NH 959038 – 1957-1991
I first stayed there about 40 years ago, and seem to recall a sprung metal bedstead in one of the two rooms, although that could be a trick of memory.
The time I really remember was some years later, arriving there one February Friday night, well after the witching hour, after a fraught journey through a Chalamain Gap rendered hugely treacherous by snow and ice over the jumbled boulders, and not improved by the pitch dark night.
We arrived in the relative shelter of the bothy and commandeered a sleeping bench each. Wooden this time, and fixed to the concrete walls – which were lined with a good inch of clear ice. It was a cold, cold night and thick weather in the morning. Even had we been fit enough to reach the cliffs of the Garbh Choire we wouldn’t have been able to see them. By such means are the lives of the incompetent sometimes saved.
We never did get in to climb there, although at least twice more we made that exhausting, nerve-wracking midnight journey to spend the dregs of a Friday night and Saturday morning in the Sinclair Hut. I wonder if, at some level, despite condemning its demolition in 1991 or thereabouts, we were relieved that we were being saved from further purgatory.
It was, to be fair, a fairly comfortless stone box but then so were most Cairngorm bothies in those days and I never quite understood the rationale for taking it down. Vandalism was cited in the papers at the time but – well – what was there to vandalise?
The Sinclair Hut was, properly, the Angus Sinclair Memorial Bothy, opened in July 1957, just a few months before I made my own debut in the world.
The plaque in the bothy recorded:
Angus Sinclair OBE DLitt, Colonel of the Officer Training Corps, Reader in Philosophy, University of Edinburgh. He died on the slopes of Cairn Gorm on 21st December 1954.
Angus Sinclair was born William Angus Sinclair, in Edinburgh on 27th December 1905. He was a lecturer in philosophy at Edinburgh University and, in 1945, had stood as a Conservative and Unionist candidate for Edinburgh East. However, his sympathies appear to have been elsewhere for he subsequently joined the Labour Party and wrote the posthumously published ‘Socialism and the Individual. Notes on joining the Labour Party’, having been selected as a prospective Labour Party candidate for the 1955 election.
It was a busy period for him, for in August 1954 he got married.
However in December that year it all ended. A review of ‘Socialism and the Individual’ stated that he “met with a virile death in a snowstorm in the Cairngorms in December, where he was on duty with an Officers’ Training Corps detachment.”
Equally, a Glasgow Herald story about the bothy in 1974 referred to him dying in a blizzard on the slopes of Strath Nethy.
However, an obituary of his widow, Susan, a respected lecturer in her own right who had a strong commitment to the welfare state and died only in 2010, said that he had fallen ill and died while climbing in the Cairngorms. So it’s not clear whether he died from hypothermia in a blizzard or from natural causes. In any case, he was dead just days before his 49th birthday.
His fellow officers and cadets in the OTC obviously held him in some respect, for it was decided to build the bothy in his memory.
The site was marked out in May 1956, choosing a prominent location in the Lairig Ghru, on top of a rise which meant the bothy would never be buried by snow (even if it made going down the steep slope to the stream for water a bit of a grind), at a ‘crossroads’ between the main Lairig path and the paths through the Chalamain Gap and up Sron na Lairige towards Braeriach.
A start was made in August to carrying in pre-cast concrete blocks, which carried on again at the Christmas break.
The following Easter more carrying in was done and the ground excavated and concreted to create a base for the bothy. The walls were started, but a heavy snowfall put a stop to work. Even when building started again in May, strong north winds with rain, hail and snow made work difficult and one night a section of the wall was blown down.
A further long weekend in June saw the work continued and the OTC contingent moved up for annual training on June 22, getting the roof on by 26th June.
It had been some feat. The site was above the 2,000 foot contour and approximately 16 tons of building material had been carried there from the base at ‘Picadilly’ (long-standing nickname for a junction of paths in Rothiemurchus Forest), which was the closest vehicle access.
The materials were carried up four miles of rough track in over 700 man-loads of about 50 lbs each (about 23 kilos), including difficult components such as 15-foot lengths of angle iron, doors and windows. In addition, about 25 tons of local stone, gravel and sand had been collected or quarried on the site.
The OTC reckoned that the actual building has taken 16 days, but the carrying had taken 35.
A list of thanks in a brochure produced to mark the opening (on 6th July 1957) showed – as today – the amount of goodwill there had been to the project from outwith the immediate climbing community.
The pre-cast concrete blocks were delivered free to Picadilly by the Scottish Construction Company of Edinburgh; teak for the doors and windows came from Cruden’s Ltd of Musselburgh, and the doors and windows were constructed by David Findlay of Heriot-Watt College. Most of the remaining materials came from Arnott McLeod Ltd of Edinburgh, and carrying frames and help in the carrying parties was arranged by Murray Scott, the then warden of Glenmore Lodge.
Initially the bothy was looked after by the Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt universities’ OTC, with funds from an endowment but, in 1974 the Glasgow Herald reported an appeal for funds to help with the maintenance. It was reported that, with the increasing popularity of hill walking and mountaineering in the Cairngorms, the bothy was being used by more and more people each year. The need for more maintenance and the erosion of the endowment by inflation meant the students were running out of money for the job.
I don’t know what happened to the Sinclair Hut after that. My first visit was in the mid ‘70s, round about the time of the appeal. I seem to recall a table, perhaps wooden benches, and a plastic water container as well as the metal bedstead I mentioned above. Of my several visits in the ‘80s I remember little other than the cold and exhaustion. (Although I do recall my companion’s loud groan not long after we arrived in the frozen early hours of one morning. “I’ve lost the car keys,” he said. It was useless to think about going back to look in the dark and we put off thinking about it until our return on Sunday. Incredibly, they were lying in the middle of the path just quarter of a mile from the car.)
Eventually it was demolished and removed in or around 1991, reports at the time citing vandalism and – unbelievably – graffiti as the reasons for its demise.
I’d like to thank John Arnott, Chairman of the Mountain Bothies Association, who kindly made available to me the text of a brochure produced to mark the opening of the bothy, which contained details of the construction.