The year was 1890 and John Norman Collie, a respected scientist and explorer was walking in the Cairngorms. This area now popular with tourists, mountaineers and skiers was an even more desolate and unexplored spot back then. As he approached the summit of Ben MacDhui, The highest peak in this range and the second highest in Scotland (1309 meters or 4296 feet) he was enveloped by a thick mist that reduced his visibility. While in this eerie mist he had an experience that so terrified him that he did not speak a word of it until 35 years later!
At the 1925 Annual General Meeting of the Cairngorm Club he finally broke his silence:
“I was returning from the cairn on the summit in a mist when I began to think I heard something else than merely the noise of my own footsteps. For every few steps I heard a crunch, and then another crunch as if someone was walking after me but taking steps three or four times the length of my own. I said to myself this is all nonsense. I listened and heard it again but could see nothing in the mist. 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 nearly down to Rothiemurchus Forest. Whatever you make of it I do not know, but there is something very queer about the top of Ben Macdhui and I will not go back there myself I know.”
Having broken his silence Collie discovered that he was not the only person who had experienced something terrifying on these slopes. He received letters from other climbers who had also had this feeling of terror or in some cases who had seen a large dark shape coming towards them on the mountain. This sinister creature has become known as the “Fear Liath” or “Am Fear Liath Mòr” (also known as The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui).
In another account from 1943 mountaineer Alexander Tewnion claimed that he had actually shot at a creature with his revolver. He had been climbing Ben MacDhui when a thick mist descended so he descended by the Coire Etchachan path. He heard footsteps nearby and remembering the account from professor Collie he peered cautiously into the mist. A strange shape loomed up and came charging towards him. Pulling out his gun he fired three times and then turned and towards Glen Derry.
From the few descriptions of the creature he is said to be quite large and broad shouldered, standing fully erect and over 10 feet tall, with long waving arms. He is also described as having an olive complexion or, alternatively, covered with short brown hair. However, in the majority of cases the creature is only heard or sensed among the high passes of the mountain. He is most often seen just below the skyline near the Lairg Ghru Pass, walkers who sense his presence are almost always overwhelmed with a sense of dread or terror. In some cases the feeling becomes so intense that walkers are drawn to the dangerous cliff edges almost preparing to throw themselves into the abyss, some say that the he is trying to send climbers over the edge of a precipitous drop at Lurcher’s Crag.
These descriptions are very interesting as they are very similar to the reported sightings and accompanying feelings reported in North America by those who have witnessed the ‘Sasquatch’ or ‘Big Foot’.
One explanation for the sightings could be an atmospheric phenomenon known as a ‘Brocken Spectre’. Named after a mountain in Germany it occurs when the sun at a low angle casts a persons shadow on low lying cloud or mist. However not all sightings could be attributed to optical illusions and the sense of panic and sounds of footsteps were less easy to explain away. Some research has uncovered other sites where this ‘mountain panic’ has been recorded: Three of these are on the Isle of Skye and other sites have been found at Bennachie near Aberdeen and Allt Innis a’Mhuill, Glen Strathfarrar. There are also sites in England and Wales where walkers have been overwhelmed with feelings of dread.
Whether these feelings sounds and sightings are down to psychological or optical phenomena is hard to prove however one thing is for sure – the climbers who scale this ghostly mountain keep their ears tuned for the sound of the Grey Man of Ben Macdhui stalking them through the mist!