Over several decades a dedicated band of hill-goers has been gradually restoring the network of huts in Scotland's most Arctic mountain range. The major work may now be over, but that's far from the end of the bothy story in the Cairngorms, says John Burns.
I was a university student when, one bitterly cold February, my college set aside a week for free studies. My fellow students took that time to further their labours in the university library. I, on the other hand, being a climber, hitch hiked to the Cairngorms. It was already dark by the time I kicked my way through three feet of snow and pushed open the door of the Sinclair Hut (as was).
Decades ago many bothies were in a poor state, some in danger being lost completely. They had earth floors, tumbling walls and leaking roofs
Tired and cold, I stepped through the door and entered another world. Kettles steamed on purring paraffin stoves, figures huddled in dark corners and the air was filled with the sound of chatter and laughter. I was immediately welcomed into the company with a mug of tea: these people didn't care who I was. Like them, I was a traveller in wild places, and they made room for me willingly. In this isolated, tiny shelter, sitting in the heart of a vast white landscape, I was among friends. That was my first introduction to the world of bothies, and the magic of it has never left me.
Last weekend I was fortunate to be invited to a very special celebration. It was a gathering of folk who had been involved in the restoration of the bothies of the Cairngorms, a process that began some seventy years ago. Anyone who has been to the Cairngorms will know what a special place they are, with four of the UK's five highest mountains, at times subjected to the nation's severest of weather. Dotted among these remote hills are around a dozen mountain shelters or bothies. These range from very basic shelters, about the size of a garden shed, through one roomed cottages, to a few grander buildings with several rooms and even toilet facilities.
That these shelters not only remain available to anyone wanting to explore wild places, but are flourishing, is largely thanks to a small community of folk who set out to preserve this part of our mountain heritage. Their work began in a very simple way with a few hardy souls wanting to create a basic shelter, known as a howff, where they could spend the night amongst the hills with some degree of protection from the elements.
There is a bond between these folk and the landscape they love. That union is the true value of bothies
Decades ago, many bothies, often the remains of shepherd's cottages, were in a dilapidated state, with some in danger of falling down and being lost completely. Those that still stood had earth floors, tumbling walls and leaking roofs.
Today the bothies that remain are all in good condition and their future as unique mountain shelters secure for generations to come. Their stonework has been rebuilt, their walls lined and insulated and roofs replaced. For the folk of the bothy community in the Cairngorms this has been no mean feat. It began in a small way with a few people patching up broken windows and propping up sagging roofs. Slowly these ad hoc efforts became increasingly organised, with an enormous contribution being made by the Mountain Bothies Association - although not all the bothies that have been renovated fall officially under their remit.
Whilst financial support has come from a wide variety of sources this has largely been an effort supported by the sheer hard work and determination of a small body of men and women. Cement has been carried for miles in rucksacks, and corrugated iron sheets manhandled for hours across the heather. Some bothies had to be meticulously reconstructed with every part of their wooden construction prefabricated in back gardens and work sheds, only to then be hauled on to the hills.
Not only were there many physical barriers to overcome, there were also battles with bureaucracy as not all official bodies saw the value of these rustic shelters. Those that did often laid down very restrictive guidelines for their renovation. That such a huge project has been completed at all is a testimony not only to the skill and hard work of the bothy community but also to their sheer bloody mindedness.
The Secret Howff has now been re-roofed and a new bothy, the Red House, was opened this year, largely completing the project of restoring the bothies of the Cairngorms.
Bothies are not for everyone, but there can be no doubt that they are an important resource for hill goers, often providing a safety net when aims turn out over ambitious or the weather decides to have a little fun. In some places bothies have been the victim of their own success with numbers visiting increasing and problems with litter and human waste growing. There will always be difficulties associated with such shelters, but they are simply further barriers to overcome in the preservation of our mountain heritage.
At that celebration, as I listened to stories being told and poems read, I was struck by the warmth that exists within this community and by the strength of feeling towards these remote places. There is an unbreakable bond between these folk and the landscape they love, and that union is the true value of these bothies.
The era of restoration may have ended for the bothies of the Cairngorms, but the next era is bound to be equally valuable, as new generations fall in love with these wild places. Not long from now another young man or woman will blunder through a bothy door and find themselves sitting beside the fire contemplating the wonders of a newly discovered world. Long may it continue.
John Burns will be performing his one man show Bothy Tales, based on his bestselling book of the same name, on two dates in October and November.
"I suppose not many people would be keen to give up the luxury of modern living and spend time in bothies where the only heat comes from the coal that you carry in and the only light comes from your candles" he says.
"For me there is a simplicity in these places and a quiet peace can be found within their walls which constantly draws me to them. In performing Bothy Tales, I'm trying to bring these remote places alive and to say something about the pleasure I have in exploring them."
- Tiso Outdoor Experience Inverness - 26 October 7pm - tickets available here
- Elgin library - Monday 13 November 6.30 - free event (booking essential)
- Muir of Ord village hall - 19 November 2pm - tickets available from the library
Tickets £5, all proceeds going to Scottish Mountain Rescue
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