Let the mystery be…

viewpointTHE hills of Scotland have a long tradition of the supernatural, which is hardly surprising since the indigenous highlander, even to-day, tends to superstition, and the history of Gaeldom is splattered with tales of the second sight, the little people, and tales from beyond the grave.

My one and only encounter with anything remotely resembling spectral things occurred in Glen Banchor near my home in Newtonmore.

I had taken my dogs for a walk on a local hill on a day of mist and rain, and as we returned along a well-trodden hill path we could see the glen road below us. I could quite clearly see a person, I think it was a man, and a dog walking along towards us and I decided that I would tarry for just a few moments to let him pass.

One of my own dogs had an inquisitive nature when there were other dogs about and I thought I’d give the man and his dog an opportunity to walk on a bit.

From where we stood on the track, part of the roadway was out of sight, blocked by a low hillock. We waited a few moments, and when the person didn’t appear from the other side we descended to to the road, fully expecting to see him there.

To my surprise there was nobody in sight. I wandered round the hillock, looked down the steep banking that leads to the river, and realised, with something of a shock, that the dogs and I were completely on our own.

Candlelit bothy nights

Candlelit bothy nights

I didn’t feel in the slightest bit frightened, only curious. I must admit though that my curiosity became more intense when I recalled that a dog belonging to a friend always acts very strangely whenever she’s taken along this bit of road, whining, and sitting down refusing to go any further. I wondered if the events were connected.

It’s not unusual to hear of tales like this. Donald Watt, the onetime leader of the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team, once told the tale of coming down from a hill on a very hot day and seeing a small cottage below him with smoke coming from the chimney and someone standing at the door.

Deciding that he would stop by and ask for a drink of water he continued his descent behind a copse of wood that momentarily hid the cottage from view. When he reached the road in the glen and walked past the wood he was astonished to find an old ruin, a clutter of stones and a gable wall, where a few moments earlier he had seen a lived-in home.

Only recently a woman wrote to me enquiring after a number of Cairngorm ‘mysteries’. One of the most significant stories she referred to was that of the discovery of the body of a man who was once found on the slopes of Ben Avon.

The odd thing about this corpse was that it was dressed in a business suit, and lying close by was a briefcase, a walking stick and a bowler hat!

A stalker, working on the south-east slopes of Ben Avon, discovered the body in 1938, and it appeared that the city gent, for so he appeared, had been dead for some time. His identity was never discovered.

The discovery of dead bodies in the mountains is, although something of a rarity, not entirely unusual. Even at this moment in time there are records of individuals who have apparently gone for a walk in the hills and have never returned. They may have become the victim of exhaustion, the weather, an avalanche or simply of natural causes like a sudden heart attack.

While our mountain search and rescue teams discover the vast majority of those who have gone missing every so often someone appears to vanish from the face of the earth.

Hillwalkers heading for Ben Macdui in winter

Hillwalkers heading for Ben Macdui in winter

And neither are our mountains unfamiliar with the paranormal. You only have to read the late Affleck Gray’s wonderful book on The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui, or Rennie McOwan’s Magic Mountains to realise that it’s impossible to explain some of the weird happenings that have taken place in the heart of the hills.

But it could be that the tale of the Beinn Avon city gent could be explained away by a story that is in itself a sad tale of misunderstanding, a tale that could well have ended in tragedy.

I have an old newspaper cutting that refers to an incident experienced by James Anton, a Strathpeffer man, in 1931. James was staying in Corrour Bothy in the Lairig Ghru when he was rudely awakened by a loud knocking of the door at five in the morning. A stranger stood at the door, a man dressed like a businessman, and he wanted to know the way to Braemar.

The man’s story was a curious one. He’d travelled north by the Perth-Inverness train believing it would take him to Braemar. When he had realised his mistake someone on the train, perhaps as a joke, had suggested there was a “short cut” through the mountains from Aviemore via the pass of the Lairig Ghru.

The man had decided to try it and got off the train at Aviemore, completely unaware that the “short-cut” was almost 30 miles in length and over some high and rough terrain. Though he was exhausted by the time he reached Corrour, the man insisted on carrying on, believing he was over the worst of the journey. That was the last James Anton saw of him.

No sooner had this strange story been published than another witness appeared.

The remote slopes of Ben Avon

The remote slopes of Ben Avon

Around the same time, Frank Ripley of Dundee was walking through the Lairig Ghru with some friends when, about four miles outside Aviemore, they met a man walking towards them. He was dressed in a suit, and carried a walking stick and a small case. The man asked if he was on the right track for Braemar and hearing verification carried on, despite the fact that darkness was beginning to fall.

At the time Mr Ripley had simply assumed the man was checking the route out before setting out in earnest the next day. He now believes the man walked over the Lairig Ghru during the hours of darkness, and eventually lost his way, ending up on the south-east slopes of Beinn Avon. Curiously, the identity of the Lairig Ghru businessman has never been discovered.

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