Friday, November 25, 2011

Creature of the Month - The Big Grey Man of Ben Macdhui by Dr. Bob Curran

Nearly all of us will have heard of the Yeti, that huge hominid who is said to live somewhere in the high Himalayas; others will have heard of the Sasquatch, that great, hairy man-like being, supposedly living somewhere in the depths of the wilderness of Wyoming. But the wilds of Scotland? Surely not! And yet somewhere on the slops of Ben MacDhui in Scotland’s Cairngorm Range, the United Kingdom’s second highest mountain after Ben Nevis, something is stirring. But what is it? Something along the lines of the Abominable Snowman of Tibetan folklore, or something else? Something that was once worshipped as an old god but which has now somehow been confined to the mountain?

This may well be the case regarding the Ferlas Mhor <although other sources refer to the creature as the Fir Liath> - the great Grey Man, the local name for a creature which is said to dwell somewhere around the peak of the mountain. The being which would appear to be an amalgamation of mysterious hominid and ancient god has intrigued climbers in the region <and many others> for countless years. The Scottish writer James Hogg, “the Ettrick Shepherd” <1770-1835> wrote about it and disclosed that he had spoken to an old man, still alive in his lifetime, who had “beheld the fahm glide o’er the fell”.

Although the Ferlas Mhor has been part of regional folklore for centuries, the first established record of him comes from an account written in 1891 in a work written by mountaineer Professor Norman Collie which was only made public in 1925 during a talk at the Cairngorm Club. The tale, from a sensible man of letters created a stir in scientific circles although it has to be said that the Professor did not actually see the Big Grey Man although he did sense its presence. As he was returning from the cairn on the summit of the mountain, a strange mist descended and Collie had the sensation that he was being followed by something bigger and heavier than himself. As his feet crunched on the mountain shale, he could hear footsteps following him. It seemed to be taking steps which were three or four times the length of his own. Although he looked, he could see nothing in the mist. However, he was aware of a lurking Presence, just out of sight. A feeling of terror overwhelmed him and he ran down the mountain through the fog till he reached the edges of the Rothiemurchis Forest far below. Many of his colleagues, however, remained sceptical – the account was simply a vivid after-dinner speech, inspired by some of the folklore that Collie had heard. However, his revelation inspired others to reveal their own stories of climbing on the ghostly mountain and gradually the story to the Big Grey Man began to take hold of the popular imagination.

Another who claimed to have an encounter with the entity was Peter Densham, an experienced and enthusiastic mountaineer. During World War II <1939-45>, he was in charge of airplane rescue work in the Cairngorms. One morning in May 1945, he set up from Aviemore and had climbed to the summit of Ben MacDhui, arriving there around mid-day. Without warning, one of the mountain mists suddenly closed in around him and he was suddenly shut in an eerie world of almost impenetrable silence. Mist wreathed around him, like so many phantoms trying to catch at him as he began to descend. As he approached the Lurcher’s Crag, a local landmark for climbers, a tide of apprehension washed over him. Although he saw nothing in the thick fog, he felt something pushing at him from behind, he also heard the shale on the side of the slope being disturbed as if by a massive foot. He ran as far as the Allt Mor Bridge and all the way past Glenmore before the Presence left him.

On another occasion he was climbing on Ben MacDhui with a colleague, Richard Frere when they became separated during the descent into the Lairig Ghru pass which led down to a plateau. Catching up on his companion Densham heard him talking to someone, as if to a companion. He wondered who it could be as they both seemed to be alone on this section of the mountain. Rounding the side of a cairn, he found Frere alone but talking to the empty air. He walked round the edge of the cairn where Frere was standing and found himself joining in the conversation with what seemed to be an invisible being. This carried on for a few minutes, then they suddenly realised they were talking to themselves although neither of them could remember what they had been talking about. Densham was convinced that this was some sort of supernatural psychic experience inspired perhaps by some ancient god of the mountain.

But is the Big Grey Man simply a strange experience or is it an actual physical creature which can actually be seen?   There is certainly a brief reference to a “spectre” which appeared in the Cairngorm Club Journal Vol. X, No. 56 January 1921, to the effect that :

“…..a big spectral figure has been seen at various times during the past five years, walking about on  the tops of the Cairngorms. When approached, so the story goes, the figure disappears. Moreover it has got a name – ‘Ferlie Mor’”  However, long before this, there were accounts, going back for centuries, of a great, grey man-like figure, moving on the upper reaches of the mountain. James Hogg, the writer referred to earlier <and who certainly is said to have climbed Ben MacDhui> was aware of these tales and referred to the creature using the local name of fahm. Unlike the Yeti of the Himalayas or the Bigfoot of the American wilderness the figure, always glimpsed at a distance, seems to have a spectral quality about it, as if it were a ghost and not something completely of this world.

This sheer “ghostliness” has led some people to speculate that the distant figure is not a living creature at all, but an atmospheric phenomenon akin to the Spectre of the Brocken in the German Harz Mountains. This is a strange anomaly where a massive and enlarged shadow of an observer is cast upon the upper surfaces of clouds moving opposite the sun. The “Spectre” appears when the sun moved behind a climber who is looking down from a height or ridge into a cloud bank or curtain of fog. It can sometimes be monstrously distorted or sometimes <depending on the sunlight> surrounded by refracted light. The so-called “fog image” of the Rigi Kulm in Switzerland is something of the same sort of phenomenon. And the same thing may exist on Ben MacDhui. This argument seems to be strengthened by a passage in a journal by the aforementioned James Hogg who recorded during his climb of the mountain to retrieve some ewes in 1785 that he reached a place on the upper slopes where he appeared to cast two shadows, one upright and well defined, the other dim and leaning backward.

Looking up, he saw two suns in the sky, one the regular one, the other what he calls a “mock sun”, less bright and more “ghostly”. It was of course an optical illusion which passed as he moved further up the mountainside. He did not experience the phenomenon again and he could not remember exactly where it had occurred but since then several mountaineers in the Cairngorms have tried to locate it, without success. The curious atmospheric conditions have long been put forward as the explanation for the appearance and disappearance of the distant grey figure on the slopes – and indeed there may be something in the theory.

This is added to by a certain amount of Celtic lore concerning the Fir Liath. Amongst the Celts, the entity was a minor god or devil, somewhere between a demon and a fairy – the embodiment of the sea or mountain mists. In Ireland, for instance, the being was often the enemy of sailors who became lost in he dreadful coastal fogs which plagued their shorelines. The Grey Man spread his cloak across the ocean in order to leave them wandering or to lure them to their doom. To this end, a silver coin was sometimes places in the bows of fishing boats as a form of protection. And the entity sometimes came ashore too, in order to torment land-dwellers. Near Ballycastle, in the very North of Ireland, is a great finger of rock hanging over a steep drop which is known as The Grey Man’s Path, which the being was supposed to use when it visited the shoreline. So the entity has a recognised supernatural history which is lodged somewhere in the Celtic mind and may manifest itself in “sightings” of the mysterious grey figure on the mountain slopes. It is interesting that the Big Grey Man is always associated with mountain mists – which often put climbers in peril – very much in the same way that the entity manifests itself when at sea. There may certainly be some sort of connection between the ancient Celtic god and the figure on the slopes of Ben MacDhui.

So, it’s all neat and tidy then – the Big Grey Man is no more than an atmospheric trick of the light, enhanced in the popular mind by a connection to Celtic myth and lore. Or at least that would be a neat answer – if it wasn’t for the footprints. Snow lies deep up on the ridges of the Cairngorms and from time to time curious footprints which seem to have been made by some gigantic creature are to be found there. Those who have seen them <and there are admittedly only a few> seem to suggest that the being who made them is around ten feet tall. Furthermore, its feet seem to be of peculiar shape. When measured, the foot would appear to be fourteen inches long and incredibly broad <a bit broader and slightly differently angled than a human foot>, somewhere about 14 to 20 inches across, with a stride of up to 7 feet. Many of these footprints are to be found around a geological location known locally as the Shelter Stone – does this have some sort of special significance for the creatures? The tracks have been photographed, most notably by the photographer J.A. Rennie who took pictures of similar tracks in the snow on Speyside in December 1952. However, the photos themselves appear to be highly questionable and it’s regrettable that no casts were taken for scientific examination.

So what’s up there on the mountainside? An unknown being? A trick of the light, exaggerated by popular imagination? Or some ancient god which can physically manifest itself in some way? As the mist closes in over the summit of distant Ben MacDhui, the answer seems as far away as ever.        
Dr. Bob Curran was born in a remote area of County Down, Northern Ireland, but left to travel and work in the United States., France, Italy, Mexico, North Africa, Spain, Holland, and parts of Eastern Europe. This has given him insight into the cultures and beliefs of people around the world. Living again in Northern Ireland, he holds several university degrees and acts as a consultant to such bodies as the Office of First, Deputy First Minister, and Tourism Ireland Ltd. He is author of many popular books on folklore such as Vampires; Werewolves; Man-Made Monsters; Lost Lands, Forgotten Realms; and World's Creepiest Places. He can be found musing on

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