Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is already considered to be his magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com/index.htm

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Wednesday, 28 May 2014

JUST ITCHING TO MEET YOU – THE MUHNOCHWA OR INDIAN SCRATCH MONSTER

Line drawing of the Indian scratch monster - Schizodactylus monstrosus

Monsters can come in all shapes, sizes - and scratching capabilities!

In 2002, many strange stories emerged from Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh State in India, concerning a small but macabre mystery beast known locally as the muhnochwa or scratch monster, due to lurid claims that it inflicted vicious scratches and other lacerations upon the body of anyone unfortunate enough to come into contact with it. Equipped with six legs, it was also said to emit light when it flew through the air.

Not surprisingly, zoologists discounted such tales as imaginative fiction or, at best, superstitious folklore – until, during August of that same year, a brave local captured a scratch monster alive, in the district of Lakhimpur Kheri, close to India's border with Nepal, and took it for identification purposes to Lucknow University. Here the mysterious mini-beast, measuring approximately 3 in long, was examined by Prof. K.C. Pandey, head of the university's zoology department, who was able to identify it as the aptly-named Schizodactylus monstrosus – a large and very distinctive species of cannibalistic cricket, mostly found on the banks of rivers.

Its legs all bear a series of pointed, nail-like structures, which can leave faint marks upon the skin of someone handling this curious-looking insect, but they certainly cannot yield the painful, bleeding scratches claimed during the outbreak of 'scratch monster' panic that had preceded this bizarre case's somewhat anti-climactic denouement. Nor can this species emit light.

Clearly, therefore, just like so many other mystery creatures reported before and since, the dreaded muhnochwa owed its existence (not to mention its glowing talent!) far more to media hype and local exaggeration than to anything created by evolution or Mother Nature!

Pinned specimen of Schizodactylus monstrosus (© Andrew Butko/Wikipedia)






Monday, 12 May 2014

PERUSING THE PEGASI – PLINY'S HORSE-HEADED MYSTERY BIRDS

Pegasi illustration (© Tony Millionaire / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

One of the best-known creatures of classical mythology is Pegasus – the flying horse who sprang into existence (along with his human brother, Chrysaor) from spurts of blood gushing forth from the neck of the snake-haired gorgon Medusa when Greek hero Perseus beheaded her with his sword.

Much less famous than Pegasus, conversely, but often confused with him on account of their similar name are the subjects of this present ShukerNature blog – the pegasi or horse-headed birds, fabulous entities variously claimed to occur in Scythia or in Ethiopia.

A phalanx of flying horses (© Ezra Tucker / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

As I've noted on previous occasions, some of my most productive and interesting investigations are cases that have been initiated by the sparsest of information, sometimes no more than a line or two, or a simple footnote, tucked away and readily overlooked in text otherwise devoted to much more familiar, extensively-documented subjects. I've presented some of these hitherto-obscure cases here on ShukerNature (as well as in articles and comprehensive, often chapter-length coverage in books) - and they include such fascinating subjects as archangel feathers (click here), Brevet's all-black Malayan tapirs (click here), the Iberian zebro or encebro (click here), Sloan's blue rhinoceros (click here) and Heuvelmans's green leopard (click here), the exploding worm of Kalmykia (click here) and the Isle of Wight's gooseberry wife (click here), flying cats (click here), flying mice (click here), flying jackals (click here), and flying turtles (click here), the world's only intergeneric elephant hybrid (click here), Jamaican monkeys (click here) and Janus cats (click here), the sukotyro (click here), the purple macaw (click here), mirrii dogs (click here), the night jaguar (click here), New Guinea penguins (click here), scarlet bats (click here) and scarlet vipers (click here), the antlered snail of the Sarmatian Sea (click here), stone worms (click here) and Steller's sea-bear (click here), white eagles (click here), shrieking centipedes (click here), the kuil kaax (click here), were-worms (click here), and much more besides.

A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts by Richard Barber and Anne Riches

And so it was that, many years ago when still a teenager, I first learnt of the pegasi (aka pegasy and pegasies) from the briefest of sources – the following single line that appeared in A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts (1971), written by Richard Barber and Anne Riches:

Pegasi   Horse-headed birds found in Scythia; Pliny, who reports their appearance, regards them as fabulous. (118)

In classical times, Scythia was the name given to a region encompassing much of present-day Eastern Europe and Central Asia. As for the bracketed 118, this referred to a numbered reference in this book's bibliography, the reference in question being Dr John Bostock's translation from 1855 of the encyclopaedic Naturalis Historiae (aka Historia Naturalis) - the multi-volume magnum opus of Roman naturalist-historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD).

Title page from the 1669 edition of Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historiae

I was able to obtain a copy of Bostock's translation via Britain's indispensable inter-library loans service, and I discovered that the lone line documenting the pegasi in the fabulous beasts dictionary by Barber and Riches was simply a paraphrasing of Pliny's original statement - which opened Chapter 70 of his encyclopaedia (a chapter dealing with fabulous birds), and read as follows:

"I look upon the birds as fabulous which are called "pegasi," and are said to have a horse's head; as also the griffons, with long ears and a hooked beak. The former are said to be natives of Scythia,1 the latter of Aethiopia."

The superscript 1 referred to a footnote by Bostock that stated:

"Scythia and Ethiopia ought to be transposed here, as the griffons were said to be monsters that guarded the gold in the mountains of Scythia, the Uralian chain, probably."

Otherwise, nothing new there. (NB - In classical times, Ethiopia referred to much of East Africa, not just the present-day country bearing this name.)

An engraving from 1663 of a griffin with ears

Moreover, despite perusing countless books and published articles on mythological animals in subsequent years, I never encountered any additional mention of pegasi. So the decades slipped by while visions of horse-headed birds periodically flapped on heavy wings across the horizon of my mind but never alighted long enough in my consciousness to induce me to investigate them any further – until quite recently, that is, when, after recalling these semi-equine enigmas yet again, I decided that it was time to pursue the pegasi online. So I did - and here is what I found out about them.

Pliny the Elder was not the only classical scholar to document the pegasi. Preceding his Naturalis Historiae was a short treatise written in c. 43 AD by Rome's earliest geographer, Pomponius Mela, entitled De Situ Orbis Libri III – which Pliny used as a major authority for the geographical sections in his own publication. And both Mela's treatise and Pliny's encyclopaedia were used as sources of material by the 3rd-Century compiler and grammarian Gaius Julius Solinus in his own master-work, De Mirabilibus Mundi (translated as The Wonders of the World). Interestingly, Pomponius Mela and Solinus merely stated that the pegasi sported horses' ears – it was Pliny who claimed that they were horse-headed. Also, the two former authors reported that these birds lived in or near a lake.

So far, however, whether horse-headed or horse-eared, the pegasi have been deemed to be entirely mythical, with no more basis in reality than their winged steed namesake, Pegasus. But is it possible that they actually constituted a distorted or embellished account of a genuine, bona fide species of bird? In his book Birds in the Ancient World from A to Z (2012), W. Geoffrey Arnott includes a short account of the pegasi, and, accepting Bostock's suggestion in his translation of Pliny's encyclopaedia that these birds were native to Ethiopia, not Scythia, he notes that there are no less than three relatively common species of East African bird with erect, pointed crests resembling a horse's ears that perch in lakeside trees. Namely, the long-crested eagle Lophaetus occipitalis, the spotted eagle owl Bubo africanus, and the white-bellied go-away bird Corythaixoides leucogaster. So could one of these be the identity of the pegasi?

The white-bellied go-away bird (© Steve Garvie/Wikipedia)

Personally, I consider it improbable that either of the first two species would make a plausible candidate, simply because eagles and owls would already be very familiar birds to classical European scholars, and therefore it seems doubtful that even via several retellings between original observation and subsequent documentation a Chinese whispers process could convert either of these into a horse-eared (or –headed) avian anomaly. Conversely, the third species named might be a more plausible candidate, because go-away birds would be far less familiar to European scholars as they are confined entirely to tropical Africa, and are totally unlike any European bird in appearance. Consequently, a go-away bird's appearance could become distorted much more readily by the Chinese whispers process (click here for a ShukerNature article concerning go-away birds).

A female Abyssinian ground hornbill (© Quartl/Wikipedia)

In addition, one Twitter correspondent suggested that a hornbill might make a promising candidate for the pegasi, and there is no doubt that certain species of hornbill do possess a vaguely horse-headed appearance, due to their huge, burly beaks, which at a distance could resemble a horse's muzzle. Moreover, one species that is especially reminiscent of the pegasi just so happens to be a native of Ethiopia - namely, the Abyssinian ground hornbill Bucorvus abyssinicus. One of the two largest species of hornbill anywhere on the world, it has been specifically recorded from the immediate vicinity of Ethiopia's Lake Langano, thereby fulfilling another pegasi requirement as a plausible candidate - living by a lake.

Ultimately, however, it seems unlikely that we shall ever know for certain whether the pegasi do have a basis in ornithological fact as well as a presence in classical fable.

Man riding a hippalectryon - damaged depiction on the interior of an Attica black-figure lip cup, 540–530 BC (public domain)

Interestingly, the pegasi are not the only horse-birds on record. There is also the hippalectryon to consider. No less obscure than the pegasi, this yellow-plumed composite beast from ancient Greek folklore is variously said to have combined the wings, legs, and tail of a cockerel (most frequently), an eagle, or a giant vulture with the head and forequarters of a horse, and could apparently be tamed and ridden by anyone brave enough to attempt this daunting feat. It is represented, sometimes bearing a bold rider, in several pieces of ancient art, including vases, statues, and coins, most commonly dating from the 6th Century BC; but the oldest known example - an askos (liquid-pouring pottery vessel) from Knossos - dates from the 9th Century BC.

Finally: horse-bird composites are assuredly the stuff of dreams, especially any dreams that can be designed by those skilled in the illusive arts of Photoshop - so here is a truly delightful example to leave you with:

(original source/copyright owner unknown to me)





Saturday, 10 May 2014

FROM BIG BIRDS TO BIGFOOT - DIATRYMA AND A VERY CURIOUS CRYPTO-DILEMMA

Zdeněk Burian's famous artistic reconstruction of Diatryma [=Gastornis] giganteus (© Zdeněk Burian)

It was back in July 1997 when a curious snippet that apparently featured a while earlier on the internet (possibly in the Virtual Bigfoot Conference website) was brought to my attention by English palaeontologist Dr Darren Naish. However, its mysterious claim is still unverified today, so I'm posting it here on ShukerNature in the hope that readers may be able to help me finally resolve this very curious but highly intriguing crypto-dilemma.

As far as Darren could recall, the snippet claimed that several sightings had been made, the most recent during 1975, of a 7-ft-tall bird in the Mount Adams area of Washington State, USA, and which had been likened to a giant brown bird, called the pach-an-a-ho' (variously translated as 'crooked-beak bird' or 'rough-looking bird'), from traditional Yakima legends.

Two Diatryma giganteus models photographed in Reutlingen, Germany, in 2003 (© Markus Bühler)

In addition, a party of Native Americans apparently visited a certain American museum not long before the snippet appeared online, and became very excited when they saw a life-sized reconstruction of a giant species of flightless, putatively predatory anseriform bird from prehistoric (mid-Eocene) North America called Diatryma [aka Gastornis] giganteus, because they claimed that this was the pach-an-a-ho'.

Sources informed me that issue #20 (August 1992) of the Western Bigfoot Society's newsletter, The Track Record, may include details concerning all of this. However, in April 2010 I learnt from American cryptozoologist Chad Arment that in fact this issue does not contain any mention of such a bird.

Diatryma giganteus (© Justin Case aka HodariNundu/Deviantart)

As for Diatryma reconstructions, the only one that I am aware of in the USA was a diorama featuring two adults and a chick that was housed at the California Academy of Sciences, but it is no longer on display there.

Needless to say, I don't believe for one moment that there is a contemporary Diatryma dynasty stalking the slopes and environs of Mount Adams in scientifically-undisclosed seclusion, but the whole saga is undeniably intriguing - curiouser and curiouser, in fact, as Lewis Carroll's Wonderland-exploring Alice might well have said, had she been aware of it. Consequently, if any ShukerNature readers can shed further light upon this mystifying case, I'd greatly welcome any details.

Diatryma giganteus portrayed upon a postage stamp issued by the Yemen Republic in 1990

For an extensive chapter devoted to Diatryma and other gastornithids plus the formidable phorusrhacids or terror birds, see my latest book The Menagerie of Marvels: A Third Compendium of Extraordinary Animals, to be published this coming autumn by CFZ Press, and featuring a spectacular wraparound cover by celebrated artist Anthony Wallis showcasing a pair of monstrous terror birds in all their magnificent ferocity!

This ShukerNature blog post is an expanded, updated excerpt from my book Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2010).






Friday, 9 May 2014

IS THE MÜSHMURGH A MISH-MASH? - ORNITHOLOGICAL MYSTERIES IN INDIA AND IRAN



Western tragopan (male in foreground) painted by D.J. Elliot in 1872

Mystery birds have always fascinated me, especially as they tend to attract much less cryptozoological attention than mammalian or reptilian cryptids (a very unfair situation, at least in my opinion), and the following example is no exception, being both very intriguing and exceedingly obscure.

Back in February 2003, English palaeontologist Dr Darren Naish informed me of a mystifying bird, brought to his attention by A.D.H. Bivar. While serving in the pre-partition Indian army, Bivar visited the guest rooms of the Wali of Swat at Saidu Sharif in the North-West Frontier Province, whose foyer contained two stuffed birds. One was a familiar monal pheasant (of which three species are currently recognised), but the other was a very unfamiliar specimen.

The Himalayan monal Lophophorus impejanus is native to several parts of India - this photographed specimen is a male

Sporting red foreparts, and grey posterior plumage, it was labelled as a tragopan (squat, short-tailed pheasant), but unlike all known tragopans it exhibited a lyre-shaped tail. Moreover, it was clearly distinct from the western tragopan Tragopan melanocephalus, the only species native to this region (see its illustration opening this present ShukerNature blog post). Might it have been an exotic hybrid (there are many different hybrid forms of pheasant on record), or even a distinct, still-undescribed species?

Caucasian black grouse – male perched in foreground and in flight, female perched in background – painted in the 1800s by John Gould

Intriguingly, Bivar then alluded to a now-vanished species of bird from Iran, called the müshmurgh, whose flesh made particularly tasty eating. Could this be one and the same as the stuffed bird that he had spied? Darren wondered whether the latter specimen might conceivably have been a taxiderm composite, noting that the only lyre-tailed galliform bird in this whole area is the Caucasian black grouse Tetrao mlokosiewiczi, whose remaining plumage is very different from Bivar's bird, but Bivar dismissed that possibility.

So if this curious specimen still exists, it may well be worth a detailed examination by an ornithologist versed in pheasant taxonomy. And if anyone versed in Iranian ornithology or gastronomic traditions reading this blog post of mine has any information concerning the müshmurgh, I'd greatly welcome any details that you could post here or email directly to me.


This ShukerNature post is excerpted and expanded from my book Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2010).






Wednesday, 7 May 2014

WHEN JULIUS CAESAR MET THE HERCYNIAN UNICORN


The Hercynian unicorn if indeed a uni-stag (© Markus Bühler)

Germany has long been associated with unicorn traditions, in particular with the supposed occurrence of dainty white unicorns in the Harz Mountains. In addition, a far more exotic, bizarre version was allegedly sighted in Germany's Hercynian Forest by no less eminent an eyewitness than Julius Caesar.

He described it as being an ox but shaped like a stag, the centre of whose brow, between its ears, bore a single horn, taller and straighter than normal horns. Moreover, later eyewitnesses claimed that a series of branches sprouted forth from the tip of this creature's horn.

Bust of Julius Caesar in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples (public domain)

Long forgotten, the case of this very curious, atypical unicorn has lately been re-examined by German cryptozoologist Markus Bühler, who has proposed a very ingenious, plausible explanation for it.

Occasionally, a freak deer is born, bearing a single horn-like structure upon the centre of its skull, instead of its species' normal paired laterally-sited antlers. One recently-recorded example, pictured above, is a roe deer Capreolus capreolus 'uni-stag' aptly dubbed 'Unicorn' and born during 2007 in a park belonging to the Center of Natural Sciences in Prato, near Florence, Italy.

Unicorn, the uni-stag roe deer (© Center of Natural Sciences, Prata, Italy)

But what if, as speculated by Markus, some rudimentary antlers develop at the tip of this aberrant central horn?

The result would be a creature bearing a very similar appearance to the extraordinary Hercynian unicorn. So perhaps the latter beast, if truly real, was not a unicorn at all, but merely a freak uni-stag!


This ShukerNature post is excerpted from my book Mirabilis: A Carnival ofCryptozoology and Unnatural History (Anomalist Books: New York, 2013)






Friday, 2 May 2014

THE BIG GREY MAN OF BEN MACDHUI - BRITAIN'S VERY OWN BIGFOOT?




Ben MacDhui’s principal claim to fame is that, at 4296 ft (1309 m), it is the highest mountain in the Cairngorms range and is second only to Ben Nevis throughout Scotland. However, it is also famous – indeed, infamous – as Scotland’s ‘haunted mountain’, thanks to the sinister, ostensibly supernatural entity known as Am Fear Liath Mor, the Big Grey Man (BGM), said to haunt its lofty peak.


PANIC ON THE PEAK, FOOTSTEPS IN THE FOG

What is so remarkable about the Big Grey Man case is the extraordinary range of mysterious phenomena associated with it, and which are every bit as dramatic as they are diverse. Take, for instance, various reports of irrational panic linked to this supposed being’s presence, which include the following, defining BGM account.

The BGM first attracted major attention beyond the immediate environs of Ben MacDhui in December 1925, when internationally-renowned mountaineer and London University’s Professor of Organic Chemistry John Norman Collie (1859-1942) startled his audience while speaking at the Annual General Meeting of Aberdeen’s Cairngorm Club by recalling a truly bizarre event that had happened to him when climbing Ben MacDhui in 1891. (Over two decades prior to the meeting in Aberdeen, Collie had spoken of his Ben MacDhui experience to a local New Zealand newspaper, but this had not attracted such interest.)

Prof. James Norman Collie, photographed in c.1912 (© University College London (UCL) Chemistry Collections)

While descending through a heavy mist from the Cairn at this mountain’s flat, barren summit:

"…I began to think I heard something else than merely the noise of my own footsteps. For every few steps I took I heard a crunch, and 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 I will not go back there again by myself I know."

The anomalous sound of footsteps not in sync with those of the ‘ear’-witness has also been reported on several other occasions from Ben MacDhui. In 1904, while gathering biological specimens on the mountain for Aberdeen University, Hugh Welsh and his brother often heard the sound of pacing footsteps, both at night and during the day, but never succeeded in tracing their origin. Similarly, in 1940, while spending a summer’s night beneath a huge block of stone on Ben MacDhui’s slope known as the Shelter Stone, Scottish author R. Macdonald Robertson and a friend were awakened by the growls of Robertson’s bull terrier, and clearly heard the sound of crunching steps approaching them along the gravel path leading to the Stone, until, abruptly, they faded away again, and the dog then relaxed.

Ben MacDhui's Shelter Stone, c.1905 postcard

Even stranger was the experience of fellow author Wendy Wood, also in 1940, who heard while upon the Lairig Ghru (an arduous but much-traversed pass through the Cairngorms) what sounded to her like an enormously resonant Gaelic-speaking voice directly beneath her. After vainly searching the snow all around in case someone was trapped underneath it and was calling out for help, she became very apprehensive and duly began descending the mountain. As she did so, however, she heard what she later described as “gigantic footsteps” following her where there had previously been no sound, upon which she experienced a blinding panic, sending her fleeing downwards in absolute terror.

A comparable scenario (missing only the Gaelic voice) was experienced in 1945 by competent mountaineer Peter Densham. Eating his lunch at the summit, he suddenly heard crunching footsteps emanating from the Cairn close by, but as he stood up to investigate, an inexplicable wave of uncontrollable fear washed over him, causing him to flee wildly, so wildly in fact that he barely stopped himself plummeting headlong over a treacherous cliff known as Lurcher’s Crag.

On 26 September 2006, the following account was posted on the Cryptomundo cryptozoology website by a correspondent with the user name ‘big max’:

"I was climbing back down Ben MacDhui in May 1988 when I experienced the footsteps phenomenon mentioned by others. It was pretty misty and I was alone. But it was like ’something’ was behind me, only 10 metres or so, keeping track of me. I back-tracked to see if anyone was there. I didn’t see anything, but it was weird enough to scare me, particularly as the sounds occurred both when I was moving or stationary. It was only after I told this story to a Glasgow cousin years later that I first heard about the Grey Man."


FROM BIG GREY MAN TO MOVIE STAR!

In 2007, the winning entry in the category of Best Highland Amateur Film at the annual Fort William Mountain Festival was a 10-minute-and-one-second-long video entitled ‘The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui’, produced by an eight-person team of film makers (including Richard Cross, Jez Curnow, and Peter George) from scottishhills.com. It was also screened at the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival in 2006, and can presently be viewed at http://www.biggreyman.co.uk and on YouTube. It features a number of local figures and mountain experts airing their thoughts on the subject, as well as shoots at various locations on and near Ben MacDhui, including a cold Winter Solstice at Corrour Bothy on 23 December 2005, a walk along the Lairig Ghru in March 2006, and a visit to the mountain’s summit in May 2006.


AFFLECK  GRAY AND THE BIG GREY MAN

The definitive publication on the subject of the BGM is The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui: Myth or Monster? – written by the aptly-named Affleck Gray, first published in 1970 (a second edition appeared in 1989, and a third in 1994), and containing a foreword by the acclaimed Scottish climber Sydney Scroggie.


Packed with newspaper accounts and eye/earwitness reports relating to mystifying happenings on this mountain, this fascinating book was authored by a man well-versed in the majesty and mysteries of the Cairngorms, as Gray was born and bred in Upper Strathspey, and investigated BGM reports throughout his life as a hobby. His contributions were also featured in the above-mentioned BGM film.


BGM SIGHTINGS

In spite of its descriptive ‘Big Grey Man’ name, surprisingly few visual BGM encounters are on file, and even those are far from consistent. When Prof. Collie’s account of his Ben MacDhui experience was originally published in New Zealand, it stimulated another renowned mountaineer, Dr A.M. Kellas, to write to him with details of an astonishing encounter made by himself and his brother, Henry Kellas, while climbing Ben MacDhui. Eschewing mere footsteps, the Kellas brothers claimed to have seen a huge figure, at least as tall as the 10-ft-high Cairn and described by them as “a big grey man”, walking out of the Lairig Ghru Pass and around the Cairn towards the summit where it passed out of sight. Moreover, while awaiting the entity’s reappearance, they were suddenly struck with acute fear, and raced, panic-stricken, down the mountain, convinced that the entity was pursuing them.

Ben MacDhui in the Cairngorms, taken from Carn Liath in the Grampians (public domain)

One night in 1942 while resting at the Shelter Stone and looking out towards Loch Avon, climber Sydney Scroggie suddenly spied:

"...a tall, stately, human figure, appear out of the blackness on one side of the loch, and clearly silhouetted against the water pace with long, deliberate steps across the combined burns just where they enter the loch."

Despite rushing over to the spot, Scroggie found no footsteps or any other evidence of the figure’s erstwhile presence, but experienced such unease that he swiftly returned to the Shelter Stone.

During October 1943, while walking alone along the Lairig Ghru, mountaineer-naturalist Alexander Tewnion abruptly heard long striding footsteps behind him, and to his horror he saw through the mist a strange shape looming forth and then charging directly towards him. Drawing out his revolver, Tewnion shot three times at the figure, but it continued approaching him, so Tewnion fled downwards to Glen Derry.

Does Ben MacDhui harbour its very own version of bigfoot? (© William Rebsamen)

Even more incredible, however, was the entity reportedly spied one night on Ben MacDhui by a friend of climber-writer Richard Frere. Having pitched a tent beside the Cairn, Frere’s friend awoke, to see a brown shape standing between his tent and the moon. So as soon as the shape moved away, his friend peered outside his tent, only to discover (according to Frere’s subsequent description) that just 20 yards away:

"...a great brown creature was swaggering down the hill. He uses the word “swaggering” because the creature had an air of insolent strength about it: and because it rolled slightly from side to side, taking huge measured steps. It looked as though it was covered with shortish, brown hair…its head was disproportionately large, its neck very thick and powerful. By the extreme width of its shoulders compared to the relative slimness of its hips he concluded its sex to be male. No, it did not resemble an ape: its hairy arms, though long, were not unduly so, its carriage was extremely erect."

By applying trigonometry in relation to surrounding objects, Frere’s friend calculated that the entity had been at least 21 ft tall.

As recently as 23 December 2005, while making their BGM film, team member Peter George was standing alone that evening outside a stone shelter hut in the Lairig Ghru called Corrour Bothy, looking out into the darkness, when:

"Out of the corner of my eye, over to the left towards the stream, I caught a glimpse of a tall grey figure. At first I thought it was one of our party, although all of them were inside the bothy. Turned to look properly and couldn't see anyone."

Just a trick of the light, or something more?

And although it was seen not on Ben MacDhui itself but on the neighbouring peak of Braeriach, mention must also be made of the bizarre entity reputedly encountered there by climber Tom Crowley. After looking round to see what was responsible for the sudden sound of footsteps behind him while descending this peak, Crowley was horrified to see a huge “…undefined misty figure with pointed ears, long legs, and feet with talons which appeared to be more like fingers than toes”. An altitude-induced hallucination, surely…?


THE SOUND OF MUSIC?

Yet another strand of this already much-tangled tale involves the hearing of mysterious music on Ben MacDhui’s lonely peak. So could the BGM be a veritable minstrel of the mountains? During one ascent of Ben MacDhui, later described by him in an Open Air article (Winter 1948), Richard Frere had reached the Lairig Ghru and was sitting there, immersed in an inexplicable bout of darkest despair, when, as well as sensing some invisible being close by, he suddenly heard an extremely high singing note, which continued unabatedly throughout his ascent to the summit and return to the Lairig Ghru – even though simple tests convinced him that it was not due to any effects of reduced pressure upon his eardrums. Then, without warning, the singing and sensation of a nearby presence ceased, and he was momentarily struck with a bout of absolute terror, followed by blissful serenity as he reached Rothiemurchus Forest.

The summit of Ben MacDhui (© Oliver Mills/Wikipedia)

Unaccountable pipe music was heard by acclaimed author Seton Gordon while climbing Ben MacDhui with a friend in 1926, and BGM authority Affleck Gray also experienced strains of origin-lacking music here. Moreover, just a few years ago, a writer signing himself ‘Jack’ reported online (originally at http://www.ghost-story.co.uk/stories/johnsexperiencebenmacdhui.html but this page no longer exists) that he had heard the sound of faraway music while at the Lairig Ghru.


YETIS AND URISKS AND DEVAS, OH MY!

Not surprisingly, faced with such a startling array of anomalies, the many explanations proposed for the BGM phenomena over the years have been equally disparate. Some, of course, can be readily discounted. For instance, with only a single putative report (that of Frere’s anonymous friend) on file, coupled with basic anatomical limitations, the necessity of a viable populations being present, and the undeniable fact that the Cairngorms hardly compare in terms of remoteness with the Himalayas or even North America’s vast Pacific Northwest forests, the prospect that the BGM is an elusive 21-ft-tall yeti-like (or True Giant bigfoot-like) creature of cryptozoology can be swiftly dismissed.

'Homage to Diana', a painting depicting Pan, by the Italian Baroque artist Annibale Carracci (1560-1609)

A zooform identity offers greater leeway, unconstrained by size and breeding limitations, and is also able to explain such anomalies as footsteps made by an unseen entity, the inducement of blind panic, and even sourceless music. However, as we have no notion what zooforms are or even if they genuinely exist, to label the BGM as one is simply replacing one mystery with another. Other, even more exotic notions put forward are that the BGM is a Pan-like being of Scottish folklore known as a urisk (hence the sensation of panic experienced by those who sense its presence nearby), or perhaps some form of nature spirit such as a deva.

Leading from those thoughts is the possibility that the assortment of unexplained phenomena experienced on Ben MacDhui indicates that it harbours a 'window area' - an interface between different dimensions or alternate worlds. If so, there is a good chance that such a significant portal would have a guardian, to deter would-be intruders or trespassers. Is it just coincidence that this is the precise effect so successfully accomplished by Ben MacDhui's formidable BGM?

A pair of Japanese hanging scrolls, c1300, depicting Bodhisattvas descending from Heaven

Very different again is the proposal offered up by practising Mahayana Buddhist Sir Hugh Rankin and Scottish mystic the Reverend Countess of Mayo among others that the BGM is in fact a Bodhisattva – one of the five “perfected men” controlling our planet’s fate. Yet as such beings are notably benevolent, such an identity hardly corresponds with the malevolent persona of the BGM.


GEOLOGICAL HOLOGRAM, OR OPTICAL SPECTRE?

During the 1970s, inorganic chemistry specialist Dr Don Robins proposed that some minerals may be capable of encoding a type of electrical energy, in turn yielding a moving image that could be projected under certain specific conditions, i.e. a veritable geological hologram. Could it be that the BGM is one such hologram, stimulated by certain specific, mountain-related mineralogical attributes, and exhibiting an additional aural component? Yet if so, why are such montane manifestations limited (at least in Scotland) to Ben MacDhui and its environs? In contrast, as documented by modern-day BGM investigator Andy Roberts, bouts of mountain panic entirely comparable with those reported from Ben MacDhui have been documented from many other mountains in Britain and elsewhere in the world.

Even more radical is the oft-mooted suggestion that the BGM may be an electromagnetic phantom – an apparition reflecting wavelengths of radiation beyond the vision of most humans (hence the rarity of sightings in contrast to the greater number of reports of footsteps), but whose presence is still sensed. It would certainly be interesting to see what might be exposed, for instance, if a camera containing UV-sensitive film were to be pointed in the direction of crunching footsteps heard on Ben MacDhui.

Brocken spectres, 1873 engraving

As for those rare sightings, the most popular explanation is that the entity observed is merely an optical illusion, probably of the Brocken spectre kind. Under certain climatic conditions in mountainous areas, a person’s shadow is very greatly magnified and is sometimes cast upon a bank of mist or cloud, yielding the afore-mentioned spectre effect. Very unnerving to unsuspecting or uninformed observers, it could certainly yield the huge, monstrous forms claimed from Ben MacDhui, and if coupled with local precipitation might also explain the sound of supposed footsteps.

Another relevant phenomenon related to optical illusions is the autokinetic effect, in which a stationary object seen from a distance sometimes appears to move – an illusion caused if there is an absence of visual clues in the proximity of the object. If this is added to the innate capacity of the human mind to “fill in” missing details when viewing an unfamiliar object briefly or during poor viewing conditions, it is not difficult to understand how a stationary, inanimate object might seem to resemble a moving, humanoid entity.


THE MONARCH OF THE MIST – WALES'S VERY OWN BGM?

And finally: Reports of BGM-like entities in Britain are not wholly confined to Ben MacDhui, or even to Scotland. According to traditional Welsh folklore, Wales's answer to the Big Grey Man is the Grey King, also known as the Brenin Llwyd or Monarch of the Mist. A brooding silent figure allegedly frequenting Snowdon, Cader Idris, Plinlimmon, and other lofty Welsh peaks, this awesome preternatural entity is said to be an ancient earth spirit, sitting aloof and alone at the summits, enrobed in mist and clouds. Sometimes it will send the caliginous mountain mists down the slopes to envelop unwary climbers so that they lose their way, trekking helplessly over the edge of unseen precipices to their doom.

The valley of Cader Idris, domain of the Brenin Llwyd?

In times past, the Brenin Llwyd was greatly feared as a child-stealer, and even the mountain guides were nervous of venturing into its domain. It also appeared as the evil supernatural villain in the children's fantasy novel The Grey King (1975) by Susan Cooper, the fourth of five books in her Arthurian series, The Dark is Rising.


In summary: there is no single, easy explanation for the multi-faceted mystery of Ben MacDhui’s BGM. Some aspects seem to be of psychological origin, others ostensibly paranormal, and there may even be facets featuring geological or other physical phenomena that are still unverified by science. Indeed, more than a century after Prof. Collie’s classic experience here, reports from Scotland’s haunted mountain of the grim grey entity that may (or may not) lurk within its misty realm remain as tantalising and tenuous as they were then, as intangible, in fact, as Scotch mist itself – and we all know what they say about that!


This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted from Kryptos - a future book of mine, currently a work-in-progress.