The 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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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