Geoff Allan is working his way through all 80 or so MBA-maintained bothies in Scotland on a combination of public transport and bike. He is currently completing a book about his favourites. Some bothies are best accessed on two wheels, reckons Geoff, and here he offers us a few recommendations.
When I was forced to sell my careworn jalopy in 2012, and looked round to see that my friends had suddenly got more and more family commitments, I didn't despair. Instead I got on my bike. Biking into bothies is admittedly a niche activity, but it has really caught my imagination over the last couple of years.
Worried at first that not having a car would bar me from my favourite haunts, I soon discovered that with a bit of application you can still get out there on two wheels. Step up to the challenge and you'll be rewarded with a comfortable night in a bothy at the end of a long day in the saddle. With a bike I can still revel in bothy culture, the swapping of tales round the fire, and still feel right at home in the hills. The slow pace of cycle touring has also given me a whole new appreciation of the country. And of course on a bike you have to earn every incline... yes, biking to bothies really is good for the soul.
So how do you solve the weighty logistical problems that arise when going on an archetypal bothy trip without a car? There are a few stunning places which are easily accessible by public transport, most notably Staoineag and Meanach from Corrour Station, or Sourlies from Inverie, but the majority of the grid references that are now so tantalisingly displayed on the Mountain Bothies Association website can seem a little out of reach. It is possible, of course, to submit to the vagaries of hitching, and despite the loss of five post bus routes in 2009 there are still some useful local bus services. But it all seems like hard work. Enter the bike.
Now I can understand a certain amount of scepticism about the limitations of panniers compared to a fully laden rucksack. No, you can't expect to fit in all the bothy luxuries that you might want to augment your stay. Basically you won't be able to load up a full quotient of alcohol, unless you're a true devotee, and perhaps most crucially there isn't going to be room for that comforting bag of coal. However you can be quite canny about your choice of location in terms of finding wood to burn on a fire, and as most cycle trips are generally planned for the summer months, ultimately I don't think it seriously diminishes the experience. I would also emphasise that with a positive attitude, and at least some expectation of the generally happy randomness which is the bothy experience, there is always the possibility of the generosity of others.
Remember that you must book your bike on every Scotrail service heading north from Glasgow and Edinburgh, to guarantee a place for it. I have had a couple of tense moments with train guards when I've failed to do this! I have also contemplated sticking my trusty steed on a Citylink coach, but so far haven't fancied squashing it between a potential avalanche of suitcases.
You really don't need a flash bike. I just have a fixed fork mountain bike bought from my local second-hand bike co-op. However, I think it is worth spending money on a good set of panniers, though I did set off on my first trip with an odd set I found in back of a cupboard. If you have the ready cash to purchase a bob trailer, that may be an elegant solution, though I have no experience of them myself. As for the dilemma of tyre choice, I prefer to stick with slicks on my bike, which definitely help on the tarmac, but it does mean I probably cycle a bit more gingerly off-road than I would with full tread tyres.
There is also the possibility of going the whole hog and getting into fat biking, or following the new trend of lightweight 'bikepacking'. But the mindset of those people is a bit too hard core for me. I like my creature comforts! There's such a thing as too spartan, so I generally carry a tent just in case. After all, on a multi-day tour it gives you more flexibility about where you can stay.
Below are some of the best bothies that you can get to by a combination of train and bike; I've included a couple of more ambitious trips among them, to show just how much is still possible when you swap four wheels for two.
Location: NS229952 On the shore of Loch Long at the end of the Ardgarten Peninsula, in a surprisingly isolated spot hidden away in an extensive forestry plantation. A gas storage facility on the opposite bank provides an incongruous juxtaposition, but strangely doesn't impact on the ambience of the place. The building has been lovingly renovated and has the feel of a hostel rather than a bothy.
Map: OS Landranger 56
Open: throughout the year. Beware of fire risk in the area around the bothy
Layout: two rooms: Communal room containing original fireplace and kitchen area, plus dormitory with 3 bunk beds but no mattresses.
Stream close to the bothy; Plenty of fuel in the surrounding woodland.
Nearest station: Arrochar - West Highland Line to Oban, Fort William and Mallaig
Route: From Arrochar follow the A83 west for 4 miles through the village and round the head of the Loch Long. Turn left off at the Forest Enterprise Information Centre signposted to the Ardgarten Hotel. Follow a tarmac road along the loch side before climbing up to a large parking area at Coliessan Glen (NN258012) where there is a locked gate. From here is a straightforward trundle through the forest following the 150m contour, before a left hand turn is taken downhill a mile or so from the bothy.
- Total distance: 14km
- Road section: 9.5km with just one steady ascent up to the car park
- Off road: 4km - Track condition very good, gently undulating before a steep descent to the bothy.
- Start elevation 50m; Max elevation 150m; Total height gain: 230m
Location: NN835738 Seven miles north of Blair Atholl, in a sweep of land that has been included within the boundary of the Cairngorms National Park since 2010. The bothy is tucked away in a sheltered spot next to the Allt Scheicheachan Burn, south of the sprawling bulk of Beinn Dearg. The bothy is a small, intimate affair with white washed walls and a good hearth.
Map: OS Landranger 43
Open: all year. Check hill phones if going to the hills during the stalking season.
Layout: Single communal room with a fireplace, table and a couple of benches. Additional sleeping accommodation in the slightly claustrophobic attic space above, accessed by a ladder in the adjoining storage room used by the estate.
Stream close to the bothy; No fuel, so if possible it would be advantageous to cycle some in
Nearest station: Blair Atholl - on the Perth to Inverness Highland Line.
Route: Turn right out of the station, and after 500m left up a single track road signposted to Glen Tilt car park. After half a mile turn left again to Old Blair, and continue heading west through a crossroads, and on past the car park (NN866667) where the tarmac runs out. Keep to the main track which slopes gently up through the woods above the east side of the Banvie Burn, and out onto the empty moorland. The track climbs steadily out of the valley and into Glen Bruar where there is a gentle descent to the bothy.
- Total distance: 11km
- Road section: 3.5km pretty straightforward
- Off road: 8km Track condition very good, with a slow steady climb and easy final descent
- Start elevation 130m; Max elevation 520m; Total height gain: 400 m
Location: NN046370 On the western shore of Loch Etive, three and a half miles north of the road end at Bonawe, opposite the impressive skyline of Ben Cruchan. The bothy is set a little way from the water, in a clearing between a beautiful strip of deciduous woodland that is a special area of conservation, and a plot of commercial conifers. The building has retained its original wood panelling, and has a very comfortable, convivial feel.
Map: OS Landranger 50
Open: Bothy is closed during stalking season, 20 Sept to 20 Oct. Vehicles are not permitted beyond the entrance to Bonawe quarry.
Layout: Three rooms: RH room communal area, fireplace, table and even a small library. LH room more sparse but does have a working fire. Central room used as a dormitory and contains a large bunk bed.
Stream very close to bothy; Plenty of fallen wood in the surrounding trees, please do not cut live branches.
Nearest station: Connel Bridge – West Highland Line to Oban
Route: Cycle through the village and left onto the A82 Oban road. After half a kilometre take another left round a loop onto, and over the Connel Bridge heading for Fort William on the A828. Straight after crossing the bridge, turn right onto a minor road signposted to Ardchattan Priory and Bonawe, which winds its way around the northern side of Loch Etive. 300m before the road end there is a parking area and a small quarry. The track to the bothy is clearly signposted, initially skirting round an extraction spoil heap, before heading up the loch side. The bothy is set a short distance down from the track towards the shore, from just beyond a small bridge which crosses the Cadderlie Burn.
- Total distance: 22km
- Road section: 16km, a few ups and downs but all very manageable
- Off road: 5.5 km Track condition very good, gently undulating all the way. May have to push bike over short, steep spoil heap section.
- Start elevation 12m; Max elevation 33m; Total height gain: 150m
Although there are no Munros within range of the bothy, Beinn Mheadhonach (715m) and Beinn Molurgainn (690m) are both fine hills to wander up, and the Corbett Beinn Trilleachan (839m) is not too far away for bike-assisted walkers.
Location: NT312000 On the northern side of the picturesque Eskdale Valley, close to the source of Meggat Water, 10 miles from the borders town of Langholm. The bothy sits in a small clearing within a large conifer plantation, which is part of the extensive Eskmuirdale forest. The building has been recently renovated and added to the MBA roster, and is a great little retreat.
Map: OS Landranger 79
Open: throughout the year. Beware of fire risk in the area around the bothy.
Layout: three rooms: LH room, airy, unfinished communal room containing stove and wide shelving on back wall, RH room has a more intimate feel with a fireplace, and sleeping platforms along two walls, while the central room is purely a dormitory, with a sleeping platform for three people.
Stream close to the bothy; Fuel available in the surrounding woodland
Nearest station: Lockebie – Line from Edinburgh to Carlisle and Manchester
Route: From the station head north out of the village taking a right hand fork at a junction to Eskmuirdale on the B723. Just before you reach the village, turn right down the B709 through a sharp dog leg and follow this road to just before it crosses the river at Westkirk Mains. Left and left again up the single track road up Meggat water. The road finishes at Jamestown, where there is a small car park. Continue along a Landrover track further up into the glen, to the start of a conifer plantation 500m before the bothy is reached. Here there is a locked gate, and it is an unfortunate case of hoofing your bike over the obstacle and walking through an overgrown section 200m, before a more substantial track re-emerges. Take the right hand track, trending initially downhill, the final stretch to a clearing, where the bothy comes into view.
- Total distance : 42.5km
- Road section: 39.5km A lovely cycle through an undulating landscape, with a number of reasonably steep slopes to keep you honest, and one long pull south of Eskmuirdale. Then a steady climb up to the road end.
- Off road: 4km Track condition very good - steady gradient, steep in a couple of places. The last small section at the boundary of the forestry plantation is overgrown.
- Start elevation 80m; Max elevation 290m; Total height gain: 650m
No real obvious hills but there's great mountain biking in the area
Location: NN394936 In the upper reaches of Glen Roy, close to the watershed of the River Spey, a wild stretch of moorland between the Creag Meagaidh hills to the south, and the Corrieyairack pass to the north. The bothy is quite exposed and isolated, but very cosy once the stove is lit.
Map: OS Landranger 34
Open: throughout the year. Deer control: the stag stalking season runs from 15 August to 20 October and the hind cull runs from 21 October to 15 February; before going to the hills during these periods please contact the estate or use Hill Phones to find out where deer control is taking place, Braeroy Estate (01397) 712587.
Layout: Communal area contained in just the attic space of the building. There is a small Dowling stove at one end, with a coffee table and some chairs to add touches of homeliness. The downstairs is an open shell which is used for storage.
Stream very close to the bothy; Fuel scarce, although supplies are regularly donated by the estate.
Nearest station: Roybridge - West Highland Line to Fort William and Mallaig
Route: Head west through the village on the A86 to Spean Bridge, before turning right on the single track road signposted to Bohuntine and Brae Roy. Head steadily up hill to a view point, and then onto the road end at Brae Roy Lodge. Track continues up the glen rising steadily all the way until the bothy comes into view, where it mercifully levels off.
- Total distance: 22km
- Road section: 14.5 km Uphill most of the way, with one relieving downhill section at about half distance
- Off road: 7.5 km Track condition pretty good, though stony in places, and there are a number of steep sections where you have to get off and push. There are also a couple of fords to negotiate. A tough ride, not for the fainthearted.
- Start elevation 90m; Max elevation 340m; Total height gain: 330m
From the bothy there is a rare opportunity to explore the north side of the Creag Meagaidh massif, with a round of Stob Poite Coire Ardair (1053m) and Creag a' Bhanain (849m) the most obvious route, and possibly on to Creag Meagaidh itself if you're feeling adventurous. In the other direction the remote Corbett Carn Leac (884m) is certainly worth a bag.
Location: NM617372 Two thirds of the way up Glen Forsa, on the eastern side of Mull, south of the village of Salen. The bothy sits on a slope above a series of conifer plantations which hug the valley floor. The building is very well maintained, and although its very accessible, does not receive that many visitors.
Map: OS Landranger 49
Open: Deer Control: the stag stalking season runs from Aug 15 to Oct 20 and the hind cull 21 Oct to 15 Feb. The bothy is open throughout this period but before going out on the hill during these periods please contact the Glen Forsa Estate office 01680 300674
Layout: Three rooms: RH room communal area, fireplace, table and benches. LH room of similar size but contains a long bunk bed that runs along the wall opposite another fire place. Central room is very cosy and contains a sleeping platform that fills most of its interior.
Fast flowing stream a small walk down from the bothy; firewood sparse - getting a supply requires a search of the plantations below the bothy.
Nearest station: Oban: Terminus of the West Highland Line. Then take a Calmac ferry to Craigmure on Mull. Trains are integrated to the ferry times and cycles are free.
Route: From the ferry pier turn right onto the A849 signposted to Salen and Tobermory. Follow the road round the coast for 9 miles to a section of the highway where it splits into two, with a grass island between the carriageways. Just before the road converges again take a left onto an unmetalled road that leads up Glen Forsa. Follow the track along the valley floor for just over three miles, before turning right up a steepening track to the bothy.
- Total distance: 22km
- Road section: 16 km a few lumps and bumps and one steep hill at about one third distance.
- Off road: 5.5 km Track condition very good, pretty flat except for the last bit up to the bothy which requires you to get off and push. There is also a ford on this final section of track which could be hazardous in bad weather.
- Start elevation 0m; Max elevation 95m; Total height gain: 230m
Part of the reason why the bothy is unused must be because it is too far away from Ben More to undertake the hill in all but a ridiculously long day walk. A round of the excellent Beinn Talaidh (761m) and the hills to the south is a fine day out though.
The Schoolhouse, Duag Bridge
Location: NH340975 At the confluence of two rivers which feed into Glen Einig, four miles south west of the hotel at Oykel Bridge, on the northern edge of the remote wilderness which stretches between Bonar Bridge and Ullapool. The bothy has been recently renovated to a very high standard, and looks like a pint sized village hall.
Map: OS Landranger 20
Open: Not available during stag stalking, Sept 1 to Oct 20.
Layout: Three rooms - LH room: Snug, wood-panelled room with sleeping platforms along two walls, which would not look out of place in a hostel. RH room, large area which has the feel of a meeting room with table and plastic chairs. Third room is a small space mainly used for storage.
Stream a small walk from the bothy; No stove or fireplace, but the extensive wind and waterproofing should provide enough warmth in all but the most extreme conditions.
Nearest station: Choice between Culrain or Invershin – North Highland line from Inverness to Wick.
Route: Take either the back road from Culrain to Inveroykel on the south side of Strath Oykel if you fancy some hills, or the much flatter A837 from the request stop at Invershin, and head on to Oykel Bridge. Just before the hotel turn left down over the bridge, and past a row of houses. A well graded, unmetalled access road leads from here over another bridge and along the southern side of Glen Einig, parallel to the river. This track runs straight past the bothy and on to Corriemulzie Lodge. The only point of potential confusion is at the junction after the bend at NH 367 985, where the upper track is taken rather than the one that heads to the river. This track does also reach the bothy but is extra height loss and increased distance.
- Total distance: 30.5km
- Road section: 25km Very enjoyable cycle on some very quiet roads. Back road has a couple of steady climbs, whereas the direct A837 route is flatter with only one steep section to negotiate.
- Off road: 5.5km Track condition very good, steadily rising up the contours and then downhill for the final stretch.
- Start elevation 20m; Max elevation 150m; Total height gain: 360m
The bothy provides an excellent base for an attempt on Seana Bhraigh (927m), one of the most remote and spectacular Munros in Scotland. It is also possible to cycle on to Coiremor bothy under the ridge of Creag an Duine, and start from there, but the added distance and two potentially hazardous crossings of the Allt a'Choire Bhuidhe (NH293912) and the main Corrieulzie River (NH293906), makes this route more impractical. In my opinion it is better to cycle in on a day trip, and dump the bike at the first river crossing before heading up the hill from there.
Location: NC292727 On the far north coast of Scotland, three miles from Cape Wrath, the most north westerly point of the country, and ten miles the the village of Durness. This superb bothy is set in its own secluded bay, and was extensively refurbished in 2009. It now has the feel of an exclusive hostel rather than a humble doss, and is one of the most magical bothies to visit in the country.
Map: OS Landranger 9
Open: The bothy is on land owned by the MOD and at times access is restricted (see below).
Layout: The building is a three room cottage, an extended version of the conventional bothy imprint, with a separate 'side school' bolted on to the side, that makes a very cosy snug. The right hand room of the main building is the communal area, while the left hand room contains just a sleeping platform above a concrete floor. There are also two wood panel lined rooms in the attic. The end room is effectively an independent little bothy in itself, with its own entrance door, hearth and sleeping platform.
Stream runs close to the bothy; No fuel except for the odd bit of driftwood.
'Nearest' station: Lairg on the North Highland line from Inverness to Wick... which is nowhere near. This bothy has been included on the basis that you have a few days to spare, and are undertaking a cycle tour of the northern highlands!
From Lairg I would recommend heading up to the coast via the A836 to Tougue via the Crask Inn, and Altnaharra, before heading west on the A838 to Durness. Camping is available at the Crask Inn and there are two bothies on the way round which are also accessible by bike:
Achnanclach (NC631512) One and a half mile walk with the bike along rough track past the head of Loch Loyal. Bit of a sweat but you'll get there; Strabeg (NC392518) Just under two miles part cycle/part walk. Final mile can be pretty boggy but with some perseverance the bothy is well worth it.
Route to Kervaig: From Durness head south to Keoldale where there is a small ferry which runs across the Kyle, operating daily in the summer months. The timetable is not fixed, and sailings generally depend the tides, the weather and on how much traffic is queued up for the crossing. From the pier on the far side, head along a metalled road for seven miles, before heading down a curving track for the final stretch to the bay. The one thing that you should be aware of is the occasional restrictions enforced by the Cape Wrath Ministry of Defence (MOD) which has a firing range between the bothy and the Kyle of Durness. Times of exercises can be found on the Visit Cape Wrath website- www.visitcapewrath.com/mod/.
- Total distance: 12km
- Road section: 25km Road in good condition all the way, very steep pull on the road up from the ford at Dallt up onto the moor gets the legs working hard.
- Off road: 0.8 km Track very straightforward, sloping gently downhill to the bay.
- Start elevation 0m; Max elevation 174m; Total height gain: 230m
The dramatic cliffy coastline of Cape Wrath is on your doorstep, while in the wild interior are several small but interesting summits, such as Fashven (460m). Beware live firing on the MOD land however.
About Geoff Allan
Geoff Allan is in the process of making a 'slow, meandering attempt to complete a round of all the MBA bothies in Scotland', using his trusty old bike wherever possible. He is currently putting the finishing touches to the manuscript of a book, a comprehensive guide to 25 of the finest bothies in Scotland.
You can follow Geoff's continuing progress on his blog. 'If you have any queries about anything to do with bikes, bothies or bothying then do get in touch' he says.