Case for the retention of the Garbh Choire Refuge
Prepared by Neil Reid and Kenny Freeman, February 2012
“We will safeguard the ‘soul’ of the land, retaining what is considered good and right, whilst always looking forward”
Mar Lodge Estate Management Plan 2006-2012
This is a case for the retention and renovation of the Garbh Choire Refuge in the Cairngorms, a remote but well-known shelter lying between Braeriach and Cairn Toul, used by both walkers and climbers. Although it is still used, this shelter has not been weather-tight for a number of years and there is no structure currently in place to attend to repairs or maintenance.
Location and description
The Garbh Choire Refuge is a small structure at NN959986 in the Garbh Choire between Cairn Toul and Braeriach in the Cairngorms. It sits on the south bank of the Allt a’ Garbhchoire about 1.5km from the Lairig Ghru.
It comprises a rectangular frame built from angle iron, filled in with steel reinforcing grid and covered with hessian and (originally) tarpaulin, with a substantial outer shell of boulders and turf. It is small inside, with floorspace approximately 9ft by 7 ft (partly wooden-floored) and a maximum headroom of 7ft at the apex of the roof, although most people will have to bend slightly away from the apex. There is room for 4 to 6 people to sleep inside.
It was built by the Aberdeen University Lairig Club in 1966 to facilitate access to the ice climbing potential then being opened up in the Garbh Choire complex, which comprises Garbh Choire Daidh, Garbh Choire Mor, Coire Brochain and Coire of the Chokestone Gully. It has been used since then as the only reliable accommodation* for a considerable distance in a remote area of the Cairngorms which is nevertheless accessed regularly by both walkers and climbers.
*A rough shelter under a stone exists between Garbh Choires Daidh and Mor, the Dey-Smith Bivouac, but this is little known, affords only rudimentary shelter, can accommodate only two, and is generally buried during the winter.
For a number of years the building has been in a poor state of repair. It is no longer fully watertight and numerous ‘temporary’ repairs to the weatherproofing have used polythene sheeting placed under the stonework, which deteriorates quickly and gives a shabby appearance outside to match the damp and decaying appearance inside. By the latter part of 2010 the door had fallen from its hinges, but during the winter of 2010-11 two climbers on their own initiative took measurements of the doorway and constructed a replacement door which they fixed in place on a subsequent visit following completion of a climb in the choire, thereby making a substantial improvement and demonstrating the strength of feeling generated by this refuge.
There are three options for the future of the Garbh Choire Refuge:
- Status quo
1 If the status quo is allowed to continue the structure will continue to degrade. However, based on the evidence of the last 20 years or more, it is most likely that this process would take decades and be slowed by interested hill-goers making unofficial repairs on an ad hoc basis. Such repairs, however, would be unsupervised and of inconsistent quality, possibly leading to undesired consequences on the refuge itself or the surrounding area.
2 Because the construction of the refuge is very basic, renovation could be carried out by restoration to very close to its original state. The existing rubble cladding of loose granite boulders would be removed and stockpiled for reuse. The existing hessian and tarpaulin lining would be stripped and laid aside for removal. A new, custom-made tarpaulin ‘jacket’ would be placed over the existing angle iron frame (which is still sound) and the polycarbonate triangular fan light would be replaced over the existing door. The existing wooden floor would be retained. The boulders would then be replaced as per original construction to match the original unobtrusive appearance. Any rubbish and materials removed and not re-used (eg hessian) would be transported away from the site for appropriate disposal.
Another renovation alternative would be to improve on the original quality of accommodation, by introducing an element of insulation, possibly through a similar construction to the recently replaced Fords of Avon Refuge.
3 Removal of the refuge would not be without its problems. The boulders covering the structure were originally sourced locally and could easily be rescattered, however the dismantling of the main framework may well require use of power tools and the framework and metallic elements of the structure, along with hessian and polythene, would all have to be removed from the site for disposal. It is likely that, depending on the methods of demolition and removal, that this would incur substantial costs.
The Garbh Choire refuge owes its origins to climbers.
The Cairn Toul/Braeriach amphitheatre is the most remote of the major climbing areas in the Cairngorms. Although the first recorded scramble in the Cairngorms was an ascent at the side of the Dee where it falls into Garbh Choire Daidh, development of climbing in the amphitheatre was sporadic until the 1950s; even then, most routes were done in summer, with most winter climbing visits being restricted to the less inaccessible Choire Bhrochain. Sustained development began in 1964, with one of the foremost activists being Jerry Light, who was instrumental in the building of the Garbh Choire Refuge by the Lairig Club of Aberdeen University. Its construction did much to facilitate the development of both rock and ice climbing in the area.
The origins of the Garbh Choire Refuge are described (p163 and elsewhere) in Greg Strange’s ‘The Cairngorms: 100 Years of Mountaineering’, the definitive history of mountaineering in the Cairngorms.
Since its construction the refuge has remained in use by both climbers and walkers, being the only refuge for a considerable distance. The nearest alternative is Corrour Bothy; although it is only 5km distant, the ground in between is devoid of any continuous path and is very rough and in places boggy. Figures for use are not available but the author’s experience of overnight stays there include one with one other party and another (rather cramped) with two other parties. Anecdotal evidence suggests that although usage is low compared to the main Cairngorm bothies (Corrour, Etchachan, Bob Scott’s, Fords of Avon, Ruigh-aiteachain) it is not insignificant and stays there make a memorable impression on visitors (and not just for the state of the hut!).
The Garbh Choire Refuge is situated in an area covered by many designations, of international, national and regional importance. It is within the Cairngorms Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), designated for its glacial and periglacial landforms, its range of montane and sub-montane plant communities, and associated birds. The site is also part of the Cairngorm Special Protection Area (SPA) , of the Cairngorms Special Area of Conservation (SAC), and of the Cairngorm Mountains National Scenic Area (NSA). It is also, of course, within the Cairngorms National Park.
These designations demand a high standard of justification for new developments, however what is proposed is not a new development but a repair to an existing building which will be of environmental benefit in that it will remove extraneous materials which have accreted in, on and around the refuge over the years and improve the visual appearance to make it less obtrusive. Additionally, the Mountain Bothies Association has expressed willingness to adopt a renovated refuge. The MBA (see Appendix) has well-established policies on responsible use of bothies which have regard to the surrounding environment, and adoption would involve appointment of a maintenance organiser and regular supervision of the site.
Compared to the main Cairngorm bothies, usage of the Garbh Choire Refuge is light (although far from negligible) and even after almost 50 years of existence there is no continuous path leading to it, either from the plateau and choires behind or from Glen Dee below. Because of its small size and location away from major through routes it is not anticipated that renovation would make a difference to this situation or that any path-building/erosion mitigation measures would require to be carried out. In addition, the construction of the refuge, with its exterior cladding or roughly piled boulders of local granite, means it is not visually intrusive: indeed, renovation would mean it would be even less obtrusive than it is now as the quantities of multi-coloured polythene patches applied over the years of dilapidation, and currently visible through the stonework, would no longer be there.
The environmental impact of the refuge is low and could even be beneficial to the overall area in that it tends to concentrate overnight stays in the Cairn Toul-Braeriach amphitheatre to in and around the hut, near the mouth of the glen rather than further up into the choire complex where the truest approach to wilderness is to be found. In summer, at least, the most attractive spot to pitch a tent is not in the environs of the refuge but much higher on a grassy sward beside some pools in Garbh Choire Daidh which is a delightful (but possibly quite vulnerable) camping spot.
Retention and repair of the Garbh Choire Refuge is in line with a number of policies applying to the Cairngorms area and to Mar Lodge Estate.
Modification to the Finalised Aberdeenshire Local Plan states that within the Cairngorms National Park primacy will be given to the conservation and enhancement of the natural and cultural heritage of the area. [My italics]
The Draft National Park Plan, ‘Priorities for Action 2007-2012’, recognises the importance of a vibrant tourism sector. While the Garbh Choire Refuge will never be a major tourist attraction, it is a part of the overall offering in an area where the greater part of the tourism industry is related to outdoor activities.
The Mar Lodge Estate Management Plan 2006-2012 states: “The NTS will favour the continuing use of existing buildings for their original purpose.” Similarly, Objective 4 is “To conserve and find a sustainable future for built structures on the estate.”
Objective 9, to “agree approaches to the management of bothies and other structures on the estate”, recognises in its rationale: “There are a number of bothies on the estate and many are well used by walkers and climbers. The NTS is keen to ensure that visitors find bothies ‘fit for purpose’. Many walkers and climbers feel a real sense of ownership of bothy sites and feel strongly they should be managed by the people that use them.”
These sentiments are echoed in the consultation draft of the MLE Management Plan 2011-2016, which states in its Future Vision: “The traces of thousands of years of human history may be respected and appreciated as part of what makes the landscape look and feel as it does in the present day.”
The 2011-2016 Plan also states that the Estate should be an exemplar of best practice in ensuring the conservation of the historic environment and commits to conserving and, if appropriate and feasible, re-using built stone structures on the estate.
Finally, the National Trust for Scotland’s Wild Land Policy states its broad definition of wild land in Scotland thus: “Wild land in Scotland is relatively remote and inaccessible, not noticeably affected by contemporary human activity, and offers high-quality opportunities to escape from the pressures of everyday living and to find physical and spiritual refreshment.” This statement is qualified in the following paragraph, which says: “While no specific mention of the historic environment is made in the definition, the presence of ruins or old structures is not necessarily considered to diminish wild land quality. In some cases they may enhance it by giving a sense of scale to the landscape, or an impression that nature has claimed back an area from man’s influence, or by emphasising an atmosphere of solitude.” Anyone who has spent a night – or even just some time in contemplation – in the Spartan accommodation of the Garbh Choire Refuge can hardly have avoided feeling “an atmosphere of solitude” or that they have spent time in some of the wildest land Scotland has to offer. Indeed, it would be hard to gainsay the argument that the rugged granite of the Refuge is at one with the wilderness in a way that brightly coloured tents could never be, no matter how temporary their tenure.
The argument for retention
There is a strong feeling amongst local walkers and climbers that the Garbh Choire Refuge should be retained as a shelter in this remote and beautiful area, for both safety and cultural/heritage reasons.
Over the years of its existence, the Garbh Choire Refuge has featured as a mitigating factor in a number of documented ‘mishaps’. I include only three here from a random and far from exhaustive search of accident statistics:
In March 1985, two hillwalkers (M19 F20) got lost while going through Lairig Ghru. They found the Garbh Choire Hut thinking it to be the Sinclair Hut. They were looked after by occupants of the hut and were found and evacuated by helicopter the next day. (Friends In High Places, Cairngorm MR Team)
In December 1990 a man was avalanched in Coire Bhrochain of Braeriach and was carried 300ft, injuring jaw and pelvis. His companion went down to Garbh Choire Hut for their sleeping bags etc which he took up to casualty before walking out to Linn of Dee for help. (SMC Journal 1991)
In January 2012 members of a mountain rescue team who had spent the day searching for a missing walker used the Garbh Choire Hut as shelter while awaiting a pick up from a helicopter. One said (personal email) “I was … incredibly grateful for the shelter.”
In the first instance coming across the bothy was fortuitous: had it not been there one dreads to think what may have happened. In the second, the victim was not able to be transported to the hut but, had they not been staying at the refuge and had equipment there, it would have been so much harder (if at all possible) to obtain insulation for the victim. The third instance was an example of a planned use of the refuge to facilitate a mountain rescue operation.
It has been argued that the hut is “notoriously difficult to locate even in average visibility,” however this is not the case. The hut is situated on a slight promontory at the side of the main burn descending the choire. Anyone ascending or descending the Garbh Choire (which here has the character more of a narrow v-shaped glen) will naturally pass close by it, regardless of the absence of a clear path. Its position on a slight promontory, subject to scouring of snow rather than deposition, also means it is unlikely ever to be buried by snowdrifts in winter.
The argument, which has been forwarded, that the very existence of the hut could lead people into danger by tempting them into the area is hardly a valid one. That argument was quite reasonably applied in the wake of the 1971 ‘Cairngorm Tragedy’ to justify the removal of the Curran, St Valery and El Alamein shelters; however those shelters were on the Cairngorm-Ben MacDui plateau and very definitely hard to find in thick weather, with at least the Curran being prone to burial in heavy snow. The Garbh Choire Refuge, although probably the highest of the currently existing Cairngorm bothies, is in a glen, easy to find and situated so that it is on an escape route or can act as a convenient ‘last chance’ for people to gain shelter rather than proceed to the plateau.
Bothies also act as centres where walkers and climbers can interact, share experience and knowledge, offer advice and help one another in very practical and valuable ways. In this way, less experienced hillgoers, rather than sitting alone in their tents, can gain potentially lifesaving knowledge from their more experienced peers; the presence of others in a bothy can also mean that, in the event of an accident, there is someone who knows the probable whereabouts of the victim and who can summon or even give assistance.
There is a strong and continuing tradition of mountain bothies and howffs in Scotland, making the mountains accessible to anyone who can get there regardless of income. A considerable body of literature (eg ‘Mountain Days and Bothy Nights’ (Brown & Mitchell), ‘Always a Little Further’ (Borthwick) and ‘May The Fire Be Always Lit’ (Thompson)) documents this throughout the course of the 20th century and it continues to be documented in various sources in print (MBA magazine) and online (various websites and blogs).
Most bothies are former estate buildings which have fallen into disuse by the owners but have been used (originally informally) as shelter and basic accommodation by walkers and climbers. Since the formation of the Mountain Bothies Association in 1965 this arrangement has been increasingly formalised, with the majority of bothies maintained under formal agreement by the MBA and left open to all, while still remaining in ownership of the relevant estate. In the Cairngorms, Corrour is such a bothy, being a former deer watcher’s hut. However other bothies have been built more recently, specifically as mountain shelters; the Hutchison Hut in Coire Etchachan is one such, as was the Sinclair Hut which stood until the 1980s in the Lairig Ghru and the Fords of Avon Refuge which was replaced and adopted by the MBA in 2011. The Garbh Choire Refuge is one of these latter ‘custom made’ shelters.
It has been said in justification of its removal that, were it not already there, permission certainly would not be given for a new structure to be placed in that location. That is undoubtedly true, but would be true of any of the above bothies – and perhaps even Mar Lodge itself! The fact remains that there is a shelter in that location and that it forms a part of a living tradition which is more than simply provision of shelter from the elements.
Bothies do exist in England and Wales, but they are very few and the culture of bothies seems to be a peculiarly Scottish tradition, evolving alongside our different tradition of de facto access to wild land and the sense of communality and mutual assistance amongst hillgoers (ie hill walkers and rock and ice climbers).
To quote from an article in an MBA magazine, bothies are:
“…far more than just a shelter from the elements. Where else do you find groups of folk, from 10 years to over 70, from all walks of life and all corners of the globe, pitching in together, sharing songs and experiences, food and even dry clothes on occasion.”
The availability of lightweight tents in recent years has meant many hillgoers are not so reliant on bothies as was once the case, but to gauge the need for bothies by the number of lightweight tents scattered amongst the hills is simplistic and deceptive. Lightweight tents are expensive items of kit and, at a time when it seems austerity is more likely to increase than decrease, are likely to become less rather than more affordable. A network of bothies ensures that access to the hills is maintained for all rather than for those who can afford increasingly expensive equipment.
Bothies also, as referred to above under ‘Safety’, act as centres where valuable advice, expertise and local knowledge can be transmitted. They are centres, too, for the considerable body of oral heritage that is part of bothy and climbing culture.
However, while no new bothies are being created, bothies are gradually being lost over the years. Since the 1980s the Cairngorms area has lost the Sinclair Hut from the Lairig Ghru and Jean’s Hut from Coire an Lochain. Prior to that the upper and lower bothies in Gleann Einich, the Dubh Gleann Bothy and Lochend Bothy at Loch Muick all come to mind as bothies that have been lost and not replaced. These bothies have not been lost due to lack of interest or commitment from hillgoers, whose commitment to the preservation and furtherance of this culture can be seen in the substantial amount of work which goes on to repair (and replace as necessary) the surviving bothies.
Much of the above can be taken as relevant to all bothies and not specific to the Garbh Choire Hut, (Although it is unique in being built specifically as a climbing base at a historically important time in the climbing development of the Cairngorms in general and the Garbh Choire complex in particular.) but the existence of this hut already in the ownership of the National Trust for Scotland – a body established with the aim of preserving our culture and heritage – presents an ideal opportunity to protect a part of a living culture.
Climbing heritage and bothy culture (the overlap is considerable) represent a vibrant and significant part of Scottish culture which, unlike some well preserved aspects, reflects well upon the Scottish character and Scottish history.
To take Mar Lodge Estate as a very relevant example, much money, time and effort, has gone into rebuilding and preserving Mar Lodge, the home of generations of owners who exploited the local people and resources, and who engineered the overstocking of the hills with deer, which for generations has caused so much harm to an important part of the Caledonian Forest (only now being tackled with an encouraging degree of success by the NTS). Against this monument to aristocratic and corporate greed, we have a small refuge in a remote choire representing community values and the finest in human spirit – what many would hold to be the ‘soul’ of the land.
As cited above, both the NTS and MLE have expressed a commitment to protecting both the built and the cultural heritage of the estate, with a presumption in favour of the continuing use of existing buildings for their original purpose.
To save and maintain this refuge need incur no cost to the National Trust for Scotland. The capital costs are minimal and it is anticipated that they would be met by the MBA, which has expressed a willingness to take on maintenance of the refuge should the opportunity arise. The MBA has a proven track record of being able to carry out this type of work with minimal environmental impact and to follow through with continued care and maintenance, with recent major projects including the renovation of Corrour Bothy with the associated construction and continuing maintenance of a toilet.
The practicalities of renovation
It is anticipated that renovation of the Garbh Choire Refuge could be carried out by volunteers from the MBA at no cost to the National Trust for Scotland.
Because of the method of construction and size of the refuge, it has been deemed by volunteers with experience of such work that the necessary materials could be carried in by manpower if necessary (although helicopter could be an option if a more elaborate renovation plan was opted for). Vehicular access across wild land would not be required.
As stated above, the existing rubble cladding of loose granite boulders would be removed and stockpiled for reuse. The existing hessian and tarpaulin lining would be stripped and laid aside for removal. A new, custom-made tarpaulin ‘jacket’ would be placed over the existing angle iron frame (which is still sound) and the polycarbonate triangular fan light would be replaced over the existing door. The existing wooden floor would be retained. The boulders would then be replaced as per original construction to match the original unobtrusive appearance.
Any rubbish and materials removed and not reused (including the hessian and old waterproof sheeting) would be transported away from the site for appropriate disposal.
As has been the case with previous projects, details of the plan would be finalised in compliance with requirements of the National Trust for Scotland and relevant statutory bodies.
It is proposed that the actual work on the Refuge would be carried out by volunteers from the Mountain Bothy Association, who have wide experience of similar work in remote areas, including the major renovation of Corrour Bothy (2006-2007) and the replacement of the Fords of Avon Refuge (2011). (For MBA see appendix)
On both safety and heritage grounds, the retention and renovation of the Garbh Choire Refuge is both justifiable and desirable. Both the means and the will exist to repair the structure and – importantly – maintain it for the future, with those carrying out the work having a proven track record of commitment and ability in similar situations.
The Mountain Bothies Association is a registered Scottish charity (SC008685) founded in 1965, with the mission statement “To maintain simple shelters in remote country for the use and benefit of all who love wild and lonely places.”
The MBA has an organisational structure with area officers and maintenance organisers who are responsible for bothy maintenance.
Repairs/renovations are carried out by voluntary work parties made up of MBA members who have built up a considerable amount of experience working on sites in remote locations.
Bothies looked after by the MBA display a Bothy Code, enjoining users to treat both the bothy and surrounding area with respect. They also receive regular visits from a designated maintenance organiser.
The MBA ‘Bothy Code’
The Bothies maintained by the MBA are available by courtesy of the owners. Please respect this privilege.
Please record your visit in the Bothy Log-Book.
Note that bothies are used entirely at your own risk
Respect Other Users
Please leave the bothy clean and tidy with dry kindling for the next visitors. Make other visitors welcome. If they are not MBA members set a good example.
Respect the Bothy
Tell us about any accidental damage. Don’t leave graffiti or vandalise the bothy. Please take out all rubbish which you can’t burn. Avoid burying rubbish; this pollutes the environment. Please don’t leave perishable food as this attracts vermin. Guard against fire risk and ensure the fire is out before you leave. Make sure the doors and windows are properly closed when you leave.
Respect the Surroundings
If there is no toilet at the bothy please bury human waste out of sight. Use the spade provided, keep well away from the water supply and never use the vicinity of the bothy as a toilet.
Never cut live wood or damage estate property. Use fuel sparingly.
Respect Agreement with the Estate
Please observe any restrictions on use of the bothy, for example during stag stalking or at lambing time. Please remember bothies are available for short stays only. The owner’s permission must be obtained if you intend an extended stay.
Respect the Restriction On Numbers
Because of overcrowding and lack of facilities, large groups (6 or more) should not use a bothy nor camp near a bothy without first seeking permission from the owner.
Bothies are not available for commercial groups.
Neil Reid has over 40 years’ experience of walking and climbing in the Cairngorms and elsewhere. A member of the MBA, he was involved as a volunteer on the renovation and ongoing maintenance of Corrour Bothy and the replacement of the Fords of Avon Refuge, and has assisted with maintenance at Bob Scott’s Bothy, the Hutchison Hut, Ryvoan, Sheilin’ o’ Mark and the Tarf Bothy. He has also been involved in preparation for the forthcoming renovation of the Hutchison Refuge in Coire Etchachan. He is joint maintenance organiser for the popular Corrour Bothy, making frequent trips there for routine maintenance.
Kenny Freeman has also walked and climbed in the Cairngorms for over 40 years, and worked for four years in the 1970s as a Mar Lodge ghillie. He was involved in maintenance of the original Bob Scott’s Bothy at Luibeg Cottage and played an active part in the rebuilding of the bothy in its current position, taking a leading role in the most recent reconstruction, when he was involved in negotiations with Mar Lodge Estate, in fund-raising, in drawing up the plans and in the actual construction. A member of the MBA for 20 years, he was co-opted onto the Eastern Highlands Area Committee in 2002 and has worked on Ruigh-aiteachain, Callater, Sheilin’ o’ Mark, Tarf Hotel, Faindouran and Charr bothies. He project managed the Corrour Bothy project (including planning and building the toilet extension), was joint project manager for the Fords of Avon replacement, and is joint project manager for the forthcoming Hutchison Hut renovation. He has also been the MBA’s area representative on the North East Mountain Trust (NEMT) for over 10 years and was closely involved in the Hilltracks project which campaigns for better protection for wild land from vehicular tracks.