We were saddened to hear of the recent death of Ashie Brebner, pioneer of Scottish adventure tourism and the bothy movement, and builder of the Secret Howff.
Roger Smith recently reviewed Ashie’s memoir, Beyond the Secret Howff, for The Great Outdoors magazine, calling it a “delightful book” that “will stand as testament to the life of a man who is only now achieving the recognition he has earned”. His full review is reproduced here.
Ashie Brebner – christened Allister but always known by his nickname – was one of the generation who lifted mountaineering from an elite sport practised by gentlemen to a pastime for everyone. Starting in the 1950s, using cheap ex-Army gear and travelling mainly by public transport, Ashie and his Aberdeen contemporaries forged many new routes in the Cairngorms.
They also, through using abandoned estate buildings with or without permission, laid the ground for the development of the bothy network that is so familiar to us today. Ashie and his mates went further. Seeking a base in the eastern Cairngorms where they could leave equipment to save carrying it in every weekend, but aware that this was unlikely to gain the approval of the landowner, they built what is still known as the Secret Howff.
Ashie describes finding the perfect location for the howff and how it was set up with those in the know sworn to secrecy. At the end of this delightful book, Ashie and his son go back to look for it. Expecting to find a ruin, they are amazed to find the howff still in regular use and well maintained. Moreover, the secret of its location has been preserved through generations of climbers and is still only known to a few.
But the book is not just bothies, howffs and hair-raising tales of early climbs. It also tells how Ashie, desperate to escape from a humdrum job in the city, took the hugely risky step of starting the first wildlife safari company in Scotland. With his brother-in-law, Ashie put everything into this venture and was rewarded – eventually – with success, though there were many moments when it looked as if their efforts to achieve the impossible would founder.
Ashie tells his story simply and with clarity. Many will identify with his successes and failures, though the latter is an inappropriate word for someone who consistently pushed back the boundaries of wildlife tourism, of climbing – and of course of the art of finding and building the perfect Secret Howff. It is a tale which deserves to be told, and will stand as testament to the life of a man who is only now achieving the recognition he has earned.
Ashie Brebner’s Beyond the Secret Howff is published by Luath.
After this review was published in The Great Outdoors, Ashie emailed the magazine, telling us: ‘I liked your magazine very much but discovered it gave me a severe case of nostalgia. I have spent almost 70 years on the hills and still live among them. Reading some of the articles, I think “Oh yes, must get up there again sometime.’ Then realize I am almost 83. Ah well, I suppose it comes to us all.”