Above: the 'Brocken Spectre' at Ben MacDhui, some say the supposed image of the Fear Liath Mor or 'Big Grey Man'. Left: Prof. Norman Collie
In 1925, a respected and well known climber Professor Norman Collie reported to a stunned audience at a meeting of the Cairngorm Club his experiences with the Fear Liath Mor (as the 'Big Grey Man' is known locally) on Ben MacDhui in 1891. Collie explained that he had been coming down from the peak when he heard footsteps behind him. At first, shrouded in mist, he rationalized that it must just have been an echo of his own footfalls. "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, 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 will not go back there again by myself I know." Collie never returned to the mountain, and to his dying day firmly believed there was "something very queer about Ben MacDhui."
Ben Macdhui is the biggest mountain in the Cairngorms, Scotland and the second highest in the UK. The summit rises from the southern part of a huge sub-arctic upland unique in the British Isles. It is a harsh environment where nothing grows except the hardiest of alpine plants. When the cloud rolls in summits can be shrouded for days…in winter the weak northern sun often does not penetrate the deep glens for weeks.
During the World War II, Peter Densham was a mountain rescue worker, locating and saving pilots who had crashed in the Cairngorms. One day he was at the top of Ben MacDhui when a heavy mist started to fall. He sat and waited for conditions to improve. After a while he began to hear strange crunching noises and suddenly felt a presence close by. He stood up to investigate, but was immediately seized by a feeling of panic. Before he realized what was happening, he was running down the mountain, dangerously close to the sheer cliff edge. He said afterwards ‘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 deal of difficulty.’ Densham would later state "...tell me that the whine was but the result of relaxed eardrums, and the Presence was only the creation of a mind that was accustomed to take too great an interest in such things. I shall not be convinced. Come, rather, with me at the mysterious dusk time when day and night struggle upon the mountains. Feel the night wind on your faces, and hear it crying amid rocks. See the desert uplands consumed before the racing storms. Though your nerves be of steel, and your mind says it cannot be, you will be acquainted with that fear without name, that intense dread of the unknown that has pursued mankind from the very dawn of time."
Another mountaineer Alexander Tewnion wrote an account of his 1943 experience for The Scots Magazine: “Of all the experiences that have come my way, one stands out above all others in its strangeness. This was when I shot the Fear Liath Mor, the Big Grey Man of Ben Macdhui. It happened like this. In October 1943 I spent a ten day leave climbing alone in the Cairngorms. Rations were short then, and I carried a revolver and ammunition to shoot any hares or ptarmigan that came my way. One afternoon, just as I reached the summit cairn of Ben Macdhui, mist swirled across the Lairig Ghru and enveloped the mountain. The atmosphere became dark and oppressive, a fierce, bitter wind whisked among the boulders, and, fearing a storm was imminent, I took hurriedly to the Coire Etchachan path. Above Loch Etchachan the path angles easily downhill. I was swinging along at about five miles an hour when an odd sound echoed through the mist - a loud footstep, it seemed. Then another, and another. Spaced at long intervals!”
“I am not unduly imaginative, but my thoughts flashed instantly to the well-known story of Professor Norman Collie and the Fear Liath Mor. 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 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 I have never bettered since. You may ask, was it really the Fear Liath Mor? Frankly, I think it was. Many times since then I have traversed Macdhui in mist, bivouacked on it in the open, camped near 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 Mor my imagination will ever see.”
An artist's rendering of the Fear Liath Mor or 'Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui'. Credit: The Field Guide to Bigfoot and Other Mystery Primates
Since that time, many people have reported a strange being or felt an overpowering sense of impending doom or panic while on the mountain. One of the most recent encounters occurred in the early 1990’s when three men were walking in a forest just outside Aberdeen. One of the men noticed a human-shaped figure running across the trail not too far ahead of them. He told his friends, and when they all looked in the same direction they saw what they described as ‘a strange, not-quite-human face.’ A few weeks later, the same group was driving in the area when they realized they were being followed by the same tall, dark being. The creature kept pace, even at speeds of 45 miles an hour, but eventually tired and gave up the chase. Again, these men felt a distinct sense of terror and foreboding.
What is the Grey Man of Ben MacDhui? Some say that it’s merely a myth...that climbers of Ben MacDhui are letting the high altitude, grim surroundings and legends get the best of them, making them perceive they see something that isn't actually there. But in many cases, those who have seen and experienced the phenomena are respected scientists and mountain climbers...the sort of witnesses who should not be prone to suggestion.
One theory is that the mountain is home to Bigfoot-like hominids. In fact, in 1965, huge footprints were found in the snow. They measured 14 inches and seemed to show a creature with an enormous five foot stride between footsteps. But the hominid theory has many detractors. While the Cairngorm Mountains are rugged, they are not comparable to the Himalayas or other major ranges where these hominids have been reported to roam. Could a breeding population of humanoids stay mostly hidden in such an area for centuries?
Almost all the reports have a strong paranormal/supernatural aspect to them. In many cases, the Grey Man seems more like a demon or a ghost than a living, breathing creature. Then there is an extraterrestrial or alternate universe theory…namely, that these creatures are able to move in and out between our world and another plane. Many visitors to the mountain notice sensations of strangeness, depression and terror...some have actually noticed ‘boundries’ where these emotions suddenly start and stop. Novelist Joan Grant's experience on the mountain gives a excellent account of this phenomenon. Overcome by sudden fear while climbing the mountain, she became convinced something was pursuing her. She ran down the mountainside and described "I had run about a half a mile when I burst through an invisible barrier behind which I knew I was safe. I knew I was safe now, though a second before I had been in mortal danger; knew it as certainly as though I were a torero who has jumped the barrier in front of a charging bull." Prof. Collie and most all other "victims" of Ben MacDhui described this same feeling of passing through a barrier and becoming "safe". Ben MacDhui also has a strange, almost subliminal "ringing" or singing that is literally felt in the air. This tone has no explainable source other the mountain itself.
The legend of the Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui is to be made into a movie by an amateur film company. Carrbridge Films is run by young people from the Cairngorms National Park. In order to raise £2,500 for a new camera, Carrbridge Films has offered sponsors "perks" such as roles as associate producers. Director Fergus Thom, 18, said the project was one of the company's most ambitious.
Inspiration for the film, called Broken Spectre, include the account from Prof. Collie. Mr. Thom said: "We're all very excited to be embarking on another big project and look forward to getting out and about and capturing all the wonderful locations we have on our doorsteps. Having said this, we also have a lot of work ahead of us to prepare the plot and screenplay."
The group hope to complete the film by early next year.
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