Beinn a’ Bhùird and the Secret Howffs

written by K.Cronie, 10.9.20

Located 15 kilometres from the nearest road, the mighty Beinn a’ Bhùird (pronounced “been-a-board/voord” meaning “Table Mountain”) is an unrelenting mass amongst the Giants of the Cairngorms, and nestled deep in this mountain’s high corries, lies a damp doss which exceeds all expectations.

Through the 50’s and 60’s, the golden age of Scottish Mountaineering, Beinn a’ Bhùird’s  1,197 meters of coarse granite and vast rolling plateaus was a second home for Aberdeen based climbers. As the Scottish climbing scene became more extreme, the rise of the ‘weekenders’ began, with those who worked in factories all week hitching rides or catching busses on Fridays for a weekend of adventure and camaraderie, to then drag their weary bodies back into work for Monday mornings. As a result of this way of life, Bothies and Howffs all over Scotland where teeming with avid climbers trying to get as close to their adventure as possible, as cheaply as possible.

^ open moorland towards Beinn a’ Bhùird.

Early-ish one Saturday in June, not too far from Braemar, we set off on a mission to find Beinn a’ Bhùird’s fabled Howffs, and to climb a route in one of it’s corries. We started down the track from the paid carpark at Keiloch and headed past the grand Invercauld House. Through rows of pines and a surfaced road, we were quickly marching through the single-track and bushes of heather in the open glen of Gleann an t-Slugain. Soon, we stopped and had lunch at the remains of the Slugain Lodge, a 19th century shooting cabin used by the Invercauld Estate.

Once we had filled up on sandwiches and oat bars, we continued plodding and moved on out the end of the glen. From here we gained our first view of the mountain, I remember being equally impressed and intimidated by the immense size of it. It’s incredible mass made it seem alive, like a real giant, and through the mist of distance still between us and it, we could see into the corrie we were planning sleeping in that night. We followed the path north into open moorland, each step slowly bringing the mountain closer to us. Eventually, we turned left off the path as it took a sharp right hand bend towards Ben Avon (pronounced “benAhn”), and began the climb into Beinn a’ Bhùird’s corries. From here the terrain was tough, on very untrustworthy and uneven ground.

For millions of years, boulders the size of houses have been tumbling down from the mountain’s walls and into Coire nan Clach, ‘the corrie of the stones’. The terrain is now boulder on top of boulder on top of boulder, with a lovely thick layer of moss to disguise the deep holes in between these boulders. I recall not trusting what I was placing my feet on at all, especially once I ended up with one leg thigh-deep between two boulders, after I placed it on what I thought was solid ground.

^ low clouds moving into the boulder fields of Coire nan Clach.

We were greeted with the crystal clear waters of a small lochan as we climbed into Coire nan Clach. I remember thinking of how shrunken and distant the corrie looked not that long ago, and turned back to see Gleann an t-Slugain now appearing just the same.

Now it was a case of finding our damp doss for the night, the Smith-Winram Howff. A ‘Howff’ is a small shelter of sorts, generally found in more suitable, and often higher, locations than bothies for climbing. Ranging from old sheds to caves, they are usually made from whatever materials that can be pulled together in these remote places, with their existence eradicating the need for bringing heavy tents (and it is said that the less equipment you have to carry, the further you can go). The Smith-Winram Howff is a built up cave under a large boulder at the base of the Dividing Buttress, an imposing rock face at the back of Coire nan Clach, and our climbing destination for the weekend. The stone walls creating the Howff’s shelter were constructed in the late 1940s, by Kenny Winram and Malcolm Smith (who wrote the first climbing guide for the Cairngorms). These two established climbers thought this was the perfect location, at 900m, to spend the night.

This doss was a popular one for a while, with lots of new climbing routes being put up on Beinn a’ Bhùird. However, with the excitement for the climbing in this area now faded, this remote, historical and special place is seldom visited.

^ the final approach to the Howff, & the Howff entrance.

After locating the Howff, a boulder within a boulder field, we had our well deserved dinner of noodles, smoked sausage, more oat bars and a few nips of whiskey. Low cloud began to move in as we went for a wander into Coire an Dubh-Lochan, a hanging corrie above Coire nan Clach. This corrie felt magical, with it’s dark mountain water and sunless depths of packed ice, the sort of deep mountainous nook you’d have found Nan Shepherd blissfully roaming.

^ mist in Coire an Dubh-Lochan.

As the cloud began to seem settled in for the night, we gathered our things and clambered down into the Howff, a squeeze for two people (although there are stories of 4 spending the night here.) We found an old boot and some very old emergency shelter material in the cave-like space. We covered the damp ground with this material and a tarp we brought ourselves, sleeping on top of these and in our bivvy bags. Thankfully, this seemed to be enough to protect from us from the drizzle now coming in through the entrance. The drizzle that soon turned to rain, which soon led to a slowly rising puddle forming under the entrance at our feet. Feeling cosy and dry in our sleeping bags, with the comforting glow of a few candles, some hot chocolate and a few more nips of whiskey, we quickly dozed off to the sound of dripping water and the wind outside our shelter.

Thankfully on this occasion I didn’t wake with the need to pee at some point during the night. However I do recall waking to the sound of flowing water, the sound of a stream. An exceptionally disorientating sound as it was coming from deep below us, under the layers of boulders we were sleeping on top of, as if it where coming from inside the mountain itself.

^ hot chocolate time inside the Howff.

We woke on Sunday morning to clear skies after a surprisingly cosy night. A while longer in the sleeping bags, some porridge and some fruit later, we packed up and poked our heads out the entrance of the Howff. It was truly a spectacular place to wake up in, 15 kilometers from anywhere.

Despite the blue skies, the wind was now howling and with the rock still wet and slippery from the night’s downpour, we abandoned the idea of climbing the Dividing Buttress. Instead, taking in the morning and the views, we filled our bottles with mountain water and made our way out of the corrie to the munro summit. As we climbed, the views back into the corrie opened up and the mountain’s high plateau revealed itself, an almost alien landscape. Open ground so vast you forget that you’re more than 1000m above sea level (and definitely not the place to get caught in bad weather without confidence in your navigation skills.) From here we could see for miles – west into Loch Etchachan and Carn Gorm and then to the east, the plateau top of Ben Avon with its gigantic granite tors.

We followed the rim of Beinn a’ Bhùird’s corries southwards, peering down into the deep water of the Dubh-Lochan as we plodded along. With it blowing an absolute hooley, we got blasted along as we found our route of decent towards the pines of Glen Quioch, turning off just before them to wade across the swiftly flowing Quioch Water in our boots (an exceptionally refreshing experience.)

^ looking down into Coire an Dubh-Lochan.

After drying off our feet and taking a minute to sit in the sun, it was time for the home straight. However, we did have one more stop planned for our journey, the secret Slugain Howff. Back when climbers hitched or got the bus to Braemar and walked into Beinn a’ Bhùird from there, the Slugain Howff was built as an answer to expense, accommodation and weight carrying issues. This Howff is an intrinsic part of Cairngorm History, with it’s location a closely guarded secret only passed on by word of mouth (although now a deep enough internet search will lead you in the right direction.) It’s construction taking place under the cover of night to evade detection from the (at the time) not very frienldy Invercauld Estate. Heavy beams, local stone and corrugated sheets were carried in to create as sturdy and weather tight an accommodation as any Bothy.

After following the breadcrumbs of clues we had gathered on the Slugain Howff’s location, we found it with not too much hassle. We were filled with excitement as we crawled through the tiny doorway, greeted by a well-provisioned space big enough to stand up straight in, complete with shelving, seating, cubbies, wooden flooring, a sky light and even a Howff book. Taking in the sense of tradition and history around us, we cooked up our lunch of tortellini and smoked sausage and rested our now rather sore feet for a short while. We topped up our hip flask from a bottle of whisky left on a shelf, taking a nip or two and thinking of all the whisky fuelled nights spent here in the 50’s and 60’s by the climbers who made Scottish mountaineering what it is today. Reluctantly, we packed up our things and prepared ourselves for the last push of our journey back to Keiloch (thinking of how glad we were not having to make it all the way down to Braemar.)

^ the Slugain Howff.

This adventure was tough on the feet and the back, lugging in food, sleeping/eating equipment and climbing gear, including rope (which only use ended up being a pillow for the night), took its toll. But being able to go that far with so much in our bags, was made so much more possible by leaving the tent behind. Bivvying can get you so far, but sometimes that extra bit of shelter can go a long way. Coming out of a long week of work and being able to get to these incredibly remote locations, sleep directly below their climbing routes, waking at the crack of dawn to spend the entire day on the crags, and then drag themselves into work on Monday to dream of their next adventure all week, was the way of living that led the driving force of passion for the early-days of Scottish Mountaineering. Reading about weekends spent on Beinn a’Bhùird by climber’s like Malcom Smith and Kenny Winram, made our adventure seem small in comparison. But our aching bodies reminded us of the lengths some of these people went to for their climbing, and seemed to only make us hungry for more of this intrinsic part of Scottish culture and tradition.

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