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Linda Lange, Knoxville News Sentinel
Urquhart Castle, a ruin dating from the 16th century, has a commanding view of Loch Ness. The fortress is a reflection of Scotland's turbulent past.

LOCH NESS, Scotland — The Christmas Day release of the film, "The Water Horse," is likely to spark a storm of renewed interest in the Loch Ness monster. The legendary sea creature, known affectionately as Nessie, is said to swim the depths of Scotland's fabled lake.

Officials of Visit Scotland expect Nessie-mania to create a tourism surge in the Loch Ness region, similar to what was seen in the country after the release of "Braveheart" and "Rob Roy," two other movies filmed in Scotland.

Aimed at family audiences, "The Water Horse" tells the story of a little boy who finds a mysterious egg on the shore of a loch. When the egg hatches, a mythical water horse emerges. The beast grows rapidly and becomes difficult to conceal. The boy must find ways to protect it. He is torn between keeping it safe or setting it free. The movie is an adaptation of a critically acclaimed novel by Dick King-Smith about the Loch Ness monster.

In August 2006, film crews descended into verdant valleys in the Scottish Highlands to capture images that speak of adventure and wonderment. For the residence of the movie's family, director Jay Russell picked a 100-year-old estate on the shores of Loch Fyne, a short distance from Loch Ness. Several major scenes were shot at Ardkinglas, including the night that the boy goes out to his father's workshop and discovers the creature emerging from the egg.

Looking at lochs

I visited Ardkinglas and had tea with estate manager Jean Maskell during a September trip.

"An artificial door was constructed, enclosing the porch to the main door," she explained as we entered the 50-room manor house. Movie viewers will appreciate the Edwardian craftsmanship of this stone house designed by renowned Scottish architect Robert Lorimer. Stained glass, crystal chandeliers, oil paintings, Oriental rugs and carved oak furnishings harken to a past era of comfortable wealth. The family crest bearing three bay leaves is carved into a handsome mantelpiece.

Maskell ushered her guests into the boy's bedroom on the second floor. The windows facing the driveway are recognizable in the scene in which the army sets up tents on the lawn. Across the hall from the bedroom, the bathroom contains the tub used to sustain the little sea creature.

While sitting in the wood-paneled dining room, Maskell explained that this room served as the mother's bedroom for the film. Sunlight poured through the windows. We overlooked terraced gardens, the shimmering loch and woodlands.

Estate owner David Sumsion and his family remained in Ardkinglas while film crews did their work. He is a descendant of Andrew Noble, the original owner of the house. Daily life became a bit hectic, but the family grew accustomed to the assistant directors' cries of "Quiet, please." Occasionally there were slipups, said Maskell. An actor unintentionally interrupted a family member's bath. Berry, the Sumsions' pet dog, moseyed into a few scenes.

The woodland gardens surrounding Ardkinglas also play a role in the film. Audiences may focus on action on the bridge and not notice the champion trees. The tract contains one of the finest collection of conifers in Britain, including the "Mightiest Conifer," with a girth measuring more than 31 feet. Trails that are open to the public weave through masses of rhododendrons and azaleas and carpets of bluebells. The estate borders Loch Lomond National Park.

While Ardkinglas, known as Killin Lodge in the film, is key to setting the scene, this story of fantasy relies on computer animation. Special effects were completed by New Zealand's WETA, best-known for other supernatural films such as "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "The Chronicles of Narnia."

The phantom beast

Seekers of the supernatural find treasures in Scotland, a country with haunting lochs, windswept moors and unexplained sightings on mist-shrouded hills. Centuries-old Gaelic legends recount devious acts of water horses, or kelpies. Able to change their shape at whim, these vicious creatures slipped onto land in the form of gentle horses. They beckoned people, often children, onto their backs. In an instant, kelpies return to deep water, causing victims to drown and be consumed. Parents repeat the tales as a way to keep children from playing near the edges of deep, dangerous lochs, explained Derek Brash, a guide and collector of highland lore.

Ancient kelpie legends became intertwined with tales of sea dragons and serpents. A supernatural being was supposedly first seen in 565 by the Christian missionary St. Columba. He drove away a "monster of the water," according to historical accounts.

The magical, mythical beast has turned Loch Ness into a tourist attraction and marine research center. In 1933, a hotelier in the village of Drumnadrochit reported seeing "an enormous animal rolling and plunging." A parade of adventurers, scientists and thrill-seekers took up the quest. This effort intensified after the local newspaper published a photograph of a long-necked water beast. The picture was proved to be a fake, but this only fueled more efforts to locate the prehistoric-looking creature.

"One thousand people insist there is a creature in Loch Ness," said naturalist Adrian Shine, while guiding a cruise across the loch on a blue-sky day. He has explored the loch's immensely deep underwater world for 34 years. He will not say for certain whether he believes there really is a Nessie.

"People are always looking at the water in search of something," said Capt. John Minshal as he navigated the research vessel. We keep our eyes focused on every ripple of the slate-gray water. Was a tree branch stirring the water, or a multi-humped sea serpent?

Loch Ness is 22 miles long, one mile wide and 700 feet down at its deepest. The lake is the largest body of water in Scotland by volume. "You could put everyone in the world into Loch Ness three times over," Shine calculated.

The Great Glen

Sea-monster lore has attracted tourists for decades, yet the villages and countryside are remarkably untainted by signage and kitschy souvenir shops. In Drumnadrochit, the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre features a multimedia presentation to describe 500 million years of Loch Ness history. In six themed chambers, visitors learn about sonar searches and exhaustive studies into wave and wind action. People pose for pictures at a Nessie sculpture in a pond.

Scenic tour boats carry people from the village to Urquhart Castle, a ruin dating from the 16th century. Sailboats glide on the 60-mile Caledonian Canal, a water passage from Inverness to Fort William.

A scenic highway hugging the north shore connects Inverness to Fort Augustus. The roadway isn't crowded, even though the weather is perfect for touring. Cows and sheep graze in steep-sided pastures, and lush forests are stippled with waterfalls. Blooming heather covers softly rounded peaks.

Loch Ness is part of the Great Glen, a natural geographic fault line that stretches across the breadth of Scotland. This region has an abundance of historic attractions, natural wonders, superb restaurants and cozy places to stay. Culloden Moor is the site of the famous Battle of Culloden where Bonnie Prince Charles and his Jacobite Army were defeated in 1746. People from around the world make pilgrimages to this important historical site. Cawdor Castle, a splendidly furnished medieval fortress, features beautifully manicured gardens.

Glen Affric, one of Scotland's most beautiful valleys, wears a tapestry of lochs, rivers and mountains clad in ancient Caledonian pine trees. The valley of Glencoe stretches about 10 miles. Velvety-green conical peaks, often wreathed in clouds, create a serene landscape resplendent with towering waterfalls.

Linda Lange is the travel editor of The News Sentinel in Knoxville, Tenn. She may be reached at [email protected].