This compilation illustrates the close camaraderie of the Northumbrian Ski Club, something that has endured for more than fifty years. Interestingly, the fellowship that we experienced was a byproduct of our low economic status. In the early days, none of us had cars, so we had to stay overnight in Youth Hostels or similar. As a result, we bonded very well with each other and developed a robust ‘esprit de corps’.
The events described below occurred on and after the Easter weekend of 1956, the very weekend that I first went to Wholehope Cottage with Jimmy Richardson.
The facts of the story are stark enough. Malcolm Bruce, aged 19, had tentatively arranged to meet up with Northumbrian Ski Club friends at Glendoll Youth Hostel during the 1956 Easter Holiday. There was some uncertainty about his chosen route, about how and when he would arrive, and whether he would actually make the trip, so his non-arrival at the Hostel was not a cause for concern and it was not until eight or nine days later that the alarm was raised and search arrangements started. The hill route from Braemar through Glen Callater and over Jock’s Road was comprehensively searched for some days; the search being suspended when hopes of finding Malcolm alive were finally abandoned.
Following initiatives by Malcolm’s relatives, friends, and fellow Ski Club members, the search was resumed and his body was finally located on Craig Chaorach (anglicised as ‘Craig Herrick’ in the newspaper articles, means Crag of the Sheep), above Caenlochan Glen and at the head of Glenisla.
The following notes are compiled from contributions by people who were involved in some way in the organisation and/or implementation of the second phase of the search process. After 56 years, what seems remarkable is the apparent ‘self-help’ style of the operation – the Ski Club was going to be out, looking for its own.
When reading what follows, remember that the events described took place during an era when the Scottish hills were comparatively empty of people, except for shepherds, deerstalkers and the very occasional walker. Remember too that Mountain Rescue was more of an ad hoc arrangement then – only the RAF had permanent Mountain Rescue Teams, their main purpose being to recover downed aircrew and remove aircraft debris following a crash. Any ‘civilian’ mountain incident therefore became a Police matter (in Scotland a lost person is a ‘missing’ person) and the Police would coordinate search and rescue operations, supported by the RAF teams and local people who would attend as time and enthusiasm permitted.
A very important factor in the unfolding tragedy would be the poor communications systems of those days: no mobile phones or comprehensive radio cover, with very few ordinary people having ready access to a telephone – and in particular, no phone at either Braemar or Glendoll Youth Hostels.
A word or two about the locale. Glen Doll and Glendoll are both correct, the OS map uses one version for the glen itself, another for the name of the building that used to be the Youth Hostel. Jock’s Road is an old drove road, once an important part of the Speyside and Deeside link feeding into Glen Clova and the route south to the cattle trading ‘trysts’ at Crieff and Falkirk.
The eponymous ‘Jock’ may have been a man called John Winters, who was forced to take refuge in a bothy at the top of Glen Doll following a dispute between Lords Aberdeen and Invercauld concerning ownership of the road. Jock’s bothy was some distance away from the existing shack (seen in header image by Alan O’Dowd), which was built in more recent times by Davie Glen and is known in hillwalking circles as ‘Davie’s Bourach’.
Glendoll Hostel and Jock’s Road were in the headlines again in early 1959, when five members of the Glasgow-based Universal Hiking Club perished in appalling weather conditions on the plateau near Tom Bhuidhe. Although this group was experienced and well-equipped, they apparently set out rather late in the day to make the traverse, and in the darkness were overwhelmed by the sheer ferocity of the wind-chill and consequent hypothermia. Over the next few weeks, their bodies were found partially or completely buried in the snow, spaced out on a compass bearing heading for the descent into Glen Doll and safety.
Back in 1956, the mountains were still relatively quiet, but the area was becoming popular with skiers of both downhill and cross country types, and Craig Mellon, the big hill just to the northwest of the Hostel, was the site of early uplift provision by the Dundee Ski Club. Glencoe was opening up as the first real skiing area – but developments on Cairngorm were still at the planning stage and the annual Ski Club trip to Glen Doll remained a feature for some years, until the final transfer of loyalties to the Speyside area around 1960.
Bill Pearson’s story
The Easter holiday of 1956 at Glendoll Youth Hostel was excellent, with lots of good snow on the top of Jock’s Road (although we had to walk up, carrying skis!) but, as we were enjoying ourselves, none of us knew that a young lad had arranged to walk over from Braemar to meet his pals at Glendoll for the holiday weekend – and that he hadn’t arrived at the Hostel. The first most of us knew about it was when we read the story in the Newcastle Journal on our return home.
A full scale search of the likely route up past Loch Callater and over the top of Jock’s Road took place, but this was unsuccessful and was eventually called off. As can be imagined, this was the main topic of conversation at the Wednesday night Ski Club meeting in Newcastle, and we decided that if he was not found in the near future we would organise our own search party.
Pitch Wilson got in touch with the Braemar Police and told them of our plans. This obviously caused some embarrassment, because they quickly responded with the news that they would organise one last big search, including two RAF Mountain Rescue Teams, Police, estate workers from Balmoral, and our Northumbrian Ski Club members.
About twenty of us travelled up by minibus on the Friday evening and camped above Braemar, where early on Saturday morning we met up with the Police and went into Balmoral Estate (no sign of the Queen!), carrying out a full day’s long line search in Glen Gelder, leading up past Gelder Shiel and on to the northern aspects of Lochnagar.
No traces of the lost lad were found, so in the pub that evening we decided that we would do our own search on the Sunday before we returned home, and next morning we drove round to Tulchan in Glen Isla, where joined the estate stalker and some local lads and split into two groups. I was in the group led by Pitch Wilson. We searched Canness Glen, while Eric Kerr’s party went up Caenlochan Glen proper, with Eric Rayson (a fit young lad!) up on the ridge between, to give a whistle signal if either group discovered anything.
After some time we heard the whistle signal, so we returned to Tulchan to hear the news that Eric Kerr had found the poor lad where he had fallen over some crags and landed on a large boulder. We contacted the police and told them of our discovery and that was our job done.
Eric Rayson’s story
I remember certain parts of “The Glen Doll Tragedy” quite well. I was in charge of hiring the mini bus for the trip north. As Bill says, the first day was a line-search up towards Lochnagar (I recall something about Peter Ustinov not wanting hikers frightening the pheasants in the estates – I guess he had some shooting rights).
On the second day I was with the party that found the casualty at the foot of a crag high up above Caenlochan Glen at the head of Glen Isla. Our party was quite small, four or five at the most, and we were moving in a diagonal line up the glen with Eric Kerr and Jim MacGregor (the stalker from Tulchan) at the top end. Close to the bottom of the crag, Eric started yelling that he had found a torn rucksack and some books (apparently, the lost guy was a reader) and then that he had found the casualty, who was bent, face upwards, over a rock. I think the impact from the fall pulled the rucksack off, with the torn rucksack tumbling further down the slope spilling out the books, etc.
As I was only sixteen, the lads suggested that I ought not to see the casualty, but that I should run to up the ridge and whistle to the other group to end the search, which I did.
I don’t recall who looked after bringing the body down or what happened during the rest of the day. The newspaper photo was captioned “a briefing before the search,” but was taken just before we boarded the bus to head home (an early example of journalistic licence!).
Raymond Rees’ story
Although I was not on the Ski Club rescue party, I was involved in this story in the following way. In 1956, I was in the final stages of a three-year course at Rutherford College in Newcastle, along with fellow Parsons apprentices Mike Robson and Malcolm Bruce. All three of us were Ski Club members and we had all booked to go on the Club trip up to Glendoll, leaving on Thursday evening. Malcolm called the Club Secretary on the Wednesday and cancelled his place on the bus because he didn’t have skis of his own, and he planned to hitchhike up to the Hostel on the Thursday, hoping to claim the best hire skis available.
We asked Malcolm to contact his uncle, who lived in Ballater on Deeside, to get a report on snow conditions. However, Malcolm could not get through on the phone, so he implied to us that if the snow cover was sparse on the top of the Devil’s Elbow (in those days, a difficult high road over the pass of Glenshee), then he would go on to Ballater for the weekend.
Now, although there was ample snow on the Tolmount/Tom Bhuidhe plateau that year, very little could be seen from the roadside, so when Malcolm was not at the Hostel on Friday morning, everyone assumed that he had gone to Ballater.
The truth was revealed when we returned to College eight days later. Malcolm’s mother was waiting on the front steps, because Malcolm had not visited his uncle in Ballater and had still not returned home.
Pitch Wilson’s story
The Ski Club spent Easter weekend (30th March – 2nd April) at Glen Doll, quite unaware that there had been an accident, or that anyone was missing. Our first knowledge of the tragedy came via headlines in the Evening Chronicle; this being brought to my attention while a gang of us were travelling up to Rothbury on Friday night, 13th April (already two weeks after Easter). The name Malcolm Bruce was mentioned and he had apparently been on his way to meet Ski Club friends at Glendoll Hostel. Someone on the bus had a list of members, we checked this and yes, he was a member. There was a general consensus that we should look for him, so at the Ski Club meeting in the Crow’s Nest on 18th April it was agreed that we would organise a search party. A bus was booked for the next weekend and a strong team was gathered together for departure on Friday 27th April. Local newspapers got wind of the proposed search, so I went down to tell Malcolm Bruce’s mother about our plans for the search. The newspapers reported that Malcolm had apparently spoken to an AA scout at Glen Callater AA Box, at around 5 p.m. on the Thursday night before Easter. At that time of year, it was light until about 8 p.m. or so, and we tried to work out how far Malcolm might have travelled before night fell. We presumed that he was making for Glen Doll, but in the failing light he could have veered off to either side, ending up at Lochnagar, or somewhere near the end of Glenisla.
I marked up a map showing four possible areas where Malcolm could be and the local Police asked us to help them on the Saturday with some local searches – including Glen Callater up to the head of Glen Doll – the team then being free to follow our own ideas on the Sunday. We left Newcastle on the evening of 27th April, stopping briefly in Perth before arriving at Braemar at 4.15 a.m. on Saturday morning. We camped at Achallater Farm for the rest of the night, then on Saturday we spent a fruitless day working with the Braemar Police and RAF Rescue teams, before going back to Braemar on the RAF truck, where we were interviewed by a reporter from one of the Aberdeen papers.
Next day, we had a free hand to search where we thought he would most likely have ended up, so we drove around to Tulchan Lodge, where we met the local gamekeeper before walking up Glenisla to where the glen divides into Caenlochan Glen and Canness Glen.
At this point, we divided into two groups, with Eric Kerr and half of the group, including the local gamekeeper, searching Caenlochan Glen; while the rest of us set of up Canness Glen. If anything was found by either party, the agreed signal was a series of whistle blasts, and just as our party reached the head of Canness Glen I could see someone running up the glen, and soon we could hear the sound of a whistle.
The runner was Eric Rayson, and he rather breathlessly told us that they had found a rucksack, then Malcolm Bruce’s body, lying at the foot of crags where he must have fallen during darkness as he tried to make his way to Glen Doll, several miles away. The Braemar Police were informed and they decided to leave the body there until the next day, so we packed up and set off back to Newcastle, stopping again at Perth.
My main concern was that we should let the family know the outcome of our search before the newspapers got hold of the information, so I was glad to get a reverse charge call through to the Police in Wallsend, asking them to get the news to Malcolm’s parents (no easy way to contact people then, few people had phones, never mind mobiles).
We arrived home at 4 a.m. on the Monday morning, feeling sad at the outcome of our efforts, but pleased that we had managed to find him when the Police and RAF had given up.