Smuggling tin past the laird… or not

Slugain Howff. Picture of roof in 2017 just before removal and replacement. Cairngorms

The last picture of the old roof

Some sixty or more years on, it was no surprise that the roof was getting tired and that the leaks were getting worse. It was, though, a pleasant surprise to hear the solution.

The problem was that the roof in question was that of the Slugain Howff, better known as ‘The Secret Howff’. Built in great secrecy at the start of the 1950s, with an improved roof installed a couple of years later (see Jack Innes’ comment below this post), work had to be carried out in great secrecy, with materials carried in clandestinely after dark – no easy matter with wooden beams and sheets of corrugated iron. Fast forward to the present day and a rerun of the ’50s buccaneering activities was unlikely: the guys who look after the Howff these days are, well, not in the first flush of youth. Not quite be-zimmered, certainly, but while they were looking forward to removing the old roof and building a replacement, they realised that getting the building materials in there was going to be a problem.

The solution came in two parts. First, staff at Invercauld Estate (which had, over the last 60-odd years, noticed the presence of a small and inoffensive howff) indicated that they would be willing to assist with transport of the roofing materials as far as was possible by vehicle. (Support for the continued existence of the Howff seems to have been strong – at the same time as the Howff caretakers were getting permission and an offer of help from one part of the estate, a Braemar reader of this blog spoke to a friend on the estate staff who also offered assistance.)

The second part came from Bob Scott’s Bothy Association. Kenny Freeman was in touch with the Howff caretakers and offered the services of the Scottie’s crew for the final carry.

That’s how Kenny, Ellie, Jamie, Davey, John, Bill, Sandy, Alex, Dod, Ian and myself found ourselves early on Saturday morning meeting in a secret car park in a secret mountain range to rendezvous with estate and howff workers.

Materials for new roof for Slugain Howff, Cairngorms

Roofing materials at the end of the landy track. From here it was an Argocat… and people power

To be honest, once a couple of youngsters were out of the equation, the average age of the Bob Scott’s crew wasn’t that far away from that of the caretakers, but Kenny had packaged the corrugated sheets in wheeled frames which were surprisingly effective for pulling up the path after the landy track ended, while an Argocat took wooden beams, cement bags and assorted tools.

Taking roofing sheets in to the Secret Howff, Cairngorms

A cartie with a difference. The corrugated iron sheets were easy to pull up the track in Kenny Freeman’s wheeled frames.

Unloading materials for repair of the Secret Howff, Glen Slugain.

Unloading the heavily-laden Argocat, filled with wood, cement and tools.

That still left the final stage up a seemingly endless steep slope. What had seemed a perfect morning had by this time developed into heavy snow showers driven by a strengthening wind that made carrying the roofing sheets somewhat challenging at times, with four people, one on each corner, making sure they didn’t blow away down the glen.

Carrying roofing beams in to the Slugain Howff, Cairngorms

Carrying the roofing beams the last climb up to the howff

Roof beams were simpler, with one beam per person or two people per beam depending on length and – dare I say it – age of carrier, but the bags of cement were just pure killer. I managed three, but stopped about three times on the way up with the third, shoulders and neck aching and knees buckling. Definitely getting too old for this shit!

Roof removed from Slugain Howff showing the interior.

Exposed! The old roof is gone, leaving the Howff open to the elements.

While all the porterage was taking place, the work was proceeding apace. A small generator provided power for the angle grinders which helped peel the roof off, leaving the interior looking strangely naked and vulnerable. Roof beams were lifted out too, with gratifyingly little damage to the walls, although it was sobering to see how rotten at least one of the main beams was.

But that, for Saturday, was that. Having done our carrying, the Bob Scott’s crew were off down the hill. Watch this space for pictures of the completed job, once I get up there again, for, all going well, I’m assuming that the re-roofing went ahead successfully and that the Howff is now good for another 60 years or so.

Fitting new roof beams at the Slugain Howff, Cairngorms

New roof beams being fitted. Work should now be completed, so watch this space.

UPDATE: Photos of the completed roof can be seen in the next post here.

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28 Responses to Smuggling tin past the laird… or not

  1. piper says:

    A good Day to be oot in the hill Neil…and be part of the History …..of the secret Howff !

  2. bothybagger says:

    I’ll get there one day. Nice to know it’ll still be there when I do. Great blog as always Neil.

  3. George Adams says:

    Well done guys I have fond memories of the three Howffs where I spent lots of cold I winter nights during the 1950s.

  4. Brian hughes says:

    Bras well done to all involved

  5. Sinbad says:

    Well done “FOBS” and all who assisted. Must get up soon and see the finished job. Will there be a rone fitted?:)

    • I didn’t see any. I think they were just going to use roan pipe. 😉
      (Actually, I really don’t remember seeing any, and I’m sure the old stuff got taken away. Need to go back and have a look.)

  6. I’d still like to find that place – I’ve always had an instinctive idea where it is and my instincts are usually very good – must go and have a look sometime!

    ‘Be-zimmered’ – like that! 😉

  7. stephen macarthur says:

    Well done guys that’s an amazing effort

  8. R Webb says:

    In my job, Geograph is a tool of the trade. However I would endeavour to try and keep the location of this place off it. Too much bothy advertising these days with that disgusting book etc.

    • That disgusting book, as you put it, is more likely to be the saving of the bothy system than a hundred old trolls sitting nursing their carefully guarded secret bothy locations, because bothies will only survive if enough people care about them. But I agree, the location of the Slugain Howff, worst kept secret in Scottish mountaineering, should remain unwritten.

      • Grant Cornwallis says:

        Er, some of us old trolls have 30+ years’ experience of self-funded bothy repair work to our credit. The MBA meme that you quote has never been proved so far. Maybe you enjoy repairing extra damage and clearing extra rubbish caused by extra publicity, but some of us crusted types don’t.

      • Nobody’s taking away from the work you’ve put in but unless you’ve discovered a secret that’s eluded me, you’re not getting any younger, and bothies need a new generation to take over in their turn. Yeah, more people mean more rubbish, but the yahoos are still outnumbered – and I can recall going back almost 40 years and helping a guy carry sackloads of rubbish out from the Hutchie, so it’s not a new problem and all the issues that people blame on publicity were happening before The Bothy Bible or other such books. Face facts: locations of most bothies are never going to remain secret as long as the internet is there, so better to take advantage of that rather than piss into the wind and alienate the very people who could be those who come to care for the bothies as we have.

      • Susannah says:

        Could not agree more Cairngormwander – bothies need people to care about them! As a (relatively) young person who has always loved the outdoors, only recently have I forayed into the realm of overnight stays in bothies – largely thanks to the book that seems offensive to some! There are people who will not treat our wonderful countryside with respect – be it wild camping, bothy-ing or generally making a mess. However, the simple joy from a night in a bothy shared with new friends and a fire (own fuel carried in) has in turn led to my getting involved with MBA work parties. It works both ways!

  9. Kenny Ferguson says:

    Well said Neil.

  10. Edward Pirie says:

    The corrogated iron roof is snugly fitted along with spanking new gutters. Still some pointing work and internal fitting out work to be done, as soon as.

  11. Garry says:

    Superb! Well done all.

  12. peterraikmanpeterraikman says:

    ” …..because bothies will only survive if enough people care about them….”
    Agree completely – just have a look at the number of vacancies there are for A.Os.and M.Os, ( and P.Os.)

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