WHAT’S the link between a classic John Ford film and a supposedly haunted bothy in the heart of the Central Highlands?
One famous quote: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
Basically, most people don’t want the banal reality – they prefer the juicier version of events, even it if happens to have strayed somewhat from the truth.
That line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance popped into my head this week when I read yet another account of someone claiming to have been spooked while sheltering for the night at lonely Ben Alder Cottage.
This two-roomed bothy – also known as McCook’s Cottage – sits in the Alder estate, on the shores of Loch Ericht. It’s miles from the nearest road. And it has a reputation for being haunted.
Joseph McCook was the head stalker on the estate back in the late 1800s. It’s said that one night he climbed up on to a table in the cottage and hung himself from the rafters.
Over the years the legend has grown; that you can sometimes hear the creaking of his body straining on the rope and his shoes desperately scraping across the table.
Many otherwise rational people have claimed they have heard what sounded like furniture being moved across the floor in the room next door but when they went through to the other room to investigate they found it empty.
One of the more senior members of my climbing club once told us that he and his friends had witnessed a packet of biscuits suddenly fly across the room while they sat in front of the fire. It did occur to us that a man who hanged himself would hardly put in so much effort to use chocolate digestives as a conduit for communicating from beyond the grave but why spoil a good yarn?
The latest report came from a gentleman who had arrived at the cottage on a dark and stormy night (what else?) to find himself the only occupant.
The wind was howling through the rafters and there was all sorts of creaking and groaning going on. He slept fitfully, and at one point he said he thought he saw a face at the window.
I know that feeling. I was the lone occupant at Bendronaig bothy in the North-west Highlands one very cold winter night and I remember having a conversation with a couple dressed in Victorian-style clothing. When I woke up with a start, of course, they were gone. But if you spend the night alone in an empty house in the middle of nowhere what else can you expect?
Your mind has a field day. Every primeval fear comes slithering out from under the rocks in the hidden corners of your subconscious. We are not programmed to be comfortable with this scenario. Every squeak, every creak, every bang, is a threat.
Anyway, in the cold light of day our friend put his unsettling experience down to tricks of the mind and mice scurrying around. Which, when you think about it, is even more frightening. What size of mice are there that can move heavy furniture around? Perhaps they worked in teams.
The truth is that McCook lived there with his wife and daughters for many years before the isolation proved too much and they moved away. He died peacefully in his bed in Newtonmore in 1933, not swinging from the rafters with a noose round his neck.
After the family left, the cottage lay empty for many years. The new head stalker feared it was too handy a base for deer poachers so got together with a novelist friend and came up with the ghost story.
They are also believed to be responsible for the rumours that a woman could be heard wailing for her lost child she was forced to eat to survive when she was cut off by snow storms for weeks. Gruesome, but effective.
So next time you are lying alone in an isolated shelter in the middle of nowhere and you hear scraping and scratching don’t panic – it’s only mice the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger.