Last year saw the centenary of Corrour Bothy – perhaps the most famous bothy in the world and the oldest still in use. Today’s blog comes from author and passionate Scottish hillwalker, Ralph Storer, who tracked down and united the surviving bothy visitor books as he researched his own book on the bothy to celebrate its anniversary and provide a fascinating glimpse into the past …
Sited at the foot of the arrowhead peak of The Devil’s Point, Corrour bothy occupies a prime position at the heart of some of the wildest country in the Scottish Highlands. Even reaching it requires a long walk into the middle of the Lairig Ghru – the great pass that runs for 20 miles between Speyside (Aviemore) and Deeside (Braemar), bisecting 5 of the 6 highest mountains in the UK.
I first visited Corrour in1965 as a wide-eyed bejant (first-year student) at what is now Dundee University. At that time the university’s Rucksack Club was involved in a survey of the semi-permanent snowbeds in Garbh Coire Mor off the Lairig Ghru and I volunteered to help retrieve survey equipment before winter storms set in.
It was my first visit to the Cairngorms, but in truth I remember little of the trip except the wildness of the landscape. The sky was low, the mountains were decapitated, the light was dull and I was happy just to be involved, listening intently to the conversation of the older hands and storing away for future use every titbit of mountain-related information I could glean.
The bothy seemed to me a stark, uninviting, ramshackle, stone building. I would never have dreamt of spending a night there. Yet, in the decades since, I have spent many days and nights in the Cairngorms and have become as fond of the old place as any lover of the backcountry.
As far as we know, the bothy was built in 1877, during the heyday of the great sporting estates. Its purpose was to house a deer watcher, who would keep an eye on deer movements for the benefit of paying guests during the stalking season. It was abandoned in 1920 and was soon being used by travellers as a refuge in the wilderness.
A frequent visitor in the early years was the renowned naturalist Seton Gordon. There’s a famous photo of him sitting on the doorstep in his kilt tuning his bagpipes. He even attributed his Oxford degree in Natural Science to his stays at the bothy as they enabled him to write a remarkably authoritative answer to one of the exam questions: “Write as fully as possible what you know about the alpine flora of Britain.”
In 1928 the first visitors’ book was placed in the bothy by members of the Rucksack Club, which maintained the books until the newly-formed Mountain Bothies Association took over the task in the late 1960s. Many of the books have gone astray over the years, but 32 remain to give an intriguing insight into a century of walking and climbing in the Cairngorms. The Rucksack Club considered publishing extracts from the books in 1952 but never got around to it.
I first came across the books in a dusty university back room when I became editor of the club journal. Little did I know then that over fifty years later I would return to this treasure trove, now held in the university archives, and with the help of the MBA, NatureScot and many others compile a selection of the most interesting entries into a celebratory book, finally realising the club’s ambition.
In the early days of the 1920s and 1930s, the bothy was the hangout of hardy outdoorsmen who found here free accommodation and a profusion of unclimbed rock and ice routes that modern-day climbers can only envy. They found their way to the Cairngorms by whatever means they could, including hitch-hiking. They had to ford the River Dee opposite the bothy as there was no bridge. They had no Goretex and often no sleeping bags. Instead they slept on beds of heather in blankets or multiple layers of clothing. One visitor provided the following sound advice.
The “brown heath” makes a wonderful bed – but be careful to smooth out the “craggy wood” bits before settling down for the night.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the most popular topic for discussion was the state of the bothy itself, which soon deteriorated as visitors burnt furnishings and flooring to feed the fire. Such a practice is now rightly deplored. Another popular topic was the weather.
First it rained and then it blew, Then it friz and then it snew, Once more it rained and then it blew, And then it friz and snew again.
New Year’s Day, 1939, was particularly cold.
At the moment there are five of us, but the weakest will probably succumb before morning and the bodies will make fine seats and provide food for the survivors.
As can be seen from these and the following entries, a sense of humour has always been a useful attribute at Corrour.
Oh for a minister to save my sole, It’s parting company with my boot.
Ken is producing weird noises from a much battered mouth organ and prides himself that he is making music. I hate to disillusion him but am afraid I must, with an edge-nailed boot.
Time on our hands led to experiments in cooking. Hit on the following recipe: Half tin corned beef; Half tin baked beans (small). Mash up well together. Add quarter cup water with third cup Oxo. Add oatmeal until fairly stiff and fry the whole damned issue in plenty of fat. Then dig a hole at a safe distance from the bothy and bury the lot.
Other visitor records verge on the enigmatic.
I am leaving in the bothy trousers as my own are still wet. Fair exchange is no robbery.
The “bothy trousers”?! And what is one to make of the following entry, signed “Winston Churchill” in 1935?
If Mrs Hendry goes up Mount Everest she will be shocked to see 2 empty tins which I carelessly left there.
Whatever state they found the bothy in, most visitors were more than happy just to be there.
The greatest scenery I have ever seen. Good luck to anyone who stops at this spot in paradise.
Let them drive in all their finery to their cities by the sea. Let them laugh at my greying unshaved visage. Let them stare with scorn as I eat my food and tear my bread with greasy hands. Let them turn in disdain as I hurl such curses at my primus stove. Let them build their promenades, their amusement palaces and their Towers of Babel. They vainly seek what I have found. For I have this day walked with the gods themselves.
Not that everyone rhapsodised about the place…
Back again. Good Heavens. Swore I would never come here again. Wet clothes. Sore feet. What a life!
Our feet are wet, we haven’t any sandwiches and we want to go home.
And it wasn’t just the weather that provided cause for complaint.
In the true tradition of the nature reserve, we gave protection to approximately 50% of Scotland’s midges last night.
I must be one of the few people who don’t mind mice running over the faces but these b—–s shout in your ear to make sure you’re awake and then do a sand dance on the polythene sheet.
In the 1940s, during the Second World War, there were other problems to worry about.
A plane passed over the bothy last night – the majority of the temporary inhabitants of the bothy believe it was a “Jerry” and a hastily improvised blackout was improvised.
As the years passed and Cairngorm storms wreaked havoc, the building became so unstable that in 1950 it was renovated by members of the Cairngorm Club, which enabled it to welcome a whole new breed of post-war mountaineers. These included climbers of the calibre of Tom Patey, who revolutionised winter climbing when he made the first winter ascent of the Douglas–Gibson Gully on Lochnagar. Its final section required using an ice axe as a foothold and tunnelling through an exit cornice that projected for 25ft. In an historic Corrour Bothy visitors’ book, almost in passing, is the first ever record of that ascent on December 30, 1950.
Called in here 11.40 en route for a snow climb up the front of the Devil’s Point. Made a successful attempt on the Douglas Gully of Lochnagar under excellent snow conditions on Friday 28th – First Winter Ascent.
Someone has added: NICE WORK, TOM! BLOODY GOOD!
Other winter mountaineers had less good fortune.
(We made) an unpleasant slip on the frozen slope, the consequence of which was rather unpleasant for the one of us who wore the kilt.
The 1950s also witnessed increasing numbers of young people from schools and clubs and on the Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme (founded in 1956). Today the MBA requests that parties contain no more than six members, but on one night in 1956 no fewer than 20 bodies were crammed into the bothy.
The ford of the River Dee to reach the bothy nevertheless remained a major hazard.
The Dee is very high – stepping stones covered. One of the party fell in and drifted downstream on his back.
In 1959, following a double tragedy in which two men died, the bridge that still stands today was finally built. With this in place, and with increased car ownership and the growth of hillwalking as a leisure activity in the second half of the 20th century, the volume of visitors to Corrour continued to grow. One of them was myself.
From the many times I have visited Corrour in the more-than-fifty years since I first saw it, two memories stand out. On one frosty August night I was privileged to see the Aurora Borealis. Northwards over the Lairig Ghru, curtains of soft, rippling light reached out across the sky, silhouetting the peaks in such a way that you’d swear their outlines shimmered.
Even more deeply etched in memory is an April trip through the Lairig from Braemar to Aviemore in 1983. After hitching to Linn of Dee, my girlfriend and I walked to the bothy and camped overnight on a sheltered patch of low ground beside the Dee. On the following day we set out to cross the summit of the pass, but the weather closed in and we found ourselves floundering in deep snow in blizzard conditions. Progress became impossible – at one point I walked into a vertical wall of snow I couldn’t even see when my face hit it. Completely disoriented, we had no option but to retreat.
As darkness closed in we reached the bothy again, by now thoroughly exhausted, and tried to pitch the tent in the same spot as before. Without the heat generated by walking, our bodies lost heat fast. While my girlfriend dived inside for warmth I struggled with frozen fingers to peg down the flysheet and stack snow around the hem for further stability. To no avail. No sooner had I dived inside myself, and removed boots to massage frozen toes, than the gale ripped the whole tent apart.
We would have been in a perilous situation had Corrour Bothy not come to our rescue. It was dirty, crowded and uncomfortable that night but, like many before us, never had we less cause for complaint. We spread the tattered remains of our tent down on the earth floor in a dank corner and snuggled gratefully into sleeping bags.
The following day, having shown us its worst, the Lairig gave of its best. In magnificent snow conditions, under a brilliant, brittle sky, we completed our journey to Aviemore through a wonderland of glistening fresh snow. Such is the magic of the Cairngorms.
The designation of the Cairngorms as a national park in 2003 has made the bothy more popular than ever and in 2006 members of the MBA undertook a second reconstruction of the building. Improvements included a wooden floor, wall lining, insulation and a small sleeping platform. To eliminate the environmental hazard of accumulating human waste, an extension was added containing a composting toilet.
Corrour Bothy’s single 6m x 3.6m room is now “cosy” and often busy, which makes it even more “cosy”. Visitors today are requested to respect the bothy code (see www.mountainbothies.org.uk) and advised to take a tent in case the place is crowded. And DO make a coruscatingly brilliant entry in the visitors’ book for future generations to enjoy. One day it may be as precious as the records from the last century.
The old visitors’ books themselves are now even more faded and ravaged by time than when I first came across them in the 1960s. When you hold them delicately in your hands, it’s impossible not to be transported in imagination back to those early days of bothying. I’m at Corrour again. I experience again the howling gale, the swirling snow, the biting cold, the unforgiving floor, the warming fire, the conviviality of companions, the kindness of strangers and the irresistible pull of the wilds.
Ralph’s book Corrour Bothy: A Refuge in the Wilderness is available from all good bookshops and online.