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From SPOOKY TALES – 2012

Locals call this giant ‘Am Fear Liath Mhor’, but beyond these lands it is more widely known by its English name: ‘The Big Grey Man’.

Sightings are uncommon, but there have been enough to suggest that this phenomenon is something more than just the made-up stories of bored hikers. Indeed, tales of encounters with this entity have been related by visitors to the peaks since the 1700s.

Reports differ little in describing the figure, with most agreeing that the Big Grey Man, or ‘the Greyman’ as it is sometimes known, is just that—a very tall, grey figure. How it manifests is far more varied though: sometimes it looms suddenly from out of the mountain mist, while on other occasions it affects climbers as waves of strong emotions that overcome them. It can even reveal itself as eerie, disembodied footsteps that crunch in the snow alongside horrified climbers.

The first report of this enigmatic entity to reach a wide audience came from renowned mountaineer and Fellow of the Royal Society, Professor John Norman Collie of University College London. Collie surprised the attendees of the 1925 annual general meeting of the Cairngorm Club with a speech that talked of an experience he’d had on the mountain in 1891. What he said has now become a very well-known account and is oft-quoted in articles about the Big Grey Man. Not wanting to be left out, I include it here:

“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. 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 MacDui and I will not go back there again myself, I know.”

Collie’s reputation as a highly experienced mountaineer (he had no less than two peaks named after him: one on the Isle of Skye and another in Canada) and a man of credibility made people sit up and listen, and after his account circulated it prompted more witnesses to come forward with tales of their own encounters.

More Sightings

In 1904, Hugh Welsh and his brother had set up their camp near the summit of Ben MacDhui to collect plants and study the arachnids they found there. From time-to-time they would hear what sounded like footsteps impacting softly around them whenever they moved—although not matching their own footfalls. They noted that these curious sounds were more distinct during the daylight hours and the brothers were “very conscious of ‘something’ near them”.

Thirty-seven years later, the eccentric Scottish Nationalist, Wendy Wood (born Gwendoline Meacham), was advancing upon the well-known hill pass of Lairig Ghru when a strange voice, speaking in what sounded like Gaelic, reached her carried upon the winter air. Wood later said the voice had “gigantic resonance”. Despite a brief search, Wood found no source for the voice, but her encounter was not quite over, for as she made her way back, she could hear the same footsteps that the Welsh brothers had heard—and they seemed to be following her. At first she thought the sounds to simply be echoes of her own, but it rapidly became apparent that they did not match the rhythm of her own footsteps and, frightened, she promptly fled.

It was these phantom footsteps also startled the leader of the Cairngorms RAF Rescue Team during the Second World War. Peter Densham, another person who knew the area well, reported feeling “overwhelmed with panic” after hearing the footfalls around him while within a heavy mist. Like so many others, he left the mountain in haste, scrambling perilously close to a cliff’s edge and feeling as though something intangible was trying to send him over it: “I tried to stop myself and found this extremely difficult to do. It was as if someone was pushing me. I managed to deflect my course, but with a great of difficulty”.

And the footsteps are not alone in spooking some of Ben Macdui’s climbers. Visitors have experienced a baffling whining or ringing noise, sudden feelings of terror or engulfing despondency, while others like Peter Densham, have felt “hypnotically drawn to the edge of cliffs”.

Not for the Faint-hearted

It is not just the intangible nature of the Big Grey Man that people have witnessed, for sometimes the entity reveals itself entirely—and when he does it is not for the faint-hearted.

In the early 1920s, former president of the Moray Mountaineering Club, Tom Crowley, heard the footsteps as he was descending Braeriach (a peak to the west of Ben MacDhui’s, across the Lairig Ghru pass) into Glen Eanaich. He paused and turned his head to cast a glance over his shoulder and was alarmed to see a tall figure, grey, undefined and with “pointed ears, long legs and finger-like talons on its feet” approaching him from behind.

Alexander Mitchell Kellas was another very experienced climber and, like John Norman Collie, a man of science. Together with his brother Henry, Kellas was close to the mountain’s summit when they spotted a “giant figure” moving towards them from the direction of the Lairig Ghru pass. The Scottish chemist watched the shape ‘walk’ to the summit, circle the 10-foot-tall cairn there (the figure matched the cairn’s height) and then disappear back into the pass from whence it came.

The author of ‘The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui’, Richard Frere, outlined a tale that had been related to him by a friend. This man had established his camp at the very top of the mountain sometime in 1940. As darkness fell, the man retreated into his tent to settle down for the evening. A little while later, he awoke suddenly and noticed movement outside his tent’s opening. Something strange was close by, and as he peered out of his tent into the night there loomed a large, broad-shouldered and “brownish” humanoid creature that must have been twenty feet in height. It seemed to swagger as it moved around the camp, emitting an “air of insolent strength” before it eventually moved off by itself. Yet another climber, the legendary William Sydney Scroggie, saw a similar humanoid figure emerge from darkness in 1942 before disappearing.

One man actually shot at Big Grey Man. In 1943, Alexander Tewnion was climbing by himself on the mountain in search of some game. It was the month of October, and mist had descended around him as he walked along the wild Coire Etchachnan. Without warning, a massive figure appeared out of the swirling mist in front of him. Naturally, Tewnion reached for the revolver he was carrying and fired all the gun’s chambers at the Greyman. Seeing that his attack had no effect, Tewnion ran for it, reaching Glen Derry in what he said was his personal best time. His account appeared in ‘The Scots Magazine‘ in June 1958:

“I am not unduly imaginative, but my thought flew instantly to the well known story of professor Collie and the Fear Liath Mhor [Big Grey Man]. 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.”

Explanations for what the Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui might actually be vary greatly. Some say it is a kind of spectral sentinel, guarding an ‘inter-dimensional gateway’ of some kind. Others have placed mystical ley lines at the heart of the strange goings-on. Some people simply believe that 10-foot-tall grey creatures might actually exist in the form of a cryptid, rather like the elusive Yeti or Bigfoot, and that there is nothing supernatural about the Big Grey Man at all, merely that it is an extremely rare and elusive animal that is as yet undiscovered by science.

Brocken Spectre

More down-to-earth speculation centres upon the meteorological phenomenon known as the ‘Brocken Spectre’, a rare event during which a spectator can see their own elongated shadow cast against clouds, mist or fog, sometimes accompanied by a rainbow-like halo known as a ‘Glorie’. While the Brocken Spectre theory goes some way to explaining the long-legged, tall grey figures that have been sighted, it doesn’t tackle the other aspects of the reports, such as the weird, disembodied footsteps and the strange emotions.

Perchance oxygen starvation is to blame, as some have pointed out. The effects of high altitude and the ease of becoming disoriented amongst the Cairngorms’ featureless and flat-topped peaks could combine to produce light-headedness and panic and distort a person’s rationality. But, perhaps the most fascinating aspect to the sightings of the Big Grey Man is that they so often come from sources that would be considered eminently reliable and level-headed otherwise. These are individuals that are experienced mountaineers—people who may well have been familiar with phenomena like the Brocken Spectre and certainly knew about the effects of thin air at high heights and yet not only did they claim to see a supernatural creature, but they fled in terror at it and admitted doing so to a public audience, risking ridicule.

Whatever stalks Ben MacDhui is unlikely to be classified soon, but what is certain is that the Cairngorms are a prehistoric and commanding location where nature’s majesty is apparent, and in landscapes such as these, it is almost necessary that if no great legend were associated with it, one would have to be invented.