Every year around one million people visit Loch Ness. However, unlike Scotland’s other more adventurous tourist destinations – Ben Nevis, The Old Man of Hoy – it is not out of geological fascination that most of them make this journey into the Highlands. Despite how scientifically remarkable a sight Loch Ness is (it contains more fresh water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined) it is the prospect of glimpsing a creature that most know to be a fabrication that leads them to the shores of a loch just south of Inverness.
The idea of the Loch Ness Monster grips the traveller’s imagination, so much so that the Scottish economy is £25 million a year better off for it. But why? What is it about the idea of an unknown creature swimming in the depths of a Scottish loch that attracts so many tourists, even when it is widely acknowledged that the most stirring photograph of Nessie is a fake?
Namely, it is risk: the alluring prospect of unpredictability.
Tourists flock to Loch Ness because they desire the aura of the unknown; the sense of risk that comes with being in a place where something unpredictable, even dangerous, might happen. Yes, most tourists are acutely aware that Nessie is a myth, a piece of familiar Scottish folklore that for some reason caught the imagination of the country in the 1930’s and hasn’t let go since. But they still go there. They still stand by the drizzly shores and squint their eyes in the hope of seeing something; a serpentine movement in the water; an ominous shadow floating through the depths; anything that might make them feel as if the world is truly unpredictable. On their journey to this shoreline they will pass hundreds of other lochs, many of which can boast more ecological diversity and seclusion. Yet it is Loch Ness that everyone knows; Loch Ness that everyone visits. It makes one wonder how many tourists come away from their day trip and say (or perhaps quietly ruminate): ‘Why did I spend so much money to come see, well…nothing?’
The truth is that Loch Ness offers something that the rest of the Scottish wilderness cannot – the unforeseeable. Even though the actual threat to one’s life in the vicinity of Loch Ness is almost exactly as miniscule as it would be on the shores of Loch Rannoch, Loch Ness provides us – via the explosion of a local folklore into an international conspiracy theory – with a modicum of peril not to be found anywhere else in the country. It is not that people actually think they will be constricted by the muscular neck of an ancient dinosaur but rather that the locale allows for that incredibly far-fetched possibility. It is for the very same reason that theme parks put so much effort into erecting menacing scenery around their rides or why ‘ghost-tours’ of cities occur at night – we want to be convinced that the experience is truly dangerous or frightening, despite the fact we know it is not. What this proves is that, in opposition to what a risk-averse, Health and Safety orientated society believes, people are very attracted to the prospect of risk, however small and unlikely.
There are many different types of risk, from selling your house to showering less than twenty-four hours after you’ve grouted the bath. What I want to focus on here however are the physical risks we take when doing something like hang-gliding. The kind of risks that usually elicit the production of adrenaline and leave us feeling a little shaken, if also perhaps eager to replicate the rush.
Extreme sports and adventure holidays are perhaps the most popular ways in which we express our innate desire to take physical risks, even life threatening ones. But it is only in the last few decades that sports such as bungee jumping, sky-diving, rock climbing and white water rafting have become more than just niche hobbies undertook by foolhardy young men. Today these sports are accessible to anyone with enough motivation and money to seek them out, and so they do. Risk-taking is an inherently human activity, yet in a world where everything is done in the interest of avoiding risk we find ourselves searching out opportunities where we can truly feel as if we are in peril (even if that peril is statistically unlikely or, in the case of the Loch Ness Monster, imaginary). Psychologists have myriad and conflicting answers as to why humans take risks, however Deborah Lupton and John Tulloch’s paper entitled ‘Life would be pretty dull without risk’ seems to get to the heart of the issue.
Lupton and Tulloch declare that humans take risks not because it is necessary, but because we want to. It allows us to feel as if we are severed from the obligations and worries of society and returns us to feelings more akin to that of an indigenous Amazonian bushman (or woman) than a Human Resources Executive from Birmingham. As they write: ‘participating in activities that are coded as dangerous or ‘risky’ can bring an adrenaline rush that allows aficionados to escape the bounds of the rational mind and controlled body, to allow the body’s sensations and emotions to overcome them for a time. There is a sense of heightened living, of being closer to nature than culture, of breaking the ‘rules’ we see society as imposing on us’.
Risk-taking, then, is a way of asserting our selfhood; of appearing to society as an individual willing to flaunt the regulations of personal safety and, if only momentarily, enjoy feeling as if we are closer to nature than to mortgages, car insurance and renewing the TV licence. In short, it returns us to emotions our risk-averse society shelters us from – emotions that are far more natural and enjoyable to us than the neurosis brought on by a Health and Safety inspection. Risks, and the adrenaline, fear and elation associated with them, are good for us. They recalibrate us to a frequency that allows us to momentarily forget the myriad worries brought on by modern life, which in this day and age is surely a good thing.
And so, this opens up a new field of argument in the case for reintroducing large apex predators to the Scottish wilderness. Putting aside the considerable benefits it would have in terms of ecology and solving this country’s various environmental problems (such as the severe overpopulation of deer), I would argue that Scotland needs rewilding so that we can democratise risk by allowing anybody to feel the rush of skydiving or rock-climbing simply by walking through a woodland.
At the moment our access to risk-taking activities is severely limited by how much money one can afford to spend on activities like bungee jumping or surfing or sea kayaking. However, if we were to reintroduce bears and wolves into Scottish forests then risk becomes democratised; anybody can walk into a forest where bears roam and feel the slight rush of being at mercy to the laws of nature. This may seem a little senseless, as if I actually want Scottish people to be ripped apart by wolves or mauled by a bears. But the fact is that the amount of risk taken in wandering through a habitat where bears are known to frequent is incredibly small. In the USA bears kill around three people annually, a remarkably small statistic considering the number of people who regularly hike through national parks or live in rural areas. With enough information and the appropriate amount of caution it would be possible to minimise the number of attacks yet still allow people the access to something we so direly need: the feeling of freedom caused by taking risks.
Furthermore, just think of the possibilities for tourism. Imagine being able to advertise that the Caledonian Forest once again has bears and wolves lurking between the Scots Pines. Just think how many tourists, and Scots, would make the journey to walk through a forest populated with creatures this country hasn’t seen in thousands of years.
The arguments for rewilding can feel a little repetitive and regularly appeal to a conservational ethic that is often suffocated by a society constantly seeking personal gratification. But what if we show what rewilding can do for us, and not just the environment? Framing it this way allows Green party voters to revel in the promise of returning nature to it rightful stewards while simultaneously convincing right-wing ‘nanny-state’ sceptics that democratising risk in this way allows us far more freedom.
Best of all, it means tourists might actually see something amazing by the shores of Loch Ness – but this time the monsters won’t be imaginary.
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