This article was first printed in the December 1988 edition of the Scots magazine and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author, Donald J Wilson of Laggan. The header image is from geograph.org, courtesy of James Gibb.
Mention McCook’s Cottage in hill-walking company and everyone will know what you’re talking about and be keen to air their knowledge.
“That’s the haunted place near Ben Alder” – ” I spent a night there once, it was terrible” – “I’ve heard of that, there’s a ghost that makes noises and moves things about” – “You can’t get the door open because of a mysterious force inside” – “A gamekeeper hung himself there.” These are the typical responses to this conversational gambit, and while people may know what you’re talking about, their stock responses show that they certainly don’t know what THEY’RE talking about.
By implication, a legend is something enduring, passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. Where history or archeology can provide evidence,the basic truth of folk memory and legend has often been demonstrated, Not so, however, with McCook’s Cottage.
It tells of strange noises, of articles taking off and flying around, and the sound of heels tapping against a wall as the suspended corpse of McCook slowly rotates. Generations of climbers and hillwalkers making use of McCook’s old cottage by Loch Ericht have produced a crop of witnesses, testifying to strange happenings in the night.
This ‘legend’ is all fabrication, for Joseph McCook, formerly stalker in the Ben Alder estate, did not hang himself. He died peacefully, in his bed, in 1933 at Newtonmore.
Tired bodies (this howff is 15 miles from Dalwhinnie and nine miles from Rannoch Station) and overwrought imaginations could account for some of the reports. The questing scrapings of deer and fox during the night will account for the rest. Piles of empty beer cans and whisky bottles could well be relevant.
The sad thing is that this fake legend has obscured an act of heroism that did occur in this cottage.
In the winter of 1910, McCook became seriously ill with pneumonia. His young daughter walked the return journey of 18 miles to Rannoch Station, where she sent a telegram to the medical practice at Laggan, which still covers one of the largest areas of the country and at that time was even more extensive.
Dr Donald MacDonald set out for Ben Alder lodge at 7 a.m. From there, he walked the 12 miles on what became a nightmare journey to McCook’s Cottage. All the burns were in spate after a sudden thaw, necessitating a climb high up on the shoulder of Ben Alder. Large sheets of ice made footholds precarious
Eleven hours after he had set out, he arrived at the cottage, attended to his patient and then collapsed. He was subsequently awarded the Carnegie Gold Medal for Heroism. Donald MacDonald was one of those formidable characters, a Highland Doctor who before the days of antibiotics and reliable transport maintained a medical service over the toughest terrain and in the roughest climate in this country. He was later to die in a banal manner, while undergoing a dental anaesthetic. His name was commemorated in Laggan’s Dr MacDonald Village Hall, and continued in it’s successor built in 1985.
So how was the famous legend born? In the late 1930’s, the empty cottage had become the haunt of deer poachers. In an attempt to scare them off, Finlay MacIntosh, then head keeper at Ben Alder, and Ian MacPherson the novelist, invented and spread the story of the suicide and the haunting. A later embellishment was that a woman, cut off in the cottage by winter snows, killed and ate her baby. She was seen later with mad staring eyes, heading towards Rannoch.
Every effort to extinguish these legends has failed. Recently on TV Jimmie MacGregor, following the steps of Prince Charlie, pointed in the direction of Loch Ericht: “They say the cottage there is haunted” Thus do the stories take yet another new lease of life.
But will anyone believe me?