A woman is fighting for life after being gored through the throat by a rogue stag.
Kate Stone, 30, was standing outside a guesthouse in the Scottish Highlands when the beast charged at her in the dark.
Its antlers punctured her neck and her spinal column and she was left on the ground bleeding heavily in front of horrified friends.
They raised the alarm and an ambulance made the 15-mile journey from the nearest base to the scene at Lochailort, near Fort William, Inverness-shire.
It took her to Belford Hospital in Fort William but Kate was then flown by air ambulance to the Southern General hospital in Glasgow for specialist care.
There are fears that Kate, who has a PhD in Physics from Cambridge, may be paralysed if she survives.
The incident happened in the early hours of Monday morning outside the Mo Dhachaidh guest house where Falklands veteran Gary Burton and his wife Kasia, 35, were hosting Kate and her multi-national group of friends.
The group had just returned from a ceilidh at the nearby Lochailort Inn and Kate was laughing and chatting outside with pals when the stag attacked.
After puncturing Kate’s body, the brute shook its head to free itself before galloping into the nearby trees.
Gary, 51, said one of Kate’s pals, Rozelle Kane, from Glasgow, was key to keeping her friend alive.
He said: “The first my wife and I knew about the attack was in the early hours when the four guests returned here.
“They were very shocked but they managed to hold it together.
“They were a mixture of Americans, English, Dutch, South African and one Scot, in their late 20s to early 30s.
“Rozelle, who now lives and works in Oxford, seemed a particular friend of Kate.
“Rozelle seems to have a medical background and I am told, was a particular help in treating Kate
“I understand Kate is critical in the hospital intensive care unit.
“She was telling me she enjoyed the outdoors in the hills and camping on her own in remote places so any form of paralysis to such an active person will be a disaster.
“The incident is absolutely shocking and so unexpected.
“There are plenty of deer round here but you never hear of a stag attacking anyone.
“The force of the attack must have been ferocious. I went to the scene and found Kate’s mobile phone smashed into tiny bits.”
Kate, from Cambridgeshire, is a transgender woman who announced her sex change in 2007.
Kate did a degree in electronics at the University of Salford before completing a PhD in physics and micro-electronics at the University of Cambridge.
She is now a research engineer in the Institute of Manufacturing at the university and has set up her own company, Novalia.
She had taken some time off for a three day trip in the hills from her managing director job at Novalia – a business that converts printed media into digital content.
Kate changed sex to become a woman in 2007 and features on the university’s equality and diversity website.
Speaking about her transition, she said: “It’s been an absolute whirlwind since it happened, so it almost feels too far back in the past to remember.”
Talking about life before, she added: “I went travelling to sort of find myself.
“I just didn’t know who I was and that’s what I’ve learnt in life – you just have to be whatever you feel you are, and then you will do well.
“If you remove the hang ups that hold you back you will do things to the best of your ability.”
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde confirmed Kate Stone was airlifted to Southern General Hospital in Glasgow.
A spokeswoman said she was in a “serious but stable” condition.
A neighbour of Jim’s, who did not wish to be named, claimed the stags in the area were “threatening” and may have chosen to attack 6ft Kate because she was tall and stood out from the crowd.
She said: “I am very wary of the stags round here. I do not walk to my house, particularly at night.
“They do not always run away. They stand there facing up to you, pawing the ground in a threatening manner.
“The rutting season is over so now they have harems of hinds to jealously guard against other stags.
“Perhaps this woman was targeted because she was the tallest of the group and perceived by the stag as their leader and the most threatening to it.”
But Peter Fraser, a retired gamekeeper from Crathie, Aberdeenshire, who has worked with deer for more than 40 years, claimed the attack was incredibly unusual.
He said: “For a stag to come out of the darkness like this and go for someone is highly unusual, a chance in a million.
“It is very, very strange behaviour for a stag in the wild.”
The stag attack happened outside the home of Highland musician and guitar tutor Jim Hunter, 50, while Kate was laughing and chatting with him and four pals.
Mr. Hunter said the incident was a “completely freakish accident” after the beast was spooked by group returning home in the darkness.
He said: “Our property is secured with fences that keep deer out, but it seems the gate had been left open very slightly and this deer has come in.
“We were on our way back from the pub, it was pitch black and we were using torches to navigate our way back.
“The deer was obviously scared by our presence, ran out through the gate and unfortunately ran into Kate.
“We immediately ran into the house called the paramedics and they arrived in 20 minutes, which is incredible considering the distance they had to come.
“I have no idea how she is, once she was taken to hospital I never heard anything more, I didn’t know her or her friends.
“It was a completely freakish accident, I’ve never seen the like of it before.
“It just happened to be Kate. There was about seven of us in total, so it could have been any one of us.
“There wasn’t as much blood as you would think, just puncture wounds, but apparently one of them was very bad.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Ambulance Service yesterday said Kate is likely to have suffered serious injuries.
He said: “The woman involved – who we think was in her thirties – suffered a neck, chest and an arm injury.
“I do not know the severity of her injuries, but they will be serious if they could not be treated at the local hospital.”