IT LIES beyond the Loch of the Beast, in the land of black fairies and

giants with the second-sight. It is hidden from view by a high moor, and

the road that meanders vaguely towards it has no number.

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Few people are aware of its existence, and those who have fallen under

its spell want to keep it that way. It is almost, but not quite, an

illusion.

For centuries, Mellon Udrigal has been the kind of place that dreams

and legends are made of. A hamlet of white-washed cottages by a golden

beach in the West Highlands, its remoteness has enabled it to regard the

passage of time with casual indifference.

Surrounded by the magnificent mountains and seascapes of Wester Ross,

it has been the jealously guarded secret of a few crofters and holiday

makers who prize its tranquillity.

Until its cover was blown recently on Radio 4's Any Questions, that

is. For one brief, unexpected moment, the name of Mellon Udrigal

reverberated throughout the land as the most beautiful place in the

British Isles. The authority who declared it so was Mr Andrew Marr,

associate editor of the Independent, who has been visiting it regularly

for more than 20 years.

Mr Marr's enthusiasm for the place amused his fellow panelists and

intrigued millions of listeners. In the place with the funny name that

nobody had heard of, however, it caused a ripple of anxiety.

To understand why, it is necessary to drive for about three miles

along a single track road with passing places on a promontory between

Loch Ewe and Little Loch Broom. As the road climbs through bleak

moorland, it passes a dark stretch of water with a fearsome reputation.

The Loch na Beiste, as its Gaelic name suggests, was the lair of a

creature which terrorised the local population in the early 19th century

-- until it had the temerity to appear before Mr Sandy MacLeod, an elder

of the Free Church of Scotland. The wrath of the kirk being roused, the

loch was partially drained and 14 sacks of lime were poured into a deep

hole found in the middle of it. The kelpie, or water-horse, was never

seen again.

A little further on, where the road breasts a slight rise, Mellon

Udrigal appears unannounced as a scattering of cottages and caravans,

and a red telephone box, in a valley bounded by low hills and the sea.

Its name is less lyrical than it sounds -- a hybrid of Gaelic and Old

Norse, it means the Little Hill of the Outer Ravine. But enveloped in

rain and mist, it has a mystical, detached air evoking a history of odd

happenings. It was here in 1822 that the bay, from the Summer Isles to

the mouth of Little Loch Broom, was suddenly filled with warships. As

the villagers watched in trepidation, boats filled with soldiers in

scarlet uniforms headed towards the shore. Mrs Morrison, who then lived

at Mellon Udrigal House, buried boxes of valuables in the sand, and

girls fled into the hills as the redcoats reached the beach. But they

never came to the houses, because they were an illusion.

Mr John H. Dixon, FSA Scot., who recorded the mass hallucination four

years later in his book Gairloch, concluded: ''The evidence is very

strong that the soldiers really were seen as stated.''

The community is no longer troubled by ghosts, but it has been

disturbed by the spectre of being inundated by Radio 4 listeners. Local

crofter Ian MacIver expresses a widely held view when he says: ''Life is

rather quiet here, and we would like to keep it like that.

Life is changing, albeit slowly, for the 17 permanent residents and a

fluctuating population of caravan dwellers who descend on the village

every summer. There is still no hotel, no guest house, no pub, and no

shop; but there are only three working crofts left, and ''incomers'' are

beginning to outnumber the descendants of the original Gaelic-speaking

community.

There seems to be no conflict, however. Mr MacIver, who owns the

caravan site, says: ''Most of the campers have been coming here for at

least 20 years. They are well behaved people who are sympathetic to the

place, and it's only natural that some of them want to retire here. We

all get on very well, and they've always been very helpful in the

lambing season.''

When the rain passes and the mist clears, it is easy to understand why

the residents of Mellon Udrigal cherish their solitude. Sunshine

transforms their surroundings into a magical vista of distant mountains

shimmering above a bay dotted with islands. In the course of a single

day, the mood of the landscape changes repeatedly and dramatically with

the weather; the effect is of being inside a giant kaleidoscope.

In their caravan by the shore, Len and Helen Tait have a large framed

photograph of the sun rising over the mountains of Coigach. The sea

beneath is like liquid gold.

''That is the main reason we come here year after year,'' Mr Tait

says. ''Look out that window and you'll see natural beauty that hasn't

changed for thousands of years. If this place was ever developed, its

charm would be ruined. It's selfish of us, of course, but we'd like to

keep it to ourselves.''

The retired teachers from Greenock are quite happy to share their

rural idyll with Mr MacIver's sheep, of course, and with the schools of

dolphin and the occasional whales that cruise around the bay.

They also take a keen interest in aspects of crofting life. Thus we

learn that Miss Ellie, an ancient ewe supposed to be too old for

lambing, recently delivered twins after catching the eye of a ram on a

neighbouring croft.

In the old schoolhouse there is another framed photograph, of angry

seas surging against dark rocks in a winter storm. It was taken by

Cleveland Patterson, a retired university professor from Montreal, who

bought the virtually derelict building as a vacation home 11 years ago.

The dramatic scenery is the main attraction for Mr Patterson and his

wife Margaret, who intend spending four or five months here every year.

''The other thing is the whole pace of life is so relaxed,'' he says.

''The people are courteous and honest. It's a wonderful antidote to the

pressures of life in the city.'' Mrs Patterson, having been born and

brought up in Ireland, felt instantly at home in Mellon Udrigal. ''I

looked at the view and it was so beautiful I just cried,'' she says.

In keeping with the enchanting nature of the place, there is a a ghost

train which occasionally chugs through a kind of fairy glen about a mile

from the village. More than 30 years after it was scrapped, the LNER

Pacific A2/3 engine Dante is running again, trailing hot cinders in a

rush of fire and steam reminiscent of the days when it pulled the Heart

of Midlothian express. The large scale model represents decades of work

by Derek ''Dixie'' Dean, a former BOAC engineer from Hampshire, who

retired to a cottage near Mellon Udrigal with his wife Jane 20 years

ago. The engine in its green livery is a work of art which any museum

would be proud of, and the 400-yard raised track running around a garden

planted with 1500 trees is a remarkable feat of engineering. A principal

feature is a 95ft tunnel blasted through solid rock. Mrs Dean says her

husband built the tunnel in three months, and it took her several years

to clear up the mess.

''We love the peace and quiet, and of course the views are

wonderful,'' says Mr Dean. ''But I can't sit still, I'm afraid. I've

always got to be doing something.''

What he does, with consummate precision and skill, is make beautiful

models of trains and boats and planes. His workshop is a kind of Santa's

grotto of Clyde puffers, gliders, and tank locomotives, each constructed

with meticulous attention to detail. The propellor of a USAF Auster

spotter plane adorns one of the roof beams, and an old flying helmet and

goggles decorating a football evoke the days when Mr Dean used to fly

Hornet Moths for fun.

The only thing he misses in the wilds of Wester Ross is classical

concerts -- he used to play the oboe in an operatic society. In a big

house on the hill overlooking the beach, Mr MacIver's mother Alice and

her sister Jessie contemplate the changing character of Mellon Udrigal

with mixed feelings. In the soft, lilting accent of the native Gaelic

speaker, Alice says: ''The English who live here are very nice people.

They are very good at helping us on the croft, but life is quite

different here now.''

''In the old days,'' Jessie says, ''we had corn and barley, and

potatoes, and turnips, and lovely hay, and we had our own milk and eggs.

Now you can't put anything in the ground for the rabbits. They even eat

the flowers in the garden.''

The ladies are happy to show photographs of their father's thatched

croft house, which is now in ruins on the hillside, and share memories

of the days when they each took peat for the fire in the school. ''The

postman used to come on a bicycle,'' Alice recalls. ''Now we've got an

Englishman that comes in a car.''

''Life is a lot easier now, but it's different,'' Jessie says.

''People used to visit each other a lot more in the old days. But it's

the same all over the Highlands, with the young people going away. The

incomers are very nice, but it's not the same any more.''

Odd things still happen in this erstwhile kingdom of mythical

creatures. One of the strangest and most sinister occurences took place

in the autumn of 1941, when a group of men rowed to an island in the bay

with a canister of brown, soup-like liquid. This they placed on the

ground next to an explosive charge, and then they withdrew.

When the container blew up, Gruinard Island was contaminated by deadly

bacillus anthracis, otherwise known as concentrated anthrax.

The Ministry of Defence claimed to have cleared the island of spores

from its chemical warfare experiment in 1990, but it is still

uninhabited. Periodic hill-burning on Gruinard does, however, provide

local wags with an opportunity to persuade gullible tourists that they

are witnessing a rare volcanic eruption.

The latest tremor, from the Radio 4 broadcast, appears to be

subsiding. No hordes have been spotted swarming over the hills around

the Loch of the Beast, and Mellon Udrigle is gradually regaining its

composure -- and its air of mystery.

One minute it is sparkling in the sunshine, a vision of wild beauty;

the next it is lost in a swirling sea-mist. The departing visitor

looking back at the opaque gloom wonders if Mellon Udrigal, like the

redcoat soldiers, was just an illusion after all.