There has long been talk of a Big Grey Man in the Cairngorm mountains. Known locally for decades it entered popular folklore when Professor Normal Collie reported his experiences of Fearlas Mor (as the Big Grey Man is known locally) while on a trip to New Zealand in 1889. He later repeated the story at a meeting of the Cairngorm Club in 1925:
“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. Every few steps I took I heard a crunch, 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 will not go back there again by myself I know.”
This story from an otherwise sensible man of letters gave credence to the myth and a spate of similar experience emerged as others felt emboldened to tel their own tales. These were later collected by Affleck Grey in his authoritative book on the Big Grey Man – where he explored not only the stories but their possible explanations in an attempt to understand where they came from.
There has never been any real ‘sightings’ as such most stories describe the sense of a ‘presence’ or strange noises, and most agree there is not actually a ‘big grey man’ wandering the slopes of Ben Macdhui. However the persistence of the story indicates it has a resonance even today, and if you venture into the Cairngorms (especially in winter) you become aware of an ancient landscape where myths and legends used to roam freely.
Amongst the many theories several suggest possible explanations. Foremost is that of the Brocken Spectre, a meteorological phenomenon which only occurs when an inversion (or gaps in the cloud) allow the viewer to see their own shadow cast upon cloud. The effect is indeed spooky – with a giant grey shadow stretching from your feet into the atmosphere and in certain conditions it is accompanied by a circular rainbow which surrounds the shadow (known as a Glorie).
There are only a few spots in the Cairngorms where this phenomena can be seen with any certainty (and even then there is no guarantee) since it requires steep cliffs to give the elevation required to get above the cloud. One such place which often crops up in Big Grey Man stories is Lurchers Crag. These 1000ft cliffs stand guard over the northern entrance to the Larig Ghru (the main pass through the Cairngorms) and it is entirely possible that the Specter of Brocken has been seen in this area and interpreted as some other worldly presence.
Another explanation may be of a less scientific nature and harder to define, however in it may be the essence of the story. That is the Big Grey Man is a manifestation of the spirit of the place, transformed by imagination into an actual being. From the start of human history we have transfered human characteristics and forms onto the world around us. From early religions to the present day anthropomorphism has helped us describe the unknown; Paganism turned the seasons into characters, Shintoism worships gods of the everyday, while today we give our cars names and imbue them with a personality. So why not the mountains?
People have different degrees of sensory acuity; some have 20:20 vision while others can hear a pin drop. With this in mind it becomes plausible that some are able to ‘read’ signs too subtle for others and can ‘sense’ the spirit of a place. Has their anthropomorphism of the Cairngorms created the myth of the Big Grey Man?
Ben Macdhui is the biggest mountain in the Cairngorms and the second highest in the UK. The summit rises from the southern part of a huge sub-arctic upland unique in the British Isles. It is a harsh environment where nothing grows save the hardiest of alpine plants. When the cloud rolls in summits can be shrouded for days, in winter the weak northern sun often does not penetrate the deep glens for weeks. At times like this the featureless plateau is at it’s most elemental – grey above and below, the perfect environment for a ‘Big Grey Man’.
“…tell me that the whine was but the result of relaxed eardrums, and the Presence was only the creation of a mind that was accustomed to take too great an interest in such things. I shall not be convinced. Come, rather, with me at the mysterious dusk time when day and night struggle upon the mountains. Feel the night wind on your faces, and hear it crying amid rocks. See the desert uplands consumed before the racing storms. Though your nerves be of steel, and your mind says it cannot be, you will be acquainted with that fear without name, that intense dread of the unknown that has pursued mankind from the very dawn of time.” Peter Densham (leader of the Cairngorms RAF Rescue Team 1939-45)