CLOSING time at a busy Leith pub, just another spit and sawdust kind of place, it wasn’t unusual for there to be the odd scuffle as bleary locals made their way home.
Marjory Wilson had had a drink or two. It’s true, she admitted later, that her senses were certainly slightly dulled by an evening enjoying hospitality at the Merrymaker pub in Commercial Street.
Even so as she staggered from the ladies’ loo, a bit befuddled by booze, the last thing she expected was to find herself under attack from, of all things, a snarling and very angry puma.
As the beast struck, it sliced at the startled woman with its razor sharp claws, tearing through her flesh and leaving her so badly injured that she ended up spending five days in hospital.
Within seconds, Robert Farrell, a 30-year-old barman who had been out for the night in the pub with a woman friend, also found himself knocked to the floor.
Dazed, confused and missing his glasses, he attempted to figure out what had happened: had he been attacked by a crazed dog? Or had the puma got him too?
As it turned out, both had, indeed, become possibly Scotland’s only victims of a mountain lion attack, pounced on as they went about their business at the end of a night out.
The bizarre story – which has an “urban myth” air of being too odd to possibly be true – surfaced in a book compiled by Leith-based writer and photographer duo Daniel Gray and Alan McCredie.
In it, the pair recall hearing the unusual tale of a Seventies Leith pub – far more gritty than any of the sophisticated bars or restaurants which today line the Shore – which kept a fully grown puma in a cage alongside the drinks gantry.
Leith “legend” had it that on one fateful night, the beast escaped. And unfortunately for Marjory and Robert, it was not in a playful mood.
At first, Daniel agrees, he reckoned the story seemed too far-fetched to be true. But as more and more people confirmed that a puma attack had happened, the pair decided to research it for their book, This is Scotland, a series of essays and photographs focused on small, often industrial parts of the country.
“The first time I heard of this was through a friend who was a police detective in the Seventies and Eighties,” explains Daniel.
“He’s obviously not the kind of person to make up stories, so I reckoned that gave it credibility. But it’s such an odd story – ‘woman attacked by puma at Leith pub’ – it’s really hard to believe.”
Daniel found some locals who recalled something of that nature happening at Fairley’s – in fact, the Merrymaker later became Fairley’s. Today it is home to Commercial Street Italian restaurant Giuliano’s.
Eventually Daniel spotted that the incident had been mentioned by Glasgow University law lecturer Professor Lindsay Farmer, who referred to it in his blog Oblique Intention, which explores unusual elements of criminal law.
“I found it incredible,” adds Daniel. “But it was all true. It really happened.”
Professor Farmer agrees that the incident caught his eye because of its odd nature.
“You do wonder what they were thinking of at the time,” he says. “But it did happen. Zoos and such like would also have been reasonably tightly regulated as would there be restrictions on animal trade, so the first question is where on earth did this puma come from?”
It’s possible the puma arrived in Leith courtesy of a sailor on board one of the many vessels, he suggests. However, there was at least some trade in the creatures in Edinburgh in the Seventies.
According to the Evening News of December 4, 1974 – just eight months before the Leith attack – Ian Black, of Viewforth, was offering an unusual Christmas gift for sale, a 13-week-old puma.
The “home bred and hand reared” animal named Cheek was for sale for just £150, with the warning that it was too boisterous and strong for an ordinary home.
Instead, the young cougar was being kept in a cage at a used car firm in Lady Lawson Street, where it dined twice a day on raw meat and fish.
It could, of course, have been a completely different puma that ended up locked in a cage at the Merrymaker bar. The bars along the Shore and around Commercial Street at that time were far from the sleek, stylish and sophisticated establishments that today see clients flock in search of award-winning cuisine or fancy cocktails. Instead it was an area known for tough sailors, go-go dancers and hard drinkers.
And perhaps the idea was that a puma in a cage and the threat that it might well be let out occasionally, might just help keep them under control. Whatever the reasons, the late night attack left bar bosses being charged with recklessly disregarding public safety by allowing the puma to go at large without restraint or control, leading to the injury of two customers.
Marjory, 31 at the time and living in Kirkhill Terrace, Broxburn, told the Sheriff Court trial that she knew the pub had a puma but that it was normally caged.
“I came out of the toilet and I saw this puma,” she said, according to an Evening News report at the time. “It was just standing there. I went to walk out and it jumped at me. The next thing I remember I was lying on the seat.”
John McDonald, an SSPCA inspector, gave evidence confirming he had visited the pub a few weeks earlier and recommended that the cage be strengthened. After the attack, he returned to the pub with a vet and a policeman.
When the puma was released from its cage, the officer, perhaps understandably, “cleared out”. He added: “The puma padded about the bar and was quite playful.”
The publican was found guilty and fined £150.
The puma, meanwhile, was handed over to a circus following the incident.
This is Scotland by Daniel Gray and Alan McCredie is published by Luath Press, priced £9.99.