MIKE ROBINSON talks about how the story of Scotland’s Big Gray Man inspired his latest novel
In December 1925, respected mountaineer and climber Professor Norman Collie stood before an annual general meeting of the Cairngorm Club in Aberdeen, Scotland. Staring out over the expectant faces, he took a breath, preparing to impart an astonishing account, a personal incident that had happened over thirty years ago, in 1891, though the years had not lessened its ghastly clarity.
“I’d reached the summit of Ben MacDui,” he said, referring to the peak that, at just over 4,000 feet, marks the highest point in the Cairngorms, and the second highest in Scotland. “Coming down through heavy mist, I began to think I heard something else other than the noise of my own footsteps. For every few steps I heard a crunch, crunch, and then another crunch, as if someone was walking after me but taking steps three or four times the length of my own.”
As though caught in a fire, Quincy kept her perspective low as she scanned the diminishing area about her. Then she saw it: in an interstice of earth, thinly fog-dressed, a foot lifted from the cigar- brown grass and disappeared into the higher, thicker realms of murk.
On instinct she started crawling fast towards the apparition, unimpeded by the monstrous proportion of that foot, which seemed the length of her forearm from elbow to middle fingernail. – from The Prince of Earth
Collie had turned, his alleged pursuer concealed in mist. “The eerie crunch,crunch sounded behind me,” he continued, “and I was seized with terror and took to my heels, staggering blindly among the boulders for four or five miles.” Winding down his address, Professor Collie made a promise to never return alone to MacDui, as “there was something very queer about the top.”
This well-documented account, featured in Karl Shuker’s The Unexplained: An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Natural and Paranormal Mysteries, slots neatly amongst many others of climbers or hikers, local or non, who’ve described a frightening variety of odd activity atop Ben MacDui, from wafting strains of phantom music or laughter, to footsteps reminiscent of those noted by Professor Collie, to the talon-footed, pointy-eared humanoid entity of impossible height spotted in the mist by mountaineer Tom Crowley, in the 1920s. Technically, this latter sighting occurred in the neighboring peak Braeraich, but by proximity is lumped into MacDui’s canon of strangeness.
Most of these stories involve fits of panic. Some are just the panic: several climbers, scrambling amongst the mist-frosted stones, have nearly plunged themselves to their deaths in frantic attempts to elude an unseen, unheard presence they intuit as malign.
Quincy turned again in the direction from which the deer had come but there was nothing. Or the appearance of nothing — the trees were apt conspirators. She understood the phenomenon of panicking in the woods — the arresting terror of an unknown source␣because it twitched in her now, as it had in the deer.
It is not surprising, given the testimony, that a certain lore has coalesced around Ben MacDui, that of the aptly-termed Big Grey Man, or, more locally, Am Fear Liath Mor. By now the place and its enigmatic inhabitant have garnered a reputation such that any new encounter, depending upon severity, might be chalked up to suggestion. Indeed, one of the more grounded explanations for the Big Grey Man is the climber’s shadow, reflected and elongated upon the mist. The imagination, after all, does enjoy a blank canvas. Yet that doesn’t explain the phantom music, laughter, footfalls or fits of inexplicable trepidation, much of which have come from experienced climbers.
As to be expected with any mystery, there is a lengthy scroll of other, more spectacular theories, from that of a Scottish Yeti, to a guardian spirit, to a marooned alien, to an interdimensional traveler.
The novel The Prince of Earth, however, offers quite a different explanation.
“So, then what’s the story?”
“It’s being written,” said the man. “It’s a myth-in-progress, wet and alive, not the dried text of a thousand years ago. The story is still coming. The story is growing and will be ready for generations down the line.”
“So, I could be a chapter,” said Quincy. “In an unfolding myth.”
“Precisely.” The man extended his hand, which swallowed hers as they shook.
The Prince of Earth is the culmination of a long-held fascination with the mystery of the Am Fear Liath Mor, one stretching back to when I was thirteen and received as a Christmas present the aforementioned book The Unexplained by Karl Shuker. Whether the photos of the area, so grandly gloomy, or the eerie nature of the accounts themselves — not to mention the intriguing explanations advanced — the lore enticed me, stuck with me, and rode it out tenaciously over the years as my small child-hand, then teenage-hand, struggled to come up with any deliciously creepy tales to do the phenomenon justice. Dribbles here and there. Half-baked ideas. Stories that got a page or two and crumbled into the mental dustbin. My experience atop Snowden in Wales, a peak similar to Ben MacDui in atmosphere and repute, would much later inform the sights and smells and shivers composing The Prince of Earth.
But for a long while, the story, whatever it might become, stayed dormant. In my mid-twenties, I had occasion to read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, a novel that hits you at the marrow and stays there, that reflects its characters’ inwardness in the the bleak, bone-strewn landscapes of America’s wild Southwest. The blood-dotted stone weighs as much in their skulls as in the earth. That was another seed planted.
Then, out of some etheric plane, the character of Quincy Redding introduced herself to me. She was a troubled young New Yorker with a taste for adventure and a soft spot for Anglo, Tolkien-esque fantasy; the kind of person who may just backpack alone over European countrysides. At this, Ben MacDui and the Big Gray Man, from whatever dark quarter of mine in which they’d been sleeping, were roused to attention. Character and Setting met, and meshed well. The Scottish Highlands would offer Quincy a quest as much inner as it was outer, ensnare her in a delirious finger-trap of mind and matter, dream and reality.
Not being a big outliner (when a character and a concept get along, I dive in and explore the waters), I started the project. The ultimate idea, the truth of the Gray Man as related to Quincy, did not even reveal itself to me until I was maybe halfway through the manuscript. As if materializing from fog.
Unfortunately, I imagine the discovery far more pleasant for me than for Quincy.
MIKE ROBINSON has been writing since age seven, professionally since nineteen. He has since published fiction in a dozen magazines, literary anthologies and podcasts. His debut novel, Skunk Ape Semester, released by Solstice Publishing, was a Finalist in the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. His follow-up novels The Green-Eyed Monster and The Prince of Earth were released by Curiosity Quills Press. Currently he’s the managing editor of Literary Landscapes, the official magazine of the Greater Los Angeles Writers Society. His Facebook Page is here and he can be followed on twitter here.