Saturday, 21 November 2015

The Legend of McCook's Cottage

Also known as Ben Alder Cottage this remote bothy  in the Scottish Highlands has reputedly been the scene of some unusual activity over the years. It is said to be haunted - or so the story goes. . .

On my first visit to this cottage (many years ago) I was not aware of the legend and I attributed the odd noises coming from the next room in the wee small hours to mice - which are common in such places. The two climbers (strangers to me) with whom I was sharing the bothy agreed with my diagnosis.

Some time after my first stay there I came across a story in a mountaineering magazine about this very cottage and its strange, not to say spooky, history. I also began to hear stories from other hillwalkers I met in other bothies.

a cottage with a mountain behind it
The bothy is the stone building. An equipment shed used by the estate is on the left side. SOURCE

Ben Alder Cottage (known as McCook's Cottage, after its last occupant) is an open bothy (a shelter in the hills available for anyone to use). In the shadow of Ben Alder (a Munro, 3766 feet) it lies on the shores of Loch Ericht some 18 kilometres (11 miles or so) south-west of the village of Dalwhinnie. It is easy to find. Just follow the shore of the loch and you will eventually come to it.

There is more than one way to approach the cottage. I am rarely in a hurry on Scotland's hills and I usually take a leisurely two days to reach it - either camping half-way (if I follow the loch route which can be boggy at times) or staying a night in another bothy in the area if I take the longer but easier way via Culra and the Bealach Dubh (the Black Pass).

It can also be approached from Rannoch Station or Corrour Halt on the West Highland Railway Line but these are routes I have never used.

Today, the cottage is maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) but actually belongs to Ben Alder Estate (a shooting estate) who graciously allow its use by hillwalkers, mountaineers, ramblers and others free of charge all year round. It is a substantial stone-built single-story building which used to be a shepherd's cottage and latterly a deer-watcher's cottage. It was probably built sometime in the early 1800s (I cannot find a precise date) and was occupied by several families over the coming decades.

It's last occupant was one Joseph McCook, a deer forester, or watcher, employed by the estate to look after the many red deer in the area. After living there with his family for 40 years he left the cottage in 1920 for a more convenient abode further up the loch and closer to civilisation. The cottage was never permanently occupied after that.

a cottage in the distance

The first mentions of a haunted cottage near Ben Alder came in the late 1920s as men from the big cities began to visit the hills as a temporary relief from the poverty and unemployment of the Great Depression. Many of these early bothiers, hillwalkers and mountaineers came from a background of heavy industry - down-to-earth men not given to flights of fancy, not the kind of men who would start at a strange noise.

Nevertheless, stories began to gather of ghostly footsteps, unexplained noises, objects being moved from where they had been left and a knocking, as though the heels of a hanged corpse were tapping against a wooden door . . .

These tales were often told in other lonely bothies round a crackling fire to wide-eyed initiates who, no doubt, drank in every word. It was said that McCook had given in to the isolation of his home and had hanged himself behind the front door (the tapping of the heels). I have heard some of these stories still being told in various bothies in recent times.

These tales would have grown arms and legs in the telling and would have gained the veracity of time among those who frequented the hills until they became gospel and only those who had not heard the tales (such as myself) would dare to visit the cottage
I first had some of these stories told to me in another bothy by a hoary old hillwalker who claimed to have been chased out of McCook's by a loud noise right behind him. He had been so startled that he left that night and fled to a nearby howff vowing never to return.

Knowing the area (and knowing the damp and dismal howff he fled to) I couldn't help but think that some strong impulse was responsible for his flight. It may have been McCook's ghost objecting to his presence or it may have been the effects of the half-bottle of fine malt he said he had consumed over supper!

a cave under a large boulder

I recalled my first visit and the noises I had heard, but these were easily explained away as the nocturnal foragings of the local rodent population - all bothies have a resident rodent community - and the old man's ramblings didn't deter me, although I had no plans for a visit in the near future.

A couple of years later I set myself the target of climbing both Ben Alder and its nearby companion Ben Bheoil (also a Munro). This would be my second trip to this area and would involve a two or three-night stay at . . . gasp . . . the haunted cottage!

Like most people I count myself as being quite level-headed and hardly thought twice about McCook or his cottage. I certainly wasn't put off by its paranormal reputation - most of which I put down to an over-indulgence in Scotland's most famous product.

So I duly made my way to the cottage and settled in. Unusually, I was alone (the cottage can sleep 8-10 at a pinch). Bothies generally don't have any modern facilities such as electricity but by the light of a couple of candles and with hardly a glance at the shadows on the other side of the room I settled down for the night on one of the two raised sleeping platforms.

Do you dream? I have heard that everybody does. Something to do with the brain organising and recording the activities of the day. Well, I don't dream - or at least I can't recall any of my dreams except, perhaps, the odd really vivid one. And boy did I have a vivid dream that night!

the author
It involved a great big hairy arm - a huge, giant gorilla-like arm, enormously muscled and covered in red hair. It broke through the small window above the other sleeping platform and took hold of my companion's leg (yet remember I was alone). That scene will be forever etched in my memory - my companion (whoever he was) was screaming. I was screaming. The arm (the rest of the creature was not visible) was pulling and pulling, trying to pull him through the narrow window. Just as it seemed about to succeed - I woke up.

I have never reacted to a dream, or nightmare, like I reacted to that one. The candles were still burning and the shadows they threw hid all sorts of terrors. Trembling and shaking it took me some few moments to regain my composure and to realise that I had no companion, the window was not broken, nor was there a hairy arm.

I slept only fitfully for the rest of that night and was never so glad when dawn lightened the window (the one with the hairy arm). I checked the bothy carefully and looked outside half expecting to find huge footprints but no, there were none, of course.

Why did I have such a disturbing nightmare in that particular cottage? Could it be that past supernatural happenings were affecting reality? Or was it that because of the location my subconscious was primed to generate an unexplained (and unexplainable) experience. I do not know. The human brain is a wonderful and wondrous creation. Let us leave the story there and not delve too deeply into cause and effect.

What did I do next? I had come to climb some hills and I carried on with this plan but when I descended from the second hill I just happened to be on the other side from McCook's Cottage - too far to walk before dark. This meant I would spend my second night in a different bothy. How did this happen? Like I said: let's not delve too deeply into cause and effect but perhaps my subconscious had something to do with it!

panoramic view of the cottage and the loch
Loch Ericht and the cottage

I have returned to the cottage several times since then but have always taken the precaution of bringing my Wingman (my son) with me as a psychological belay.

He has not experienced any unexplained happenings whilst there and I have not had a repeat of my disturbing experience.

Perhaps the ghost has been laid to rest. Perhaps not. The stories still circulate and there is nothing like a good ghost story to pass a stormy night in a lonely bothy with the wind and rain adding to the atmosphere. So is it haunted or isn't it? I for one will always wonder.
All photos by the author unless otherwise stated


  1. I was going to say my granddaughter loves a good ghost story but I think this one is a bit much for a 9-year old! Glad you got away safely!

    1. Since that awful night I have visited the cottage several times but there has been no repeat of my nightmarish experience!

  2. What a scary dream that must have been. My last really scary dream had me afraid to go back to sleep. i think I shared that one way back on Bubblews. Whether the cottage was haunted or not, it's a great story and you told it well.


    1. Thank you for your comment. I am one of those who, like you, tend to believe that ghost stories such as those relating to McCook's Cottage are as you say 'complete and utter drivel' more likely to be the product of self-aggrandisement than to be actual verity. I do not, however, completely discount the possibility of, shall we say, 'another level of existence' ie: I keep an open mind on the subject of paranormal happenings. The fact is that stories of hauntings at that cottage (and other bothies in the highlands) were once common amongst the hillwalking fraternity although not so much nowadays. Bear in mind that this article is intended as entertainment and not documented fact although the dream I recount in the article did really happen and I'm not ashamed to admit that it scared the pants off me!