Hidden away in the remote upper reaches of Gleann an t-Slugain, Slugain Howff has, since its clandestine construction in the 1950s, been shrouded in a swirling cloud of mystery, a mantle of mist as thick as the worst Cairngorm weather concealing its secluded location. In whispering tones, men of the mountains refer to it simply as the ‘secret howff’ and those who know where it lurks swear an unwritten oath not to divulge the truth.
In reality, the secret howff is now anything but secret, thanks largely to the internet and its uncanny knack of encouraging people to share their information and experiences. There are numerous online posts about the refuge, the search for it and the excitement of ultimately finding it, plus photographs and videos showing the place in all its glory.
Despite this, the exact location has yet to be publicly revealed, those who do find the bothy still furtive, faithfully adhering to the mantra of thou shall not tell, or at any rate reveal the grid reference.
The secret of Slugain Howff stems from its inception, in an era when men and women were increasingly looking to the hills and glens for their weekend recreation. Many landowners, however, were less than welcoming.
During the 1950s and 60s, four friends from Aberdeen – Ashie Brebner, Jim Robertson, Charlie Smith and Doug Mollison – were regular visitors to the Eastern Cairngorms.
Beinn a Bhuird was among their favourite stomping grounds. Walking and climbing drew them to the mountains in the summer but it was the winter ski-ing, then in its infancy in Scotland, that was to consume them.
In the post-war period, when car ownership was less common than it is now and buses and trains were the way most folk headed for the hills, long walks in were the norm and the use of unofficial bothies in the Cairngorms – usually abandoned cottages or shepherds’ huts – and the construction of howffs grew rapidly.
During the summer, the quartet camped in the Fairy Glen, close to the top of Gleann an t-Slugain, but the idea was less appealing in the winter months and, fed up hauling tents and heavy ski equipment into the hills, Brebner and his friends hit upon the idea of building a base. They found the perfect spot and, during the autumn and winter of 1952 and the spring of 1953, built Slugain Howff using local stone. Timber, cement and corrugated iron were lugged up the valley on their backs, sneaked past Invercauld House under cover of darkness.
The new bothy was well concealed. It had to be for it was built without permission of the landowner, a stealthy structure that, for this reason, became known as the secret howff.
The estate itself had, over the years, two shooting lodges in the area. The most recent was Slugain Lodge which maps suggest was built in the early years of the 1900s. It replaced Ciach Lodge, located a little further up the glen.
Ciach Lodge was built at some point during the 19th century and may have been located on the site of an older croft. The building appears on the Ordnance Survey one-inch to the mile first edition map of 1870 and on Bartholomew’s half-inch to the mile map, published in 1902.
However, by 1908 it had been replaced by Slugain Lodge which appears again on the 1947 OS map. It is understood, however, that the cottage burned down at some point during the 1940s.
As a result, Slugain Howff, which today enjoys the blessing of the estate, remains the only shelter in the upper part of the glen and despite its ‘secret’ status, its bothy book reveals a steady stream of visitors, a well-worn path leading there through the heather.
Finding it is not as difficult as one might imagine. The internet proffers many clues but spending too long sifting through online forums, walk reports, aerial images and photographs can, if anything, muddy the waters. It is not marked on any maps but the Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 Landranger sheet gives perhaps one of the best clues to the bothy’s location. On paper, it hides in plain sight.
Acquiring a grid reference either online or from another source robs those seeking the secret howff of the thrill of the chase, the chance to explore this beautiful glen, scour the slopes and ultimately bask in the satisfaction of finding it for themselves.
Perched atop a bluff of rock and opening out on to a flat grassy plateau of grass, the bothy is built of stone topped with wooden rafters and corrugated metal (renewed in 2017). A low wooden door affords access to the cosy inner chamber, equipped with a couple of seats and a wooden floor with space for three or four to roll out sleeping bags. There is no stove or fireplace.
Curiously, the howff’s creators had not set out to conceal its location from other walkers and climbers as one of its builders, Ashie Brebner, revealed in his book Beyond the Secret Howff.
‘What I hadn’t fully realised was that finding the Secret Howff had become something of a Holy Grail for some of the present generation of walkers, skiers and climbers,’ he wrote. ‘Such an emphasis on the howff being a secret was not part of the intention of its original builders.’
Brebner re-visited the howff in the 1980s during a family Christmas in Braemar then again in 2003 – the 50th anniversary of its construction – when he fitted a small brass plaque dedicated to the howff’s four founders without whom this remote refuge would never have existed.