I've only been firebombed the once, and to be honest it wasn't as dramatic as it sounds. Mostly because the firebomber was astoundingly incompetent, but also because I was three miles away at the time.
An intro of this sort requires some explanation. Here it is: for years during the 1980s, while I was at university, I spent several weeks each summer working as a watch leader with the Loch Ness and Morar Project. Although set up to search for the lake monsters said to dwell in Scotland's two deepest lochs, the LNMP gradually transformed itself into a biological survey, more interested in studying the limnology of Loch Ness than it was in actively hunting for its supposed monsters. The Project's leader, Adrian Shine – a self-taught naturalist and FRGS – often popped up in the media, where he talked a lot of sense. As such, he swiftly earned the enmity of the other major monster-hunter in the field at the time: Frank Searle, a former greengrocer and one-time soldier who had been at the loch since 1969 and was notorious, then as now, for producing large numbers of dubious photographs.
It was Searle who did the firebombing – but before I get onto that, I want to pause a moment and take a look at some of his other crimes: his photographs. Most of these showed detailed views of what was said to be the Loch Ness Monster but – let's credit Searle – he by no means limited himself to purely water-borne phenomena. Another of his snaps allegedly depicted a distinctly Adamski-style UFO hovering low over the waters of the loch. You had to take his word for it that the craft was anywhere near Scotland, mind, as there was absolutely nothing in the background.
There was a time, early in the 1970s, when Searle was quite respected at the loch. He was certainly the only monster-hunter who stayed in the field throughout the year and, from his base near Foyers on the south shore of the loch, he put in an estimated 20,000 hours of observation, both from the lochside and his boat – with conspicuous lack of success. He was admired for his Spartan lifestyle and his dedication.
All that changed after 1972, the year that Searle began to peddle photo after photo of the Monster. Several things distinguished his shots from the majority of the Loch Ness photographic evidence: their sheer quantity, of course, but also the detail – many were extreme close-ups – the lack of ambiguity (a number of Searle's photos quite clearly show plesiosaurs), and the suspicious lack of background to prove where they had been shot. Newspapers frequently bought the snaps (the Daily Record was Searle's best customer in this respect), but well before 1980 it was widely acknowledged that his photographs were fakes.
The generally-accepted take on Searle is this: at some point around 1972, perhaps frustrated by his lack of results, he chanced upon a log floating in the loch that happened to resemble a humped monster. A carefully-composed photo (left), dated 27 July 1972, brought in money and, much better, fame. The latter attracted visitors to Searle's caravan site, where the photographer soon erected a (let's be fair here – free) exhibition, and those visitors could be persuaded to part with money for postcards, booklets, audio tapes and donations. From Searle's point of view, renown also brought the useful perk of short-lived young female assistants – he called them "Girl Fridays" – willing to share his watching duties and his bed. There were several of these girls, one an Australian, another a Brit. A third, a Belgian named Lieve Peten, reminisced: "There was no romantic involvement, not for him, not for me, but there was a physical involvement. It sounds harsh, perhaps, but that was the Seventies, people experimented. And there was no AIDS back then." It seems reasonable to assume that she, and perhaps some of the other assistants recruited from small ads placed (the Glasgow Herald noted) in "parts of the country where the unemployment was high," were more attracted to the romance of monster hunting than they were to the short, baked bean munching, prosthetic-footed (he was wounded in the war) Frank Searle.
Keeping up this rewarding new public profile required more evidence, but the newly-famous monster hunter was able to provide it. Searle put out a total of more than a dozen photos between 1972 and 1983 – many of them variations on a theme. He became notorious for publishing slightly-tweaked versions of various images which featured extra humps or subtly different angles. Henry Bauer, a chemistry professor at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute who became a convinced believer in the monster, published some of the best evidence of this in his book The Enigma of Loch Ness (1986), where, among the photos in the section devoted to Searle, is a strip of images (right) that Bauer found on display in the Foyers visitor centre around 1973. Poor though these images are (they are stills taken from 8mm cine film), the clumsy nature of the hoaxing is apparent. The work seems to have been done with cut-outs – note the white line at the rear of the hump formation in the bottom photo – and it is all too plain that the "creature's" head and neck remain completely stationary while its body contorts itself into an exotic variety of humps.
Frank Searle got away with his act for years because the papers that bought his shots did not particularly care that they were fakes – the photographs sold newspapers – but also because no one seemed especially keen to challenge him. He could be an intimidating man, and was widely feared around the loch for his behaviour, which extended to issuing death threats. Tony Harmsworth, who helped set up the Official Loch Ness Monster Exhibition at Drumnadrochit and so drained a good portion of Searle's custom, told the Glasgow Herald that he had once found a note stuck to his car windscreen in Inverness. "It said something like, 'Your time is running out'," he said. And in a 1970s article in Oui, an American soft porn magazine, journalist Dan Greenburg described
a scene between Nessie hunter Lee Frank and Searle, in which Frank asked if Searle had ever added humps or fins to his photographs. Searle began to shake and pulled out a knife. "Lee says," wrote Greenburg, "that if Searle's photos are genuine he has nothing to shake about. Searle lunges at Lee, slams him violently into a tree and screams that he's going to throw him into the loch."
All this changed when Shine and the LNMP came on the scene in the early 1980s. The Project, less easily intimidated, set up an 'Evidence Committee', run by a delightful, level-headed man named Ricky Gardiner, who was in real life an art teacher from Nottingham. Gardiner set about the first detailed examination of Searle's photographs – checking images, comparing backgrounds to locate the site of shots – and soon came up with firm evidence of hoaxing. I don't have a copy of his final report, and I'm recalling near 30-year-old conversations here, but I do remember Gardiner explaining that some of the shots – such as the July 1974 image shown right – had been set up in shallow water, where it was possible to place "muppets" that might well have consisted largely of cloth wrapped around a fence post. On this occasion, Searle had betrayed himself in another way as well; he had gone on record to state that the shot had been snatched with a telephoto lens, but the depth of focus he'd obtained would have been impossible to obtain with such equipment. Other fake images involved the triangular tips of "heads" projecting a few inches above the water, the neat 90-degree edges suggesting a semi-submerged oil barrel floating at an angle. The rest were even less sophisticated. Gardiner's proudest discovery, made in an Inverness newsagent's shop, was a picture postcard of a brontosaurus. Examination of this image revealed startling similarities to several of Searle's photos. The bungling monster-hunter had purchased copies, cut up portions of the dinosaur's body, and glued them to photos of the loch surface to produce not one, but three different photos – one showing a head and neck, another a large single hump, and a third a tail emerging from the water (below). None of these images showed backgrounds; between them they were as crude as could be.
None of this mattered much while Gardiner's report remained an internal Project document. In the summer of 1983, however, Shine got wind of something else that Searle was planning: a book, a follow-up to the 1977 paperback Nessie: Seven Years In Search of the Monster, which the former army man had succeeded in placing with WH Allen. The new volume was important to Searle. He planned to use it to expose "the rackets" that other Loch Ness researchers – Shine, Tim Dinsdale and that old 60s stalwart the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau – had supposedly run over the years. On top of that, the book would add to his legitimacy, print many of his more recent photos – and, of course, earn him more money, win more fame.
For Shine, the prospect of a new Searle volume was an equally serious matter, for he was libelled in the manuscript (among other allegations, Searle charged him with ripping off the members of his Project, a suggestion I know from my own experience to be untrue). The perpetuation of Searle's fraud also threatened the credibility of Shine's own work. What happened next remains disputed; the LNMP's version – which I don't doubt is substantially correct – is that Shine contacted Searle's publisher with the evidence the photographs were faked; reviewing Ricky Gardiner's file, WH Allen decided to drop the book. Searle's version, inevitably, was different. "After the contract was signed and everything was underway," he wrote,
Adrian Shine approached my publisher and convinced the Editorial Director, one Mike Bailey, that it wouldn't be in certain people's interests to tell the world what was really happening at Loch Ness... I then discovered that Bailey handles Tim Dinsdale's books... WH Allen have obviously made a lot of money out of Dinsdale's books. Books which would be worthless if the truth about Loch Ness Investigation was published.
Quite where Searle got his information from remains something of a mystery, but he was certainly wrong about this; Dinsdale's books were put out by Routledge & Kegan Paul, an independent publisher with no known links to WH Allen – a much larger conglomerate that nowadays trades as Virgin Books. Whatever the truth, however, Searle's mind was now fixed on the notion that Shine was his greatest enemy and had cost him money. A few days later, when the words "Shine Con Man" appeared daubed on the walls of Urquhart Castle in letters several feet high, there was little doubt in the minds of Project members who was behind the graffiti. And we were equally certain who was responsible for what happened next.
The date is now 21 August 1983. At that time, the LNMP ran its operation from Strone, a house on the hill above Urquhart Castle where Shine lived with his then fiancée. Off duty Project members camped in several army surplus tents nearby, while the business end of the Project was located on a shingle beach three miles south west. A small tent and a mooring for the LNMP's large inflatable sat by the water's edge, the boat providing a means of transport to a fixed platform, the John Murray (left), anchored four-square in the middle of the loch in 700 feet of water. The platform housed an active sonar, and the aim of that year's Project was to see if it was possible to duplicate the results of 1982, when mobile sonar patrols had picked up several large and apparently moving targets deep below the surface. By anchoring the John Murray, Shine aimed to discover if these targets were no more than false readings produced by rogue sound waves bouncing off the narrow underwater walls of the loch. (It turned out they were.)
The two dozen or so volunteers working with the LNMP that week were divided into three watches, each working 12-hour shifts, and fresh crews were ferried up and down the road to the shore station by a minibus owned by Royal Holloway College, which was collaborating with the Project that year. Outside of this 'scheduled' service, the only way of getting to or from the shore station to the main base was by walking, or hitching a lift. A small problem, but it mattered when, at about 5.30am a small boat appeared just off shore and a bottle, filled with petrol and ignited, was hurled at the Project's inflatable.
As things turned out, my watch was not the one on duty at the time. I was only 20 back in 1983, but that made me one of the older members of the team; the majority of the six Project volunteers who were on actually on watch were probably 18. Three or four were manning the raft in the middle of the loch, leaving the others asleep in the tent on shore. It was this handful of teenagers who were awoken by the sound of a boat engine, who emerged from the tent to find the water by the inflatable apparently on fire, and who had to pull the boat away before it caught ablaze.
With no way of easily contacting Adrian Shine, it took the best part of an hour for the rest of the Project team to learn what had happened. It was pretty obvious to all of us who the main suspect was, and Adrian made it clear that we suspected Searle when he called the police in Inverness. A squad car dispatched to Foyers arrived there at about 7.30 to find the monster-hunter engaged in painting the ceiling of his information hut – an odd thing for anyone not anxious to supply himself with an alibi to be doing at that time on a Sunday morning, we thought. One of the Project members who had been on site when the firebomb exploded was shown a series of photos – among them Searle's – and unhesitatingly identified the former army man, who she had never seen. Apparently that was not sufficient evidence, though, for no charges were ever brought against Frank Searle.
What the police may have said to him privately, and how the locals' attitude to Searle changed afterwards, I can't claim to know. But there were two upshots to the story. One was that Searle rushed out a 38-page pamphlet to replace his book – a typed diatribe entitled Loch Ness Investigation: What Really Happened that glorified his own research while laying into his numerous enemies in no uncertain fashion. The other was that, a few months later, he left the loch. He was never seen in the Highlands again.
I've often wondered what Searle intended when he firebombed us. I doubt he seriously meant to hurt anybody – probably he didn't realise that the shore station was manned, and hoped to destroy the Project's irreplaceable boat and get away long before the fire was discovered. His Molotov cocktail was a pretty useless weapon anyway, nothing more than petrol in a plastic bottle designed, I imagine, to float up against the pontoons of the 18-foot twin pontoon inflatable as it lay half in and half out of the water – though it could certainly have hurt somebody had the petrol in the engine caught. What I would have done had I been the one in charge that morning is another conundrum. The smart thing, I suppose, would have been to extinguish the flames, sent one man post-haste back to Strone, and then trailed the fleeing bomber at a distance in the LNMP inflatable. If we'd done that Searle would either have been prevented from returning to his base before the police arrived, or would have been forced to betray himself by heading straight to Foyers. But then again, you never knew with Frank Searle. I wouldn't have put it past him to have had a shotgun in his boat, in which case following him would have been a stupid thing to do.
It was not until 2005 that Searle popped into my life again when I was contacted by a film-maker named Andrew Tullis. He was hard at work on an estimable TV documentary, The Man Who Captured Nessie, and wanted to know if I had any idea where the monster-hunter was, or if I had a copy of his Loch Ness Investigation. I could help with the pamphlet but not with a location – all we at the LNMP had heard about Searle was that he was supposed to have taken up metal detecting and gone off in search of buried treasure. Tullis, thankfully, had better luck. A letter to a treasure-hunting magazine turned up the information that Searle had fetched up in Fleetwood, a fading seaside resort a few miles north of Blackpool. It was too late by then, though. When the film crew got to Lancashire, Searle was gone. He had died, aged 82 or 83, only a month before Tullis located him.
In an obituary written for the Independent, the film-maker noted that mystery had surrounded Frank Searle even after he left Loch Ness: "Rumours on his whereabouts," he wrote, "ranged from treasure hunting in Cornwall to lecturing on monsters in the United States, or even lying at the bottom of Loch Ness." In his film, though, Tullis revealed another side to Searle: a man who had no real friends and who lived quietly in Fleetwood for 18 years, talking occasionally about his wartime experiences but never about Loch Ness. His one real interest, it appears, was the garden he shared with the other residents of his dingy block of bedsits. Searle was the only one among them to take any interest in it, and when, in 1998, he was partially paralysed by a stroke, the plot swiftly reverted to wilderness.
I can't help but see the fate of Searle's garden as a suitable metaphor for his Loch Ness research, and I can't help but feel that, whatever I think of the man, it wouldn't do for the scrappy remains of his lost second book to go eternally unseen. Andrew Tullis told me that I was the only person he could find who had a copy. So, here it is: Searle's long-forgotten, all but unknown 1983 pamphlet available for download here in pdf format. (If anyone ever wants to cite it, I'd suggest: Searle, Frank. Loch Ness Investigation: What Really Happened. Inverness: np, 1983.)
I appreciate I may be violating copyright in posting this, but I can't feel too bad about that. Searle died unmarried and without known heirs, and the pamphlet might well be lost forever if I didn't scan it. Anyway, the bastard firebombed us, so I reckon that he owes me something.
One generous obituary suggested that Searle will be remembered "favorably as a man, unfavorably as a phenomenon." I can't agree with that. The Frank Searle I knew was an aggressive, randy, chippy little man who didn't care about putting the lives of a bunch of kids he'd never even met at risk. It may be Christmas, but I can't feel too charitable towards him. Loch Ness, and the world, is not much the poorer for his passing.
Afterword (2 January 2010): My thanks to Steve Duffy for his (in my own experience entirely typical) recollection of Frank Searle: "I remember visiting Frank Searle's caravan in 1977, and him blanking me entirely while he went sniffing after a cute blonde Australian tourist. "Do you like my patch?" he asked her, leering down her top. The patch in question depicted a tipsy cat lying in an outsize champagne glass, with the subtitle "Happiness Is A Tight Pussy".
Correspondence (autumn 2010): I have had an interesting exchange of letters with Scottish cryptozoologist Graeme Caisteal, who sees the Frank Searle story rather differently. I'd put it up here, but cutting and pasting the material would also mean spending most of an hour removing a load of unrequired linebreaks, so... check it out at my mirror site here instead.