The Garbh Choire Refuge is getting into a poor state, and most people agree that continuing the status quo is undesirable. This article, stimulated by a recent NEMT General Council discussion, sets out summary cases for renovation and also removal in an attempt to generate a debate amongst the hill- going community to help decide the future of this Refuge.

The Refuge is a small structure at NN959986 in the Garbh Choire between Cairn Toul and Braeriach in the Cairngorms, about 1.5km from the Lairig Ghru. It is a remote but well-known shelter lying between Braeriach and Cairn Toul. It was built by the Aberdeen University Lairig Club in 1966 to facilitate access to the ice climbing potential then being opened up in the area. Although it is still used by both walkers and climbers, this shelter is deteriorating and has not been weather-tight for a number of years. There are no arrangements currently in place to attend to repairs or maintenance.

It comprises a rectangular frame built from angle iron, filled in with steel reinforcing grid and covered with hessian and (originally) tarpaulin, with a substantial outer shell of boulders and turf. It is small inside, with floor space approximately 9 ft by 7 ft (partly wooden-floored) and a maximum headroom of 7ft at the apex of the roof, although most people will have to bend slightly away from the apex. There is room for 4 to 6 people to sleep inside.

The shelter is on National Trust for Scotland land, and the final decision about its future will be taken by that organisation. However, it is important that NEMT contributes to the debate. The purpose of this paper is to put forward summarised cases for its retention and its removal to enable a debate and hence come to an informed basis to decide its future.

Current condition
For a number of years, the building has been in a poor state of repair. It is no longer fully water- or snow-tight, and numerous ‘temporary’ repairs to the weatherproofing have used polythene sheeting placed under the stonework. This deteriorates quickly and gives a shabby appearance outside to match the damp and decaying appearance inside. There are three options for the future of the Garbh Choire Refuge:

  1. Status quo
  2. Renovation
  3. Removal

1. If the status quo is allowed to continue, the structure will continue to degrade. However, based on the evidence of the last 20 years or more, it is most likely that this process would take decades, and be slowed by interested hill-goers making unofficial repairs on an ad hoc basis. Such repairs would be unsupervised and of inconsistent quality, almost certainly ending up with an undesirable eyesore. This is not an option that appeals to anyone.

2. Because the construction of the refuge is very basic, renovation could be carried out by restoration to very close to its original state. The existing rubble cladding of loose granite boulders would be removed and stockpiled for re-use. The internal structure could then be rebuilt and the boulders replaced so that its current unobtrusive appearance is maintained. The costs would be quite small, and it is proposed that the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) be approached to adopt the refuge, provide money for renovation, and maintain it in the future. The MBA has a proven track record of being able to carry out this type of work to a high standard , with minimal environmental impact and to the standards of the National Trust for Scotland. The man-made materials would be brought to site and the waste removed without vehicular access.
Another renovation alternative would be to improve on the original quality of accommodation by introducing an element of insulation, possibly through a similar construction to the recently replaced Fords of Avon Refuge.

3. Removal of the refuge would involve re-scattering the boulders covering the frame, dismantling the internal frame and removing all of the man-made materials. This option would involve some cost, and it is unlikely that the MBA would contribute to this.

The Case for Renovation
There is a strong feeling amongst some local walkers and climbers that the Garbh Choire Refuge should be retained as a shelter in this remote and beautiful area, for both safety and cultural/heritage reasons.

1) The Garbh Choire refuge is undoubtedly part of the area’s climbing heritage. It did much to facilitate the development of both rock and ice climbing in the area and is described in Greg Strange’s ‘The Cairngorms: 100 Years of Mountaineering’, the definitive history of mountaineering in the Cairngorms. Climbing heritage and bothy culture (the overlap is considerable) represent a vibrant and significant part of Scottish hill culture. A considerable body of literature amply describes this, e.g. ‘Mountain Days and Bothy Nights’ by Brown & Mitchell, ‘Always a Little Further’ by Borthwick and ‘May The Fire Be Always Lit’ by Thompson.

2) This is the only refuge for a considerable distance. The nearest alternative, Corrour Bothy, is only 4-5km distant, there is no continuous path, and the ground is very rough and in places boggy. Figures for use of the refuge are not available. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, although usage is low compared to the main Cairngorm bothies, it is not insignificant, and stays there make a memorable impression on visitors (and not just for the state of the hut!).

3) Safety is an important factor. Over the years of its existence, the Garbh Choire Refuge has featured as a mitigating factor in a number of documented ‘mishaps’. However, this argument is complex, and, following the 1971 Cairngorm Tragedy, the Curran, St Valery and El Alamein shelters were removed on the basis that the very existence of huts could lead people into danger by tempting them into the area. In this case, the “leading into danger” argument is probably not applicable, as this area is remote and probably only visited by people capable of finding the refuge in all weathers. It has been argued that the refuge is “notoriously difficult to locate even in average visibility.” However, it can also be argued that the hut is situated on a slight promontory at the side of the main burn descending the choire. Anyone ascending or descending the Garbh Choire (which here has the character more of a narrow v-shaped glen) will naturally pass close by it. On balance, in this case, there is a small positive safety argument to retain it.

4) The Garbh Choire Refuge is situated within the Cairngorms Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and the Cairngorms Special Area of Conservation. However, what is proposed is not a new development but a repair to an existing building which will tidy up the refuge, remove the quantities of multicoloured polythene patches applied over the years of dilapidation and improve the visual appearance of the area. Renovation, in this respect, would be better than the “status quo” option likely to result should insufficient money be found to pay for removal. Adoption by the MBA would involve regular supervision of the site. Because of its small size and location away from major through-routes, it is not anticipated that renovation would lead to the need for any future path work to be undertaken.

5) The NTS have a policy of continuing the use of existing buildings for their original purpose and is keen to ensure that visitors find bothies ‘fit for purpose’. Renovation would fit with this policy.

The Case for Removal
1) Usage is low, and the Corrour bothy (a much larger shelter) is nearby. Whatever the role of the Refuge in enabling the opening-up of Braeriach climbs in the 1960s and 1970s, that era is now over. Climbing reports indicate that most climbers nowadays come from the north, descending to the cliff foot from the Braeriach plateau. The fact that the Refuge has remained unlooked-after and little used for many years indicates, in fact, that it is not of major interest to many people or clubs.

2) Wildness is a major issue. In the NEMT, along with organisations such as JMT, we are campaigning for the preservation of our rapidly diminishing stock of wild land. All will admit that An Garbh Choire is the prime example of wild country in the Cairngorms (some might say, in Scotland). To have a man-made shelter in its mouth clearly detracts from that status, however carefully it may be built and camouflaged. Wildness is not simply a matter of absence of visual intrusion, but derives from a personal feeling of remoteness and self-dependence. Any form of artificial assistance or protection tends to reduce that feeling.

3) It is contended that “there is no continuous path leading to” the Refuge. However, an emerging path certainly exists, and is likely to develop over time, especially if, as is inevitable, it is used for renovation, and news of that renovation becomes known.

4) The issue of conservation of buildings is possibly spurious. Such policies were designed to deal with buildings of traditional design rather than rough-built shelters of this type. To cite “conservation and enhancement of the ... cultural heritage” merely raises the issue of whose “culture”? — those who have visited the area in the last 45 years, or the many who have been this way before. We need to be careful in applying this logic to this rough-built shelter.

5) The shelter has helped in emergencies, but comparatively few. In any case, the safety argument needs to be treated carefully as buildings almost anywhere could be justified on these grounds.

Further Information
This note is based on papers produced by Neil Reid and Kenny Freeman (case for and Ken Thomson (case against).

NEMT Front Page | Previous Page | Volume Index Page | Next Page | Journal Index Page

Please let the webmaster know if there are problems with viewing these pages or with the links they contain.