2016 was a banner year for Loch Ness Monster spotting but sightings came to a halt in 2017 according to a story by NPR. This is bad for the Loch Ness Monster business. This reminds me of story I wrote about Inverness after a visit there.
It was typical of Irwin to plan events for the both of us on the spur of the moment. It was typical of me to be on the receiving end, accepting Irwin’s plans with enthusiasm.
“Did I tell you about Gerry Fine?”
“Who’s Gerry Fine?”
“He’s a nut case. He ordered 15,000 toy Loch Ness monsters after that horror movie came out on the Loch Ness Monster. He wants to see if we can revive the idea of another movie. He's going to pay me just to go there," he said.
"It bombed. It wasn't even filmed there. He wants me to see what I think about a change of setting."
“All on account of some toys?"
"He just sent me a huge box of them.” There was a little silence as Irwin chuckled at the memory. “There must have been a thousand of them. I have the plastic creatures with their bobbing heads all over the place.”
"He’ll just dig himself deeper into a hole.”
"It's not my money.”
Irwin’s back story was still largely a mystery to me, but from what I could tell when I was twenty-two, he was the most successful person I was friends with. He owned a small invention marketing company with a fancy office on the corner of Broadway, across from Central Park. I was a delivery person for an art gallery downtown and a part time employee - but as I said, more of a friend.
This time, I took Irwin at his word that the trip would be a blast. He said we could fly cheap, on a last-minute fare, because it was late September. He'd pay me something as well. “Let’s get the story straight about the movable toys. We won't even mention them. We are just going to find out one thing from people: Has anyone seen the Loch Ness monster? He wants it to be a documentary.”
At dusk, the train arrived in Edinburgh, and as we exited the train station, I was broadsided by the overwhelming sight of Edinburgh Castle atop a hill, lit by spotlights shining up at it from the ground. Soon we were dining on kidney pie at a small take-out place and then found a pub at an inn that served dark beer.
Irwin thought of something else and took out a cloth folder from his overnight bag. It was a brochure for Wolsey Lodges, a small group of castles, private mansions, and large homes that had just been joined together for marketing purposes.
“This is a new organization,” he said, reading the brochure at dinner. “In Inverness, we'll be guests in this guy’s house. I imagine you get the run of the whole house.”
Even though there was only a black-and-white sketch, the place looked like a mansion. Irwin’s knack for finding out about the latest things continued to amaze me. This was twenty-five years before Airbnb.
“The only thing I know about Inverness is the Loch Ness monster.”
“That’s why I’m glad you came. You might learn something.”
The next day we tried out our rental car, a bright red Ford complete with a steering wheel on the wrong side. The rental car place had an office right next to the train station, an indication of how seriously the British took the promotion of combining rental cars with rail passes.
Within a hundred yards of leaving the parking lot, we hit a busy traffic circle with lanes coming in from all different directions, which is a challenge when you’ve only just been introduced to driving on the wrong side of the road. I sideswiped a white car, scraping some of its paint. Fortunately, there was an older guy in the car, who turned out to be a very proper gentleman, the kind the British are famous for. He leaned into our car, found out we’d just landed from America and were unfamiliar with the alternate-side driving, and accepted my apologies. He said not to worry about the charges, but Irwin opened his wallet anyway and insisted he take something. I vowed to be more careful and thanked Irwin for his indulgence.
We drove into the hills of Scotland’s Highlands region, and Irwin took out his camera and through the car window started shooting pictures of all the sheep scaling the mossy hillsides. It was hill after hill, all with so many craggy, rocky hills sticking up behind them, the grassy parts lined with sheep. I mentioned the idea of stopping for real wool sweaters.
“It gets really cold when you roll down that window to take a picture,” I said.
We got out of the car and inquired at a small general store about sweaters. The lady at the market said she didn’t have sweaters but asked where we were going, and when we told her, she said we were in luck. The best place for sweaters in Scotland was up in Inverness.
“Go to Pringles,” she said, smiling. She said there would be plenty in stock.
As we neared the mansion where we’d be staying, we descended a hairpin curve and came to a rock wall with a beautiful view of the water beyond. The old houses appeared, side by side, looking as if they were from much earlier times. Most were white stucco or brown cement with stone foundations and high chimneys. Looking at the water, I couldn’t tell if it was a lake or the ocean, but I could see it was big. I drove around a circle and took the second spur and and the remains of a castle appeared on the left. I stopped the car behind it and we got out, happy to breathe in the cool air and look at the water. After several hours of driving, it felt good to stretch our legs. It was four o’clock.
The mansion where we reserved was a straight shot from town, at the end of a single road, up a hill that ended literally at its pillars and black iron gates. Irwin read the name plate—Reedstone—and we followed the long line of mature trees down the gravel driveway. The mansion was so big it reminded me of an old New England boarding school. Irwin rang the bell and we were greeted by a man with curly gray hair and dressed in a black smoking jacket. He told us he’d been expecting us, just as Irwin said he would be.
He introduced himself as Professor McLaughlin and said he was the head of the boarding school next door. We stood with him in the foyer for a moment, where we could see into the living room. The surroundings made me feel as if we were at a place usually reserved for folks who had great wealth— a grand piano, the antiques, the paintings on the walls, and the wide oak floors all spoke clearly of this man’s wealth, probably passed down from a very long line of ancestors. As for me who wasn't in that circle, he didn’t care. Like Irwin, the professor had that easy and casual manner of someone who’d grown up in very fortunate surroundings and was therefore very generous himself. I recognized in the professor the same boarding-school manners my dad had.
The professor asked us to follow him up the center steps, which had a velour red runner in the middle. When we reached the landing, he turned and asked what we’d be doing for dinner and apologized for not having something ready. He seemed relieved when Irwin said we already had plans.
We walked down the hall and he showed us our room with its big picture window. I was ecstatic at the sight of the lights from the city below along the loch. By then, it was dusk and I could barely see the green mountains that rose up from the shore across the loch. On our side of the shore, the lights from the buildings and houses were just coming on.
“So the whole back of the manse sits atop this hill overlooking the loch,” Irwin pointed out.
“Always has,” the professor said, smiling. His voice was clear and friendly, with just a hint of a Scottish accent.
Irwin of course encouraged the professor with questions about the mansion, which the professor said was built for the minister of the Presbyterian Church in the early 1700s, but the city had, in fact, a 7,000-year history.
“The history of Inverness is really quite interesting,” he said as we set our bags down. “It served as the setting for Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth.”
I asked about its getting dark so early; it was only four-thirty. The professor told us about the shortening of the daylight season following the long eighteen-hour spans of daylight they had in June. It was then I realized how far north we really were. My adrenalin pumped at the thought of meeting more of the locals at the pubs in town. There had to be someone there who'd actually seen the monster.
The professor seemed to have other ideas. Excited at having an audience, he launched into his history lesson, perhaps assuming this was the main reason we’d checked in. As we stood there, it took only a few head nods from Irwin before the professor lost track of time and lost himself in the history of Inverness. The strategic location of the place made it the center of several armed conflicts throughout the Middle Ages. At several points during the lecture, I tried to shift the focus to the Loch Ness monster, but the professor, smiling respectfully, steered us back to the history of Inverness.
It took nearly thirty minutes for him to reach the eighteenth century, but I was finally able to convince him that we were serious about learning about the monster. He pulled a book off the shelf and said it was the first book about the creature, written in 1936. I flipped the pages to the photographs and recognized the famous black-and-white photo of the animal moving in water, its head perched on top of a long neck.
“So do people believe this?” I said, before he could direct the rest of his lecture to Irwin.
“Here, they do,” he said. “There’s no reason I suppose to believe otherwise; we can’t think that with so many forms of life, we’ve catalogued everything.”
I took the book to the velour couch behind us and sat down, flipping the pages of the book as he moved the conversation back to history. Fortunately, he seemed to be hurrying it up. Thinking we might be hungry, he put his hand up and smiled. “You boys want to check out the pubs?”
I stood up, and Irwin asked him which place he’d recommend.
“Well there are quite a few,” he answered, reaching into his side pocket for a pipe. He gave us the name of the oldest, most famous pub in town and excused himself to have a smoke.
When Irwin came out of the bathroom, drying his hair with a towel, he asked, “What does the book say?"
“According to the book, everyone around here has seen the thing,” I told him.
“When was the last sighting?”
“The book says 1936.”
“Come on. There has to be something more recent.” I flipped to the front and said, “Well, this book was written in 1936.”
“Exactly. There’s a lot we need to find out.”
He went to the closet and took out the green wool sports coat he’d hung up when we came in. His outfit was a loud combination of orange and black with the layer of green, but Irwin wore it confidentially. Seeing he was dressing in a rugby theme, I took out and a new white oxford shirt to go with my fall jacket. It was the best I could do.
It was nearly seven when we left the mansion. Next door, the school building, which we hadn’t noticed on the way in, was now visible because of the floodlights. We drove the short route into town and pulled around to the back of the famous pub the professor had recommended. There was only one parking spot left. We got out of the car and I looked up at the back of the building, its cement walls framed by dark wood trim, shutters, and wood shingles. The building, like a castle, had turrets on each side, even though it was small. I figured it was built in the 1700s, because the professor said that’s when the city’s whisky-brewing business first flourished.
We walked around to the front and looked at the wooden door, a lantern beside it. Irwin opened it and I followed him as he ducked through the small wooden frame. Inside, the place seemed to open up a bit, despite the low ceiling. I didn’t expect to see so many people. Turns out the pub was celebrating the city’s autumn holiday.
I’d never have expected us to be minor celebrities just because we were from New York, but that’s how most of these locals saw us. Our clothes were fresh, whereas most people were dressed in what seemed like work clothes. Irwin moved into the bar’s sea of cigarette smoke and stood next to a guy wearing a baseball cap. I tried to listen to some of the drunk talk, but the accents made it hard to understand much of what they said.
Someone stood aside for us, and Irwin approached the bartender as if he’d been expecting us. Before the bartender could ask what we wanted, Irwin leaned across the bar and asked his name, which was Bill.
“Hello, Bill,” he said. “My name is Irwin Mendelson and this is my partner, Sean Owens. Let me tell you what we’re doing. We’re in from New York—” This seemed to be enough to get things started. “We’re researching the possibility of a movie for the Loch Ness monster.”
“You’re doing a movie here?” Bill asked. He looked confused. His cheeks glowed red like a three-year-old after a tantrum.
“Have you personally had a sighting, Bill?” Irwin asked, ignoring Bill’s question.
“Nah,” Bill answered. He put his hand up on the bar and looked right and left to see if anyone needed anything.
“That’s okay. I’m still hoping you can help us.”
Bill said he would help us in any way he could and took our order. I looked at the whiskies lining the mirrored wall behind the bartender. He grabbed two overturned glasses behind him and put them in front of Irwin.
Irwin looked at each patron standing behind us and with the utmost sincerity asked if any of them had seen the monster. Most said no, but a few said they knew someone who had.
Then Irwin would reply, “Let me get their names; we’ll be on the lookout.” He even took out a pad and a pen from his jacket.
“You’re too much,” I said at one point.
“What?” he asked. “We're supposed to be working.”
People started stopping by with comments, and Irwin’s eyes twinkled. He must have let it slip that his dad was publisher of the New York World and somehow another rumor had sprouted that we were on assignment. Half the clientele thought we were already shooting the movie; the other half thought we were reporters.
“I think you’ll find everyone knows someone who knows someone who has seen it,” the man wearing the baseball cap told Irwin. “This is a small city, less than 40,000 people.”
I noticed all the veins in the man’s puffy red nose.
“I was thinking of it more like a town,” Irwin said.
“It’s the smallest of the Scottish cities,” he chuckled. “Nothing goes on here without everybody knowing.”
Irwin put his expensive camera up on the bar, indifferent as to whether someone would steal it or not, but trusting, of course, that no one would. The message was clear. We were from New York, and this was the edge of the world. Another patron came by to say he knew someone who was writing a book. A half hour later the author appeared. Dressed in checkered flannel and rubber work boots, he was a skinny guy with a baseball cap and two days’ worth of beard. He looked to be in his mid-thirties.
“Someone must have called a plumber,” the guy with the baseball cap joked. He seemed to know everyone.
Grabbing me by my shoulder, the writer asked if we were the guys doing the research for the movie. I could tell he was drunk. Irwin said yes and the guy suggested we sit at a table. We only had to glance in the direction of the table behind us and four people got up and moved.
“I had to stop at home and get this,” he said as we sat down. He held up a thick manila folder. “You know it’s autumn holiday here.”
“I hope we’re not interrupting,” Irwin said.
“No, of course not. I moved here ten years ago. Hadn’t heard about the movie. This is great. Here’s tae us!” He looked for the waitress. “We can drink together, can’t we?”
Already he seemed to be directing his attention to Irwin and not me. I figured it must have been because Irwin was dressed more like an esteemed local in his bright rugby shirt.
“Does everybody drive limousines in New York?” he asked. Someone must have told him we were in from there. He was genuinely fascinated, almost fawning.
“No, just us,” Irwin answered.
The guy laughed loudly. “Lundy McDonald,” he said, and held out his hand to Irwin, then to me. “Originally from Manchester, England.”
He told us about how he had moved to the city at a “young age” to start a career in the discovery of the Loch Ness monster and ended up becoming a plumber to pay the bills.
“It’s been a bloody long road. I’d rather be dauncen. You know what I mean?”
“But now you have all those pictures—fantastic!” Irwin said, pointing to the envelope.
“Stories mostly,” he said.
Irwin took out his pen and pad and wrote down Lundy’s name. The waitress came and Lundy ordered a round of shots for all of us. He repeated the name of the whisky for us, Glen Mhor, and when we told him we’d never had it before, he said, “You’ll like it.”
Irwin asked him how long he had been researching the Loch Ness monster, and Lundy said the entire ten years he’d been there. “There’s not a day I don’t think about it.”
“You still haven’t found what you’re looking for?” I asked, trying to be part of the conversation.
“Hey, that’s a song. Even I know that,” he answered.
He looked at Irwin and said it would be great if he could make a connection for a movie deal. Irwin gave him a big solemn nod and said that we were involved in the merchandising end of things. Lundy didn’t ask what that meant, perhaps not wanting to appear out of touch.
“So have there been any sightings since 1936?” Irwin got around to asking.
“That’s the famous one—with the black hump, like all of ’em, and he poked his head up.”
Holding his finger, Irwin began imitating the path of the monster, and I couldn’t help laughing, but Lundy frowned.
“I have it all right here,” he said, pointing to the thick brown envelope.
Just then, the waitress returned with our shots, which looked like doubles. I commented on the size of the shot glasses. “It won’t make you boak,” Lundy said, and he took a glass from the waitress’s tray and quickly downed the shot. “You’re in the Hielans now!”
He moved his envelope aside so the waitress could set down the rest of the drinks. Lundy told her not to go far. Irwin and I downed our shots, and the whisky burned the back of my throat. But he was right; I didn’t boak, whatever that meant. I rather liked it.
“How many of these sightings have there been?” Irwin asked.
“I don’t know. Hundreds, I imagine. Everybody around here has stories.” Then he rattled off a few of the tales he’d collected. I couldn’t help thinking of the little Loch Ness figures with their bobbing heads. I knew what Irwin would say once we were alone.
When there was a pause, Lundy ordered us all another shot.
“I think we should to cut it off at three,” I said to Irwin.
“Nonsense,” Lundy said. “Five shots, maybe.” He smiled.
After two shots of this whisky, I started doing the finger thing too, trying to imitate a swimming Loch Ness monster with my index finger. I suppose the first time it was funny, but after that I couldn’t get Irwin to crack a smile. He was taking the guy’s plight seriously. From what I could make out, like so many people writing books, he had notes but nothing written yet. But he insisted he had everything he needed in his envelope. Irwin encouraged him in his conviction by exclaiming loudly with each document Lundy pulled out.
“To the Loch Ness monster and to Scottish whisky,” Irwin toasted on our third shot. They both laughed.
When the band, consisting of an accordion, acoustic guitar and a violin, came out and the crowd pushed against our table, it was hard to talk, but Lundy was able to order two more shots for himself and Irwin. For the last song, the band switched to a request for Super Tramp’s “The Logical Song,” and Lundy started getting a little morose.
When the music stopped, he said, “You know I’m like that boy.”
“What do you mean?” Irwin asked.
Lundy raised his hands outward. “I had such big dreams.”
Irwin beamed in on him as Lundy lamented that he was in his mid-thirties but felt much older now that some important chances had passed him by. I thought he was going to talk about sightings he’d missed, but Irwin probed and soon uncovered his personal life. Ten years ago, he’d left his girlfriend behind, after he broke up with her over the Loch Ness monster. He looked at us and said it was great we’d be working with him there for a while.
I looked at Lundy and thought, We’ll be working here for a while? I waited for Irwin to correct him but they just kept talking. I didn’t understand how Irwin could let him think such a thing when our whole trip was set for two days. I wanted to interrupt and say we were staying another day at most. It was just the way all Americans traveled. I felt this thing with Lundy was going on too long. I wanted to go, especially if it was all a joke.
That’s when I stood up. “I think we should go,” I said to Irwin. “It’s two a.m.”
Lundy insisted on buying one more round.
“Yeah, but it’s only nine o’clock New York time,” Irwin said. “Sit down.”
Now even Irwin was slurring his words. He and Lundy did another shot, but when Lundy put his forehead into his crossed arms on the table, I felt, again, this was too much. We were pushing things too far. In fact, I thought it was reprehensible the way Irwin lured people closer, picking them like peanuts from the bowl on the bar and cracking them open only to discard them like shells.
“I bet Lundy has work tomorrow,” I said, trying to bring things to an end.
Lundy picked his head up. “I know that.”
“You’re obviously drunk, Lundy,” I said.
“Obviously? Obviously,” he stood up, toppling his chair onto the floor with a great smash. “Who are you? Jesus? It’s obvious you’re saying I can’t hold my cratur.”
I smiled nervously, not knowing what he meant.
“How many drinks have we had?” Irwin asked diplomatically. He looked at his hand, counting with his fingers.
“I think we gotta go,” I said.
“I’m not drunk,” Lundy said, frowning. “I can hold my liquor. No Jessie is going to tell me what to do.”
Lundy put his head face down between his arms on the table again and seemed to fall asleep. In front of him, Irwin placed one of the Loch Ness monster toys, which I didn’t even know he had with him. I pointed to it, thinking it was cruel, and started to grab for it, but Irwin stood up quickly next to me and grabbed my wrist. When I pulled my hand back, he put his finger to his lips, cautioning me not to say anything. He leaned forward quietly and touched the small plastic head of the monster perched on a long neck and got it swinging back and forth. The toy monster looked as if it was trying to get a drink from the sleeve of Lundy’s flannel shirt. Irwin kept a straight face, but I couldn’t prevent myself from chuckling.
Unexpectedly, Lundy looked up, and Irwin jumped back. His eyes went to Irwin as if he was finally seeing him for what he was.
“Come on,” I said again, trying to regain seriousness. “The kitchen is closed.”
“Ah, kitchen is closed,” Irwin said and to another step back away from the table, perhaps trying to draw attention away from the bobbing toy. I looked over at Irwin, trying to keep my mouth shut.
Just then, Lundy got up from the table and stood up, his eyes squinting as he finally noticed the bobbing toy. He shook his head rapidly a few times and then staggered backward, as if not sure whether what he saw was real.
“What is this hunty gowk?” he said.
“What’s that?” Irwin asked pointing and looking at me.
“Have you two been putting me on? How do you call it? April fools—”
“You think I’m through? I’ve told you for the last time,” he said, taking a wild swing at me. But I backed up and blocked it with my hand, spraining my thumb in the process.
“No, of course not,” Irwin reassured him. He suddenly looked nervous. He was frowning, pointing to the toy. “Sean, what the hell is that?”
Lundy looked at me, and I couldn’t suppress a small laugh.
“You…” Lundy glared at me.
“Take your envelope,” Irwin said to Lundy, trying to appear calm. He looked over at me, surreptitiously signaling that we both should go.
“Hoots! Trying to draw my attention away from—”
“From what?” Irwin asked.
“That bobbing keech…” Lundy slurred.
“Seriously, Lundy,” Irwin said, trying to reason with him.
“Both of you—” Lundy started to say, but I grabbed my jacket from behind the chair.
Irwin grabbed his jacket, and we both headed for the door.“Havers!” Lundy shouted. That was another word I didn’t understand.
We stopped and looked back; Lundy started to come after us, knocking down a chair. When he dropped his envelope, we didn’t wait. We bolted outside and ran for the car. From the back of the pub where our car was parked, we heard Lundy yell, “I’ll ram your ass.”
I peeled out around the corner of the pub—not the wisest thing to do, of course, after drinking so much Scottish whisky, especially in a place where everyone drives on the wrong side of the road. We spotted Lundy getting into his truck as we drove by, but I sped up and soon found the road to Reedstone. I cut the corner and stepped on the gas, taking the car up to sixty miles per hour. Irwin was slumped over with his eyes shut as I floored it. We were halfway up the hill when Irwin picked his head up.
“You’re on the wrong side of the road!” he shouted.
He grabbed the wheel, jerked it toward the left, and the car spun 180 degrees, gravel flying everywhere. We slid sideways toward a grass medium in front of a spur in the road, where the car stopped its spin.
“Are you crazy?” I yelled. My heart was pounding. “We just did a 180!”
“You were on the wrong side!”
“NO, not here! Spinning the car is worse anyway!”
But the next morning, I thanked God we were still alive and hadn’t killed anybody. Irwin and I went for a jog.
“I thought that plumber was going to kill me,” I said.
“No, not a chance,” Irwin said, seeming to place his full attention on running, not on answering me.
“No? He seemed like he was out to get us.”
“I’d give him a second chance.”
“I believe the natural human position is an open hand, not a fist.”
“I had an open hand and he almost broke it.”
Irwin looked down at the hand I was holding up to him, but he didn’t answer me, just looked off to the side toward the school buildings.
“He was pissed,” he said finally.
“We were interfering in his life.”
“No,” he said. “We were helping him.”
“But how can you help that guy?”
“I have his number; I’m going to give it to Fine,” he said, breathing heavy now.
“After he punched me?”
“He didn’t punch you.”
“He did punch me. Look at my thumb.” I raised my hand again to show him my swollen finger. Irwin laughed.
“It was a joke,” he said.
“Not to him, it wasn’t.”
After a day drying out, we went to Pringles. Irwin acted as if he had just arrived in Inverness and was excited by all the sweaters hanging from the ceilings, walls, and racks. I bought a sweater made from artic sheep from Scotland’s most northern point. It was gray and white and I loved rubbing my hand across it, feeling the sheep hairs pop up. The salesclerk told me it was guaranteed to withstand not only cold but also wind and rain.
As we were leaving the store, I asked him what we were going to do about the Loch Ness Monster.
“We're done; it's up to Fine to decide whether there is a story there..."
"Oh," I replied.