Return to Camban

By Nigel Tranter

Remote, inaccessible, self-sufficient and utterly detached, high on the long lonely pass that links Affric and Kintail is one of the most isolated cottages in the land – which, for the West Highlands of Scotland, is saying something. I first heard of Camban from our son, Philip, many years ago. It seemed that it was a place apt to afford him, not shelter – for the house was a roofless ruin – but a sort of staging-point, a positive identity in the vast empty wilderness on those enormous walks, which he tended to take across the challenging roof of Scotland, most frequently alone. Camban being, as it were, ten miles from anywhere, and in the midst of notable climbing country – in approximate proximity to Mam Soul, Carn Eige, Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan, Ben Attow, the Five Sisters, and so on – it seemed to be a place that a long-legged climber might choose to salute in the by-going; might link in the mind’s eye with a past when these vast, green, mountain tracts were not so empty as today, and other voices might be heard in a long day than bleating sheep and croaking ravens might even elect to rest here awhile, if for no better reason than that men had rested here before him.

That was all that we at home knew of Camban, That, and the following excerpt from one of Philip’s articles in a Scottish magazine, dealing with one of those epic marathon walks of his: “I turned westward for the passes and Kintail, following the rough stony track by the riverside and up under the long’ ridge of Ben Attow towards the head of Glen Affric. Ahead of me a mass of leaden cloud lay heavily upon the mountains, and where the hillsides steepened and drew together towards the throat of the pass, a brilliant double rainbow spanned the gap between them, beckoning me forward. Not a day had-passed that whole week-end without our seeing a rainbow somewhere, for when the weather is restless in the spring-time rainbows are seldom hard to find; but that one at sunrise was the finest of all. But the rainbow meant rain. I sheltered from the first shower behind the ruins of the old croft at Camban; but before I reached the watershed, the downpour was continuous and sheltering was no further use at all. The pass beyond looked much the same as it had done four days before, dark and gloomy, and loud with the sound of rushing water, and in Glen Lichd a strong wind from the west was funneling up the glen, blustery and heavy with rain.”

We were to get to know Camban better. Better even than did Philip perhaps.

The cottage had been built back in those sad old day of the Clearances, at the beginning of the 19th century, probably by Francis Humberston Mackenzie,created Lord Seaforth in 1797, heir of the Mackenzie chiefs, and 21st in descent, from Kenneth, first of Kintail. Why it should have been erected there is not certain today, for this is no place for any crofter, or even for a summer sheiling, high above all the glens on a terrace of an out flung shoulder of mighty Ben Attow. It may indeed have been for one of those hated North-Country English, or Border, shepherds whom evicting land-owners brought up to tend the great sheep-flocks that were to replace the unwanted clansmen. But at least it was on the track, rough indeed and sketchy now, but once far from unfrequented, when the cattle of thousands of square miles of Skye and the North West had to be driven to the trysts and sales at Dingwall, Inverness or the South.

At any rate, we know now that, whoever were the first occupants, generations of the old race came to live contentedly enough in the remote Camban. There was Alexander MacRae, a young married shepherd, who came between l835 and 40, all of whose family were born and brought up there. A daughter. Margaret (Peigi Mhor) died only in 1966, aged 102, not so far away, at Glenelg. In 1869 the Seaforth Mackenzies sold the last of the Kintail estates to The Chiselholm, and Camban came under a new regime. It was the gamekeeper that was installed there then, one Farquhar MacLennan. He was a good Gaelic singer and teller of tales.

Philip was killed in a road accident in France in August 1966, a year after the successful Scottish HindKush Expedition, and on his way home from another climbing trip in Turkey. And in due course, members of the Corriemulzie Mountaineering Club, which he had helped to found, along with other friends, thought to set up a mountain refuge hut, or bothy, somewhere in the hill’s Philip had known and loved so well, as a memorial. And not only to Philip, but to his good friend and climbing companion Alastair Park, who had fallen to his death on Foinaven, in Philip’s company, only the previous April. The Mountain Bothies Association, a United Kingdom body of enthusiasts, experts in this sort of project, were approached, and agreed gladly to co-operate. A search started for a suitable and available location. Not all land-owners, by any means, are agreeable for such refuges and shelters to be established on their estates, fearing that too many people will come; and that shooting and other interests may be injured. It is a short-sighted and mistaken policy to most of us, but understandable enough from a restricted, not to say restrictive, point of view. Of that more hereafter.

The search was conducted over an enormous area of the North and West for Philip’s stamping-grounds were far-flung indeed, and all that wonderland of the mountains his oyster. His especial love, probably, was that magnificent tract of empty, unspoiled mountain wilderness north of Loch Maree and South of the Oykell River, comprising the vast deer-forests of Letterewe, Dundonnell, Fannich, Inverlael and Rhidorrach. But proprietors here were non-co-operative, or there was no cottage or cabin suitable for restoration. For, owing to the utter inaccessibility of the required sites, the idea of building a refuge from scratch was out-of-the-question. When building materials have to be carried long roadless heather miles on the backs of the volunteer builders, essential priorities soon become evident.

Then Camban was thought of. And, happily, was made available. It was an excellent choice, and apt. It was remote enough, in all conscience – but not so much, so that it would seldom be used. It was on a renowned, if taxing, walking route to the Wester Ross seaboard, far from any road. It was in splendid climbing country, and many of the peaks and summits around could only be tackled by spending the previous and subsequent nights camping-out somewhere. Moreover, it .was in an area: which had become a second home for Philip had been domiciled in the Kintail- Dornie-Balmacara area, as a civil engineer, whilst surveying and designing the improvement of the road to Kyle, in especial that quite new and splendid 4-mile stretch from Inverinate to Dornie, along Loch Duich-side, which he had made so very much his own. and which we, his father and mother, had the great privilege of opening in June 1969. Therefore this pass from Kintail to Affric by the Croe, Glen Licht, the Allt Granda pass, Fionngleann and Aultbeath, was his frequent route to mountaineering meets, as well as lone climbs, in the vast central massif. Happily, too, it was an area that Alastair Park knew well and had links with, for Glen Lichd House – an impressive name for another small cottage – was the Edinburgh University Mountaineering Club shelter, for which Alastair had some responsibility.

The great project was put in hand therefore – and I take this opportunity of saluting all those young people who alone made it possible, indeed did it all. None need talk to my wife or myself of the feebleness or decadence of the present younger generation hereafter; For this was a quite splendid conception, and a daunting task. Only those who have covered the routes in to Camban can conceive the size of the undertaking of restoring to a wind-and-weather-tight condition the two gaunt gables and broken roofless walls of that remote cot-house – although a glance at the Ordnance map will give the knowledgeable some idea. The money came from subscriptions from members, friends and well-wishers. One enormous help was the generous agreement by the R.N.A.S. authorities at Lossiemouth to fly in the corrugated-iron sheets for the new roof, by helicopter. How they could have got there otherwise, I do not know. But everything else fell to be carried on backs and shoulders – beams, joists, floor-boards, doors and window-frames, glass, angle-irons, cement, paint, and so on. Just think of it – across roadless mountain-sides, through, bridgeless rivers, over peat-bogs, in all weathers, often in darkness, with 8 miles the shortest route from a road-head. I carried one modest load of two timber batons, on the opening-day – and was thankful indeed when I could lay them down. Yet tons of such were transported by willingvolunteers, on climbing, hiking, even cycling trips – yes, cycling; for this was one of the eye- openers to me – how tough were some of these cross-country cycling-clubs, mainly from the Midlands of England, whose members were prepared to push, hoist and carry their kit-laden machines over tracks and non-tracks taxing even for good walkers. The Mountain Bothies Association counts many of these long distance wheeling- clubs amongst its strongest supporters. And certainly they proved their worth at Camban.

Tribute falls to be paid to many more than is possible here. But in especial perhaps three or four should be mentioned. First of all, Peter Macdonald, a young Edinburgh lawyer and one of Philips climbing friends, with whom much of the initiative originated, and who acted essential liaison throughout – as well as putting in much hard work on the site. Without him, undoubtedly, the project would never have materialized. Then there was Bernard Heath, secretary of the M.B.A., from Hull, who conceived secretarial, duties to comprise so much more than paper-work that he did more of the actual transporting and building than anybody else, spent weeks at the site, and made his Land Rover go where even such vehicles have no right to be. Liz Innes, formerly Maclaren, secretary of the Corriemulzie Club, was inevitably much involved and a tower of strength and encouragement. And the veteran Donald Stuart with and without his young Glasgow helper contributed heroically. These, and a host of others, club-members, loners who happened to be passing and stayed to assist a couple of hours or a couple of days, complete strangers, even foreigners, who carried dragged, built, painted, gave of their strength, skill and time, willing, joyfully.

And so, at length, with the first snows on the tops and the burns beginning to run high, it was all but finished, and Camban as a cottage again, roofed, floored, doored and windowed, all one large apartment with an open fireplace at each end, even, unheard-of luxury, a chemical closet for the outhouse. Who carried that in, I wonder? A sleeping-loft on the rafters was planned, and other refinements; but these could await the next transporting season; for though certain hardy souls would undoubtedly find their way to Camban all through the winter the portage of heavy materials over floods, peat-hags, snowdrifts and the like was out-of-the-question. Opening Day therefore was fixed for 1st November, which was as late as it might be delayed, and a great company of helpers and well-wishers declared their intention of attending.

That Saturday dawned stormy, with wind and driving rain – as had been the previous days. Clearly the rivers would be high, a matter of much importance where there. were no bridges. I had traveled up to Kintail the day before, with Mrs Janet Park, Alastair’s mother, and my wife. The most practice routes in were northwards from Cluanie Inn on the Invermoriston Kyle road, and eastwards, by the River Croe and Glen Lichd, from the head of Loch Duich. We preferred the latter route, since that was the way Philip had been used to go, and Alastair had the afore mentioned links with Glen Lichd. But the Croe River would be a major hazard, and the high pass of the Allt Granda likewise. Peter Macdonald joined us at our Kintail hotel in the evening, and decided, dark and rough as it was to make an inspection of the approach, at least as far as Glen Lichd. A track of sorts ran up Croe-side from the road to almost a mile short of Glen Lichd House; and if cars could be got any substantial distance up this, it would enormously assist. Despite the doubts and warnings of the rest of us, Peter insisted on setting off, alone, promising to be back in a couple of hours or so. We weren’t to see him again until next mid-day.

That night the wind shook the hotel and battered on the windows. We thought of all the enthusiasts making for this storm-lashed venue from all over Scotland, and as far away as the English Midlands – and wondered. In the still-wet morning, Liz and her husband, with one or two others, came down from Cluanie with greetings and the news that quite a large party was now assembled there, Much more building materials had arrived too, and Bernard Heath as determined to harness all this access of labour to carry it in, weather or none. This was to be very much a working-opening! The main approach therefore, would be from Cluanie, over the An Caorann Mor, and down the Allt a Chaomhlain to the head of Affric, and then up Fionngleann. somebody having; driven along to Croe Bridge and reporting the river to be a wide and raging- torrent. Peter’s probable fate was lugubriously discussed, amid head-shakings.

The rain beat down.

We left for Cluanie in convoy. Unhappily we had to leave my wife behind. She had not been well for some time, and to tackle this march today was utterly out of-the-question, despite bitter disappointment. It would have to be another time for Philip’s mother.

The crowd at Cluanie was large, spirited and gay, despite conditions, with new travel-stained arrivals continually turning up. Donald Stuart had brought his Land Rover, in addition to Bernard Heath’s, and these two were already piled precariously high with beams, joists and other gear. There was a stalkers’ track for some two miles up towards the watershed, not made for wheeled vehicles, but which had already been extensively used it seemed by these two intrepid characters. I am not sure what the qualifications were for getting a lift on these already over-burdened and top-heavy Land Rovers – age, perhaps. or mere expendability; or it may have been sheer ignorance. Janet Park and myself were obvious victims. Clambering on any unoccupied space, and clinging like apprehensive limpets, we lurched off. The sensible majority, of course, tramped along behind, heavily burdened and on foot, but in their right minds.

I will draw a decent veil over that crazy, reeling, pitching journey, with every law of gravity and probability defied. We saved over two miles of walking. Let us leave it at that.

Unloading the cargo, we set off, variously loaded, on the long trail, still 6 or 8 or again 9 miles, depending on whether we cut a corner, over a shoulder of Ciste Dhubh (32l8. feet) or preceded right down to the Affric valley and then turned westwards. The first way meant two major fordings, the second one. Everyone made their own way, at their own time, though a little group always stayed with Janet Park and myself. We chose the -’short-cut’ on the reasoning that it was no worse to be soaked by two rivers than by one; and the quite stiff climb in between would warm us up The fording and porterage of the Chomhiain was quite something. lan Rowe, leader of the Second Scottish Hindu Kush Expedition wore a bowler-hat for this event, and there was other individual November wear. We just went in as we were, all pretty anyway, staggering and teetering across under our beams and bundles. Janet Park very gallantly allowed herself to be carried over between two unsteady stalwarts, for the looks of the thing – she would have been safer on her own feet while everybody cheered. The water was mighty cold.

The fording, 2 dire miles and a 700 feet climb further on, was wider and deeper, but the torrent less boisterous, over the Allt Cam Ban itself. the major headwater of the Affric. And now, though still over another mile to the north-west, the speck that was the bothy was in sight, at least. What was a mile of peat-hags, anyway?

We reached Camban about 3 PM – though we were far from the first. It was with great satisfaction that I, personally, viewed for the first time the little house on its green shelf in the vast wilderness of the mountains. Sturdy but trim, with, its substantial rebuilt stone walls and green- painted corrugated-iron roof, it looked a mountain-refuge indeed. Many a climber or walker, tested infinitely more -sternly than we had been, would probably bless tho sight of it, in years to come.

Peter arrived soon after us. He had bogged down his car in Glen Lichd, discovering all too evidently that the route was not passable, and spent the night therein. It was still there, but Peter had managed to make his own rough route here, heavily-laden. When all were assembled, smoke rising again from the Camban chimney, primuses hissing, amidst a strong aroma of wet clothing, honest sweat, new wood and creosote, a handsome inscribed copper plaque, just carried in, was rather precariously affixed to the wall – to be stabilised later – and Philip’s old donkey-jacket which I had inherited, hung over it, wet as it was. Then, eating over, a very few words were said. the jacket removed, and Camban Bothy declared open – all just as Alastair and Philip would have approved.

The minority, those who were not staying the night, did not linger. For the light was already failing, and it would be dark long before we got back to Cluanie. It was a distinctly taxing return- journey, inevitably, the last 3 miles; picking our way by the doubtful light of torches – and almost wishing, as we passed those parked Land Rovers again, that their owners and drivers were not still back at the Bothy. But at least we were only carrying ourselves, now. It was well after 8 pm, of a rough night, before we reached our hotel again, and my slightly anxious wife. I promised her that she would get. to Camban before long and that it was a very worth-while pilgrimage to look forward to. Janet Park, weary, wet but unbowed, and happy about it all, vouched for that.

And so, six months later, in June 1970, my wife and I made the return trip to Camban, this time by the Croe, Glen Lichd approach, on a warm. summer day of high cloud, overcast but pleasant. It still made a major tramp, and longer than from Cluanie; but with the rivers low and the bogs largely dry, it was a very different proposition. We got the car up to within sight of Glen Lichd House, crossed the Allt Granda without actually getting wet, and climbed the quite dramatic 750- foot ascent of the pass by a rough but defined path, past the waterfall, and so over the watershed of Scotland, to come down on Camban along the flanks of Ben Attow, with the Five Sisters of Kintail towering’ high on our right. We found the bothy empty but in use, a lone climber’s gear there, even embers smouldering on one of the wide hearths.

The place was still not completed, but there was a settled ‘lived-in’ atmosphere about it now, surplus provisions on the shelves, first-aid items on a window-ledge, the plaque fixed, and a surprisingly well-filled and interesting visitors book with already much material for character-study and the effect of altitude and solitude on differing minds. The bothy obviously was being well-used. The sleeping-loft was not yet up, but a number of sections for its flooring were lying there – the mind boggles at how they were carried in – and some heavy containers of creosote, with an optimistic little note from Peter Macdonald suggesting that anyone with time on their hands might apply the one to the other. Also volunteers for more floor-board-handling from Cluanie. Camban was a going concern. My wife greatly esteemed it all , a cherished idea fulfilled.

We gathered a small store of bog-pine from the surrounding peat-hags, relic of the days when Scotland’s mountains were forested almost to their summits with the splendid Caledonian pines which are now confined to pockets here and there, as at Rothiemurchus and Black Wood of Rannoch. The roots. when died out, make magnificent fuel – however little the present generation, grown to rely on primus and other portable stoves, realises it. Then we just sat for a while, at the threshold, and quietly steeped ourselves in the sheer quiet and satisfaction of it all. The lone tenant turned up, tall, husky, bearded and from Glasgow by his voice, and we discussed things great and small for a little. But we had. 7 or 8 tough miles back to the car and, however reluctant to leave, might not linger.

We took some photographs, signed the visitors – book, and turned our faces to the west. But we would be back.

By the time that this appears, Camban may well be complete, and congratulations, due to all concerned be the order of the day. But, parallel with this thought is another, less happy. Pointless, quite non-understandable vandalism growing, even in such places, far amongst the mountains. Unhappily we have grown all too used to such behaviour in our cities and their environs. But that those who go walking and climbing far into the wilderness – and place’s like Camban are only to be reached by such – should damage and even deliberately wreck the refuges in which they themselves have found shelter, is almost beyond the comprehension of normal minds. But this is happening, and becoming an ever-graver preoccupation with the M.B.A. and similar bodies and concerned individuals. And, more distressing still, it gives opportunity and excuse for those landowners and shooting tenants who do not want walkers and climbers on their far flung properties, to refuse to allow refuges to be set up, even to withdraw facilities already granted or tolerated, Here is the. supreme folly and heartbreak: of it, a disease of our times, like pollution, that can strike ever deeper into even the unspoiled wilds. Already certain bothies are being locked-up and heavily-barred, available only to those provided with a key – surely the very negation of a mountain refuge. Is this to be the pattern for the 1970s? God forbid! But the writing is on the wall.

Meantime, Camban’s door stands cheerfully open and welcoming.

May it stay that way.

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Mountain Bothies Association is a charity registered in Scotland, no. SC008685 and a company limited by guarantee and registered in Scotland, no. SC191425