“I was returning from the summit, 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.” This was the strange tale told in 1925 by Norman Collie, a highly respected university professor and very experienced hillwalker, during a speech he gave at the AGM dinner of the Cairngorm Club. He’d told the story once before, back in 1891 to a group of climbing enthusiasts in New Zealand, but to little record, beyond a short column entry in a local newspaper; this time however was different, and it set in train the modern retelling of an ancient myth, one that speaks of a sinister, unearthly being, a wraith, which stalks the desolate, rock-strewn plateau of Britain highest range, the Cairngorms.
For the last sixty years or so the Northern corries and ridges of the Cairngorm Mountains have been a winter playground for skiers and snowboarders alike, with months of deep snow covering the high tops. In summer however, with only a few secluded snow patches left, these craggy slopes become the preserve of intrepid hikers who want to climb deeper into the broad plateau and dome-like landscapes of the interior where huge horizons of mountain ridges and valleys sweep away in all directions. The most remote of these summits take some effort and the altitude plays havoc with the weather, which can turn a bright summer’s day into a freezing blizzard in minutes. The mist can descend in a heartbeat, and the featureless terrain simply melds into oneness and a loss of bearings is not for the faint hearted, even experienced Alpine climbers have become unstuck. The boundless vistas give way to abandoned solitude amid unfathomable vastness. And it is this sense of vast that is really the hallmark of the Cairngorms, or Monadh Ruadh. Although the bustling car park is only a few miles away, it could be on the other side of the moon.
For the most part, the two principal plateaus of the range rise to an average height of around 3700ft above sea-level and are as close as we can get in the British Isles to a true sub-arctic wilderness, furnished with those variable and unpredictable meteorological mood-swings. Topping out at 4296ft, the highest peak is the remote Ben Macdui, or Beinn Mac Duibh in Gaelic: a great dome of pink granite with sheer cliffs towering 2000ft above the cleft of the Lairg Ghru Pass. On a clear day, sitting alone on the summit as the majestic panorama of the Grampian Mountains rolls away from you it is truly breath-taking and well worth the slog over ice-broken rock-fields and summer snows to get to. But it has a menacing side too when the weather turns, disturbing even. For when the clouds roll in and the mercury drops, a dark malevolent sense of the supernatural begins to creep in, penetrating every fibre. The mountain will take no prisoners.
This is not an unusual sensation, nor unique to Ben Macdui, indeed it’s perfectly natural to become uneasy, even claustrophobic when alone and disorientated on a mist-covered hill with low visibility, but here in the heart of the Cairngorms this feeling seems to run much deeper: bringing on not just anxiety, but an intense and genuine fear. Not fear for your life, or fear of being lost, but real panic-attack fear, made all the more intense by its suddenness, manifesting itself out of nowhere. Not for nothing is it called the ‘haunted mountain’, nor a quirky fairy tale to be told over dinner. For centuries, the local people have believed that these mountains are haunted by a giant ghost known as ‘Am Fear Liath Mòr’: The Great Grey Man, a phantom spoken about in hushed voices, or when liberated by one or two of the local whiskies. He is the bogeyman, the veiled threat to errant children to do as they’re told; an ever-present sentinel among the rocks and cliffs; respected and feared in equal measure, but very, very real.
Dr Alexander Kellas was a highly respected Scottish explorer who’d ascended several Himalayan peaks in excess of 20,000ft, and a qualified chemist who combined his passion for climbing with research on how altitude effects the body and pioneered work on oxygen combinations required to hit the highest tops such as Everest. Sadly, he would perish on an expedition to the Roof of the World in 1921 doing the reconnaissance work for the 1922 and 1924 ascent attempts by Mallory’s team. However, he was most at home in the hills of his own backyard, and on reading Collie’s original account from the 1890s it reminded him of a curious incident he had on Ben Macdui as well. His account was published in the local newspaper: “Kellas and his brother [Henry] had been chipping for quartz 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.” Thanks to his time in Nepal, Dr Kellas had heard similar tales of the Yeti, and in some parallel universe he imagined this being as some long-lost cousin.
It would be these intriguing tales, told by two professional, sober men who fired into life the modern recounting of the Great Grey Man. The stories of eerie footsteps, crunching behind the walker getting closer, or the sightings of a huge apparition lumbering through the swirling mist and fog came to consistently define most experiences of those who came across the phenomena on the mountain. These occurrences were often accompanied by plummeting temperatures, a keen awareness of being watched, and then the sudden grip of terror which drove the hikers to blindly run in sheer fright, often towards the deadly cliffs and gullies surrounded the plateau. In recalling the event, witnesses seem to feel they were trapped in a dream-like state and simply had to flee, and in the moment nothing else mattered. Mystifying stuff; and experienced by even the most pragmatic of people.
Wendy Wood, was one of the more colourful pioneers of the Scottish Independence movement and a very level-headed and shrewd operator. This was not a woman who was taken to flights of fancy, and yet even this most rational and logical of people became unnerved while walking through the narrow and gloomy Lairg Ghru Pass, slicing through the looming crags of the high tops linking the fertile plains of the rivers Dee and Spey to the south and north. After hearing a strange moaning noise echoing through the valley, and thinking it may have been a fallen climber, lying hurt among the snow and boulders she went to see if she if she could lend some help. Suddenly, a sixth sense told her that she was being followed by someone, or something, with a truly enormous stride, and her growing unease quickly escalated into raw terror. Without even thinking, she took off down the hill at full pelt, not stopping until she reached the Whitewell Farm, some five miles off. As she laced her boots that morning and looked forward to a great day’s hike, she was completely unaware of the legend of the ghost. This was a totally unexpected and rather disturbing experience. Others, however, were very aware of the stories having grown up with them, and yet dismissed them out of and as fairy tales.
In 1945, towards the end of the Second World War, local forester and walker Peter Densham, took advantage of a day off and decided to climb up onto Ben Macdui, arriving at the summit cairn around noon. It was a clear day and the views spectacular. Ben Nevis, the only peak in Britain higher stood proud in the distant hazy sunshine. Conditions were perfect for a good day in the hills. However, and as it often happens, a thick mist soon descended, and he decided to polish off his lunch and make his way back down. Knowing the hill well, he was in no way disturbed by the mist and poor visibility. Packed up, he set off, but had barely gone any distance when he soon heard the familiar ‘crunch, crunch’ behind him. Intrigued rather than afraid he went to investigate, thinking of the Grey Man and the paranoia of others. But as he got closer to where the sound was coming from, he too was quite violently overtaken by an intense, primal desire to flee. Without even thinking, some deep instinct switched on and he too was soon running full speed to the valley below. Blinded, he just missed careering off the steep cliffs of Lurchers’ Crag to certain death. Peter Densham was left shaken, and utterly convinced that something unnatural stalked the mountain. He never went back again.
The stories of this kind are legion, the core of which are all very similar, like those of climber Hugh Walsh in 1904 who recorded ‘slurring footsteps’ on the top of Ben Macdui, combined with a ‘strange sense of apprehension’. There are others who have claimed to have had conversations with the ‘Man’ while entranced, others have heard a singing or wailing seemingly coming from the ground itself associated with a strong feeling of sadness or extreme depression, and there are those who, like the Kellas brothers have seen an actual being walking over the ridges and outcrops. Others have had very close encounters. Published in 1958 was the story of Alexander Tewnion a well-known naturalist: “. . . just as I reached the summit cairn of Ben Macdui, 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 my 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”.
Seaton Gordon, local expert had a slightly different experience when out walking: “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.
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 Highlands where Gaelic hasn’t been a community language for over a hundred years – suggesting a long-standing tradition. Indeed, locals in both Speyside and Deeside 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 mountain, isolated and moody, and maybe deep in its granite prison the otherworld still walks with earthly feet.