Mountain Literature Classics: Mountain Days and Bothy Nights

© Alex Roddie

There's a unique subculture surrounding the mountain bothies of the Scottish Highlands. Open to all, regulated only by a code of decency and common sense, these simple shelters form a vital part of our mountain heritage today. But younger armchair mountaineers may not know the whole story. That's where Mountain Days and Bothy Nights comes in.

Alex enjoying some Mountain Days...  © Alex Roddie
Alex enjoying some Mountain Days...
© Alex Roddie

In the decades immediately after the Second World War, a new generation of walkers took to the Scottish hills. They had better gear than their forebears – army surplus, mostly, for those who could afford it – but wild camping was still not practical for most, and the existence of a network of bothies allowed people to stay out in the mountains with nothing more than a sleeping bag or blanket. These egalitarian shelters became focal points for an emerging hillwalking subculture.

Mountain Days and Bothy Nights was published in 1987. Written by Dave Brown and Ian R Mitchell, experienced stravaigers, it takes the reader back to the 1960s and brings that era to life through the antics of characters with names like 'Fishgut Mac', 'Desperate Dan', and 'Stumpy'. It's a genuinely funny book in places, but much more than that it paints a vivid picture of life before Gore-Tex, lightweight tents, or even the widespread availability of private cars.

Hillwalking was more political in the 1960s than it is today. The hill-going youth portrayed in this book were fighting for the access rights we often take for granted now. Bothy nights were characterised by fierce, whisky-fuelled debates between communists and anarchists. But as much as I was struck by the differences between the 1960s and today, I also find the similarities remarkable – it was a period of social division and upheaval, but also increasing leisure time and affluence.

If you began your hillwalking career in that era, Mountain Days and Bothy Nights will bring it all back to you. If you're too young to remember those days, it'll open your eyes to how things were before the commercialisation of the outdoors. Either way, this is a splendid book about tramping the Scottish hills.

I asked Chris Townsend, one of the UK's leading hillwalking and backpacking authorities, what Mountain Days and Bothy Nights means to him (and if you liked this, you might enjoy Chris's latest book Out There: A Voice From the Wild):

"I've always been fascinated by the history and culture of mountaineering and hillwalking" he said.

"I like bothies too. This book combines these in a series of humorous and informative tales that capture a long-gone period. It opened up the world of bothy life as it was just before I discovered bothies and greatly enhanced my bothy nights."

Let's wrap it up with this extract from the Skye chapter, which I think sums up the irreverent humour of the book:

"Getting to Skye was always a problem. Hitch-hiking in high summer was murder, and people used to spend valuable days of short summer holidays standing rooted in some God-forsaken spot like Crianlarich or, worse, Tyndrum, soaked or sweating, but invariably being driven near demented by the ubiquitous midges."

These days hitch-hiking may have gone the way of orange cagoules and army surplus boots, but there are some things that don't change. The midges have gone nowhere - and thankfully we still have bothies to provide an escape from them.

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