Tomas Christie Kellas Cat photograph provided by Aron Bowers BVSc MRCVS
Much misunderstood and misinterpreted by the local and national press, the Kellas cats have continually been accused of being large feline forms responsible for sheep killings in the rural areas of Scotland. This is NOT so. With an average total head to tail length of 42 inches in mature male specimens, quite clearly they cannot be to blame for adult sheep being attacked and killed, but may possibly account for an occasional young, neonatal, lamb death.
Named after the village of Kellas, South of Elgin, Morayshire, the 'Kellas cats' achieved notoriety in the early to mid 1980s with speculation being placed as to whether a new species or an 'emerging' new species of cat had been discovered in mainland Scotland.
[For a history of Kellas cats, discovery of type specimens, attempted breeding, etc. see Kellas cat History section, later ]
Through snaring and shooting by local gamekeepers in the early 1980s, a series of specimens of the Kellas cats were amassed, largely by amateur naturalist and investigator of the ''big-cat phenomenon'', Di Francis. Her hope initially, on hearing of the first specimens being shot, was that the Kellas cats represented cubs/young of the large black felids being sighted throughout Britain at the time. On examination of genitalia, however, clearly the specimen cats were adult, and as such in no way connected to the large black cats killing livestock throughout Britain.
The Kellas cat specimens are certainly very striking in their appearance, being long-legged and gracile in build. Overall the colour is black, with prominent white-coloured guard hairs over the flanks (often described as 'flecked' with white hairs.)
A white area of fur is typically seen at the base of the throat, or on the chest region. Tail variable, sometimes short and stocky, yet in others long and sleek.
[The cats appeared to exhibit behaviour quite unlike that of the Scottish wild cats. The cats have been repeatedly described as hunting in pairs, unlike the solitary nature attributed to wild cats, and are said to be largely cursorial (built for running), rarely being arboreal (tree climbing tendencies - a trait often associated with Scottish wildcats, Felis sylvestris grampia. - 'sylvestris' referring to forest/wood dwelling)]
Whilst at a glance most of the Kellas cats appeared alike, many differences between individuals were noticed with the collection of the initial specimens in the 1980s. Differences in overall size, length of limbs, tail length, number and distribution of white guard hairs, size and distribution of white chest patches, etc led many researchers (professional and amateur alike) to speculate as to the origins of the Kellas cats. Whilst initially speculation pointed towards the cats being a new species (Francis and others), many speculated that hybrids between Scottish wild cats and feral, domestic cats were to blame for the phenomenon, (zoologist Karl Shuker, and others.)
A blood sample taken from a freshly killed specimen in 1985 proved too contaminated for chromosomal/DNA analysis, but a blood sample from a live-captured cat in the Spring of 1986 proved that individual cat to be unequivocally a wildcat-domestic cat hybrid (See Kellas cat History section, later)
Note: as a consequence of high numbers of feral cats in Morayshire, hybridisation of domestic cats with wildcats is potentially a common occurrence. The true Scottish wildcat (F.sylvestris grampia) is not as true a species as is commonly believed. Studies suggest that most modern cats described as 'pure wildcats' unfortunately exhibit genetic characteristics pointing to a hybrid ancestry. Many argue that the type-specimen, shot at Invermorriston, Highlands, against which other purported Scottish wildcats are compared, may indeed not be a purebred Scottish wildcat after all.
The Kellas cat specimens collected largely by Di Francis were subjected to a thorough examination by Dr Andrew Kitchener of the Royal Scottish Museum, in Edinburgh.
Based on the evidence from eight collected specimens, he concluded that seven of the cats showed traits common to both Scottish wildcats and domestic cats. These cats were described as introgressive hybrids, representing animals with varying degrees of Scottish wildcat and domestic cat ancestry, which in turn accounted for the differing external characteristics exhibited by the type specimens.
The final specimen exhibited external characteristics AND internal characteristics (largely gut length, skull morphology, etc) which led Kitchener to believe it represented the first melanistic Scottish wildcat ever documented. Unfortunately, some researchers have raised doubts as to this conclusion, as black (melanistic)
wildcats have never been recorded in Europe, although melanism is a common coat colour mutation in other cat species.
From Kitchener's findings, some researchers have suggested that the term “Kellas cat” should be reserved solely for use in describing pure melanistic Scottish wildcats.
Kellas Cat History
1) January 1983. Kellas, Morayshire.
Adult pair of Kellas cats spied beside the River Lossie, the male of the pair shot and killed. Having killed several such cats in the past, this male, a fine specimen, was taken to local taxidermist to be stuffed. (Tomas Christie specimen)
Male 42 inches from nose to tail. Taxiderm specimen came into possession of Di Francis, the specimen ultimately ending up at Elgin Museum.
Francis took the specimen to Frank Turk, retired zoologist, Professor Charles Thomas, and to Daphne Hills and her team at British Museum (Natural History), London for their professional opinions of the specimen. Consensus was the specimen represented a feral domestic x Scottish wildcat hybrid.
2) June 1984. Revack Lodge, near Grantown on Spey.
Local gamekeeper, Ronald Douglas caught second known Kellas cat in a fox-snare on the estate. Adult male cat, 43 inches from nose to tail. Viewed by Forres vet, John Robertson, and the director of Highland Wildlife Park, Edward Orbell.
Douglas sent the carcase to Perth based taxidermist, Ronnie Buchan. The specimen allegedly went missing. (Di Francis later retrieved the remnants of it's pelt some years later.)
3) April 1985. Advie, South of Charlestown of Aberlour.
Local gamekeeper bagged another adult male Kellas cat, on the Aberlour road, near hamlet of Advie. Carcase sent to Di Francis, who later sent specimen for appraisal by Daphne Hills at the British Museum (Natural History). Slight cryptic striping of tail evident in this specimen. Report stated probable wildcat x domestic cat hybrid, but one more allied to a wildcat origin.
4) 14th October 1985. Dallas, near Kellas, Morayshire.
Local gamekeeper shot a juvenile male cat, stalking pheasants at Dallas. Within 2 hours of the animals demise, a blood sample was taken by Forres vet, John Robertson, which was sent to Aberdeen University laboratories for chromosomal analysis. The sample proved useless, as stated on arrival as being either delayed (Francis) or contaminated (Shuker).
5) 1986. Darnaway Estates, Morayshire
A pair of Kellas cats shot. Male estimated at 11 months old, lean, white primary guard hairs prominent. Female of a much more stockier, shorter build.
Specimens sent to Di Francis for her growing collection, examined by scientific team under Professor Robert Barry (London University College). Meanwhile…..
6) Spring 1986.
BBC film crew working for TV programme 'Tomorrow's world' set traps near Kellas, and achieved success at catching the first live specimen of the 'Kellas cat'.
(Screened in documentary - 'On the Trail of the Big Cat' 22 nd May1986)
The specimen was female, and was taken to the Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig. Blood sample sent for chromosomal analysis by Dr Fox of Aberdeen University's Zoology Dept. Results from this specimen proved, unequivocally, to be from a wildcat x domestic hybrid.
7) 28th February 1988. Redcastle, Ross-shire.
Adult male Kellas cat trapped alive by Mr Tony Sill. Trapped after it had attacked his Aylesbury ducks repeatedly. Again this specimen sent to Kincraig Wildlife Park.
8) 1986. Kellas, Morayshire.
Colin Barclay, Tomas Christie's gamekeeper, shot a female Kellas cat at Kellas. From the wound on her side, it was discovered she was pregnant, the head of a striped unborn kitten protruding from the flank wound of the black Kellas mother.
9) 1991 Autumn.
Big cat researcher Di Francis got the opportunity to keep the Ross-shire male, and Tomorrow's world female Kellas cats. Pens to accommodate the couple were made in a hurry. Cats adopted the names Fred and Freda, (see My Highland Kellas Cats, by Di Francis)
10) Colin Barclay later captured a live female Kellas cat, caught in a snare by its' forepaw. The limb needed amputating due to the severity of the damage, the three-legged cat, named Kelly, joined the 2 cats in Di Francis' possession.
11) Fred and Freda succeeded in producing a litter of kittens, cryptic striping being very evident. Over a series of weeks, successive kittens died, cause unknown. Speculated that the cause of death may have been lethal genes associated with inbreeding, or indeed associated with a rickets type condition, possibly brought on by improper diet.
12) 1994. Burgie lodge, between Elgin and Forres, Morayshire.
Adult male Kellas cat, shot on the estate. Tail size would suggest ancestry more domestic cat than wildcat.
13) 2001. Fife.
Rumours abound about ''Kellas' type cats seen on numerous occasions in the vicinity of several farms in the Fife areas.
14) October 2002.
Kellas cat, adult, killed in the lowland areas of Aberdeenshire. The specimen was made into a taxidermy specimen, now housed in the foyer of the Aberdeen University's Zoology Dept. building.
The Cait Sith
In Scottish mythology there exists a feline form called the Cait Sith or 'Fairy Cat'. It is described in folklore as being a large black cat, 'sparked'/flecked with white. The similarity of the description with the primary guard hairs sported by most Kellas cat specimens has led many to believe that the folklore associated with the Cait Sith has, at it's roots, a basis in early sightings and descriptions of Kellas cats throughout mainland Scotland.
The ''Rabbit-Headed'' Cat
In the midst of conducting her research into the Kellas cats, Di Francis came across a feline form, which convinced her of the possibility of another unknown species of cat, which she christened the ''rabbit-headed'' cat.
In 1988, a local gamekeeper shot a cat in the Dufftown area of Morayshire, and this specimen was sent to Di Francis, via Tomas Christie's gamekeeper, Mr Colin Barclay.
In outward appearance the cat did not look like the normal Kellas cat specimens. Whilst of a large size, it lacked the white primary guard hairs and chest patch. The specimen was an adult male, with adult sized testes. The specimen had a pronounced 'roman-nose', and sported large upper canine teeth.
Francis likened the head of the cat to a rabbit, such that the name stuck. Francis was convinced at the time that the specimen represented another previously unknown species of cat, native to Scotland. She was convinced other specimens would turn up.
In 1993, gamekeeper Jimmy McVeigh spotted a large cat swimming after wildfowl in an area near to East Kilbride. He sent his dogs into the water to 'flush-out' the cat, which on reaching the shore, and demonstrating such ferocity when cornered, was shot by McVeigh. The specimen was an adult female, with much the same 'roman-nose' sported by the Dufftown specimen.
Speculation exists whether the Revack lodge Kellas cat killed in June 1984 was actually a 'rabbit-headed' cat, the only remains of the cadaver being a taxidermy pelt.
Also in 1938, The Scottish Field magazine included an article about a black feral kitten found in Elgin, which could not be tamed as it grew into adulthood. A photograph of the adult cat revealed a profile similar to that of the rabbit-headed cat.
Scottish Big Cat Trust (SBCT) members Dr John Murray and Mick Orsi MRCVS took the skull of the East Kilbride specimen to the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh. There, Dr Andrew Kitchener, famed for his analysis of the Kellas cat specimens of the 1980s, conducted similar tests on the rabbit-headed cat skull.
Kitchener's findings suggested the rabbit-headed cat skull exhibited no real anatomical differences between it and specimens of Scottish wildcats, and domestic cats and their hybrids.
Examination of post-mortem photographs of the Dufftown skull and comparison of domestic cat skulls in the author’s collections shows an occasional anatomical difference. The differences Francis described once as being unique to the Dufftown individual exist either 1) in all cat species, or 2) in all cats - within the boundaries of normal genetic variation, eg relative skull sizes, etc.
In a report of the Zoological Society, London Volume II, 1904, the eminent Russian zoologist Mr C. Satunin described the existence of a large black wildcat type existing in the Transcaucasian areas. The features described re its morphology, are those attributed to Kellas cats ie. black cats with white primary guard hairs. One point to note is that the specimens collected had long thin tails. In terms of length, they were longer than most domestic cats, which in turn are longer than most wildcats and Kellas cats. Mr Satunin called the cat Felis daemon on the assumption he had discovered a new species of small cat. Many zoologists disagreed with his ideas, and indeed F. daemon was demoted to a subspecies of the European wildcat in 1973, currently described as F.sylvestris caucasia.
King Kellas Cats
Tom Anderson, a correspondent for Animals and Men wrote to Jonathan Downes of the Centre for Fortean Zoology, regards a sighting of an alleged huge Kellas cat type specimen. The specimen was sighted around Strathdon, Aberdeenshire, and represented a Kellas cat 5 feet (60 inches) from nose to tail, seen at close distance. Maximum length for Kellas male specimens, 43 inches. Witnesses, Mr and Mrs Jeffrey, were adamant it was of Kellas cat type. Other similar cats have been seen nr. Slaines Castle, North of Aberdeen. Witnesses dubbed the beast a ''King Kellas''.