The Grey Man of Ben MacDhui

A thin, dark phantom three times the height of a man is said to stalk this peak in the Cairngorms.

Filed under Cryptozoology, Paranormal, Urban Legends

Skeptoid #292
January 10, 2012
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Grey Man of Ben MacDhui
The summit of Ben MacDhui
(Photo: Richard Webb)

Today we're going to venture into the Scottish Highlands, to the bleak and misty summit of Ben MacDhui, the highest peak of the Cairngorms. At only 1309 meters it's hardly a giant compared to other mountain ranges, but it boasts a spectral giant of its own who lives there.

Because of its high latitude, Ben MacDhui is well above the treeline and its rounded summit is a desolate field of windswept stones. It is as foggy as it is remote, yet none who venture there ever seem to feel quite alone. For more than a century, hillwalkers have been stalked by Am Fear Liath Mòr, Scottish Gaelic for The Big Grey Man. He's known best for his footsteps crunching in the gravel just out of sight; but for a certain unlucky few, the fog has thinned enough that they caught a glimpse. The Grey Man stands at least three times as tall as a man, and is dark and very thin. Some say he is covered in short brown hair, like a horse. But all who see him are filled with dread.

It is impossible to discuss the Grey Man of Ben MacDhui without relating its most famous account, that of Professor J. Norman Collie of University College London, expert in chemistry, Fellow of the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society, past president of the Alpine Club and member of the 1921 Mount Everest Committee. His scientific and mountaineering credentials were in good order. At the 1925 meeting of the Cairngorm Club, an association of hillwalkers of the Scottish mountain range, he told the following tale:

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 story is today by far the most famous account of the Grey Man, but it was neither the first nor the most dramatic. In 1958, naturalist and mountaineer Alexander Tewnion wrote in The Scots magazine of what he described as the strangest experience of his life:

...In October 1943 I spent a ten day leave climbing alone in the Cairngorms... 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... an odd sound echoed through the mist - a loud footstep, it seemed. Then another, and another... 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.

The list of witnesses to the Grey Man is long, and includes many other experienced mountaineers. Does the Grey Man stalk the fells of the Cairngorms, or might there be some other explanation? As it turns out, Ben MacDhui does create a natural dead ringer for Am Fear Liath Mòr.

Brocken spectres had probably been frightening people for thousands of years, but it wasn't until 1780 that Johann Silberschlag, a German member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, first characterized them after observing them on top of the Brocken, the highest peak in northern Germany. Like Ben MacDhui, the Brocken is a relatively low, rounded hill often shrouded in fog. Silberschlag found that in foggy conditions with uniform water droplets and sufficiently strong sunlight penetration from a low enough angle, his own shadow was visible on the fog itself. Gently rounded summits like Brocken, Ben MacDhui, and many others often create ideal conditions for this, since you can stand facing downhill with the angle of the sun behind you matching the angle of the slope. If your shadow lands on the ground, it won't penetrate enough fog to create the effect — you want a long, deep shadow stretching off through the fog.

That effect can be striking. The Brocken spectre manifests itself as a very tall, very thin figure of a human, usually with disproportionately long legs. In many cases, a solar glory surrounds the spectre's head. Glories are circular, multiple-ringed rainbows caused by the backscatter of light when looking directly away from the light source; they can often be seen when you're in an airplane and you look straight down at the airplane's shadow. Brocken spectres can result from any light source, not just the sun. A full moon, or even a lantern or flashlight, will produce the spectre if the fog conditions are right. In particular, the sun and the full moon still produce enough light even when they themselves are not directly visible due to the thickness of the fog, such that there is no perceptible cause for the spectre. And in such cases, the appearance of tall, ghostly spectres can bewilder even the informed, scientific mind.

That the Brocken spectre is the source of at least some of the Ben MacDhui encounters is a certainty. As far back as 1791, the poet James Hogg was tending sheep on Ben MacDhui, and saw the following:

It was a giant blackamoor, at least thirty feet high, and equally proportioned, and very near me. I was actually struck powerless with astonishment and terror.

He fled home in a panic, and when he went back the next day to collect his sheep, the monster returned. This time Hogg experimented, removing his hat; and observed the figure do the same thing. He was satisfied that what he saw was merely his own shadow in the fog.

Although the visual sighting of the Grey Man himself is the most dramatic element of a meeting, it's not the most often reported. The majority of Grey Man encounters consist of sudden, unprovoked feelings of fear or of a presence, with nothing seen or heard. But it is the sound of footsteps that best characterize the Grey Man. Nearly all reports include this, and have, since the reports began. Two brothers heard the footsteps atop Ben MacDhui in 1904, "slurring footsteps as if someone was walking through water-saturated gravel." When they returned to the Derry Lodge they were told "That would have been the Fear Liath Mòr you heard," eleven years before Collie regaled the Cairngorm Club with his tale.

As fog thickens and thins, temperatures fluctuate, and rocks expand and contract and split. Ice also splits rocks. When either of these happen on a slope, a rock may tumble. These actions are, in fact, entirely responsible for the crumbled stone of which Ben MacDhui consists. Even on a calm day, rocks make such noises, everywhere.

Animals such as deer and wildcats abound on Ben MacDhui; the reason Alexander Tewnion had a pistol on his 1943 trek was to shoot hares and ptarmigan. Hikers disturb nearby creatures, and hiking anywhere will always produce the sounds of some scattering animal. There's no doubt that these sources of sound account for at least some of the noises reported by Grey Man witnesses.

Of course, suggesting possible sources for the sounds perceived as following footsteps does not prove that something unknown wasn't actually following some of these hikers. If it was, it remains unknown, and does not constitute evidence for a tall, hairy man-beast any more than it constitutes evidence for a spritely leprechaun. What's needed is testable evidence; and as it turns out, there has been one case of the Grey Man's giant footprints being discovered in the snow, and photographed.

The footprints were seen and the photographs published by John A. Rennie in his book Romantic Strathspey, and the prints he found were in the Spey Valley some 15 miles away from Ben MacDhui. The prints:

...were running across a stretch of snow covered moorland, each print 19 inches long by about 14 inches wide and there must have been all of seven feet between each "stride". There was no differentiation between a left and a right foot, and they preceded in an approximately single line.

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

And that's where the popular tellings of the Grey Man's footprints end; only with the observation, and not with the observer's own explanation. For, on a second occasion, Rennie saw such prints again, and this time he watched them form in the snow. They were the result of precipitation. And in his own words, Rennie said of the footprints:

In that moment I knew that the Wendygo, Abominable Snowman, Bodach Mor, or what have you, was forever explained so far as I was concerned.

Thus we are left with no evidence that the physical feet of an unknown creature have ever created the sounds of footsteps on Ben MacDhui.

Some of the other most often cited evidence of the Grey Man also weakens under scrutiny. Although Norman Collie's story is widely considered the most authoritative, it should be taken with a grain of salt within the context of Collie's personality. According to his biographer Christine Mill, he was a lifelong believer in the occult. In later years after 1933 when the Loch Ness Monster became a phenomenon, he also became a firm believer in that; which, like the Grey Man, he never saw (it's an often-overlooked point of Collie's famous story that he did not report seeing anything; he only heard footsteps and felt frightened). Mill wrote that Collie would often tell stories around the campfire or in his den of Gaelic mountain gods and goddesses, and other legendary creatures; and as she put it, "No one quite knowing how much he was believing himself." Unfortunately, nothing about Collie's account raises its status from that of campfire story to that of useful evidence.

And the realm of campfire stories is perhaps where the Grey Man of Ben MacDhui best belongs. Never underestimate the power of nature to magnify feelings of dread, loneliness, and isolation. Everyone who has spent a night in a tent outdoors knows the effects of small, unexplained sounds on the mind. The cold, foggy Cairngorms are the ideal place for such sensations to augment, and for our animal senses to trigger animal responses. The Grey Man need not be a physical creature for it to be — as far as our minds are concerned — utterly real.

Follow me on Twitter @BrianDunning.

Brian Dunning

© 2012 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Collie, J. Annual General Meeting of the Cairngorm Club. Aberdeen: Cairngorm Club, 1925.

Gray, A. The Big Grey Man of Ben Macdhui. Aberdeen: Impulse Publications, 1970. 39-40.

Hastie, J. "Big Grey Man - The Evidence." Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal. 1 Jan. 1998, Volume 36, Number 189: 507-513.

Hazen, H. "The Brocken Spectre." Popular Science. 1 Jun. 1900, Volume 34, Number 6: 106-107.

Kaczynski, R. Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley. Tempe: New Falcon Publications, 2002. 31.

Rennie, J. Romantic Strathspey: Its Lands, Clans and Legends. London: R. Hale, 1956. 83.

Roberts, A. "The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui and Other Mountain Panics." Fortean Studies. 1 Jan. 1998, Volume 5.

Ross, H. Behaviour and Perception in Strange Environments. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1974. 54-56.

Tewnion, A. "A Shot in the Mist." The Scots Magazine. 1 Jun. 1958, Volume 69: 226-227.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "The Grey Man of Ben MacDhui." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 10 Jan 2012. Web. 25 Apr 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4292>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 35 comments

Brian- this is one of the best episodes I've heard. The grey man (which I had never heard of before this) is a really great illustration that under just the right conditions, the natural world can create something that is so uncanny and improbable that it looks like magic. I looked up photos and the effect is really amazing. Thanks for this.

Daniel, Seattle
January 25, 2012 7:06am

"For, on a second occasion, Rennie saw such prints again, and this time he watched them form in the snow. They were the result of precipitation."

How on earth does precipitation form giant footprints? This passage does not make sense to me. Can anyone elaborate?

Bruce, Toronto
April 19, 2012 9:07pm

Great episode, just recently discovering this paid off. This sounds eerily similar to an american legend of the "Slender Man".

Jacon, Virginia
May 21, 2012 10:09am

Fog can disorientate people in a group, let alone when you are on your own.

Visually I have found my eyes can be fooled into thinking that objects are further or nearer than they are - or they may even look like something else altogether - I have confused a castle turret with a forested trail on one occasion.

Sounds could be rocks and stones falling as they are disturbed, or even animals. I know that often animals are not seen by humans because they run away BUT many animals are VERY visual, and it could be that in the fog, the only time that they are aware of a walker being nearby, is when they hear our footsteps!! We don't see them either and only hear the sound as they depart.

I have walked through 'ghostly' woods and thought 'what is that sound in the trees?' Then, when I investigate I find a blackbird in the ground foliage digging for grubs with its beak, I can imagine a superstitious, scared person not looking for the answer and believing that they are being followed!!

I can understand ancient folks believing in the supernatural but why oh why do people today take the lazy path and claim the supernatural, instead of looking for more mundane explanations.

Dapper Dave, London, England
July 31, 2012 10:49am

A Brit using disorientate. My, the language is changing!

At least Dave isnt applying it to objects as our american cousins do from time to time.

Any view impairing situation will get you off kilter quick smart.

Its happened to me just staying at someone elses house who stokes up a fire big time when everyone else has gone to bed.

As to animals being confused by their environment, road kill and animal avoidance is a past time around here.

When I was a kid in the netherlands, we actually ame across pigs (rather than the other way around) from time to time whlst harvesting mushrooms and berries.

Dave, its the mundane explanations that bug me. Why should a pig, dear r snake be surprised by humans? Because their complex recognition systems ar overridden by the environments we impose on them.

I only catch etherics nowadays (eye sight problems). I rely on my son for the local fauna.

Dad... there is a whopping black snake on the way down to the pool.

what etheric dad?

Mud, back in Sanity, NSW
August 05, 2012 2:24am

Hi i was up on Ben Macdhui this May BH, with my 12 year old son, we skied over from Cairngorm and bivied out in a snow hole overnight,close to the summit. we heard the "footsteps" as we approached the summit, late in the day, definate crunching of following footsteps with a long stride, they couldnt have been an echo of our footsteps as we were on skis and there was no wind to carry the sound far,we had a good look around and there were no other folk about. we heard them 4-5 times as we stopped for a breather, very spooky, not really a "believer" of the supernatural type goings on, but it sent a chill down my spine! i certainly couldnt see any rational explanation for the sounds

phill hargeaves, manchester
September 19, 2012 2:33am

The only time I encountered Brocken spectres myself was in the perfect spot for ghost stories: A barrow field in Ireland, far away from any village, with fog so thick that you couldn't see far. Still the sun drew ghastly, huge shadows into the mist. Nobody was freaked out, though, and that is a mystery itself. It was an archaeologic field trip and the common archaeologists (or the students at least) I have experienced are not skeptics.

Felix Hummel, Regensburg, Germany
October 08, 2012 8:23am

One posited explanation for the crunching footstep noise is snow or ice reforming in snow holes made by your own feet. In cold conditions, just reofrmings 'snap' This might explain the 'following' pehnomenon - and migth also explain why it would happen with ski trails too.

Just a thought.

James McGowan, Glasgow
May 08, 2013 1:09am

I love ghost stories.

Swampwitch, Gainesville Fl
December 10, 2013 9:26am

Good to see this story get wider currency! I live in the Cairngorms National Park and climb Ben Macdui several times a year, as I have done for the last 30 years. I've camped on it quite a few times too. I've never seen or heard anything I couldn't explain. I have heard snow settling and cracking, which could sound like footsteps I guess. The wind can be very noisy too and whistle round the rocks and send spindrift whispering over the snow. I'd be surprised if I saw deer or a wildcat up there - there's nothing to eat for either of them. You do get deer on the lower slopes (red deer and reindeer). Around the summit the only wildlife I've seen are snow buntings and ptarmigan.

Chris Townsend, Grantown-on-Spey
April 03, 2014 11:07am

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