Sad news came this week that Allister ‘Ashie’ Brebner, the last surviving member of the group who built the legendary ‘Secret Howff’ in the Cairngorms, has died.
Ashie had only recently written an excellent memoir of his exploits in the hills, Beyond the Secret Howff, published by Luath Press, reviewed here.
Allister Brebner was born in Aberdeen in 1935 and started to go to the Cairngorms in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, walking, climbing and enthusiastically taking up what was then the novel sport of skiing, he and his friends starting out with very basic ex-army skis and teaching themselves from a book.
That group of friends, in the 1950s, clandestinely built their own base in the hills, which survived on its own after they had all moved on to other areas, and entered the lore of Scottish mountaineering as ‘The Secret Howff’, with the tradition being that its location should never be written down.
In the 1960s Ashie and his brother-in-law were involved in more pioneering activity when they set up Highland Safaris. Although there are plenty such businesses now, at the time this was an innovative sort of tour business, shepherding nature enthusiasts to the mountains and wild country, and involving many adventures, at least in the early days. It was at this time that he and his family moved to the Black Isle, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Highland Safaris (and sundry other outdoor ploys) became his career, and he’d been away from the Cairngorms of his youth for many years when he took his son to see the site of the howff- and was surprised to see it was not only still there but being kept in good order. He was also delighted to learn just last year that a new roof had been installed – and that as a sign of the changing times, where he and his pals had been forced to carry materials in by night to avoid the Laird’s eyes, for the new roof the estate actually helped to transport the materials!
In 2013, wearing my hat as editor of Scottish Mountaineer magazine, I persuaded Ashie to write what turned out to be an excellent article on pioneering ski mountaineering in the Cairngorms in the 1940s and ‘50s (later reproduced on the blog). This was accompanied by his account of his little-known ski descent of the Black Spout gully on Lochnagar, using the very limited ski equipment of the day and surely the first such descent. A further article followed, about travelling to and climbing in what was back in the ‘50s the remote Isle of Skye. Ashie confessed at this time that he’d got the writing bug and, just two years later he had completed his book, which was published by Luath press late in 2017, with valued assistance and advice from his good friend, Mountain Days and Bothy Nights author Ian Mitchell.
Yet he remained a modest man. Though his two main Scottish Mountaineer articles appeared in different form in the book, there was scarce a mention of his Black Spout exploit, which was years, if not decades, ahead of its time. Indeed, it would have remained altogether undocumented if, acting on information from his son, I had not persuaded Ashie it would make a good tale for this magazine. And though he was delighted at the way the howff he and his pals built had entered Scottish mountaineering legend and was still being used and cherished, when he spoke of it there was not so much pride in what he had done as joy in remembering the days on the hills, the brightness of youth and the memory of good pals. I considered it a great privilege to have met and corresponded with Ashie and would have loved to speak to him more, partly for all the amazing stories he had of those formative years in the mountains, but also just because he was just such a nice guy. It wasn’t to be though.
Ashie Brebner died on 8th April, one of the dwindling number of people who were part of an era when so many of the mountain traditions we take for granted were just developing.
- Ashie’s two Scottish Mountaineer articles can be read in their original form online by visiting the Scottish Mountaineer page on mountaineering.scot and opening up the archive section. The ski articles can be found in November 2013, and the Skye article in August 2015. His book, Beyond the Secret Howff, is published by Luath Press at £9.99.