Scottish businessman Steven Clark had heard the legends of the giant mystery cats, but he never believed in them until he saw the green eyes of the Beast of Bennachie, peering through the undergrowth at him. As it glided away into the woods, it left a trail of paw-prints in the snow.

?It was a beautiful creature, sleek and completely black,? says Clark, who was driving near the Bennachie Center when he saw the animal. He was slowing down on the snowy road when he spotted the massive cat less than 50 yards ahead. ?As I approached the junction, another car was going along the Chapel of Garioch road. This big black cat appeared, with its head turned it seemed to watching that car.

?It just walked along the side of the road and round the corner opposite me. I could see every detail clearly. It seemed to glide along, lithe-like rather than walking, then just seemed to spring into the undergrowth without effort.? Fascinated, he got out of his van to look at 3 inch paw-prints it left behind. Using his tape measure, he measured 14 inches between each print, and 42 inches from the front to rear paw marks.

?It was about the size of an Alsatian [dog], but shorter and sleek with a lovely shiny coat and a small head. It had a very long tail, about 3 feet long and it only turned up at the end. My first thought was that it was a panther. As I looked around, I realized it was lying in a hollow of ground among the trees looking at me. It had bright green eyes. I was taken aback seeing it peering through the undergrowth at me, and I must admit I was quite frightened. It was close. I could feel it staring at me, and the hairs on my neck rising.?

The paw-prints are said to be inconclusive in proving whether the animal is a puma or panther, or a cross between a wild cat and domestic animal.

Mark Fraser from the Scottish Big Cats organization says Mystery Cats are not likely to attack unless they feel directly threatened. However, last month a woman was bitten in the leg wound by what she called a ?sleek black beastie.? Since then, says Fraser, several sightings of big black cats have come in from the area.

Clark?s experience was the latest in a series of big cat sightings around of Bennachie over the past six years. The half-dozen descriptions have all been of panther-like animals about 4feet long, and with long tails arched at the end. The Beast of Bennachie sightings started in 1995, with several sightings of big cats – both black and yellow in color – reported close to the area where Clark had his sighting.

Discoveries of dismembered sheep in the nearby woods added to the mystery, with one farming couple near Chapel of Garioch reporting a big black car prowling near their sheep in 1996.

Residents are asking the government to gather together all reports on big cat sightings, and establish the truth behind the rumors of the release of illegally-held animals into the countryside. Scottish Rural Development Minister Ross Finnie says no investigations into sightings have taken place in the last seven years, although he acknowledged that the big cats might be descended from animals that had been released into the wild.

Local government official Richard Lochhead says, ?Given the number of reports of big cats all over Scotland and over a period of years, I find it strange that the Government has made no effort to collate the figures. Grampian Police appear to be the only people who have made any moves to find out more. They at least have an inquiry team to deal with reports as well as having undertaken a study several years ago. I have contacted them to find out what they have to say on the issue.

?The Government seems wholly disinterested in an issue that has been going on for years, and which we are no closer to knowing the truth about.?

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