Rural: An encounter between this world and the next

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The Independent Online
Go north of the Border at this time of year, and mysteries develop on every side. Consider the huge country house near Kelso in which I recently stayed a night. As we drove towards it, my companion, Mark, recounted an unsettling experience he'd had there on an earlier visit.

The house is so large that the family occupies only one wing; much of the rest is open to the public, but some areas are shut up and rarely visited. During his first stay Mark had been shown round by his host, who carried a large bunch of keys to open the doors between one corridor and the next, and those of individual rooms.

Outside one door he stopped and announced, "This is the Blue Room". Turning the key, he went in. The room contained no furniture and when Mark asked why, the answer was, "Oh - people don't like being in here, so we don't use it". With the doors of room and passage relocked, the party continued their tour, and nothing untoward occurred until they reached the ground floor. Then they heard a bell ringing. The sound led them to the old servants' pantry, where there was a line of indicator-panels high on the wall...

You've guessed: it was the bell in the Blue Room that had rung. Had they somehow shut a child or a dog in there? No: everyone was present and correct. Nevertheless, they went back to check - and, of course, the room was as they had found it, empty.

No explanation had been forthcoming; so when we arrived, in time for supper, I hoped that the room I had been allocated did not turn out to be blue. It was not, and I slept like a stone.

On, then, to the Highlands, and to a meeting with friends who come from that outstandingly beautiful deer forest, Loch Choire, in the interior of Sutherland. One would expect such a secluded place to harbour mysteries; and sure enough, a curious story is told about it by the veteran sporting artist, Raoul Millais.

Now in his mid-90s, Raoul first went to Loch Choire half a century ago. Yet still he describes with astonishing immediacy what happened to him there.

One gloomy, overcast afternoon he was out with a stalker, on the high ground towards the southern end of the forest, when they saw a lame stag limping down a steep face towards a patch of woodland on the shore of the water known as the Black Loch. As the animal was obviously injured, Raoul suggested that they try to dispatch it; but the stalker was reluctant to go anywhere near the wood, which he believed to be haunted.

They decided that Raoul would go down alone, and meet his companion later. The lame stag had disappeared into the wood; when Raoul reached its edge, he found it was almost impenetrable. Trees had fallen; undergrowth had sprung up through their lichen-encrusted branches; everything seemed to be dead or dying.

A stealthy advance into such a thicket was impossible, but Raoul was determined to catch up with the wounded beast, and crashed ahead. Then, reaching an open glade filled with dim, opaque light, he was startled to see stags rising up all round him - grey, emaciated beasts, clearly of great age.

At first he thought they were phantoms. Then he decided they were alive, but on their last legs: like elephants, they had congregated at a single point, to die. The only humane action seemed to be to finish off as many as possible, so he shot the three nearest to him. At the reports, the others drifted slowly away into the surrounding trees; when he went to inspect one of the bodies, he found it was nothing but skin and bone. Instead of weighing a couple of hundred pounds, it was so light that he could lift it with one hand.

The stalker was mightily relieved to see him return unscathed - and Raoul himself has remained, ever since, disconcerted by an experience which seemed to lie somewhere between this world and the next.