Sundance Times - Continuing the Crook County News Since 1884

This Side of the Pond

Notes from an Uprooted Englishwoman


March 30, 2023

Are you planning any pranks this weekend? Of course you are, it’s mandatory to convince at least one person that their shoelaces are untied on April Fool’s Day.

If you’re in need of ideas that don’t involve footwear, perhaps I could direct your attention to the origins of this holiday, which I feel is the oddest of them all. I mean, don’t you think it’s a bizarre thing to add to a calendar? When you really sit down and think about it, what on earth where we thinking when we set aside a day to play tricks on unsuspecting citizens?

Nobody seems to be completely sure how the tradition began, or why it happens at the beginning of April, but I’ve decided to blame the Scots. Back in the day, you see, it was known as Huntigowk Day in Scotland, or “La Ruith na Cuthaige”, which is Gaelic for “the day of running the cuckoo”.

Clear as mud? Let me explain further.

A gowk is a “cuckoo” – but not the bird. It has come to be the term for the butt of a practical joke and refers to a simpleton.

Many believe that the tradition began when France adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582, but many people still wanted to follow the Julian calendar and celebrate the new year on April 1. Because it’s the hallmark of humanity to always be accepting of other people’s quirks, these people became the butt of hoaxes and practical jokes.

The traditional prank for Huntigowk Day was to give a person a sealed message and ask them to deliver it. The message supposedly asks the recipient for help.

What the message actually says is: “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile”.

This message alerts the recipient that a gowking is going on. The recipient’s task is to say that they’re happy to help, but they can only do so if the cuckoo first contacts a third person.

The cuckoo – unless they’ve figured out what’s going on – will then take a “new” message to the third person (which actually says exactly the same thing). The third person will be alerted to the gowking and send them on to a fourth person, and so the cycle continues until the cuckoo cottons on to the joke.

Because the Scots are always down for a chuckle, the traditional April Fools is actually a two-day affair. The follow-up to a gowking is a whole day on which your job is to attempt to attach a paper tail to unsuspecting victims’ backs. The tails should be inscribed with a message, such as, according to a 1954 issue of the Glasgow Bulletin, “kick me hard” or “pull my pigtails”. I guess we now know where all those comic strip artists got the idea.

All of which brings me to an April Fool that involves one of the most iconic Scottish residents of them all. In March, 1972, a group of English scientists from a zoo traveled to Scotland to join up with the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau. They were looking for – you guessed it – the Loch Ness Monster, and had brought with them a bait they were sure would attract its attention.

On the last day of March, they got a call at their hotel during breakfast about something floating in the loch. They rushed to the banks and, sure enough, some sort of “hump” was visible in the water.

“Nessie” was recovered and dragged back to shore behind a small boat – the team was ecstatic. Not so much the locals, several of whom said the “wee beastie” was too small to be the famous cryptobeast and one of whom is reported to have remarked that the Loch Ness Monster was far too clever to be caught (then whispered under his breath, “…by the English”.)

A young lad from Inverness was brave enough to stick his hand in the creature’s mouth. Fortunately, it was quite dead at the time. He told the press that it looked half like a bear and half like a seal, and was green with a “horrific head”.

Don Robinson, director of the zoo, commented that it was “definitely a monster” unlike anything ever before seen and described “a fishy, scaly body with a massive head and big protruding teeth”.

The timing was spot on. The next day, April 1, newspapers all over the world reported that Nessie had finally been found.

The Englishmen tried to take Nessie back to their zoo, but the local police felt this would be illegal and chased them all the way across Scotland, finally stopping them in Fife. The general curator of Edinburgh Zoo was called to inspect the monster; he apparently took one look and realized it was a bull elephant seal that had for some reason been frozen for some time.

It turned out that the education officer from the zoo had set up his colleagues as a prank. He’d come up with the idea when the seal had been brought in from the Falklands, but sadly didn’t survive.

He shaved its whiskers, padded its cheeks and stuck it in the freezer until his friends made their way across the border. He followed them, threw “Nessie” in the lake and made an anonymous call to the hotel where his colleagues were staying.

It’s a lot of effort to go to for an April Fool, but he still wasn’t expecting his prank to cause a police chase – and he certainly wasn’t anticipating the world would be so excited that even such venerable publications as the Geneva Times and the New York Times were forced to print a retraction.

As sad as it was to find out that Nessie still hadn’t been located, it was even worse for Norman Slater of Wisconsin. He visited the lake two weeks later and happened to dip his hand into the water.

At that moment, he said he detected the presence of six large creatures under the surface – a whole family of Loch Ness Monsters. He received a particularly vivid vision of one creature up to 90 feet long, near the underground passageways that had somehow gone unnoticed until that moment, but that Norman was sure connected the loch to the sea.

Unfortunately, he was unable to find any newspapers willing to listen to his story. This definitely happened because there had been a hoax so recently, and I’m certain it had nothing at all to do with the fact that his discoveries were all made using extrasensory perception.

Still, I’m glad he was able to confirm that Nessie is still with us. There’s an awful lot of gowks out there who’ve been sent to chase her down and we wouldn’t want to ruin anyone’s fun.


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