satellites. They were hoping to prove the plesiosaur theory. They studied the loch “shoreline to shoreline, top to bottom,” said scientist Ian Florence. “We have covered everything in this loch, and we saw no signs of any large living animal.”

Florence’s colleague Hugh MacKay added, “We got some good clear data of the loch . . . nothing unusual I’m afraid.”

Popperfoto/Getty Images (1934); Nadia Chi/Shutterstock.com (sidebar)

The photograph from 1934 has been used to argue that a creature lives in Loch Ness. But it was a hoax—the “creature” was made from a toy submarine. The blurry satellite image from 2014 circulated around social media but was disproved. Experts believe it’s actually a boat moving through the water.

Fantastic Creatures

Despite the lack of scientific evidence, there are still those who believe that the Loch Ness monster exists. Why? One reason could be that new species are being discovered all the time. In fact, scientists agree there are likely millions of plants and animals on Earth that have yet to be identified. They are hidden away in rainforests, fluttering or slinking behind curtains of trees. They thrive in the pitch blackness of the deep ocean, far from human eyes.

There have also been animals from legends and myths that turned out to be real—such as the giant squid. For centuries, sailors returned home telling wild tales of a sea monster with a single dinner-plate-sized eye and strangling tentacles. They called it the kraken. Few believed that this sea monster existed beyond the imaginations of sunstruck sailors—until the late 1800s, when a giant tentacle washed up on a beach. Today, we know that giant squid dwell in the deep ocean.

Another example is the okapi, a beautiful donkey-sized animal with velvety striped fur. The okapi is a close relative of the giraffe and was well known among the people who lived in the forested regions of Central Africa. But it wasn’t until 1901 that outsiders—many of whom thought the okapi was a myth—accepted that the animal was real.

Could the beast of Loch Ness be like the kraken and the okapi—not a fantastical creature but a real one that has simply remained elusive?

Despite the lack of scientific evidence, there are still those who believe that the Loch Ness monster exists. Why? One reason could be that new species are being discovered all the time. In fact, scientists agree there are likely millions of plants and animals on Earth that have yet to be found. They are hidden away in rainforests, concealed behind trees. They live in the pitch blackness of the deep ocean, far from human eyes.

There have also been animals from legends and myths that turned out to be real—such as the giant squid. For centuries, sailors returned home telling wild tales of a sea monster with a single, giant eye and powerful tentacles. They called it the kraken. Few believed that this sea monster existed beyond the imaginations of sunstruck sailors. Then, in the late 1800s, a giant tentacle washed up on a beach. Today, we know that giant squid live in the deep ocean.

Another example is the okapi, a beautiful animal with soft striped fur. The okapi is the size of a donkey and a close relative of the giraffe. The animal was well known among the people who lived in the forested regions of Central Africa. But it wasn’t until 1901 that outsiders—many of whom thought the okapi was a myth—accepted that the animal was real.

Could the beast of Loch Ness be like the kraken and the okapi—not a fantastical creature but a real one that has simply not been found?

Koji Sasahara/AP Images (squid); Eric Isselee/Shutterstock.com (okapi); Nadia Chi/Shutterstock.com (sidebar)

The giant squid (right) and the okapi (below) were once believed by many to exist only in myths and legends.

Human Imagination

In the nearly nine decades since the Mackays took their fateful drive, more than 1,000 people have claimed to have seen some kind of creature in the water or on the shores of Loch Ness. Certainly, many are attention seekers or pranksters. But can they all be making it up?

Even skeptics admit it’s likely the Mackays really did see something that April day. Perhaps a large eel was slithering on the surface. Perhaps a log was caught in the waves or an overturned boat was bobbing up and down. Perhaps the glittering sunlight turned an ordinary object into a fantastic monster. After all, the human imagination is powerful. 

On the other hand, Aldie Mackay managed a nearby hotel, and it’s been suggested that her “sighting” might have been a ploy to attract tourists. In any event, she was far from the only one to benefit from the legend of Nessie. Today, the Loch Ness monster—real or otherwise—attracts thousands of visitors every year who help boost the local economy. Aldie’s old hotel now houses the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition. Visitors can take boat cruises to look for Nessie.

Speaking of his own hunt for Nessie, Rines once said, “If you don’t have an open mind, in my judgment, you’re not a scientist. If you don’t have ideas, if you don’t have adventure, you’ll never make a discovery.” Though Rines never did uncover incontrovertible proof of Nessie’s existence, he believed until his death, in 2009, that a major discovery awaited in the murky waters of Loch Ness.

Who knows? Perhaps one day, he’ll be proven right.

In the many years since the Mackays took that drive in 1933, more than 1,000 people have claimed to have seen some kind of creature in the water or on the shores of Loch Ness. Certainly, some just want attention. Others are pranksters. But can they all be making it up?

Even skeptics say it’s likely the Mackays really did see something that April day. Perhaps a large eel was swimming on the surface. Perhaps a log was caught in the waves or an overturned boat was moving up and down. Perhaps the glittering sunlight turned an ordinary object into a strange monster. After all, the human imagination is powerful.

On the other hand, Aldie Mackay managed a nearby hotel. It’s been suggested that her “sighting” might have been a ploy to attract tourists. In any event, she was not the only one to benefit from the legend of Nessie. Today, the Loch Ness monster—real or not—attracts thousands of visitors every year. These visitors help boost the local economy. Aldie’s old hotel now houses the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition. Visitors can take boat cruises to look for Nessie.

Speaking of his own search for Nessie, Rines once said, “If you don’t have an open mind, in my judgment, you’re not a scientist. If you don’t have ideas, if you don’t have adventure, you’ll never make a discovery.” Rines never did find incontrovertible proof that Nessie is real. But he believed until his death, in 2009, that a major discovery was to be found in the waters of Loch Ness.

Who knows? Maybe one day, he’ll be proven right.

picturepartners/Shutterstock.com

Could Nessie sightings have actually been large eels? In 2019, scientists conducted a study of plants and animals in Loch Ness and found evidence of eels in almost every part of the loch.

Writing Prompt

Evaluate the evidence presented in the article for and against the existence of the Loch Ness monster. What evidence is most compelling? What evidence is least compelling? Present your evaluation in the form of an essay, a slideshow, or an audio recording. Be sure to use text evidence. 

Writing Prompt

Evaluate the evidence presented in the article for and against the existence of the Loch Ness monster. What evidence is most compelling? What evidence is least compelling? Present your evaluation in the form of an essay, a slideshow, or an audio recording. Be sure to use text evidence. 

This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue.

Slideshows (1)
Audio ()
Activities (16)
Quizzes (1)
Answer Key (2)
Answer Key (2)
Slideshows (1)
Audio ()
Activities (16)
Quizzes (1)
Answer Key (2)
Answer Key (2)
Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building

1. PREPARING TO READ (10 minutes)

Do Now: Solve a Riddle (5 minutes)

  • Post this riddle in your classroom or virtual hangout:

I live in a lake in Scotland.

I have lived there for centuries.

Some call me a monster.

Others say I’m a large marine reptile.

Still others say I’m simply a figment of the humanimagination.

Who am I?

Give students a couple minutes, then reveal the answer:the Loch Ness Monster. Then ask: Have you heard of this creature before? If so, doyou think it’s possible that the Loch Ness monstercould really exist?

Preview Vocabulary (5 minutes)

  • Project the Vocabulary Slideshow on your whiteboard, or if you’re remote, share it on your screen. Review the definitions and complete the activity as a class or in groups. Optionally, share the slideshow link directly to your LMS and have students preview the words and complete the activity independently. Highlighted words: incontrovertible, murky, plausible, ploy, preposterous, scrutinizing, sonar 

Do Now: Solve a Riddle (5 minutes)

  • Post this riddle in your classroom or virtual hangout:

I live in a lake in Scotland.

I have lived there for centuries.

Some call me a monster.

Others say I’m a large marine reptile.

Still others say I’m simply a figment of the humanimagination.

Who am I?

Give students a couple minutes, then reveal the answer:the Loch Ness Monster. Then ask: Have you heard of this creature before? If so, doyou think it’s possible that the Loch Ness monstercould really exist?

Preview Vocabulary (5 minutes)

  • Project the Vocabulary Slideshow on your whiteboard, or if you’re remote, share it on your screen. Review the definitions and complete the activity as a class or in groups. Optionally, share the slideshow link directly to your LMS and have students preview the words and complete the activity independently. Highlighted words: incontrovertible, murky, plausible, ploy, preposterous, scrutinizing, sonar

2. READING AND DISCUSSING  (45 minutes)

  • Have a volunteer read the As You Read box on page 6 of the magazine or at the top of the digital story page.
  • Read the article once through as a class. (Differentiation: Share the lower-Lexile version of the article with students who may need it.) Optionally, have students listen to the article read-aloud while they follow along. The read-aloud is located in the Resources tab in Teacher View and at the top of the story page in Student View.
  • Divide students into groups to read the story again and respond to the following close-reading questions. Tip: If you’re remote, you can have each group respond in a shared doc or discuss the questions in their own chat room; you can also use the questions as an asynchronous assignment.

Close-Reading Questions (10 minutes)

  • Traditionally, how have people characterized Loch Ness and the creature that is said to live in it? Are attitudes about Loch Ness and the creature any different today? (key ideas and details, compare and contrast) Loch Ness has traditionally been characterized as gloomy, mysterious, and spooky. Legends portray the creature living in it as huge, elusive, and terrifying; the creature was said to have a taste for human flesh. These old stories portrayed Loch Ness as a place to be avoided. Today, the loch and the creature are seen as fun and interesting. Tourists flock to the loch by the thousands to visit a special exhibition center and take lake cruises to look for Nessie.
  • Why do most scientists reject the idea that the Loch Ness monster exists? (key ideas and details) One reason scientists reject the idea that the Loch Ness monster exists is that few plants or fish can survive in the harsh conditions of Loch Ness; there is likely not enough food, light, or warmth to sustain such a creature. Another reason scientists reject the idea is that they have searched the lake thoroughly using sonar and satellites and found nothing unusual. 
  • Why does author Lauren Tarshis include information about the giant squid and the okapi in the article? (text structure) Many people once believed these animals were imaginary. Tarshis includes information about them to support the idea that creatures widely believed to be imaginary—like Nessie—do at least occasionally turn out to be real. 
  • Explain how Tarshis uses rhetorical questions throughout the article. What purposes do these questions serve? (author’s craft) In the article, author Lauren Tarshis uses rhetorical questions for several purposes. In the introduction, after describing reported sightings of the Loch Ness monster, Tarshis writes, “But . . . what was it?” This rhetorical question is used to build suspense. In the section “Finding Proof,” Tarshis uses a series of rhetorical questions to emphasize the unlikelihood of Nessie’s existence, writing, “What would the creature eat? And how could there be just one creature? . . . Is it likely that a group of giant animals lives in the loch, invisible to all but a few accidental witnesses?” Together, these questions express skepticism. Later, Tarshis uses rhetorical questions to encourage readers to consider the possibility of Nessie’s existence, asking questions such as “But can they all be making it up?” and “Who knows?”

Critical-Thinking Questions (5 minutes)

  • How convincing do you find the evidence for the idea that the Loch Ness monster exists? Explain. Answers will vary. Students may say that the evidence is not convincing because it is mainly anecdotal (eyewitness accounts), from folklore, or poor quality (blurry photos and videos). Also, scientists have conducted several searches of Loch Ness and concluded that there are “no signs of any large living animal” in the loch. That scientists do not find the “evidence” of a Loch Ness monster credible further supports the conclusion that this evidence is not convincing. 
  • Why do you think people continue to be interested in the story of the Loch Ness monster? Answers will vary. Students will likely say that the fact that some imaginary creatures have turned out to be real drives some to believe that Nessie may eventually be confirmed as real too. They may also say that something in humans simply longs for magic and mystery—that we continue to be interested in Nessie’s story because we want to live in a world that science cannot fully explain.
  • Have a volunteer read the As You Read box on page 6 of the magazine or at the top of the digital story page.
  • Read the article once through as a class. (Differentiation: Share the lower-Lexile version of the article with students who may need it.) Optionally, have students listen to the article read-aloud while they follow along. The read-aloud is located in the Resources tab in Teacher View and at the top of the story page in Student View.
  • Divide students into groups to read the story again and respond to the following close-reading questions. Tip: If you’re remote, you can have each group respond in a shared doc or discuss the questions in their own chat room; you can also use the questions as an asynchronous assignment.

Close-Reading Questions (10 minutes)

  • Traditionally, how have people characterized Loch Ness and the creature that is said to live in it? Are attitudes about Loch Ness and the creature any different today? (key ideas and details, compare and contrast) Loch Ness has traditionally been characterized as gloomy, mysterious, and spooky. Legends portray the creature living in it as huge, elusive, and terrifying; the creature was said to have a taste for human flesh. These old stories portrayed Loch Ness as a place to be avoided. Today, the loch and the creature are seen as fun and interesting. Tourists flock to the loch by the thousands to visit a special exhibition center and take lake cruises to look for Nessie.
  • Why do most scientists reject the idea that the Loch Ness monster exists? (key ideas and details) One reason scientists reject the idea that the Loch Ness monster exists is that few plants or fish can survive in the harsh conditions of Loch Ness; there is likely not enough food, light, or warmth to sustain such a creature. Another reason scientists reject the idea is that they have searched the lake thoroughly using sonar and satellites and found nothing unusual. 
  • Why does author Lauren Tarshis include information about the giant squid and the okapi in the article? (text structure) Many people once believed these animals were imaginary. Tarshis includes information about them to support the idea that creatures widely believed to be imaginary—like Nessie—do at least occasionally turn out to be real. 
  • Explain how Tarshis uses rhetorical questions throughout the article. What purposes do these questions serve? (author’s craft) In the article, author Lauren Tarshis uses rhetorical questions for several purposes. In the introduction, after describing reported sightings of the Loch Ness monster, Tarshis writes, “But . . . what was it?” This rhetorical question is used to build suspense. In the section “Finding Proof,” Tarshis uses a series of rhetorical questions to emphasize the unlikelihood of Nessie’s existence, writing, “What would the creature eat? And how could there be just one creature? . . . Is it likely that a group of giant animals lives in the loch, invisible to all but a few accidental witnesses?” Together, these questions express skepticism. Later, Tarshis uses rhetorical questions to encourage readers to consider the possibility of Nessie’s existence, asking questions such as “But can they all be making it up?” and “Who knows?”

Critical-Thinking Questions (5 minutes)

  • How convincing do you find the evidence for the idea that the Loch Ness monster exists? Explain. Answers will vary. Students may say that the evidence is not convincing because it is mainly anecdotal (eyewitness accounts), from folklore, or poor quality (blurry photos and videos). Also, scientists have conducted several searches of Loch Ness and concluded that there are “no signs of any large living animal” in the loch. That scientists do not find the “evidence” of a Loch Ness monster credible further supports the conclusion that this evidence is not convincing. 
  • Why do you think people continue to be interested in the story of the Loch Ness monster? Answers will vary. Students will likely say that the fact that some imaginary creatures have turned out to be real drives some to believe that Nessie may eventually be confirmed as real too. They may also say that something in humans simply longs for magic and mystery—that we continue to be interested in Nessie’s story because we want to live in a world that science cannot fully explain.

3. SKILL BUILDING AND WRITING (20 minutes)

  • Have students complete Preparing to Write: Could Nessie Really Exist? This activity will help them evaluate evidence and organize their ideas in preparation for the writing prompt on page 8 in the printed magazine and at the bottom of the digital story page. It's available in your Resources tab.
  • Alternatively, have students choose a culminating task from the Choice Board, a menu of differentiated activities.
  • Have students complete Preparing to Write: Could Nessie Really Exist? This activity will help them evaluate evidence and organize their ideas in preparation for the writing prompt on page 8 in the printed magazine and at the bottom of the digital story page. It's available in your Resources tab.
  • Alternatively, have students choose a culminating task from the Choice Board, a menu of differentiated activities.