Towering above the moorland of the southern edge of the Cairn Gorm plateau, in the eastern highlands of the country of Scotland, looms the formidable presence of the mountain known as Ben Macdui. Standing tall with a snow speckled peak soaring up 4296 feet into the grey clouds above, it is the second highest mountain in Scotland, a wild place full of natural grandeur that has inspired legend and adventure, and has generated its share of strange legends as well. Here is a place wreathed in seemingly eternal mists and fog that blanket the area like a thick soup, lending it an otherworldly ambiance, and throughout the ages there has been said to be something from beyond the periphery shifting through that murk, something very large lumbering through the swirling fog to perplex all those who look upon it. This is the Am Fear Liath Mor, the legendary Big Grey Man of Scotland.
The entity has been seen for centuries, with one of the first real detailed accounts coming from 1791, when a poet by the name of James Hogg found himself trudging through this foggy, almost dream-like realm while tending sheep. As he stared off into the murky, fog obscured distance, something came lumbering into view, preceded by a rumbling disturbance that spooked the sheep. He would say of the towering beast that stood before him:
It was a giant blackamoor, at least thirty feet high, and equally proportioned, and very near me. I was actually struck powerless with astonishment and terror.
After returning the next day the massive goliath reappeared there in the mist, like some monolithic impossible statue from another era or world, and this time when Hogg removed his hat the colossal thing before him did the same thing. He would come to the conclusion that the mysterious phenomenon was merely his own shadow distorted through some atmospheric condition he could not possibly hope to understand, but this was certainly not the end of the legend of the Big Grey Man. It would be seen sporadically through the years wandering about these cold peaks, usually described as being at least 10 feet in height, often even larger, with long arms, an ape-like visage, and covered with short, grey fur. In more surreal accounts it is described as even wearing a long, dark coat and top hat. It is more often than not said to exude a profound sense of unease and fear that almost seems to come in waves, and strange music in its passing is not uncommon.
In 1904 there was a report from biologist Hugh Welsh, who had been up on the mountain collecting plant and animal samples along with his brother. Welsh would say that they often were aware of the heavy steps of enormous feet stomping about outside of the periphery of their vision, although they were never able to see exactly what was producing them. Oddly, these incidents were always accompanied by a tangible sense of dread and apprehension that hung in the air.
A very well-known sighting occurred in 1891, when a mountaineer, highly respected professor of organic chemistry at University College London, and Fellow of the Royal Society, a J. Norman Collie, was on the desolate mountain and had his own encounter with the mysterious entity, when he heard something enormous treading along behind him as if following him through the mist, followed by an overwhelming and crippling wave of inexplicable terror that washed over him. Collie would sit on his spooky experience for years, before finally describing what he had seen at a speech at the 27th Annual General Meeting of the Cairngorm Club in 1925, during which he would explain:
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 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 again by myself I know.
Considering the pedigree of this witness, the legend of the Big Grey Man was given a sort of infusion of new life with this report, and Collie was soon after contacted by another chemistry teacher by the name of Dr. A.M. Kellas, who had been emboldened to come forward with his own spooky report to relate. Kellas would say that he had been with his brother upon Ben Macdui when they had seen a colossal grey figure over 10 feet in height stomping towards them from the cairn before seemingly vanishing into thin air, perhaps disappearing behind a rocky pass in the relentless fog. They were not immune to the blanket of fear the thing was said to cast, and were infused with such a panic that they ran far from there as fast as they could, the whole time convinced that the bizarre entity was pursuing them through the gloomy mist.
Such sightings and encounters would continue on into later years as well. In 1939, the adventurer Alastair Borthwick would write of a report of the creature in his book Always a Little Further, in which he recounts an encounter with the mystery beast involving two climber friends of his. The two climbers had apparently been out on the mountain when they had been plagued by the unshakable feeling that they were being followed by something immense out there in the mist beyond where their vision could reach. Borthwick would write of these tales:
The first was alone, heading over MacDhui for Corrour on a night when the snow had a hard, crisp crust through which his boots broke at every step. He reached the summit and it was while he was descending the slopes which fall towards the Larig that he heard footsteps behind him, footsteps not in the rhythm of his own, but occurring only once for every three steps he took. “I felt a queer crinkly feeling in the back of my neck,” he told me, “but I said to myself, ‘This is silly, there must be a reason for it.’ So I stopped, and the footsteps stopped, and I sat down and tried to reason it out. I could see nothing. There was a moon about somewhere, but the mist was fairly thick. The only thing I could make of it was that when my boots broke through the snow-crust they made some sort of echo. But then every step should have echoed, and not just this regular one-in-three. I was scared stiff. I got up, and walked on, trying hard not to look behind me. I got down all right – the footsteps stopped a thousand feet above the Larig – and I didn’t run. But if anything had so much as said ‘Boo!’ behind me, I’d have been down to Corrour like a streak of lightning!”
The second man’s experience was roughly similar. He was on MacDhui, and alone. He heard footsteps. He was climbing in daylight, in summer; but so dense was the mist that he was working by compass, and visibility was almost as poor as it would have been at night. The footsteps he heard were made by something or someone trudging up the fine screes which decorate the upper parts of the mountain, a thing not extraordinary in itself, though the steps were only a few yards behind him, but exceedingly odd when the mist suddenly cleared and he could see no living thing on the mountain, at that point devoid of cover of any kind.
“Did the steps follow yours exactly?” I asked him. “No,” he said. “That was the funny thing. They didn’t. They were regular all right; but the queer thing was that they seemed to come once for every two and a half steps I took.” He thought it queerer still when I told him the other man’s story. You see, he was long-legged and six feet tall, and the first man was only five-feet-seven. Once I was out with a search-party on MacDhui; and on the way down after an unsuccessful day I asked some of the gamekeepers and stalkers who were with us what they though of it all. They worked on MacDhui, so they should know. Had they seen Ferlas Mor? Did he exist, or was it just a silly story? They looked at me for a few seconds, and then one said: “We do not talk about that.
In 1940 Scottish author R. Macdonald Robertson and a friend were camped up on the mountain when they allegedly were jolted awake by the incessant growls and barking of the dog they had brought along. As the men listened to the night they say they could hear the approach of thudding steps in the gravel, with each one bringing more of a panicked reaction from the dog, indeed within themselves, and fading away as they passed and the dog gradually relaxed, as did they. There was also an account from 1942 of climber Sydney Scroggie, who saw there on the mountain “a tall, stately, human figure, appear out of the blackness on one side of the loch, and clearly silhouetted against the water pace with long, deliberate steps across the combined burns just where they enter the loch.” No evidence such as footprints could be found.
In 1945 there was also the experience of mountaineer Peter Densham, who claimed to have felt a thick dread approach from the fog, as well as the 1948 report of climber Richard Frere, who said that he had felt “a presence, utterly abstract but intensely real.” Frere would find the courage to look out from his tent and see something massive, 20-feet in height and brownish in color and with “an air of insolent strength” moving away off into the moonlight. Oddly, Frere would describe hearing some sort of ethereal, strange pipe music echoing through the air at the time of the sighting. In 1958 there was the account published in The Scots magazine, by naturalist and adventurer Alexander Tewnion, who had his own frightening and rather dramatic experience in 1943, of which he would write:
In October 1943 I spent a ten day leave climbing alone in the Cairngorms… One afternoon, just as I reached the summit cairn of Ben MacDhui, 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.
Such sightings would continue into even more modern times still. In the 1990s, we have the account of three witnesses who say they were hiking in the area when they came across a dark, human-shaped figure that ran with incredible speed across the track in front of them, and which exuded a “sense of terror and foreboding.” When they approached the area where the thing had been, one of the witnesses apparently saw through the branches of the trees a face that looked “human, but not human.” One of them gathered the courage to perhaps foolishly fling a stone its way, and it retreated into the wilderness. The beast would later chase their car, managing to keep up with the vehicle up to 45 mph before tiring and giving up.
There was also an account from 2004, when Scottish ghost hunter Tom Robertson was in the area when he and his companion saw a 10-foot-tall figure next to their tent. It then apparently reached a hand over the tent to send it collapsing, and they described what they say looked like a “big grey gorilla” standing there frosted in the moonlight. The creature left, and the pair got out of there as fast as they could, finding large footprints left behind as they did. In 2005, a witness named Peter George would have his own encounter, saying:
Out of the corner of my eye, over to the left towards the stream, I caught a glimpse of a tall grey figure. At first I thought it was one of our party, although all of them were inside the bothy. Turned to look properly and couldn’t see anyone.
The following year, in June of 2006, a witness named Steven Pedlar was with his father Roy when they heard anomalous footsteps behind them, as if stalking them. In that same year, in September, there was an anonymous witness who said of his experience:
I was climbing back down Ben MacDhui in May 1988 when I experienced the footsteps phenomenon mentioned by others. It was pretty misty and I was alone. But it was like ’something’ was behind me, only 10 metres or so, keeping track of me. I back-tracked to see if anyone was there. I didn’t see anything, but it was weird enough to scare me, particularly as the sounds occurred both when I was moving or stationary. It was only after I told this story to a Glasgow cousin years later that I first heard about the Grey Man.
It seems remarkable that such an entity should exist up in the mountains of Scotland, of all places, and it has certainly generated its share of theories on what people could be experiencing out there. In addtion to the ideas that it could all just be hallucinations, illusions, or the mind otherwise playing tricks on the witnesses, a prominent theory is that these sightings are the result of an atmospheric phenomenon typically referred to as a “broken specter.” In this case, when the sun is at a particular angle it can interact with clouds or mists to magnify a shadow produce very realistic looking constructs that typically take the form of a giant figure standing there. Still others insist that this is indicative of some extremely large, Bigfoot-like creature lurking about, but this seems odd considering that Scotland is an unlikely candidate for a habitat for such a creature. Considering the sense of fear that envelopes those who encounter it and its overall ghostly presence in general, maybe the Big Grey Man is something else altogether? Who knows? For now the Big Grey Man of Scotland remains an impenetrable mystery, as it always has been and perhaps always will be.