Garbh Choire Refuge, Braeriach, is Rebuilt

© Neil Reid

The Garbh Choire Refuge was recently renovated by a team from the Mountain Bothies Association. The tiny emergency shelter in the remote Garbh Choire of Braeriach had been steadily deteriorating for many years. The rebuild met strict environmental conditions laid down by landowners the National Trust for Scotland. Cairngorm blogger and MBA member Neil Reid, who took part in the project, explains what's been done.

It has been said that a bothy without a fire is just a shed. If so, then that puts the Garbh Coire Refuge firmly in its place. It has no fire, nor even a proper path to its door. It gets crowded with any more than four in it and standing room is in the centre of the floor only.

The new improved refuge  © Neil Reid
The new improved refuge
© Neil Reid

But where it sits, perched on a glacial moraine in one of Scotland's remotest, wildest glens, it's a wee miracle.

And that it has just been completely renovated and made weatherproof for decades to come is a rather bigger miracle.

Built in the early 1960s as a forward base for winter climbing in the multiple lobes of the Garbh Coire between Braeriach and Cairn Toul, it made these remote cliffs more accessible and must have played a significant part in the rush of new routes being climbed there in the '60s and '70s.

However its remoteness meant maintenance was a problem and through the decades it gradually deteriorated. By the '80s it was leaking badly in rain and, with no-one responsible for its upkeep, repairs were ad hoc and usually inadequate.

Remember: It's a refuge, not a bothy. Don't go there expecting something like Scottie's or Corrour. Mar Lodge Estate has all along been concerned about the environmental impact of this building and has been determined that it should not be a destination in its own right, but a basic refuge in case of need.

Before the rebuild, the refuge was in quite a state  © Neil Reid
Before the rebuild, the refuge was in quite a state
© Neil Reid

The estate, owned by National Trust for Scotland, was for many years unwilling to accept help offered by local bothy activists but, following the 2011 replacement of the Fords of Avon Refuge (on RSPB land) renewed pressure was applied and a campaign was launched to persuade the estate that a) the refuge should be repaired and regularly maintained, and b) that it could be done by the MBA at no cost to the NTS. There was widespread support - from climbing clubs, rescue teams, the SMC, Mountaineering Scotland (MCofS as it then was) amongst many others - but there were also those opposed on conservation grounds. It's an argument that's still being fought by some of the 'opposition' but last year the NTS agreed to lease the structure to the MBA and allow 'like-for-like' restoration to take place.

Campaign documents had gone to great lengths to demonstrate that renovation was possible; now we had to come up with the goods. The MBA was no problem: it had already said if a lease was offered it would accept the project. Money, too, was taken care of: the MBA had funds to cover it and in any case when news got out an incredibly generous four-figure donation came from someone who had sheltered there some years ago.

Stripped to its metal skeleton  © Neil Reid
Stripped to its metal skeleton
© Neil Reid

New layers put on  © Neil Reid
New layers put on
© Neil Reid

It was the practical side of the project that required careful planning and coordination. It's a long way from the Garbh Coire to the nearest builders' merchants, so everything had to be carefully worked out in advance. The existing structure was stripped back to the steel frame so that everything could be checked in advance. That also meant that come D-day on Friday the 22nd of June, the helicopter could fly in all the tools and materials - along with some of the manpower - and also fly out the discarded and packaged up materials from the original structure.

Once tools, materials and manpower (something like 25 people for some or all of the three days) were on site, work started replacing one rotten steel beam and installing additional steel to reinforce the structure. A shallow trench was dug around the base of the frame and a field drain installed. Steel mesh was fixed to the frame.

Rebuilding the drystone walls  © Neil Reid
Rebuilding the drystone walls
© Neil Reid

Then a series of coverings were laid over the frame, starting with a layer of tough hessian, followed by geotex fleece, which protected the next layer, the butyl pond liner material which provides the waterproof layer. Then there were further layers of geotex fleece to protect the butyl from the stone covering.

Inside the frame there was to be no added insulation nor even wood lining, as per estate conditions, but the old wooden floor was replaced, with a dampproof membrane laid down before the floor joists. The frontage was replaced with a sturdy new doorframe and door with a clear perspex fanlight above. At the moment the door stands out a bit, but it's Scottish Larch, which will weather to a less obtrusive silver-grey.

That left the walls.

The old building looked like the boulders had just been piled over the top with no real thought, which had contributed to the crushing which pushed the internal walls inward, reducing capacity. Our secret weapon now was dry-stone waller James Bussey who set out with limited materials and limited workforce to create walls which were self-supporting rather than leaning on the structure, with only the thin shell of rock on the roof actually bearing down on the framework. To do such a job in one day was ridiculous - but we did it.

A 25-person, 3-day job...  © Neil Reid
A 25-person, 3-day job...
© Neil Reid

The end result blends into the surroundings nicely  © Neil Reid
The end result blends into the surroundings nicely
© Neil Reid

And that was it. After considerable preparation, construction work started on Friday morning and was finished in time for dinner on Saturday. Job done. Apart from the walk-out.

There was a modest celebration on Saturday night (everyone too tired to do themselves serious damage) and we rose early on Sunday to package up the tools and waste, leaving the work site considerably cleaner than we'd found it. But after battling wind all weekend, it was heat was the problem on Sunday and between the heavy loads - we all had our personal gear as well of course - the return to civilisation was a long and exhausting affair and we were all glad of the fleet of 4WDs waiting at Derry Lodge, saving our sore feet and shoulders that last three mile trudge.

A final word

After such a long campaign, great ingenuity and thorough planning, and so much hard and often skilled work by so many volunteers, we're all incredibly proud of what we've achieved.

But. It's a refuge, not a bothy. Don't go there expecting something like Scottie's or Corrour. Mar Lodge Estate has all along been concerned about the environmental impact of this building and has been determined that it should not be a destination in its own right, but a basic refuge in case of need.

That might be a fine distinction in some people's eyes but the fact remains that, while you're welcome to stay, it would ease relations if you didn't build your climbing club's holiday plans around it.

In any case, anyone thinking of visiting GCR should be aware that the approach is very long and arduous, taking far more time and energy than a look at the map would indicate. There's no continuous path into the Garbh Coire, which well lives up to its Gaelic name of the rough corrie, and unlike Corrour (two hours away in summer) it's not part of a through route anywhere.

Above all, remember this is a remote and sensitive area: light no fires and leave absolutely no litter. And that, in effect, means leave absolutely nothing. Nada. We managed to carry out all the detritus of a building site when we left, so you have no excuse.

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25 Jun, 2018
A huge thanks to all of you who campaigned and did the work on this renovation. A wee howff in a wonderful location.


28 Jun, 2018

I’d like to second the thanks on behalf on the very many who have happy (and relieved if not happy) memories of this place. There are still many bits of the Cairngorms which can seem remote and rarely visited if you leave the beaten track.

A sensitive  restoration like this is wonderful, thank you.


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