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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
Did you know Callater Bothy is haunted by a poltergeist? (Read Mountain Days and Bothy Nights if not – quite an amusing tale).
I love Jock’s Road and would love to spend a night at Davy’s Bourach sometime – in summer though… I think there’s also a plaque somewhere around on the Glen Clova side about a Forces Officer who died of asthma on Jock’s Road isn’t there?
I’ve no idea about the plaque to the forces officer – 45 Cdo used the area for mountain training in my day, so I wonder if it was a Royal Marine or attached Army Commando. Something to add to next years list of things to visit.
I vaguely remember the poltergeist tale – I’ve got the book, so I’ll revisit the story.
Great walk – I’ve only done the whole length of Jock’s Road the once, perhaps time for a repeat.
As well as enjoying your superb write up, as always, and feeling as if I am actually there with you, as always, on this occassion I think I may well have actually spent a fair bit of time in and around these areas…… Meanwhile, I still like the mug (hehehe)….. and finally, was there not another update due this week, or am I totally losing the plot….. don’t answer that if I am indeed totally losing the plot…… (hope you are not unwell) ………
Haha – no, the plot is not lost! I should have posted on Monday but I’ve had a load of team stuff to catch up with. I’ll be posting next Monday and hopefully getting an email off to you tomorrow or Friday.
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Hello. My grandparents Margaret and Francis Brown ran the Glendoll Youth Hostel at the time of the disaster in the 50s and my grandfather found 2 bodies (I believe in the spring). I have 5 pages of a story he began about it but never continued. He was so disturbed that they eventually left and went to Glasgow. My Mum used to tell me about how she had to cross a bridge over a river to meet a taxi to go to school and every morning a big sheep came to stand in the middle of the bridge and stare at her. She was terrified of it, she was only 5 and alone. My Papa spoke about the rare plants in the forest, but mostly he was haunted by his time there. Anyway, thank you for your story. I had been trying to find any references to my grandparents online which is how I came across it.
Thanks for your stories about Glendoll Yvonne. I really feel for your mum and her daily meeting with the sheep – that must have been terrifying for a wee five-year-old!
I first read of the Glendoll tragedy in the 1960’s, when I was in my teens, in a book about RAF Mountain Rescue called ‘Two Star Red’ by Gwen Moffat. I was interested in joining the RAF at the time, and had just started hill-walking, and the tales in the book, including the Glendoll tragedy, struck a chord with me.
As you will have read in the blog post, I eventually ended up joining the Royal Marines, and I volunteered for service in 45 Commando, based in Arbroath. Glen Clova was one of our regular mountain training areas, and it gave me the opportunity to visit an area I might never have had the chance to see. My Company Commander was also a keen mountain man, and one of our training runs was a race up to and around Loch Brandy in Glen Clova, with a crate of beer for the winning team!
It was while I was in 45 Cdo that I had the chance to walk Jock’s road – we were dropped off at the start of the Callater track and walked the route over to Glen Doll. I remember the weather being good, and although we carried military kit, we were all pretty fit – it was hard trying to imagine the conditions that the five men who died had endured.
Good luck with your family research and thanks again for popping in to my blog and sharing your tales. Paul
Hi Paul, I found your site while looking up Jock’s Road. I walked Jock’s Road with 2 friends from Glen Doll YH to Braemar YH as a teen in the early 70s. I now live in Canada (accidental immigrant) and have not been home to Glasgow for 2 years (longest time away ever) One of my favourite songs is Lochnagar (Corries) and I am hoping to walk Jocks Road again when I finally get back home. Might well look into your guided walks as it might be a bit of a struggle as I have not been in great health. Really enjoying your posts and photos. Thank you so much for doing them.
Hi Helen and thanks for dropping in and reading. Wishing you a good day when you get back to walk Jock’s Road again.
Hi there. Me and my sister have just read the article about the hillwalkers….my uncle James was the youngest in the group of walkers…thank for your article as we had been talking about it…
Hi Margaret and thanks for dropping in and reading. The tale is tragic and sad, but what with improved weather forecasting, lighter and more efficient gear and clothing and better safety education, it seems unlikely that a mishap on a similar scale would happen now. Let’s hope so anyway. Best wishes, Paul
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Hi very interesting article.
James Boyle was my uncle although I was only an infant at the time of the tragedy.My father (James’ brother) told me about it – he is 91 years old now and his memory is still fresh around the circumstances
Hi Suzanne and thanks for reading.
There will not be many modern hillwalkers who know the sad story of the Glen Doll tragedy, but those who died are still remembered by surviving family members and people who were involved in the subsequent search, as you will see in some of the comments on the post. With modern weather forecasting, and more efficient lightweight clothing and hill kit available today, it is unlikely that such a tragedy would occur again.
Although the outcome was sad, I’m glad that your uncle James is still remembered and that his story is still heard.
Best wishes to you and your father,
Just like to mention Bill and Stan were not estate workers but a couple of friends from Aberdeen. Sadly Stan is no longer with us.