Bothy gives walkers a haunted Highland haven: Stephen Goodwin swaps the bustle of Christmas for snow and silence on a gruelling hill walk

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The Independent Online
CORROUR STATION on the West Highland line has the look and feel of some lonely halt in Eastern Europe. A line gang gets out and tramps off along the track as the train recedes across the frozen moor. The silence is total, with no breeze to rustle the heather and coarse grass that pokes above the snow.

For John Moore, a 49-year-old geologist, and myself, the railway is the last thread of security before we head east towards Ben Alder, one of the most remote of Scotland's mountains. The station is the starting point for a classic Highland traverse, through the uninhabited heart of the Corrour and Ben Alder forests - which now have more red deer than trees - to Dalwhinnie on the other Scottish mainline, the easterly route to Inverness.

In the long daylight hours of spring and summer it ranks as a big walk - 22 miles plus, depending on whether you take in any of the high hills. The minimum climb that must be made is to 720 metres on the Bealach Dubh (the Dark Pass) between Aonach Beag (1,114m) and Ben Alder (1,148m).

But this was the shortest day of the year with lying snow and leaden clouds to the west promising more. We would have to spend a night in one of two empty stalkers' shelters - one said to be plagued by rats and the other reportedly haunted.

A mile from the station is the Loch Ossian Youth Hostel. The loch is half frozen and the hostel closed for the winter. The full seriousness of the undertaking strikes home four miles beyond the Corrour shooting lodge at the eastern end of the loch. The trees end where two wide valleys meet, the glaciated trench of Strath Ossian coming in from the north, and our route, Uisge Labhair, from the north-west.

In December 1951, four experienced climbers died here in a blizzard. The vastness of the place is humbling. No one who has been there would dispute Bill Murray's observation in Undiscovered Scotland that: 'Of all remote unget- at-able mountains in Scotland, Ben Alder ranks among the first.'

The next four hours were the most exhausting of our journey. The ice encrusted snow would bear our weight for several paces, then give way to knee depth. Sometimes it plunged both boots into a soaking mire. Burn crossings were made interesting by ice on every potential stepping stone.

We were making for Benalder Cottage, the 'haunted' one of the two bothies, at the south foot of the eponymous mountain by Loch Ericht. It meant crossing a pass at just over 650m with fine snow falling and the light of the short day starting to fail.

It was dark when we reached the bothy. Stone built, with three rooms, empty except for two broken steel classroom chairs, it seemed wholesome enough. Owned by Ben Alder Estate, it is also known as McCook's Bothy.

The bothy's reputation lies mainly with Murray and his account of a poltergeist moving furniture about - when there is none - and the heavy tramp of nailed boots. He claims a former tenant hung himself there. Murray also retells an account by Robert Grieve, whose after-supper pipe on a 1930s visit was disturbed by footsteps and dragging noises, the kind 'that would be made by the legs of a heavy table'. Grieve and his companion strongly sensed they were being watched from the window. 'They had the additional feeling of being regarded with hostility as intruders.'

Now 82, Sir Robert Grieve, Professor Emeritus at the University of Glasgow, specialist in town and regional planning, and former president of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, confirms it today. 'It was an extraordinary experience. It left us completely puzzled. I haven't known anything like it anywhere else.'

Eating supper in front of a larch log fire, we read the messages scrawled on the walls. One shouted: 'There is no ghost.' More disturbing for the future of these shelters is the vandalism to which bothies are subject. One bit of graffiti satirised the bothies' problem quite neatly. 'Arrived yesterday. Ate settee, burned rest of it. Shame it was really comfy.' The Mountain Bothies Association prefers to keep the existence of these places quiet. Its aim is 'preserving traditional structures' rather than providing accommodation.

Day two was one of Scotland's finest. High pressure meant clear skies, low temperatures and panoramas of austere splendour. But the going underfoot was no easier and we decided the Ben Alder summit would have to be missed if we were to pick up the hard track at Ben Alder Lodge before dusk. The only firm going before then was for a mile along a frozen loch - not good for the nerves but a relief for the leg muscles.

The 23,000-acre Ben Alder Estate has recently changed hands but Savills of Edinburgh would not disclose the price or the identity of the new owner.

Whoever it is will have given some thought to an attempt by Perth and Kinross District Council to have an ancient route alongside Loch Ericht declared a right of way.

A seemingly endless trudge in the dark along the lochside formed the final stage of our traverse. Right of way status would not have made it any more forgiving on sore feet, but it would be an insurance in case the new, or a future, owner proved hostile to access. Ben Alder Estate illustrates a dilemma for those who take to the Scottish hills. Rights of way are a good fail-safe, but it would be a pity if acquiring a legal right cost the goodwill of landowners who maintain the likes of McCook's Bothy - with or without its ghost.

(Photographs and map omitted)

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