Walk out in the rain

Lochan Uaine, Cairn Toul, Angel's Peak and Garbh Choire Mhor in the Cairngorms

The drama of the Cairngorms

I love the photo at the head of this post. It was one of several I put in a Facebook album and it was the one that got all the likes.

Now the camera it was taken on was nothing special (a Canon Ixus 860 IS if you’re really geeky about these things) and the photographer definitely not particularly skilled – I pointed, zoomed in a little, and clicked.

Yet it captures something of the qualities that make the Cairngorms so special: the sense of scale, the unyielding bulk of the mountains, the distances. The threatening sky over the rain-cleared brightness of the corrie with fresh green amidst the glister of the granite slabs brings out a sense of drama missed by those who thrill only at pointy peaks and narrow ridges.

In short: I love the photo at the head of this post.

It’s not there, however, to show you how good I am – the sight was there, I only had the sense to notice and click – but to underline something I forget too often myself. And that’s to GO. Get out there. Use the forecast to prepare, but get out onto the hill and discover what it reveals.

The day I found this scene really was a day for sitting at home with a good book and a roaring fire. Summer had forgotten its place and allowed November to gatecrash the party, with winds, low cloud, rain and stinging hail. All sorts of plans had been devised and ditched, and even Sunday’s first choice was abandoned as the legs didn’t feel up to it, but by that time I’d walked up Glen Derry to the Hutchy Hut, so thought I might at least go up McDui. It had already rained by the time I reached Loch Etchachan but I followed the path on up until I could traverse across to the foot of the slabs on the other side of the stream, where the bedrock of the mountain is bared.

Slabs on Ben McDui, Cairngorms

The slabs. My route went up the right side of the gully with the snow at the top, although you could make a few wandering routes across the slabs themselves.

These slabs are part of a broad ridge hiding the remote corrie of the Garbh Uisge Mor from the main ascent path. I climbed easy ground to the right of a gully up the north edge of the slabs to gain the crest of the ridge. The rain was back, the wind had more of a bite on the exposed ridge and the cloud was down over the main and north tops of the hill, but looking down the ridge made that all by the way. It was one of those views, like the first image in this post, which – to me – captured something of the nature of the Cairngorms: looking down over granite boulders to the waters of Loch Etchachan and, beyond that, through a cleft in the mountains and almost 700 feet nearer sea level, a glimpse of Loch Avon. Conditions for the photograph were poor, but it was a shot I had to take.

Loch Etchachan and Loch Avon, Cairngorms

Lochs Etchachan and Avon, separated by almost 700ft of altitude.

The rain turned to hail and the cloud on the summit didn’t look like shifting, so I decided to head back down and cross over to Derry Cairngorm, which had remained below the cloud ceiling. I knew it was likely to rain again (and it did) but had it in mind that it was a day when at least one summit should be reached. In any case, it was a more attractive return route that all the way down Glen Derry again, or down the boggy Coire Sputain Dearg (whence I’d seen a damp Aberdeen Mountain Rescue Team descending, bearing a laden stretcher as part of an exercise).

And that’s how I got the picture at the head of the post. Just after disturbing a mother ptarmigan on the Derry Cairngorm screes, seeing her trailing her wing in one direction and her five fluffy chicks scattering in all other directions, I looked across to Coire an Lochan Uaine and stopped.

The colours of the corrie were bright after the rain, and beyond the sweep of the corrie rim were the receding and increasingly blue layers of Cairn Toul, Sgorr an Lochan Uaine and the innermost recesses of the Garbh Choire Mhor, highlighted by the unseasonably diminished ‘eternal’ snow patches. It’s a view that should stop anyone in their tracks, but the weather added a sense of drama that made the whole scene even more special. This was a view worth getting wet for. The wind, the rain, the hail… they hadn’t spoiled this day at all – they’d made it.

Lochan Uaine, Cairn Toul, Angel's Peak and Garbh Choire Mhor in the Cairngorms

And one more time…


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Derry Dam bridge closed

Derry Dam Bridge, Glen Derry, Cairngorms. Closed due to flood damage


Mar Lodge Estate announced on Facebook today that the metal footbridge at Derry Dam in Glen Derry (NO 039958) is closed due to flood damage.

There are no further details at the moment but it’s likely that the problem lies with the foundations on the east bank, which were partly undercut in the major flood back in August 2014.

View of east pier of Derry Dam footbridge, Cairngorms

A face on view from the west bank of the damage done in 2014

The estate post says the bridge will be repaired as soon as possible, although that may not be for some time. In the meantime people are advised that the nearest bridge is the footbridge at Derry Lodge (itself just replaced a couple of years ago after being broken by a flood). However, the most relevant advice is that if you’re going up or down Glen Derry just stay on the east side of the Derry Burn. And don’t plan on doing that admittedly lovely short walk up one side of the burn and down the other.

Any queries should be made to the Mar Lodge Estate Ranger Service at 013397 20164.

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Hotting it up at Glas Allt Sheil

Glas Allt Sheil bothy entrance

Glas Allt Sheil – the bothy entrance is just inside the dark passage

Partnership working seems all the rage these days, and last weekend up Loch Muick was a great example.

The bothy at Glas Allt Sheil – the one in an outhouse of the Queen’s big picnic hoose – is officially looked after by the Dundee University Rucksack Club, but was needing more work than they had the expertise for. So along came a grant from the Mountain Bothies Association and a workforce from the Bob Scott’s Bothy Association.

Last Friday several 4WD vehicles drove along the lochside to take in trailer-loads of wood and insulation, along with two generators and enough power tools to stock a small DIY shop.

Unloading wood at Glas Allt Sheil, Loch Muick, Cairngorms

Some of the wood being unloaded. The section of roof with the windows removed is the part with the bothy.

Most of the Bob Scott’s regulars were there, along with a couple of new volunteers and, eventually, about 15 or more students from the Rucksack Club. Some were just there for the craic and the hill walking, but others joined in and worked with a will.

Blocks of insulation were sawn into shape to fit between the roofbeams, miles of flooring planks were hand-chamfered to convert them to elegantly finished lining boards (you can guess which of these jobs I was involved in!), and cement was persuaded in gaps between the granite of the external walls. Later in the afternoon too many people crammed into the attic space to nail the superbly chamfered boards while a handful of selfless heroes shivered outside in the grey, drizzling rain, expertly cutting the boards to exact sizes (yup, again you’ve guessed which group I was in).

Work at Glas Allt Sheil, Cairngorms

Cutting the blocks of insulation to size

Work in insulation at Glas Allt Sheil, Lochnagar

Dave Knowles fine tuning to get a tight fit

Dundee University student at bothy work party

India from the DURC, chamfering the wood for lining the roof

Saturday night, like Friday night before it, was ceilidh night. The students, having been entertained to the likes of ‘Sam The Skull’ and ‘The Dundee Doag’ on Friday night, had worked up some retaliation and, on Saturday night, offered up a trio of Corries songs, performed karaoke style. Foolish. We hit back and knocked them for six with a 15-minute version of the ‘Aitken’s Morning Rolls Song‘.  Then there was some real music from Bill on the guitar and a mood killer from my penny whistle. All good fun.

Ceilidh at Glas Allt Sheil

Saturday night ceilidh

Work picked up again in the morning (although I took a three-hour leave of absence to nip up and down Lochnagar) and carried on until late afternoon. I ended up back on saw duty for some of the afternoon, but at least Sunday was nice and sunny.

Cairngorms from near top of Lochnagar

Looking NW from near summit of Lochnagar. The view wasn’t really worth it

Glas Allt Falls, Lochnagar, Cairngorms

The Glas Allt Falls. The weather had picked up considerably by the time I came down










Over the course of a weekend the attic space, used as sleeping accommodation, was fully insulated and pine-lined. Some repointing work was done outside and minor but fiddly insulation put in the eaves where they were open to the lower floor – as well as an emergency repair to the middle of the downstairs floor.

Glas Allt Sheil attic unlined


Glas Allt Sheil Bothy attic fully insulated and lined


Later in the summer another work party will be arranged to replace the rather tired downstairs floor and insulate and line two of the stone walls, which should make the Glas Allt Sheil a lot easier to heat in the colder months.

Kenny Freeman and Allan Moore

Project manager Kenny Freeman (left), delighted at the prospect of another work party at the GAS

Alfie and Derek at GAS, Lochnagar.

And finally, who can resist a picture of a dog at play? Neil Findlay’s border terrier Alfie (left) with Derek Stewart.

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And here it is… the roof

Just a quick couple of pics this time around.

A few days ago I wrote about the renovation of the Slugain Howff, but wrote from the point of view of a lowly porter, who left before the job was done.

Now Ed Pirie, one of the Howff’s caretakers has sent a couple of pics of the finished article, with new roof and guttering completed.

He said: “Further work for internal fitting out and pointing is scheduled and in hand,” and, with a wee dig at my age references in the last blogpost, added: “For us oldies it was certainly an exhausting but very productive weekend. Thank you all for your portering help.”

Working to replace the roof of the Secret Howff, Cairngorms

Lining up the roofing sheets

Inside the Secret Howff, Cairngorms, examining the new roof

Inside, below the new roof

The completed new roof at the Slugain Howff, Cairngorms

Just in time. Roof on – rain on.


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Smuggling tin past the laird… or not

Slugain Howff. Picture of roof in 2017 just before removal and replacement. Cairngorms

The last picture of the old roof

Some sixty or more years on, it was no surprise that the roof was getting tired and that the leaks were getting worse. It was, though, a pleasant surprise to hear the solution.

The problem was that the roof in question was that of the Slugain Howff, better known as ‘The Secret Howff’. Built in great secrecy at the start of the 1950s, with an improved roof installed a couple of years later (see Jack Innes’ comment below this post), work had to be carried out in great secrecy, with materials carried in clandestinely after dark – no easy matter with wooden beams and sheets of corrugated iron. Fast forward to the present day and a rerun of the ’50s buccaneering activities was unlikely: the guys who look after the Howff these days are, well, not in the first flush of youth. Not quite be-zimmered, certainly, but while they were looking forward to removing the old roof and building a replacement, they realised that getting the building materials in there was going to be a problem.

The solution came in two parts. First, staff at Invercauld Estate (which had, over the last 60-odd years, noticed the presence of a small and inoffensive howff) indicated that they would be willing to assist with transport of the roofing materials as far as was possible by vehicle. (Support for the continued existence of the Howff seems to have been strong – at the same time as the Howff caretakers were getting permission and an offer of help from one part of the estate, a Braemar reader of this blog spoke to a friend on the estate staff who also offered assistance.)

The second part came from Bob Scott’s Bothy Association. Kenny Freeman was in touch with the Howff caretakers and offered the services of the Scottie’s crew for the final carry.

That’s how Kenny, Ellie, Jamie, Davey, John, Bill, Sandy, Alex, Dod, Ian and myself found ourselves early on Saturday morning meeting in a secret car park in a secret mountain range to rendezvous with estate and howff workers.

Materials for new roof for Slugain Howff, Cairngorms

Roofing materials at the end of the landy track. From here it was an Argocat… and people power

To be honest, once a couple of youngsters were out of the equation, the average age of the Bob Scott’s crew wasn’t that far away from that of the caretakers, but Kenny had packaged the corrugated sheets in wheeled frames which were surprisingly effective for pulling up the path after the landy track ended, while an Argocat took wooden beams, cement bags and assorted tools.

Taking roofing sheets in to the Secret Howff, Cairngorms

A cartie with a difference. The corrugated iron sheets were easy to pull up the track in Kenny Freeman’s wheeled frames.

Unloading materials for repair of the Secret Howff, Glen Slugain.

Unloading the heavily-laden Argocat, filled with wood, cement and tools.

That still left the final stage up a seemingly endless steep slope. What had seemed a perfect morning had by this time developed into heavy snow showers driven by a strengthening wind that made carrying the roofing sheets somewhat challenging at times, with four people, one on each corner, making sure they didn’t blow away down the glen.

Carrying roofing beams in to the Slugain Howff, Cairngorms

Carrying the roofing beams the last climb up to the howff

Roof beams were simpler, with one beam per person or two people per beam depending on length and – dare I say it – age of carrier, but the bags of cement were just pure killer. I managed three, but stopped about three times on the way up with the third, shoulders and neck aching and knees buckling. Definitely getting too old for this shit!

Roof removed from Slugain Howff showing the interior.

Exposed! The old roof is gone, leaving the Howff open to the elements.

While all the porterage was taking place, the work was proceeding apace. A small generator provided power for the angle grinders which helped peel the roof off, leaving the interior looking strangely naked and vulnerable. Roof beams were lifted out too, with gratifyingly little damage to the walls, although it was sobering to see how rotten at least one of the main beams was.

But that, for Saturday, was that. Having done our carrying, the Bob Scott’s crew were off down the hill. Watch this space for pictures of the completed job, once I get up there again, for, all going well, I’m assuming that the re-roofing went ahead successfully and that the Howff is now good for another 60 years or so.

Fitting new roof beams at the Slugain Howff, Cairngorms

New roof beams being fitted. Work should now be completed, so watch this space.

UPDATE: Photos of the completed roof can be seen in the next post here.

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From failure to magic in the Cairngorms

Snowy view from Carn Crom in the Cairngorms

The magic. The view from Carn Crom

In the Cairngorms even the failed weekends can turn out to be memorable – and for all the right reasons too.

I’d set out from work on Friday, heading up to Bob Scott’s Bothy with the intention of going out to Corrour on Saturday to change the toilet bag. My mood wasn’t improved by the Glenshee road being closed with the snow and me having to go all the way up to Aberdeen and then up Deeside. From Braemar to Linn o’ Dee the road was white and slithery and I made it only by the skin of my teeth round the rising bend after the Linn o’ Dee bridge. Tired from the start, the increasing depth of the drifts on the Derry track were taking their toll and I was glad to see Bob Scott’s, even if it was in  darkness.

Great. Three folk in – in their beds and it only 10pm! Well I was pretty hungry by this time so I unpacked my sack, laid out my mat and sleeping bag then sat down to make my dinner, and to hell if they couldn’t sleep. 10pm? In Scottie’s?!!!

Come morning the outlook was brighter. The guys seemed right enough blokes despite their sleeping habits and we chatted a bit over our various breakfasts, then I threw some stuff into my rucksack and set off for Corrour.

The going was heavy from the start, varying from fresh powder to soft drift. The ground underneath wasn’t very well frozen, so I had to be careful crossing the bogs in the Derry Flats. The tree across the track in the Luibeg Woods was a nuisance rather than a hazard, but once I was out of the woods the depth of the snow increased, with an average of just above the knee in depth and that infuriating consistency where you sink slowly into it only when you put your weight onto it. At times I was down to five to six seconds per double step. Going through the young trees in the Robbers’ Copse was worse, forcing through crotch-deep snow at times.

Snowy trees in the Robbers' Copse, Luibeg, Cairngorms

Like a scene from Narnia. Forcing a way through the snow-choked woods at the Luibeg ford

The ford, at first sight, didn’t look too bad. The river was fairly well iced, with the flowing water restricted to a few channels. I put on crampons for the iced-up stepping stones and started to cross – only to discover the ice wasn’t properly formed: some was slush and some of the sheets broke as soon as I put weight on them. It took about 20 minutes to get across, although on the plus side the only time I went in over my knee I was out again so quickly the water didn’t have time to penetrate the gaiters and waterproof trousers.

It was time to look at the clock though. As I sat down up the bank for something to eat I calculated I’d already taken a little over two hours to get to where I was, with maybe another two hours or so before I reached the bothy. Give me a ten-minute sit down to recover, then probably another hour or more to change over the toilet bag and burn the ppe suit and gloves. It would be dark before I even got back to the ford, let alone reached Scottie’s.

So enough. All this travelling and effort for nothing. I should have gone to the ceilidh with my mates that I knew would be on at Glas Allt Sheil that night. It was a low moment: so low that I couldn’t even face going back across the ford, and headed up the glen to use the bridge.

Luibeg Burn in the Cairngorms, in winter

Looking down the semi-frozen Luibeg burn from the bridge

But on the way up there, having resigned myself to failure, I started to enjoy just being there again and, by the time I crossed the bridge I was looking at the beckoning slopes of Carn Crom. It’s a steep hill from this side, but I’ve found myself tempted up there on a few occasions over the years, and today it had the added temptation of being on the windward side of the hill, so with very little drifting. It would, said I, making excuses for yet another daft ploy, possibly even be easier than wading back down through the glen.

And that moment was when the failed duty trip turned into a cracking day on the hill. Yes, it was a pech taking the steep slopes head on, but where you climb steeply you gain height quickly, and I was enjoying the rapidly expanding views. Cloud was plentiful, and down over the higher tops, but Carn a Mhaim was mostly clear and humble Sgor Mor was offering some ephemeral but stupendous views as the cloud was broken and reformed by the wind. Shafts of gold would strike out of the grey lift and spotlight their way across the snow, bigger rents would render a whole hillside golden for a tantalising second or two before the lights would once more go out as the cloud closed, whole ridge lines would suddenly be fringed with an intense gold halo as the sun caught on the spindrift blowing high in the wind.

Sunshine and shade on Sgor Mor, Cairngorms

Sunbeams shine out from the cloud and illuminate Sgor Mor

On my own hill, too, the wind was picking up as I gained height, snow smoking across the ground and whirling up into the sky. By the time I was nearing the summit it was probably blowing at about 50mph: enough to give me the odd buffet but not to knock me off my feet, and I was thoroughly enjoying just being there and being at ease in those conditions. When I stood at the summit cairn taking in the view and the sensations I reflected how I’d last been there just fortnight previously with a friend, the wind almost as strong but then driving a penetrating rain so heavy we were soaked to the skin and didn’t even pause as we touched the cairn at fled back down to the bothy. Today, even after I left the cairn, I was finding excuses to stop on the way back down towards Derry, pausing once to admire and ponder on the exquisitely sculpted patterns in the snow. We think of the wind as a battering, tearing force, and we think of snow as so soft and formless, yet all over we can see how the wind, using its own force and the abrasion of blown snow has etched the snowpack, one unsuspected layer at a time, into contoured patterns which speak of delicacy rather than the brute force of extreme weather.

Wind-sculpted snow on Carn Crom, Cairngorms

The delicacy of the gale

I once wondered, on reading Nan Shepherd’s account of a stream in the act of freezing, how anyone could have the patience to sit in such cold and watch this process, but this day, so comfortable and at home, despite the cold and blast, I could have sat and watched such a thing myself. A day that had at one point seemed such a failure and disappointment had turned into one of magic. For I had remembered why I was there at all.

(And as an added bonus? In a bothy full of strangers that night, we were all best of friends and had a great night of talk and banter in front of a toasty stove. What a bothy’s all about.)

Sunshine in winter from Carn Crom, Cairngorms

Envoi. The sun goes and so do I.

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Braemar Mountain Festival

skier in Black Spout Gully, Lochnagar, Cairngorms

Skier Ross Hewitt, heading for the narrows of the Black Spout on Lochnagar

This blog doesn’t often get down out of the hills, but it’s not stretching the remit too far to give a plug for the first ever Braemar Mountain Festival which is due to happen on the weekend of 3-5 March.

Organised by local folk with a passion for the mountains, it has a great line-up, with both indoor and outdoor events looking good, from a talk by Himalayan climber Victor Saunders to one about Cairngorm legend Nan Shepherd, and from avalanche awareness workshops to guided walks and ski trips.

One of the festival organisers is Sue Harper, owner of Braemar Guides and one of the first British women to summit Everest. She said: “We are all skiers, climbers, walkers, photographers and lovers of the outdoors, who revel in living in this beautiful environment. It’s a huge playground in the hills, and we want to share it.”

There is a varied programme of workshops including ski touring and telemarking, winter skills and avalanche awareness, and low level walking. There will also be photography and art exhibitions and workshops, and in the evening, talks, films, music, food, and of course a ceilidh.

Heather Morning, Mountain Safety Adviser at Mountaineering Scotland, will give a workshop on winter skills, essential for everyone going into the hills in winter.

Poet and writer Alec Finlay is also one of the speakers and workshop leaders taking part in the Festival. He is giving a presentation on Gaelic place-names in the Cairngorms.

Another special event for the Festival is a talk by Samantha Walton on Nan Shepherd, followed by a walk to the bothy which was often Nan’s base.

Beinn a Bhuird, Cairngorms. One of Steven Rennie's photos on display during Braemar Mountain Festival 2017

The Cioch of Beinn a Bhuird. Photo by Steven Rennie, who will be exhibiting in Braemar Mountain Festival

The festival will also be used for the launch of a new book which is bound to ruffle feathers amongst some of the bothies old guard – Geoff Allan’s ‘The Bothy Bible’. Anathema to those retrogrades who still believe bothies should be kept secret, the author’s saving grace is that he is an active member of the Mountain Bothies Association and MO for Dibidil Bothy on Rum. Oh, and Geoff will be giving 10 per cent of the book’s proceeds to the MBA. But what the hell – it sounds like an interesting book anyway, packed with information including historical details, and walk-in descriptions as well as suggestions for day trips, cycle rides and places of interest en route.

For more information about the festival – there’s a lot more than mentioned here – and for ticket sales, go to: www.braemarmountainfestival.com

Lochnagar, Cairngorms

Lochnagar. Photo by Steven Rennie

The team behind this first festival – and hopefully it’ll be first of many – comprises:

Katy Fennema – Katy is a local business owner and former professional musician with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. She enjoys trail running and escaping into the Cairngorms in her spare time.

Sue Harper – Sue has summited Everest and sailed across the Atlantic and has been working in the outdoor environment for over thirty years. She has a BEd in Outdoor Education and is a qualified International Mountain Leader and BASI ski instructor. Sue is the owner of Braemar Guides.

Al Hubbard – Al has a winter Mountain Leader qualification and is a member of Braemar Mountain Rescue Team and a retained firefighter. He enjoys many mountain sports especially ski touring and mountain running.

Sarah Hubbard – Sarah is a local business owner. She enjoys hill walking and ski touring and has a keen interest in local wildlife and flora.

Rhi Turner – Rhi lives in Braemar and is the Coordinator of the Braemar Outdoor Group. She has a BSc in Hotel and Tourism Management and is passionate about the special place that is the Cairngorms. In her free time she can be found exploring the local mountains on ski, bike or foot.

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