Sun streamed through the railway carriage window as the engine slowed to make its way over the Glenfinnan viaduct.

It was sometime in the mid-1980s, and just another morning for Paul Macdonald as he and his pal made their way by train to Lochaber High School.

“As the train approached what’s now called the ‘Harry Potter bridge’, the east side terrain comes up so it’s more level with the train,” he recalls.

“It was early morning, sunny, clear and light. The train was travelling relatively slowly, and there it was, slinking away, so close and so clear.

“It was unmistakably and undeniably a ‘big cat’.”


(Image: Archant)

Paul watched, speechless, staring out of the window until the train crawled on and the big cat became a distant speck.

It was his first sighting of a big cat on the prowl in Scotland – it would not be his last - and the trigger for a lifelong search for elusive pumas, black leopards and lynx which he believes lurk in the shadows in every region right across Scotland.

“We looked at each other,” he remembers. “I said to my friend ‘did you see that?’ and he said ‘yes, did you see that too?’.

More than 1,500 big cat sightings have been documented on a nationwide mapMore than 1,500 big cat sightings have been documented on a nationwide map (Image: Paul Macdonald - Big Cat Sightings)

“It wasn’t a deer or a dog. It was definitely a big cat. Like anyone who sees something like that in the wild, we couldn’t believe our eyes.”

These days Paul is at the helm of Scottish Big Cat Research Team, an amateur group who are absolutely certain that Scotland’s lush landscape and miles of wilderness are a perfect haven for wild big cats.

Thought to be mostly descendants of exotic pets released decades ago, the group believes they are not just roaming rural Scotland but encroaching on some of our most built-up urban areas.

Last week the notion that big cats are among us leapt forward after swabs taken from a sheep carcass found in the Lake District were confirmed to have traces of Panthera genus DNA - linked to panthers, leopards, tigers and lions.

News of a big cat in Cumbria does not surprise Paul: he’s aware of four other positive big cat DNA results retrieved from sites in England.

And he’s sure it’s only a matter of time before there’s proof here that big cats – including the very species at the centre of ‘rewilding’ and reintroduction debates, lynx – are alive and thriving across the land.

Paul Macdonald of Scottish Big Cat Sightings group Paul Macdonald of Scottish Big Cat Sightings group (Image: Paul Macdonald)

The group, which receives new sightings almost every day, recently released a map showing what it says are credible big cat sightings across Scotland since 1947.

The largest mapping database of its kind in the UK, it pinpoints more than 1,500 sightings spanning John O’Groats to Berwick upon Tweed, from Tobermory in the west to dozens of sightings across the north-east, down the east coast and right across the central belt.

A mass of tan, black, orange and grey dots, reflecting the colour of the animal, Paul believes it only represents between 1% to 5% of the true number of sightings over the decades.

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Most are never shared: often people convince themselves they’re mistaken or don’t want to risk being ridiculed.

While those who do flag up their suspicions, only sightings which Paul and his team are convinced are accurate, are recorded.

But the nationwide map is just one of several the group has put together.

One devoted to sightings of lynx – kept under wraps to protect them from being disturbed or hunted by landowners or gamekeepers – suggests the species is present across the country.

“That has surprised us,” adds Paul. “We expected there to be a few pockets across Scotland, instead they are everywhere.

Amateur researchers are collecting evidence of big cat sightings across the countryAmateur researchers are collecting evidence of big cat sightings across the country (Image: Paul Macdonald - Scottish Big Cat Sightings group)

“We are sure about these sightings because they are such weird looking creatures, with an unusual gait. They’re lanky looking with a bushy face, white beards, tufted ears and a short tail.

“When we have two or three of these unique features reported in a sighting, it’s only going to be a lynx.

“We’re confident that they are quite active. That puts a different perspective on the current debate: it’s not reintroduction of a species, it’s boosting the population that’s already here.”

A deep forest dweller and highly elusive, lynx sightings tend to be in rural areas with thick cover.

But some other big cats may be closer to home.

Paul recalls catching sight of a big cat roaming in the area around Troon in Ayrshire and an encounter up Arthur’s Seat in the heart of Edinburgh.

“I was with friends at the time,” he says of the Edinburgh incident. “This was something capable of growling – and not every big cat can growl.”

It is not as unlikely as it sounds: in 2012, a police helicopter scanning Arthur’s Seat during a search for a vulnerable woman picked up a large heat source at least three times the size of the woman police officer on the ground.

Details were not released at the time: it would be three years later before one officer present confirmed the crew was convinced they were looking at a puma.

Adds Paul: “There have been a few reports from Arthur’s Seat.

Scottish Big Cat Research members are appealing for news of big cat sightings Scottish Big Cat Research members are appealing for news of big cat sightings (Image: Paul Macdonald)

“And when you look at the sightings that are relatively urban, you often find they are close to green corridors that lead to fields like disused or even still active railway lines.”

It’s suspected big cats and other exotic species were set free by their owners following the Dangerous Wild Animals Act in 1976. Before then, shops like Harrods openly sold everything from baby elephants to Christian the lion, famously purchased by two Australian backpackers in 1969 and kept at their Kings Road flat.

In one astonishing 1970s incident, a pub in Leith was the scene of a puma attack, when the animal, kept in a cage by the publican, was released.

The attack, at the Merryman pub in Commercial Street, left a man and a woman injured and the distinction of being Scotland’s only recorded victims of a mountain lion attack.

It’s also thought US military bases in Scotland in the aftermath of the Second World War kept big cats as mascots which were released into the Highlands when they packed up and left.

There are also documented cases of big cats being trapped in Scotland: in 1927, farmers who had lost sheep and goats in Invernesshire reported seeing an animal like a leopard and found tracks in soft bog.

One set a steel trap on the mountainside, and next morning found “a large, fierce yellow animal of unknown species” which he promptly dispatched. It was later confirmed to be a lynx; one of at least three caught around the same time.

Decades later, in October 1980, farmer Ted Nobel of Cannich near Inverness, exasperated at the loss of several sheep and foals, set a trap using a sheep’s head as bait.


(Image: Contributed)

He returned to find a rather upset puma.

The female - nicknamed Felicity – was seized by police and taken to what’s now the Highland Wildlife Park near Aviemore.

How it came to be in the Highlands seemed solved when a prisoner in England claimed he had set free two 19-month old puma cubs, called Rooster and Jen, amid concerns they’d be put down while he was jail.

In a curious twist to an already mindboggling story, the farmer later appealed to keep the puma at his farm but was turned down.

Felicity lived out her years in captivity, died of old age, was stuffed and put on display at Inverness Museum.

Back at the Scottish Big Cat Research Team, Paul says the Cumbria DNA finding is another step towards sightings being taken seriously. He’s called for Scotland’s outdoor, nature and wildlife groups to work together to unravel what is out there including Kellas cats, the hybrid mix of Scottish wildcats and domestic felines which can grow to impressive size and have never been fully studied.

He’s also urged people who spot ‘big cats’ to contact the group through their Facebook page.

“There have been stories about livestock being taken by some kind of predator for decades,” he adds. “Sometimes we’re sure it’s a canine attack – dogs run wild among sheep and often they die of stress or shock.

“Large felines operate in a different way, they’re much more clinical.

“We’ve had cases when a deer or sheep carcass has been found up a tree – a pretty positive indicator that it’s a big cat.

“We have a perfect environment for them, there’s prey abundant and plenty of cover,” he adds.

“We’re sure there are numerous pairs active in pretty much every region of Scotland.”