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What Is The Brocken Spectre?

Updated: Jun 25

The Brocken spectre is a spooky weather effect that in the past was considered to be of supernatural origins, and had been described as a Scottish Bigfoot, thought to be looming large in the shifting grey clouds around Ben Macdui, the second-highest mountain in the UK.


Recent sightings of ‘The Grey Man’ have surfaced and gone viral on Twitter, according to US website Newsweek, but what exactly is it?


The Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui first came to pass in the 1920s, when Professor John Norman Collie, a respected mountaineer and honorary president of the Cairngorm Club in Aberdeen told of his encounter 35 years earlier, in a dinner speech during the club’s annual gathering.


Professor Collie told of how he was climbing alone in the mist and the snow when he heard crunching sounds, as if he was being followed by someone or something large and ominous, causing the experienced mountain climber to turn and flee the scene.


Later, another climber, A M Kellas, a lecturer and a veteran of Himalayan ascents confided to Professor Collie that he had had a similarly terrifying experience on Ben Macdui. Other mountaineers came forward to tell of not only hearing the same thing but also that they had seen the Big Grey Man.


However, the sightings have a much more rational explanation called the Brocken spectre, and while natural phenomenon such as these can appear to be of supernatural origin, it’s important to resist the temptation to succumb to supernatural superstitions and seek rational answers.


The phenomenon was recently photographed on Meall a Bhuiridh in Glen Coe by a Sportscotland Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) forecaster, during a period of inversion when the mountain tops were poking up through low cloud and mist.


The Met Office explains that the Brocken spectre is an effect produced when a person is standing above the upper surface of a cloud, typically on a mountain or high ground - although it has been observed from aircraft too - with the sun behind them, casting a shadow.


When they view their shadow the light is reflected back in such a way that a spooky circular 'glory' appears around the point directly opposite the Sun,” the Met Office said.


The spectre can often appear larger than the person observing it, giving the impression of some kind of giant grey creature.


The term Brocken spectre originates in Germany. The Brocken is the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, where there was a listening post on the summit during the Cold War when the mountain formed part of East Germany.


The Brocken is cloud or mist-covered for 300 days a year, according to travel website Germany is Wunderbar, and wrapped in old superstitions and fairytales involving witches.


It is not the only ‘supernatural’ phenomenon experienced by solo mountain climbers, as many have reported feeling the presence of a climbing companion, referred to by experts as ‘The Third Man Factor’, where one climber on Mount Everest, weak and hungry, broke his Kendal Mint Cake in two to share with his ‘companion’, only to discover he was truly alone.


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