Anticipation v realisation: the bothy book

Cover of The Book of the Bothy, by Phoebe SmithOne of the more anticipated new books this summer was the Cicerone guide The Book of the Bothy, by Phoebe Smith. As soon as it was announced the old guard bothy ‘guardians’ were up in arms: not only was this going to be a book about bothies – and probably giving their locations – but, perhaps even a worse sin, it was being written by someone who was not one of us.

On that basis alone I was inclined to stick up for Ms Smith. I’ve always been of the view that we look after bothies for everyone, and not just a small clique of those deemed worthy.

But, sad to say, despite being a book whose time had come, despite being well produced and published by one of the most respected guide book publishers, this is not the success it should have been.

Given that this blog is about the Cairngorms, I’m going to restrict my comments to the Cairngorm bothies included in the book but, sadly, here alone there are too many points where proper checking and proofing have been lacking, resulting in a number of inaccuracies.

Page from The Book of the Bothy wrongly titled Glendar Shiel

The wrongly named Gelder Shiel bothy

Some are glaring but relatively harmless, such as referring to the Gelder Shiel as Glendar Shiel, Derry Cairngorm as Derry Hill, and Loch Avon as Loch A’an. There’s an unfortunate piece of timing, with Gelder Shiel (or Glendar?) being referred to as a bit of a cold hole: the gap between writing and printing has meant that the book does not take account of the substantial renovation that took place earlier this year.

However it’s a bit concerning that the author actively encourages people visiting Bob Scott’s Bothy to go out and cut up deadwood for the stove. As explained elsewhere on this site and in a notice within the bothy, Mar Lodge Estate, which is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, has specifically asked people NOT to burn deadwood, which is a valuable habitat for insects and birds. The message should be to carry in coal – don’t burn wood. Encouraging people to do exactly what the estate has asked them not to is hardly responsible and could lead to trouble for the future of the bothy.

There are a a fair few more errors in the Cairngorm chapters, leading one to assume that entries for other bothies are similarly fallible, which does rather damage any authority the book may wish to claim.

I also wonder at the absence of Corrour Bothy from these pages. Given the importance, position and popularity of Corrour, I would have thought it would be a definite inclusion. To be fair, Phoebe Smith does say her choice is a personal one but, as the book is presented in a guidebook format rather than as a personal memoir, I think more should be expected than just a personal hodge podge. Perhaps including the full complement of MBA bothies (all the bothies included here are MBA apart from Scottie’s) is a bit much to ask but surely more effort should have been made to include the principal bothies.

So far so unremittingly negative.

Diary style pages in The Book of the Bothy, by Phoebe Smith

‘Diary’-style inserts add a personal flavour to the guide.

As I said, I was looking forward to this book and have no argument with its existence or with an ‘outsider’ writing it. So it’s only fair to say there’s also a lot to like about The Book of the Bothy. The format is a good one, with each bothy having a main piece of text complemented by bite-sized snippets and information panels. Each bothy also has a ‘diary entry’ section too, where the author records her own memories of finding and or staying in the bothy, which adds a personal touch. The photos are good too, and the whole spirit of the book is good: this is a book written by someone who, if not as experienced as some, has enjoyed her bothy nights and understands and supports what bothies are about.

But the devil is in the detail – guidebooks are built on attention detail – and it’s just such a damned shame that she didn’t do more checking and get her book more rigorously proofed.

So to buy or not to buy? A difficult one for, as I say, it’s a likable book, and maybe many of the errors I’ve spotted aren’t major but… on the whole I’d probably hang fire until the revised edition.

Since posting this and sending a full list of suggested amendments to Cicerone, I’ve been contacted by the author, Phoebe Smith, who contests some of my points – fair enough, we’ll just have to disagree – but does sound genuinely contrite about suggesting people collect wood at Bob Scott’s, underlining a commitment to make appropriate changes for the next print run of the book.

She also made the point that she did inform the MBA of her intentions and received no objection, although, in a way, I’d hold that immaterial. The MBA has no monopoly or veto on people writing about bothies and, in any case, some foreign guide books already mention bothies and their locations. From the comments below there still seem to be plenty who don’t believe the book should have been written or – if it must – that it should have been written by the MBA rather than an ‘outsider’ – a view I find totally insupportable. This is a book with good intention and, as I said above, good spirit – and, as with bothy users, who also may never have hammered a nail, that’s what counts.

Posted in Bothies | Tagged , , , , , , | 30 Comments

Ice cream and nailguns on Lochnagar

Buulding work during refurbishment of Gelder Shiel Bothy by the Ballater Chiels

Installing one of the roof windows during a major refurbishment of the Gelder Shiel Bothy

That ol’ Cairngorm magic has done its stuff again and another cold bothy has been given the five star treatment.

Only it’s not the usual suspects who can claim the credit this time – they (and I count myself in there) did little other than stuff their faces.

The Gelder Sheil was the bothy in question, a building which, notwithstanding the addition of wooden bunk beds many years past, did little to disguise its former life as a stable for the royal picnic cottage next door, on the rising moorland north of Lochnagar.

For many years the fact of that next-door neighbour meant any improvements were a ticklish subject to raise with the estate. There was no overriding obligation for the estate to allow the use of the bothy at all, and in the face of reluctance to allow any substantive changes, no-one liked to push their luck.

But local contacts eventually resulted in discussions, interest from Prince Charles and the involvement of local charitable group the Ballater Chiels. The end result was that the MBA drew up plans for the bothy which the Chiels, all local businessmen and tradesmen, would both finance and carry out.

A number of Eastern Area MBA volunteers pitched up for the first of two planned work parties at the start of May, ready to act as labourers and gofers for the Chiels but very quickly realised that these guys needed no help and probably got on quicker without us in the road.

Vans and other vehicles outside the Gelder Shiel Bothy on Lochnagar, Cairngorms

Builders’ v ans and a catering trailer outside the bothy

I arrived early Saturday morning to see a large collection of works vans and 4x4s around the bothy, a small marquee set up as a sawyard, and even a trailer and gazebo set up for catering.

Saw yard at Gelder Shiel Bothy, Cairngorms

The marquee being used for a sawyard, with the wood and saws safe from the threatening showers

Before I’d even counted the vans I was directed to the trailer for a cup of tea and a cake donated by the Ballater bakery, and before another hour was past the call went up for bacon rolls and sausages being served.

Lunch was thick scotch broth and copious sandwiches, with mince pie, roast pork, mashed potatoes, peas and gravy for dinner (not forgetting ice cream and warm apple pie for desert. Ice cream? In a bothy?)

Work? Well, we did a bit. Kenny Freeman helped with some joinery work inside the bothy, and Ian Shand and I acted as gofers for the roofer as he fixed tiles and installed two velux windows and a flue pipe, but in the main we wandered about feeling guilty about eating so much and doing so little!

Stove being fitted in Gelder Shiel Bothy, Lochnagar

Wood-lining fitted and stove being installed

New internal porch at Gelder Shiel Bothy, Lochnagar

The front doors now lead into an internal porch

There was a huge amount of work done though. Over the weekend the bothy was totally transformed.

A wooden floor was overlaid on the stone cobbles, the walls were insulated and lined, the roof similarly insulated and lined, a wood-burning stove was installed and two windows installed in the roof to increase the amount of light inside. On top of that an internal porch was built, solving the problem of drafts. And drainage ditches were dug around the bothy outside, hopefully putting an end to the occasional burn which used to run through the bothy in wet weather.

So much work was done, in fact, that there remained little to be done this weekend just past, other than treating the woodwork with a fire retardant.

Long term, the roof needs a lot of work done to replace slates which are ready to drop but, as a result of sterling work by the Ballater Chiels, the Gelder Shiel is a hundred times the bothy it once was and now worthy of its wonderful situation.

Gelder Shiel Bothy after refurbishment, Lochnagar, Cairngorms

The bothy from the back, showing the new roof windows and stove flue

Posted in Bothies, News | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

Work and wildlife in the Cairngorms

Work party at Allt Scheicheachan bothy in the Cairngorms

Great day for a work party (and picnic from the looks of things) at Allt Scheicheachan – not, you would think, ideal conditions for filming the wildlife.

When you walk in to the woods and sit with your back to a tree and don’t move for, oh, maybe half an hour or more… sometimes you still see nothing. The wildlife, as ever, runs to its own timetable. But you certainly won’t see anything by crashing about and making a din.


Last weekend I was up at Allt Scheicheachan, a bothy in the hills above Blair Atholl. It was a work party and also the area meeting, so there were a good few of us there, maybe about 20 or more by the Saturday afternoon. (And, yes, most of us were in tents; the bothy had plenty room for stray travellers.)

At one point there were four of us round the back of the bothy, engaged in the none too quiet occupation of digging a drainage ditch, when John Gifford said something about a weasel. I thought at first he was talking about something else, but then the two Kennys chipped in.

“Over there,” said Kenny Freeman.

“Out of that hole in the grass,” said Kenny Ferguson.

Just a couple of yards where the Kennys stood on the edge of the ditch there was a dead bird, already half eaten. About 10 feet further away there was a small round hole in the long grass – with a weasel sticking its nose out.

For the next few minutes we watched as it snaked through the grass to a thick clump of grass, paused, then sneaked across to the carcase to pull small fragments of flesh from it.

A first attempt to get photos failed when it scurried back to its hole but, while it was out of sight I moved closed and knelt down, camera poised, and didn’t move other than to press the button to take as many photos as I could; without my glasses on I couldn’t make out what I was seeing in the preview screen so was shooting in hope.

With a point and click camera the results aren’t quite Gordon Buchanan but, considering the circumstances, are not too bad either.

 Weasel at back of Allt Scheicheachan bothy in Cairngorms

Weasel at Allt Scheicheachan bothy in the CairngormsWeasel looking for food at back of Allt Scheicheachan bothy in the CairngormsWeasel eating a bird carcase in the CairngormsClose-up of weasel in CairngormsAnd just to finish, some photos from the work party, which was productive, the meeting, at which I fell asleep in the sun, and the ceilidh afterwards, which was a magic night in the best possible company.

Digging a drainage ditch at the back of Allt Scheicheachan bothy in the Cairngorms

Chow time for weasel was just a couple of yards from where the two Kennys were howking lumps out of the ground

Work party at Allt Scheicheachan

Even busier round the front. Norrie and Bob in boiler suits which remained surprisingly white since they’d just been up painting the roof black.

MBA meeting at Allt Scheicheachan bothy

Great weather and lots of folk made it easier to hold the MBA area meeting al fresco

Ian Shand playing the bagpipes at Allt Scheicheachan bothy, Cairngorms

Ian ‘Piper’ Shand playing a tune on the pipes to mark the end of the work day. He was being filmed for possible inclusion in a BBC documentary to mark the 50th anniversary of the MBA

For anyone interested, by the way, the Saturday saw the roof being repainted, some work to seal the doorframe, and drainage ditches and drainpipes dug in to two sides of the bothy. Saturday night saw lots of songs sung (including a new, personalised version of ‘Aitken’s Morning Rolls’), tunes played and stories told – maybe a small libation too. Not sure if any more work was done on Sunday because I was up early and went off to climb Ben Ghlas and Ben Lawers, making the most of some brilliant weather.

Posted in Bothies, Nature, Wildlife | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

New bridge imminent at Derry Burn

Pylons for replacement footbridge at Derry Lodge, Cairngorms

Waiting to go into place – the pylons for the temporary Derry Burn footbridge

Stop Press: First picture of the new bridge going up comes from Bob Scott’s Bothy caretaker and my fellow Corrour MO, Neil Findlay –


With spring making inroads and people’s summer plans getting firmed up, there’s been increasing interest these last few weeks in the state of the bridge at Derry Lodge.

The good news is that a the materials are now on-site for a temporary footbridge to be built on the site of the former  footbridge lost in the August flood. Since then people have had to wade the Derry Burn at shallows above or below the bridge site, or use a tree about 2-300 metres upstream.

Materials for temporary footbridge across Derry Burn, Cairngorms, with explanatory note

Please don’t chop this wood up for your campfire! The Estate explains its plans

And an appeal has been launched to build a permanent replacement in a location which in the long term will probably do away with the boggy passage across the Derry Flats.

The temporary bridge was offered by ScotWays – the Scottish Rights of Way Society – which has also launched the appeal to raise funds for the permanent replacement, which will be in memory of Donald Bennet, a prominent member of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, founding member of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland and, at various times, Director, Chairman and Honorary President of ScotWays. He will be best known to most readers, though, as author of numerous books, including the SMC’s definitive Munro and Corbett guides. He died in 2013, aged 84.

ScotWays sees the rebuilt Derry Bridge as being a fitting tribute to their late president, sitting as it does on a right of way described in the Scottish Hill Tracks book which he edited.

I’m not sure exactly how the temporary bridge will look – the metal pylons which, presumably, will form the span, started life as a radio mast – but it is hoped it will only sit there for about a year, with funds raised for the permanent bridge in time to start work next spring.

The temporary bridge, according to the estate, should be in place by the end of April. The continuing erosion of the west bank at the current site means any crossing here will be vulnerable to further flooding damage, and the estate has already said it sees any long term solution involving a different site – although it has recognised the importance of the crossing, which is an essential link in the classic Lairig Ghru crossing of the Cairngorms, and voiced a commitment to seeking a permanent solution.

Possibilities include the site of the old bridge which stood in the ‘60s at about 039 933, providing part of the vehicle access to Luibeg Cottage. The river runs across shingle here, but the ground is flatter and any flood is likely to spread out rather than cut away at banks.

Another possibility is at about 041 932, where a bridge was built on more solid banks in the ‘80s, until it was destroyed in an accident with a mechanical digger. The second option, however,  would require a second bridge back across the Lui above the junction with the Derry Burn. I’ve since heard through a conversation reported by Neil Findlay that this second option is what the estate is going for.

Both these sites would allow the Lairig Ghru-bound path to be diverted away from its present course across the middle of the Derry Flats. That will be good news for walkers, as the old, slightly longer, track followed closer to the river and was on harder standing; it’ll also be good news for the black grouse in the area, which have a preference for lekking on the flats near to the edge of the Derry Woods, and will be less often disturbed by ‘early bird’ walkers.

Last August’s flood did a lot of damage not just to the bridges (another bridge, over the Quoich, was also destroyed) but also to vehicle track and footpaths.

Flood damage to track in Glen Quoich, Cairngorms

Mar Lodge Estate’s photo of the track up the west bank of the Quoich – totally removed by the flood

The estate has launched an appeal for funds to help address some of this work, with the most dramatic example of damage being where the Quoich changed its course and simply removed a whole section of the landy track up the glen.

There was also substantial damage to the footpath up the east side of Glen Derry, with streams cutting deeply through the track in several places and, in another, burying a 15-metre section under tons of sand and gravel.

The Mar Lodge storm damage appeal can be accessed here –

Donations to the Donald Bennet Memorial Appeal can be made by sending a cheque payable to ScotWays, to the office at 24 Annandale Street, Edinburgh, EH7 4AN, marking the envelope Donald Bennet Memorial Fund. You can also pay by card via the website at

Posted in News | Tagged , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Spring at last in the Cairngorms

Glen Lui, Cairngorms

Glen Lui under a baking spring sun, snow disappearing fast

There may still be great quantities of snow in the hills, but last weekend was my first day of spring all the same. I’d just spent the week at my day job putting out press releases urging people to take crampons and ice axe with them when going into the mountains, and arranged interviews on radio and television for my colleagues and I to give out the same message. With several fatal accidents in the last few weeks alone, everyone was anxious to get the safety message out to the hordes of people expected to make the Easter weekend their first trip of the year into the mountains. So I had ice axe and crampons both but, in the event, never used them. Saturday was a mochy day, with few tops visible for very long, and I decided to go out to Corrour and collect some litter, only to find there was virtually none – just a half bag of cous cous someone felt the mice might like. But the effects of a cold which had been hanging around me for several weeks were making themselves felt, and long before I reached the bothy I knew I’d have struggled to get up any hill. By the time I got back to Bob Scott’s for the night I was knackered and lay down for a sleep.

Avalanche on Carn a Mhaim, Cairngorms

A large avalanche on the east-facing slabs of Carn a Mhaim. You can see a high and crevassed crown wall at the top

Later enjoyed a fine evening with John Frae Kent and two young guys from Louisiana who had taken a couple of months to do a walking tour of Britain. Had to admire their go-for-it spirit. They’d taken some transport, but as little as possible and had even walked all the way from Glasgow to Livingstone by road before someone told them there was a canal and footpath which they could have followed all the way to Edinburgh. Their gear wasn’t particularly good, but they knew it, and knew their own limitations, so had waited three days in Braemar for a favourable forecast to walk through the Lairig Ghru to Aviemore, where they would take the bus to Inverness before tackling the Great Glen Way and West Highland Way. Lovely guys. Sunday morning was a cracker. A lot of low level snow had melted during Saturday, and it was going even faster on Sunday despite some overnight frost. Not a cloud in the sky and hardly a breath of wind: it didn’t matter that I didn’t feel much better – I had to do something on a day like this. So I set off for Derry Cairngorm – and was rewarded even before I had crossed the Derry Burn. In all the years I’ve been going up there I’d never heard one, but just past Derry Lodge I not only heard a woodpecker but saw the thing, high up near the top of one of the pines beside the Mountain Rescue Hut.

Woodpecker in pine tree in Derry Woods, Cairngorms

You can just make out the black and white bars of the woodpecker about halfway up the frame

Woodpecker in Derry Woods, Cairngorms

Zooming in on the woodpecker

Going through the Derry Woods and starting up the Carn Crom path, the air was full of birdsong and, as I cleared the trees and crossed the first of the sun-softened snow I could clearly hear the sound of geese honking at each other as they flew so high overhead I could scarcely see them. I’d seen several groups of geese on the Saturday, heading up Glen Derry, Glen Dee and Glen Geusachan, but all the time turning back where the clouds came down over the hills. Today there was no cloud ceiling and their Path was unerringly northward. Higher still, once through the wee band of outcrops of Creag Bad an t-Seabhaig, I saw an eagle effortlessly soaring across the hillside, overflown by another skein of geese a thousand or more feet higher but still clearly audible through the still air. Looking down into Glen Luibeg I could see the tiny figures of my American friends making their heavily laden way towards Corrour, where they intended to stay another night, using the rest of the day to have a look up into the Garbh Choire. I have to say I quite envied them their first ever journey through the Luibeg Woods on such a lovely day, with so many new experiences ahead.

Luibeg Woods from Carn Crom, Cairngorms

Somewhere down there, in perfect weather, were two young Americans discovering the Cairngorms for the first time and already making plans to return

Geese above the Cairngorms

Geese passing overhead, heading home for summer

My own energy didn’t match theirs though. The day was warm and my staying power wasn’t up to much at all; I toiled up the final slopes to the summit of Carn Crom. But oh, was it worth it. That suddenly revealed view right into snowy Coire Sputan Dearg, framed between the still white bulks of Ben McDui and Derry Cairngorm, looking over the shoulder of Sron Riach into the bowl of Braeriach’s Coire Bhrochain, round past the great gulf of the Garbh Choire to the Cairn Toul, cradling its summit coire, with only the encircling ridges clear of snow and giving definition to its elegant curves. It’s a breathtaking view at any time but perhaps best on a day like this when the snow glistens brightly against a blue sky and the air is warm around you as you stand and stare.

Carn a Mhaim and Cairn Toul, Cairngorms

Looking over the ridge of Carn a Mhaim to the elegant lines of Cairn Toul – still winter up there

So I stood and stared, then sat and stared (not forgetting the gentler but lovely views down Glen Lui towards Braemar), and, after eating some lunch, decided with not too much guilt that the top of Derry Cairngorm would manage fine without my feet on it today. Instead I spied out a nice, dry bed of short, dense heather that looked temptingly comfortable and was, when I tested it, nicely out of the slight breeze that had got up while I ate. So, sun in my face, I stretched out and shut my eyes against the brightness, opening them only once over the next hour as I lay and dozed. Utter bliss! After convincing myself I really should get up before my face was entirely burnt, I was reluctant just to steam on down the path I’d come up, so dropped south from the top into Coire Craobh an Oir. There were no special secrets revealed as I traversed the full width of the coire at half height, just the pleasure of walking ground so often seen from below but so seldom trodden – and the pleasure of another sudden view, crossing a slight ridge from a coire within the coire to all at once be up close and personal with the Derry Woods, all cool shade and clearings, and the sounds and smells of spring.

Ice meltin in granite puddle, Cairngorms

Ice melting under hot sun in a curiously-shaped pocket in granite

The high tops may still require axe and crampons for a while yet, but spring, most definitely, has sprung.

Posted in Nature, Stravaiging | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Fool on the Hill

Ach, it’s all been a bit serious on here the last few posts, so here’s a wee bit of  light relief – a tale from the early years of this century when I still thought I was a climber and occasionally made it further afield than the Cairngorms. It happened on Ben Nevis, starts out sounding fairly unlikely, and gets more unbelievable as it goes on, but I swear it’s all true, and there are even witnesses.


Group outside CIC Hut, Ben Nevis

Outside the CIC Hut in March 2003: Ronnie Strachan, Lucy Hailey (now Murdoch), myself, Colin McGregor and Gavin Gibbon. Ken Murray took the photo

I  had just finished arranging a belay and was sitting in the snow at the top of No 2 Gully on The Ben, starting to pull in the spare rope. True, the earlier sunshine had gone, replaced with a thick white mist and visibility of about ten yards, but life seemed pretty good.

That’s when he appeared.

I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye and looked round to see him, clad in jeans and trainers, slithering across the snow towards me. Towards me and a cornice over a 2000 ft drop straight down to the CIC Hut.

I called out: “Watch yourself, mate: we’re near the edge.”

It made no difference: he kept skiting and sliding towards me.

“Stop there! We’re at the edge!” It seemed dreadfully rude to speak so, but if nothing else I had to think of my second below, who was seeming increasingly liable to be wiped out by a 10 metres per second per second  putative corpse.

This time the newcomer did stop and leveled an unnervingly intense gaze at me. The voice, when it came, was best Russian spy guttural: “You have seen.” Pause. “A girl.” It sounded more like an accusation than a question.

I could have shown more interest here. It was, after all, a most arresting introduction. But my mind was on other things (like a rope to my second which had finally come tight) and I was still a little unsettled.

“No,” I said, perhaps a little peevishly.

I turned back to the rope to fit it through the Sticht plate and when I looked again the apparition had gone. Not even a shadow in the mist.

So I took Gavin up and we stood a few feet back from the edge, exchanged congratulations, and started stuffing ropes and ironmongery into our sacks.

“You’ll never believe what I just saw,” said I and, of course, he didn’t, because it all seemed so unlikely.

But just as I was fighting with frozen knotwork, what appeared out of the mist but… A girl. A vision, actually. Beautiful face framed with shoulder-length frizzed hair (a la Crystal Tips & Alastair for those of a certain age). Somehow you could tell that, under that bulky puffa jacket with its collar framing her fair skin and rose red cheeks, was a slim, nay, svelte figure. However on the minus side, the hair was pure white with frost, the nose was red and dreeping, and the hands were blue-white with cold. The tight jeans and trainers didn’t seem too good an idea either.

I was pretty brain dead by this time in the day, but a light bulb flickered on inside my skull. In my best understood-even-by-foreigners voice I asked: “Could someone be looking for you?”

“Is possible.” Where the male Russian had been brutalist accusation, the girl was all honey and sexy, foreign lilt. I was in love.

“Wait there. We’ll get you down.”

In a fit of gallantry I gave her my warmest gloves while I stuffed the unknotted rope into the sack. A somewhat bemused Gavin tried to engage her in conversation as we set off down.

She was sure, she said, she would find her way down, but we were not and she didn’t argue, so we plunged on into the mist as she told us her story. They were indeed Russians, and had been up Mount Fuji when they were in Japan, so had anticipated no problems on lowly Ben Nevis. And neither there had been, unless you count getting separated and almost losing her minder over the edge of the cliff (for I had convinced myself, against all the evidence of Glasnosk and Perestroika, that she was secretly a White Russian princess and he her KGB guard).

We were still in the cloud when the worried looking Russian spy reappeared on the scene, heading back uphill towards us. His face lit up when he saw her but our hopes of offloading her and then taking a shortcut down to the Halfway Lochan were quickly dashed.

“You have found her!” he exclaimed in best KGB guttural. “I tell the others.”

And he was off again at a great rate of knots. Credit  where it’s due: he may have been dressed like a div and still skiting all over the place in the snow, but this guy really was fit.

So that’s how we ended up going much further down the tourist path than we’d intended, not saying farewell to our beautiful Russian princess until we were clear of the cloud and in sight of a whole gang of Russians looking up towards us as the chief spy gesticulated with all the physical enthusiasm only a continental can muster. We thought it was better to avoid any outburst of Slavic bear hugs and before we reached them we slunk off towards the Halfway Lochan and the waiting car in the North Face car park, remembering, at least to retrieve my gloves. Kiss from the princess would have been nice though. Maybe one of those with cute face uptilted, soft lips pouted, and one foot lifted behind her as she stretches up on tiptoe on the other… Hmmm?


Anyway. That’s not what I started to talk about. Come back up the hill a bit to the top of No 2 Gully, where I was so rudely interrupted.

Life did indeed  seem pretty good as I sat there at the top of the climb. For it could all have ended so much more badly.

For Gavin had led the second last pitch. Which might have been all well and good if only he had ever done any climbing in his life before, and if only he wasn’t afraid of heights.

The problem, you see, was that he couldn’t navigate. In fact he hadn’t even hill-climbed in winter. So there was no question of letting him out on his own. But all of us that weekend wanted to climb. He was my mate, so I felt sort of responsible; just not responsible enough to give up the prospect of what would probably be a last route of the winter.

It was only Grade II, I justified to myself. He would manage. He had borrowed axes. I gave him my helmet so he wouldn’t get his head hurt, I gave him my harness so he would be secure on the rope. It didn’t matter to me that my own head attracted every single fist-sized lump of ice knocked down by climbers above; it didn’t matter that my improvised harness not only had to be hitched up every few metres, but also deprived me of slings for protection and belays.

And there is no excuse, or perhaps forgiveness, possible for what happened as we neared the top of the gully.

With an appreciable length of the rope wound around my waist, my pitches were shorter than most people’s and eventually I found myself at rope’s end in the middle of the gully, with no belay in sight. I took a rather inadequate axe-belay in the neve and brought Gavin up. I was tired myself, and couldn’t face the faffing about necessary to change over the belay, so I pointed to a huge boulder in the middle of the gully, not even 50 feet above, and to a large crack visible from where we stood. I handed him a Friend, explained how to use it, and told him to put it in the crack – it would fit – and then clip onto it and take me up.

And up he went, his tired feet marionette-loose on his ankles, until he reached the level patch of snow I’d directed him to in front of the boulder. He took the Friend from his harness, looked at it, looked at the crack … then looked round at me for assurance.

This guy, who was so scared of heights he had never once in the climb looked back down the way he had come, turned round in his footsteps and looked down 2000 feet straight into beckoning oblivion.

From almost 50 feet away I could see his eyes pop and his whole body convulse as, for one heart-stopping instant, vertigo kicked in and balance went.

Then he turned back to the big, solid boulder, touched it, placed the Friend perfectly and secured the belay. With that action I forgave him everything – he who had done nothing but cope with my idiocy. We were going to live.

I even forgave him for shrugging his shoulders down there at the bottom of the gully when we started out. For many things can be hidden, many left untold, but there, in that shrug, my humiliation had been assured.

I’d set up the first belay, tied him into it, shown him how to feed the rope through the Sticht plate, and set off upwards. After a few feet, of course, the rope jerked taut because he wasn’t feeding it through fast enough. I shouted at him. After a few more feet I stopped for a rest and looked round to see him contentedly continuing to pay out the rope. I shouted at him. It wasn’t fair because there were a lot of people about, both on our route and within hearing range.

At the end of the first pitch I found a belay. I looked down and shouted to him to take me off.

He looked up. He gave his shrug. And he spread his hands in the universal gesture of puzzlement.

Well of course. I hadn’t explained that bit.

I’d done everything for him: checked the harness, tied on the rope, fed it through the Sticht plate and into the krab. But he didn’t know how to do anything for himself, or even know what anything was called – and it was all my fault.

And, of course, as I drew breath almost 50 metres away, there came one of those freakish moments usually encountered only when you say something really embarrassing at a party: everyone, on every climb – and they were many – fell silent.

Just as I shouted, very loud and very clear: “See the round metal thing at your waist …!” The silence, born in coincidence, became stunned, and lasted well past the end of the explanation. There could be no recovery.

Fool on The Hill indeed. It was me.


And I swear all this was absolutely true, and that the real hero of it all was Gavin Gibbon who held it all together when everything was turning to bewildering shit around him. Or maybe he didn’t know how close to the wind we were sailing and just assumed climbing was always like that. Whatever, he was afraid of heights but was still willing to give it a go – and rock climbed with us at Poll Dubh the next day too, even though the whole Saturday had been debacle. For it wasn’t just me who was a fool on the hill that March day back in 2003. That photo at the top of this post shows five people. Colin and the lovely Lucy climbed a route and went back down the hill with no fuss, but Ronnie (far left) and Ken, who took the photograph, had their own comedy of errors, which involved flat tyres, two people on the same rope climbing two different routes, a descent in the wrong direction, dancing up and down in rage on a public road, an aborted DIY rescue party and – whisper it – taxis!

But hey, that’s another story.

Posted in Misadventures, People, Winter climbing | Tagged , | 24 Comments

Bothies, litter and education – a step forward

Last August I let rip at groups taking young people into the hills. I love it that there are people who care enough to encourage youngsters into the mountains but, like so many others involved in bothy maintenance, I’d cleaned out one too many load of rubbish and abandoned kit clearly left by young folk, and seen just too many pieces of graffiti including the initials ‘DofE’.

Rubbish in Corrour Bothy, in the Cairngorms National Park

Close-up of some of the rubbish left in Corrour Bothy

So on the back of an exceptionally large load of rubbish at Corrour, much of it clearly from young people, I challenged youth group leaders to clean up their act – literally. There was a lot of the predictable “oh no, not MY young people” but some did come forward, notably Alex Cumming, Assistant Director of DofE Scotland, and Steve McQueen of the Perth & Kinross DofE Association, both with a very positive attitude. The result was several meetings and exchanges of views, with the DofE organisation accepting that, though they are not the only youth organisation using the hills, youngsters in the scheme have been part of the problem.

There was some initial reluctance by some to accept responsibility, but that ended with the arrival of a whole set of photographs taken by an outdoor instructor at the Fords of Avon Refuge, showing numerous examples of graffiti obligingly signed by DofE groups.

It was accepted that, although youngsters on DofE expeditions aren’t meant to use bothies, sometimes they do – even if it’s just to cook in bad weather or pop in and have a look. But in the past not all leaders have told the kids about bothies or the sort of behaviour that should be expected. It’s perhaps understandable that kids, coming upon an empty building, and knowing no better, treat it as they would an abandoned ruin. So over the early part of the winter the DofE and Mountain Bothies Association have worked together to prepare some very simple and basic educational material so that youngsters – and some of the leaders – can learn about bothies; learn about their value, how they are looked after, and – above all – their vulnerability to misuse.

Cover of Duke of Edinburgh Scotland Bothies 101 booklet

The first page of the DofE bothies leaflet

The material was launched at Expedition Festival 2015, when new DofE leaders and volunteers ‘learn the ropes’ before the new expedition season, and is now available on the Expedition Downloads section of the DofE website as a resource for youngsters and leaders. Bothies 101 sheet gives the basics of how to use a bothy responsibly, and the Bothy session plan gives extra information which can be used in expedition training.

This doesn’t mean DofE expeditions will now start using bothies to stay in. Their emphasis on camping and self reliance remains unchanged. It does mean they are taking a pragmatic approach that recognises youngsters will one way or another come into contact with bothies and making sure that, when they do, they don’t arrive in ignorance.

The effectiveness of all this will only be seen over the coming years, but there are other positive developments, not least of which was the presentation of a cheque for £584 to the MBA after the Expedition Festival 2015.

Alex Cumming, Assistance Director of DofE Scotland, presents a cheque to Neil Stewart of the Mountain Bothies Association

Alex Cumming, Assistant Director, DofE Scotland, presents the cheque to Neil Stewart of the MBA

The DofE Perth & Kinross Association has also expressed an interest in possibly even getting youngsters involved in simple bothy maintenance projects. That will depend on a lot of factors, including the dreaded ‘healthandsafety’ word, but is a welcome explicit statement of attitudes which were maybe held by most before but perhaps not filtered through to the kids.

The MBA has also received a frank and wholehearted apology from a fee-paying school in England, some of whose pupils were amongst those who left their calling cards scrawled on the Fords of Avon Refuge walls. This was followed by contact from a group from the school who are planning an expedition through the Cairngorms this summer and, as part of the community element, plan to carry out inventories at and carry out rubbish from all the bothies they pass. Another part of their expedition is to learn about the history and role of the bothies they will pass.

Back in August I wrote: “I have in the past defended youth groups in the hills, but I am in no doubt at all that a large part of this shameful heap was left by youngsters supposed to be learning self-reliance, self respect and a sense of community and social responsibility. “Instead they have trailed their bad behaviour across a national park, displaying their ignorance of how to behave, their laziness and their disregard of other people.

“So my challenge to all these organisations which enable kids to go to the hills, is for them to teach some respect. Because whatever they’re teaching now plainly isn’t enough. They need to teach the children they direct to the hills about bothies. Maybe, as with the Duke of Edinburgh scheme expeditions, the kids are meant to be camping and not using bothies except in emergencies. But teach them that they exist; tell them why they exist, why they’re important, what their value is – and also how they exist, and how to behave in them.

“Most kids do behave well in the hills, and most of those who don’t are being anti-social through ignorance rather than badness. So let’s do something about it. There are enough adults who leave their rubbish behind – don’t let us turn a blind eye as a new generation comes along and behaves with the same lack of consideration and ignorance.”

The Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme has responded to this challenge. How effective the response will be is yet to be seen, but avenues of communication have been opened up where there were none before and where approaches were once met with denial that has been replaced with an exemplary and positive attitude.

Cover of Bothies Resource Booklet

Bothies Resource Booklet cover

Of course the DofE isn’t the only organisation taking young people to the hills – there are any number of schools and youth organisations which do that. Any of them are welcome to make use of the material prepared by myself and approved by the MBA which DofE based their own documents on. It’s available for download here – Bothies resource booklet – and further queries can be addressed to me: just post a comment at the end of this article, and if you prefer it to remain private, just mark NOT FOR PUBLICATION at the start and include a return email address. (Don’t worry – nothing appears live on the site unless I hit the publish button.)

Posted in Bothies | Tagged , , , , , , | 19 Comments