‘Finniscoor’: an endless feast

Sgor Mor from Carn Crom, Cairngorms

Sgor Mor from Carn Crom. From some elevations the long ridge looks quite dramatic, but mostly it’s the most unprepossessing of hills.

When I was a bairn my father and uncle referred to it as Finniscoor, having picked that name up from some of the local keepers. Properly, Feith na Sgor (bog stream of the peaks) is the large, open corrie to the south of the Sgor Mor-Sgor Dubh ridge, which well lives up to its name, and if people these days refer to the hill at all (it’s a Corbett, so people do climb it) it’s simply as Sgor Mor.

Anyway, I’ve had a fondness for this little regarded hill for many years, and was quite pleased to see one of its rock features crop up on twitter recently – one of several near perfectly round rock basins to be found near the summit. Honestly, they’re worth the climb just to see them alone, but they’re like so much of this hill: delights to be seen through close examination rather than from afar.

basin-like rock formations near summit of Sgot Mor, Cairngorms

The round rock ‘basins’ near the summit of Sgor Mor. Each is about 18 inches across and flat bottomed.

Yet even when they climb it, most people seem to skim the proverbial surface. The views, especially looking north into the main Cairngorm hills, are superb, as is the case with many a smaller hill, and many may appreciate the relatively easy going between the main Sgor Mor top and the slightly lower Sgor Dubh, but it’s a hill that tends to be climbed, traversed and descended by the same linear route, leaving so much unexplored. For me, though, my acquaintance began with a treasure hunt and has continued that way ever since.

Ben MacDui from Sgor Mor, Cairngorms

Sgor Mor is ideally placed for views into the western and central massifs of the Cairngorms. Here you’re looking across the shoulder of Carn Crom on the right and Carn a Mhaim on the left to Ben MacDui, with Braeriach in the background.

I first became aware of Sgor Mor through a trip with my father, looking for a bottle of paraffin he’d left in a cleft in the rocks at Creag Phadruig there way back in the late 1940s. He always claimed that he and his pal Bruce (I forget the second name) would sometimes take a ‘short-cut’ over Finniscoor to camp at the Robbers’ Copse, and on one of these occasions they had stashed a glass demijohn of paraffin to save weight. Long gone, of course, but back then in the late ’60s we enjoyed poking around in the broken rocky outcrops above the track west of Linn of Dee, all the time convinced we were about to strike it lucky. I confess, I’ve had a kick around that area a few times since.

Many years later a friend took me up on that hillside promising to show me something. We walked scarcely more than 10 minutes from the Linn of Dee then started up the hillside, stopping after a rough climb just before a very large boulder.

“We’re here,” he said.

“Where?” said I.

“Look at your feet,” said he.

And there, at my feet, was a Lilliputian door in a recess under the rock. Lifting the door away, we crawled into a cave large enough for three adults to sit or  sleep (if not to actually stand). The sides were built up with rocks cemented into place and the perfect wooden floor a work of art. It was a great howff, handy for a late drive up and I was saddened a few years later to find, arriving on a dark and drizzly night, to discover someone had broken down the walls and burnt out the floor.

(Proving what a small world it is, some years after that I discovered that it had been one of the Cairngorm bothy crew – Kenny Freeman – who had constructed it.)

Ruined howff near Linn of Dee, Cairngorms

All that’s left of Kenny’s Howff. You can see the burnt out wooden floor, but the walls have been destroyed. Entry was by crawling in at the front.

If you walk past the site of the former howff and the mythical paraffin stash, you come on two or three gullies disappearing up the hillside. I now know that down in the Lake District there are many who specialise in ‘gill scrambling’ but so many years ago it was just curiosity that led me up one of these gullies rather than any notion it was something people do. I found a rose. A rose in bloom no less. Yellow and a cultivated variety rather than wild, so who knows how it got there. It was a freak, but the whole environment in the sometimes precipitous, steep-sided gully was markedly different from that ‘outside’ on the lightly forested open hillside.

That day I kept in the groove until the angle leaned back and the banks lowered in height until I could see over the sides, looking out onto the real Feith na Sgor, a great, wide, shallow corrie. I stayed at the banks of the Allt nan Leum Eassainn until the last climb up to the spine of the hill, as so often finding the banks of a burn the driest and firmest route through boggy ground.

More recently, on the north of the hill, I’ve followed the Allt a Choire Duibh, not so steep but still offering some entertaining scrambling up the rocky stream bed and with the benefit of those superb views into the main Cairngorms, evolving as height  is gained.

Rocky slabs in the Allt a Choire Duibh on Sgor Mor, Cairngorms

The Allt a Choire Duibh offers some entertaining scrambles in the lower reaches

Carn a Mhaim and Ben MacDui from Sgor Mor, Cairngorms

…and always those great views behind. This is looking up past the east face of Carn a Mhaim to Sron Riach and Coire Sputan Dearg of Ben MacDui

You could follow the burn right up to the rather boggy col between the main top and the irresistable rocky subsidiary of Creagan nan Gabhar (no goats there for many a year though), but I was tempted by a steep heather fight up to the ridge near the top.

And that ridge is a curiosity: a dry gravelly spine sandwiched between two bogs and punctuated by granite outcrops, some big enough to tempt the adventurous into some bouldering fun and collectively giving the ridge a deceivingly dramatic profile from the north.

Another piece of deception is Creag Dhoin, the slabby ribs in the wide corrie overlooking the road between Black Bridge and Derry Lodge, giving the hill a freshly scraped look as through the glaciers had not long passed.

Rocky ribs on Sgor Dubh, Glen Lui, Cairngorms

Looking across the slabby ribs overlooking the Derry Lodge road

In fact when you get up amongst them, they lean back considerably and many can be walked up. One or two of the most westerly might offer some interesting bouldering for the determined, but mainly it’s just an interesting area to wander about it.

Rocky slab overlooking Glen Lui on Sgor Dubh, Cairngorms

This slab might give some bouldering, although the steep slope at the bottom means a fall might end up a good way below the rock!

Grass 'cigar' shape found on Sgor Dubh, Cairngorms

Perhaps more interesting than the slab above was this cigar of tightly rolled grass, found on the steep grassy slope below the rock. Never did figure an explanation for it, but there were several others like it.

Next time I’m up there I hope to follow what appears like a horizontal fault line making a natural traverse across the corrie. I may well get distracted (it’s happened before) but there’s a large and forbiddingly steep crag in a hidden gully to the east of the ribs which I’d like another look at too. We’ll see. The great thing about ‘Finniscoor’ is that half a century after falling into a gravel quarry at its foot on my first ever visit to the Cairngorms there are still bits I want to explore. And the great thing about the Cairngorms is that Finniscoor, Feith na Sgor, Sgor Mor, however you want to call it, is only one such hill of many. There is no end to the possibilities.

View of Glen Luibeg from Sgor Dubh, Cairngorms

The view into Glen Luibeg

Luibeg Cottage, Glen Lui, Cairngorms

Looking down on a tiny Luibeg Cottage, once home of Bob Scott and site of the original Luibeg Bothy

Sundew in bog on Sgor Mor, Cairngorms

The abundance of boggy ground on the hill makes it an ideal hill to go looking for the carnivorous Sundew

Butterwort, on Sgor Mor

…and Butterwort, another carnivore

Divers botany on Sgor Mor

A slightly drier spot and more plants than I’d care to try and identify

Rushes on Sgor Mor, Cairngorms

Up near the plateau these clumps of rushes make fascinating rosette patterns

Rock basin near summit of Sgot Mor, Cairngorms

And finally, another look at one of the summit rock basins. I’d love to hear a convincing explanation of how these are formed: in the meantime we’ll have to stay with the notion that they were carved out by fastidious fairy folk.

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Crystals on show at Braemar Castle

If you’ve ever wondered what a Cairngorm crystal looks like in the flesh – so to speak – there’s a display of the raw and finished stones at Braemar Castle this season.

Roy Starkey, author of  Crystal Mountains (reviewed here) has put together an exhibition of Cairngorm gemstones, which features a selection of jewellery, lots of information about the stones and their history, and three of the largest surviving crystals of Cairngorm quartz, not normally on display to the public.

information and crystal display at Braemar Castle, CairngormsCairngorm stones on display in Braemar Castle, CairngormsThe display will run until October.

Braemar Castle is well worth a visit in its own right, of course.

Built in 1628 as an L-shaped tower, it was primarily a hunting lodge for the Earls of Mar, replacing the earlier 11th century castle, the ruins of which can be seen in the village.

The castle was burnt down by the Jacobites in 1689 to prevent government forces using it. It was still in ruins at the 1715 rebellion,  when the clans gathered in Braemar, but was taken over by John Farquharson in 1732. After the last Jacobite rising in 1745 he leased it to the British Army, who repaired the building and garrisoned it to quell any further thoughts of rebellion. The garrison remained some time after it was needed, and it wasn’t until 1831 that it returned to the Farquharson family.

These days it’s run as a tourist attraction by Braemar volunteers.

Braemar Castle, Cairngorms

Braemar Castle

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Under the summer snows

View out of entrance of ice tunnel on Feith Buidhe slabs, Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

The Shelter Stone Crag and Stacan Dubha from inside one of the Feith Buidhe ice tunnels

At last – the fabled ice tunnels of the Feith Buidhe slabs.

It was a long journey. About a month ago I’d been over in that area with a friend and climbed from Loch Avon to the plateau and Carn Etchachan via the steep slopes to the east of the Garbh Uisge. Then, just after, I was reminded of the Feith Buidhe snow and ice tunnels when that chronicler of Scotland’s summer snows, Iain Cameron, posted some pictures of tunnels formed by meltwater streams running under the the large snow patch on the Feith Buidhe slabs.

So two weeks later I was back again, this time descending onto the slabs from the plateau. I saw one collapsed tunnel but nothing I could get inside without a very tight and claustrophobic crawl between wet rock and tons of ice, a prospect as unattractive as it was unsafe. It was a fascinating visit all the same, and I wrote about this summer snow on Macdui in my last blogpost… and within days heard back from Iain Cameron with a link to some photos someone had just taken of the snow tunnels I’d missed. There had been two parts to the snow patch on the slabs; I’d explored the larger, upper section, but hadn’t descended the slabs far enough to look along the smaller section on the right, which appeared to be just a wee tail to the main event. (Although a photo I took as I walked away shows quite clear indications, in retrospect, that there were probably tunnels there.)

Feith Buidhe snow patch, Ben MacDui

Zoomed in on a distant view of the right hand side of the Feith Buidhe snow patch. You can see clearly the tunnel mouths along the bottom edge

So here I was, the following weekend, after a wet walk up Glen Derry and over by Loch Etchachan, heading down towards the Shelter Stone in the Loch Avon basin and coming into sight of a distant patch of snow high up  on the headwall to the left of the Hell’s Lum Crag. Even from that distance I could see tunnel mouths fringing the bottom edge of the right hand section. It was a long walk though, to get down to the glen floor and then climb back up, first following the Coire Domhain path then breaking away for the steep, rough, boggy climb up below Hell’s Lum and alongside the Feith Buidhe, crossing the stream just level with the foot of the cliffs onto a level tier of the slabs on the south bank. Bizarrely, though the Hell’s Lum cliffs were several hundred feet higher, the stepped slabs ahead of me now were the ones which made me feel small. Perhaps it’s the very fact that they are stepped and that the steps are four or five feet high, with 20 foot high walls, that gives the feeling of being a midget in a world made too large.

It’s easy to make progress on these slabs though: set at an angle that allows hands-free walking, the steps are angled into each other so that you can traverse from side to side and  zigzag upwards – which I did to reach the higher tier where the snow lay, with a row of half a dozen or more tunnels, the largest of which was up to six feet high, though steady melting meant they were only about 20 or 30 feet in length, with a bergschrund that was maybe 15 to 20 feet (which vagueness tells you I didn’t have any measuring device with me).

It’s an interesting experience entering one of these tunnels. You can put your hood up to fend off the constant dripping from the roof but you do become very aware of the mass of rock-hard ice arched over your head. I was even more aware of this natural engineering feat as I entered the largest tunnel and, halfway through, looked to my right and realised that there was a great gap through to the next-door tunnel, making a worryingly large area of unsupported roof. I couldn’t help it though – I had to crouch and crab-crawl through ‘next door’, where I was rewarded with the sight of a translucent blue skylight where the roof had grown almost thin enough to open into a hole.

Inside snow tunnel on Feith Buidhe slabs, Cairngorms

Inside the largest tunnel

Bergschrund behind snow tunnel on Feith Buidhe slabs, Ben Macdui

Looking up out of the bergschrund at the back of the snow patch – maybe about 15 feet deep.

Polygonal tunnels and blue translucence in one of the Feith Buidhe ice tunnels, Cairngorms

Near the entrance of this tunnel the roof is so thin it glows a translucent blue. This photo shows well the polygonal hollows which characterise the tunnel and overhang roofs. Near front and back of the tunnels the crests between the hollows are outlines in black plant debris

tunnel mouths in snow patch on Feith Buidhe slabs, Cairngorms

Like a row of hobbit doorways

Lots to see and wonder about – not least how those polygonal hollows outlined by plant debris form in the tunnel roofs – but eventually it was time to go. The fun was prolonged with a scramble up the slabby ramps and broken boulders beside the Feith Buidhe, then it was out onto the plateau, into cloud and the windblown rain I’d been sheltered from on the slabs, wandering near blind to the summit where there were the usual crowds despite the weather.

I’d half wondered if I’d see my pal Jim Wright up there. He was doing a charity walk taking in Braeriach, Sgor an Lochain Uaine, Cairn Toul, Devil’s Point, Carn a Mhaim, Ben Macdui and Cairngorm, all in a day. I wasn’t totally surprised not to see him (it turned out he didn’t reach Macdui until after 7pm) but did see his name in the Corrour Bothy visitors’ book the following day, when I was out there to change the toilet bags. That job was made considerably easier by the assistance of Dave from Stroud, an occasional visitor to Bob Scott’s who turned up on Saturday night and foolishly volunteered to come out with me on Sunday and give me a hand, then helped carry out some rubbish. Good effort, Dave.

View into the Loch Avon basin from the Feith Buidhe Slabs, Ben Macdui

And finally, despite the cloud, a part of the view that makes this area so special.

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Summer snow and rough waters on Macdui

Summer snow on the Feith Buidhe slabs, Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

A tenuous arch of snow is all that remains of a tunnel through the Feith Buidhe snow patch

Macdui was busy on Saturday. When I reached the summit cairn there must have been at least twenty folk there and lots more approaching and leaving. One group on their way off was a party led by Simon from Cairngorm Treks, who greeted me by asking where I was off to today. Hmm. Britain’s second-highest mountain might have been enough, but he obviously knows me: on Saturday the summit cairn was just on the way to where I was heading.

Within just a few minutes of leaving the summit I was on the North Top of Macdui, bypassed by the highway from Cairngorm so seldom trod, despite being only a few feet of reascent, then I was dropping down its northern slopes to one of the least visited yet easily accessible parts of the mountain, that area where the Feith Buidhe and Garbh Uisge streams gather strength before tipping down into the great chasm of Loch Avon.

I was heading for the Feith Buidhe slabs, in the hope of getting some photos of the snow tunnels and crevasses in the long-lying snow patches there. I was there a few years ago and got a few pictures like this – more a snow bridge than a tunnel.

Loch Avon through a snow bridge, 2013. Cairngorms

Loch Avon through a snow bridge, 2013

But I’d seen photos Ian Cameron took there last weekend and reckoned I might get something more impressive this time around. So after walking as far as the Feith Buidhe stream on the plateau, I zigged under some outcrops back to just above the Garbh Uisge Beag and then zagged back to find the snowfield on the Feith Buidhe slabs, which had been totally invisible from above, but was quite extensive.

The slabs between the Feith Buidhe and the Garbh Uisge are an impressive feature even on their own: great sheets of granite, easy enough angled to walk on and stepped layer upon layer, sometimes rearing up in vertical walls, but often with slanting ledges or stepped corners providing surprising ways through. These steps bank out completely under winter snow, and provide enough of an anchor to stop it sliding off in spring, as it does on Coire an Lochain’s Great Slab in the nearby northern corries of Cairngorm.

Late summer snow on the Feith Buidhe slabs, Cairngorm

Snow starting to break up into ice boulders on a heavily stepped area of the slabs

When I got up close it was a bit of a bust in terms of what I’d been looking for. A once impressive tunnel had collapsed, leaving just a slender sliver of snowbridge amidst a broken jumble of ice slabs and boulders. But the novelty of being up close to snow 10 feet deep or more (at the edges) in the middle of summer meant I wasn’t too downhearted and enjoyed an hour or so just wandering about on the slabs and ledges exploring what I could of the area. There was an interesting looking crevasse away in the middle, but with no-one else about I didn’t think it was wise to take too many chances; those ice boulders you see in the photo were very heavy – and very hard – and I didn’t fancy being under anything like that.

Broken ice on Feith Buidhe slabs, Cairngorms

Nothing soft about this snow: these ice boulders were solid.

View from bergschrund on Feith Buidhe slabs on Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

Looking out over Loch Avon from the bergschrund between ice and rock

Feith Buidhe snow patch, Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

This distant view shows the full extent of the snow patch. The broken snow boulders show the area I was exploring

After I’d amused myself for long enough around the edges of this summer snow I started heading back to base – that was a long way away at Bob Scott’s Bothy, but I had plans on the way. A few weeks earlier I’d been in the area with a friend and had climbed from the Shelter Stone up onto the plateau by a route parallel to the Garbh Uisge. We’d left the course of the burn to head over to Carn Etchachan on that occasion, but this time I wanted to follow the course of the burn further.

This is a tremendous area of Macdui. As I mentioned above, being away from the trade routes, it’s little frequented, and indeed, much of it is hidden from most places people are likely to be.

The Garbh Uisge is well named – rough water – and the ground it travels through is pretty rough too, all rock and scree with sparse vegetation, many of the hollows showing by the black moss on the stones how long they spend under snow. It’s fascinating looking at the different  states of the rock – all granite, yet showing so much variation, from bedrock slabs waterworn and smooth, to bulging outcrops with horizontal fault lines expanding into cracks and different types of blockfields, some where thinnish sheets of granite resemble a ruptured flagstone floor, others with more irregular boulders. Some rocks lie in close pieces, fractured, clearly fitting together, yet with edges so worn you know they have lain in pieces for millennia rather than mere years. It’s a place where you realise the erosion of mountains is an ongoing process rather than just an end result. Sit in the bowl of Loch Avon and look up at the cliffs all around – An Sticil, Carn Etchachan, Hell’s Lum, Stag Rocks and all the others – and there’s somehow a sense of permanence. But here, in the corrie of the Garbh Uisge Mor, you know both that you are seeing an unfinished landscape and that this mountain shaping is happening in a deep geological time that is beyond imagining. It is a wild place. In almost 50 years of coming to this mountain I have never seen anything resembling the mythical Grey Man but, if there was such a creature, this is where he would be found.

And yet it’s not a horrible place. On Saturday I walked with pleasure up the course of the Garbh Uisge Mor, delighting in the sheets of slabs, the rushing gullies, the sandy coves, the cataracts and the still pools, exclaiming at the surprise of a small lochan appearing at eye level, marveling at the bright delicacy of ferns growing in a crevice between rocks. Distant views ranged from the Cairngorm massif to the north to Beinn Mheadhoin’s tors further east, but they remained essentially a backdrop to the more intimate views of this secret corner of Ben Macdui.

When finally I left the course of the burn to contour round the buttress separating it from the main path up from Loch Etchachan and cross that to return over the top of Derry Cairngorm, there was still plenty of good walking to do, but nothing beat the highlight of those couple of hours of summer snow on granite slabs and the rough water of Macdui.

Garbh Uisge stream on Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

The lower reaches of the Garbh Uisge as you climb from the Loch Avon basin. (This photo was taken a few weeks earlier on a previous visit to the area)

Garbh Uisge cataract, Loch Avon basin, Cairngorms

Cataract in the lower reaches of the Garbh Uisge

Garbh Uisge Mor on granite slabs on Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

The Garbh Uisge Mor, sliding over sheets of granite before joining with the Garbh Uisge Beag to tumble over the edge of the plateau

Garbh Uisge Mor, on the Cairngorm plateau

Flowing over steps in the bedrock of the mountain

Lochan beside Garbh Uisge Mor, Ben Macdui

Flanked by lochans

Sandy beach in the Garbh Uisge Mor, Cairngorms

The shock of a sandy beach so high on the mountain – that’s the north top of Macdui on the right, at 1295 metres

Ferns high on Ben Macdui beside the Garbh Uisge Mor

And finally, the joy and delicacy of ferns erupting from crevices in the hard granite.

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Faindouran Bothy back in business, complete with stove

Faindouran Bothy, Glen Avon, Cairngorms

Faindouran Bothy in Glen Avon. The stove gives it a heart once more

After writing about a lost bothy in the last post, it’s good to be able to write of a bothy regained.

To be exact, Faindouran was never exactly ‘lost’, but it was a close run  thing at the start of 2013 when news came through that a large part of the gable wall had come down in a winter storm.

East gable of Faindouran Bothy, Glen Avon, Cairngorms

The east gable of Faindouran Bothy showing the damage caused in the winter storm of 2013

The situation was serious. Nothing could be done immediately because of the weather, but there was further delay while a practicable solution to the collapsed wall could be found, given the remote location.

After a lot of thought, the wall was not so much repaired as replaced: the original wall (never built as an external wall) was capped and a block and timber wall was built outside it, giving both stability and protection.

A lot of work was involved, with volunteers making a number of long journeys – it’s 16 miles up a sometimes precipitous landy track – but by the end of last year the work was all but done.

Repaired east gable lof Faindouran Bothy, Cairngorms

The new gable, faced with long-lasting larch.

However a very important element was still outstanding. The gable wall had also been the chimney wall. Rather than try to rebuild a chimney, it was decided to put a stove in, with a flue going through the roof. That stove was in place last year, but lacked the flue.

Last weekend a group of us met in Tomintoul on Friday night and headed up the long and winding road to Faindouran – 16 miles, but a journey of over an hour in a four-wheel-drive. MOs Hugh and Marlene were joined by Kenny Freeman, his daughter Elaine, John Gifford, Stevie the plumber, Neil Findlay and myself. On Saturday morning we were joined by Bill Sutherland, who drove up two slaters from Airdrie, newcomers to bothy life, who had been wooed with drink at Bob Scott’s and fooled into volunteering to help out with the roof.

They came to find the flue almost in place through the roof, courtesy of Stevie and Neil F and set up scaffolding to allow them to slate the quarter of the roof which had remained unfinished – not as straightforward a job as you’d think, as the ‘slates’ were irregular stone tiles of all widths and lengths.

Scaffolding erected at rear of Faindouran Bothy, Glen Avon

Roofers working from scaffolding at the back of the bothy

Kenny Freeman and Hugh Munro working in Faindouran Bothy, Cairngorms

Kenny and Hugh filling some gaps in the eaves to improve the sleeping area

By the end of the weekend the roof was all but complete (and certainly weatherproofed) and the stove had been ritually lit, quickly warming up the small bothy (albeit it was a glorious weekend weather-wise). The sleeping area in the attic was also improved.

New stove at Faindouran Bothy, Cairngorms

The heart of any bothy – the fire

Across in the stable, which had been given a wooden floor to provide temporary accommodation while the bothy was uninhabitable, Neil Findlay laid a cement floor in the doorway.

Stable building at Faindouran Bothy, Glen Avon

Cement mixer in action outside the stable

Improved doorway of the stable at Faindouran Bothy, Cairngorms

And where all the cement went – a new floor for the doorway to match the new wooden floor, making good spillover accommodation

With a high proportion of musicians and singers in the company, we had good-going ceilidhs on both Friday and Saturday nights, making sure the revived bothy was well and truly christened.

Singers at ceilidh in Faindouran Bothy

Hugh, Marlene and Bill give song on the Saturday evening ceilidh

(There’s now a dedicated Faindouran page in the bothies section of the website.


For Neil Findlay and I it had been a two-centre holiday. We’d met at Bob Scott’s on Thursday night and went in to Corrour Bothy on Friday morning to change over the toilet there. Then we returned to Derry via Carn a Mhaim before driving round to meet the others at Tomintoul. Don’t say we never get about in this business!

Neil Findlay sweeping the path in the Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms

On the way in to Corrour Bothy on the Friday morning. The brush was a replacement for Corrour, but we couldn’t resist the idea of sweeping up on the way in.

Neil Findlay with ppe for changing the toilet at Corrour Bothy, Cairngorms

And finally… what the well-dressed bothy toilet cleaner wears – in Neil Findlay’s case a see-through boiler suit and pink marigolds. Pink???

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Jean’s Hut – a lost Cairngorm bothy

Jean's Hut, Coire an Lochain, Cairngorm

Jean’s Hut in Coire an Lochain, date unknown.

Of all the ‘lost’ bothies of the Cairngorms,  Jean’s Hut seems one of  the one most brought up in folk’s recollections.

Not one I was ever at myself, although it didn’t finally disappear until the ’80s, but there are some good historical pictures from Reg Popham and Angus Robson which are worth sharing here.

Jean’s Hut started out in Coire Cas on Cairngorm, only later being moved to the location most people remember in Coire an Lochain.

It was gifted by Dr Alasdair Smith in memory of his daughter Jean who died in a skiing accident in 1948, having fallen when the edges of her skis failed to bite while traversing a steep, icy slope.

It was built in 1951, roughly where the White Lady Shieling stands now.

Angus Robson, who contacted me in response to another post about bygone Cairngorm bothies, wrote to say his father had been involved in the building of the hut.

He said: The tarmac road ended at Coylumbridge in those days and the forestry road ended at the old Glenmore Lodge (now the SYHA). All the materials were carried up Cairngorm from the Lodge on a footpath.

Apparently, people on courses at Glenmore Lodge were roped into carrying materials up the mountain. My dad was there on a rock climbing course in 1950 and remembers he helped with carrying stuff. He says the heaviest load he carried was a bag of sand. He would have been 34 at the time.

Angus sent in this photo of the Hut, taken in 1953, when his parents were on a hill walking course at Glenmore Lodge, and there are several more photos from Reg Popham showing the carrying in of materials and the construction of the hut.

Robsons at Jean's Hut, Cairngorms

Angus Robson’s photo of his Mum and Dad at Jean’s Hut in 1953, with a Glenmore Lodge instructor

Materials being carried in to build Jean's Hut in Coire Cas, Cairngorm

The big carry-in. Prefabricated sections of the hut being carried up the hill into Coire Cas. Love the period clothes and the sense of enthusiasm in this photo, courtesy of Reg Popham

Hut sections being carried in to Coire Cas, Cairngorm, to build Jean's Hut

Another photo of the young folk taking the hut in. Courtesy of Reg Popham

Jean's Hut, Coire Cas, Cairngorm - half built

During construction in 1951. (Courtesy of Reg Popham)

Jean's Hut, Cairngorms

And complete

It stood in Coire Cas for more than a decade before being edged out by ski development, and in 1964 or ’65 was moved to its final position at 981034, a little below the lochan of Coire an Lochain.

It was popular as a base for winter climbers, one climber remembering it as being furnished with rough wooden bunks, a table and benches, and a store cupboard full of food left by other climbers. But its popularity and the lack of any one person or organisation formally looking after it, meant it deteriorated through the years and by the ’80s – some say even earlier – it was in a pretty disreputable state.

There was some debate about its future, apparently prompted by a the death of three students who failed to find the hut in a fierce blizzard. (It was a hard period for mountain rescue teams, spoken of by Heavy Whalley in his blog)

It was finally demolished and removed by the Cairngorm Ranger Service removed in 1986. According to a Glasgow Herald article at the time there had been a last minute appeal by Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team, who wanted the army to replace the dilapidated hut to be kept as a shelter and advance base for rescues.

Perhaps had the hut been maintained it would have lasted, but even had there not been the loss of the three students, its days were likely numbered, with one climbing pal recalling it leaning over and being fit to collapse. And perhaps there’s no longer the same demand for a bothy in a corrie that most people walk in and out of in a short day – or maybe the Northern Corries are just so busy these days that no size of bothy could cope with the numbers!

Builders outside Jean's Hut, Coire Cas, Cairngorms

Happy days! How can you not wish you were climbing in the Cairngorms in the 1950s? (Once more, picture courtesy of Reg Popham)

(Thanks to Angus and Reg for the use of their photos in this post – and their long patience in waiting for it to materialise!)

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Plans announced for Derry Lodge development

Derry Lodge in Glen Lui, Cairngorms

Derry Lodge – is a new lease of life on the cards?

(Since this post was first written, a planning application for the development has been lodged with Aberdeenshire Council. The application can be seen in full here. According to Murray Hamilton, Director of Planning and Rural Development at the Cairngorms National Park Authority, it was called in by the CNPA on 20th June for determination.)

One of the most asked questions in Glen Lui has got to be “Aren’t they doing anything with Derry Lodge?”

It hasn’t been occupied since the Cairngorm Club gave up the lease in 1967 and has been slowly going downhill ever since.

However Mar Lodge Estate has now announced long term plans to bring the building back into use, as a walkers’ hostel.

The plans were on display at an open day at Mar Lodge at the weekend, but there’s little likelihood of them taking shape in the near future – sometime in about five years time is the estimate.

Hostel plans for Derry Lodge, Glen Derry, Cairngorms

Suggested layout for hostel accommodation in Derry Lodge

The basics are a hostel with 20-22 beds in two- and four-bed rooms, with the ground floor containing lounge, kitchen, dining room, meeting room, drying room , showers etc.

Additional to the toilets included within Derry Lodge, there are also plans to build a publicly accessible toilet at the green barn beside the Lodge. This would make a huge difference to the long-standing and worsening problem with human waste in an area which has for decades been popular with campers.

Development proposals for Derry Lodge, Cairngorms, including public toilet

The area surrounding the Lodge, showing plans for a public toilet

I see, too, that the plans for the wider area include a bridge over the Lui Burn at the bottom of the landy track which goes down to the river just west of Bob Scott’s Bothy. What’s not clear is whether this is intended solely to give access to Luibeg Cottage (Bob Scott’s old house), which could be used as staff accommodation for the Derry Lodge hostel, or whether the main track will be diverted over to that side. It seems an odd idea, but the estate has said it wants to direct the footpath away from the boggy Derry Flats, where Black Grouse lek, and one option would be to take the path to the south side of the river below Derry Lodge and return it to the north side once it’s past the boggy section.

Of course, with plans so far in the future there’s a lot can change, but as of now, that’s what the estate would like to do. The reason for the delay in implementing any of this is financial: in the wake of two major floods in two years there’s still a lot of flood damage to repair, including as a priority the road bridge over the Quoich, which wasn’t covered by insurance as it wasn’t actually destroyed – the river simply shifted its course to bypass it.

There are a couple of obvious concerns about these plans.

One is the question of access. Are cars going to be driving up and down Glen Lui? The answer would appear to be a very firm no. The estate still adheres to the long walk-in principle and plans do indicate that access to the hostel will be by foot only (though presumably estate traffic will be increased to some degree).

Bob Scott's Bothy, Glen Lui, Cairngorms

The estate has said Bob Scott’s Bothy will not be endangered by the plans

The other concern – to some at least – is what will happen to Bob Scott’s Bothy, just a couple of hundred metres away. Estate property manager David Frew spoke about this some time ago when we were discussing matters relating to the bothy. He assured us that the estate was more than happy with the way the bothy was being run and with the fact of it being there, and he said quite categorically that the future of the bothy would not be jeopardised by any possible hostel.

So, while the devil is always in the detail, I think the plans are largely positive. Personally, I’m still not sure about increased commercialism of the area but it’s highly unlikely that this listed building would be demolished and this proposed use is probably one of the least bad. The area, after all, is already pretty busy in all but winter conditions. It will have the added advantage of cleaning up the surrounding area by virtue of a publicly accessible toilet.

And it is a nice building.

Derry Lodge, Cairngorms

Derry Lodge and the green barn which was formerly a deer larder

Derry Lodge is one of those buildings that grew rather than was planned.

It started life as a single-storey rectangular hunting lodge at some time in the late 1700s, with a fire at each gable.

Historic development drawings of Derry Lodge

Drawings showing the historical development of the Lodge

As shooting became more important, it was enlarged in the early 1800s, rising to one-and-a-half storeys and gaining a kitchen extension, but it was the later 1800s that saw the main extensions, including the two-storey wing facing down the glen which is now the main

Arriving at Derry Lodge

The guest quarters and main entrance, built in the 19th century

entrance. This section was probably accommodation for shooting parties, while the west part would have accommodated gamekeepers. A survey of the building shows clearly which rooms were for guests and which for staff, with the guests enjoying a better and more elaborate standard of room. Nor was there any direct communication between the guests in the eastern wing and the staff in the west. Having said that, the older part of the Lodge was probably the home of the head keeper, with a family staying there into the first half of the 20th century, often playing host to the naturalist Seton Gordon while he was studying the Golden Eagles. (Another visitor, back in 1859, had been Queen Victoria, returning from her celebrated trip up Ben MacDui, though she just dropped in by for a cuppa, not spending the night there.)

The lodge was requisitioned by the army during the war, afterwards lying empty (though possibly used as accommodation for seasonal gillies) until the Cairngorm Club leased it as a club hut in 1955. One of the conditions of that least was that gillies were to be accommodated during the stalking season.

While the CC had the lease they built a new kitchen and passageway at the back, linking the two sections of the building and replacing an earlier wooden structure there.

The club held the lease until 1967, by which time they had acquired Muir Cottage, their present club hut in Inverey. Sometime in the 1970s, it temporarily housed army personnel who were building a footbridge across the Derry Burn (the one destroyed in the August 2014 flood), but apart from that it has remained empty and increasingly derelict, falling prey to vandalism occasional use as a doss by walkers up until the 1980s, when a student party staying there inadvertently started a fire, which caused internal damage and damage to the roof before the fire brigade reached the scene. (I was in Bob Scott’s that night and remember the surreality of the blue flashing light coming up the glen as a full-size fire engine negotiated the landy track.)

After that it was more securely boarded up and has remained empty.

Incidentally, the green barn beside the Lodge is a former deer larder, and the Aberdeen MRT Post down the slope is on the site of the former stables.

You can also read about the Lodge on Joe Dorward’s The Upland of Mar website at http://theuplandofmar.squarespace.com/derry-lodge/

Since first writing this post Nick Kempe has written more about the conservation issues in his excellent Parkwatchscotland blog.

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