So Many Shades of Grey: The Am Fear Liath Mor of Ben MacDui

Happy (almost) Halloween! In celebration of my favorite holiday, I thought we’d cover a topic that is less strange so much as it is pants-poopingly frightening. Now, I admit that when I first uncovered the pitch for this creature—which pretty much boils down to “Scottish Yeti”—I was only mildly curious; Bigfoots and the like have never interested me much, perhaps because their story has been so played out. Then I kept reading, and uncovered a story of delightful mystery and malevolence.

The summit of Ben MacDui. Photo by Richard Webb, via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s set the scene. The Ben MacDui is the highest peak in the Cairngorm Mountains and the second highest in Scotland. Nothing grows there save for the hardiest of plants; the summit rises from a huge sub-arctic upland, and is considered one of the wildest, most remote places left in Britain. The landscape is a featureless wave of snow and rock; between that and the omnipresent mists, it’s very easy to get lost. It’s also easy to remember how very old those peaks are–almost as old as the lore about them.

In 1891, Professor Norman Collie went hiking along the mountain alone, and heard something walking behind him.

The professor–a well-respected, sensible faculty member of the chemistry department at the University College London–waited thirty-four years to tell his story. “I began to think I heard something else than merely the noise of my own footsteps,” he reported to the Cairgorm Club on a dark December night in 1925.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.” Collie looked back over the desolate landscape, trying to keep his head, but could see nothing through the fog. Filled with a sudden dread, he turned and walked faster, and then went the crunching continued broke out into a panicked sprint, which he continued for four or five miles until he arrived, exhausted, at the arms of Rothiemurchus Forest. To say that the experience left an impression on him would be an understatement; he vowed never to return to the mountain alone, for, as he put it, there was “something very queer about the top of Ben MacDhui.

Once his story got out, he discovered that he was not the only one who had experienced sudden terror while exploring the isolated mountain. Dr. A.M. Kallas and his brother Henry ostensibly saw an enormous figure approaching them from the other side of the cairn 1903. The figure disappeared from their view as it moved into a dip, but the brothers didn’t wait for it to get close–they, like Collie, ran down off the mountain as fast as they could, and never looked back. In 1904, the Welshcamping brothers reported unnerving sounds both during the day and at night, like “slurring footsteps as if someone was walking through water saturated gravel.”  In 1943, mountaineer Alexander Tewnion turned at the sound of menacing footsteps as he descended by the Coire Etchachan path. He saw a strange, enormous shape loom out of the fog, and pulled his revolver and shot at it before turning to sprint away. 

In 1965, investigators discovered 14-inch footprints on the slopes Ben MacDui, with a distance of nearly five feet between each. Collie and many others might have estimated this stride, given the height of the thing in the mists and the length of time between footsteps.

Sightings continued through the 90’s. The thing dubbed “The Big Grey Man” crossed train tracks, kept pace with cars, watched people from a distance and spoke, one one occasion, in a deep, booming language reminiscent of Gaelic. Hikers described it as 10 feet tall, then 20 feet tall. It was covered in grey hair, they said, and had long, long arms and a face that was human and very not human. Most, if not all, reported an uncontrollable fear and sense of dread–indeed, many of reports of the Am Fear Liath Mor are not sightings so much as they are sensations: sudden, categorical despair; panic at a sound from off in the mists. Some felt themselves drawn to the cliffs, and had to fight the urge to hurtle themselves off, others nearly slipped and fell to their death by accident as they scampered to escape the crunch of a heavy footstep.

The number of sightings and level of terror begs the question: what might it be that’s stalking up there, alone in the bleak mountain?

Example of a Broken Spectre (which is awesome). Photo by Andrew Smith, via Wikimedia Commons

First, the obvious answers: oxygen deprivation and a monotone landscape could easily lead to auditory and visual hallucinations, as well as a sense of panic. When you combine this with the power of already existing legend, it’s easy to imagine that even the most well-meaning explorer might see something that’s not really there. Another explanation is the fascinating “Brocken spectre,” an optical illusion of an otherworldly, gigantic figure created by the observer’s shadow being cast on the fog in front of him. This is bound to happen at least every once in awhile in all the mists at the top of Ben MacDui, and combined with the aforementioned physical weariness, might make quite the impression.

And for those that don’t accept the Am Fear Liath Mor as a mere trick of the mind? There are a number of theories as to what he might be, ranging from an evil spirit to the abominable snowman. The most interesting wraps the spirit of the Cairngorm in with the Grey Man himself: the creature seems intent on scaring people away, but why? Could it be that he’s guarding something? The Cairngorm, proponents of this theory claim, are a very strange and otherworldly place–perhaps because they are literally a window into another place.

Frightening as he may be, the Big Grey Man might merely be protecting the us humans from something much worse.

Have you ever heard steps that did not coincide with your own? Felt a sudden thrill of fear? Do you now have a Big Grey Idea for your Halloween costume? Share your story in the comments below.

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