Sunday, 29 November 2015

Ordnance Survey Maps

Are paper maps still relevant in today's hi-tech world?

Yes, of course they are! Even though new technology has given us different ways to use maps the traditional paper map is still an essential item for all those who take to the hills and wild places of Scotland (and elsewhere).

Without a map we wouldn't have a clue where we were or which way to go to get to where we want to be nor what kind of terrain lay on our route. People have been making maps for thousands of years. Maps of trade routes, maps of national borders, maps of land ownership, etc., and we in the United Kingdom are very fortunate when it comes to maps because the UK is probably the best-mapped country in the world - all thanks to the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain.

Background story

Old map of Scotland

Public Domain image from Wikimedia 
So how did this come about? Well, going back about 250-300 years or so to the several Jacobite rebellions, the most famous of which was the one of 1745 led by Charles Edward Stuart (''Bonnie Prince Charlie''), when loyal Scots rose up against the English overlords (as they saw it at the time) it became obvious that existing maps of Scotland were woefully inaccurate, especially for military use, and there was an obvious need for accurate, reliable maps of Scotland for use by the English armies.

So the first accurate maps began to be produced and by 1823 much of Britain had been mapped by what is now the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain (OSGB) - whose diligent work we have to thank for the many types of excellent maps now readily available for our use.

Today's maps

Given that we have so many convenient ways to use maps why should be still consider the traditional paper map?

It is, of course, entirely a personal choice and although I am not a technophobe I am a bit of a traditionalist and I much prefer the look and feel of the ''old-fashioned'' paper map. There is also the inconvenient fact that electronic devices like GPS systems do go wrong - the most obvious fault being a flat battery!

One thing about a paper map is that it doesn't break down, doesn't go wrong and doesn't give false readings. Of course, the wind could blow it out of your hands (yes, it has happened to me!) but you could also drop your Garmin over a cliff.

So my advice is to take a traditional paper map of the area you are going to. You could also take your Garmin with you if you wish but I wouldn't have that as my only means of navigation - belt and braces, that's my motto!

And now we come to the 64,000 dollar question: ''What's the best paper map to use?''

The OSGB offers the widest and most comprehensive range of maps of Great Britain and are still the best ones to go for and the two types I would recommend for most outdoor activities on the Scottish hills are the Landranger series and the Explorer series.

Cover of the Landranger map
Cover of the Explorer map
Landranger maps (on the left, with a red cover) are in a scale of 1:50,000 - one (2 centimeter) square on the map equals 1 kilometer on the ground and they cover a 40 x 40 kilometer area which makes them the most useful scale of map for a long-distance multi-day trip.

Explorer maps (on the right, with an orange cover) are in a scale of 1:25,000 - one (4 centimeter) square on the map also equals 1 kilometer on the ground - but because of the larger scale they offer much greater detail albeit of a smaller area. Explorer maps cover an area of 23 x 20 kilometers so you would need four of the Explorer series of maps to cover the same area as one Landranger. I use Landranger maps most of the time and Explorer maps if I want more detail of a particular area.

Both of these series of maps come in ''standard'' or ''active'' versions and no, that's not a reflection on the fitness levels of users! The ''active'' version is plastic-coated and fully rainproof - an important consideration on Scotland's hills. Unfortunately the ''active'' version is rather more pricey than the ''standard'' version so you pay your money and you take your choice.

Speciality maps

There is an alternative to buying an ''off-the-shelf'' OS map. You can have a custom-made map of any area you wish. Simply specify the map centre and the Ordnance Survey will print a map in either 1:25,000 scale or 1:50,000 scale and you can have it with a personalised cover - your own photo and your own titles. They look just like the '''off-the-shelf'' maps but each one is unique to you. A great idea as a gift for that special ''outdoor person'' in your life!

OSGB also offer more detailed paper maps of the most popular outdoor activity areas in different scales and they also do a full range of hi-tech, electronic alternatives to paper maps. If you're thinking of buying any kind of map then go to the OS SHOP and see what's available.

Other maps

Cover of a Harvey's map

The Ordnance Survey of Great Britain isn't the only source of high-quality outdoor-related maps of Great Britain. Harveys Map Services, based in Stirling, Scotland, offer an excellent range of maps in various scales.

Unlike the OSGB They don't cover all of the UK but they do offer a quite comprehensive range of maps of the most popular outdoor activity areas.

The only problem I have with Harvey's maps is the colours they are printed in. I find it hard to decipher some of the detail on their maps but I have friends who swear by them and prefer them to the OSGB maps.

Again, you pay your money and you take your choice!

When you go on your outdoor activity take your hi-tech device with you if you must but don't forget to take a back-up in the shape of a good, old-fashioned paper map - it could prove to be a lifesaver when your batteries run dead!

Friday, 27 November 2015

Calum's Road

Calum MacLeod BEM (15.11.11 to 26.1.88)

Calum MacLeod was a crofter and part-time lighthouse keeper who lived in a remote croft on the small Scottish island of Raasay.

After many years of petitioning the local authority to improve the rough footpath to his home in the north of the island by building a proper road and being consistently refused he decided to build it himself.

With guidance from a tattered book on roadbuilding Calum built nearly two miles of unsurfaced road, suitable for a Land Rover, from his croft to the nearest public road. His tools were a pick, a shovel and a wheelbarrow. It took him ten years!

Map showing the location of Raasay
(Ruhrfisch/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

Raasay lies off the west coast of Scotland. It is one of the islands of the Inner Hebrides located between the Isle of Skye and the mainland. Approximately 14 miles long and just over 3 miles wide at its widest point Raasay covers about 60 square miles with a permanent population of nearly 200.

It doesn't have a police station nor a gas station and there is only one small shop, The biggest village is Inverarish near the south of the island. There is one hotel and a handful of Bed & Breakfast lodgings

The name Raasay is old Norse and means The Island of the Roe Deer. The highest point on the island is Dun Caan (443m), an extinct volcano. Despite its remoteness Raasay is now a popular tourist destination with a youth hostel and an outdoor activities centre. Inevitably, Calum's Road has become a big tourist attraction - a fact which would probably have astonished Calum.

Calum's story

Calum was not born on Raasay. His father (who was a Raasay man) was a merchant seaman and Calum was born in Glasgow. He and his mother moved to Raasay at the outbreak of the First World War to a croft and house near Calum's grandfather at Arnish - a small hamlet in the northern half of the island

Calum is generally known today as a simple crofter who took his fate in his own hands and built a road for the betterment of his community.

But Calum was more than that. As well as being assistant keeper of the North Rona Lighthouse he was also part-time postman for the north of the island and a noted local historian and writer on local matters. He wrote frequently to the press and the local authority about various matters (including the road).

Roadsign for Calum's Road
(John Allan/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0)
Some of Calum's writings (written in his native Gaelic) were published during his lifetime and after his death his daughter collected and translated many others and published them as The Cruel Clearance of Raasay.

Building the road

Calum's home near Arnish was difficult to reach. There were two ways: by sea or by a rough footpath not suitable for any kind of vehicle. This remoteness was in large part responsible for the slow depopulation of the north of Raasay.

After years of asking the local authority to upgrade the track to his home and being repeatedly turned down by them as well as by various groups and authorities whom he asked to help by way of granting funds Calum grew tired of the authorities' intransigence and in 1964 he decided to build a road himself from Arnish, south to the nearest public road at Brochel Castle - a distance of nearly two miles.

The road going to Brochel Castle
(Anthony O'Neil/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0)
He was not entirely alone, however, he had some help from the Department of Agriculture who supplied a team of men with rock-breaking and blasting equipment to provide suitably sized stone and gravel for the surface of a single-track road.

After the team had finished Calum was on his own and, working in his spare time and his holidays, he took nearly ten years to complete the road.

By the time it was finished Calum and his wife were the only inhabitants of Arnish - everyone else had gone. But at least Calum was now able to drive his Land Rover from his front door to the public road at Brochel Castle - but no further than that. Calum couldn't drive on the public roads south of Brochel because he had never passed a driving test!

What happened next?

In 1982 the local authority finally gave in and recognised Calum's Road as a public road. It was brought under their control and they gave it a proper tarmac surface suitable for all vehicles. Today, it is popular with tourists who come to drive along it, admire the magnificent scenery and honour the memory of a man whose tenacity almost beggars belief.

Calum's Cairn and part of the road
(Richard Dorrell/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Calum was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1988 (the year he died) - but not for building the road! 
The authorities apparently couldn't face the embarrassment of honouring Calum for doing something they had consistently refused to do for the best part of 20 years. Calum's BEM was awarded to him for 'maintaining supplies to the Rona light'.

A commemorative cairn was placed at the southern end of the road bearing an inscription in Gaelic and English.

Driving the road

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Loch Ossian Youth Hostel

A hidden gem!

Run by the Scottish Youth Hostels Association this eco-friendly youth hostel is in a magnificently scenic area and welcomes walkers and climbers who still wish to enjoy some creature comforts whilst roaming the hills.

Situated on Rannoch Moor at the western end of Loch Ossian (you will find it on the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain 1:50,000 Landranger map 41) at grid reference: NN371670 (see on map) it lies slap bang in the middle of a whole group of hills. There are five Munros and numerous beinns, sgors, carns, mealls and other lesser, but no less wonderful, hills within a day's walk of the hostel.

There are also many miles of low-level paths and routes to follow and a complete circuit of the loch is a surprisingly interesting and strenuous day - half on a good tarmac estate road and half on an overgrown and difficult path. If you do go for a stroll be careful to stay on the paths. This is boggy Rannoch Moor and it can be a treacherous place for the unwary - people have simply disappeared here!

A man standing outside Loch Ossian youth hostel
Photograph by the author
There is no public road to Loch Ossian. You either walk in and out (a long way no matter which route you take) or you do it the easy way and take the train - the west highland railway line from Glasgow to Fort William stops at Corrour Halt which is only about a mile from the hostel!

This is a great base for a few days walking and exploring and, indeed, it was our first choice for one of the first multi-day trips my wingman and I ever undertook on the Scottish hills (many years ago).

But it's not just walkers and climbers who come here. Loch Ossian is a well-known and popular fishing destination for that hardy group of anglers who don't mind the isolation. We well remember our first visit there and the taste of fresh trout fried in butter still lives with us today; three minutes from loch to frying pan - you can't get fresher than that!

A friendly deer greets walkers at Loch Ossian Youth Hostel
Photograph by Walter Baxter/Geograph UK
Red deer are common in the area and there used to be a group of semi-tame deer who frequented the immediate area of the hostel hoping for titbits from sympathetic walkers. I believe they were probably the best-fed deer in Scotland!

This hostel can also play a vital part in one of Scotland's many magnificent long-distance routes, which my wingman and I have travelled several times. Starting at the village of Dalwhinnie it is possible to walk westwards to Loch Ossian in one (rather long) day but it is more convenient and sensible to spend a night at either Culra bothy or McCook's Cottage (for an interesting story about McCook's Cottage read this: The Legend of McCook's Cottage).

The journey can then be continued to Loch Ossian where we would spend 2-3 days before moving on further west to another couple of well-placed bothies and then finally on to Fort William taking 5-6 days for the complete trip and climbing several hills on the way - a total journey of about 40 miles/65 kilometers.
A loch with hills in the background
Photograph by Russel Wills/Geograph UK
If you're thinking of walking from Dalwhinnie to Fort William then, as well as the OSGB map 41, you will need the one which covers the Dalwhinnie to Loch Ossian part of the route: OSGB map 42.

Although Loch Ossian Youth Hostel is in a remote area the west highland railway makes it very easy to get to and for that reason it is often full. If you are thinking of spending some time there then booking in advance is strongly recommended. This can be done online at the hostel's website: Loch Ossian Youth Hostel where you can check further details and view some photographs of the hostel.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

The Legend of McCook's Cottage

Also known as Ben Alder Cottage this remote bothy  in the Scottish Highlands has reputedly been the scene of some unusual activity over the years. It is said to be haunted - or so the story goes. . .

On my first visit to this cottage (many years ago) I was not aware of the legend and I attributed the odd noises coming from the next room in the wee small hours to mice - which are common in such places. The two climbers (strangers to me) with whom I was sharing the bothy agreed with my diagnosis.

Some time after my first stay there I came across a story in a mountaineering magazine about this very cottage and its strange, not to say spooky, history. I also began to hear stories from other hillwalkers I met in other bothies.

a cottage with a mountain behind it
The bothy is the stone building. An equipment shed used by the estate is on the left side. SOURCE

Ben Alder Cottage (known as McCook's Cottage, after its last occupant) is an open bothy (a shelter in the hills available for anyone to use). In the shadow of Ben Alder (a Munro, 3766 feet) it lies on the shores of Loch Ericht some 18 kilometres (11 miles or so) south-west of the village of Dalwhinnie. It is easy to find. Just follow the shore of the loch and you will eventually come to it.

There is more than one way to approach the cottage. I am rarely in a hurry on Scotland's hills and I usually take a leisurely two days to reach it - either camping half-way (if I follow the loch route which can be boggy at times) or staying a night in another bothy in the area if I take the longer but easier way via Culra and the Bealach Dubh (the Black Pass).

It can also be approached from Rannoch Station or Corrour Halt on the West Highland Railway Line but these are routes I have never used.

Today, the cottage is maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) but actually belongs to Ben Alder Estate (a shooting estate) who graciously allow its use by hillwalkers, mountaineers, ramblers and others free of charge all year round. It is a substantial stone-built single-story building which used to be a shepherd's cottage and latterly a deer-watcher's cottage. It was probably built sometime in the early 1800s (I cannot find a precise date) and was occupied by several families over the coming decades.

It's last occupant was one Joseph McCook, a deer forester, or watcher, employed by the estate to look after the many red deer in the area. After living there with his family for 40 years he left the cottage in 1920 for a more convenient abode further up the loch and closer to civilisation. The cottage was never permanently occupied after that.

a cottage in the distance

The first mentions of a haunted cottage near Ben Alder came in the late 1920s as men from the big cities began to visit the hills as a temporary relief from the poverty and unemployment of the Great Depression. Many of these early bothiers, hillwalkers and mountaineers came from a background of heavy industry - down-to-earth men not given to flights of fancy, not the kind of men who would start at a strange noise.

Nevertheless, stories began to gather of ghostly footsteps, unexplained noises, objects being moved from where they had been left and a knocking, as though the heels of a hanged corpse were tapping against a wooden door . . .

These tales were often told in other lonely bothies round a crackling fire to wide-eyed initiates who, no doubt, drank in every word. It was said that McCook had given in to the isolation of his home and had hanged himself behind the front door (the tapping of the heels). I have heard some of these stories still being told in various bothies in recent times.

These tales would have grown arms and legs in the telling and would have gained the veracity of time among those who frequented the hills until they became gospel and only those who had not heard the tales (such as myself) would dare to visit the cottage
I first had some of these stories told to me in another bothy by a hoary old hillwalker who claimed to have been chased out of McCook's by a loud noise right behind him. He had been so startled that he left that night and fled to a nearby howff vowing never to return.

Knowing the area (and knowing the damp and dismal howff he fled to) I couldn't help but think that some strong impulse was responsible for his flight. It may have been McCook's ghost objecting to his presence or it may have been the effects of the half-bottle of fine malt he said he had consumed over supper!

a cave under a large boulder

I recalled my first visit and the noises I had heard, but these were easily explained away as the nocturnal foragings of the local rodent population - all bothies have a resident rodent community - and the old man's ramblings didn't deter me, although I had no plans for a visit in the near future.

A couple of years later I set myself the target of climbing both Ben Alder and its nearby companion Ben Bheoil (also a Munro). This would be my second trip to this area and would involve a two or three-night stay at . . . gasp . . . the haunted cottage!

Like most people I count myself as being quite level-headed and hardly thought twice about McCook or his cottage. I certainly wasn't put off by its paranormal reputation - most of which I put down to an over-indulgence in Scotland's most famous product.

So I duly made my way to the cottage and settled in. Unusually, I was alone (the cottage can sleep 8-10 at a pinch). Bothies generally don't have any modern facilities such as electricity but by the light of a couple of candles and with hardly a glance at the shadows on the other side of the room I settled down for the night on one of the two raised sleeping platforms.

Do you dream? I have heard that everybody does. Something to do with the brain organising and recording the activities of the day. Well, I don't dream - or at least I can't recall any of my dreams except, perhaps, the odd really vivid one. And boy did I have a vivid dream that night!

the author
It involved a great big hairy arm - a huge, giant gorilla-like arm, enormously muscled and covered in red hair. It broke through the small window above the other sleeping platform and took hold of my companion's leg (yet remember I was alone). That scene will be forever etched in my memory - my companion (whoever he was) was screaming. I was screaming. The arm (the rest of the creature was not visible) was pulling and pulling, trying to pull him through the narrow window. Just as it seemed about to succeed - I woke up.

I have never reacted to a dream, or nightmare, like I reacted to that one. The candles were still burning and the shadows they threw hid all sorts of terrors. Trembling and shaking it took me some few moments to regain my composure and to realise that I had no companion, the window was not broken, nor was there a hairy arm.

I slept only fitfully for the rest of that night and was never so glad when dawn lightened the window (the one with the hairy arm). I checked the bothy carefully and looked outside half expecting to find huge footprints but no, there were none, of course.

Why did I have such a disturbing nightmare in that particular cottage? Could it be that past supernatural happenings were affecting reality? Or was it that because of the location my subconscious was primed to generate an unexplained (and unexplainable) experience. I do not know. The human brain is a wonderful and wondrous creation. Let us leave the story there and not delve too deeply into cause and effect.

What did I do next? I had come to climb some hills and I carried on with this plan but when I descended from the second hill I just happened to be on the other side from McCook's Cottage - too far to walk before dark. This meant I would spend my second night in a different bothy. How did this happen? Like I said: let's not delve too deeply into cause and effect but perhaps my subconscious had something to do with it!

panoramic view of the cottage and the loch
Loch Ericht and the cottage

I have returned to the cottage several times since then but have always taken the precaution of bringing my Wingman (my son) with me as a psychological belay.

He has not experienced any unexplained happenings whilst there and I have not had a repeat of my disturbing experience.

Perhaps the ghost has been laid to rest. Perhaps not. The stories still circulate and there is nothing like a good ghost story to pass a stormy night in a lonely bothy with the wind and rain adding to the atmosphere. So is it haunted or isn't it? I for one will always wonder.
All photos by the author unless otherwise stated

Book Review: Mountain Days and Bothy Nights

by Dave Brown and Ian Mitchell

the cover of the book
This book, first published in 1987, has been reprinted several times due to the great demand from those who remember or were part of the bothy culture which was prevalent in the Scottish hills during the 1950s and 1960s - and even into the 1970s.

It's a quietly humourous account of that section of early Scottish hillwalkers who were more interested in spending a couple of days, usually at the weekends, in bothies than actually climbing hills!

Tales of hitchhiking from the industrial towns and cities of Scotland to the west and central highlands, the Cairngorms and the even to the Isle of Skye will leave you in awe of the fortitude of these men who thought nothing of standing at the side of a lonely road, sometimes for hours, in all weathers, waiting for some kind motorist to give them a lift.

When they reached their destination their time was more likely to be spent drinking, singing and telling tales of varying dubiety around the bothy fire than actually climbing a hill or exploring new horizons.

Some of these men were real characters the like of which are no longer seen on the hills today. ''Fishgut Mac'', ''Desperate Dan'' and ''Stumpy'' populate the pages with humour, pathos and a sense of the social injustice of the time.

There was a real feeling of ''them and us'' - the people versus the landowners, many of whom did not want anyone intruding on ''their'' land and who didn't make it easy for anyone to visit Scotland's hills. Back then there wasn't the access to the countryside legislation we have today.

Mountain Days and Bothy Nights was written by two men who knew well these characters and their way of life. The stories, capers and escapades told in this book ring true even when they seem implausible. For a glimpse into the history of Scottish hillwalking and a bothy culture which no longer exists this book is a ''must read''.

It is available on Amazon but if you're lucky you might find a copy in a second-hand bookshop - that's where I found mine!

Friday, 20 November 2015

The Bothy Code

Why do people ignore it?
Everyone who goes to the Scottish hills has at least heard of bothies. These free-to-use shelters run by the Mountain Bothies Association are located in some wild and spectacular places and come in very handy when planning a multi-day hillwalking trip.

The route to this bothy passes under the Glenfinnan Viaduct made famous in the ''Harry Potter'' movies
Photograph by the author
Maintained and cared for by the MBA bothies are actually owned by the estate whose land they are on and who graciously allow their use by any and all comers - hillwalkers, ramblers, climbers and those who simply like a good stravaig!

The MBA do their best to keep bothies in a clean and usable condition and to that end they have published a ''bothy code'' - a guide for users. It is not my concern to reiterate that code here; it is available in many other places (anyone who doesn't know it can read it here).

My concern is the number of people who, seemingly, don't know the code or (more likely) simply ignore it for convenience sake. Part of the bothy code is that rubbish should never be left in a bothy yet I have never been to a bothy which didn't have a pile of rubbish either in it or just outside it.

Sometimes this rubbish is in a black plastic bin liner neatly stacked against the bothy wall as if waiting for the refuse wagon to pick it up! A popular item found in bothies is the empty whisky bottle. Apparently a useless empty bottle immediately becomes useful if a candle is stuck into it thereby giving the owner of the bottle a good excuse not carry it out with them!

This bothy is in a lovely position right above the Abhainn Rath not far from Loch Ericht
Photograph by Jim Barton/Geograph UK
Toilet facilities are another big issue with bothies. I once surprised a group of youngsters peeing up against the back wall of the bothy in the above photograph and that is a big no-no! When you have to go you have to go, sure, but right up against the bothy?

Any toilet-related business you need to do should be done well away from any bothy and well away from any source of water which bothiers (or anyone else) might use - especially important when a handy river runs right by the bothy as it does at Staoineag (and many others).

One more problem occasionally encountered in bothies is the presence of a large group who fill the bothy and leave no space for anyone else. It is bad manners at the very least to go to a bothy with a group large enough to fill it.

On one memorable occasion I arrived late in the evening at the bothy at Loch Chiarain only to find it jam-packed with a group of teenage schoolchildren - and I do mean jam-packed. There wasn't room to squeeze in anywhere. When I pointed this out to the group leader he simply shrugged his shoulders and said that the group had permission!

Permission or not, it is bad practice, bad manners and doesn't reflect well on the English public school that particular group were from. The organisers should have known better. On that occasion I had a tent with me so I camped outside and didn't push the point and this practice of large school groups going for a jolly on the Scottish hills only raises its ugly head during the warmer months!
Although remote this bothy is always popular and often full. Get there early and take a tent just in case!
Photograph by Paul Birrell/Geograph UK
So why do many bothiers persistently ignore the bothy code and leave their rubbish behind when they leave? Maybe it's a combination of ignorance and laziness. Maybe it's the attitude that ''it's someone else's rubbish - not mine'' or even ''the MBA will clear up the mess'' (yes, they will, but that's not the point).

Surely if you carry something in to a bothy then you are capable of carrying the leftovers out again! The motto of the hills Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints doesn't seem to apply to bothies!

Ok, I've already included this link but it's worth pressing the point. If you use bothies but don't know the bothy code then here's your chance to read it again.

Sources: Mountain Bothies Association; personal experience.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

The Secret Howff in the Cairngorms

Seek and ye shall find!

As a keen hillwalker and camper amongst the Highlands of Scotland I have from time to time come across various shelters in wild places. Some of these are 'official' - disused crofts and shepherds’ huts and the like and some are ‘unofficial’ - rough shelters in remote places. One of these latter type, in the Cairngorm mountains, came to my attention from various sources and I was intrigued by its history and mystique.

It is known by various names - the secret howff being the most popular and it is by all accounts the Ritz of howffs and has accumulated a legendary status of its own. So my wingman and I determined to find it and take a closer look at part of the history of Scottish hillwalking.

This, then, is the (true but semi-humorous) story of our search for the Secret Howff of Beinn a' Bhuird

So what’s a howff?

Bothies and howffs

Stob Ban bothy
Can you identify this bothy?
If not simply roll your cursor over it.
'’Howff' is a Scottish word for a rough (often very rough!), semi-permanent, improvised shelter in the hills. There are quite a few what might be called 'official' shelters in the Scottish hills. They are usually old deer watchers' cottages or old crofts or farm buildings and the like. They are called bothies and many of them are looked after by an organisation called The Mountain Bothies Association UK which also looks after bothies in England and Wales. They offer basic, weatherproof shelter in remote places and are free to use. The MBA has a website which gives information on bothies and their location.

There is another type of shelter available to some who take to the hills; a howff - a 'home-made' bothy - a shelter constructed around or adapted from some natural feature of the land by an individual or small group of outdoor enthusiasts for their own use. These howffs are usually off the beaten trail sufficiently to make them, in effect, both private and secret.

No-one knows how many there are. No doubt the best of them are truly secret known only to those responsible for their construction, but some have become so well-known they are marked on maps. The most famous one is probably the ‘Shelter Stone’ near the western end of Loch Avon in the Cairngorms. It is a cavity beneath a huge boulder and has been in regular use for many years - thousands of people have probably spent at least one night there.

The ‘Secret Howff of Beinn a' Bhuird is equally well-known, or rather the fact of its existence is! This is where the secret part comes in. It isn't marked on any map and it's precise location has always been a word-of-mouth thing. A walker or climber would make the acquaintance of an older, more experienced person who knew its location and, after a while, he(she) would be trusted sufficiently to be taken for a nights' stay and its location revealed.

But there is another way to find a howff. If you suspect the existence of a howff in a particular area then you can go and look for it yourself, and many people have done just that. This method is fair game. The unwritten rules about howffs go something like this:

1. If you are introduced to a howff by a friend in the know then you may use it;

2. If you stumble across it or find it by your own efforts then you may use it;

3. Once you know the location of a howff you must not publish that information in any form whatsoever.

So far these rules have been adhered to for the secret howff of Beinn a' Bhuird.

History of the secret howff

Who? What? Where? Why? When?

a rough forest track

It was built in the early 1950s by members of a now-defunct Aberdeen climbing club who were a little miffed by the fact that there were no bothies or other suitable shelters for an overnight stay in the hills in that region of the southern Cairngorms between Braemar and the Beinn a' Bhuird/Ben Avon area.

No permanent shelter meant they had to carry tents with them. This was both inconvenient (tents back then were heavy) and expensive (decent tents weren't cheap either). It was also tiring and time consuming. Something had to be done. So after what must have been much searching they found a suitable location in an area known as 'The Fairy Glen'.

Construction took place over the winter months and must have been hard, back-breaking nerve-wracking work for all the materials had to be carried in and sneaked past the gamekeepers at Invercauld House in the dead of night for access to the hills then wasn't enshrined in law as it is now with the access to the countryside legislation we have today.

the fairy glen

The preparation

How to find a secret howff

Now for the search part. I do not know anyone who knows its location so this means I must find it by my own efforts. There are quite a few websites and blogs on hillwalking which at least mention the existence of the secret howff (see rule 3) and some give a rough indication of its location. This is not as useful as it may seem because searching even a relatively small area of rough hillside takes a lot of time and effort.

There are even photos of the howff but none that give any real clue as to its precise location (one misty hillside looks pretty much like another). So what I did was to spend a fair amount of time online visiting as many websites and blogs as I could find.

Information was sketchy at best and peppered with references such as 'I know where it is but I ain't saying' (rule 3 again!) but after much research, including the discovery of a very useful book, several hours spent hunched over the appropriate map and the piecing together of many hints and clues (sometimes just a few words in the middle of someone's blog) I believed I had got its location down to about 1 square kilometre.

a jumble of huge boulders

One blog really helped me by revealing the real name of the secret howff. The people who built it didn't call it the secret howff; that name came later for some unknown reason (possibly the oft-repeated phrase 'Am no tellin' ye, it's a secret'!). The original builders called it 'the Slugain howff'. And that is a major clue as to its true location.

The mighty hunters

First go at finding the secret howff

searching a hillside for the secret howff

My wingman (expert navigator) and I took our first trip to the hills to find the secret howff. Up the path we went, along the glen and up the hillside. The weather wasn't great, misty and a bit wet with drizzly rain. The word usually used to describe such conditions is 'dreich' - anyone who has spent any amount of time among the Scottish hills will know what I mean.So, there we were, upping and downing any likely-looking patch of hillside, peering into nooks and crannies and generally frightening the living daylights out of the local wildlife (rabbits, deer, birds of prey, other hillwalkers). After a three-hour search my wingman (with a slightly manic look in his eye) began to question the existence of any howff in this 'wet hell' (his words).

I had to resort to bribery (a chocolate bar) and the gentle reminder that we had not brought a tent with us and therefore had to find the howff or be faced with (a) an unplanned night on the hill or (b) a long walk in the dark back to our car. The search continued. We were looking for a 'marker' which indicates the location of the howff. I had come across mention of this 'marker' in the research phase of our search.

It is, apparently, quite distinctive - but only from a certain angle. We would have to be in the right place before we saw it. I cannot reveal what this marker is because that would make it too easy for anyone else to find the howff. But if you do the research as I did you will find it. We came across places which looked very promising but none of them revealed the secret howff. It began to look as though we were barking up the wrong tree. A rethink was called for - time for Plan B.

a man sitting on a grassy hillside

Plan B

Simplicity itself and should in fact have been Plan A. We lounge innocently in an unobtrusive spot until some likely-looking candidates come along and we follow them to the secret howff! Brilliant!

Slight problem - it was now late afternoon and we hadn't seen anyone for quite a while. It looked as though all those heading for the hills had passed through the glen and at this hour it was unlikely that anyone else would come up the path, unless of course they weren't heading for a hill but for the secret howff. We decided to hang about for a bit and see who came along.

All we had to do was find somewhere to lay up where we could watch the path. We found a handy cavity in a rocky area and settled in with a cup of coffee and a Jaffa cake. All went well for an hour or so but then - down came the mist! That was pretty much it. With very poor visibility and darkness approaching we were running out of time and had little choice but to retreat down the glen back to our car.

So, plan A and plan B had both failed. Were we committed enough to go for plan C?

YES! There was no way we were going to give up at the first hurdle. We would be back for another try in the not too distant future. Meanwhile, Wingman and I took a short break and went and climbed some other hills.

Some time later . . .

The mighty hunters - again!

Second go at finding the secret howff

Right - this time we were prepared. After our first abortive attempt at finding the secret howff we decided to get serious. This was obviously going to be a lot harder than we had first anticipated.

Both wingman and I have friends in low places and one of them owns an ex-mountain rescue dog. One long and grovelling phone call later we were promised the use of the crafty canines' nasal passages in an attempt to track down the howff. Unfortunately this meant we had to take the rest of the animal as well - and the reason it was an ex-mountain rescue dog was because it was not the most responsive of creatures when it came to obeying commands!

There was one further snag. The owner couldn't come so we would be on our own with it. Dark clouds of foreboding began to gather in our thoughts. Perhaps we should cover all bases and call in some extra help. Several ideas were discussed:

Aerial surveillance

a light aircraft taking off
Call in reinforcements
cars in a car park

After some discussion we decided that neither of these options were suitable. It looked as though we would have to rely on Canis familiaris aka 'man's best friend'. We decided to go anyway. We collected K9 from his owner and headed out to the hills. As far as searching the hillside was concerned the dog was worse than useless.

Long before we reached the fairy glen he had taken several detours after (1 a rabbit; (2 a deer; (3 another rabbit; (4 a group of startled hillwalkers and (5 Wingsman's ankles - twice.

Since the day was a hot and sunny one all three of us were soon looking the worse for wear. It was beginning to look as though this trip was also going to end in failure. We had one last valiant try. We spent about an hour chasing the dog up a couple of gullies and down a couple more before we gave up. Wingman and I had a quick discussion and decided to call it a day. We captured the dog and headed back down the glen to our car.

So we were defeated again - but NO we will not give up. We weren't finished yet!

Some more time later . . .


We found it!

Third time lucky! Up till now we were fairly certain we had the right area but there were quite a few possibilities within that area where the howff could be located. We had already checked some of them but it could take several more trips before we had covered all possibilities.

a man deep in thought
So we sat down and had a good think. Where would we put a howff if we were building one? Howff's, like bothies, are intended for at least one overnight stay (maybe more) so it would need to be near a water supply (a small stream or burn). All proper bothies are. It would also need to be fairly easily reached, even if it is hidden. Only the builders are supposed to know about it - no-one would suspect a hidden location without any clues so it wouldn't be in a really awkward place.

One other thing occurred to us. How do you find a proper bothy? Surely you would find a secret howff the same way, especially one which was as well used as this one is reputed to be? We came up with that answer immediately. You will forgive me if I don't elaborate but if I do that would make it too easy for others to find it and I have sworn not to publicise its location but if you sit down and think about it you will get it too.

Armed with our new-found wisdom we arranged another trip. As it turned out we were wrong about the water supply but right about the other two. We missed the howff the first time through the glen so we doubled back, found what we were looking for, turned to follow it south, crossed over a rocky gully, climbed up over a steep embankment - and almost fell through the roof! We had found it!

As you can see from the photo it isn't very big. A floor area of perhaps 8 ft x 10 ft and a roof height of about 5 ft. It could sleep maybe six people at a squeeze but they would all have to be good friends!

the inside of the secret howff

Inside is quite amazing. It has seats, it has shelving on the walls, it has a wooden floor (some bothies don't have this), it has a skylight in the roof! It feels bigger than it is and the skylight makes it quite light and airy (some bothies are dismally dark). All in all the secret howff is certainly on a par with any bothy I have been in and is better than some I could name.

a man standing on top of the secret howff

Standing back and looking with a critical eye it is obvious how much work has gone into this stone-built howff. It certainly deserves its reputation as a high-class hill residence. It is also located in a magnificently scenic area and is within easy striking distance of the big Munros of the southern Cairngorm mountains - which, of course, is why it was built.

the dedication plaque inside the howff
Now that I know where it is I may use it occasionally although it is outside my ''home range''.

Much respect is due to the builders of this unique shelter whose names appear on the plaque inside the bothy.

And for you old-timers out there don't worry, I will keep quiet about its exact location. ''Am no tellin' ye - it's a secret!''

PS: If you ever go there mind your head on that middle rafter!

All photos by the author.
Sources: Wikipedia; Mountaineering Council Journal; personal experience.