Breeding Reptiles in the Mind

Tourism that trades in mythology makes the world a crueller place

By George Monbiot. Published by The Guardian 10th October 1998.

Had “The X-Creatures” come to any other conclusion, there would have been a television-shaped hole in my living-room window. I had guessed that the BBC series, in common with almost all the other treatments of the Loch Ness mystery, would aver that the existence of the monster hadn’t yet been proved, but couldn’t be discounted. But, to his credit, the presenter explained what anyone with a shred of common sense should surely be able to work out for themselves: that there isn’t, and can’t possibly be, a Loch Ness monster.

You don’t need a PhD in ecology to be able to see that one animal of any species isn’t going to get very far. After a while – within 70 years for most large vertebrates – the thing will keel over and die. So any creature that wanted its genes to survive from the Jurassic to the present day would have to be in the company of other members of its species. For a breeding population to remain viable across even the most fleeting of geological epochs, it would, as the programme pointed out, have to contain at least 5000 animals.

The monster is said to be a reptile of some kind, in which case it must breathe air. It must, in other words, come to the surface not once every few years, or even once every few days, but, more probably, once every few minutes. It would spend a good part of its life either on the water’s surface, breathing, looking around and basking in the sun, or hauled out on the side of the loch.

Now take a far smaller air-breathing vertebrate, the harbour porpoise. It’s a mere four feet long, and lives in a much bigger and rougher place than Loch Ness – the sea. While it generally stays close to the shore, it can travel scores of miles to good feeding grounds. Yet visit the sparsely-habited coast of the Highlands and Islands and ask whether the harbour porpoises are around, and the people who work on the sea will be able to tell you straight away. Skittering around on the surface, blowing noisily, making great bow waves as they chase their prey, the little monsters couldn’t hide from us, however hard they tried. Biologists have no trouble keeping track of them and recording the minutest details of their behaviour. Quite aside from the fact that Loch Ness is too cold and too devoid of life to support a population of plesiosaurs, were there a school of 5000 monsters, there couldn’t be a mystery: you could have watched them from the banks whenever you wanted.

Yet, there’s one mystery the programme didn’t clear up: namely why, on every day of the tourist season, coach after coach arrives in the laybys beside the loch, a piper hurriedly stuffs his fags into his sporran and starts playing his pipes, and a bunch of eager people, some of whom, presumably, hold down responsible jobs, scan the placid waters of the loch in the hope of seeing a dinosaur.

The piper, of course, is just as much a part of the mythology of the Highlands as the monster. The coach will move from Loch Ness to Ben Nevis, will stop for a few minutes in Glencoe, where the passengers can buy shortbread and prints of The Monarch of the Glen, pause in a car park on the bonny banks of Loch Lomond, then, without stopping in Glasgow, whizz back to Royal Edinburgh. There might be a gory painting of the Glencoe massacre on the shortbread tins, but that is as close as any of the occupants will get to the Scotland of reality rather than the Scotland of their dreams.

It’s the same story the world over. Pulling up at a fishing village on a bank of the Amazon, I was once greeted by a group of peasants covered in paint and feathers, with trembling bows and arrows in their hands, grunting and whooping. I asked them what on earth they were doing. “Oh, sorry,” one of the men said, “we thought it was the tourist boat.” They went into their houses and put their T-shirts back on. Amerindian cultures on the banks of the Amazon collapsed three centuries ago.

You might object that these fantasies are harmless, that local myths simply provide a bit of fun for the tourists and a bit of money for the hosts. But it’s the exoticisation of the other, the apprehension that the rest of the world conforms to different laws, that surely lies at the root of our age-old failure to understand the impacts – economic, political and ecological – that our activities exert upon other places. The more we extol the exotic and deny the real, the more we breed reptiles in the mind.