The car park in Glen Doll was rain-soaked and the car’s windscreen wipers were working overtime. After travelling the best part of a hundred miles we were loath to simply turn round and drive home again, although the temptation was great.
For almost three weeks the winter weather had been Alpine – sub zero temperatures at night and frozen hillsides. The thaw, no doubt welcomed by the vast majority of sensible folk, was greeted with dismay in the McNeish household, particularly as it decided to arrive in time for the weekend!
Glen Doll in the Angus Glens can be the starting point for some great high-level sorties into the eastern Cairngorms, including the Mounth roads that run from Glen Clova to Ballater (the Capel Mounth) and from Glen Doll to Braemar (the Tolmount) as well as the two Munros of Mayar and Driesh.
Secure in the knowledge that the weather always looks its worst from inside a car, we wrapped ourselves up in waterproofs and set off towards Jock’s Road, on the promise that if things didn’t improve we would simply make the most of a low-level walk then go home.
The path that climbs up the length of Glen Doll north of the White Water has become known as Jock’s Road, although traditionally, the route is called the Tolmount. Jock’s Road, named after a climber by the name of John Winters, is the steep section that climbs out of Glen Doll opposite the dark crags of Craig Maud. By the time we reached this steeper ground the rain had become sleety and the wind was blowing a gale. We took shelter and thought back to desperate events that occurred here just over 50 years ago…
It was New Year’s Day in 1959 and five hillwalkers set off from Braemar Youth Hostel intent on walking up Glen Callater then over the Tolmount to Glen Doll. All the men were committee members of the Universal Hiking Club in Glasgow, an active Roman Catholic club with about 80 members.
After attending Mass the men left Braemar just after eleven and not long after mid-day they were spotted by Charles Smith, a local shepherd, near his house at Auchallater in Glen Callater. According to Smith it was cold and breezy with rain and sleet falling. He was the last person to see any of the men alive.
Friends and family members were due to meet the men at Glen Doll Youth Hostel at about 6pm but by that time the weather was so severe the road out of Glen Clova became blocked with snow and the single telephone line to the hotel at Clova was cut.
The storm continued for two days and it was some time before the police could be informed of the missing climbers. It was January 4 before an “official” rescue team could set out and they were hampered by horrific blizzard conditions and deep snow. Despite the conditions they soon found the body of young James Boyle above the head of Glen Doll near Craig Maud. That night a temperature of –19.5C was officially recorded in Strathdon in Aberdeenshire.
The search continued on the Monday and Tuesday but was then abandoned as the frozen ground conditions made access to the hills difficult and dangerous. By then, it was felt there was little possibility of finding anyone alive.
The others victims weren’t found until a thaw had set in at the end of February. Most of the bodies were found by Davie Glen, a well known hill gangrel who knew the area intimately, but it wasn’t until April that the final body was discovered, that of Frank Daly. He was discovered in a metre of snow near the upper reaches of White Water.
This Jock’s Road disaster was a sobering reminder of how conditions can quickly change. Below us the White Water tumbled through a wild and rugged landscape before vanishing into the green choke of conifers that covers much of lower Glen Doll. On the other side of the glen Corrie Kilbo and Corrie Fee opened up beyond the steep and glistening crags of The Dounalt and Craig Rennet. We gave our thanks to Jock for his path as we climbed over the lip of Glen Doll onto the grassy plateau beyond – the traditional Tolmount route took a wet and scrambling route up the ravine that contains the nascent White Water.
Once beyond the confines of the glen the path passes the rough howff known as Jock’s Bothy and follows the ridge that runs to Crow Craigies before dropping down into Glen Callater bound for Glen Clunie and Braemar. We huddled down just below the cairn of Crow Craigies, ate some lunch, and decided that enough was enough. We retraced our steps back down the glen as the wind grew stronger and the rain lashed even harder. We looked forward to a hot drink in Glen Clova but the dark cloud of the disaster’s 50th anniversary hung over us all the way home.