Researched, Compiled, Edited and Illustrated
By "The Cryptozoologist" (R. Merrill)
Ben Macdhui is the second highest peak in Scotland, a huge mountain with deep corries, situated in the Cairngorms: one of Scotland's finest mountain ranges, and a magnet for walkers, climbers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Ben Machdhui is also reputed to be haunted by 'something' that is popularly known as the The "Big Grey Man" (a literal translation of his Scottish Gaelic name "Am Fear Liath Mòr").
Strange experiences have been recorded on the mountain from at least the turn of the twentieth century. Various witness sightings and experiences have amalgamated into a popular image of a huge ape-like misty figure that has the malign power to send people into a blind panic. In an attempt—as some writers have speculated—to push them over the steep cliffs of Lurcher's crag.
Witness Experiences on Ben MacDhui
Professor J. Norman Collie was a highly respected scientist and mountaineer. In 1896 he was appointed Professor of Organic Chemistry at University College London and amongst his other achievements he was responsible for the first ever medical X-ray photograph. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society. In the climbing world he pioneered many climbs on the Isle of Skye and in the Alps, and, in 1895, he was part of the first ever attempt on a 26,247 ft (8000m) peak in the Himalayas, Nanga Parbat. He later went on to make 21 first ascents in the Canadian Rockies. He is remembered in the names of Mount Collie in Canada and Sgurr Thormaid ("Norman's Peak") on Skye.
So when, in late 1925, the still eminent and active Professor Collie stood up to give a speech to the 27th Annual General Meeting of the Cairngorm Club in Aberdeen, he was a man whose words carried a great deal of weight with his audience. Which added all the more to the impact of part of what he had to say, about an experience he had while alone on the summit of Ben MacDhui in the Cairngorms, 34 years earlier in 1891:
"I was returning from the cairn on the summit in a mist when I began to think I heard something else than merely the noise of my own footsteps. For every few steps I took I heard a crunch, and then another crunch as if someone was walking after me but taking steps three or four times the length of my own. I said to myself, "This is all nonsense". I listened and heard it again, but could see nothing in the mist. As I walked on and the eerie crunch, crunch, sounded behind me, I was seized with terror and took to my heels, staggering blindly among the boulders for four or five miles nearly down to Rothiemurchus Forest. Whatever you make of it, I do not know, but there is something very queer about the top of Ben MacDhui and I will not go back there again by myself I know."
Professor Collie's comments caused a sensation and attracted a great deal of press coverage. Suddenly other respectable and responsible climbers and hillwalkers started to acknowledge that they, too, had similar experiences on Ben MacDhui but had not broadcast them before for fear of ridicule.
Alastair Borthwick's superb 1939 book about climbing in Scotland, Always a Little Further relates the accounts of two climbers he knew who had experienced what by then was becoming known as Am Fear Liath Mòr, Ferlas Mor, or the Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui, because of its appearance when briefly glimpsed by a few of those who encountered it.
The first was alone, heading over MacDhui for Corrour on a night when the snow had a hard, crisp crust through which his boots broke at every step. He reached the summit and it was while he was descending the slopes which fall towards the Larig that he heard footsteps behind him, footsteps not in the rhythm of his own, but occurring only once for every three steps he took.
"I felt a queer crinkly feeling in the back of my neck," he said, "but I said to myself, 'This is silly, there must be a reason for it.' So I stopped, and the footsteps stopped, and I sat down and tried to reason it out. I could see nothing. There was a moon about somewhere, but the mist was fairly thick. The only thing I could make of it was that when my boots broke through the snow-crust they made some sort of echo. But then every step should have echoed, and not just this regular one-in-three. I was scared stiff. I got up, and walked on, trying hard not to look behind me. I got down all right—the footsteps stopped a thousand feet above the Larig—and I didn't run. But if anything had so much as said 'Boo!' behind me, I'd have been down to Corrour like a streak of lightning!"
The second man's experience was roughly similar. He was on MacDhui, and alone. He heard footsteps. He was climbing in daylight, in summer; but so dense was the mist that he was working by compass, and visibility was almost as poor as it would have been at night. The footsteps he heard were made by something or someone trudging up the fine screes which decorate the upper parts of the mountain, a thing not extraordinary in itself, though the steps were only a few yards behind him, but exceedingly odd when the mist suddenly cleared and he could see no living thing on the mountain, at that point devoid of cover of any kind.
"Did the steps follow yours exactly?" I asked him. "No," he said. "That was the funny thing. They didn't. They were regular all right; but the queer thing was that they seemed to come once for every two and a half steps I took." He thought it queerer still when I told him the other man's story. You see, he was long-legged and six feet tall, and the first man was only five-feet-seven.
Once I was out with a search-party on MacDhui; and on the way down after an unsuccessful day I asked some of the gamekeepers and stalkers who were with us what they thought of it all. They worked on MacDhui, so they should know. Had they seen Ferlas Mor? Did he exist, or was it just a silly story? They looked at me for a few seconds, and then one said: "We do not talk about that."
These were the first recorded encounters of the Grey Man and caused something of a sensation at the time, creating a lot of interest in the mountain and its possible other-world denizen. It is interesting to note that Cameron McNeish, the respected outdoor author and walker, has noted that Norman Collie was a well known practical joker. He would certainly have been amused by all the publicity that was generated by the story.
A second hand account exists that the mountaineer Henry Kellas, and his brother witnessed a giant figure on the mountain around the turn of the 20th Century, which caused them to flee down Corrie Etchachan. This has never been verified as Henry Kellas died on the Everest reconnaissance mission of 1921, before Norman Collie's speech to the Cairngorm Club.
In 1945 a climber named Peter Densham reported hearing footsteps and fleeing the mountain in panic. Peter was part of the team that was responsible for aeroplane rescue in the Cairngorms during the war.
Another experience on the mountain by Alexander Tewnion—Naturalist and Mountaineer—appeared in The Scots Magazine, in June 1958. It took place in 1943 when he was climbing Ben Macdhui armed with a loaded revolver in search of game for the pot (perhaps naturalist was stretching it a bit). He was returning from the mountain by the Corrie Etchachnan track in fear of getting caught in a storm, here is his account of the event:
"I am not unduly imaginative, but my thought flew instantly to the well-known story of professor Collie and the Fear Liath Mhor. Then I felt the reassuring weight of the loaded revolver in my pocket. Grasping the butt, I peered about in the mist here rent and tattered by the eddies of wind. A strange shape loomed up, receded, came charging at me! Without hesitation I whipped out the revolver and fired three times at the figure. When it still came on I turned and hared down the path, reaching Glen Derry in a time that I have never bettered. You may ask was it really the Fear Laith Mhor? Frankly I think it was. Many times since then I have traversed MacDhui in the mist, bivouacked out in the open, camped on its summit for days on end on different occasions—often alone, and always with an easy mind. For on that day I am convinced I shot the only Fear Liath Mhor my imagination will ever see."
Fortunately for Alexander the figure that he filled with lead was intangible and not a lost tourist, this account does show that by 1958 the Fear Liath Mhor had become part of the popular culture of the mountain.
Another witness encounter involved a friend of the author Richard Frere, who wished to remain anonymous. He was camping on top of the mountain when he saw a large brown creature swaggering away down the mountainside in the moonlight. He estimated the size of the figure at around twenty feet tall. Author Wendy Wood heard footsteps following her in the vicinity of the mountain, after hearing Gaelic music, and there have been other reports of phenomena on the mountain, from ghostly music, feelings of panic to the discovery of huge footprints in the 1940's.
Reports are not wholly confined to Ben MacDhui either. One day during the early 1920s, while coming down alone from Braeraich in Glen Eanaich. which is close to Ben MacDhui. experienced mountaineer Tom Crowley heard footsteps behind him. When he looked around, he was horrified to see a huge grey mist shrouded figure with pointed ears, long legs and finger-like talons on its feet. He did not stay for a closer look.
Wales's answer to the Big Grey Man is the Grey King, also known as the Brenin Llwyd or Monarch of the Mist. Said to frequent Snowdon. Cader Idris Plynlimon and other lofty peaks, this awesome entity was greatly feared in times past as a child-stealer, and even the mountainguides were nervous of venturing into its domain.
Sightings have been reported since at least the 1700s, and continue to the present day. A number of famous mountain climbers have sworn that the Big Gray Man is real because of personal encounters. Footprints have been photographed, but these are abnormal even for a Bigfoot-type creature. The 19-inch prints are nearly as wide as they are long.
It should be noted that spelling variations between American and British versions of English sometimes make it hard to look up information about the Big Gray Man. Most American authors write "Big Gray Man" while European authors write "Big Grey Man" ("gray" is spelled with an "e" in Britain).
There have been many explanations for the Grey Man phenomena, but looking at the experiences as a whole there are actually very few sightings of a 'Grey Man'. Most accounts are associated with feeling rather than actual physical sightings, and even those that are sightings do not agree: A huge grey mist-like figure, a great brown creature 20 feet tall, and a dark human shaped figure.
Some people have put forward the theory that a wild-man or yeti type creature inhabits the area. I think we can safely dismiss this, I have met some wild men from the area, but they were much less hairy than the average yeti and more inclined to be propping up a bar in the wee hours than roaming the cairngorm plateaux scaring the wits out of hapless tourists. Besides explaining a mystery with another mystery is never a good option.
A more reasonable explanation for some of the sightings of huge figures in the mist could be phenomena known as the Brocken spectre, named after the German mountains where the effect was first discovered. An early account of such an event occurs in In the Shadow of Cairngorm by The Rev. W. Forsyth,
'Sir Thomas Dick Lauder describes such an appearance (Edinburgh New Philosophic Journal, 1831.)
“On descending from the top (of Ben Mac Dhui) at about half-past three P.M., an interesting optical appearance presented itself to our view. We had turned towards the east, and the sun shone on our backs, when we saw a very bright rainbow described on the mist before us. The bow, of beautifully distinct prismatic colours, formed about two-thirds of a circle, the extremities of which appeared to rest on the lower portion of the mountain. In the centre of this incomplete circle there was described a luminous disc, surrounded by the prismatic colours displayed in concentric rings. On the disc itself, each of the party (three in number), as they stood about fifty yards apart, saw his own figure most distinctly delineated, although those of the other two were invisible to him. The representation appeared of the natural size, and the outline of the whole person of the spectator was most correctly portrayed. To prove that the shadow seen by each individual was that of himself, we resorted to various gestures, such as waving our hats, flapping our plaids, etc., all which motions were exactly followed by the airy figure.”
This account shows that the Brocken effect, where shadows are reflected onto mist banks giving the appearance of huge figures, has occurred on Ben Machdhui.
An interesting explanation for the sound of following footsteps was put forward some years ago, and appeared in the popular Trail magazine. It was suggested that the sound could be caused by freezing action upon footprints recently created in snow. We would first have to presume that the encounter in 1891, and other witness testimonies of footsteps, took place in the appropriate conditions.
The most common factor that links the experiences on the mountain is the feeling of blind panic that the witnesses feel. Some researchers have named such experiences 'Mountain Panic' which is basically a blind panic in wild places. Either as a feeling of a powerful presence, or just an overwhelming sense of fear about nature or something that lies behind nature. This kind of encounter is not uncommon: Chris Townsend the respected long distance walker and author mentions such an experience in 'The Munro's and the Tops'. In Glen Strathfarrar on a track by the Allt Innis a'Mhuill. Chris had an overwhelming feeling of a presence watching him, waiting for him to leave. Rennie McOwan mentions a similar experience in his Magic Mountains, and I have heard first hand accounts of similar experiences in wild places. The mechanisms behind this are not at all clear. Some witnesses felt that it was a power behind nature itself, usually hostile (unsurprising given man's track record), and have felt compelled to get away from the area as quickly as possible. When this occurs all the rationality in the word cannot stem the depth of feeling involved. In classical times these experiences were identified with the nature god Pan, who lends his name to the word Pan-ic itself. Whether these experiences are a combination of location, solitude and unfamiliarity, or an actual physical effect is unclear.
In folklore there is a whole denizen of nasties wandering the wilderness perhaps old explanations for the feeling people felt and experienced in the wild areas. From the hideous Nuckelavee, and the Each Uisge, to the Headless Trunk of the MacDonalds, Folklore has a virtual who's who of things you would not like to meet down a dark valley.
Ben Machdui is a marvellous mountain in a stunning and prestigious wild area. Whether haunted or not the mountain will hopefully remain an unspoiled wild part of Scotland into the future. Personally I believe the Grey Man to be modern Folklore, perhaps relating to older legends, a belief I will repeat in my mind if I ever hear slow thunderous footsteps behind me in the Lairig Ghru.
"Am Fear Liath Mòr, the Big Grey Man", Undiscovered Scotland: The Ultimate Online Guide. Located at: The Grey Man.
The Grey Man of Ben Macdhui, Mysterious Britain & Ireland: Mysteries, Legends & the Paranormal. Located at The Grey Man of Ben MacDhui.
Dr. Karl P.N. Shuker, The Unexplained, pp. 36-37,Carlton Books, 1996.
For other great books on the subject, check these out.
Grey, Affleck. The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui. Aberdeen, Scotland: Impulse Books, 1970.
McEwan, Graham J. Mystery Animals of Britain and Ireland. London: Robert Hale, 1986. Pages 171-172
Newton, Michael. Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology: A Global Guide to Hidden Animals and Their Pursuers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2005. Pages 59, 198
Redfern, Nick. Three Men Seeking Monsters: Six Weeks in Pursuit of Werewolves, Lake Monsters, Giant Cats, Ghostly Devil Dogs, and Ape-Men. New York: Paraview Pocket Books, 2004. Pages 21, 217-226
Shuker, Karl P. N. Scotland's Greyman.
My thanks and gratitude go to my good friend and fellow monster hunter Randy Merrill for allowing me to use and repost his essay on the Big Grey Man. This creature has fascinated me for a few years now, and I will one day (probably not anytime soon) do a study of my own on this creature. The Grey Man is a supernatural entity as much as it is an unknown hominid. It could be both. Only time will tell.
Randy's cryptozoology blog may be found here: The Cryptozoologist. You may also find him on Facebook, where you may also find me, Kyle Germann.
You may find an excellent article on the Big Grey Man here: The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui, by Dr. Bob Curran.