A glance back at some bothies visited over the years…
A’Chuil is a well-situated and appreciated halt. Particularly by those on the Cape Wrath Trail. As I approached the bothy on a damp evening having hiked in heavy rain for the best part of the day, I was welcomed by a smoking chimney. Despite the growing number of occupants, I was able to squeeze in to one of the rooms, joining David and James, and claim a space on one of the sleeping platforms. Before peeling off waterproofs, I went off to the neighbouring forest to gather fallen wood. Hikers continued to arrive for hours later. The weather had been atrocious and a crucial bridge further on down trail had been washed away. There was much discussion as to the wisdom of continuing. Later that evening, I spent half an hour demonstrating safe river crossing technique to a Dutch couple, the three of us linking arms and waltzing across the room.
The two hikers I was sharing a room with at A’Chuil had strung drying lines and had the majority of their gear hung out. They had been having a wet time of it and had almost run out of food. The two of them were planning an early escape to Glenfinnan the next day. James’s feet had been suffering badly and I popped blisters for him, threading cotton through and taping them up, while David took both photos and the piss out of his pal.
The existence of bothies is primarily down to three crucial elements. The first of these are the incredibly generous estates and owners who permit hill walkers and the like to use their buildings. Some bothies are used as halts by stalking parties etc during shooting season and they are made available to walkers outside of those few weeks. So maintained not only for the hiker, but also paying guests.
In addition, if ever there was an organisation whose members have worked hardest to provide and manage these shelters for those who walk the fells, paths and tracks, it is the remarkable Mountain Bothies Association.
The MBA don’t own bothies, instead the organisation works with the owners to ensure that the various bothies are maintained, unlocked and available for all.- though in this current pandemic, it is unsafe to be visiting any of these.
Maintenance work is carried out by volunteers, each bothy having a Maintenance Officer who keeps a general eye on bothy condition and arranges remedial work when required.
The third leg which supports the ongoing practicality of bothies is the visitor. Bothies are open to all and there is a growing number who regard them as free holiday accommodation, somewhere to abuse and dump rubbish. Nope, the rubbish pixies don’t arrive each morning to clear away waste.
The old Schoolhouse at Duag Bridge in Ross and Cromarty had been a bothy for many years before the MBA took responsibility for the dilapidated building in 2008. When I stopped in to make a hot drink, my visit coincided with that by a group in a passing car. I will tell that story in another post, but what I observed then was evidence to the potential for abuse that the general opening up of bothy locations has created.
There are some MBA bothies in England and Wales but the great majority are in lonely settings in Scotland. Locations used to be secret, known only to a select few. Printed German language location lists existed for a while but the internet opened up everything. Beautifully photographic publications listing location and facilities followed and the genie is now well and truly out of the bottle. Some bothies will no doubt close permanently as a result. Such a shame as current use by hikers, climbers and mountain bikers has continued a human use of buildings that are now part of the landscape.
Hiking near Loch Eriboll in North West Sutherland I reached the loch’s most inland section mid-afternoon. Instead of continuing around the eastern shoreline, I knew that just a mile and a half further inland was a bothy. Somewhere to escape both the wind howling up the loch and glen and, should that die down, the midges that would inevitably emerge. Splashing through sodden peat to my destination I came across a result of Freedom to Roam legislation- a partial line of fence posts, the wire between them removed as there was no longer the requirement for a physical barrier. The post line was incomplete as most uprights had either fallen or been removed over the years. Certainly one was sawn up to feed the fireplace that night. On arrival I spent an hour attempting to relocate bats from a blocked bath plug hole to the outside.
All bothies started as something else and some bothies have had a fascinating former life. Strathcailleach bothy, almost at the north-western tip of mainland Scotland, was home to James McRory-Smith for 40 years prior to his passing in an Inverness hospital in 1999. Welcoming to some visitors, brewing up tea on his peat fed fire, he no-doubt got fed up with any degree of notoriety achieved and the interuption to his solitude. Some unwanted visitors, on knocking the door, received a loud “fuck off”.
In common with many bothies, there is no electricity, no running water at Strathchailleach, but it does enjoy an almost endless supply of drained peat located close by. For a while, Sandy shared the MBA renovated building with overnighting hikers but it was an uncomfortable relationship. Despite his having gone, Sandy’s unsophisticated paintings adorn the walls to this day and I could feel his presence.
Having decided there was a distinct shortage of hooks in bothies, Stephen Pern set off on a three thousand mile hike, visiting every bothy in order to attach a brass hook. Do yourself a favour some time, make a mug of tea, and take a couple of hours out of your day to watch his superb film recording his escapade.
Walking the Pennine Way, I dropped down from Hadrians Wall to Rapishaw Gap to leave the wall and cross the short, sodden tussocky bog, heading toward Kielder Forest. The clegs were biting furiously and just for good measure the midges came out to join them. There are just a few MBA bothies in England and Houghtongreen is just a short half-mile from the path. It was a welcome halt for the night. It was a hot summer and the nearby spring was dry, thankfully there was a small stream flowing just a short walk away.
As it was, this was another bothy that I had to myself that night, other than a Little Owl that sat, calling, on the roof for most of the night. This is one of the bothies that suffers badly from unwanted visitors and Northumberland Police work with MBA and the Forestry Commission to maintain a Bothy Watch regime.
Three Points of the Compass hikes in trail runners. Especially in Scotland. Crossing a hundred water courses a day and splashing through sodden paths, it is pointless attempting to keep feet dry. Which makes foot care all the more important.
Bothies offer the ideal opportunity to halt on trail, if only for a while, and let the feet air and dry. It was on a long day from A’Chuil bothy to my next overnight halt at the Barisdale bothy that I called into Sourlies on the edge of Loch Nevis. Shoes and socks off, I washed my feet outside in a stream and returned to the bothy. I sat on a bench, my bare feet on a foam pad, eating smoked cheese, tuna and more Tablet than was probably good for me. A movement outside the door. First one, then another, the deer were coming to graze at the waters edge. Having established it was safe, they were joined by the speckled fawns, who lay at their mothers feet. The creatures knew I was there, they could see me through the open door just as I could see them. The herd of twenty or so Red Deer were simply unconcerned.
Never one to look a gifthorse in the mouth, when I passed Coire Thollaidh bothy in the Western Highlands it was not only a convenient place to halt for lunch, the bothy had that most remarkable of extras- both an electric light and electric point to snatch some much needed charge. Unsurprisingly, this is popularly known as the Corryhully ‘electric’ bothy. This is not MBA maintained, provided by the Glenfinnan estate instead.
A departing hiker left a gem of information before he left. If you walked out the front door of the bothy, crossed the trail and waded into the stream opposite, you could pick up a phone signal from the middle. Our small party took turns during our lunch halt to stand thigh deep in the water, waving our phones in the air, sending and receiving WhatsApp messages.
Arriving at a bothy, you never know what you will find. Even if familiar with the bothy itself, who will be there, who will arrive later, if anyone? My night at Maol-Bhuidhe bothy was one of those serendipitous occasions. I had enjoyed a fantastic days hiking. I left Morvich in the morning, had been amazed by the spectacular Falls of Glomach, had a heart-in-the-mouth slippery descent from there and walked through the rough country to the lonely ‘shepherds house’ without seeing a soul all day. I arrived at the bothy and crashed around the empty dwelling, making far too much noise I felt and quickly realised that there would be no fire tonight. I hadn’t carried anything in and there was nothing close by. There was a small group of standing trees, all fenced off or behind rough stone walls to protect them from deer but this is a location, typical of many, where you need to pack in fuel. Though I could see where others had clambered over and ripped off living limbs.
I cleaned the days grime off in the nearby stream, changed into insulation layers, cooked an evening meal and considered an early night as the inside grew dark from a combination of no internal lighting and small windows. I lit one of my few tea candles, lined up a second in case I needed it and began to write my trail journal. The door crashed open and Ken Maclean threw in his bag of coal and kindling and introduced himself. The evening improved immensely.
We got the fire burning, lit every tea light we had, hung out clothes on lines above the flames and arranged shoes and boots to dry. Ken shared his whisky, I shared my dark chocolate and he attempted to teach me gaelic while the coals burned. We chatted late into the night. I shared stories of my travels and he told me of fishing the remote lochans and exploring the glens. It was Ken that explained to me that the small adjacent stand included the two trees most frequently found beside bothies: Rowan- ‘to ward off evil spirits‘, and Ash, so that if need be, it could be burnt green, one of the few trees that can. Possibly enough to get a family through a hard winter when snow drifts cover the ground and peat is frozen solid.
“An Tìr, an Cànan, ‘S na Daoine”
In the morning I shared my breakfast with Ken, then, once the two of us had swept up and emptied ash outside, I took the bothy spade and strode out a few hundred metres away to dig a hole for my morning constitutional, squatting over it, midges biting in their hundreds on my exposed cheeks.
Ken and I left Maol-Bhuidhe together, splashed across the stream feeding the little Loch Cruoshie, then parted our ways, he to climb Munros on the way to his next lochan, me to continue to Strathcarron.
Every now and then, a bothy is just about in the perfect place at the perfect time. Having left Ullapool in the morning, I was walking beside Loch an Daimh on the East Rhidorroch Estate. Behind me I could see the rain approaching. I originally had no intention of stopping at Knockdamph bothy but in an exposed terrain I quickly revised my plans. I wandered in to the empty bothy five minutes before it began hammering it down and ten minutes before a group of four more hikers splashed in. I made hot chocolate for the five of us and we swapped stories for an hour, periodically peering out the window. The rain passed, we donned packs and continued our hikes, me in one direction, them in the opposite. Such is opportunity in the Northern Highlands.
Dropping down off Cross Fell on the Pennine Way, Greg’s Hut was being used by a marshal to check through a stream of fell runners. I was stopping there the night and having made a brew I stood outside to watch the athletes pass, runners looking steadily less athletic as time passed. The last came through and the marshal left on his cycle toward Garrigill. I was left alone and sat outside to watch the sun set. Sheep on the slopes below me all also orienting themselves to watch the sun drop and the sky change colour. I heard voices carrying across the hills and an hour later Alex and his pink tracksuited young daughter Lexi arrived. Spartan bothies can be a shock to the uninitiated. In her mind she had built up her expectation of the bothy as some form of adventure palace and her face dropped when she viewed the simple interior and wooden sleeping platform. Within seconds she rallied, adjusted, played outside and then joined her experienced backpacking father, eating an endless array of sweets, making noodles and toasting marshmallows. She was still excitedly chatting at eleven when I dropped off.
Not all bothies are MBA managed and there are some commercial bothies as well as estate maintained bothies. While Three Points of the Compass has spent nights alone in bothies, other bothies can be very popular and it can be almost standing room only on occasion. MBA bothies are not intended for overnight use by groups of six or more, or for extended stays of more than two or three nights. Though occasionally that has been made possible, perhaps for maintenance groups, with permission from the owner.
The MBA website is incredibly useful and they now openly share a map showing the very great majority of their 100 or so bothies, with updated information on each one. Should you wish to directly support the MBA, Three Points of the Compass does encourage you to join. This is around twenty-five quid a year. They are always after helpers on their work parties etc. At the very least, report any damage or issues to the MBA.
Three Points of the Compass would also be remiss if failing to provide a link to the Bothy Code.