Friday, 1 May 2015

The Haunting

Some winters ago Eric Langmuir, John Disley, John Cleare and I stayed at Ben Alder Cottage, en route for Fort William to Dalwhinnie. This is one of the finest bothies in the Highlands. And Eric, jokingly, warned us that it was haunted. He told us the story of a visit which his sister Marjorie, then a medical student, had made to the cottage with a party from Glasgow University Mountaineering Club. During the evening they heard footsteps outside. They went to the door and looked outside. No one there. And then it happened again. Still no one there. Some months later I told this story to a very eminent Scotsman. A strange look came over his face and he told me the story of his visit to Ben Alder Cottage, before the war, when he was a boy. That story has remained forever in my mind. Recently I persuaded him to tell it again — the most astonishing story I have ever heard. The only fact that is concealed is the name of this eminent Scotsman because he is fed up with having his leg pulled. I can, however, assure readers that this is no leg-pull.

It was in about 1937. A great friend of mine who had walked with me the whole way from Glasgow to Skye in 1930 and with whom I had climbed in the Cuillins, those most delectable of all mountains, told me that he had heard two of the tougher anglers, who fished the more difficult places in the Highlands, talking about the Loch of the Buich Pass. The name entranced us and we wondered where this place was where these marvellous trout could be caught — up to 3/4lb at 2,400ft. Where was this Loch? Tom- my friend- worked in another Department of the Corporation of Glasgow, but in the same building as I did and one day he came up the stairs into the drawing office where I stood as a young apprentice civil engineer and said: "Bob, I've got it. I've been looking at the one inch maps and it's Loch Bhealaich Bheithe — Loch of the Buich Pass in the Gaelic. A mountain pass between Beinn Behoil and Ben Alder. Let's go there".

So we did, in 1938, and we came up on his old motor bike with me on the pillion and we left it at Bridge of Gaur on Loch Rannoch. From there an old stalking track went for, I suppose, six or seven miles across this wild moorland through a dying forest — a stark, white-bleached remnant of an old Scots pine woodland area. The track stopped as though it had been cut by a knife in the moorland and after that only rough moorland for a mile. And we came over this rise. Tom had a little pocket telescope which had been given to him for some occasion. We lay there on the ridge and looked at the hut we had been told about or had heard about: Ben Alder Cottage, this old Butt'n Ben.

No smoke came from the chimney, no curtains were in the window. We reckoned it was a good house, the kind that we enjoyed living in. So with some circumspection, we made down the hill,that long beat down through the dying remnants of this old pine forest, and forded the River Alder — which can be very dangerous when it is in spate. But was quite easy that day,and walked up with great care — because we were old hands at reconnoitering howffs. Here was Ben Alder Cottage, But'n Ben, a room and kitchen and we made it our headquarters for nearly a week. A little porch giving access to a minute six foot square hall: to the right a door into the kitchen and to the left a door into THE ROOM and straight ahead, one little bedroom without a window — a standard highland butt'n ben, tongued and grooved lined with wood for warmth, the ancient equivalent of a highly insulated house. And attached to it was a barn, in line with the cottage, which once had had two compartments with a wooden partition between the two and two doors but which a generation or two of stalkers had broken down to use for fire wood when they were caught in bad weather.

This place was eight or nine miles from Bridge of Gaur and fifteen miles from Dalwhinnie, most of it on a rather difficult track each way. It must have been one of the most isolated cottages in all the highlands, lying at the foot of Ben Alder with a great number of Munros lying around it which we wanted to climb and hadn't climbed. Now in those days, we found that we could only carry in about three days of food in a 45lb pack when we included our stove and sleeping bag and a tent in case we could not find a howff. So we were limited to three days. After that you had to live on the land and the land meant the water. So we both carried American three foot section steel spinning rods with a primitive spinning reel, gold and silver Devons to fish these unsophisticated hill Lochs because we knew we could catch them, three or four to the pound, sometimes a half pounder, on a rare occasion a three quarter pounder.

We learned to eat them in various ways. We mashed up the fish with'oatmeal and made fishcakes of them, we broiled them, we boiled them, we fried them. We did all kinds of things with them. By the end, when we were drawing in these fish in the spinning reels from the hill lochs we had to turn our faces away from them as they came weaving in through the brown shallowing waters. We couldn't face it — the thought that we had to eat the bloody things! Now this loch was the one that we'd heard of you see and it was a marvellous loch. We actually caught up to three pounders on it, which was a very big fish for a loch which was something like 2,300 ft above sea level. This was the pass over which Prince Charles Edward Stuart had walked when he was escaping from the post-Culloden situation and he had come down to an old hut or crofters house known as "Dooms Smokey Place" which had stood on the site of Benaider Cottage — we could trace the old foundations.

Now according to the records Prince Charlie had slept one night in this "Dooms Smokey Place" before going up to Cluny's Cage where he had spent some time with Cluny MacPherson and his clansmen and they hid him and fed him there in the days after Culloden — before he eventually escaped in a French Man o'War and ended his rather inglorious life in France, on brandy. This was the spot on which we slept. For some reason which I can't remember now, we used to sleep in the kitchen where we could build a big fire of the wood we carried across from the dying forest near the side of the Alder Burn. One day we did the ridge that lay along the glen that ran down to Loch Ossian and when we came down to it, we produced as always from our rucksacks our spinning rods and we caught a few little fish, so unsophisticated that they were trying three at a time to get on to the hook. We caught a number of them and brought them down and unwillingly, as always by that time, mashed them up and made a meal. There was only one article of furniture in that house, a table. 

We put it against the window in the kitchen — to the right of the front door — and in the corner of that room, away from the fire, which used to blaze at night flickering in the tongued and grooved brown varnished lining. We made a bed of heather and there we slept at night in our sleeping bags. Now we sat at the table with a paraffin primus stove between us, roaring away, and we made our meal, our tea. And as we sat there doing that, I thought I heard someone coming in through the little porch past the door which was only two or three feet from my left elbow and he went into the room on the left! I said to Tom: "That sounds like someone, d'ye hear him?" And we both sat there in the dusk and he said: "Well I can't hear anyone". And we thought nothing more and we had our meal. We built up the fire and in the warmth of the fire we lay in our sleeping bags on the heather. We lit our pipes — we were both great pipe-smokers.

Now before heard this sound, I had gone through to get Meta Mitre fuel to prime the stove and after the meal was over, Tom said: "Damn it I've run out of tobacco but I've got another tin, away through and get it". And he went through to the other room where we kept our rucksacks. I was in that marvellous state after a wonderful mountain day — lying back in a sleeping bag smoking my pipe, a feeling of great luxury. | was aware that Tom was standing at my feet and I looked up sleepily. He had a very curious expression on his face and I said: "What's wrong, Tom?" And Tom said: "Did you see this on your rucksack when you went through to get the meta fuel earlier on?" And he gave me a piece of paper. This piece of paper had written on it: "You must leave this house immediately — you are not permitted to stay here". 

And there was a name, I think it was Macintosh, Head Stalker. Tom said: "You must have heard someone after all. But why didn't he come in? We would have given him a cup of tea and argued him out of it. We can't leave here at this time, 10 miles from the nearest road". Well that was that. We lay down again in our sleeping bags, smoked our pipes and thought about it but not too much. Well, by this time it would be about midnight and dark and suddenly it was Tom who heard something and he said: "There is someone through next door". And we heard this sound of a man going, bwmm, bwmm, like someone walking and then a great whrrr like a big heavy piece of furniture being pushed and then, bwmm, bwmm, and then, whrrrr. And we lay there and listened to this and we were really quite frightened.

I said: "But why doesn't he come and tell us we've got to go. We'll give him a cup of tea and talk him out of it?" And then it became intolerable. I suppose we lay there and listened to it for many minutes — ten minutes, a quarter of an hour, in a kind of increasing state of fear and uneasiness, and then we got out of our bags and we took hold of our torches, opened the door of the kitchen, went through a little hall and listened at the door and we heard this man, this thing, this whatever it was, walking quite definitely: bwmm, bwmm, bwmm then whrrrr as though it were some great heavy piece of furniture in the room. We threw the door open and shone the torches in — it was dark, it was midnight. But there was nothing, not a thing, and we walked into that room and we were really terrified. 

And then we thought it must be next door in the byre which was now one great compartment paved with stones, great flat stones as far as I remember. As we stood there we heard the sound in the byre,through the wall, only this time it was as though someone with tackity boots, nailed boots, walking on the stone floor, clink, clink, clink and then whrrrrr. A heavy thing being pushed. That was how it presented itself to us, to our imagination. We really were terribly frightened and I remember looking at Tom and if his face looked like my face than it was really a study: pale, frightened with great round eyes. We went back out of the door into the porch, out the front door and this black, velvety, starless night fell upon us. We moved up the side of the house and there were two doors which led into the one compartment because the old partition between the two sections of the byre had obviousiy been torn down over the last decade or so for fires by people benighted.

We knew it was one compartment so we opened the two doors simultaneously and before we did so I said: "It may be a stag or something that's got in". But we knew it was lunatic idea. We threw the doors open simultaneously each one of us. There was nothing, not a thing. We went in. We went right round it, there was nothing and the sound had stopped. The next morning, we climbed the walls of the cottage onto the roof and we dropped stones down both chimneys to see whether there was anything hanging from the chimneys. Nothing. I may say that we wasted no time getting back to Bridge of Gaur the next day. Years after that, having told this story to another great friend of mine, a keen photographer, hill-walker and fisherman, we made the same journey. This time we didn't sleep in the kitchen, we slept in the room where in the original incident, our rucksacks had been. And we lay there with our heads to the back wall and our feet to the window which was nailed up. In the middle of the night I woke up in blackness, dense blackness, and I heard a man walking on the pavement — there are flat stones along the side of the wall if I can remember correctly.

I was aware, as though in a nightmare, that he had stopped and was looking in through the black window on both of us. In a state of terror, absolutely stupefying horror which I cannot explain in words, I woke McCallum up, I remember his second name, and he heard the end of the footsteps and then everything stopped again. Two years after that, McCallum went with another friend and he woke up in the same room, feet to the window and was aware that there was a great light shining through the window. It was as though the sun — and this was in the middle of the night — were at the back of the window pouring a flood of light into the room and he was afflicted with this same overpowering sense of horror as I had felt.

And then it cut like that and went off and that was the end of that. Now this original friend of mine with whom I had had the first experience, Tom, had married in the interim, and he and his wife with whom I was very friendly, and I went up there to fish and climb and we met another couple who'd come down from Dalwhinnie. Tom & Jessie slept in the room in their sleeping bags and I slept with the other couple in the kitchen and we made tea, me and this young couple, and we blethered and talked away for a time. When we went to our bags we couldnt get to sleep for the noise of Tom and Jessie wandering about in the next room. They disturbed us and the next morning when we were all having breakfast together in the kitchen, we said to them: "What were you up to last night? You seemed to be moving about a lot". And that said: "Moving about? We didn't move about. We got down right away into our bags. We could hardly sleep for you moving about". Well, that is the story. We never could equate that material and physical piece of paper which must have been written by a real man with the other things that happened. Of course many of my friends have given all kinds of debunking explanations for it. But none of them fit — no, we didn't have any alcohol with us. I simply record what happened. I know of no explanation. 

Anonymous: First published in Mountain life-Dec 74.

See 'The Truth about McCook's Cottage' which relates further haunting experiences at the bothy.