For the last 50 years or so the Northern Corries of the Cairngorm Mountains have been a winter playground for skiers and snowboarders alike, with months of deep snow covering the high peaks. In summer however, with only a few secluded snow patches left, these craggy slopes become the preserve of the intrepid few who want to climb deep into the broad plateau. And, this vastness is really what defines the Cairngorms, or Monadh Ruadh: an empty, barren, snow-speckled, rocky morass wedged between the fertile, whisky rich Strathspey to the north, and the rolling, forested hills of Royal Deeside to the south.
At well over 3700ft for the most part, these mountains are as close as we can get in the British Isles to a true wilderness and an arctic climate. Topping out at 4296ft, the highest peak is the remote Ben Macdui (Beinn Mac Duibh) – a great dome of pink granite rising high above the cleft of the Lairg Ghru Pass. From the top on a clear day ridge after ridge, peak after peak stretches out before it, blue in the haze; it’s a sublime scene and by yourself it affords a degree of solitude hard to find anywhere else. It also hides a dark secret.
We have all at one time or another had the uneasy feeling of not being alone, a sense that can often be heightened when hiking by yourself, but here in the heart of the Cairngorms, on lonely Ben Macdui this feeling runs much deeper: inducing a dread and intense fear. For centuries the local people have believed that the mountain is haunted by a giant ghost known as ‘Am Fear Liath Mòr’ – the Great Grey Man. The story would however, become mainstream in the early years of the 20th century, with a strange after-dinner talk.
Norman Collie, a university professor and an experienced hill-walker, was giving a speech at the AGM dinner of the Cairngorm Club, and it sparked to life the legend of the haunted mountain: “I was returning from the summit”, began Collie, “when I began to think I heard something other than my own footsteps on the rocks. For every few steps I took I heard a crunch, and then another, as if something was walking after me, but taking steps three or four times the length of my own. I listened in the mist, but could see nothing. As I walked on, and the eerie crunching came closer I was seized with terror and took to my heels, staggering blindly among the boulders for mile after mile. Whatever you make of it, I don’t know but there is something very queer about the top of Ben Macdui, and I will not go back there again by myself I know.”
Another famous mountaineer, Dr Kellas (who would die on an Everest expedition in 1921), came across Collie’s story, and it reminded him of a strange incident on the mountain, and his account was published in the local newspaper: “Kellas and his brother had been chipping for crystals in the late afternoon below the summit of Ben Macdui, when they both saw a giant, grey figure come towards them out of the mist. The figure then momentarily disappeared from view as it entered a dip. The two men made a run for it, allegedly pursued into Coire Etchachan.”
It would be these two stories that would set the trend for other reported incidents in the Cairngorms. All would tell of either lumbering footsteps crunching towards them, or of huge grey figures looming out of the swirling mists. Most can be explained as paranoia and the effects of loneliness on these high hills – especially when the mist descends as it often does, and even more so if already primed with the tales. Not all can be flights of fancy though, and some require deeper investigation.
Wendy Wood, one of the pioneers of the Scottish National Party and about as rounded and rational person you could ever meet, was gripped by a blind panic when walking through the Lairg Ghru Pass. After hearing a strange noise, and thinking it might have been a fallen climber she went to see if she if she could help. Suddenly, she was overwhelmed by the feeling that she was being followed by someone, or something, with an enormous stride. Spooked, she took off down the hill, not stopping until she reached the Whitewell Farm, some five miles off. Wendy Wood knew nothing of the legend. Others did know of it, and dismissed it out of hand.
Peter Densham, a local forester and climbing enthusiast, decided one day in 1945 to climb Ben Macdui and arrived at the summit cairn around noon. It was a clear day and the panorama from Britain’s second highest mountain that day was breathtaking. However, the mist soon descended and he decided to finish off his lunch and make his way back. Knowing the hill well, he was in no way disturbed by the mist and poor visibility. Setting off he soon heard the familiar ‘crunch, crunch’ on the plateau behind him. Intrigued rather than afraid he went to investigate, thinking of the Grey Man and the paranoia of others. As he got closer he too was suddenly accosted by a sense of foreboding and his desire to flee the mountain became intense. Without even thinking, instinct took over and he was soon running hell for leather to the valley below, barely missing the steep cliffs of Lurchers’ Crag. Peter Densham was left shaken, and utterly convinced that something unnatural stalked the mountains.
The stories of this kind are legion, most only hear the noises, but some actually see strange figures. Seaton Gordon: “It was a cold and stormy day with frequent snow showers when I crossed the high plateau to Coire an t-sneachda, when I saw a man of greyish complexion following me. He was in his shirt-sleeves and had no coat about him, although the day was bitterly cold. When I reached the edge of the corrie the mysterious figure disappeared.” He thought it bizarre, but not frightening. Seaton Gordon was one of the great Cairngorm experts, and not given over to fairy tales and fabrication.
There have been many theories as to what people are seeing or hearing as they wander these remote hills. Often the events take place when the mist is low, leading some experts to claim that the sightings at least are the phenomenon known as a Brocken Spectre (a shadow silhouetted on the mist). But, these are rare and wouldn’t explain why two men sitting saw a figure walking towards them. It also can’t explain the noises. That might be the action of freeze-thaw on the rocks as the temperature drops in the mist, but it is a strange thing. The Great Grey Man has a Gaelic name, in a part of the world where Gaelic hasn’t been spoken for over 150 years – suggesting a long standing tradition. Indeed locals have, and still do, take the apparition for granted.
Undoubtedly, most sightings and incidents are tricks of the light, natural phenomena and the work of overactive imaginations; and similar accounts of haunted mountains were commonplace across the Highlands in days gone by. But, Ben Macdui is a large, isolated and lonely mountain and maybe deep in its granite kingdom the otherworld still walks with earthly feet.