Luibeg Bridge 1 and 2: the Bill Ewen photos

1948 bridge over the Luibeg

George Taylor of the Cairngorm Club on the brand new Luibeg Bridge, 1948.

I’ve written before about the life and times of the Luibeg Bridge but have just had made available some great photos of its construction, destruction and reconstruction. (Pictures come courtesy of Alasdair Ewen, who sent them from his grandfather Bill Ewen‘s collection.)

The present Luibeg Bridge, at 014943, was built by the Cairngorm Club (with assistance from builders) in 1948 – but not in that position.

It was built more or less where the ford crosses today, perhaps a little downstream, at a traditional crossing site adjacent to a previous bridge formed of two tree trunks with a decking of planks, which had long since seen better days.

1948 bridge over Luibeg Burn, Cairngorms

The 1948 bridge, with Sron Riach and Ben Macdui behind

Having studied the burn in spate, the decision had been taken to raise it on stone piers so that the aluminium girders which formed the span were about two meters above normal water levels. However there are spates and there are spates, and in 1956 came a spate and a half. Bridge span, bridge piers and large portions of the banks were all washed away. You can see the piers still lying by the burnside.

It was a disaster, but redeemed by the fact the bridge was salvageable. Girders were retrieved from where they lay and a new crossing point was chosen 500 metres upriver, where a narrow gorge through the bedrock gave solid foundations and a good height above the water level which has now stood the test for over 60 years. A new deck was added last year and it looks good for a long while yet.

1948 bridge over the Luibeg Burn, Cairngorms, prior to the 1956 flood

Looking solid, but now you see it…

Site of bridge washed out by flood on Luibeg, Cairngorms, in 1956

…now you don’t. This is the same spot but the 1956 flood not only removed the bridge, it reshaped the whole area.

Wreckage of the Luibeg bridge after the 1956 flood

The bridge was deposited downstream, but in more or less once piece.

Surveying the damage. Bridge debris at Luibeg, Cairngorms, 1956

Well might he scratch his head

The salvaged Luibeg Bridge in its new and current site.

Happy ever after. The salvaged bridge in its present site, a lovely spot and more secure.

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Historic Corrour Bothy images

Some images from the original Corrour Bothy work party appeared recently on Facebook, courtesy of Alasdair Ewan, grandson of Bill Ewen, who took them in 1950, when the Cairngorm Club rescued the building from collapse.

I wrote about Bill Ewen and his active role during this period in the Cairngorms some time ago, and it’s worth reading about his activities.

I contacted Alasdair who kindly shared some more images from the 1950 renovation date and other occasions. I’ll write more about the other times later, but for now let’s have a look at that pivotal time in Corrour Bothy’s history.

Since being abandoned by the estate not long after the First World War, Corrour had been used increasingly by the growing number of walkers and climbers. For many it was just an abandoned building rather than a resource to be cherished for the future, and too many thought nothing of burning first the furniture and then, when that was gone, the flooring and wood lining.

Corrour Bothy, Cairngorms, prior to 1950

A rough-looking crew at Corrour, date unknown but prior to 1950. Pic courtesy of Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection.

Group poutside a pre-1950 Corrour Bothy, Cairngorms

A slightly more salubrious-looking gang (but who knows), again prior to 1950. The tall man on the right may be Cairngorms climbing legend Bill Brooker. Pic from Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection.

It was already being described as ruinous in the 1930s, but by the late ’40s matters were getting really serious. The roof was on the verge of complete collapse and the weakened walls were likely to follow soon after. The Cairngorm Club, particularly active in that era, managed in 1949 to persuade the estate to allow them to renovate the building and maintain it as an open shelter, although still in estate ownership.

Bill Ewen convened the committee charged with the renovation, which took place over the summer of 1950 and is entertainingly recorded in the Cairngorm Club Journal Vol XVI No 87 by George Taylor, another stalwart of the CC’s construction activities.

Now enjoy these historic pictures of the reconstruction, taken by Bill Ewen.

Roof inspection at Corrour, 1950

A site inspection at Corrour. It’s not hard to see the sorry state the roof was in.

A roofless Corrour Bothy in 1950. Cairngorms

The roof completely removed.

Corrour Bothy, 1950, with roof removed prior to renovation.

Anyone who’s ever helped strip back a bothy for a renovation will know this terrifying stage.

Reroofing Corrour Bothy, 1950

The roof starts to go on again

Re-roofing almost complete at Corrour Bothy, 1950

The roof is almost complete. But note the buttress which now holds up the north gable is not started yet. This work party had a way to go still. Note the home-made ladder: similar improvisation was also used during the 2006-7 renovation.

Corrour Bothy as it stands today in the Lairig Ghru

And how it is now. The wooden extension was added over 2006-7 to house a toilet. This was stripped out just last week preparatory to an improved toilet being built. Photo by Neil Reid.

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Corrour toilet

A brief note to say that last weekend’s work party at Corrour Bothy successfully removed the interior of the toilet extension.

Materials for the renovated and expanded toilet have been delivered and work is planned within the next month to deliver a new four-seater toilet with improved handling facilities for maintenance volunteers. This work could not be carried out last weekend due to a work party at a neighbouring refuge in the Garbh Coire, but it is hoped bothy users will bear with the inconvenience (pun intended) and make use of the spade supplied at a decent distance from both bothy and running water.

For anyone interested in the other work party, details can be seen here and here.

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Bothy news – Corrour and Garbh Coire Refuge

Corrour Bothy in the Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms

Corrour Bothy –

For the first time in more than 10 years Corrour Bothy will be without a toilet – temporarily at least.

Renovations will mean it’ll be out of action for about a month.

The toilet extension will remain, but all the structure inside will be removed to allow for a complete redesign which will ease the load on the volunteers who for the last decade have walked out as often as once every month to move bags full of human waste.

The existing toilet will be removed this week, on Thursday June 21, but work to built the new interior can’t happen for another month or so, so anyone planning to visit Corrour in the four to six weeks after that should be prepared to take a spade for a walk if nature calls. Advice shouldn’t be needed, but bitter experience shows it is, so anyone in any doubt should read this about how to shit outdoors.

This Friday, June 22, a helicopter will fly the waste and other materials out, having delivered the materials for the new toilet. The toilet will then be locked until work can be completed.

The delay is because the main business of this weekend is the renovation of the Garbh Choire Refuge. The helicopter will be flying in materials and tools for that job, and flying out the unusable materials – tarpaulin fragments and hessian – from the original build.

Garbh Choire Refuge, Cairngorms

The Garbh Choire Refuge

The Refuge, for long in a state of dilapidation, will be made weatherproof and the stone shell replaced over the top but, according to the wishes of the estate, the restoration will be like for like, so it will still be tiny, very basic and very much a refuge rather than a bothy of resort.

It’s been heartening to see the interest it has raised though. Many people expressed their support during the campaign for its renovation, but that level of support remained as high when we were given the go-ahead for the repair. Despite the considerable walk-in, with much of it pathless, the work party is oversubscribed (albeit some people will get a lift in by helicopter, but they’d already volunteered.), and many of those who will be there were quite determined that they should be involved.

Safety issues

As mentioned above, a helicopter will be making a number of flights in and out from both Corrour Bothy and the Garbh Choire Refuge, dropping and picking up several loads from each location. For that reason people are asked not to camp in the immediate vicinity of either building on Friday June 22nd, both for safety reasons and to avoid obstructing loading and unloading procedures. People should also keep clear of all work and helicopter related activity.

Needless to say, Garbh Choire Refuge will be totally unavailable for use over the weekend and Corrour will be extremely busy so anyone needing accommodation in the area should take a tent in case. Hopefully the inconvenience will be more than made up for by the improvements.

The future

The renovation of the Garbh Coire Refuge is being carried out by the MBA, which will be taking on future maintenance of the building. It is important to remember that the refuge is in a particularly remote and sensitive area and its future depends on responsible behaviour by users, who should leave no litter. As said above, it will not be a plush bothy, but a very basic shelter which can only, reasonably, accommodate four people in fairly cramped circumstances.

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Walking through the (ice) ages

Devil's Point, Cairngorms, showing its form as a glacier-truncated spur

The Devil’s…ahem…Point, chopped off in its prime. But how far did it extend?

How far did the Devil’s Point stretch?

It’s an odd question, but one that occurred to me one day as I sat on the side of Ben MacDui looking across Glen Dee at the rocky face of Bod an Deamhain, chopped off almost cleanly by the irresistible force of a glacier, where once it must have continued eastwards to… Where?

An instinct to symmetry would suggest it stretching out to link with Carn a Mhaim. Even if the glacier had shaved rather than bulldozed, it must have reached a good way across the current glen. Of course you could argue that it may well have. There needn’t have been a massive hollow behind it: perhaps the glacier was so powerful it trenched out the whole glen in a oner. But then what about Coire Odhar, whose position and shape surely argues for its existence prior to the glacier which gouged out the Dee? It seems a classic hanging corrie after all.

Map of Cairngorms showing Devil's Point and Glen DeeYou can ponder this while looking at the map, but how much more powerful a mind venture it is when you sit on the hillside (even in the snow) and try to visualise the mountains as they were, the all-enveloping icefields, the valley-forming glaciers and the smaller corrie glaciers, the plucking of bedrock, the tumbling of whole mountainsides, the bulldozing of debris, the glacial dams and lakes, the gradual and sudden changes effected by water, by freeze-thaw cycles. Add the massive timescales and the mystery of what sequence it all happened in and you have endless source of contemplation.

I’ll come clean before you’re troubled to read any further under false expectations: I don’t know how far towards Carn a Mhaim the Devil’s Point extended; I don’t even know if there’s anyone who does know. There’s a lot written about geology and the hills, about glaciology and geomorphology, but it makes my brain hurt and I retain only tantalising fragments. What I would dearly love is for someone to make one of those computer animations which shows the sequence of the Cairngorms’ formation and evolution through geological upheaval and multiple ice ages. I doubt such a thing is possible, but I crave it.

But even those tantalising traces we are left with – those indications of what must or might have been – provide fuel for wonder. In solitary wanderings I can find myself stopped in long reveries, emerging perhaps none the wiser but much the richer in awe and depth of appreciation of these mountains I love.

And even beyond the obvious glens and corries there’s a lot to see: so many features which hint at the deep history of these hills and, even without full comprehension, add to understanding and to the pleasure of being there.

I’ve read a thesis which talks of a glacial lake in what’s now the Corrour Bothy stretch of Glen Dee, dammed in between ice flowing from the Garbh Choire in the north and from Glen Geusachan in the south. Imagine such a thing!

Maybe easier to visualise is the great loch that must once have occupied Glen Derry. The area referred to as the Derry Dam refers to two dams – one historic and dating back to the logging days of the 1800s, and the other far into prehistory when a glacier bulldozed a great rampart of sand and rock which is still there and which held back a lake whose extent can still be seen in the large flat area of the glen.

Glen Derry, Cairngorms, showing flat glen floor once home to a great loch

Glen Derry. It’s no stretch of the imagination at all to see a great loch where the grassy floor of the glen now stretches

The lake eventually drained when its outflow wore a way down through the body of the dam – the course taken yet by the Derry Burn. Indeed, when Sandy Davidson created his own dam there in the 1800s he was just blocking the breach in the glacial dam and recreating a tiny fraction of the original lake.

But there’s another lake whose traces can be seen in Glen Derry, reaching down into Glen Lui and up into Glen Luibeg. If you stand on the higher part of the path up the east side of Glen Derry you can see a faint line in the hillside of Carn Crom – a horizontal fault-like line which runs southward out of Coire na Saobhaidh. Look further and you can see a continuation of the line, faint but discernible, along the side of Sgor Dubh, across on the other side of Glen Lui. And if you head round the corner past the Derry Flats and into Glen Luibeg, you can look up and see the same line picked out along the slopes of Coire Craobh an Oir.

Carn Crom, Cairngorms, showing faint trace of glacial loch shore.

Not very clear in this photo, but you can just about pick out the ancient shoreline on the side of Carn Crom, cutting through the lower of the two sandy patches on the left and continuing faintly through the start of the broken rock. Much easier to see in person.

I’d always assumed this to just some quirk of geology, but the same thesis (by Matthew Richard Standell at Loughborough University in 2014) says these lines in the landscape are relic of the shoreline of an ancient lake far more vast than that once behind the Derry Dam. Indeed, while trying in awe to visualise this mega-loch, consider that the pass of Clais Fhearnaig, between Glen Lui and Glen Quoich, was created as the outflow of this loch which once drained into Glen Quoich rather than down the present course of Glen Lui, which would have been blocked still with ice.

How long ago? Well long enough to make your brain hurt, because there are other traces of glaciers past which to my small mind at least must have come much later – in fact Glen Lui (as with the other glens) is full of them.

There are the two ‘fairy mounds’ in the flats above the Black Bridge, conical gravel moraines created I think from debris carried down through the ice by a moulin – a stream running down and into the glacier. A similar but much larger complex of mounds can be seen almost blocking the glen just west of Luibeg Cottage, as well as more moraine ridges running down the eastern side of Coire Craobh an Oir.

'Fairy mound' - glacial moraine in Glen Lui, Cairngorms

One of the ‘fairy mounds’ in Glen Lui

Then there are the terminal moraines. How many people walking up the track to Derry Lodge are aware of walking through at least two of these? Blithely walking through what was once a bulldozed ridge of rubble at the nose of a glacier, but conscious only of two kinks in the road as it negotiates raised, sandy ridges. And how many sitting outside Bob Scott’s Bothy realise when they look across the river they’re looking at a cross section through another terminal moraine, and sitting where once a great snout of glacier would have been tumbling lumps of stone and ice on their heads?

Terminal moraine in Glen Lui, Cairngorms

Again, easier to see in real life than in the photo, but the curved ridge just above the pale grass is what’s left of a terminal moraine. Once this would have marked the nose of a glacier filling the glen

All these traces and so many more of events so deep in the past, which have shaped the landscape – and the ecology – we see today, add to the richness of the picture we have of time and place in the Cairngorms. And though it all may have happened tens of thousands or even millions of years ago, there are always reminders that there is no switch between  ‘then’ and ‘now’ in the mountains, but a continuum, with changes started deep in the past still in motion; barely discernible at times, yet sometimes sudden. Visit the deepest recesses of the Garbh Choire, where, with few exceptions, snows still lie year round and you see and feel ground still unstable, with shifting screes at the foot of cliffs and every year fresh scree added from the rocks above. Or walk the granite blockfields and pancaked outcrops of the MacDui plateau and see the progression of splits and laminations as the bedrock even yet is prised and forced apart by the freeze and thaw of water. Walk the glens and corries and see where modern floods have caused slope failures in what seemed stable hillsides, weaknesses built-in in the distant past suddenly revealed.

Rock exposure on Ben MacDui, Cairngorms

Bedrock still fragmenting and spilling down the hillside on Ben MacDui

I stood once on snow, enveloped in cloud, in the innermost bowl of the remote Garbh Choire Mor and, effectively blind, listened as the spring thaw brought rocks clicking and cracking down the cliffs, noises echoing in a corrie that suddenly felt so claustrophobic, that was still, I realised, being hollowed out from the mass of the mountain.

It’s times like that which make you realise that, no matter how much geologists and geomorphologists talk of the distant past, the mountains are still making and telling their stories today – if only we could understand better what their signs are saying.

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What we did on our weekends

Bob Scott's Bothy, Cairngorms

Bob Scott’s Bothy, the centre of it all.

Between work, the MBA and Bob Scott’s there are altogether too many meetings in my life and they tend not to feature on this blog – for good reason. But a recent meeting of the Bob Scott’s Bothy Association highlighted just how much that organisation does, and over what a wide area, so this time I’ll make an exception. Along with a wee note about how the Association came about.

The meeting started with the chairman’s disclaimer that none of us wanted to be where we were and was tempered with the assurance that it had made no difference anyway.

A curious start to a meeting about a bothy we all care so much about, but that’s what happens when bureaucracy rears its ugly head.

Kenny Freeman, chairman of Bob Scott’s Bothy Association, a Scottish Charitably Instituted Organisation (SCIO), number SC045804, was commenting less on his dedication to the bothy and more on his distaste for the officialdom and red tape which had forced itself upon us.

After Bob Scott left Luibeg Cottage, his bothy was looked after in a completely informal way by the people who used it. At any given time those people may have adopted a name – Winers Diners and Climbers for a period, then Friends of Bob Scott’s – but these names were convenient fictions: neither body had any real legal existence and the situation remained fluid and informal. When I became involved in looking after the bothy I was mystified to hear Kenny referring to me as one of the Friends of Bob Scott’s. Flattered, but with no recollection of having been elected, appointed or accepted. It was then that Kenny explained: anyone who helped was a member of FoBS – it really was that simple. And it worked.

Bob Scott's Bothy with Carn a Mhaim in the background. Cairngorms

The Bothy

Until one day it wasn’t going to work any longer. The long arm of the National Trust for Scotland’s head office bureaucrats reached out to Mar Lodge Estate and announced all was not well with the paperwork for the structure known as Bob Scott’s Bothy – there was none.

Local management was sympathetic and helpful, but the end result was the most active current ‘members’ of FoBS set up a properly constituted SCIO which could sign formal lease for the bothy. Where once everyone just got on with it, now we have to get on with it while holding official meetings, jumping through all the loops of red tape and having to raise several hundred a year for insurance before we’ve even started to raise funds for maintenance.

But hey ho. We are where we are, and the recent meeting of the Association Kenny underlined that the ethos of the bothy – that it is maintained for the use of all, free of charge – has remained unchanged, and that use has remained high.

A report on the last year’s work showed that it’s not just Bob Scott’s that has benefitted from the members’ dedication.

In Bob Scott’s Bothy itself we’ve had the septic tank emptied (time consuming and expensive), partially replaced the floor, renovated the stove and installed new windows (all of this work headed up by Maintenance Officer – the Jannie – Neil Findlay).

Further afield, a group of members provided manpower to carry the materials in for the new roof at the Secret Howff. With MBA funding we also carried out extensive renovations at the Glas Allt Sheil bothy on Loch Muick.

Materials being carried in to the Secret Howff, Cairngorms

BSBA members carrying materials in to the Secret Howff

Renovations at Glas Allt Sheil bothy work party, Cairngorms

Working at Glas Allt Sheil

And, of course, since BSBA members make up a substantial part of the Eastern Area membership of the MBA, we’ve been MOs and helping out at bothies throughout the Cairngorms (and in Neil Findlay’s case throughout Scotland!).

Fundraising activities have included Bob Scott’s Bothy T-shirts and a popular calendar commemorating both the bothy and the Aitken’s Morning Roll Song.

And, though it didn’t make the chairman’s report, I can report that Bob Scott’s Bothy has had its first wedding! The groom had proposed to his girlfriend just a couple of hundred yards up the river from the bothy, then decided it would be fitting to get married in the bothy – if such a thing were possible.

It was, and on the Friday before Easter about 30 or 40 guests joined the bride and groom at the bothy for the ceremony, sharing cake and nips with a couple of ‘residents’ before heading off down the glen to the evening reception.

Wedding party at Bob Scott's Bothy, Cairngorms

Wedding day at Bob Scott’s: Iain Simpson and Helen Donald tied the knot in a ceremony beside the bothy, with drinks and cake inside.

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Ashie Brebner: Secret Howff builder, 1935-2018

Ashie Brebner, author of 'Beyond the Secret Howff'

Ashie Brebner

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.

Cover of new Ashie Brebner book, 'Beyond the Secret Howff'

Beyond the Secret Howff

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.

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