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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Cairngorm National Park recognition for bothies

Bert Barnett (left) and Kenny Freeman with commendation certificate for three Cairngorm bothies in CNP Design Awards 2016

Bert Barnett (left) and Kenny Freeman with the Commendation Certificate

The skill, hard work and dedication of many Cairngorm bothy volunteers was recognised at the Cairngorms National Park Design Awards this week.

Three of the area’s bothies, all renovated since the last design awards in the Park, were nominated. Although they lost out in the ‘Place-making’ category to Am Fasgadh at the Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore, the three bothies – Corrour, Hutchison and Bob Scott’s – received a group commendation from the judges.

Celebrating Scotland’s Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design, the 2016 Cairngorms National Park Design Awards aimed to recognise exceptional standards of design and craftsmanship in the Park.

While the entries – and the prizes – were dominated by architect-led projects, the appearance of the bothies even in the shortlist was an achievement; to receive a commendation in the face of such professional competition was particularly gratifying.

Bob Scott's Bothy in the Cairngorms

Bob Scott’s Bothy

Bob Scott’s Bothy was nominated on the basis of its rebirth as a community project when it was rebuilt in 2005 after a disastrous fire. The hill walking and climbing community – past and present – and the local community up and down Deeside all became involved in creating a bothy designed to high visual and ecological standards. Playing an important part in the mountaineering heritage of the Cairngorms, it also benefits the local environment through the provision of toilet facilities and relieving pressure on camping in the surrounding area.

Corrour Bothy in the Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms

Corrour Bothy 

Corrour’s nomination was based on its extensive renovation over 2007-8 which turned an unwelcoming stone box into a first class resource with high standards of insulation and construction, with a sympathetically designed toilet extension which has led to a massive improvement in the ecology of the immediate surroundings and the wider area of the Lairig Ghru and Glen Dee.

Hutchison Memorial Hut in Coire Etchachan, Cairngorms. Hutchison bothy

The Hutchison Hut

In the case of the Hutchison Memorial Hut, the 2012 renovation transformed another cold and drafty howff into a much improved, wood-lined and insulated bothy, maintaining the original character while delivering major improvements, including a stove and storm porch, ensuring that the bothy can be used throughout the year and has been appreciated by mountain rescue teams as well as walkers and climbers.

All three bothies have played – and still play – important roles in the heritage of the Cairngorms and the renovations have recognised this and preserved all that was good while improving standards and ensuring the buildings will prove of value well into the future.

They were nominated by Kenny Freeman and his daughter Elaine, who have both been involved in work on the bothies, Kenny being the project manager for all three renovations as well as many other bothy projects in the Cairngorms. Kenny was accompanied at the awards ceremony in Boat of Garten on 14th November by Bert Barnett, who has drawn up plans for just about every Cairngorm project over the last decade and played a role as invaluable as the volunteers with more obvious contributions such as sawing wood and banging in nails.

A win would have been nice but, given the professional nature of the competition, the commendation is a much appreciated – and well earned – recognition by the Cairngorms National Park of the valuable contribution made by the volunteers who built, renovate and maintain an excellent suite of bothies for the use of all who walk and climb in the Cairngorms.

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A sense of wonder

Ben McDui in winter, Cairngorms

Sun cloud and snow on Ben Mc Dui

There were so many reasons not to be out there this day. On the ground the first big dump of snow of the winter had come, but the inevitable thaw had started already and on the way up Glen Derry I had been wading up a fast flowing path for half a mile at a time – not to mention a tenuous crossing of the Glas Allt Mhor. In the sky the forecast was equivocal: probably some showers, cloud at that height that could be just above or just below the tops. A few of my mates were elsewhere for a work party too, with good times guaranteed.

And there I was laboriously post-holing through thawing snow to reach the Hutchison Hut in Coire Etchachan, with the tops still in cloud, not at all sure I’d be going any further at all, let along the original target of Ben McDui.

I’d a notion to get up something though and, after refuelling at the Hutchie I set off to at least go up as far as Loch Etchachan, and possibly do Derry Cairngorm as a consolation.

On the way up the snow did improve underfoot, but near the top of the slope a look across to the south-facing slopes of Beinn Mheadhoinn showed evidence of what must be one of the first avalanches of the season: a 20 metre wide full-depth slab avalanche with the debris spread out about 100 metres downhill.

Avalanche scar on Beinn Mheadhoinn, Cairngorms

Avalanche scar and debris on Beinn Mheadhoinn

Past Loch Etchachan I was still thinking of opting for Derry Cairngorm instead of McDui until I stopped to watch an eagle rising out of Coire Sputain Dearg and cruising across to Beinn Mheadhoinn and beyond. After watching that I paused to survey the scene, realising the sense of utter remoteness, looking round from the black waters of Loch Etchachan, over the black and white of the cliffs rising to the south of the loch and over them towards the north top of McDui almost free of cloud. I recall opining that this place, at that time was the best place in the world. And so it seemed. And it was decided that Ben Mcdui  was to be my journey: where Derry Cairngorm was all about the summit, McDui is a whole world of its own, all about the journey rather than the destination.

Loch Etchachan and Ben McDui in winter

Remoteness

With that decision came the real start of the day: a day of beauty and of marvels, of immersion in  the landscape, of feeling completely at home, utterly happy in an uncompromising environment which, that day, was so filled with a beauty that was almost painful.

Two sets of recent footprints were the only sign that anyone was in this world of snow and – increasingly – of cloud. The lowest level of cloud had dropped once more onto the summit as I neared the Sappers’ Bothy and only lifted to just above my head as I reached a deserted summit cairn. There I saw my second eagle of the day, rising out of the Lairig and gliding northward, blithely ignoring anything the wind might be doing.

There wasn’t much in the way of view to keep me at the top but as I headed back towards the top of Sron Riach for the descent there was an ever-changing light show as the wind tore holes in the lowest, amorphous later of cloud to reveal myriad layers and forms of cloud above, backed with a startlingly blue sky. The sun would occasionally break free, dazzling the eye with an intense white glare from the snow, fringing high cloud with shimmering rainbow. Other times, veiled behind thin cloud it cast a golden glow over the snow. I looked across to the col between Beinn Bhrotain and Monadh Mor and saw a tunnel under the cloud cap, through which there was an intense golden glow, with a shaft of sunshine thrusting down into Glen Guiseachan.

img_9829img_9841img_9844img_9845img_9851img_9852img_9855Light and colour was in constant flux and I would stop to take out the camera to catch a view. By the time camera was out and thick glove off the scene had changed; I’d take a shot anyway, put the camera away and then take it out again almost immediately as an even more wonderful sight emerged. For all the bitter wind I would find myself standing still for minutes at a time, feeling a stillness, lost in a sense of wonder that delivered in equal parts peace and exhilaration.

By the time I was plunging down the perfectly textured, softly golden snow on the upper slopes of Sron Riach it was almost a relief when the switch was flicked and the light went out. Not immediately, but almost. The sun had finally lowered behind thick, grey cloud to the west and all the splendour and subtlety of the colours in sky and snow disappeared over the course of a couple of minutes, leaving the familiar winter colour scheme of black, white and grey, albeit with a sky that was still blue and distant clouds in the east showing a peachy, rosy glow.

The show almost - but not quite - over. Looking back up to the cliffs above Lochain Uaine from Sron Riach.

The show almost – but not quite – over. Looking back up to the cliffs above Lochain Uaine from Sron Riach.

The snow meant the normally knee-jarring descent was almost pleasant, and I was down into the glen before you could really call it dark… when I got my final treat: an almost full moon breaking free from the cloud, lighting the track back to Scottie’s and home. I only needed the head torch for crossing the bogs on the Derry Flats. A day – and a night – with a real sense of wonder. It’s why we do it.

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Derry bridge here to stay – and a new bridge for the Quoich

New Derry Burn footbridge near Derry Lodge, Cairngorms

Erected as a stopgap, the Derry Burn footbridge will now be a permanent feature

Last year’s ‘temporary’ bridge over the Derry Burn, near Derry Lodge, has now become permanent. And a new footpath is to be developed going around – rather than across – the Derry Flats.

ScotWays, the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society, donated the footbridge to Mar Lodge Estate last April, as a temporary replacement for the bridge destroyed by floods the previous August.

The original plan was for this bridge to stay in place until a permanent replacement had been built but after the New Year floods at the end of 2015 left the bridge still in place, and after other options had been considered, ScotWays and Mar Lodge Estate have agreed to make this the permanent bridge.

ScotWays is keen that the banking is reinforced and the abutments strengthened – although the bridge was untouched by the last floods, the western bank was further eroded – and has also said it will fund construction of a new footbridge across the upper Quoich, which is expected to be in place by the end of November.

Both bridges will feature memorial plaques to Donald Bennet, a prominent member of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, founding member of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland and, at various times, Director, Chairman and Honorary President of ScotWays. He will be best known to most, though, as author of numerous books, including the SMC’s definitive Munro and Corbett guides. He died in 2013, aged 84.

Any funds left over after the two bridges are built will be used to divert the path that currently traverses the boggy Derry Flats, taking it down the west bank of the Derry Burn and then up the north bank of the Luibeg to join the existing path where it becomes a ‘made’ track at the corner of the plantation. This has been a long-held ambition for the estate, not only giving walkers a drier journey, but also taking them further away from the Black Grouse lecking ground on the Flats.

(Incidentally, if you’re curious about the strange triangular metal spans of the Derry Bridge, they started life as a radio mast. A great example of recycling.)

 

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‘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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