Am Fear Liath Mòr is the Scottish Gaelic name given to a being said to haunt the upper slopes of Ben Macdui, the highest mountain the the Cairngorms range in the East Highlands of Scotland and second tallest mountain in the British Isles. Mountaineers have reported encounters with a creature that haunts the bleak summit of the mountain for over 100 years, although there is still little consensus as to what it looks like, or even if it has a corporeal form. Thick fog is common high in the Cairngorms, frequently obscuring the creature from the view of climbers that sense its strange presence.
Translated to English, the name Am Fear Liath Mòr means simply ‘big grey man’. More commonly referred to as the Grey Man of Ben Macdui, witnesses have described the creature both as a large humanoid covered with short hair. Others have reported only an unseen presence, often in the form of an uncomfortable feeling of being followed. Most common of all, the sound of heavy footsteps crunching across the gravel and scree of the barren upper slodes of Ben Macdui has been described by almost every witness that has reported an encounter with the mysterious presence.
The most well-known recollection of an encounter with the Grey Man is also the first recorded. While rumours of a strange presence on the mountain have been part of local legend for a long time, Chemistry professor and noted mountaineer J. Norman Collie was the first to properly recount an encounter with the creature. After a strange and frightening experience on Ben Macdui in 1891, Collie didn’t recount his story until attended a meeting of the Cairngorm Club in 1925. Descending from the summit in thick mist, Collie recalled hearing crunching footsteps following him, taking just one stride for every three or four of his. After stopping to listen, he describes being ‘seized with terror’ that resulted in him staggering blindly through the boulder fields the four or five miles down to Rothiemurchus Forest at the foot of the mountain.
He concluded his tale with the assertion that there is something ‘very queer on the top of Ben Macdui’ and that he would never return to the mountain. A Fellow of the Royal Society and noted scientist, Collie had a reputation for intelligence and an analytical mind to the extent that a 2013 publication suggested he may have provided some of the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation of Sherlock Holmes. His reputation resulted in his account being widely reported by the press.
After Collie’s claims were made public, a number of other mountaineers came forward to tell of their own encounters with the Grey Man. Other responses after Collie’s tale was published were more dismissive, suggesting that the Cairngorm’s themselves have a bleak, eerie atmosphere enough to cause the mind of a lone climber to play tricks on them. One of the men to come forward was fellow chemist and mountaineer Alexander Kallas, who reported his own encounter on Ben Macdui. Searching for crystals on the mountain with his brother, both men noticed a large figure approaching them from the summit of the mountain, before disappearing from view. While waiting nervously for it to reappear, both men were seized by a sense of dread and fled down the mountain.
Mountaineers on Ben Macdui have continued to report encounters with a strange presence on the mountain. Crunching footsteps are a common theme, although witnesses have also reported strange whining or ringing noises, or even what sounds like a deep voice speaking in gaelic, as well as a common feelings of fear and despondency. Some have even reported a strange draw towards cliff edges, as if an unseen presence is trying to force them over it. While the majority report an unseen presence or sense of dread, others have described encounters with a very visible and real creature.
An encounter by a man camping close to the top of Ben Macdui in 1940 was recounted to author Richard Frere, who later published the book ‘The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDui’. After setting up camp some time in 1940, the man retired to his tent, but was troubled by a strange feeling of dread and struggled to get to sleep. After a short and uneasy sleep, he was awoken, sensing movement outside of his tent. On peering out, he saw what he described as a ‘large, broad-shouldered, brownish’ humanoid creature, estimating its height at 20 feet (six metres). After circling the camp the creature disappeared further down the mountain, walking with what the witness called ‘an air of insolent strength’.
Three years later, in October 1943, naturalist and mountaineer Alexander Tewnion was climbing alone on Ben Macdui when he was enveloped in a dense mist. Suddenly a huge figure emerged from the mist, apparently heading straight for him. Carrying a revolver, Tewnion fired three shots into the creature, before fleeing down the mountain upon noting that his bullets appeared to have no effect.
What is Am Fear Liath Mòr?
A number of theories have been put forward to explain away accounts of both sightings of the creature itself and the sense of fear is seems to cause in those nearby. One of the most popular and convincing ones to explain stories of a tall, humanoid figure is the documented phenomena of Brocken spectres.
Named for the mountain in Germany where they were observed and documented by scientist and Lutheran pastor Johann Silberschlag in 1780, Brocken spectres are caused by shadows being magnified and cast against clouds or fog. Mountains with a relatively gentle slopes, like both Brocken and Ben Macdui, present ideal conditions for the phenomena to manifest, with sun shining on the backs of descending climbers throwing an elongated shadow onto the mists ahead of them. Moonlight or a torch will produce the same effect in the right conditions.
Ben Macdui sits in the Cairngorms National Park and is inhabited by a diverse range of wildlife, including large numbers of deer as well as Scotland’s rapidly disappearing population of wildcat. Many reports of footsteps, shifting stones and other strange noises are likely produced by unseen animals. Fluctuating temperatures can also cause rocks to split and crack as ice forms in crevices, sometimes triggering rock falls and other movement among the dense scree slopes. The sense of dread and morbidity felt by many witnesses could also be attributed to illusions caused by cold, fatigue or low oxygen levels, while the remote, desolate nature of the mountain can easily conjure feelings of fear or loneliness in visitors.
As with any potential cryptozoology species or supernatural manifestation, it is unlikely we will ever have a definitive answer to what haunts the peak of Ben Macdui. Many mountaineers are drawn to the Cairngorms, as bleak and forboding as they are picturesque. As they do, reports of encounters with Am Fear Liath Mòr continue, and the legend of a strange being hidden in the mists persists.