The not so secret howff

Inside the Smith-Winram Bivouac, Beinn a Bhuird, Cairngorms

The author inside the Smith Winram Bivouac on Beinn a Bhuird. Photo by Neil Findlay

When I wrote about the Secret Howff recently it sparked a fair bit of interest.

And from the number of Google searches that rather hopefully included the word ‘location’ it seems that what I thought was the worst kept secret in Scottish mountaineering is still a mystery to quite a few.

But don’t despair if you are one of the benighted few. You won’t learn where the Secret Howff is here, but read on and you will learn another. It has more in common with the Shelter Stone than the relative comforts of the Secret Howff, but offers a dry night in a superb and remote location all the same.

Smith Winram Bivouac, Beinn a Bhuird, Cairngorms

The Smith Winram Bivouac: pokey inside, but not as pokey as you'd think from the outside.

It’s the Smith Winram Bivouac and one of my favourites among a number of the more obscure howffs  – just because the story of it’s construction has been preserved. The Cairngorm climbing guide has the grid reference, but it’s at the foot of the dividing buttress between Coire an Dubh Loch and Coire nan Clach of Beinn a Bhuird: a large boulder with obviously built-up stone wall around the ‘door’.

In fact it’s more of an entrance hatch than a door, as you have to lower yourself in gingerly, all the time worrying that the boulders of the wall will come tumbling down after you. Once inside the accommodation is rather spartan and a bit cramped for any more than two, but draw up a stone to sit on and listen to its history.

In the latter days of the 1940s Malcolm Smith (who later wrote the first climbing guide to the Cairngorms) and Ken (?) Winram were discussing an article by the legendary Jock Nimlin in the then current SMC Journal, extolling the virtues of caves and natural shelters. These were days when men were men – and had to be to stagger about under the weight of their tents – so the idea of a natural gite in the hills was understandably attractive.

So Smith and Winram – as well as some of their friends – went on a conscious search to find something suitable in their own stamping grounds of the Cairngorms. A number of trips to various corners of the Cairngorms followed, but it wasn’t until they spent a day in the eastern choires of Beinn a Bhuird that they struck gold. Or goldish, anyway.

The boulder looked promising: gaps around the edges could be built up with rocks. But there was a hitch: a muckle great tooth of rock sticking up from the floor.

Several visits and consultations ensued (over the course of the summer) before work started in earnest one August night, with the aid of a 4lb hammer and a mason’s drill. Mac Smith’s own article (from the 1050-51 Cairngorm Club Journal) is worth quoting here:

“Had any other climber been in the corrie that night he might have thought that horrible supernatural agencies were afoot: lights showing amongst the boulders; the musical sound of steel on steel; gales of laughter echoing from the crags.”

Time obviously flies when you’re enjoying yourself, because it was three in the morning before they had their tooth of rock extracted and the four (Four men working in there – let alone sleeping. If you ever go there you’ll scarcely credit it.) retired to their sleeping bags.

They even celebrated in the morning by climbing two new routes. Ah, those were the days indeed.

I first visited the Smith-Winram Bivouac something more than 20 years ago. Unknowingly, I’d taken the same approach as Smith himself: walking up Glen Slugain and sleeping out in the open (In his case the Secret Howff wasn’t yet built – in mine I hadn’t yet located it). In another difference, he enjoyed a clear night, but I was awakened in the early hours by the patter of rain in my face. In those days my only bivvy bag was a rather ancient orange polythene survival bag, which split right down its length as I tried to get inside it; it certainly solved the condensation problem, but I woke in the morning with a rather moist bag all the same.

In the morning we headed to the Bivouac and found it fairly easily. We had intended carrying on to the Garbh Choire and Squareface, but continuing showers put us off that plan and we spent the day pauchling about the two choires and trying to get my bag dry, so that, by evening I’d pretty much finished the book I had and was able to crawl into a fairly dry sleeping bag.

On that visit, by the way, we found, stashed away under the edges, an old boot (just the one) and the head of a hammer, which must have weight about 4 pounds. I have always liked to think that was the same hammer head that, some 40 years ago or so, had cleared the floor of my bed for that night.

Who knows? It wasn’t there when I was back this summer, but as the photo here shows, one night not so long ago it would have been a climber inside the bivouac who would have been terrified by the sounds; for a very large and obviously freshly broken boulder now sits not quite 10 metres from the door. That’s got to have made a scary noise if you were sleeping under the rock that night.

Rockfall outside Smith Winram Bivouac, Beinn a Bhuird, Cairngorms

The largest fragment of the rockfall just outside the bivouac.

Campsite, Coire an Dubh Lochan, Beinn a Bhuird, Cairngorms

One reason you'll seldom find the Smith Winram busy: lightweight tents and the proximity of a beautiful pitch by the Dubh Lochan

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10 Responses to The not so secret howff

  1. Gavin Macfie says:

    I haven’t slept in that howff yet but your fine post has inspired me to seek it out.

    Like you I get a few hits every week from people hoping to find out the location of the Secret Howff. I hope their searches are unsuccessful, it is part of the attraction of the place that one has to be personally introduced to it. I haven’t passed on the knowledge yet, but will certainly enjoy initiating someone when the time comes.

  2. hugh says:

    the Secret Howff will have to wait for me, i hope to visit the The Smith Winram Bivouac mid jan. great blog by the way …..

  3. That fallen boulder must have been bloody scary! 😮

  4. Bernard Hylands says:

    Thanks for the information, Neil. This made a perfect addition to a recent trip to the Cairngorms – 6 nights without once using my tent, thanks to all the bothies and howffs in the area. I found the old boot you mentioned, in fact two of them, although one had no sole. I thought the howff was very comfortable for one, using a bivvy bag on the floor to keep out of the mud, and another, opened out and held in place by 2 crossed trekking poles, for a door. It was a wild night, and without this door it would have been a good deal less pleasant.
    You could fit 2 in there, but I was glad of the space to twist around when the rain started dripping off the roof near the door in the middle of the night.
    Do you know of any more gems like this, for future reference?
    And by the way, what a great location! Well off the Munro baggers’ tracks, so pretty much guaranteed not to meet anyone else there.

    • Hi Bernard, glad you enjoyed it – despite the drips. I seem to recall a certain amount of contortion necessary when I spent my first night there too! There’s a smaller howff in the Garbh Choire of Braeriach, just below the divide between Garbh Choire Mor and Garbh Choire Daidh and above some grassy flats and pools. Lovely spot, but not really a great howff: compact and bijou and definitely not for the claustrophobic!

      • Bernard Hylands says:

        Thanks, I may have to give that a try some time. By the way, I spent a night at Bob Scott’s later in the week, and met two men from Kirkcaldy (one named Gordon) who were talking about a friend of theirs called Neil, who sounded a bit like you. Know many Fifers?

      • That’ll have been me right enough. Gordon (plus his son) and Colin, from the Braes o’ Fife MC. When I’m not at Bob Scott’s or at work, I’ve been known to spend the odd day or two at home in Kirkcaldy. 😉

  5. Bernard Hylands says:

    That was them! They had just taken Ennis (did I spell that right?) for his first rock climbs. Great guys, and shared their beer with us too. Oh, and what they said about you was all good, by the way.

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