Spending the night in a howff – a cave or other natural refuge – has been a magical experience for many walkers down the years. Patrick Baker followed in their footsteps
We stumbled clumsily in the dark, brushing our way through a tangle of sharp branches, our feet sinking ankle-deep in boggy ground. I’d lost track of how long we’d been out, but it was late. With no tent and the temperature dropping, we badly needed to find what we were looking for: a series of remote caves reputed to be somewhere on the forested western slopes of Glen Loin, in the heart of the Arrochar Alps. For it was here, if several fabled accounts were to be believed, where we would locate one of Scotland’s legendary, but elusive howffs.
Howff. It’s a word of uncertain origin and multiple meaning. Archaically it has been used to describe a meeting place, a pub or a drinking den; often somewhere of regular frequentation, but insalubrious character. More contemporary use, though, has seen the word adopted into Scottish outdoor parlance and describes any rough or improvised shelter, typically used as an overnight resting place by mountaineers. It is both a noun and a verb, and is conveniently reflexive in its application: to howff (the verb) immediately renders the shelter you stay in, no matter how small or insubstantial, a howff (the noun). Likewise, by passing the night in a howff you are, by definition, howffing. This modern interpretation of the word is relatively recent – its meaning and practice first popularised during the most tumultuous period of change in Scotland’s outdoor history.
Up until the early 1930s, the recreational use of Scotland’s wild spaces was the preserve of an affluent few. There were the sporting parties – those individuals rich enough to hunt or fish on estates – but also a small, but growing, band of outdoor enthusiasts, “gentlemen climbers”, who were just that – predominantly middle-class, city-dwelling professionals. For the vast majority of people at that time, to consider exploring the country’s landscape as a leisure activity would have seemed a faintly ludicrous, if not impossible, proposition. Working hours were long and transport to and from the hills was costly as well as limited. “Fresh air,” as the Glasgow writer and climber Alastair Borthwick pointedly observed, “was still the property of moneyed men, a luxury open to the few.”
All that, however, would change in the space of less than a decade. The Great Depression sparked by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 led to large-scale youth unemployment. A coincidence of enforced leisure time and a desire to escape the drudgery of city life was, for the first time, to prompt temporary exoduses of young, working-class people to the mountains. These weekend migrations, in particular from Glasgow, became something of a mass movement. The weekenders, as they referred to themselves, were poorly equipped, but enthusiastic – prepared to hitch-hike or walk long distances to reach their climbing destinations. Once there, the problem of accommodation was often resolved with similar hardiness. Howffs were found or created in various locations: barns, outbuildings and even under bridges. Natural features were also exploited, under overhangs, boulders and in caves.
Several of the best howffs became well known and well used. Some, such as the Glen Loin caves, were even big enough to accommodate significant numbers of people, thus making them a regular venue for drinking and socialising around a fire. “Clydebank and the cave were far apart that night,” wrote Borthwick about one of his stays in the Glen Loin caves. “The rock walls curved, smoke-blackened, to a ceiling out of sight in the darkness overhead. The only light came from the fire, and two candles capping a boulder on the floor… As the shouting grew, others arrived. We had eighteen in residence in the end.”
Nights were often raucous, but good natured, with the caves becoming an integral part of the outdoor experience. “There was always plenty of people with whom to share a fire, sing songs and swap tales of derring do,” wrote Dave Brown and Ian Mitchell, in their book Mountain Days and Bothy Nights. “The breed of men who spent their time there was not the kind who were only interested in climbing… they considered themselves not mere climbers, but ‘weekenders’ – men who enjoyed getting out into the country and living rough. They took pride in their ability to make themselves comfortable in adverse conditions, and they enjoyed the company of like minds with whom they could have a bit of crack.’’
The Glen Loin caves were not unique. Other overnight haunts were discovered or fashioned, especially in popular climbing areas such as Glencoe or the Cairngorms. In the days before lightweight and affordable tents, these shelters were invaluable. But their whereabouts were often shrewdly protected, passed on only by word of mouth, or revealed by a knowledgeable companion.
The location of one such wild lodging, situated on the long eastern walk into to Beinn á Bhuird in the Cairngorms, was such a well-guarded secret that it became known simply as the ‘Secret Howff’. The shelter still exists today, a fantastically elaborate makeshift construction, and according to the legendary climber Tom Patey was once “the eighth wonder of the Cairngorms, with a stove, floorboards, genuine glass window and seating space for six…It stood in a small village of howffs, three in number and together capable of accommodating an entire climbing meet.” The howffs were built in the early 1950s by members of the Kincorth Climbing Club, and were a considerable triumph of guile and effort. “Materials were brought from Aberdeen to the assembly line by the Herculean labours of countless torchlit safaris which trod stealthily past the Laird’s very door, shouldering mighty beams of timber, sections of stove piping and sheets of corrugated iron.”
We eventually found a path, our head-torches picking out a narrow, but deeply cut track heading uphill, further into the forest. After clambering on all fours over wet slabs and weaving our way through pine trees, we arrived at the first of the gigantic boulders that marked the start of the caves. We immediately found an entrance, too small to fit through with a rucksack and whose interior lacked space or comfort. Several other searches revealed similar caves, but none matched the reports I had read. I remembered Borthwick’s vague description, of his cavern being marked by “two small holes which appear to lead directly into the bowels of the earth”, and I wondered if, in the darkness, we would ever find the right one. Then as our path ended abruptly in front of a large rock wall, we saw something. It was a dark triangle recessed in the boulders, a story-book cave large enough to walk straight into.
Once inside, the inner space expanded in our torch light. The ceiling rose in a vaulted arch at least ten-feet high, and curved to a large exit at the back of the cave. The ground was mostly dry and firm, and although it was littered with boulders, there was easily sleeping space for four. In the centre there was a fire pit built in among rocks, but otherwise there were no signs of recent use. We had the place to ourselves and set about making camp, laying out sleeping bags and toasting our find with hip flasks.
There are few other places that can offer such ancient accommodation as the Glen Loin caves. Certainly no hotel I had ever visited could claim a guest book of such antiquity. People had no doubt been finding shelter – howffing – here for millennia. Long before the caves were rediscovered by mountaineers, they were likely to have been in use for centuries. Legend even has it that Robert the Bruce retreated here in 1306 after his defeat at the battle Methven. Likewise, sleeping at Scotland’s most famous howff – the cave under the Shelter Stone, in Loch Avon in the Cairngorms – is also a similarly historical experience. It was described as far back as 1794 in the Statistical Account as a place of sanctuary for “freebooters”, with enough space to shelter 18 armed men. Artists, writers, cattle thieves and even Ramsay MacDonald, the British Prime Minister, have spent the night tucked under the enormous boulder. Scotland’s oldest climbing club was formed here as well in 1887, and a host of climbing luminaries have used it since.
Perhaps though, the appeal of howffing can be more simply defined. Travelling without a tent, seeking shelter within the landscape is a fundamentally liberating experience. In an article written for the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal in 1948, Jock Nimlin, a renowned Glasgow climber and one of the original weekenders, extolled the virtues of constructing rudimentary accommodation from the geology of the mountains. “They can be built on any hill where rock debris is plentiful,” Nimlin explained. “Once built they are practically indestructible and the material for repairs is always at hand.”
Nimlin also proposed that the use of howffs befitted a purest approach to time spent mountaineering, enabling “conformity with the primal nature of the mountain scene”. By howffing, he concluded, “the climber accepts the austerity of mountain life… No other approach gives the climber such close communion with the hills.”
It was true; sleeping outside, without the confines of a tent, provided a profound connection with the natural environment. I woke shortly after dawn, with daylight filtering in from the cave’s entrance. The night had been cold, but we had been kept dry and sheltered. For a while I lay in the cave, not wanting to get up, listening instead to the sounds from outside – the chatter of bird calls, a burn somewhere nearby, and the wind soughing through the trees.
This article first appeared in Scotland Outdoors magazine.