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One fixed point in every day, whether at home or on hols, is a walk for Border Collie ‘Mist’. That’s every day, rain or shine (but always hoping for the shine). We had escaped a drenching the previous day on our trip out to Bob Scott’s Bothy (see post #258), but the rain had hammered down overnight. Fortunately for us, the monsoon finished before dawn and although the sky was grey, it looked like we would get a walk without a soaking.
The plan was simple – a walk up Glen Callater to Loch Callater Lodge and Callater Stables Bothy, a quick brew with our sarnies and a walk back down to the start point at Auchallater. 5kms each way, 10kms in total, plus a height gain on the outward leg of 150 metres – enough to keep dog and humans happy, at least for one day.
Glen Callater isn’t stunningly beautiful, at least not the section we were walking, but it’s pleasant enough and a walk is a walk. Further on, beyond Loch Callater Lodge and the bothy, the track becomes a path which eventually rises more steeply to cross a col at 880 metres – that’s as high as many respectable English mountains, and that’s just the col! The path is a centuries-old drove road, popularly known as Jock’s Road.
It’s about 25kms from Braemar to Glen Clova following Jock’s Road, with about 20% of that above 600 metres altitude, which doesn’t sound too serious. I had walked the route from Braemar to Clova once before in 1977, as a member of 45 Commando Royal Marines, and we often used the area for mountain training. We would have been carrying military kit and rifles, but the day was a bit of a ‘jolly’ and a welcome break from the Base at Arbroath. As we marched, I remembered the story of an incident 18 years earlier in 1959, which had resulted in the tragic deaths of five hikers.
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It was New Year’s Day, 1959, and members of the Universal Hiking Club of Glasgow had come to the Cairngorms for Hogmanay. Most of the group left Braemar by car to drive round to Glen Doll Youth Hostel, a distance of 110kms, but five members of the club set out to walk the 25km route over Jock’s Road. In the group was the club President and Vice-President, plus the Secretary and the Hiking Convenor. The fifth member of the group was 17 years old, with just two years of Scottish mountain walking behind him, but the other four were well experienced and skilled.
The group was overtaken by an unexpected storm, and a straightforward walk became a fight for survival. The group left Jock’s Road at the head of Glen Callater, passing to the west of Tolmount instead of the east. One possible reason was a navigational error, but with the experience in the party, this seems unlikely – a far more plausible reason would be that they were trying to avoid the foul weather for a little longer by following a more sheltered route.
From Tolmount, it was possible to follow the ‘Glen of the White Water’ running below Jock’s Road, and at a point below Cairn Lunkard, a short height gain of 30 metres would get them back on Jock’s Road. Vice-President Frank Daly, who in his mid-forties was the oldest, was the first to collapse. He died soon afterwards and was left by the others. Another two, both in their mid-thirties, collapsed along the way, leaving the strongest member of the party, club President Harry Duffin and the 17-year-old James Boyle to continue.
James Boyle was the first of the group to be found by searchers on 4th January – he had sustained injuries consistent with a fall in a short gully but had died from hypothermia. The search was abandoned a couple of days later, due to bad weather and deep snow and it was February before Duffin was found, at the bottom of the gully where Boyle had died. It’s possible that he fell whilst trying to go to assist Boyle.
On 9th March, searchers found Robert McFaul, who was said to have been one of the most experienced members of the Universal club. On 15th March the body of Joseph Devlin was found, about 400 metres from where McFaul had been discovered. The final member, Frank Daly, was found on 19th April. All had died from hypothermia. The tragedy is second only in Scottish mountaineering to the cairngorm Tragedy of 1971, in which six young people died (see post #253).
One name that crops up constantly in the story is Davie Glen. He was a self-sufficient hill man who had grown to love the area – it seemed to become an obsession with him to find the missing men, as if their loss has somehow disturbed the peace of the area, and Davie Glen went out time after time to search with organised parties, or even alone; he personally found two of the victims. In the 1960’s he built a shelter known as ‘Davy’s Bourach’, not far from where Duffin and Boyle were found, and personally carried most of the heavier building materials to the site.
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It didn’t take us long to get to Callater Lodge and the bothy. Callater Stables Bothy doesn’t have a fire or stove, as is quite common with bothies, but it’s well maintained and dry, and would be cosy enough in most conditions. We had a brew in the common room after a quick tour of the premises – the second room is a bunk room with real bunks, as an alternative to the usual communal sleeping platform.
On the way out, we had a closer look at Callater Lodge, which estate workers Bill and Stan had taken over as a rest spot for those on the TGO Challenge which runs for a couple of weeks every year in May (click here to find out more) – for those making the crossing via Jock’s Road, this would be a welcome break for a brew before tackling the steep ascent ahead.
Text and images © Paul Shorrock except images tagged SA (Stuart Anthony), G&J A (Gwen & James Anderson), RW (Richard Webb), AO (Ali Ogden) and DN (Douglas Nelson) which are taken from the Geograph Project and are reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence