One would surely imagine that a mystery cat ceases to be a mystery once at least one specimen is finally obtained and submitted to science for detailed examination. Remarkably, however, at the time of publication of my very first book on such felids, Mystery Cats of the World, way back in 1989, this was not the case with the Kellas cat from northern Scotland, U.K. Four years after its official discovery – and despite being represented by a series of preserved specimens – this enigmatic, then-controversial felid form was still awaiting a conclusive scientific identification.
Happily, however, not long after my book's publication, that identification was duly made, but was found not to be one of any taxonomic significance, i.e. the Kellas cat was shown to be neither a new species in its own right nor even a new subspecies of an already-known species, as now briefly recalled. I have already dealt with this subject very comprehensively in my 1990s paper reviewing this felid form's history and presenting my own bibliographical researches regarding it that was published by the International Society of Cryptozoology's peer-reviewed scientific journal Cryptozoology, which should be consulted for further details.
The history of the Kellas cat began publicly on 19 September 1984, when a local Moray newspaper, the Forres Gazette, devoted its entire front page to a detailed world-exclusive report written by its editor, David Morgan. Its subject was the hitherto little-publicised capture within the Scottish Highlands three months earlier of a large and most striking cat – which did not readily recall any felid then known to science.
"Mystery 'Big Cat' Could Shake World!" read the eyecatching headlines. "Does West Moray shelter a species unknown to man...?"1 The photograph immediately beneath these imposing lines was no less startling either, and certainly lent them its full support – for it depicted a quite extraordinary cat. Its pelage was dark and bristly, predominantly black in colour but flecked all over with very long, gleaming white primary guard hairs. Its broad head tapered to a narrow muzzle, with jaws that contained spectacularly prominent upper and lower canines (the upper pair actually projecting from the mouth even when the jaws were closed). A second photograph showed the specimen laid down upon its right flank beside a measuring ruler, whose scale revealed that in total length the cat was approximately 3.5 ft. This photograph also depicted the noticeable gracility of the cat – possessing a slender body and seemingly lengthy limbs.
An adult male, it had been trapped in a fox snare in June 1984 within the grounds of Revack Lodge. The lodge's gamekeeper, Ronald Douglas, had subsequently discovered the dead body and brought it back to the lodge, whereupon, as a result of its very noteworthy appearance, Highland Wildlife Park director Edward R.J. Orbell and local veterinary surgeon John Robertson were invited to view it, and some photographs were snapped by Orbell.
News of this singular find rapidly travelled throughout Great Britain; and recognising its potential scientific worth, Douglas sent the specimen to a local taxidermist in Kirkmichael, Perthshire, for mounted preparation. At this point, however, it seemingly vanished, because for many years afterwards its whereabouts were a mystery, but its skin (minus the tail) was eventually rediscovered, as noted in 2008 by British palaeontologist and cryptozoological writer Dr Darren Naish in a Tetrapod Zoology blog article.
Meanwhile, on 3 October 1984 the headlines of the Forres Gazette were once again dominated by news and accompanying photographs of a large, black, ferocious-looking cat. As I discovered when I examined this specimen myself, it was clearly of the same felid type as the Revack cat – a second adult male complete with sparkling white guard hairs (plus two small white spots – one on the middle of its chest, the other inguinal), sizeable canines, and gracile build. Its head-and-body length was 26 in, with a further 12 in constituting its tail length.
Apparently it had been one of a pair of such cats observed in January 1983 by local laird Tomas Christie, near to the River Lossie in the vicinity of the tiny village of Kellas in West Moray. He shot one, the other escaped unharmed. Christie had seen and shot other individuals of this cat form in the past, and decided to have this latest example preserved as a permanent exhibit. Thus it was mounted for display purposes by a local taxidermist, placing it upon a robust pine branch in a somewhat menacing, snarling pose. Having read the Forres Gazette account of the Revack cat, Christie realised that his own specimen was evidently of a similar type, so he contacted editor David Morgan to inform him of its existence.
Within a fortnight of this second specimen's media debut, the Revack cat had somehow vanished. Suddenly, Christie's exhibit was the sole preserved representative of this newly-discovered felid form known to be in existence. Needless to say, therefore, it received considerable publicity – so much so, in fact, that the entire cat form that it represented began to be referred to as the Kellas cat, after this Kellas-derived example. Moreover, this name was both descriptive (alluding to a locality within this cat form's known distribution range) and specific (no other type of cat was referred to by this name).
Consequently, when I instigated my own independent researches relating to this felid, culminating in my production of my afore-mentioned scientific paper, the first one to document it and discuss zoologically its most likely zoological identity, I formally adopted the name 'Kellas cat' for this new felid form within the latter work – a name that has since been widely used and acknowledged as its official English name.
When the Revack specimen first attracted public attention, it was assumed by some to be an immature individual of the black pantheresque mystery cat reported from Exmoor, Scotland, and elsewhere in Great Britain. However, it soon became clear that it represented a completely separate, smaller felid type. Consequently, Christie's mounted specimen was examined at London's Natural History Museum, with the scientific world and the general public alike awaiting the outcome with interest.
Although a most significant animal, this Kellas-derived example was not ideally suited for the precise and painstaking purposes of taxonomy. For example, certain cranial bones were missing, including the nasals – crucial in cat classification. In addition, by being a mounted taxiderm specimen, its internal structure could not be readily studied. Fortunately, however, the museum was able to counter this latter problem to a certain extent, by employing x-ray analysis in order to obtain an indirect view of those components of its skeleton preserved within its mounted form.
In the late spring of 1985, a short report was issued by Daphne Hills, at that time the NHM's expert on small mammals, in which her opinion concerning Christie's Kellas cat was summarised (and I duly received copies of this report from several different people). It stated that although the possibility of the specimen being either a domestic cat x Scottish wildcat hybrid or a feral domestic cat could not be totally ruled out, available evidence suggested that it was most probably a melanistic Scottish wildcat – and as such the first one documented. This identity had also been put forward independently by certain other zoologists, including Dr Frank Turk.
Since then, however, several additional dead and even some living specimens have been procured (some of which sported cryptic pelage striping and/or brown vibrissae and eyebrows), with Kellas cat material having been subsequently examined both at the NHM and at what is now the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Moreover, as they were all unmounted specimens, their internal components could be examined directly, rather than only indirectly (as with the Christie taxiderm exhibit). In every case, the specimen in question was concluded to be a domestic cat x Scottish wildcat hybrid, with all but one of these specimens closer in form to its wildcat progenitor than to its domestic cat progenitor (in the case of the one exception, the reverse situation was apparent).
Consequently, as its status is only that of a crossbreed, the Kellas cat is nowadays looked upon merely as a feline curiosity rather than as a cat form of any precise taxonomic worth. Nevertheless, and as I predicted in my earlier-mentioned Cryptozoology paper, it would appear to be more than just a simple, first-generation hybrid, inasmuch as the Kellas cat's distinctive morphology is thought to be the outcome of several generations of interbreeding and backcrossing, i.e. introgressive hybridisation. This process can yield progeny that are very different morphologically not only from their hybrid parents but also from their two original pure-bred progenitor species.
Speaking of distinctive morphology: in 1988 an even more than normally distinctive Kellas-like cat was shot by a local gamekeeper in the Dufftown area of Speyside. Distinguishing this adult male example from previously publicised Kellas cat specimens was not only its alleged lack of white primary guard hairs and chest patch but also, in particular, its oddly-shaped head, reminiscent of a rabbit's, together with large ears, Roman-type nose, and notably small braincase. A second 'rabbit-headed cat' was shot in December 1993 by gamekeeper Jimmy McVeigh after his dogs had flushed it out of a pond in a locality near East Kilbride where it had been swimming in pursuit of some wildfowl. This cat was an adult female but displayed much the same head shape and Roman nose as the Dufftown cat. Moreover, it has been suggested that the Revack specimen of Kellas cat from 1984 may have been yet another rabbit-headed cat; but unlike claims to the contrary for the Dufftown individual, the Revack cat's pelage definitely sported long white primary guard hairs.
According to an online article on Kellas cats by veterinary surgeon Aron Bowers (click here to access it), the East Kilbride rabbit-headed cat's skull was later examined in Edinburgh at what was then still the Royal Museum of Scotland by felid expert Dr Andrew Kitchener, who had previously examined Kellas cat material there. In his article, Bowers stated: "Kitchener's findings suggested the rabbit-headed cat skull exhibited no real anatomical differences between it and specimens of Scottish wildcats, and domestic cats and their hybrids". In her own online account of Kellas cats, cat author Sarah Hartwell briefly commented that the Dufftown rabbit-headed cat: "...had a distinctly Siamese/Oriental profile indicating the domestic breed that had been involved with the hybridisation".
During one of the numerous always interesting and informative telephone conversations that I enjoyed for many years with internationally-renowned felid geneticist Roy Robinson, he mentioned to me that after scrutinizing photographs and written descriptions of the Dufftown cat, his considered opinion as to its identity was that it was most probably merely a freak, teratological specimen of either a large black feral domestic cat or a Kellas cat. The second of those two options put forward by Roy is also my own personal opinion with regard to the likely identity of the rabbit-headed cats.
Although it became known to science only quite recently, in reality the Kellas cat may not be of only quite recent origin, at least not if we take note of two very intriguing items of information drawn from certain archaeological and folkloric sources (in addition, of course, to generations of local sightings of such animals). Firstly: as I originally learnt back in the 1980s from the late Prof. A. Charles Thomas (who was then Director of the University of Exeter's Institute for Cornish Studies and a leading archaeologist specialising in prehistoric and protohistoric Britain), evidence from early place-names in northern Scotland indicates that one of the native animals incorporated into this region's tribal nomenclature of early Roman/post-Roman times may have been a fairly large black form of cat.
Secondly: while researching Scottish mythology in relation to the Kellas cat during the mid-1980s, I discovered from the writings of Katherine Briggs and others that Highland folklore includes a legendary cat form called the cait sith or fairy cat – a sizeable creature sporting a black bristly pelage, white throat patch, and sparks or stars over its fur, according to traditional local accounts. If these 'sparks' or 'stars' refer to gleaming white primary guard hairs (and one could hardly ask for a more apposite layman's description of them), then the cait sith bears an almost exact resemblance to the Kellas cat. Consequently, if the latter felid form is only of quite recent origin, it is truly a most remarkable coincidence that the only region of Great Britain from which specimens or sightings of Kellas cats have emerged is also the very same and only region of Great Britain that contains in its traditional folklore a creature bearing an uncanny similarity to the Kellas cat.
No less surprising, however, is the existence of a felid that at least on first sight seems to be an eastern European counterpart to the Kellas cat. Yet just such an animal was scientifically documented as long ago as 1904, as now revealed.
During the early 1980s, I was surprised to uncover a scientific paper published in 1904 by the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London concerning a black cat that appeared very reminiscent of Scotland's then-unexplained feline enigma the Kellas cat, but which inhabited Transcaucasia. Also known as the South Caucasus, this is a geographical region near the southern Caucasus Mountains on the border of eastern Europe and western Asia, roughly corresponding to the area occupied by modern-day Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
Within this paper, the cat had been formally described and named – Felis daemon – by the eminent Russian zoologist Prof. Konstantin A. Satunin, basing his description upon two mounted specimens, three skins, and three skulls, all housed in what is now the Russian Academy of Sciences (headquarters in Moscow, archive and library in St Petersburg). Other scientists, however, did not share his view that this felid form warranted separate taxonomic status.
In 1917, fellow Russian zoologist Dr Nestor Smirnov referred to it as F. silvestris caucasicus aber. daemon (i.e. treating it as a morph or aberrant form of the Caucasian wildcat). Conversely, another Russian zoologist, Dr Sergey Ognev, relegated it even further – to the level of a mere feral domestic cat (even though he did concede that a melanistic morph may exist within the Caucasian wildcat population).
Moreover, in 1951, within his major taxonomic review of Small Cats, Catalogue of the Genus Felis, British felid taxonomist Reginald I. Pocock also classed F. daemon as a feral domestic cat, and it has remained thus ever since. Yet is this a truly accurate assessment of its status? And how (if at all) is F. daemon related to the Kellas cat?
Feral domestic cat or not, the Transcaucasian daemon cat certainly displays some marked morphological similarities to Scotland's Kellas cat, as the following description of this contentious mainland European felid demonstrates.
Based upon the museum specimens examined by Satunin, its length from nose to tail base ranged from 22.5 to 30 in; its tail length from 13.5 to 15 in. Fur colour varied from black with a slight reddish tinge to reddish-brown, slightly paler on underparts, inner surface of extremities, and distal under-surface of tail.
Viewed at certain angles, black transverse stripes were visible upon the flanks of the body's foreparts, more conspicuous on faded skins. Very long white hairs were scattered scantily all over the body. Vibrissae and eyebrows were brown, claws white. With regard to cranial features, Satunin noted that F. daemon differed from the wildcat both in the possession of a somewhat narrower frontal region and in the extension of the upper jaw bones further back than the nasal bones (which is the reverse condition to that exhibited by the wildcat).
Clearly, the dark pelage flecked with long white hairs exhibited by Transcaucasia's daemon cat compares with that of the Kellas cat, and especially with certain specimens of the latter felid form that share its cryptic striping and even its brown eyebrows and vibrissae. But how closely do their relative body proportions compare?
With the exception of one extra-large skin (but which may well have been stretched during preparation), F. daemon specimens examined by Satunin do compare favourably in head-and-body length with the Scottish wildcat and Kellas cat specimens measured in detail. Conversely, the tail lengths recorded from the F. daemon specimens are rather longer than those documented for Scottish wildcat and Kellas cat.
Worth mentioning here is that an increased tail length is one condition proposed by wildcat expert Mike Tomkies and others as evidence for wildcat x domestic cat hybridisation within the Scottish Highlands.
Possibly the Transcaucasian daemon cat is a simple (i.e. first generation) melanistic hybrid, as opposed to an introgressive hybrid resulting like the Kellas cat has apparently done from several generations of interbreeding and backcrossing. It would be interesting to see what genetic analyses conducted upon DNA samples extracted from the preserved F. daemon skins would uncover.
Also of potential relevance here is Felis obscura – aptly-named inasmuch as this mysterious South African cat form has long since faded into zoological obscurity. Indeed, even its name was ultimately given by palaeontologist Dr Q.B. Hendey to an entirely different felid, a fossil species from South Africa's Miocene and Pliocene epochs (Annals of the South African Museum, January 1974).
However, the original F. obscura, as formally dubbed by French zoologist Anselm G. Desmarest in his renowned tome Mammalogie ou Description des Espèces des Mammifères (1820), was a living felid, almost uniformly black or exceedingly dark brown, with faint striping on its limbs, tail, flanks, and cheeks.
The only image of F. obscura that I am currently aware of is the following depiction, consisting of a colour plate from 1834:
This dusky felid was first brought to popular attention by eminent French zoologist Baron Georges Cuvier. He briefly documented it in Vol. 8 of Dictionnaire des Sciences Naturelles (1817), and referred to it as 'Chat noir du Cap' ('black cat of the Cape').
Nowadays, this F. obscura (as opposed to the wholly different fossil one) is synonymised with the African wildcat F. lybica. Consequently, if any museum specimens of it exist, they presumably constitute melanistic African wildcats.
And so, with the cat-egorisation (sorry!) of Felis obscura ostensibly resolved, it's time to bid a fond farewell to this dark-coated clowder of erstwhile mystery felids – duly disentangled and delineated.
I wish to dedicate this ShukerNature blog article to the late Corinna Downes, wife of CFZ founder Jonathan Downes, who was a longstanding cryptozoological colleague and friend. God speed, Corinna, requiescat in pace.
For more information on mystery cats of many kinds, be sure to check out my trilogy of books documenting these feline cryptids – Mystery Cats of the World, Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery, and Mystery Cats of the World Revisited.