Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Big Grey Man of Ben Macdhui - Affleck Gray


I recently found at a flea market in a nearby village an absorbing account of a Scottish legend. The Big Grey Man of Ben Macdhui by Affleck Gray (Aberdeen: Impulse Books, 1970) collates accounts of strange experiences on the slopes or summit of the second highest mountain in Britain. These tend to resolve into three sorts of encounter: hearing unexplained footsteps; seeing a very tall figure; and feeling an overwhelming sense of dread.

Affleck Gray’s book is an important study of the matter. However, it is chiefly arranged thematically by the type of experience reported, and also includes similar material from further afield. It also, in aiming to be comprehensive, does not distinguish between the differing qualities of the accounts.

There is some evidence, as Gray shows, of earlier folk-lore about a figure on the mountain, known in Gaelic as Am Fear Liath Mòr, but the first recorded account of the specific type of experience was given in 1925 by Professor Norman Collie, a distinguished scientist and climber. He was recalling what had happened to him some 34 years earlier: and it is a feature of many of the accounts that they are only told many years later.

The chronology I have compiled below lists encounters and reports in date order and includes only those in or near the Cairngorms, chiefly on Ben Macdhui itself. Only first hand accounts from named individuals are included.

1891 Professor Norman Collie, alone on Ben Macdhui, experiences a “crunch, crunch” sound behind him, not his own footsteps, and is “seized with terror”.

1904 Hugh D Welsh, climber, hears at the summit of MacDhui unexplained “slurring footsteps” and has “an eerie sensation of apprehension”

1914 George Duncan, advocate and mountaineer, sees “a tall figure in a black robe” that he identifies as the Devil, in September of “about 1914”. He reports his sighting in a letter to The Scotsman in 1941

1923 Dr Ernest A Baker tells in The Highlands With Rope and Rucksack (London: H F & G Witherby, 1923) of an “eerie feeling” on Ben Macdhui

1923 Norman G. Forbes hears a mysterious clanking noise while climbing with two companions. He has just been telling them a ghost story, and the sound puts them on edge. Forbes investigates and disturbs a pair of deer. He notes that the Cairngorms “have an uncanny power of inducing a feeling of eeriness.”

1925 Collie tells his experience to the AGM of the Cairngorm Club (November) and it is reported in the local press. The Aberdeen Press and Journal subsequently (December) publishes responses, including from Forbes (above), some sceptical, others offering explanations or similar experiences.

1926 Hugh D Welsh recounts to the Press and Journal (January) experiences of ghostly music frequently heard while camping in the Cairngorms

1928 Joan Grant, later a writer on reincarnation, hears the pounding of hooves from an invisible but malign being, and experiences panic and terror. She reports this in her book Time Out of Mind (London: Arthur Barker, 1956)

1930 In her book The Secret of Spey (Edinburgh: R Grant & Son, 1930), Wendy Wood recounts that she heard a loud unnatural voice, and footsteps behind her, and succumbed to terror

1937 Donald Stewart, stalker, after listening with friends to a BBC radio broadcast about the Big Grey Man, which he discounts, hears unexplained footsteps in his lodge

1940 R Macdonald Robertson, folklorist, hears on Macdhui a “crunch, crunch”, “the footsteps of a heavy man”, as recounted in More Highland Folktales (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd. 1964)

1942 Syd Scroggie, soldier and climber, sees a tall figure which left no footprints and “merged with the…blackness”, causing him unease and making him hasten from the scene

1943 Alexander Tewnion, mountaineer and naturalist, hears footsteps and sees “a strange shape”. He fires at it with his revolver. He recounts his experience in The Scotsman (June 1958).

1945 Peter Densham, a mountaineer and rescue worker, hears “a crunching noise” and is “overcome by a feeling of apprehension”

1948 Richard Frere, a climber, writes in Open Air, a magazine, about his sense of “a Prescence, utterly abstract but intensely real” and hears “an intensely high singing note”

The figure of the Big Grey Man has been linked, especially in studies of the paranormal, to similar unknown mountain humanoids elsewhere in the world, such as the Yeti. On the other hand, an explanation has been suggested relating to the natural phenomenon of the Brocken Spectre.

But this survey of the first hand accounts shows that most of the reports are not predominantly visual: it is the footsteps and strong feeling of trepidation that are most to the fore. The subtlety of the haunting and the effect on the protagonist, a strong sense of inexplicable dread, place the accounts in similar terrain to the literary ghost story.

Mark Valentine

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