The Big Grey Man of the Cairngorms - not to be mist?

Myth and Legend

The Big Grey Man of the Cairngorms - not to be mist?

Rising to 4,295 feet, Ben Macdui is the highest peak in the Cairngorm plateau and the second highest mountain in Scotland. Whilst the terrain is rugged, and the weather often capricious, the greatest fear of climbers tackling Ben Macdui can be meeting up with a mysterious being said to haunt the upper regions of the mountain.

There has long been talk of a Big Grey Man in the Cairngorm mountains. Known locally for decades, the legend entered popular folklore when Professor Normal Collie, a renowned climber and scientist, reported experiences he'd had years before at a meeting of the Cairngorm Club in 1925.

In addition to the being the first Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of London and a Fellow of the Royal Society, Collie was seen as one of the most proficient and esteemed mountaineers of the time. Collie's wide climbing experience ranged from the Himalayas to the Rockies. Described as "shy and reserved with strangers," it must have been a shock to many when he recounted an experience he claimed occurred on the summit of Ben Macdui in 1891.

He recalled hearing slow, deliberate footsteps – one vast step for every three or four of his own – following him on the mountain.

“As I walked on and 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,” Collie said.

What Collie had experienced was a classic case of a brush with the Big Grey Man (Am Fear Liath Mòr) of Ben Macdui, an enduring myth of an extremely large, North American Bigfoot/Sasquatch-like grey figure covered in short hair. Wherever the Grey Man ventures, he is said to be accompanied by a sense of irrational panic and dread.

In October 1943, soldier Alexander Tewnion reached the summit and immediately noticed, in the swirling mist, that “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." He then said a strange shape loomed up, receded, and came charging at him! "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…”

More rational minds point to a possible explanation for the terrifying sightings. This is the Brocken spectre –  a rare atmospheric effect caused by the projection of the human shadow on to mist and cloud, sometimes accompanied by a rainbow halo called a glory. Such Brocken spectres have sometimes been witnessed on Ben Macdui when conditions have been right, but could that alone be the cause of the fear that overcomes experienced climbers and scientists?

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