Bothy Are Bothies Being Commercialised to Death?
From guided walks to guidebooks, some fear that the unique free-for-all ethos of bothying risks being undermined by money and publicity. Where will it end, asks John Burns
Fancy trying your first bothy night, but unsure which to pick? Here Geoff Allan, author of The Scottish Bothy Bible, offers a selection of the most beginner-friendly bothies, from southern Scotland to Skye.
Bothying can be an immensely rewarding experience, and you don't have to strike out to the farthest corners of the Highlands to have an adventure that will live long in the memory. Many of Scotland's top bothies are easily accessible for the first timer, and armed with some basic knowledge and foresight, plus a positive, open attitude, you can share the warmth of gently radiating stove, snuggle up tight on a raised sleeping platform, and wake up to views not matched by even the most expensive hotels. Granted the accommodation can be a little rudimentary, there are no utilities (gas, electricity or a tap) and only a few bothies have toilets, but with a bit of effort and organisation you can create a glowing sense of home from home.
The real advantage is that the UK-wide network of open shelters are freely available to all, with no booking system or wardens, so you can come and go as you please. In poor weather you don't need to steel yourself to a cramped, uncomfortable night under canvas. All the bothies listed here are maintained by the dedicated volunteers of Mountain Bothies Association (MBA), who hold regular work parties to make sure the shelters remain windproof and watertight. If you're still daunted by the thought of an overnight stay, why not just set out on a day time stroll, stop for lunch and get a feel for what is involved?
Although bothies come in many shapes and sizes, the most common layout is a simple cottage with two rooms, often referred to as a but 'n ben. This is a Scots term which describes a dwelling that has two rooms, the but referring to the kitchen and living room, and the ben the bedroom. From the entrance vestibule there is typically a room to the left and one to the right, and occasionally a small additional chamber straight ahead. There are also variations which involve alcoves and back rooms accessed from the main communal areas. Some also have a porch, which provides additional wind proofing and a useful place to store wet kit. If a bothy has an attic space, entry is gained from secure internal stairs. Generally speaking, the upper floor rooms are used as sleeping accommodation only, although if a bothy is particularly full, different parties have the option to stay together in their own space and set up camp. Many remote bothies have retained their historical character, and still have their original wood panelling, mantelpieces, and even stairs up to attic rooms. Some of the best have sofas, bunk beds and even a library of books left by fellow travellers. A few others have had major renovations and could easily be mistaken for a hostel rather than a basic shelter. No two bothies are the same, and each has its own unique charm and character. Ultimately, it is how you make yourself at home that makes the difference to your bothy experience.
As a bare minimum, bothies will have a table and a couple of chairs, but many also have sleeping platforms, which saves bedding down on the floor. Water comes from a nearby stream, and although there are a few bothies that have long drop latrines, in most cases answering calls of nature involves a walk - far from the hut and water sources - and the use of a spade. For the perfect bothy trip gather together all the usual things you would take camping: rucksack, sleeping bag, insulated sleeping mat, stove, and warm clothes, plus candles, fuel for the fire, and all the treats you can squeeze in to keep spirits high, whether extra chocolate bars, or a wee drop of your favourite alcoholic tipple. In the summer months its also worth thinking about taking a lightweight tent, just in case the bothy is fuller than you would like, though bothy etiquette dictates that there is always space for one more person, however much a squeeze. There is no concept of first come first served, everyone is welcome, however late they arrive.
Here are ten of the best places to whet your appetite, most suitable if you haven't been out on bothy adventure before. Hopefully the first of many!
Tucked away at the head of Ettrick Water, a long winding atmospheric glen in the Scottish Borders, 30 miles south west of Selkirk, Over Phawhope is the only bothy actually owned by the MBA. For a first time bothy experience it's hard to beat. The walk-in is barely a mile, and a great deal of enthusiastic maintenance work has created a very welcoming, cosy interior.
In the communal living space, the original cast iron range is fronted by a woodburning stove, with two carved cherubs facing out from the mantelpiece. The fire surround and other woodwork, once red, has recently been painted a tasteful blue. There is a plush 3-seater sofa and other assorted seats, a table under a south-facing window, plus a long breakfast bar arrangement on the far wall. Through the back is a newly wood-panelled dormitory with a large sleeping platform for six that even has curtains. A small room by the entrance has been transformed from a cold uninviting storage space into a comfortable snug with a sleeping platform for a solo traveller. Although popular and easily accessible, there is usually enough space for everyone to relax and unwind.
This old shepherd's cottage on the Southern Upland Way is another highly recommended beginner's bothy, not least because it is very accessible from the M74 motorway. Historically, this part of Scotland has always been strategically important - the route of a Roman road can be traced right through the region and the outlines of forts, castles and tower houses can be seen dotted along the Annandale Valley. The bothy retains much of its original ambience with many homely touches, including framed pictures and a large woodburning stove. Two bright, whitewashed rooms form the ground floor, with a large open sleeping space in the attic, accessed by a wooden ladder. The left hand room is the main communal area, kitted out with a few kitchen items above the stove, comfortable chairs, tables, and a narrow sleeping platform in a recess. In the sparser right hand room, the fireplace has been bricked up, but it provides useful overflow space if there are multiple parties in the bothy.
It is remarkable about how remote Mark Cottage feels, considering the start of the walk-in to the bothy is only an hour's drive from the heart of Glasgow. A bright whitewashed cottage nestling peacefully on the western shores of Loch Long, the bothy was once home of Scotland's oldest man, James Grieve, who lived to be 110. A photo of him sits above the fireplace in the cottage, taken in 1906.
The interior of the bothy has been partitioned to create two rooms, with large windows front and back giving it a bright welcoming feel. To the left of the entrance a comfortable communal area has two long benches at either side of the well-drawing hearth, and a large alcove at the back with a good-sized work top, a table, chairs and even a small library. The dormitory to the right contains three red bunk-beds sleeping six, though, alas, no mattresses. Although more well known than it used to be, Mark cottage is a real gem, and well worth a visit.
Cadderlie is one of those places where, within five minutes of arriving, you are already planning your next visit. Set a little way above Loch Etive's western shore, 20 miles from the tourist town of Oban, the bothy has stunning loch-side views across to Ben Cruchan and Ben Starav. Its beautiful location even inspired a song by Scottish folk singer Dougie Maclean, whose grandfather was brought up in the cottage.
The building has retained its original wood panelling, and has a very comfortable feel. Its typical but 'n ben layout consists of two rooms, with a small chamber sandwiched between, accessed from a small vestibule. The right hand room is the main communal area, with a fireplace, coffee table, chairs and even a small library. The left hand room is sparser but does have another working hearth. The central room is a dormitory with a large bunk bed sleeping four. If you're planning on a trip up out to the west or onto the Hebredies, it's a wonderful place to stop off.
Enclosed within a small stand of Scots Pines just over three miles above Balmoral in the southern part of Cairngorms National Park, Gelder Shiel Stables sits adjacent a old hunting lodge used occasionally by the royals while on their annual summer retreat. The bothy once had the reputation of being a cold, austere place but has recently had a major renovation, and now offers 5-star accommodation, as befits its upper class association. An enclosed porch keeps out any nagging draughts, while a new wooden floor, walls and ceiling have transformed the interior, and Velux windows in the roof have increased light levels. A new multi-fuel stove keeps the bothy warm. Drainage ditches have also been dug to stop water penetration in wet weather and a lean-to shed at the back houses a long-drop toilet flushed by a bucket of water. Prince Charles officially opened the refurbished bothy in the autumn of 2015, and signed the bothy book for good measure. If you're heading up to Lochnagar from the Deeside side, this is an ideal lunch spot or sleepover.
Deep within the confines of the ancient Scots Pines close to the meandering River Feshie, 15 miles south of the tourist resort of Aviemore, Ruigh Aiteachain 'the shieling of the juniper bush' is one of the best-kept bothies in Scotland. The building is undergoing extensive renovation work under the guidance of new owner Anders Povlsen, and will finally reopen next spring. There have been many delays since the restoration began in early 2016, but the results of the £200,000 investment are spectacular. The ground floor of the bothy consists of two well-proportioned rooms, one leading into the other. In the first room, the three-storey wooden bunk-bed which extended up to the ceiling has been removed, and an additional stove installed sharing a central flue with the existing model in the second room. New windows and doors have been fitted, and dining tables and chairs provided in both, with additional benches doubling up as sleeping platforms along each gable end. The exposed stone walls have been whitewashed, and large south-facing windows provide fine views up the glen. In addition, a new external porch has been constructed, with stairs leading to the attic, providing ample additional sleeping space. A toilet is in a separate outbuilding a few yards away from the bothy. If you are looking for an authentic bothy experience which is not too arduous, look no further than here. Best of all, the estate plans to supply a generous wood pile, a rare thing indeed, the intention being to discourage people from cutting down live wood or burning dead branches in this precious nature conservation area.
Peanmeanach looks out to the Sound of Arisaig on a delightful, intimate curve of raised beach, with a view over to Ardnamurchan and Eigg as seductive and familiar to me, as any in the country. The bothy is beloved by many, a refuge for nights of whiskey and song aplenty, but also marriage proposals have been uttered within its walls, and memories of first childhood footsteps across the threshold retold as youths, parents and retirees.
Staying here on the southern coast of the rugged Ardnish Peninsula, below the A830 Fort William to Mallaig Road, and the West Highland Railway Line, time seems to stand still, with little more to do than wander the coast, or perhaps hunt out mussels in the mudflats. The building has two downstairs rooms and an extensive loft area above. Both ground floor rooms have fireplaces, the right hand side a bunk-bed platform sleeping four. The combination of easy accessibility, reasonably straightforward walk-in, and wonderful location make it a perfect place for a bothy weekend, even for those who wouldn't normally see themselves as hardy adventures. Best to take a tent in the summer months, as it's a very popular destination.
If you have the time available to head a little further north, my top recommendation is a visit to Coire Fionnaraich, which graces the Scottish Bothy Bible's front cover. Surrounded by dramatic, steep-sided red sandstone peaks, the bothy is an impressive old stalker's cottage, and provides an excellent base for the classic Munro round of Maol Chean-Dearg (933m) and Sgorr Ruadh (962m). Fuar Tholl and An Ruadh-Stac (892m), two more fantastic Corbetts, are also close by. The name Fionn, means 'bright', 'white' or 'fair' in Gaelic, and celebrates the mythical Irish warrior-giant, known in English as Finn MacCool. He has many geographical features attributed to him, including Fingal's Cave on Staffa. A large pointed boulder, a little wander past the bothy, is said to have been used by the giant to tether his hunting dogs. The bothy stands a little taller than many of its contemporaries, and has a distinctive tiny window above the doorway that lights a wee nook on the landing. Sadly, a mature rowan tree which grew just in front of the building no longer stands, but many of the interior features are intact, including the stairs and most of the wood panelling. On the ground floor there are two communal rooms, though only one is regularly used as it has a stove, while the hearth in the other has, unfortunately, been blocked up. Upstairs, the two attic rooms, each with a small window, make excellent dormitories.
Another fine bothy, Craig (simply 'rock' in Gaelic) lies 15 miles west of the spectacular peaks of Torridon, above the northern coastal shore looking out over to Skye, Applecross and the Western Isles. This large, well appointed former youth hostel is the height of luxury in the bothy world, and still retains the feel of its former life. There are three rooms on the ground floor, and three bedrooms above. The hostel's gas lighting and piped water supply were removed, but there is an outside toilet that you flush using a bucket. To the left of the entrance hallway is the common room and kitchen area, featuring a large, striking Celtic mural. There is a small stove, a large dining table, benches, and a couple of comfortable chairs. The kitchen retains the original work surfaces and cupboards, but there is no sink. The room to the right of the hallway is unfortunately blocked off. Immediately upstairs is a small cubby-hole with two single beds. To the right is the old warden's bedroom with some furniture, books, and two further single beds with mattresses. The left hand room is empty, but still a perfectly acceptable space to rest your head. Four miles of rough walking along the coast brings you to Redpoint beach, a very atmospheric spot, and a fine day out if you're staying for a couple of days.
And finally, one of the most thrilling places to spend a bothy night - The Lookout on the north tip of Skye. This former coastguard watch station, positioned precariously close to the cliff top above Rubha Hunish, offers a panorama encompassing the entire Western Isles, and on a clear day, the profile of the mainland all the way to Cape Wrath. The bothy is a fantastic spot for whale and dolphin watching: schools of migrating minkes pass through the Minch in the autumn, and various other sightings are recorded in the logbook. The watch room was built in 1928 and the station operated until the 1970s when advances in radio technology superseded the need for a duty officer.
From the entrance lobby there is an open dormitory to the left, a galley kitchen facing you, and to the right, the communal area with the impressive bay window. There is some seating, a coffee table and a small blocked-up fireplace in one corner. An old-style telephone hangs on the wall, along with an information board and a poster identifying different whales, dolphins and porpoises. The only drawback is the ½ mile walk to the nearest stream, which can run dry. The best option is to visit the Trotternish Art Gallery, Solitote (NG428742) where the bothy's maintenance person is happy will fill up water bottles. The bothy is now much more regularly used than even a couple of years ago, mainly due to the increasing popularity of the Skye Trail, which starts here. Carrying in a tent in the summer months is probably a wise move.
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