This is the first in what I plan to be an occasional series, looking at some of the classic howffs, dosses and bothies of the Highlands.
In the golden age of Scottish mountaineering in the fifties and sixties, climbing was becoming less about the gentry and more accessible to the common punter and that meant the rise of the weekenders, those who would work in the factories, mills and yards all week and then hitch up into the hills for the whole weekend, to stumble back to work on the Monday after two days of adventure and camaraderie. In those days tents were heavy, expensive and rare things. Bothies were the staple residence, along with sundry howffs in more suitable (and generally higher) locations to maximise opportunities for climbing. Howffs comprise of all sorts of things, caves, nooks, and man-made shelters.
In these days of cheap and lightweight tents, the need is reduced, although the bothy culture continues to some degree. Next time you’re heading out, you might want to try leaving the tent behind.
If I’m going to start anywhere on such a guide, it needs to be here: the secret howff of Beinn a’Bhuird.
I was first introduced to the idea of the secret howff in my foundling years in the AMC in the late eighties. Beinn a’Bhuird was a mecca for Aberdeen climbers in the fifties, the main issue with the great coires is that they are bloody miles from anywhere. There’s no nearby bothy and in those days you had to get the bus to Braemar and walk from there. On nights in the pub as a fresh-faced youth, I was regaled with tales of the legend; a howff built under the very noses of the less-than-friendly Invercauld estate, hidden where no-one would stumble over it, with it’s location a closely guarded secret, known only to those who had been told word-of-mouth. Those who stumbled across it would be welcome, but it’s location would never be written down or published.
Imagine the hi-jinks as the relevant building materials were sneaked in under cover of darkness, big beams and tin sheets.The local stone used to make as secure a residence as any bothy.
As an aspirant the idea was exciting and adventurous and it engendered the climbing tradition and culture that I wanted to be part of. I made several solo jaunts in an effort to find it, hunting up and down the fairy glen. I pestered Donald, one of the old hands to fill me in on the location. It took months for him to cave in, but even then he would only give me some signposts to watch for, not the exact location. A small party of us set off one Friday night determined to find it and climb in the coires the next day.
The signposts did their job, and we found it after a couple of minor detours and it was everything I had imagined and more. It’s tiny door like a lilliputian gateway to a cave of wonders. Weather-tight, well provisioned with floor, seating and a multitude of shelves and cubbies. Walls covered in mementoes and graffiti from those who had come before. It was Scottish mountaineering history made stone. I had my first night there, barely able to sleep due to the sheer delight of feeling the link with the tradition and the characters who helped shaped what climbing is today. The whisky helped.
I visited on and off in my Aberdeen years, sometimes with groups and sometimes solo, and the nights there were always magical. Filled with drunk tellers of tall tales; filled with the steam of stoves heating delights to be savoured; filled with laughter, banter and blethers after a belter of a day on the hill, there is no better place.
When I moved south in the mid nineties, the Cairngorms were no longer my stalking ground and the steeper western peaks grabbed my attention and so a long time would pass before I would return.
Some eighteen years since my last visit, I returned in 2014. This being the age where everything is online, I doubt it’s that it’s much of a secret anymore, it feels like every inch of the country is mapped and photographed. I was overjoyed to find the howff still in great shape despite being over 60 years old.
The book showed 75 entries for the previous year, suffice to show that it’s busy, but maybe not quite so much public knowledge as I expected. Maybe there’s still some mystery and delight to be found out there for the current generation.
Long may it continue.
And no, I won’t tell you where it is…