Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The big grey view of Ben MacDui

I woke briefly some time in the pre-dawn to hear light rain on the tent but on waking a couple of hours later the rain had stopped, though it was overcast.  That didn't detract much from the pleasure of waking up and taking breakfast in such a great location though!

It was just a short climb to reach the domed summit plateau of Ben MacDui (Macduff's hill - MacDuff is the family name of the Earls of Mar),a sub-arctic landscape of granite flats and rock.  Ben MacDui is haunted by it's very own apparition - Am Fear Liath Mor (the big grey man), "something" seen and heard by normally level-headed folk which has scared them witless.  Whatever you make of the legend, it's pervasive, unexplained and in bad weather adds a certain something to any ascent of the hill!

The route from the Etchachan (east) side has some great views down gullies of red granite scree into Coire Sputan Dearg (corrie of the red spouts).  Remarkably, although it was raining in the corries and glens below it remained dry in the summit; an unusual occurrence in Scotland.

A little below the summit is the ruined "Sapper's Bothy", the story of this building is told on Neil Reid's Cairngorm Wanderer blog.  Easy to find on a clear day, a sight of the bothy in the clag is usually a very welcome confirmation that you're on route.

From the Sapper's Bothy it's just a stroll to the summit of Ben MacDui, crowned by a large cairn, trig point, view indicator and numerous low stone walls.  Despite this evidence of man's hand the summit of MacDui never feels as invaded as the top acre of Ben Nevis.  Although a well-climbed hill it gets a fraction of the ascents of Ben Nevis, due mainly to the length of the walk in and out- it's big and comparatively remote.

At 1309 metres/4294 ft MacDui is the second highest summit in Scotland (and in all Britain).  At this early hour there was nobody else around and so I could (for once) claim to be one of the highest paid men in the land!

Dotted around the summit area are low horseshoe shaped walls forming bivouac shelters.  Many of them are said to have been made by Commandos training in the area during World War 2.  I've often thought of a camp or bivvy up here, but the weather really needs to be good for that to be enjoyable.

the summit of Ben MacDui has a well-deserved reputation for being a very difficult place to escape from in bad weather.  The gently domed summit is surrounded by steep ground with only a few defined routes to get off the highest ground; and then there's the issue of finding the "right" descent in the conditions - which may well leave the walker a very long way indeed from the intended destination, attempting to walk against some of the ferocious weather found in the Cairngorms hardly ever ends well.  I have had an "interesting" few hours battling off the high ground here in strong wind and blowing snow having failed to reach the summit - it's a humbling experience as well as an exhausting one....

From the view indicator there's a fine panorama across the Lairig Ghru to the Breariach/Cairn Toul group of hills.  But on a clear day, there's much more to be seen from here.

In 1897-98, Mr A. Copland, first chairman of the Cairngorm Club, noted which hills could be seen from the summit of Ben MacDui and published the list in the Cairngorm Club Journal.  His findings were checked by Mr J. Parker and in 1925 the club built this indicator on the summit.  It has survived remarkably well given conditions up here, most of the damage is likely to have resulted from people chipping at ice to see what's beneath in winter conditions.

The furthest hills on the indicator are the Lammermuirs at 150 km to the SSE and Ben a-Chielt in Caithness 140 km to the north.  On exceptionally clear days many further distant hills can be glimpsed including those in Knoydart and Torridon.

After spending a little time just enjoying the summit view (though few of the hills on the indicator were on show today!) it was time for me to head down towards Glen Luibeg.  Even in good visibility gaining the top of the Sron Riach (brindled nose) ridge needs careful compass work across the boulderfields surrounding the summit.

No Big Grey Man this time, but there had been a big grey view to enjoy!


  1. Great stuff Ian. I might not have seen the Grey Man but like quite a few others I have heard him. It was about February '82 and we were coming off the summit heading north in mist. We were concentrating on stepping out on a bearing and our boots were crunching in the snow. Just as the slope steepened we heard footsteps behind us. We stopped and they stopped. We started off again and the crunching behind us also started again. I think it was probably just an echo in a particular place as it did not follow us all the way down. Some people who have heard this describe a feeling of dread but I can't say we experienced that, maybe because there were two of us and we were fairly heavily armed with sharp metal things. Surprisingly we hadn't heard anything on the way up from the Loch Etchachan side but there was a light southerly wind and maybe wind direction influences whether you hear it or not. A few years later I experienced the same thing coming off Braeriach also in winter and mist with light wind.

  2. Hi Douglas, I've not seen Am Fear Liath Mor either, but accounts such as yours are pretty consistent. I have heard something similar elsewhere in the Cairngorms and it was certainly unerving when alone in the mist!

    Kind regards

  3. Ian and Douglas...great stories, both of you. Going through our packs, the only "sharp metal thing" I can find is my relatively tiny Bear Grylls multi-tool. Doesn't inspire much confidence with either our Canadian Sasquatch or your Scottish Grey Man. :) Best wishes to you both. Duncan.

  4. Hi Duncan, Even an array of ice axes and crampons aren't likely to be of much use - they just make us feel better! :-)

    Best wishes