Was it really a leopard that was spotted?


MYSTERIOUS animals strike a chord in our psyche and the Highlands has a rich tradition in such sightings. The newspapers last week featured the ‘beast of Embo’, sighted by sisters after 18 sheep had been killed.

It sent my mind whirring back to 1980 and the celebrated Cannich puma which generated the kind of tabloid frenzy nowadays generated by Jordan’s Hindenburg-like cleavage or Cheryl Cole’s latest lip gloss.

There had been mystery animal sightings in the North a long time previously. The Daily Express reported back in 1927 that in rural Inverness-shire sheep and goats had been attacked by an animal a shepherd described as "like a leopard but without spots". A strange description unless it was the first case of a leopard actually changing his spots. Like the guy telling his mate: "I’ve just spotted a leopard" and his pal replying:"Don’t be daft, they’re born with spots".

Anyway, The Express reported that traps were set and a creature was caught which was sent to London Zoo where it was identified as a lynx. Later it turned out London Zoo had no record of receiving any such animal. It was the biggest animal tall tale since there were three bears and one married a giraffe. The other two put him up to it.

In 1973 there was a "big cat" sighting in Strathnaver, Caithness, by a retired Glasgow police sergeant - and remember, those hardy guys in that era were not prone to dubious eyesight or wild flights of imagination unless giving evidence at a villain’s trial. The sergeant reckoned a puma with a rabbit in its mouth jumped in to the path of his car, almost colliding with it.

It was reported in 1977 that a man and his nephew at Farr, 10 miles from Inverness, "saw a lioness and two cubs" in a field and the next day a similar sighting was recorded at Culduthel. It definitely wasn’t a buffalo, which allows me to ask what did the buffalo say to his son when he was leaving?


In July 1981 a workman coming off shift at the McDermott oil platform construction yard at Ardersier saw an animal "larger than an Alsatian, identical to a puma" come out of undergrowth and cross the road. On Christmas Eve the same year, again at the McDermott yard entrance, someone reported his headlights had caught a tan creature "larger and heavier built than a Labrador dog". Yes, I know, some more sceptical readers might speculate whether these witnesses had, in fact, seen an Alsatian and a Labrador.

Then again, in July 1997 a man from Kirkintilloch who caused a three car pile-up on the A9 near Ralia, just south of Newtonmore, told police that he had seen a black and white creature "about the size of a Great Dane" jump out in front of his car, making him lose control. Some might suspect a shaggy dog story, but at Inverness Sheriff Court, Sheriff James Fraser found the charge of careless driving not proven.

Eleven years ago four golfers playing at Nairn Dunbar contacted police to say they had seen a large male lynx 30 yards from them as they stood on the seventh green. I know about birdies and eagles, but a lynx on the links?

All these pale into insignificance compared to the commotion at Cannich on 29th October, 1980. There had been cases of livestock harmed by a mystery cat in Glen Affric for a couple of years. Farmer Ted Noble, who died eight years later, erected a trap with a sprung door that was connected to a sheep’s head inside the cage and reported catching alive a fully grown female puma.

Cue a stampede up the glen of Her Majesty’s media as the event rapidly became UK-wide and international news. But there were different views. When the photograph of the puma’s face in a cage was published in two competing tabloids, one headline stated:"Grrr!", but the rival headline was "Miaow", claiming the animal was as tame as a tabby cat.

The Puma of the Glen was taken to a new home at Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig where the director Eddie Orbell stated that, in his view, the puma had never spent as long as 30 minutes in the wild. It refused to eat an unskinned rabbit and would only take prepared food. It was reported to be very overweight and tame.

This monstrously savage creature apparently enjoyed having its tummy tickled. And was named Felicity. Like mixing a hyena with gravy, it became a laughing stock.

Amidst widespread suspicion of a hoax, with one particular journalist the centre of suspicion, no proof of this was ever forthcoming. The huge publicity made Felicity a favourite with visitors to the park, where she remained until her death in January, 1985. Her body was stuffed and put on display at Inverness Museum.

What really happened in those eventful days in Cannich 31 years ago? And who do you believe? Some reckon Felicity arrived in the glen via Land Rover, others believe she was one of a family of pumas in the area. Karl Popper, the Austrian philosopher, said: "Ultimate truth is unattainable". And maybe that’s true about how Felicity came to be in that hillside cage.

But the phenomena of mystery big cats continues, as the episode in Embo shows. It is suggested that new laws on the keeping of dangerous wild animals in the 1970s led to some owners turning their beasts out in to the wild. This could conceivably account for some sightings.

In recent years beavers have been reintroduced to Argyll and a Sutherland landowner wants to bring back wolves after a 400-year absence. The argument for wolves is that deer and rabbits cause great damage and nature, red in tooth and claw, taking its course might be beneficial. Those who keep sheep will be less relaxed.

But they say that on a cold night up Cannich way, particularly when strong drink is taken, you can hear on the soft breeze the haunting cry of a puma. Pining after its cousin, who has flitted to Embo.


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