The Grey Man of Ben Macdhui or Am Fear Liath Mòr is a sinister presence said to haunt Scotland’s second-highest peak. Is this a Yeti- type creature? The ghost of a fallen climber? Or just a trick of nature played on weary hill-walkers?
Ben Macdui is the highest mountain in the Cairn Gorm plateau, a rolling Arctic wilderness, and much wilder than Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest peak. It is said to be haunted by a wraith-like creature known as the Grey Man of Ben Macdhui. Those who have seen it, describe a humanoid similar to the Yeti. Perhaps this is not too surprising, given that thousands of years ago, the Cairngorms are thought to have been taller than the relatively younger Himalayas. These ancient mountains have faced the elements and have been worn down in size with the passage of time.
But the Grey Man is no gentle giant. Those encountering him, talk of a malevolent presence and of being filled with despair. It seems that in his presence, panic sets in. They are almost hypnotically drawn towards Lurcher’s Crag, a cliff that overhangs the Lairig Ghru, the large mountain pass which runs between Deeside and Speyside. It seems likely that some of those encountering ‘The Old Grey Man’ have plunged to certain death. But is the hysteria caused by the combined Brocken Effect coupled with the sound of cracking rocks and the footfall of wild animals?
Renowned Professor Encounters the Big Grey Man of Ben Macdhui
The Grey Man of Ben Macdhui first came to the world’s attention through the experiences of a prominent chemist and Professor at Univerisity College, London. Amongst J Norman Collie’s other achievements, he was responsible for the first-ever medical X-ray photograph. In addition, he was a Fellow of the Royal Society. Outside science, he was a well-known mountaineer. He pioneered many climbs on the Isle of Skye and in the Alps. In 1895, he was part of the first-ever attempt on an 8000m peak in the Himalayas, Nanga Parbat.
In 1925 he recounted an experience he endured some 35 years earlier while approaching the summit to Ben Macdui on his own.
“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.”
Other Sightings of the Grey Man of Ben Macdhui
A mountaineer called Richard Frere told of a friend of his who decided to spend a night camping on the top of the mountain in 1940. In his tent near the cairn, he began to suffer a feeling of morbidity and a sense of unreality but finally fell asleep.
He woke up with moonlight shining through a gap in his tent and suddenly realized that he could see something brownish between himself and the moon. Horrified, he froze and waited for the thing to move away. When it did, he looked out into the brilliant moonlight and saw a large brown creature ‘swaggering’ away down the mountainside. He said the creature had ‘an air of insolent strength’ about it. Incredibly, he estimated the height of the thing to be twenty feet. He described it as having an erect posture, broad shoulders and a tapering waist.
Wendy Wood, author of ‘The Secret of Spey’ told of how one winter she approached the Lairig Ghru, a mountain pass at the foot of Ben Macdhui which runs between Aviemore and Deeside. While there, she heard a voice. The voice she said had ‘gigantic resonance’ and was reminiscent of Gaelic. After checking the nearby area to find the source of the voice, she realized that she was indeed alone. As she hurried away, she could hear footsteps following behind her. At first, she thought the footfalls to be echoes of her own. Then the horrific realisation dawned: the footsteps did not coincide or correspond to her own.
The Grey Man of more than Ben Macdui
Reports of the Grey Man of Ben Macdhui are not wholly confined to Ben Macdhui either. One day during the early 1920s, Tom Crowley, former president of the Moray mountaineering Club, was coming down alone from Braeraich, the peak to the west of Ben MacDhui. He was horrified to see a huge grey mist-shrouded figure. It had pointed ears, long legs and finger-like talons on its feet. Needless to say, he did not hang around for a closer look.
Chased by Am Fear Liath Mòr
In his book ‘100 Strangest Unexplained Mysteries’, Matt Lamy shares the experience of three men who came face to face with an eerie ‘dark human-shaped’ figure in a forest in the Aberdeenshire-Deeside area. (The Cairngorms stretch down into Deeside.) They saw a face looking at them from between the branches, a face which was ‘human… but not human’. One man threw a stone at it causing it to disappear into the trees.
Several weeks later the same trio were driving through the same area when the creature reappeared. This time it pursued their car, reaching speeds of some 45 mph. Eventually, it gave up the chase and simply stood in the middle of the road and peered after the car.
Other Evidence of the Grey Man of Ben Macdui
Although there have been many alleged encounters with the Grey Man, few eyewitnesses have actually seen the creature. Those who have, describe it as being a humanoid standing over ten feet tall with long arms and broad shoulders. It is said to have olive-toned skin covered in short hair.
More commonly people report feeling an unseen presence that causes uneasy feelings in people who climb the mountain. Nearly all reports include the sound of footsteps crunching in the gravel just out of sight. There is some photographic evidence of strange footprints. In 1965, footprints were discovered measuring 14 inches and with a massive stride that covered around 5 feet.
A Presence in the Mountains
Most people who encounter Am Fear Liath Mòr report only hearing sounds. In 1904 climber Hugh D. Welsh heard unexplained “slurring footsteps” near the summit of Ben Macdhui and had “an eerie feeling of apprehension.” In 1945 Peter Densham, a mountaineer and rescue worker, heard “a crunching noise”. He was “overcome by a feeling of apprehension”. Then in 1948 Richard Frere, a climber, wrote of feeling “a Presence, utterly abstract but intensely real” on the mountain and heard “an intensely high singing note”.
In 1958, Alexander Tewnion, a naturalist and mountaineer, published the following experience in The Scots magazine:
…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.
Footsteps of The Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui
The journalist, broadcaster, and author, Alastair Borthwick relates in his book “Always a Little Further” the accounts of two climbers he knew who had experienced the Grey Man of Ben Macdui.
The first was alone, heading over a snow-covered Ben Macdhui for Corrour. It was a night when the snow had a hard, crisp crust through which his boots broke at every step. He reached the summit and was on his descent when he heard footsteps behind him. Footsteps not in the rhythm of his own! Footsteps that occurred only once for every three steps he took.
“I felt a queer crinkly feeling in the back of my neck, 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!”
A Second Footstep Encounter
The second man’s experience was similar. He too was on Ben Macdhui, and alone. This time the encounter took place on a misty summer’s day when the visibility was so poor it seemed like night. The footsteps he heard sounded like someone was trudging up the fine screes on the upper parts of the mountain. The steps seemed to come from a few yards behind him. Suddenly the mist cleared. To his horror, he could see no living thing on the mountain, which at that point, was devoid of any kind of cover.
When asked if the steps followed his exactly, he replied, “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.”
Interestingly, he was six feet tall whereas the first man was only five feet seven.
A Possible Explanation
Of course, it could be that the rare sightings of Am Fear Liath Mòr are caused by Brocken Spectres. This is a phenomenon occasionally seen in mountains where a hugely magnified climber’s shadow is cast on a lower level of cloud through a particular combination of atmospheric conditions. However, that does explain the mysterious footsteps.
Some commentators have tried to suggest some sort of mystical link between the Grey Man and ley lines. Some believe the Grey Man to be a guardian of the mountain. Others believe him to be the guardian of a gate to other dimensions. Yet others believe there are real ten-foot-tall cryptoids covered in grey fur living somewhere on Ben Macdui. After all, Scotland is said to be home to the most famous cryptoid of all, Nessy. Could he be one of the sìth, the fairy folk of Scottish folklore? Perhaps even the Bodach Glas, the Grey Man, a portent of death?