Monster Tales; Scotland: Is there a 'lady of the lake' lurking beneath the murky waters of Loch Ness? Maybe it doesn't matter.; COVER STORY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Say what you want about the Loch Ness monster, but it knows a thing or two about the importance of location, location, location.

The majority of the roughly 1,000 documented sightings have occurred amid the creepy ruins of Urquhart Castle. The decaying stone edifice, which looks as if it's been slowly crumbling since it was enlarged in the 16th century, sits atop a promontory on the northern banks of Loch Ness and overlooks its deepest point -- some 800 feet.

The surrounding hillsides of the Scottish Highlands, under windy, gray skies, are dark and foreboding even at midday. The loch itself is so full of peat around here that visibility underwater is less than a yard.

"So, have you seen it?"

That's my friend asking the cashier in the Urquhart Castle gift shop about the legendary monster, affectionately known in these parts as Nessie.

"We're not supposed to say," comes the reply.

"Aw, come on. Have you seen it?"

A pause, a glance to the side, and then: "Yeah. Once. At night."

Sounds good enough to me. Then again, I believe every "X-Files" episode I've ever seen. In the interest of good investigative journalism, I decide to get another source.

Not far up the road lies the town of Drumnadrochit, home to not one but two Nessie museums, both of which are open 365 days a year. Outside one of the museums is a long, narrow pool, looking suspiciously like a miniature Loch Ness. In the middle of it stands a model of the "lady of the lake." (Another nickname. How they know it's female is yet another mystery.)

Based on sightings, the model looks like a cross between a brontosaur and a tortoise -- the head and neck of the former attached to the shell-less body of the latter. She's a little green here, a little brown there, and decidedly prehistoric, what with her reptilian skin and all.

In one of the gift shops, I wend my way past Nessie T-shirts, Nessie coffee mugs, Nessie golf caps, Nessie key chains, Nessie playing cards, Nessie ashtrays, until I spot Nessie refrigerator magnets. I buy one. And on my way out I stop to talk with shop assistant Joyce Thompson.

"So, have you seen it?"

"Yeah," she says. "I'm its mother."

This is probably not true.

"No," she finally confesses, "I haven't seen it. But I do believe."

"How about you?" I ask the younger man standing next to her, a tour bus driver by the name of Billy Hardy, who ferries more than a dozen bus loads of the curious to the loch every day. "You believe it?"

Indeed he does, though, like Thompson, he has yet to see it.

How can they be so sure?

Well, there are all those eyewitness accounts, of course. But the clincher: Last year in an old abbey at the far end of the loch a set of monks' diaries were found.

"They'd been recording monthly sightings from the bell tower as far back as the early 19th century," Hardy says.

Would monks lie? Or collectively hallucinate? I brood over this while I'm in the museum men's room, which has Nessie silhouettes (trademarked) painted on the tiles. I'm still brooding when I leave and walk past a concession stand. Would I like a "Monster Coffee," as the sign offers? I think not.

Is there a Loch Ness monster? If there is, it needs an agent. But despite the numerous eyewitness accounts, which began in the 6th century and have all described essentially the same thing, conclusive proof remains elusive. Not that people haven't tried -- using everything from cheap cameras to sophisticated electronic equipment.

There have been a number of hoaxes along the way, most involving faked photographs. But there have also been several technological findings, like peculiar sonar images from the deeper parts of the lake, that remain unexplained. And the most famous photograph -- taken by a vacationing doctor in 1934, showing the neck and head of a dinosaur-like figure rising out of the water -- has yet to be fully debunked.

So why not find out for oneself? After all, the loch lies just southwest of Inverness in the Highlands, an area of uncommon beauty. Rugged hillsides, some embedded with slabs of exposed rock, alternate with wide swaths of loamy, green earth. Thick vegetation crops up in intermittent patches, usually between forests of towering Caledonian Scotch pines.

Then there's the heather -- everywhere, it seems -- botanical evidence that even Mother Nature pays attention to Martha Stewart. The plant's earthy browns, grays and greens laced with streaks of pale lavender couldn't be more color-coordinated if they tried.

The air is clear and crisp. The skies are always either ominously overcast or brilliantly sunlit. And amid all this is Loch Ness, a 24-mile-long, mile-wide trench holding the largest amount of fresh water in the entire United Kingdom (that much has been conclusively proved).

If that's not enough, the Culloden battlefield is within 30 minutes' drive. The last battle for Scottish independence (earlier fights for which were the subject of the movie "Braveheart") was fought there in 1746. The site is home to a detailed and sobering memorial.

The English ruthlessly defeated the Scots at Culloden, killing even the wounded Highland soldiers and the women and children tending to them. For some reason, the locals haven't quite been able to forget that.

This is also serious castle country. For example, there's Inverlochy Castle, built in 1863 atop the remains of a 13th-century fortress and now a hotel surrounded by 500 acres festooned with landscaped gardens and rhododendrons. Mel Gibson stayed there during the filming of "Braveheart."

Nearby are Dornoch Castle and Foulis Castle, the latter the home of one of Scotland's more prominent clans for more than 600 years. These castles, too, are hotels (though the area also abounds in charming and affordable B&Bs;).

Furthermore, because of the glens, the Highlands are a hiker's dream. Glens are essentially ravine-ettes, full of trails and woods and waterways. I asked a veteran guide, now in business for himself but formerly of the Scottish Tourist Authority, how many glens existed in the Loch Ness area. He said no one had ever been able to count them all.

But for your infotainment dollar, nothing beats the loch and its most famous resident.

I am deep inside "Loch Ness 2000: The New Exhibition for the Millennium." A museum-as-theme park, "2000" is laid out like a series of underwater caverns, each featuring a projection screen, a recorded spiel and some relevant scenery (a miniature diving bell, for instance, like the one used in a particular deep-water investigation looking for Nessie).

Cavern five, in which I now find myself, is listed in the exhibition brochure as, "The Abyss: deep, dark, cold and YOU are there!"

I couldn't have put it better. The damp air conditioning feels as if it's going full tilt, the lighting is sepulchral and the thing I'm sitting on looks like some bench on the ocean floor. Images from the research conducted by the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau in 1962, the first official underwater exploration for Nessie, flash on one of the cavern walls.

The Loch Ness Investigation Bureau turned up the first evidence suggesting that "something" weird was moving around in the loch's depths. But not until 1987, with the advent of Operation Deepscan, did there appear any scientific evidence that was more than just suggestive.

Deepscan deployed 24 sonar-equipped boats that swept up and down the loch in tandem for a week. They netted three strong contacts, one of which, "a sonar echo from a large and moving object 200 feet down, remains unexplained," according to an authoritative account.

I decline to take one of the nine daily cruises on the lake offered by the other museum, "The Original Loch Ness Visitor Centre," as it's called.

Admittedly, the temptation is strong: One of the skippers was part of the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau; the views up and down the lake are spectacular; and the crews are always apprised of the latest sightings, courtesy of "the Official Loch Ness Monster Fan Club," according to a visitor center brochure.

Still, I resist, in the firm belief that you can sometimes be too lucky. It's one thing to be, like the vacationing doctor some 65 years ago, in the right place -- on shore -- at the right time. It's quite another to be on the water when the old girl shows up, possibly hungry. True, biting off my leg would constitute conclusive proof. But that's proof I can live without.

One thing that's certain: The place does seem to be a magnet for characters, who, unlike Nessie, haunt the place in plain sight.

In the early 1900s, the lakeside inhabitants included Aleister Crowley, poet, madman, practitioner of "sex magick," as he called it, and the self-described "most wicked man in the world." Crowley didn't stay long, though. He claimed he was driven out by inhospitable spirits.

Today you're more apt to run into, as I do, Murdo Urquhart -- yes, as in the castle, he says. (He claims to be a descendant.)

Dressed in regimental kilt with full military regalia, and sporting a bushy mustache on a ruddy face with eyes still bright blue despite late middle-age, Urquhart looks as if he had just stepped out of Central Casting. With bagpipes in hand, he works roadside rest-stops by the loch, marching and playing for any who pull over.

I ask him why he has two knives, one a dagger tucked into his stocking, the other big enough to sacrifice horses.

"One's for the momma and the other's for baby Nessie," he says. How does he know there are two? "I don't," he answers. "But just in case."

Leaving aside the curiosity of who, or what, may have sired baby Nessie, I ask if he's ever seen momma.

"Aye," he says, "but I'm not the one to talk to. There's an old woman, seen it more than a dozen times. She'll tell you all about it for 60 pounds."

Do I want to shell out about a $100 for a source? I think not.

"Well, then go see her son," Urquhart says. "He's only seen it twice, so he only charges 20 pounds."

And where are they?

"I don't remember. But they're somewhere around here."

Like Nessie, no doubt.

WHEN YOU GO ...

Getting there: Several airlines -- including United, US Airways and British Airways -- fly from BWI to London. Deals are best during winter and early spring, when you can get a ticket for under $500, and sometimes under $400. Whether you land at Heathrow or Gatwick makes no difference. There are plenty of connecting flights (either British Airways or British Regional) that will take you nonstop to Inverness for about $300 round-trip.

Where to stay:

Even if you're not worried about Nessie poking her head through the window of a loch-side hotel room, you'll do better to stay in nearby Inverness. There are many more and diverse accommodations at better prices, and it's barely 30 minutes by car or bus to Loch Ness.

Like any other tourist destination, the Scottish Highlands can cost you a bundle or not much at all, depending on when you go and your level of comfort.

The off season runs from late September to early April. But even in peak season you'll be spending less than what you'd shell out for, say, a visit to London.

For lodging, expect to pay anything from $25 a night to upward of $600, with B&Bs; representing the lower end and the more plush castles representing the higher. Camping is allowed in certain areas.

For more information: Call the British Tourist Authority: 800-462-2748 (www.usagateway .visitbritain.com), or go to www.holiday.scotland.net.

Tips:

Highlands weather is, pardon the expression, mercurial. Figure on generally warmer temperatures from May to September, cooler the other months. A benchmark: average summer temperature is in the low to mid-60s. But wind and rain can blow in at the blink of an eye, so be sure to take wet-weather gear.

Also, don't forget good, comfortable walking or hiking shoes. And, if you're prone to believing legends, pack a spear gun.

AN IDEAL DAY

8 a.m.: Start with a full Scottish breakfast and then maybe stroll along the banks of the River Ness, which runs through the center of Inverness.

9 a.m. : Head for the loch! Your hotel should be able to advise you about bus schedules. If you've got a car, just get on A82 going west out of town.

10 a.m.: Recon: Check out the natural beauty of the area first before any monster investigating. Take the southern route around Loch Ness until you get to Fort Augustus on the far end. Walk through the 17th-century abbey there and learn about Celtic history. (This is the abbey where they found the monks' diaries.)

11 a.m.: Stroll through either the Original Loch Ness Visitor Centre or Loch Ness 2000: The New Exhibition for the Millennium. Heck, do both. (There's a slight admission charge for each. More info is available online at their respective sites: www.lochness-centre .com and www.lochness .co.uk.)

2 p.m.: A good time to grab a bite. There are several eateries in Drumnadrochit. I never saw a Nessie burger on a menu, but then again, I didn't look too hard.

3 p.m. : Take A82 north and be sure to slow down near the scenic overlooks by the loch -- Murdo Urquhart will probably be at one of them. Drive on to Culloden battlefield and go through the visitor center, which gives a fascinating, if sobering, account of Prince Charles Edward Stuart's doomed cause in 1746. Shakespeare fans, take note: Not far from here, you will also find Cawdor Castle, as in "All hail Macbeth, thane of Cawdor." It's open to visitors for a nominal fee.

5 p.m.: Tea time. Best enjoyed at any number of places in Inverness or back at Loch Ness.

7 p.m.: Time for dinner. You'll be surprised at the variety of cuisine available, from New Italian to Old French. Afterward, head to the nearest pub for a single malt scotch (more than 200 kinds, at last count) and swap a few Nessie stories.

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