The Secret Howff

‘One advantage of the howff is its size. Though too low to stand up in, it is easy to heat in the coldest weather, by the expedient of keeping a couple of primuses burning. Bliss it was to warm up in the hiss of the primuses after a day on the hill, and sit in the light of the flickering candles deciphering the runic inscriptions on the walls. 

Dave Brown & Ian R. Mitchell 

‘Heaven is a warm, dry bothy.’ 

Ruigh Aitechain Bothy, Book 5 (30/8/82)

the “secret” howff 



and tin

smuggled in
under cover
of a storm –

to hover over
the open

of the glen
to the rowan

but for
the worn line

of three

‘…sadness and nostalgia remains for the days when bothies were hunted out from dots on the map, and passed on by word of mouth.’ 

Dave Brown & Ian R. Mitchell

The word howff is Scots; it defines improvised shelters made by outdoorsy types, but the meaning has stretched from ramshackle haunts to local hostelries, which offer a share of warmth, conviviality, and tall tales brought down from the hilltops.

The “secret” howff was built in 1952–53, in upper Glen an t-Slugain, by a band of hardcore climbers – Jim Robertson, Charlie Smith, Doug Mollison and Ashie Brebner – an alpine avant-garde of the self-styles proletarian sub-culture of renegade climbers that emerged post-WW2, some shucking off the shock of war, others part of the bohemian hill cult. They reeked of ‘smoke, ashes, cold walls, cold floor, dampness and last week’s milk.’ 

Brown and Mitchell’s Mountain Days & Bothy Nights is the classic study of this movement. Now in its Twenty-first edition, it records how the ‘habit o’ dossing in the buildings that were abandoned started naturally, without any organization … And then the Mountain Bothies folk came in and started organizing everything.


To make the howff the builders carried beams, planks, cement, and corrugated iron up the Slugain, sneaking them past Invercauld House during a storm. The spot they chose is perfect, hidden in a glen, off another glen, in the gullet, throat, or maw that gives its name. Neil Reid gives the howff’s history on his Cairngorm Wanderer blog:
The 1950s was a time when Beinn a Bhuird was the place for the Aberdeen climbing elite … Few climbers had cars though, and most relied on the Alexanders bus to Braemar. You either got off at Invercauld and took the long walk-in through Glen Slugain or, if the Dee wasn’t too high and you were particularly hardy, you took a short cut by wading the river below Braemar … So the Secret Howff, or one of its companion dosses, was probably a good staging post on the long trek to the cliffs of Coire na Ciche or Coire an Dubh Lochan, or the even more remote Garbh Choire.’

To the dismay of some diehards the paths that lead to the shelter are well worn. Although the secret’s a little less secret these days the estate is happy for the howff to remain. A few years ago a second howff was built further up the glen with the Estate’s blind-eye, but hard-line conservationists reported it to the planning department and they were forced to remove it.

Summertown, Winterhowff: this collage of stone, iron and planks is a tribal dwelling; a resonant living memorial to the post-war baked bean idyll of working class and beardy student climbers who laid claim to the high-tops. They’re anarchic bearing and gritty determination toppled the lairdly opponents of the National Park – those who feared the growth of ‘funicular railways and huts where you could buy lemonade’, the littering of orange peel where once there were deer, regretted the Youth Hostels for the increase in hikers through the Lairig Ghru, and warned of the invasion of a ‘suburban element’. There have been failures to, as Irvine Butterfield recalls in ‘Lost Bothies of The Cairngorms, due to vandalism, accidents, arguments over their validity from the point of view of safety, and avoidable clashes with stalking:

Some bothies continue to survive thanks to the tireless work of the Mountain Bothies Association and like minded individuals but one senses that much that might have added to the outdoor experience has been lost. It has often been put to me by many of my contemporaries that “We saw the best of it”. Sadly the same might well be said for some of the bothies of the Cairngorms. Lost but still not yet wholly forgotten, but for how long?

The planned re-opening of Derry Lodge as a 20-bed hostel will be an experiment many will wish success. Nearby the Bob Scott Bothy will continue, a reminder of the tangled inter-relationship of stalking and hill-walking in the mountains. 

On one occasion a mountaineer was preparing for the day ahead, when [Bob] Scott entered the bothy. ‘Div ye want tee see me feeding my kye?’, he asked. He was a man to humour, and the mountaineer agreed, musing at this increase in Scott’s agricultural functions. Chickens were to be seen running about the cottage, but cattle? Outside Scott held a bucket of cattle cake aloft, and grinning, banged it with his spade. Out of the Derry woods came dozen after dozen of red deer, and crossed the river towards Scott. Their coats were worn and their bodies lean with hunger after the hard winter. He fed them virtually by hand, and they would go near no other person, though he would be the main agent of their later death. He brought the interview to an end with: It’s yokin’ time. Ye’d better awe up yer hill.’ 

Dave Brown & Ian R. Mitchell

The Secret Howff’s name is, paradoxically, an opening, marking and making a change in culture, just as much as council houses and hydro dams. Like all the best huts it is rich in patina. It has the familar genius of providing a little more room on the inside than the exterior walls and doorway suggest is possible.

No dwelling could be more fitted for the modern Fianscape, with its tales of mountain derring-do, new routes, belays, and rimey ice.


Dave Brown & Ian R. Mitchell: Mountain Days & Bothy Nights
Irvine Butterfield: ‘Lost Bothies of The Cairngorms’, on
Alen McFadzean:
Charles Plumb: Walking in the Grampians
Neil Reid: ‘Return to the secret howff’,
Dictionary of the Scots Language
Adam Watson: The Place Names of Upper Deeside

The Secret Howff, Glen an t-Slugain: Hannah Devereux, 2016
Sign, Glen an t-Slugain: Hannah Devereux, 2016
Bob Scott Memorial Hut: Hannah Devereux, 2015
‘secret tunes / on the secret whistle / in the secret howff’: poem AF, photograph, Hannah Devereux, 2016

with thanks to Colin, who showed me the secret

Gathering was commissioned by Hauser & Wirth, for the Fife Arms Hotel, Braemar; the project was launched in 2015 and will conclude in 2018.

The artist residency at University of Aberdeen is funded by The Leverhulme Trust; the project was launched in July 2016 and will conclude May 2017.