Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Grey Man of Ben Macdhui

A Brocken Spectre Caught
on Camera in Poland
Tales go back more than a century of a misty, ephemeral giant that haunts the heights of Scotland's Ben Macdhui, the second highest summit in that country's Cairngorm mountains. Known as the 'Grey Man' (or Fear Liath Mhor in Gaelic), the entity has been described a vaguely manlike figure born of mist that frightens hikers, forcing them to become lost or fall off a cliff. Other tales have told of attendant music and giant footprints as well.

One of the earliest sightings of the Grey Man may have been by one Professor Norman Collie who related his encounter to members of the Cairngorm Club in 1925. Collie recounted how in 1891, as he descended the peak of Ben Macdhui, he heard footfalls shadowing his own, but the spacing was such that Collie imagined the invisible companion's stride to be 3 or 4 times that of his own. He attempted to dismiss the sound as some peculiar distortion of his own footsteps but they appeared to be getting closer. In a panic, he raced precariously amid the boulders for 4 or 5 miles to the safety of the Rothiemurchus Forest. Collie would state thereafter that he no longer ascended the mountain alone.

Around the turn of the 20th Century, a man named Henry Kellas was rumored to have seen a giant form on Ben Macdhui, but his story could not be confirmed. He died climbing Everest in 1921.

Avid climber and hunter Alexander Tewnion was surmounting Ben Macdhui in 1943 when he became caught up in a storm. He couldn't help but think of the legend of the Fear Liath Mhor as the mists swelled around him and a strange shape manifested itself therein. Tewnion grabbed his rifle and fired three times as the entity lunged toward him. Clearly bullets had no effect and so Tewnion turned and ran.

In 1945, Peter Densham heard the same peculiar footsteps that so frightened Collie. He, too, fled the mountain in fear, which seemed odd to many given Densham's stalwart nature: he ran air rescue missions in the Cairngorns throughout the war.

It should be noted that many of these encounters have occurred along the Coire Etchachan, a valley off Ben Macdhui's eastern slope.

Some believe the legend is based in an atmospheric phenomenon known as a Brocken Spectre. This is when the sun casts shadows of hikers on nearby mists, making it look like a shadowy giant is lurking in the fog nearby. As for the footsteps, some attribute the sound to cryoseismic activity on the oft-frigid mountaintop. Additionally, the panic felt by these witnesses isn't new. "Climber's panic" often manifests itself as paranoia and can effect even seasoned mountaineers, becoming frightened, paranoid, and disoriented. However, this usually occurs on summits much higher than Ben Macdhui and is thought to be caused by a lack of oxygen.

So, is the Grey Man legend all a mountaineer's tall tale spun to entertain his club or is there something lurking in the mists of Ben Macdhui?

You're reading The Grey Man of Ben Macdhui by Cullan Hudson, originally posted on If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out the blog.