J Norman Collie was a respected scientist – responsible for the first ever medical x-ray – and experienced mountain climber; a man with a couple of mountain’s named in his honour, and who apparently inspired some traits in Sherlock Holmes (namely Collie’s life-long bachelor status and solicitor roommate, apparently). But it’s a speech at the AGM of the Cairngorm Club in Aberdeen in 1925 that Collie is most known for, when he told of his 1891 climb on Ben Macdui – located in the Cairngorms Mountain Range, and the second tallest peak in the UK – as it’s from here that the story of a mysterious creature inhabiting the peak of Ben Macdui is most often credited to.
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 to length of my own… as 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.
He described the unsettling feelings he had when on the mountain, and vowed never to return alone. It’s Collie’s story that is regarded as the sometimes the first, but almost always as the most authoritative telling of the Cairngorms monster – the Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui.
Although there have been many reported encounters with the BGM, few reports, much like Collie’s tale, mention the creature in the flesh. From what we have learned though, most the descriptions have him as extremely tall, usually around 10ft, sometimes 20ft, and covered in a thick fur, which is, of course, grey. He has pointed ears on a disproportionately large head and neck, and usually with long finger-like toes. The Big Grey Man also walks up straight, unlike a stooped ape, and perhaps more like Bigfoot (at least in the Patterson footage Bigfoot, anyway). Some sightings even reportedly have him wearing a tophat, presumably taken from a Victorian gentleman climber who became an unfortunate victim. Sadly this never seems to feature in the artists’ impressions.
What largely sets BGM apart from the various giant ape-humanoid creatures around the world is his supernatural powers – he has the ability to control the fog, choosing usually to cloud himself in it, and can manipulate emotions at will, inducing fear, despair, and driving both humans and animals to jump to their deaths from the mountain in order to escape him. It’s these feelings, alongwith the imposing sound of following footsteps, that mark the numerous sightings which followed.
Another climber, Hugh D Welsh, reported a trip in 1904 on the peak when he heard ‘slurring footsteps’ and ‘an eerie feeling of apprehension’, and, after speaking to the locals after leaving the hill, was told he had come into contact with Am Fear Laith Mor, the Gaelic name for the BGM.
Footsteps following you, and the eerie feelings invoked as if from nowhere, are two of the most common calling cards of the BGM – another account from a Tom Crowley (then head of the Moray Mountaineering Club) in 1920 reported footsteps, and, on Braeraich, another peak in the Cairngorms near Ben Macdui, apparently saw a creature with pointed ears, long legs, and finger-like talons on its feet. In 1948 Richard Frere wrote in a book about the creature of a presence which was “utterly abstract, but intensely real” and heard a high singing note, and in December of 1952 James Alan Rennie photographed a series of tracks in the show, along around 19in long and 14in wide.
One of the most exciting interactions with Am Fear Laith Mor, though, comes from Alexander Tenion, who went to the Cairngorms to hunt the local wildlife. From The Scots Magazine in 1958:
In October 43 I spent a ten-day leave climbing alone in the Cairngorms. One afternoon, just as I reached the summit cairn of Ben Macdui, 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.
This appears to be the only time someone took a shot at the BGM – or least the only time anyone did it and got away. And this is just a sample of the sightings, with them continuing into the present day. In the early 1990s there were reportedly two sightings within weeks of each other, both by a trio of men who first saw a dark figure moving through the woods around a forestry track in Aberdeenshire they were walking along, with one of them seeing a face which was “human… but not human”. One of them threw a rock at it, but if Tenion couldn’t gun the thing down they also didn’t have much luck either. Then, weeks later, as the men were driving to Torphins, near the Cairngorms National Park, they claimed their car was pursed by the same figure, even as they drove at over 40mph. A friend of the men later told them she saw a similar figure watching a cottage she was staying in in the area, before disappearing into the forest. This, if anything, shows the BGM is straying slightly from his familiar stomping ground of Ben Macdui.
As Scotland’s answer to Bigfoot, there are several competing ideas out there as to what, who, the Grey Man actually is. Like many other humanoid great apes, one of the main theories surrounding the BGM is that it is a relic of a lost species of giant apes, or an as-yet officially undiscovered species, either native to the area, or one which has somehow wandered into the Cairngorms and made a home there. Dr Karl PN Shuker, in his writings on the subject, floated several other ideas that range from sensible to, to be honest, wild – oxygen deficiency; a marooned alien; a mystical holy man; and even a guardian to a window, or interface, to another dimension or world located at the peak. He certainly does a good job of chasing people away.
The Big Grey Man is often seen to embody the loneliness and danger of the vast outdoors where they are reputed to live – this is what Norman G Forbes, a climber writing in reply to Collie’s Cairngorm Club speech, said: “the mind, in lonely places create many things out its imaging” and singled out the Cairngorms of their eeriness. It should be noted as well, in this context, that while Collie was a respected scientist, and should be remembered as such, he was also a firm believer in the occult, and would whole-heartedly embrace stories of the Loch Ness Monster in the decades to follow. Skeptics would point out that, like many reported ghost sightings, the effects caused by infrasound – a low-frequency sound below 20Hz which is generated both in controlled experiments, and can also occur naturally, via wind, jet streams, and storms – can include feelings of awe or fear. Infrasound created by wind blowing through old pipes in an abandoned hospital, for example, could lead people to assume ghosts, or some kind of entity, is nearby.
And lastly, what of the sightings of the Grey Man? Multiple people have reported not just hearing footsteps and feelings of unease, but have, like Tenion, came face to face with the creature? The explaination for this is the ‘Brocken spectre’ – a naturally occurring phenomenon where the sun casts a shadow from behind the observer onto clouds opposite them. The clouds magnify the size of the shadow as it converges on the antisolar point.
A sighting of a monstrous figure on Ben Macdui which predates the stories above, by poet James Hogg*, who claimed to have, in 1791, seen a 30ft man, and was “struck powerless with astonishment and terror” while tending to sheep on the mountain. He saw the creature again the next day, but this performed an experiment – he removed his hat, and saw it did the same, and realised it to be the Brocken illusion. While this can explain away a number of sightings, it doesn’t explain entirely where the ideas of talon-like toes come in, or what those men near Torphins saw. Ultimately, all we can really know at the moment for sure is that, supernatural or otherwise, there are places which could forever remain intriguing and mysterious.
*A side note: while it was never clarified in any of the articles I read, I assume this is the same James Hogg who wrote The Confessions and Memoirs of a Justified Sinner, in which an incident involving the Brocken illusion appears. Hogg would have been 21 at the time, and worked as a shepard for long periods of his life.