The Secret Howff is such a part of Cairngorm lore that it’s difficult to remember that until relatively recently so few people knew anything about it other than it existed… somewhere.
Now Ashie Brebner, the last remaining member of the group of friends who built the howff back in 1952, has spilled the beans in this fascinating book – and given us so much more too.
Ashie was born in Aberdeen in 1935, starting to go into the Cairngorms with his companions in the late ’40s, when many of the traditions we take for granted were just developing, and that’s what makes this such an exciting read.
Bob Scott’s bothy at Luibeg was starting to become established as a centre of activities for Aberdeen walkers and climbers, with Bob himself very much in charge; Corrour was in regular use as a bothy, having been abandoned since after the First World War, and at the end of the 1940s it was being saved from dereliction by the Cairngorm Club. The Hutchison Memorial Hut didn’t exist at that time, but other old buildings were being used by working class climbers and walkers, such as the now ruined Auchelie and Altanour.
As well as exploring the hills on foot, they took up skiing too. With great quantities of army surplus skis coming on the post-war market, the sport had become accessible (just) to working lads, and Ashie writes enticingly of adventures up Glen Ey and on Beinn a Bhuird in those days before ski tows and pisted runs. It was all new and exciting and the massive enthusiasm which the youngsters brought to everything they did comes across well.
And of course one of those ventures was the creation of their own howff to ease access to the remote skiing and climbing corries of Beinn a Bhuird and the surrounding area. In an era before the access legislation we enjoy today, building your own hideaway in hills belonging to one of the landed gentry was a risky enterprise. An earlier bid to create a gite in the Dubh Ghleann was short-lived, the wooden structure being destroyed by estate staff.
So it was decided to get serious. Or at least that was the theory.
It has long been part of the lore that the howff builders smuggled materials past the ‘big house’ in the dead of night, sometimes getting off the bus early or late to disguise their eventual destination. In one hilarious section Ashie both confirms the basics of that lore and relates how that was only the smallest part of it, with one ‘work party’ taking on pantomime proportions as drink, darkness, paranoia and ill-preparedness combined to bring about near disaster. That story alone is worth the entry price.
However, as fascinating as the details of the howff builders and their building are, this is only one part of a much more wide ranging book which would be well worth the read even without the howff. There are other tales of walking and climbing in the ’40s and ’50s, but the tale goes into the ’60s with a new adventure.
Getting to the hills at weekends was all very well, but Ashie found his weekdays stuck in factory work intolerably deadening, so together with his brother-in-law he took a massive leap of faith and set up Highland Safaris, a new type of tour business shepherding nature enthusiasts into the mountains and remote country. Nowadays there’s a plethora of guides of all sorts, whether you want to go on a gentle nature walk or hack your way up vertical ice, but back in the ’60s Ashie and brother-in-law Derek were making it up as they went along. And since they set their operations up in the far north, they had a pretty much blank canvas to work with.
Cue great stories about strangely recalcitrant Skye boatmen, prospecting skiing potential on Ben Wyvis, and a bizarre story of ferrying a minibus – at a very exact stage of the tide – on a raft of oil drums, with a very highland incentive to the ‘ferryman’ not to capsize!
The anecdotes are fun, but through it all Ashie captures the excitement and opportunity of the era, and the wonder of exploring and sharing the amazing landscape and wildlife of the far north-west which enthrals him still.
‘Beyond the Secret Howff’ comes to a satisfying close with a coda which brings the story full circle with Ashie’s return to the Howff in the ’80s to discover something he had thought long gone had instead become a legend.
I have to confess an interest in the success of this book. When I first wrote about the Secret Howff on this blog, the very first comment was from Ashie, surprised it was still secret and delighted it was still being used. A few emails went back and forth which resulted in Ashie being prevailed to write two excellent articles for the Mountaineering Scotland membership magazine Scottish Mountaineer, which I was by then editing. One of these has since been republished on this blog but, more importantly, Ashie confessed he had got the writing bug – and this book is the result, making it one of the more delightful consequences of this blog. (Credit, of course, should also go to Ian Mitchell, who was also in correspondence with Ashie and gave invaluable help in steering the book through the publishing process, writing an introduction and even organising the book launch, where Ashie gave an enthusiastically received talk about his career and answered questions from the floor, all his enthusiasm still shining through, as it does in a book which really should be on your reading list.
Beyond The Secret Howff, by Ashie Brebner, Luath Press, £9.99