Report from George Markie
You cross the Gadie burn, fabled in North-east song, to reach the village of Insch from Aberdeen. You are indeed at the back o' Bennachie, which slouches in a knobbled ridge to the south. You're in bothy ballad country all right, but if recent reports are to believed, you are also in big cat country.
Rural Aberdeenshire has been rife over the past few years with sightings of a big cat, or cats, the latest and most widely publicised incident being an attack on an Insch woman, Doris Moore, which prompted the area's MSP, Richard Lochhead, to bring the matter before the Scottish parliament. He wasn't the first politician to demand official intervention. A few years ago the area's MP, SNP leader Alex Salmond, asked the then Secretary of State for Scotland, Sir Michael Forsyth, to authorise an investigation into the possibility of the existence of a large wild cat in Banffshire, "similar to that carried out by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Bodmin".
Each year there are hundreds of big cat sightings across Britain. Just yesterday, 15-year-old Laura Jones described coming face to face with a "panther" while bringing in her pet goats for the night near Llangorse in mid-Wales. We know these beasts only through the odd grainy photograph which appears to show a substantial moggie making its way across a hillside. Those that recur persistently tend to be christened with alliterative names - the Beast of Bodmin or Bennachie or Buchan or Boblainy - but with questions being asked in the Westminster, Scottish and Welsh parliaments, there is a growing suspicion that there are roaming the land not one or two escapees, but numerous beasts that aren't in your average guide to British wildlife.
Or are we just plumbing the murky depths of cryptozoology? Well, just ask Doris Moore about what it might have been that savaged her on the evening of 11 January.
Sitting in her kitchen at her home in Craigieford, just outside Insch, Moore is still disturbed by the event after two weeks. She recalls: "On the way back I heard a breathing noise ... then the breathing stopped and I thought, 'What is tugging at my leg?'
"I looked down but couldn't see anything. Whatever this mysterious beastie was, it was pulling at the strap of my ski trousers. I never saw it but, goodness me, I felt it. I was lashing into it with a heavy bunch of keys. And all the time there was no noise, not a growl.
"I got the door open and threw myself sideways into the car. But as I did so it jumped up and stuck its fangs into my leg, and the pain . I was screaming.
The wound in her thigh was bleeding slightly and there was considerable bruising, but it didn't require stitching. Whatever it was that went for her, she insists it was no dog.
She still suffers from nightmares about the incident and, quite apart from the gashed leg, she is smarting from mixed media coverage of the affair, including an appearance on the Richard and Judy show and from the ridicule of some locals, although others have come forward with sightings of their own. In 1995, for example, another woman, Karen Emslie, reported seeing a big black cat within a few miles of the village.
Back in Insch, however, no-one is patrolling the streets with big-game rifles. In the bar of the Commercial Hotel they seem more concerned that the fruit machine is not disgorging its jackpot than with big cat sightings, although, once one introduces the topic, a tale surfaces of two men cutting wood, one of them bending down and something big and dark leaping over him and away.
While Aberdeenshire may count itself as a big cat hot spot, it certainly has no monopoly; Ayrshire and Argyll have had no shortage of sightings, Fife too, while down towards the diametrically opposite corner of Scotland, big cat-like creatures have been spotted in the Moffat area.
Last Sunday morning, Edinburgh woman Audrey Coltart was driving out of Moffat along the old Carlisle road when she saw, in the clear light of day, what appeared to be a big cat at the side of the road: "I was just driving and I thought, 'What is that? It skittered away, the way cats do, and I just went 'Oh f***,' out loud. It was absolutely gi-normous."
Coltart, who was quite shaken by the encounter, says the animal was as long as her car was broad: "It had feline features, a feline body and you know the way they walk, like on pads. It was 100 per cent black. It went underneath a gate and I saw that it had a very long tail." Raise the subject in a local pub and you'll get a shrug of the shoulders but also, inevitably, the odd anecdote - of men "lamping" foxes at night and seeing what appeared to be a big black cat perched on top of a dyke; or the two cars that screeched to a halt near Moffat a few years ago, both drivers having seen a dead deer by the road . and what looked like a very big, black cat feeding off it.
The corporate corridors of Shell UK's massive headquarters at Tullos, Aberdeen, seem a far cry from feline-haunted moorland, but Phil Crosby, an internal auditor there, considers what I tell him of Coltart's encounter and, while reluctant to pronounce without more evidence, agrees that it could have been a big cat, particularly in daylight.
Crosby, 35, is involved with Scottish Big Cats, a recently formed affiliation of scientists and amateurs, anxious to put the investigation of the phenomena on a more scientific basis. They have records of more than 500 sightings across Scotland of varying degrees of credibility, he says. "I would suspect probably 10 per cent are hoaxes. On the other hand, that doesn't mean the other 90 per cent are genuine cats. Probably more than half are well-intentioned mistakes."
Crosby interviewed Doris Moore but is not convinced that it was a cat - "although I've never known a dog attack anything without barking or growling. But I'm utterly convinced that she was attacked by something."
Considering just what kind of animal may lie behind the nationwide sightings, he suggests, as do others, that as well as zoo escapees, the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976 may have prompted a spate of big cats released into the wild by compromised owners. "The puma is the most commonly named. A puma can live right up into the wilds of Alaska, so it can survive in Scotland. There's a wall-to-wall larder of food out there in terms of deer and rabbit and wildfowl. The other animal which we firmly believe to be out there is the lynx. They were indigenous here and have only been extinct in historical times."
Crosby's interest in the phenomenon was whetted last spring when he spotted what he is convinced was a puma, while driving from Stonehaven to Banchory: "I was more amazed than alarmed. I've always been quite a sceptical person - I work as an auditor, for God's sake."
He continues: "Whatever they are, we want to get these animals recognised and protected." The Doris Moore episode was a very rare occurrence, he stresses: "These animals do not by nature attack humans."
This is one area on which author and British big cat activist Di Francis would agree with him. The author of The Beast of Exmoor, Cat Country and My Kellas Cats, Francis, who lives at Drummuir near Dufftown, has some fairly extreme views of her own on the matter, centrally that we are talking about an indigenous, hitherto undescribed species of native British big cat; more than one, in fact. For apart from a large cat, her researches have convinced her there is also a smaller "rabbit-headed" cat, as well as the accepted Kellas cat, a dark-skinned Scottish wild cat.
The Dangerous Animals Act theory she dismisses vigorously as "crap": "Animals that have been in captivity do not like going out into the open. Had the act sent people out to the wilderness to release their pet pumas and leopards, we would have had hundreds of animals being picked up over the next few years, entering people's homes looking for food or being run over."
One question frequently arising is the lack of any bodies. Cats, she and others suggest, are secretive beasts that will crawl into shelter to die - "How often do you find a dead fox, apart from one that has been killed on the roads?"
Which brings us to conspiracy theory. Some believe, says Francis non-committally, that the corpses of any big cats killed on our roads are quickly removed by government agencies. We disengage ourselves from what sounds dangerously like the X-Files and she produces a photograph taken by a couple who found the body of a big, grey cat on the seashore on Mull. When they returned with a gamekeeper the corpse had been washed away. Francis has had the photograph analysed, gauging the cat to be lynx to puma-sized. It is not for publication until it appears in her next book, which is unlikely to be completed unless someone comes up with a corpse.
Such tangible evidence would also delight retired Detective Sergeant John Cathcart of Inverness, who has kept a dossier of big cat sightings since the end of the 1970s when he investigated the case of Felicity the puma, trapped by a farmer at Cannich and who ended her days as a celebrity inmate of the Highland wildlife park at Kincraig. Cathcart says that after that, "sightings poured in, not just from Cannich but throughout Inverness-shire, Nairnshire and Ross-shire".
There is nothing new about our unofficial feline population. Men who worked on the hydro scheme at Cannich in 1947 have told Cathcart of seeing a large black, cat-like animal. The most tangible evidence is from sheep attacks: "Since October 2001, three smallholdings on the Black Isle alone have lost 16 adult hogs - all killed in a similar manner, the neck bitten and flesh removed from the hip area. It's totally inconsistent with dog attack.".
Someone else who would appreciate a big feline corpse is Dr Andrew Kitchener, curator of wild mammals and birds at the National Museums of Scotland. While he has reservations, he believes that non-native big cats would certainly have the potential to survive in Britain. "As to whether there are, or how many there are I would have no idea whatsoever. Eyewitness reports are all very well, but hard evidence is always going to provide a better way of evaluating whether there's something there. The plaster casts of footprints we've seen from all over Britain have all turned out to be dogs."
Francis, Cathcart and Kitchener await that elusive corpse. As for Doris Moore, she is keeping a bottle of Champagne for the day hard proof vindicates her case.
The Scottish Big Cats website is www.bigcats.org
Scotsman, 2 nd February 2002
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