“Having a band of brothers is a wonderful thing” – meet the flying squad with a difference
In June 1991, Steve Feltham, then aged 28, sold his house in Dorset, left his job, and travelled 600 miles north to Loch Ness in a mobile library van he’d recently bought. His aim: to find the mysterious monster that many believe lives beneath the vast loch’s surface.
“Some of my friends said I was mad,” he says. “But I said to them, isn’t mad getting to the age of 65 and realising there’s more to life than working nine to five? Why wait till you retire to do what you want with your time?”
It’s 32 years since Steve parked his van beside Loch Ness and trained his grandfather’s binoculars on its water, and today he’s still there aged 60, living in the same mobile van, using those same binoculars in the hope of catching a glimpse of the ‘monster’, first photographed 90 years ago this month – though most people now believe the image wasn’t Nessie.
“No matter,” says Steve, who reckons around 95% of all sightings are a false alarm: it’s finding the evidence that there really is something there that matters.
Looking for the monster has been his life’s work and passion and purpose, all rolled into one; and he doesn’t regret it for a second, he says.
“I’m sure there are people who imagine I’m a tragic, wifeless freak living like a hermit, but I’m living in one of the most beautiful places in the world – and I’m 200 yards from a pub.”
That pub is the Dores Inn, on the shores of the northernmost end of Loch Ness. When Steve first arrived, he tells me, he moved around the loch in his vehicle, setting up camp wherever there had been a new sighting of the long-necked, humped-backed, dinosaur-like creature.
But 10 years in, struggling to keep the old van on the road, the publican at the Dores offered him a permanent berth – and he’s been here ever since.
Steve is a genial, thoughtful, quietly spoken man, still with a trace of a Dorset accent, who seems to be at peace with the world and himself. He’s a big believer in following your dreams, and, for him, this dream started at the age of seven when his parents brought him and older brother Martin on holiday to Scotland.
While there, they called in at something called the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau, whose HQ was at Urquhart Castle beside the water. Steve was instantly hooked.
“I was blown away by these grown men who spent their lives searching for monsters,” he says. “Any seven-year-old would be.” Later, working in his father’s burglar alarm business, he had two voices in his head.
“One was saying, ‘Settle down, get married, do the expected stuff’,” he says. ‘The other was saying, ‘Go find the monster’.” The second voice shouted the loudest, “so I quit the job, bought the van, and set off to Scotland.”
The BBC signed him up to make a video diary and his quirkiness played out brilliantly in the ensuing programme; it’s still there on his website, with grainy footage of him buttonholing random people like Roy Hattersley, as well as a Benedictine monk who’d had a sighting, to ask them their views on Nessie.
The enigmatic creature at the heart of his quest was first mentioned in the 6th century when, apparently, a ‘water beast’ plagued the loch. In the late 19th century, there were a few sightings, and then in the 1930s came a flurry of witnesses to what was now being described in the press as the Loch Ness Monster.
Hugh Gray’s photograph, taken on 12 November 1933, became the enduring image of Nessie, even though it’s now believed to be either his dog or an otter.
Hugh Gray’s 1933 photograph of ‘Nessie’
But it didn’t matter, because plenty of other people were now seeing it – and others were staging elaborate hoaxes, including footprints found on the beach, and a photo of a toy submarine sold to the Daily Mail as ‘proof’ of Nessie.
Sonar readings in 1954 revealed a large object at a depth of 146 metres: there was film footage and various concentrated searches including, in 1987, Operation Deepscan, when 24 boats moved simultaneously across the water and picked up sonar contact. The scientists recorded an unidentifiable object of unusual size and shape.
In the 21st century, there have been fewer sightings, but a 2013 video shows a strange wave on the water, 2021 drone footage seemed to capture a 20ft creature, and August this year saw hundreds descend on the loch for the biggest hunt for Nessie in 50 years.
The area certainly isn’t reducing its claim to the Nessie legend: the Loch Ness Centre, a couple of miles from the west side of the loch, recently had a £1.5m upgrade.
It’s true that the monster has been a tourist draw all these years to a remote corner of the UK. The legend is believed to bring in £41m to the Scottish economy each year, and some of the sightings have been by publicans whose livelihoods stood to gain from Nessie hunters. Indeed, the Loch Ness Centre is housed in the old Drumnadrochit Hotel, whose manager, Aldie MacKay, was an early spotter of a ‘beast’ in 1933.
Theories abound on what, if anything, is swimming below the loch’s dark waters – among other creatures, it’s been said to be a giant eel; a swimming elephant; a Greenland Shark; and a surviving dinosaur reptile called a Plesiosaur.
So, the inevitable question for Steve is: in three decades watching the loch like a hawk, has he ever actually seen the monster himself? He takes me back to a sunny, blustery day in the first year after his arrival.
“A hundred yards in front of me I saw a spray that shot through the water, not quite breaking the surface. It was like a torpedo,” he recalls. “I froze. Then it was gone.”
The event lasted perhaps five seconds: the most significant five seconds of Steve’s life, perhaps.
Feltham in 1996 keeping watch over Loch Ness
But he’s also been on boats that have picked up strange sonar readings, and if sightseers, holidaymakers or Nessie hunters ever spot anything unusual they invariably end up reporting it to Steve, whose van has become the mystery’s unofficial HQ.
“A large part of what I do here is disproving pictures,” he says. “They’re boat waves, wind, or animals. But then there’s that five per cent – and when that happens, and I can’t explain an image, we push it into the public domain so people have the opportunity to analyse the latest sighting.”
Right now, what’s most exciting Steve are images from 2018 taken by holidaymaker Chie Kelly who was having lunch by the loch. The images seem to show two humps and Chie has said the creature was spinning and rolling around in the water. (This could have been a sturgeon, an expert said later.) She didn’t tell anyone at the time for fear of ridicule.
The 2018 photograph taken by Chie Kelly that could be Nessie
It’s a fact often quoted in these parts that the loch is so huge and so deep that it represents the same volume as the contents of every single lake in England and Wales. So, I ask Steve: when push comes to shove, what’s his best guess about what lurks beneath its waves?
He looks out from his perch and shares an interesting and plausible theory. In the 19th century, there were reports of aristocratic landowners introducing a variety of Welsh catfish into lakes so they could be hunted. These huge creatures, more than three metres in length, with a weight of over 200kg, can have a lifespan of up to 100 years, says Steve.
“They fit the description of many of the sightings – and if they were introduced in Victorian times they would have been coming to maturity in the 1930s, but the population would now be dwindling, which explains why the sightings are fewer.”
So what’s daily life like here for Steve, inside the tiny lochside home where every space is spoken for, with books about Nessie crammed into the shelves, a camera poised by the door, and a certificate on the wall from the Guinness World Records, noting that he’s carried out ‘the longest ever continuous vigil for the Loch Ness Monster’?
No two days are ever the same, he says. He spends some of his time making colourful clay Nessie models that he sells for around £20 a time. These provide his main income, which is hand to mouth. Much of his time is spent meeting people who rock up at his van, painted to resemble a log cabin.
Feltham’s home on the shores of Loch Ness
And, he reveals, despite what he said earlier, he’s not wifeless after all. He met his partner Hilary in the Dores Inn, and in September 2020 they got married.
“It’s changed nothing – I still live here at the loch and Hilary lives in Inverness,” he tells me. He describes her as a ‘Nessie widow’ in the summer. “But I try to make it up to her in quiet times,” he says.
And no, he doesn’t fret about what would happen if Nessie decided to make an appearance while he was away. “It could just as easily happen when I’m at Tesco,” he says.
In an ideal world, he’d like to find Nessie, and then move on to Canada, where a mysterious lake monster called Ogopogo is said to inhabit Okanagan Lake in British Columbia.
For now, he’s just enjoying the view: a perfect end to his day is when he makes a little fire of driftwood on the beach and gazes out across the water in the moonlight, imagining the creature he knows so much, and yet so little, about.