Welcome to Spooktober! Let’s ease into the month with two mysteries from Scotland! The Grey Man of Ben McDui is the legend of a creature high upon one of Scotland’s highest peaks while the Flannan Isle Lighthouse involves the strange disappearance of three seasoned mariners. Are supernatural forces at work, or just sad tragedies? Let us know what YOU think!
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What is Ben MacDui?
Ben MacDui (Mac Dewey) is the second highest mountain in Scotland, and the other English Isles, after Ben Nevis (Nev-is) and the highest mountain in the Cairngorms The summit elevation is 1,309 meters (4,295 feet) above sea level. Ben MacDui lies on the southern edge of the Cairngorm plateau, on the boundary between the historic counties of Aberdeenshire and Banffshire.
A small aside from Ben MacDui for a moment. The Cairngorms, such a cool word, are a range of mountains in the northern portion of Scotland. It is home to the ONLY and LAST bit of natural PRE-HUMAN forest in Scotland, the Caledonian Forest. It is 9,000 years old, and is home to many rare species of animals. The Caledonian forest is also supposedly one of the areas King Arthur fought one of his 12 Battles, and it has ties to Merlin who fled there in a fit of madness. The Cairngorms also boast the ONLY reindeer herd in the UK. They were brought in by a Swedish herder and the population has grown to 150. Ok, back to Ben MacDui.
Before the production of accurate maps of Scotland in the 19th century it was not known for certain that Ben Nevis was the highest point in Britain, and it was often thought that Ben Macdui might be the higher. Following surveys of both peaks in 1846 and 1847, Ben Nevis was confirmed as the highest. Following these surveys, there were plans to build a cairn on the top of Ben Macdui to make its height greater than Ben Nevis, but these plans did not come to fruition. The summit of the mountain has a direction indicator erected in 1925 by the Cairngorm Club of Aberdeen in memory of former president Alexander Copland. The indicator shows the directions of the most noteworthy mountains that can be seen from the summit in clear weather.
The name Ben MacDui has two possible origins. The first is that it is named after the MacDuffs and that the Gaelic name Beinn Mac Duibh translates to “MacDuffs hill”. The second is that the name is derived from the word muc dhubh which means “black pig” because the shape of the mountain itself looks like a giant black pig is laying on its side.
Queen Victoria, who was 40 at the time, hiked to the summit on 7 October 1859. About her experience she wrote: “It had a sublime and solemn effect, so wild, so solitary – no one but ourselves and our little party there … I had a little whisky and water, as the people declared pure water would be too chilling.”
Ben MacDui is very isolated, and also very cold. Some places on the slopes have snow that stays all year round. The Geology is different when compared to mountains we are used to here in the US. The sides of Ben MacDui are mostly rock that is made out of granite and diorite.(Minecraft flashbacks!!! D:) It’s very gravely, and not a whole lot of grass grows there. The grass that is there is focused on the valleys and some of the gentler slopes. There are no trees on the mountain and no grass grows on the summit. The Appalachians, in comparison, are lush with trees, grass, and covered by dirt, for the most part.
What is the Grey Man of Ben McDui?
The Grey Man or Am Fear Laith Mor (Am Fear Leuh Mor) is a supernatural entity or presence felt on the slopes of Ben MacDui. Described as 10 feet in height, deep gray fur, long pointed claws on its hands and feet, pointed ears and able to lift big boulders with ease. (He also loves to do Yoga and sip Chai Lattes on the weekends) He is said to be preceded by an eerie disconcerting presence, the feeling of being watched, and faint laughter or singing sliding upon the tendrils of fog and mist as one quietly climbs the lonely sides of Ben MacDui. There are some photos of footprints associated with the big guy but I could not find them in my research. I also could not find the “origin” of this story as things like this usually have one.
Sightings of The Grey Man of Ben McDui
Now to the chunk of the story. Ben MacDhui’s famous Grey Man first hit the headlines in 1925, when the Cairngorm Club Journal published a story recounting the incredible tale detailed at that year’s Annual General Meeting of the Cairngorm Club in Aberdeen by the club’s Honorary President, Professor John Norman Collie.
In addition to being the first Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of London and a Fellow of the Royal Society, Collie was seen as one of the most proficient and esteemed mountaineers of the time. Collie’s wide climbing experience ranged from the Himalayas to the Rockies. Described as “shy and reserved with strangers,” it must have been a shock to many when the guest speaker recounted an experience he claimed occurred on the summit of Ben Macdui in 1891:
“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.”
Today, skeptics maintain the story was fictitious, perhaps the result of a drunken storyteller, or Collie, annoyed he was unexpectedly asked to speak at a climbing club dinner in Edinburgh with no previous notice, stood up and manufactured the tale. No matter what the reason, once Collie’s tale was made public, the floodgates were opened, and reports of the Grey Man came flooding in. In the majority of these stories nobody saw any ghost or apparition, with many climbers reporting hearing “a crunching noise” and “overcome by a feeling of apprehension.”
The most famous sighting of the Grey Man was detailed in the June 1958 issue of The Scots. A man named Alexander Tewnion after ten days of climbing in the Cairngorms in October 1943 reached the summit of Ben MacDhui. As dense mists rolled in from Lairig Ghu, Tewnion noted:
“I am not unduly imaginative, but my thought flew instantly to the well-known story of professor Collie and the Fear Liath Mhor [Big Grey Man]. Then I felt the reassuring weight of the loaded revolver in my pocket. Grasping the butt, I peered about in the mist here rent and tattered by the eddies of wind. A strange shape loomed up, receded, came charging at me! Without hesitation I whipped out the revolver and fired three times at the figure. When it still came on I turned and hared down the path, reaching Glen Derry in a time that I have never bettered. You may ask was it really the Fear Laith Mhor? Frankly, I think it was. Many times since then I have traversed MacDhui in the mist, bivouacked out in the open, camped on its summit for days on end on different occasions—often alone and always with an easy mind. For, on that day I am convinced I shot the only Fear Liath Mhor my imagination will ever see.”
Also Alastair Borthwick’s superb 1939 book about climbing in Scotland, “Always a Little Further” relates the accounts of two climbers he knew who had experienced what by then was becoming known as Am Fear Liath Mòr, or Ferlas Mor, or the Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui, because of its appearance when briefly glimpsed by a few of those who encountered it.
“The first was alone, heading over MacDhui for Corrour on a night when the snow had a hard, crisp crust through which his boots broke at every step. He reached the summit and it was while he was descending the slopes which fall towards the Larig that he heard footsteps behind him, footsteps not in the rhythm of his own, but occurring only once for every three steps he took.
“I felt a queer crinkly feeling in the back of my neck,” he told me, “but I said to myself, ‘This is silly, there must be a reason for it.’ So I stopped, and the footsteps stopped, and I sat down and tried to reason it out. I could see nothing. There was a moon about somewhere, but the mist was fairly thick. The only thing I could make of it was that when my boots broke through the snow-crust they made some sort of echo. But then every step should have echoed, and not just this regular one-in-three. I was scared stiff. I got up, and walked on, trying hard not to look behind me. I got down all right – the footsteps stopped a thousand feet above the Larig – and I didn’t run. But if anything had so much as said ‘Boo!’ behind me, I’d have been down to Corrour like a streak of lightning!”
The second man’s experience was roughly similar. He was on MacDhui, and alone. He heard footsteps. He was climbing in daylight, in summer; but so dense was the mist that he was working by compass, and visibility was almost as poor as it would have been at night. The footsteps he heard were made by something or someone trudging up the fine screes which decorate the upper parts of the mountain, a thing not extraordinary in itself, though the steps were only a few yards behind him, but exceedingly odd when the mist suddenly cleared and he could see no living thing on the mountain, at that point devoid of cover of any kind.
“Did the steps follow yours exactly?” I asked him. “No,” he said. “That was the funny thing. They didn’t. They were regular all right; but the queer thing was that they seemed to come once for every two and a half steps I took.” He thought it queerer still when I told him the other man’s story. You see, he was long-legged and six feet tall, and the first man was only five-feet-seven.
Once I was out with a search-party on MacDhui; and on the way down after an unsuccessful day I asked some of the gamekeepers and stalkers who were with us what they though of it all. They worked on MacDhui, so they should know. Had they seen Ferlas Mor? Did he exist, or was it just a silly story? They looked at me for a few seconds, and then one said: “We do not talk about that.”
And thats it! That is all the major sightings of the Gray Man. Most of them talk about a feeling and getting creeped out, they leave, at least those that have made it back to tell the tale.
Theories about the Grey Man of Ben McDui
There are a few Theories on what exactly the Gray Man is. There are some who say the Gray Man is a cousin of Bigfoot, and the Yeti. An elusive creature of the mountain who stays to themselves unless it thinks youre encroaching on its territory or finds you particularly interesting. Maybe it likes the way you smell. I dont know.
Another theory is that it is a physical manifestation of the mountain brought forth by people’s unconscious thoughts, otherwise known as a Tulpa. Tulpa are magic formations generated by a powerful concentration of thought. Basically people have such a powerful view of the mountain and surrounding area they “conjure” this being forth into the physical world and experience it as a result.
The next theory is just as supernatural. There are some who believe Ben MacDui is one of the “liminal” spaces on the planet. Such liminal spaces would include the Bermuda Triangle, among others. It is a place where the veil between this world and another or the “next” is thin and so the Gray Man is protecting the area, making sure witless humans don’t wander into the otherworld without knowing it. I like this idea the most but I am biased.
The final, and most boring, of the explanations is two fold. One can lead into the other. People say the Gray Man of Ben MacDui is nothing more than someone dealing with oxygen deprivation, fatigue, or acute feelings of isolation when ascending the mountain. Adding onto this there is a natural phenomenon called the Brocken Spectre. It is an optical illusion that occurs when you are climbing up a slope and the sun casts your shadow on the fog banks around you. It creates a shadow 2 or 3 times your own size. Boring.
Conclusion about The Grey Man of Ben McDui
The Cairngorms are some of the most beautiful and biodiverse areas of the British Isles and are home to more than a few spooks and legends besides the Big Gray Man. I’m sure we will cover these in some future episode, but the Big Gray Man of BenMcDui has left an indelible( In Del A Bull) mark on the Scottish Myths surrounding the Cairngorms. If you fancy climbing up the steep, craggy, scree filled slopes of Ben McDui be sure to keep one eye on the path and the other on the rolling fog banks. Otherwise you just might meet the Gray Man of BenMcDui, and you might not be as lucky as Collie and live to tell the tale.
The Flannan Isle Lighthouse Mystery
Where is the Flannan Isle Lighthouse?
The Flannan Isle Lighthouse is a lighthouse near the highest point on Eilean Mòr (Ellen More), one of the Flannan Isles in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. The Flannan Isle chain is about 0.6 square miles or 170 hectares. Its highest point is 374 feet or 114 meters above sea level. Its is also called “The Seven Hunters” because there are 7 isles in the area. Some are nothing more than rocks sticking above the surface.
The Flannan Lighthouse itself is 75 feet or 23 meters high. The lighthouse was designed by David Alan Stevenson for the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB). Construction, which began in 1895 and finished in 1899, was undertaken by George Lawson of Rutherglen at a cost of £1,899 which included the lighthouse itself, docks or landing areas, stairs, and railway tracks. All of the materials used had to be hauled up the 148 foot or 45 meter cliffs directly from supply boats. The lighthouse was first lit on 7 December 1899.
The purpose of the railway tracks was to facilitate the transport of provisions for the keepers and fuel for the light up the steep slopes from the landing docks by means of a cable-hauled railway. This was powered by a small steam engine which was stored in a shed adjoining the lighthouse. The track descended from the lighthouse towards the west and then curved round to the south. In the approximate center of the island it forked by means of a set of hand operated points humorously dubbed “Clapham Junction”, in reference to a railway junction in London. The tracks then branched to the east landing dock while the other branch curved back to the west to serve the west landing, situated in a small inlet on the island’s south coast. The cargo was carried in a small four wheeled rail cart. Interesting to note that the carts had a built in pulley system that kept them on course during their journey. They also installed posts in certain areas to make sure the cart wouldn’t go too far if it went off the rails.
I need to stress at this point that this place is VERY remote. It is 20 miles or 32 Kilometers from shore. There is NO ONE and NOTHING else out there. Except maybe wild sheep and birds on some of the other small islands.
What happened at the Flannan Isle Lighthouse?
The first sign something was amiss at the Flannan Isle Lighthouse was on the 15th of December 1900 the ship Archtor noted in its log that the lighthouse was not operating in poor weather conditions. When it landed in Leith, which is a borough (boro) is Edinburgh, it reported this to the NLB. The matter was further complicated by adverse weather that kept the relief ship, the Hesperus, from going out to the lighthouse on the 20th. It took 6 more days before the relief ship made its way out to the lighthouse from Lewis. The lighthouse was manned by three men: James Ducat, Thomas Marshall, and Donald McArthur, with a rotating fourth man spending time on shore.
On arrival, the crew and relief keeper, Joseph Moore, found that the flagstaff had no flag, none of the usual provision boxes had been left on the landing stage for re-stocking, and more ominously, none of the lighthouse keepers were there to welcome them ashore. Jim Harvie, the captain of Hesperus, attempted to reach them by blowing the ship’s whistle and firing a flare, but was unsuccessful.
A boat was launched and Joseph Moore was put ashore alone. He found the entrance gate to the compound and the main door both closed, the beds unmade, and the clock unwound. Returning to the landing stage with this grim news, he then went back up to the lighthouse with Hesperus‘s second-mate and a sailor. A further search revealed that the lamps had been cleaned and refilled. A set of oilskins was found, suggesting that one of the keepers had left the lighthouse without them. There was no sign of any of the keepers, neither inside the lighthouse nor anywhere on the island.
The Hesperus left Moore and 3 other crew members on the island to tend to the lighthouse and made its way back to the Isle of Lewis. Harvie sent a telegram that same day to the NLB that stated:
“A dreadful accident has happened at the Flannans. The three keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the Occasional (McArthur) have disappeared from the Island… The clocks were stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago. Poor fellows they must have been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane.”
Meanwhile Moore and the three crew members of the Hesperus conducted a thorough search of the lighthouse complex which turned up nothing but a set of oilskins, suggesting one of the keepers had ventured out in just his shirtsleeves, the men turned their attention to the landing platform on the west side of the island. Here, there was plenty of evidence that the island had recently been hit by a massive storm. A supply box had been smashed open and its contents strewn across the ground despite being over a hundred feet above sea level. Iron railings on the side of a path had been bent and twisted out of shape, part of a railway track had been torn from its concrete moorings and a huge rock weighing more than a ton had been displaced. Turf had also been ripped up from the tops of the cliffs two hundred feet above sea level. There was no sign of the three keepers.
On December 29th the Robert Muirhead (Moorehead), an NLB superintendent, arrived to conduct an official investigation into the incident. Muirhead had hired all the men at the lighthouse and knew them personally. He examined the clothes left behind by the men and the area surrounding the light house and concluded:
“From evidence which I was able to procure I was satisfied that the men had been on duty up till dinner time on Saturday the 15th of December, that they had gone down to secure a box in which the mooring ropes, landing ropes etc. were kept, and which was secured in a crevice in the rock about 110 feet (34 meters) above sea level, and that an extra large sea had rushed up the face of the rock, had gone above them, and coming down with immense force, had swept them completely away.”
He also stated that the damage to the west side of the island was hard to believe unless seen.
Ducat left a wife and 4 children behind and McArthur had a wife and 2 children.
Speculation, spooks, and mystery around the Flannan Isle Lighthouse Incident.
After the initial wave of reports about the incident the local populace was not content with the official statements of what happened at the lighthouse. Over the years there has been speculation that the men were eaten by a sea serpent, hopped on a passing vessel to start new lives, kidnapped by foreign spies, swept away by a giant sea bird, a ship full of ghosts and stolen them and even that they were abducted by UFO’s. Very locally the “Phantom of the Seven Hunters” was blamed. More on that later.
This speculation was heightened by the 1912 ballad Flannan Isle by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson. Here is a small excerpt:
“Yet, as we crowded through the door,
We only saw a table spread
For dinner, meat, and cheese and bread;
But, all untouch’d; and no-one there,
As though, when they sat down to eat,
Ere they could even taste,
Alarm had come, and they in haste
Had risen and left the bread and meat,
For at the table head a chair
Lay tumbled on the floor.”
This ballad added to the mythos of the Flannan Isle Lighthouse but this ballad is purely fiction. Everything in the reports from both Moore and Muirhead state the lighthouse interior was in good condition, there was no food laid out, and no chair knocked over. Even the beds were made!
Then there surfaced a mysterious log book from the lighthouse. In it the log, written by Marshal supposedly, states that on the 12th through the 14th there was a storm unlike anything they had ever seen. It also states that Ducat had been very quiet and McArthur was weeping. The fact that McArthur was said to be weeping in regards to a storm is unusual as he was a seasoned lighthouse attendant, and a mariner who was also a burly man prone to fighting. You’d think he’d seen his fair share of bad storms in his time. On the 13th the log states the three men had been praying as the storm continued, which is also strange as the lighthouse they were in was 150 feet above sea level and built on solid rock. They would have known they were safe. Its also worth mentioning in other areas, like Lewis, there are no records of a storm on the dates of the 12 through the 14th. On the 15th the log has a final entry that states “Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all.” Investigators later found that these log books were fabricated later to help sensationalize the 1912 ballad we discussed earlier.
The Phantom of the Seven Hunters was mentioned earlier. I wanted to delve into that a bit more as it’s an interesting anecdote. According to local legend St. Flannan, an Irish missionary and preacher, built his hermitage on the island in the 7th century BCE and pilgrims subsequently came to see his home, but only after removing their hats and turning 360° clockwise immediately after coming ashore. It still stands today and is not but a few hundred feet from the lighthouse itself. It is believed his spirit still roams the area and even the isles bear his name. Also in medieval times shepherds brought their sheep to Flannan Isle to graze in summer but none of these superstitious peasants would stay overnight. At that time there was a strong local belief that, hundreds of years before, in pre-Christian times, the island was where the pagan Picts took their dead and burnt them on funeral pyres. For these reasons it had actually been extremely difficult for Muirhead to find any men among the local population, willing to serve in the brand new lighthouse on Flannan Isle. All of this wrapped together probably birthed the “Phantom of the Seven Hunters” legend. The legend states that when people go missing on the isles that the spirits of the Islands, angry at the modernity visiting their shores and the interlopers that it brings, they spirit the offending persons away, never to be seen again. Even Joseph Moore, the relief lighthouse keeper, reported that he had felt a very strange and eerie feeling as he walked through the deserted lighthouse. Spoooooky!
Theories about what actually happened at The Flannan Isle Lighthouse
The fates of the 3 keepers of the Flannan Isle Lighthouse will never truly be known but there are some plausible theories, outside the supernatural, that have been posited.
- One of the men, through psychosis or rage, had murdered the other 2 men, tossed their bodies into the sea, and remorseful after the fact threw themselves into the waves. This is somewhat plausible on the surface as when in close quarters tempers tend to flare. McArthur was a known brawler and was known to have a temper as well. It is also theorized that the mercury bath that the lens for the lighthouse floated on drove one of the men mad, and he subsequently went on a rampage. However, given the fact that there were no signs of struggle, and no blood found anywhere on the island this theory is speculative at best.
- There was a storm on the 15th of December and 2 men went to secure equipment and never returned having been swept off the island due to the storm. The third man went to go and find the others, and suffered the same fate. This is the predominant theory and the one Mr. Muirhead states as the official reason for the disappearance. There are some holes in this theory. Why would these experienced mariners and lighthouse keepers risk going out into a storm? Wouldn’t they have seen the storm coming and secured everything before it happened? This has never fully been explained but there are records that Marshal had been fined 5 shillings by the NLB when his equipment was washed away in a previous storm and he was determined not to have this happen again and brought another person with him to check on the equipment.
- A new theory was posited when researchers looked at the geography of the island The coastline of Eilean Mòr is deeply indented with narrow gullies called geos. The west landing, which is situated in such a geo, terminates in a cave. In high seas or storms, water would rush into the cave and then explode out again with considerable force. It was possible McArthur may have seen a series of large waves approaching the island and, knowing the likely danger to his colleagues, ran down to warn them only to be washed away as well in the violent swell. This would account for the oilskin being left in the lighthouse but not why the door to the lighthouse and the gate to the compound were closed.
- The wind is the deciding factor on this one. The following example is to show how strong the wind gets in that region. According to another report from the NLB, Alistair Henderson, who weighed 224 pounds or 124 kilos, had been carrying a fridge between his assigned lighthouse at Rua Reidh (Ru Re) and another building in the compound when a gust of wind blew him and the fridge several feet. This lighthouse is northeast of the Isle of Skye and is at the entrance of Loch Ewe. People think that the men left the lighthouse to investigate a strange noise or a banging door, and a powerful wind, funneled between the side of the lighthouse and the outer wall, picked the men up and blew them over the wall and straight over the 300 foot cliff only thirty feet away on the other side of the perimeter wall. Here is a picture for scale.
We will most likely never know what happened to the 3 men on Eileen Mor that fateful day. We are left with more questions than answers and this tale will continue to regal and enthrall us for as long as the light blinks on that bleak, windswept island jutting out from the frothing Atlantic Sea.
Interested in similar stories? Why not try:
- The Legend of The Bell Witch in Tennesee | Episode 2
- Sam the Sandown Clown, Paranormal or Paranoia? | Episode 3