Cryptid Currency: How the Loch Ness Monster Became a Force in Scotland’s Economy

Loch Ness Monster statue in Inverness, Scotland
Loch Ness Monster statue in Inverness, Scotland / Jim Ellwanger, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

In 2019, TripAdvisor user Joyman L logged into the site to detail their visit to Loch Ness in Scotland, said to be home to a legendary monster. "The intrigue and curiosity of the Loch Ness monster only adds to the attraction of this loch," they wrote in their four-star review. "With several information boards about the loch and not witnessing any monster, I came away still intrigued and even more curious!" Other tourists left with a more cynical view of the legend. In their review titled "no sign of Nessie ???" Tripadvisor user @onmytravels23 wrote, "I reckon they just made [Nessie] up to get tourism in. Ah well ... it was a nice Lake." Even without spotting the monster, @onmytravels23 rated Loch Ness five stars.

Whether they view the Loch Ness Monster as a fun story, an elaborate hoax, or an undiscovered species, millions of tourists flock to the cryptid’s alleged home each year. “You can see that people come to Loch Ness simply because of Nessie,” Gary Campbell, a chartered accountant based in Inverness, Scotland, and founder of the Loch Ness Monster fan club, tells Mental Floss. “It’s lovely and the scenery is nice and all, but they come because of the Loch Ness Monster.”

Campbell released a study in 2018 analyzing the number of tourist dollars Nessie generates for Scotland. After gathering data from the country’s tourism board and businesses around Loch Ness, he determined the monster adds roughly £41 million to the Scottish economy in a typical year. That’s nearly $54 million USD—$7 million more than the nation of Tuvalu’s entire GDP. Not bad for a mythical creature.

Travel has slowed in Scotland in 2020, as it has worldwide, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but foreign interest in Nessie is still strong. A doctored photo purporting to show the monster circulated on the web in June, and hundreds of viewers are tuning in to the Loch Ness livestream at any given time. To anyone familiar with the area’s history, Loch Ness’s worldwide popularity shouldn’t come as a surprise.

The Birth of a Monster

Most timelines of the Loch Ness Monster date the first sighting to the 6th century. While it’s true that the biography of Saint Columba describes the Irish abbot witnessing a large beast rising from the loch in 564 CE, the modern version of the legend didn’t originate until much later.

The mysterious creature said to lurk in Loch Ness received its official name in 1933. The Inverness Courier ran a story with the headline “Strange Spectacle on Loch Ness” and told how a couple reported seeing “an enormous animal rolling and plunging on the surface” of the water. The paper used a serious tone when relaying the account of the “fearsome-looking monster.”

Gift shop of the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition
Gift shop of the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition / Paul Kentish, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

King Kong had premiered two months earlier, and readers around the world were hungry for a good monster story. “It was a local news story that was picked up by a national place and then it was picked up internationally. It just captured the imagination,” Campbell says. “It was the use of that name monster that really changed things.”

Seemingly overnight, the creature of Loch Ness had gone from a local legend to a global phenomenon now known as the Loch Ness Monster. More reports of the beast soon followed—one couple claimed to have spotted the animal slithering across a lakeside road, and big game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell, who was commissioned by the Daily Mail to find the monster, said he discovered the beast’s footprints.

The sightings generated more press, and the press brought tourists. When a British circus offered a £20,000 prize for the monster’s capture, hundreds of Boy Scouts, hunters, and fishermen arrived at the loch’s shores. Before it was proven fake, Wetherell’s discovery caused people to pack local streets and hotels hoping to spot the creature. (The tracks had actually been planted as a prank and belonged to a stuffed hippopotamus foot. After the Daily Mail ridiculed him, Wetherell allegedly got revenge on the paper by staging the famous "surgeon's photo" of the monster.) Loch Ness didn’t have a monster museum or a gift shop selling plush Nessie dolls, but it was already a travel destination and a household name.

Nessie Sighting Not Included

Today, when many of the most famous Loch Ness Monster sightings and photographs have been revealed as hoaxes, tourists still come to Loch Ness with dreams of spotting Nessie. “There are guests that go, ‘When does the monster appear?’ Like at SeaWorld, at two o’clock every afternoon Shamu comes up. It’s not like that at Loch Ness,” Campbell says.

David Bremner, the director of the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition in Inverness, knows how hard it is to make everyone happy when covering a hotly debated subject. Founded by David’s father Ronnie Bremner in 1980, the museum examines the Loch Ness Monster through a wide scope. That means presenting the hoaxes and possible scientific explanations for the phenomenon alongside the unexplained sightings. “It’s very hard to please every customer,” Bremner tells Mental Floss. “Some people are coming because they think we’re going to tell them Nessie is real and here’s the evidence. It’s hard to know what people are expecting, to be honest, but we try to give them a balanced view.”

The Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition in Inverness, Scotland
The Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition in Inverness, Scotland / Shadowgate, Flickr // CC BY 2.0 

On one of the many boat tours that are popular on Loch Ness, tourists at least have a chance of spotting something in the water—even if it’s more likely to be an eel or a sturgeon than a plesiosaur. Loch Ness Cruises, which was founded in 1988, has facilitated several alleged Nessie sightings. “Many people claim to have spotted something on our cruises, but who knows what they saw,” Mike Bell, a captain for Loch Ness Cruises, tells Mental Floss.

The boat ride takes passengers on a one-hour tour of Loch Ness, stopping by landmarks like Urquhart Castle as well as prime monster-hunting areas like the deepest parts of the lake and sighting hotspots. The vessel (dubbed Nessie Hunter) even has a sonar scanner on board, which Bell says picked up a 25-foot-long unidentified object that appeared to be moving through the lake during a cruise last year.

A shot at seeing Nessie isn’t the only thing that attracts visitors to Loch Ness. Even if they’re not die-hard believers, many people are fascinated by the lore surrounding the area, and a visit to Loch Ness is a way to participate in a world-famous legend. “I think our passengers mainly just want to be able to say they've been out hunting for Nessie, if we spot her it’s just a bonus,” Bell says.

For tourists who are more curious than fanatical, a trip to Loch Ness can also mean learning more about one of the world’s most iconic mysteries. “Some people think we’re going to give them proof,” Bremner says. “I think others come thinking, ‘I’d like to understand the knowledge behind this and what’s going on in the past and find out what’s in the loch.’”

Come for the Monster, Stay for the Loch

Though there are many famous cryptids known worldwide, none have created a tourist destination on the scale of Loch Ness. That’s as much a testament to the natural appeal of the location as it is to the intrigue of the actual myth. Loch Ness is more than its Nessie statues and monster-hunting cruises; after a day spent learning about the legend, guests can stick around to go hiking, play golf, explore ruins, drink whisky, and do many of the other activities the Scottish highlands are known for.

“[The Loch Ness Monster] can be seen as a hook to get people in, and then off the back of that, people can be shown, ‘Well, you’ve come to see the Loch Ness Monster, but look at what else is available,” Campbell says.

Even monster-centric attractions at Loch Ness make the land itself part of their programming.

“We try to find a balance between Nessie and the natural beauty the area has to offer,” Bell says.

“In the early days, everything was Nessie, Nessie, Nessie,” Bremner says. “But we realized through time and research and everything else that customers expected much more than that, and especially in today’s exhibition center, it’s about Loch Ness as an area of the Highlands.”

Nessie statue outside Loch Ness boat tour company
Nessie statue outside Loch Ness boat tour company / Elizabethe, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Loch Ness is roughly a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Glasgow or Edinburgh, Scotland’s two biggest cities. For many people, the Loch Ness Monster legend is a gateway into a beautiful part of the country they may have never visited otherwise. It’s also a boon for businesses in the region, regardless of whether they have Nessie’s name above their storefront or her picture in their logo.

“It’s brought mass employment into our area,” Bremner says. “I think some of the locals could maybe do without the tourists, but I think they realize that much of the area is very reliant on the tourism, and there’s no time like right now that’s demonstrated that.”

After closing to visitors for several months due to COVID-19, the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition reopened at limited capacity in July. Loch Ness Cruises is also giving tours to smaller groups after a months-long hiatus. Loch Ness is facing the same hardships as travel destinations across the globe, but it has the enduring appeal of the Loch Ness Monster on its side. If hoaxes, deep scans, and DNA analyses discrediting the creature’s existence haven’t quelled the public’s fascination with Nessie, not much will.