Return to the ‘Secret Howff’

The Secret Howff

The Secret Howff, on a hillside in the Cairngorms

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!

Inside the Secret Howff in the Cairngorms

The interior of the Secret Howff, complete with dodgy wall ornament (the bird, not Walt)

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).

Founders' plaque in the Secret Howff

The plaque in the Secret Howff naming the builders

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.

 

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29 Responses to Return to the ‘Secret Howff’

  1. As the only survivng member of the original builders of the Slugain Howff. I am delighted that it is still being used and am amazed that it is still a secret. All my co builders would have been delighted. If today’s generation get as much fun from it as we did then our labour will not have been in vain. I was up there with the plaque for the 50th anniverary of its building and I hope to return for the 60th

    • Hi Allister,
      Great to hear from you and glad you’re well. The Howff is a much cherished part of Cairngorm heritage, but I try to imagine how it must have been when you were first building and using it – must have been some great times and some great stories.

      • allister brebner says:

        Hi, Just thought you would like to know that as promised my family and I went up to the Howff to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the start of the build (Completed 1953). On a beautiful autumn day we cracked open a bottle of champagne donated by Bruce ( my son) and toasted fellow builders no longer with us and all future generations who we hope will still enjoy its attractions. Allister ( Ashie) Brebner

    • Susan Mollison says:

      Ashie

      I am Doug Mollison’s youngest daughter I would love to get in touch but can’t find an email address for you. Sadly he passed away in 2000 but not without passing on some cracking stories some I’m not exactly sure are true!!! 😄

      I wonder if there is away of being put I n touch with each other.

      Warm regards

      Susan Mollison

  2. Hi Allister,
    Glad to hear you got there for the 60th anniversary. You and your mates created a Cairngorm legend and it’s great that it’s still kept up today and just as potent a part of the culture as ever – maybe even more so. Congratulations and hope you had a really great day.
    Neil

  3. Jim Ford says:

    I’m glad to see the ammunition box I took there a few years back is still there (by Walt’s left elbow)!
    II thought it would be useful as a vermin proof store for packet soups etc..

    Jim

  4. Jack Innes says:

    Hi, great to see your photo of the howff, still in great condition it takes me back. I must point out however that your picture shows the howff mark 3, while the plaque is for the howff mark 2 which was a development of Charlies original. The howff mark 2 had a stove so there was a ‘lum’ it was also roofed with old recycled corrugated sheets probably from the old Sluigan bothy (The Cairngorms.G.Strange. p.60) these were rusted and perforated and the rafters were flimsy so could not be nailed properly. We arrived one winters night to find a roofless howff ,at first we blamed the estate but then realised that they would have given plenty of warning, so we probed around and found the roof under 6 inches of snow the door had blown in and the roof lifted right off we beat a retreat, and decided that upgrading was needed. Jack Doverty ‘Dovey’ got new corrugated sheets roofing screws, washers etc. which we carried down Queens Road and Union Street on Saturday evenings to Strachans late bus which got us to the Invercauld ford after dark so we could unload and get up the glen undetected. (by the way no climbers EVER travelled on Alexanders bus always Strachans ) We had to ford the Dee in the dark with rucksacks and building materials as you never wanted to make two crossings. I can remember trying to walk up the glen in tandem with Dovey with a rucksack and the two rafters that we ‘found’ hanging down on each side not a good idea. I also remember carrying sheets on a pack-frame on a windy day landing up in the burn on my back. It was decided to rebuild the wall and managed to gain a couple of feet or so, Dovey who had experience of roofing in extreme environments put fence wire under the wall and round the rafters so they wont blow off again the sheets are nailed down solidly. There was a roof -light which was broken -deliberately (we know who) Jim split off a large fang of rock which was projecting from the floor, which gave a better entrance and Charlie fitted a new door. There was not much cementing done, cement was easy to carry but there was no sand, one day Sandy Quirrie set off, came back later with a rucksack full of sand which he had found by a burn it took two of us to lift it off his back nobody else volunteered so that was the only cementing done. Charlie did part of the floor but ran out of wood some unknown person finished it. I am pleased to see it is being well cared for so that it has a future.

    • Great to have your input, Jack. I had heard from one guy that there used to be a stove in the howff but no-one else ever mentioned it so I wondered if I’d picked him up wrong – so it’s good to have that confirmed. Couple of my mates stayed there last winter and could have done with a stove then. 🙂

    • MARK MACLENNAN says:

      Jack,
      Very interested to read about your Mark 3 reroofing and extra wall height project as always thought the roof was the original from 1953. You certainly did a grand job as the roof is still in very reasonable condition considering the harsh environment. What was the date of your reroofing ?
      I and a few friends have been maintaining the howff for the last 24 years with roof painting every two years, new floor 20 years ago, new bench to add to the other put in by Ian Mitchell I think, and various roof support and mortaring jobs. The howff has given me and many others huge pleasure over the years and thanks again for deciding to rebuild all those years ago otherwise it would have gone the way of all the other abandoned nearby howffs.

      • Jack Innes says:

        Hi Mark, The reroofing was done around 1956. The original “rafters” were very flimsy I think they were just thin dead trees carried up from the woods also the roofing sheets were old. So the “new ” roof has lasted well, thanks to your great efforts maintaining it carry on the good work, Jack.

  5. Colin Campbell says:

    Hello,
    This bothy was featured in the Scots Magazine, sometime in the 70’s/80’s ? I think?. The photo’s that I recall were in B/W. I found it during a second hunt for it in 1970. Then in 1982 I just could not find it again. So I’ve never been back.

  6. Robinho08 says:

    A friend and I visited the howff just before the turn of the year, all intact but it was a bit damp and some snow managed to get in and rest on the small bench. Signed the damp bothy book. Great to find it. 🙂

  7. Josée Kellas says:

    Found the howff yesterday 18th January 2014 just before the heavens opened. All in good order but will have to go back as we did not see the visitors book!!! Thrilled to have found the howff at our first try.
    Anne and Josée

  8. Dave Gibson says:

    Visited the howff 7 June 2014. In very good order.

  9. Ron Anderson says:

    Was in the Howff on 21st June, the longest day, and was surprised to find no-one else there. Noticed the sign asking folks not to light fires as there is a threat from the estate to “pull it down” if a fire is lit. My view is that fires in the outdoors are a nono anyway for many reasons.

  10. Unfortunately for some of us, we don’t know anyone to introduce us to where it is and I’d have loved to have seen it 😦

  11. Colin cowie says:

    Was up there today all is well easy to find once you’ve been there ha ha

  12. Billy Liddell says:

    Lol, would also like to find it as I am that way next week any tips ,hints but not location would be with welcomed in private,

  13. Ian MacDonald says:

    Good reading- brought back some memories of the 1960s. I’m now living in Ireland so my own bothying days are over. May get around to writing my own memoirs one day, though.
    Fishgut Mac

  14. Mike Duguid says:

    Was up there last weekend with a party from the Cairngorm Club, all in good order, gave us a chance to get out of the snow for a while and have a cuppa 🙂 Didn’t notice the visitor’s book, then thought afterwards – probably in the ammo box.

    • James Ford says:

      Glad to see the ammo box is being made use of. I took it there a few years ago for vermin and damp resistant storage.

      I’ve got a bigger and stronger one that housed mines. It’s made of fiberglass about 5mm thick and looks to be waterproof. It would be handy in a bothy, but I’m not sure I could carry it there as well as my pack as I’m now in my 78th year!

      Jim

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