Sometimes you wonder where all the years have gone.
I took a friend up to the Secret Howff at the weekend. I knew I hadn’t been there for a while, but realised just how long it must have been when I got there to find a plaque placed there in 2003 – which I’d never seen before. In fact, when I got home and checked, I realised that the last time I was there was in ’96. People have had whole climbing careers in that time!
Anyway, I was glad to see the Howff was not only still there, but still in good nick, obviously still being looked after well. I was particularly pleased with the two sawn-off chairs: ideal seating, given the rather limited headroom – and I never felt comfortable leaning against that back wall anyway, for the prospect, however remote, of it collapsing was too awful to bear.
It was nice to see the plaque there though, putting the record straight on the Howff’s origins.
When Ian Mitchell and Dave Brown’s Mountain Days & Bothy Nights came out in 1987, it was stated that the Howff was said to have been built in 1954 by the Kincorth Club. Mitchell has been blamed for misidentifying the builders as Freddy Malcolm and Sticker Thom, but in fact the date and the names were first mentioned by Tom Patey in his posthumous One Man’s Mountains (1986).
Freddy Malcolm and Alex Thom were certainly involved in howff building (there was a virtual howff village in the area), but not in the Howff. As the plaque now makes clear, that was Jim Robertson, Charlie Smith, Doug Mollison and Ashie Brebner, over 1952 and 1953.
The location of the Secret Howff (which, of course, must remain secret) may seem a little odd to today’s climber, but there were very good reasons for it being there, not least of which was that the geology was very favourable to its construction.
More importantly, perhaps, the 1950s was a time when Beinn a Bhuird was the place for the Aberdeen climbing elite; look at the guide book and see how many of its routes were climbed in the ‘50s. Few climbers had cars though, and most relied on the Alexanders bus to Braemar. You either got off at Invercauld and took the long walk-in through Glen Slugain or, if the Dee wasn’t too high and you were particularly hardy, you took a short cut by wading the river below Braemar. (The late Marlene Ross, who latterly managed Scots rockers Runrig, once told me of a bitterly cold chest-high crossing with her rucksack balanced on her head.)
So the Secret Howff, or one of its companion dosses, was probably a good staging post on the long trek to the cliffs of Coire na Ciche or Coire an Dubh Lochan, or the even more remote Garbh Choire. It’s construction, too, must have been a marvel, for the estate owners at the time were not friendly to climbers and, though the stones were all to hand, a formidable quantiry of wooden beams and planks, cement and corrugated iron had to be carried in on the builders’ backs, usually in the dead of night, since it had to virtually pass by the door of Invercauld House.
In its second half-century, and in these days of cars and mountain bikes, the Secret Howff may not be the boon to climbers it once was, but it’s good to see from its state of repair and the comments in the visitors book that it’s still a valued resource and much loved piece of Cairngorm heritage.