Sorry ladies, there’s a man out there called Grey who’s even bigger and badder than that Christian fella. He’s definitely tall, dark, and probably the strong silent type at a guess and he seems to also have a bit of a mean streak, but that’s probably where the analogies end. Unfortunately, you also won’t find him in a Manhattan penthouse or driving sports cars. In fact there’s only one place in the world you may encounter him, and that’s on the lonely and desolate landscape surrounding the mountain of Ben Macdhui, in the Cairngorms of Scotland.
The legend of the Big Grey Man, or Fearlaith Mor as the entity is referred to locally, has been known in the area for centuries, but entered popular folklore when a Professor Norman Collie told a blood-chilling tale in 1889 of his experience on the mountain. Although a professional scientist and chemist, his true vocation was mountaineering and climbing. He climbed the Canadian Rockies, naming 30 of their peaks in the process and was involved in an ill-fated Himalayan expedition to break the yet unclaimed 8,000 metre high Nanga Parbat. With a keen analytical mind, a thirst for adventure and being a pipe smoker and confirmed bachelor, it isn’t surprising that it has been suggested that Collie was the likely inspiration behind Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The point of all this is simply to say Collie was an experienced climber and not prone to superstition or ghost stories. Which makes his tale all the stranger.
“I was taking a short rest on a familiar path, safe and secure in the knowledge that I would soon be back to my comfortable lodgings and in front of a roaring fire, when I thought I heard something else, distant and away in the mist. It caused me no undue concern, and having caught my breath I began to move on.
I was returning from a cairn on the summit in a mist when I began to again think I heard something else than merely the noise of my own footsteps. Every few steps I took would be followed by a crunch of snow from behind, as if someone was walking behind me, but taking steps three or four times the size of my own.
I told myself this was nonsense, and stopped several times to peer behind me into the mist but saw nothing. As I walked on, the eerie crunch would sound again soon after. At the third occurrence I was seized with terror and took to my heels, staggering blindly 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 that place, and I will not go back there again by myself.
Ever since, there have been reports and tales of strange occurrences in the area. Most witnesses describe being gripped with a sense of sheer terror, or of being chased and followed by something with evil intent. Another key component to encounters is the sound of unseen thudding footsteps coming up from behind. One writer fled from the aforementioned Rothiemurchus Forest, chased not only by her perplexed husband, but also by something she could only sense as evil and intent on doing her harm. She describes crossing some kind of invisible boundary within the forest and knowing she was safe, whereas seconds before she knew she had been in considerable danger. The Corrour Bothy, a remote hut that offers shelter to climbers and hikers is another place where the slamming of doors and a sense of dread and terror has sent many an occupier back out into the weather.
The Big Grey Man though is rarely, if ever seen. There are many reports of a shadowy figure obscured by the mist or fog, but very few come face to face with it. That said, one group of climbers described getting a glimpse of an immense humanoid that had sent an entire deer herd and other denizens of the mountain running down a slope at them in terror, a hint at which they were only too happy to take up on. Another described a horrible, giant face grinning at him from the cover of some rocks. He fled in terror as seems the precedent, but when he eventually returned to the place and measured the outcrop, he realised the figure must have been standing behind a particular rock, making it nearly 10 metres tall, which had been his original estimate!
Many have suggested that the Big Grey Man is actually a rare atmospheric phenomena known as a broken spectre. This is where the low winter sun can distort your own shadow through gaps in the clouds, projecting it onto layers of mist below, and there are a few places within the Big Grey Man’s territory that this strange spectacle can be seen, most notably Lurcher’s Crag. The effect is often accompanied by a ‘glorie’, or rainbow halo. The only issue with this explanation is that it occurs below you, not above as seems to be the case for most encounters of Fearlaith Mor.
It seems that given the sense of dread, the need to flee from a place in terror and the unseen presence of the entity, the Big Grey Man is more likely something supernatural than a physical beast. A powerful and malevolent guardian spirit of the land, in this case the mountain of Ben Macdhui.
What the Big Grey Man most certainly isn’t though, is Britain’s version of Bigfoot, despite what the show Finding Bigfoot tried to suggest in it’s recent UK special. We do seem to have genuine sightings of hairy hominids, with intriguing recent cases in North Yorkshire for instance, but they have nothing to do with this seemingly tulpa-like entity. Please take note, as I have come across far too many blogs and articles suggesting otherwise! After all, it sounds like the last thing we need to do is piss this thing off further!
I have always been drawn to the legend of Fearlaith Mor, and do one day plan to scale Ben Macdhui to investigate the place for myself. I could be one of the many who encounter nothing but breathtaking Scottish scenery and a beautiful natural wilderness. Or maybe, just maybe, I’ll find a spiritual sentry of unnatural wildness…
Cover image produced with kind permission from Monstrum Athenaeum. http://monstrumathenaeum.org/