The Angry Corrie 38: Aug-Sep 98

TAC 38 Index

- Panic on the streets of Staffin -

TAC37 asked for information on inexplicable, eerie happenings on the hill, clean forgetting that there was already a regular Fortean Times writer amongst the subscribers. So Andy Roberts has duly stepped into the role of what might best be called the Official TAC Spooksman:

Though your nerves be of steel, and your mind says it cannot be, you will be acquainted with that fear without a name, that intense dread of the unknown that has pursued mankind from the very dawn of time - Richard Frere

Every Scottish hill walker knows the legend of the Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui. I won't dwell on it here, but I want to use it as a jumping off point to illuminate a little known area of supernatural experience. Conceptually we're miles away from the certainties of trig numbers and grid references TAC readers are more used to, and indeed some may scoff derisively at this excursion into the unknown. But others will nod sagely, remembering an experience they cannot forget ...

On the surface, the Big Grey Man legend (hereafter, BGM) of Ben MacDhui is a simple story: boy meets monster, boy runs away from monster. The BGM has become a staple for authors writing about Scottish legends, second only to the Loch Ness Monster. So much has been written about the BGM in fact that one could be forgiven for believing that it is a well-attested experience with tens if not hundreds of witnesses.

If only it were that simple!

A close reading of the BGM literature reveals some salient points. Discounting rumour and anecdote, there are only seven, count 'em, seven "good" accounts. Of these, only three took place on the summit plateau of Ben MacDhui. Only four of the seven involve an "actual" BGM, two of those being admittedly "in the mind" of the percipient, or later downgraded to a confabulation of panic and mist.

The many other accounts are purely anecdotal, interesting as folklore but useless as evidence. In the cold light of day, the BGM legend appears to be little more than a few unusual experiences moulded by the media into a localised folk tale. However, a close, analytical reading of BGM accounts reveals one underlying, constant motif.

All the witnesses in the seven "good" accounts report some form of extreme, uncontrollable panic reaction, leading them to flee in blind terror, often for miles. Fair enough, you might say, anyone would panic if they saw the BGM. But some of the panics take place prior to any "sighting", and in the majority of cases the whole experience is solely a panic, the trimmings of BGM legend being tacked on later by writer or witness because of the geographical context of the experience.

So is there a genuine mystery after all? Well, if this core phenomenon were isolated to the Cairngorms and the BGM legend, we could safely discount it as an artefact of the storytelling process. But in digging deep in the literature it came as some surprise to discover that this core experience is relatively widespread, but has been either ignored or subsumed into the broader, and more exciting, area of "ghost" stories. This is a mistake because, whether paranormal or psychological in origin, there is a very real phenomenon, as the following accounts illustrate.

These are just a few of the "mountain panic" experiences I have gathered. There are many more, both from the UK and as far afield as Papua New Guinea. What lies behind them remains a mystery, but the experiences are real enough to the percipients and widespread enough to be worthy of attention. But, like all anomalous phenomena, they are transitory and elusive by nature. Despite the apparent concentrations of experiences in north Skye and the Cairngorms, the experience is not scientifically repeatable, and there are no spots where you are guaranteed to feel this "fear".

In the western world at the end of the 20th century, it is our predilection as a society to interpret any unknown experience as psychological or paranormal in nature, as if that designation explains it. Frequently we use one unknown to "explain" another. But explanations change with the times and the nature-based cosmologies of our ancestors in these isles would have no problem with the experiences I have recounted here. They believed everything in the landscape had a presence, and was a personification of a god or spirit, the genius loci. My dictionary defines genius loci as the "spirit dwelling in a particular spot" or the "characteristic atmosphere of a place". Does that sound familiar?

The word "panic" which the witnesses to these strange experiences often use derives, of course, from the Greek god Pan. According to one book on mythology, "the feeling of solitude and lonesomeness which weighs upon travellers in wild mountain places ... was ascribed to the presence of Pan ... and thus anxiety and alarm, arising from no visible or intelligible cause, came to be called 'panic fear', that is, such fear as is produced by the agitating presence of Pan." Which pretty much describes all the BGM accounts and the other mountain panics I have outlined in this article.

Being among mountains is frequently an awe-inspiring experience where the difference between the natural and supernatural is often only a matter of perception. Perhaps senses stretched by exertion, heightened by beauty and isolation, create psychological phenomena which cause panic of the type outlined here. Or perhaps the psychologists are wrong and there is another reason. In his Gulfs of Blue Air, Jim Crumley lists ten "More Reasons For Hills". Number six is that "They accommodate the gods of the ancients". We're back to the folk tales and legends, the gods of mountain and storm personified in the landscape. Is this what these witnesses have experienced, the genius loci of particular locations, angry at human intrusion? Or is it just "all in the mind"?


Correspondence welcome. If any reader has had similar experiences - or any experience of ghosts, lights, UFOs, etc - on the hill, Andy would love to hear them. All reports treated in confidence. And if anyone knows of accounts in walking/mountaineering literature, he'd appreciate the reference. He's also interested in unusual rock shapes, eg those attributed to the Cailleach/Bodach, or locations relating to traditional folk practice. Contact him at: Andy Roberts 84 Elland Rd, Brighouse, West Yorkshire, HD6 2QR; email: brigantia@compuserve.com

And/or contact TAC via the usual routes. Readers interested in landscape mysteries / folk traditions may be interested in Twilight of the Celtic Gods, David Clarke with Andy Roberts (Blandford, 1996). Those wishing a fuller history of the BGM should read Affleck Gray's The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui (Mainstream, 1994). Andy will have a big BGM/ panics article in the 1998 edition of Fortean Studies. There's also a BGM article, by Jack Hastie, in the 1998 SMC Journal.

Richard Webb adds:

Some places can leave a very deep impression, almost a sensory feeling. When you are unused to being in wild places, this feeling can lead you into big trouble, especially when it is an unpleasant, threatening sensation. Early in my hill-bashing days, in the sixties Munrowise and in the days when I cared about these things timewise, I paid my second visit to the Gorms. The previous trip had resulted in an epic: having lost my compass on Braeriach, I was left in the navi-gational clutches of a particularly incompetent botany postgrad. The resulting storm did the rest, and I was glad to get out alive despite some desperate detours. This time it was summer (well, September actually), and in good weather I wandered up the old tourist path from Glen More to Cairn Gorm. Even after decades of light use the pony track up An t-Aonach is still well worn. Now bypassed by the ski road, once it was a very popular excursion. I made good progress, smug in my ethical purity, passed the Ptarmigan, over the top, tick, then down Coire Raibeirt for a night under the Shelter Stone before a big walk the following morning.

I arrived at the Stone in the early evening, relieved, as it had begun to rain, but in despair as it was full, and on a very quiet day indeed. The occupants were an Edinburgh group operating out of Lagganlia who kindly budged around to make a small and uncomfortable space in the corner, the pit nobody wants. I was very grateful for this. They made a big mistake: the following morning saw a scene of utter devastation. The hills, they have eyes, and they obviously saw me coming. The burns were all up, including a new one flowing through the hole under the stone. There was only one dry space left, the one nobody wanted, shoved up in the corner, mine. Soggy pits were packed, and Lagganlia left in a desperate attempt to get over the plateau before things got really bad. This involved a roped crossing of the Feith Buidhe. I stayed back and was effectively trapped. There was no escape down Glen Derry as the Glas Allt Mor footbridge had recently gone (it was never replaced), and I did not fancy that plateau.

Following an imagined improvement, I attempted to bag Beinn Mheadhoin, resorting to a crawl just to get to the top of Stacan Dubha. I went no further, and returned to the safety of the Stone. The weather? It just got worse. Having found from experience that upright bipedal motion was no longer possible above 1000m, and with the burns even higher, I decided to stick out the night where I was. And hey, my space was still dry!

Half five in the afternoon. The rain had eased, but the wind was stronger, and I was in the midst of the combined might of the Garbh Uisge and Feith Buidhe. There were less than two hours of daylight left, but I was not going to stay another minute under the Stone. A feeling of unease, growing through the afternoon, had turned to full terror. In minutes I had flung everything in my pack and fled the place. Was it the boredom, frustration with my entertainment (a Rubik cube), or the sense of place becoming too oppressive? I am not a ghost story man, and do not for one minute believe I was picking up bad vibes from a past massacre or something, but I was not staying there any longer. I no longer cared for my safety and comfort, I was offski fast. I would have willingly swapped soloing the In Pinn in roller skates to staying put. I was terrified.

The burn went well, if unnervingly; next, the plateau. Leaving Coire Domhain, I was knocked down for the first of many times. Sometimes I was down for a long time, unable to move under the onslaught. I wondered how the Edinburgh group got on, hoped they were safe; Lagganlia has unfortunate memories. It became clear that nipping down the Fiacaill to Coire Cas was going to be very difficult, as the wind funnelling up the coire was too strong to walk into. Adam Watson's advice in the SMC guide running through my mind, I decided not to fight the wind. I tried tacking, moving south of Cairn Gorm's dome. This was easier: some shelter, some balance possible. Eventually I contoured round to the Ptarmigan. It was almost dark now, but I had just to follow the road down to the ski centre and onward into Glen More on tarmac.

Gradually the milestones passed, tangible ones like the deserted car park and the forest edge, and ones unknown at the time, such as being knocked down for the last time. In what I took to be the safety of the forest I could hear the angry roar of the Allt Mor, then could see it as I crossed the bridge. It was almost up to the deck. Thanks, bridge. I dashed across, and spent a night drying out in the old Glenmore Lodge. Next day Loch Insh had swelled up to Kingussie and the railway was closed. I hitched back to Edinburgh after a sunny walk through the forest to Kincraig and the old A9. The waters must have subsided a little, as I got across the Spey at the Loch Insh bridge.

Was there a rational reason for my departure? Part of me likes to think it's the Ben MacDhui effect, that I had been sent packing by the spectral gamekeeper, the Grey Man himself. However, I have always found the hill a benign and pleasant place, with no menace at all (if you exclude the boulders). I feel it was loneliness, stepped up by hideous weather and an appalling lack of judgement, that made me flit the Coire Avon Hilton that night. I am no longer sceptical about the presence of at least one malevolent force stalking the plateau. I have met it twice now. The weather.


Ed. - I too have a tale to tell. Years ago now, tired after a hard, hot day along the northern Arkaig hills, I approached a remote bothy as the evening mists started to swirl in and around. From a distance the place seemed empty, but the nearer I came to the door, the more I became aware of a dark, brooding presence standing there, blocking what little light remained. A few steps more, and I was sure: there was a towering shape, huge, human in outline, but crudely, massively so, the proverbial man-mountain, the kind of creature who in later years could have made a living as a Gladiator, or by bit-parting in Braveheart. My approach slowed; the day's cocksure confidence gone; I was suddenly, involuntarily, fearful. Was this the Grey Man, or its spectral west coast sibling? Was it an abominable Knoydartian yeti, a rough bigfoot from the Rough Bounds? Or was it the dark, lingering aura of some historical bothy horror? Or the shade of a wild Viking warrior? He - it - certainly had wild straggly hair and big broadsword shoulders. Whatever it was, I was worried, unnerved by its presence. A few steps nearer heightened the unease: the creature moved forward, half out of the shadows, and reached out a massive, clumpy forearm. I wanted to run, but something told me there was no menace, no need to be afraid. Then it spoke, gruffly, and I knew no fear. "Cup of tea?", it said. It was Richard Webb.

TAC 38 Index

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