Thursday, 19 November 2015

The Secret Howff in the Cairngorms

Seek and ye shall find!

As a keen hillwalker and camper amongst the Highlands of Scotland I have from time to time come across various shelters in wild places. Some of these are 'official' - disused crofts and shepherds’ huts and the like and some are ‘unofficial’ - rough shelters in remote places. One of these latter type, in the Cairngorm mountains, came to my attention from various sources and I was intrigued by its history and mystique.

It is known by various names - the secret howff being the most popular and it is by all accounts the Ritz of howffs and has accumulated a legendary status of its own. So my wingman and I determined to find it and take a closer look at part of the history of Scottish hillwalking.

This, then, is the (true but semi-humorous) story of our search for the Secret Howff of Beinn a' Bhuird

So what’s a howff?

Bothies and howffs

Stob Ban bothy
Can you identify this bothy?
If not simply roll your cursor over it.
'’Howff' is a Scottish word for a rough (often very rough!), semi-permanent, improvised shelter in the hills. There are quite a few what might be called 'official' shelters in the Scottish hills. They are usually old deer watchers' cottages or old crofts or farm buildings and the like. They are called bothies and many of them are looked after by an organisation called The Mountain Bothies Association UK which also looks after bothies in England and Wales. They offer basic, weatherproof shelter in remote places and are free to use. The MBA has a website which gives information on bothies and their location.

There is another type of shelter available to some who take to the hills; a howff - a 'home-made' bothy - a shelter constructed around or adapted from some natural feature of the land by an individual or small group of outdoor enthusiasts for their own use. These howffs are usually off the beaten trail sufficiently to make them, in effect, both private and secret.

No-one knows how many there are. No doubt the best of them are truly secret known only to those responsible for their construction, but some have become so well-known they are marked on maps. The most famous one is probably the ‘Shelter Stone’ near the western end of Loch Avon in the Cairngorms. It is a cavity beneath a huge boulder and has been in regular use for many years - thousands of people have probably spent at least one night there.

The ‘Secret Howff of Beinn a' Bhuird is equally well-known, or rather the fact of its existence is! This is where the secret part comes in. It isn't marked on any map and it's precise location has always been a word-of-mouth thing. A walker or climber would make the acquaintance of an older, more experienced person who knew its location and, after a while, he(she) would be trusted sufficiently to be taken for a nights' stay and its location revealed.

But there is another way to find a howff. If you suspect the existence of a howff in a particular area then you can go and look for it yourself, and many people have done just that. This method is fair game. The unwritten rules about howffs go something like this:

1. If you are introduced to a howff by a friend in the know then you may use it;

2. If you stumble across it or find it by your own efforts then you may use it;

3. Once you know the location of a howff you must not publish that information in any form whatsoever.

So far these rules have been adhered to for the secret howff of Beinn a' Bhuird.

History of the secret howff

Who? What? Where? Why? When?

a rough forest track

It was built in the early 1950s by members of a now-defunct Aberdeen climbing club who were a little miffed by the fact that there were no bothies or other suitable shelters for an overnight stay in the hills in that region of the southern Cairngorms between Braemar and the Beinn a' Bhuird/Ben Avon area.

No permanent shelter meant they had to carry tents with them. This was both inconvenient (tents back then were heavy) and expensive (decent tents weren't cheap either). It was also tiring and time consuming. Something had to be done. So after what must have been much searching they found a suitable location in an area known as 'The Fairy Glen'.

Construction took place over the winter months and must have been hard, back-breaking nerve-wracking work for all the materials had to be carried in and sneaked past the gamekeepers at Invercauld House in the dead of night for access to the hills then wasn't enshrined in law as it is now with the access to the countryside legislation we have today.

the fairy glen

The preparation

How to find a secret howff

Now for the search part. I do not know anyone who knows its location so this means I must find it by my own efforts. There are quite a few websites and blogs on hillwalking which at least mention the existence of the secret howff (see rule 3) and some give a rough indication of its location. This is not as useful as it may seem because searching even a relatively small area of rough hillside takes a lot of time and effort.

There are even photos of the howff but none that give any real clue as to its precise location (one misty hillside looks pretty much like another). So what I did was to spend a fair amount of time online visiting as many websites and blogs as I could find.

Information was sketchy at best and peppered with references such as 'I know where it is but I ain't saying' (rule 3 again!) but after much research, including the discovery of a very useful book, several hours spent hunched over the appropriate map and the piecing together of many hints and clues (sometimes just a few words in the middle of someone's blog) I believed I had got its location down to about 1 square kilometre.

a jumble of huge boulders

One blog really helped me by revealing the real name of the secret howff. The people who built it didn't call it the secret howff; that name came later for some unknown reason (possibly the oft-repeated phrase 'Am no tellin' ye, it's a secret'!). The original builders called it 'the Slugain howff'. And that is a major clue as to its true location.

The mighty hunters

First go at finding the secret howff

searching a hillside for the secret howff

My wingman (expert navigator) and I took our first trip to the hills to find the secret howff. Up the path we went, along the glen and up the hillside. The weather wasn't great, misty and a bit wet with drizzly rain. The word usually used to describe such conditions is 'dreich' - anyone who has spent any amount of time among the Scottish hills will know what I mean.So, there we were, upping and downing any likely-looking patch of hillside, peering into nooks and crannies and generally frightening the living daylights out of the local wildlife (rabbits, deer, birds of prey, other hillwalkers). After a three-hour search my wingman (with a slightly manic look in his eye) began to question the existence of any howff in this 'wet hell' (his words).

I had to resort to bribery (a chocolate bar) and the gentle reminder that we had not brought a tent with us and therefore had to find the howff or be faced with (a) an unplanned night on the hill or (b) a long walk in the dark back to our car. The search continued. We were looking for a 'marker' which indicates the location of the howff. I had come across mention of this 'marker' in the research phase of our search.

It is, apparently, quite distinctive - but only from a certain angle. We would have to be in the right place before we saw it. I cannot reveal what this marker is because that would make it too easy for anyone else to find the howff. But if you do the research as I did you will find it. We came across places which looked very promising but none of them revealed the secret howff. It began to look as though we were barking up the wrong tree. A rethink was called for - time for Plan B.

a man sitting on a grassy hillside

Plan B

Simplicity itself and should in fact have been Plan A. We lounge innocently in an unobtrusive spot until some likely-looking candidates come along and we follow them to the secret howff! Brilliant!

Slight problem - it was now late afternoon and we hadn't seen anyone for quite a while. It looked as though all those heading for the hills had passed through the glen and at this hour it was unlikely that anyone else would come up the path, unless of course they weren't heading for a hill but for the secret howff. We decided to hang about for a bit and see who came along.

All we had to do was find somewhere to lay up where we could watch the path. We found a handy cavity in a rocky area and settled in with a cup of coffee and a Jaffa cake. All went well for an hour or so but then - down came the mist! That was pretty much it. With very poor visibility and darkness approaching we were running out of time and had little choice but to retreat down the glen back to our car.

So, plan A and plan B had both failed. Were we committed enough to go for plan C?

YES! There was no way we were going to give up at the first hurdle. We would be back for another try in the not too distant future. Meanwhile, Wingman and I took a short break and went and climbed some other hills.

Some time later . . .

The mighty hunters - again!

Second go at finding the secret howff

Right - this time we were prepared. After our first abortive attempt at finding the secret howff we decided to get serious. This was obviously going to be a lot harder than we had first anticipated.

Both wingman and I have friends in low places and one of them owns an ex-mountain rescue dog. One long and grovelling phone call later we were promised the use of the crafty canines' nasal passages in an attempt to track down the howff. Unfortunately this meant we had to take the rest of the animal as well - and the reason it was an ex-mountain rescue dog was because it was not the most responsive of creatures when it came to obeying commands!

There was one further snag. The owner couldn't come so we would be on our own with it. Dark clouds of foreboding began to gather in our thoughts. Perhaps we should cover all bases and call in some extra help. Several ideas were discussed:

Aerial surveillance

a light aircraft taking off
Call in reinforcements
cars in a car park

After some discussion we decided that neither of these options were suitable. It looked as though we would have to rely on Canis familiaris aka 'man's best friend'. We decided to go anyway. We collected K9 from his owner and headed out to the hills. As far as searching the hillside was concerned the dog was worse than useless.

Long before we reached the fairy glen he had taken several detours after (1 a rabbit; (2 a deer; (3 another rabbit; (4 a group of startled hillwalkers and (5 Wingsman's ankles - twice.

Since the day was a hot and sunny one all three of us were soon looking the worse for wear. It was beginning to look as though this trip was also going to end in failure. We had one last valiant try. We spent about an hour chasing the dog up a couple of gullies and down a couple more before we gave up. Wingman and I had a quick discussion and decided to call it a day. We captured the dog and headed back down the glen to our car.

So we were defeated again - but NO we will not give up. We weren't finished yet!

Some more time later . . .


We found it!

Third time lucky! Up till now we were fairly certain we had the right area but there were quite a few possibilities within that area where the howff could be located. We had already checked some of them but it could take several more trips before we had covered all possibilities.

a man deep in thought
So we sat down and had a good think. Where would we put a howff if we were building one? Howff's, like bothies, are intended for at least one overnight stay (maybe more) so it would need to be near a water supply (a small stream or burn). All proper bothies are. It would also need to be fairly easily reached, even if it is hidden. Only the builders are supposed to know about it - no-one would suspect a hidden location without any clues so it wouldn't be in a really awkward place.

One other thing occurred to us. How do you find a proper bothy? Surely you would find a secret howff the same way, especially one which was as well used as this one is reputed to be? We came up with that answer immediately. You will forgive me if I don't elaborate but if I do that would make it too easy for others to find it and I have sworn not to publicise its location but if you sit down and think about it you will get it too.

Armed with our new-found wisdom we arranged another trip. As it turned out we were wrong about the water supply but right about the other two. We missed the howff the first time through the glen so we doubled back, found what we were looking for, turned to follow it south, crossed over a rocky gully, climbed up over a steep embankment - and almost fell through the roof! We had found it!

As you can see from the photo it isn't very big. A floor area of perhaps 8 ft x 10 ft and a roof height of about 5 ft. It could sleep maybe six people at a squeeze but they would all have to be good friends!

the inside of the secret howff

Inside is quite amazing. It has seats, it has shelving on the walls, it has a wooden floor (some bothies don't have this), it has a skylight in the roof! It feels bigger than it is and the skylight makes it quite light and airy (some bothies are dismally dark). All in all the secret howff is certainly on a par with any bothy I have been in and is better than some I could name.

a man standing on top of the secret howff

Standing back and looking with a critical eye it is obvious how much work has gone into this stone-built howff. It certainly deserves its reputation as a high-class hill residence. It is also located in a magnificently scenic area and is within easy striking distance of the big Munros of the southern Cairngorm mountains - which, of course, is why it was built.

the dedication plaque inside the howff
Now that I know where it is I may use it occasionally although it is outside my ''home range''.

Much respect is due to the builders of this unique shelter whose names appear on the plaque inside the bothy.

And for you old-timers out there don't worry, I will keep quiet about its exact location. ''Am no tellin' ye - it's a secret!''

PS: If you ever go there mind your head on that middle rafter!

All photos by the author.
Sources: Wikipedia; Mountaineering Council Journal; personal experience.


  1. I am a fan of architecture. The howff would be something I would love to discover.

    1. Although I had read much about it and seen several photographs I was surprised at how well-built and substantial it is.

  2. You tell a wonderful story! I am short but I think that is still a little short for me :) Its awesome.

    1. It is definitely not for any six-footers! Did you notice that the chairs have had several inches chopped off their legs?

  3. Wow, I love learning about Scotland. I think finding a howff would be fun. That small looks like it was made for or by short people.

    1. I think that the effort which must have gone into building it would have decreed it be small.

  4. "How do you find a proper bothy? Surely you would find a secret howff the same way, especially one which was as well used as this one is reputed to be?" I think I know the answer and used that method yesterday to try and find it, but no luck unfortunately. I'm not giving up though. I'll be heading back out there asap. I'm sure I was in the right area. :-)

    1. Keep trying and you will find it. It's location isn't obvious but it isn't fiendishly difficult to find either and once you know where it is you can actually see it from a long way away! I would be interested in knowing how you get on.

  5. Secret howf ! remind me not to tell you anything .

    1. I haven't actually revealed the location of the howff and the 'secret' has been out in the open for some time now. I started off with absolutely no knowledge of where it might be but by following the trail of online breadcrumbs I found it without much trouble.