For free accommodation without the weight of a tent you can't beat a bothy. A storm-proof base in wild mountain country, and a welcome refuge from the midges; a place for chance meetings and fireside fun; a door open to all, completely gratis – there's a lot to be said for bothies, and we're lucky to have so many of these spartan shelters hidden away in our hills.
If you've walked in the Alps or the Pyrenees you'll be familiar with their organised networks of well-appointed mountain huts. But think again. Bothies are nothing like these. So put away your wallet and your membership card, roll up your sleeves and prepare to enjoy something slightly more anarchic and a lot shabbier around the edges. Bothies are for everyone, and you generally get out what you're prepared to put in.
"Put away your wallet and your membership card, roll up your sleeves and prepare to enjoy something slightly more anarchic."
There are no hut guardians to cook, clean and keep order (that's all up to you); no rules (but a sensible 'code'); and no official members-only organisations (but a handy charity). Their facilities might be minimal, but their settings make up for it. Bothying is all about location, location, location. Yet newcomers to the bothy scene could be excused for finding it all a bit mysterious. So what's the crack? Where can you find them? And what are the basic dos and don'ts?
Founded in 1965, the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) is a charity that maintains remote buildings for which the owner has little or no use, yet which remain important to walkers and climbers. They don't own any bothies but merely maintain them with the agreement and encouragement of the owners – a handy arrangement for landowners perhaps, but also quite useful for the rest of us. All maintenance is carried out by volunteer work parties drawn from the ranks of MBA membership. Thanks to them not only are about 100 bothies in great locations across the hills of Britain kept open, but their details are just a mouse click away.
"Once a closely guarded secret, the location of all MBA-maintained bothies in the UK is now freely available on their website."
Once a closely guarded secret known only to those with the wherewithal to join the MBA and gain access to its list of bothies, the location of all MBA-maintained bothies in the UK is now freely available on their website. It should come as no surprise that the vast majority of these are in Scotland, but several are hidden away in the wilder corners of England and Wales too. Finding a roof for the night couldn't be easier; now all you've got to do is walk there. Even if you're already familiar with your chosen bothy it's worth checking its details on the MBA website in advance of any trip just in case it happens to be closed due to stalking activity or maintenance work.
The MBA has responsibility for only 100+ bothies, but there are scores more out there – some maintained by landowners but kindly left open to passing walkers; others kept going by anonymous enthusiasts on an ad-hoc basis (if at all). Some of these are well known and heavily used, but many remain obscure - and this exclusivity is part of their attraction. It could take a lifetime of hunting to ferret them all out for yourself, but a lot can be learned from a fireside chat with a friendly bothy aficionado. Top tip – whisky is a great tongue-loosener. Just don't go blabbing.
Why are once-inhabited glens now deserted? From prehistoric hut circles to the ruins of villages emptied in the Clearances or the Enclosures, traces from thousands of years of human occupation litter Britain's hills. Bothies are just a well-preserved piece of this larger jigsaw. You may happily use a bothy without thinking once about its past – we all do – but as with classic rock climbs, for instance, some sense of the history of place and our continuity with those who came before can enrich the experience. It's a safe bet your bothy wasn't built for the convenience of hillwalkers or climbers, so what is it doing there at all? Perhaps it was originally a farmstead or a staging post on a cattle drover's route; or maybe a barracks or a miner's hut? It may have been built to house estate workers - many bothies still fulfil this function in the stalking season.
Over time the need for houses in remote areas has gradually waned, leaving hundreds of buildings standing empty in the hills. Enter the dossers. The history of bothying for fun stretches well back into the last century. In Scotland in particular nights out have long been integral to the hillwalking scene, and bothies have served as a gathering point for generations of weekending hillgoers. Mountain Days and Bothy Nights by Dave Brown and Ian Mitchell is the seminal text on the postwar bothying experience:
"This is miserable, but for a' that, the misery does mean something. There's tales to be told, craft to be passed on, lessons to be drawn. The next generation... needs a bit o' depth. Otherwise it'll all become clinical and technical, a go-faster Gore-Tex world."
You can leave your own modest mark on history by recording your visit in the logbook - every MBA-maintained hut should have one, and reading past entries can help while away a damp evening. Hidden amongst the inevitable penis drawings and tall tales of meeting the Swedish women's beach volleyball team on Sgurr na Ciche you'll find the occasional interesting or amusing contribution.
Bothying is best considered a form of indoor camping. Spartan facilities are the norm, and you'll invariably need to bring a sleeping bag, mat and cooking gear. Having packed that lot you might as well throw in a lightweight bivvy bag too for maximum flexibility and a bit of a safety margin. That way, if you fail to reach your bothy for any unforseen reason you'll still be able to bed down for the night wherever you end up. Besides, if you arrive late to find a bothy already packed to the rafters with sweaty hikers then bivvying outside might seem a better option anyway.
A headtorch is de rigeur of course, but they are no good for olde worlde ambience, and you might want to save the batteries for the hill. A handful of night lights or other small candles weigh nothing in your pack, and provide hours of night time illumination. To boost their light try using sheets of aluminium foil as improvised reflectors. Any unused candles can be left for future occupants.
Among their limited mod cons some bothies boast fireplaces or stoves, in various states of functionality. There's no smoke without fire they say, but anyone who's enjoyed a bothy chimney that refuses to draw will beg to differ. A fire (or, rather, smoke) provides a focal point for the evening, and even weakly flickering flames are more fun to watch than a headtorch beam. Cold weather bothying is never exactly comfortable, but if you can survive the smoke inhalation it's better to be a slightly warm kipper than a block of ice.
"If you can survive the smoke inhalation it's better to be a slightly warm kipper than a block of ice."
Plundering bothy furniture for firewood isn't the done thing, so where are you going to get it? Thanks to all those sheep and deer the hills are generally fairly treeless, and while limited lying firewood can sometimes be gathered (or even dug, thousands of years old, out of the bogs), you're better off bringing fuel with you. Coal, peat blocks or 'firelogs' are all good options. Firelighters are worth having too, in case the kindling is damp. The downside of course is that you'll have to lug all this fuel in, so do establish if there's anywhere to burn it before you go, since many bothies have no fireplace of any kind. And of course make damn sure not to burn your accommodation to the ground; it does occasionally happen.
Bothy nights are long and chilly, and even a fire loses its appeal without something to drink beside it. Tea or hot chocolate are all very well, but most hill folk rightly favour something stronger. Booze is a traditional part of the bothy scene, and who are you to go changing that? It's great to share a nip or three with fellow doss denizens, and if it helps you sleep through the noise of rumbling snorers and rustling rodents then it could even help you wake refreshed for a day on the hill. Well, maybe.
Of course when it comes to high spirits some people just don't know when to stop, and some bothies have gained a reputation for ultra heavy drinking, drugs and vandalism. Backhill of Bush in Galloway is one such, a well-located hut at risk of being lost to the hillgoing community thanks to an antisocial few. Easy vehicle access has done it no favours, attracting the sort of party crowd that don't clear up the morning after; there are similar goings on elsewhere too. It would be nice to think that at least hillwalkers and climbers have sense enough not to smash bottles and shit indoors.
There's something sad – even spooky – about an empty hut. The bothy experience is all about people; random folk sharing one another's company, exchanging tips, nips and hill tales around the fire before cheerily going off their separate ways in the morning. It's possible to have too much of a good thing though, and company is no exception. At peak times the best-known bothies in the most popular hillwalking areas can fill to capacity, and weekend latecomers might struggle to find enough floor space for a mat. In this situation you've a choice - either take it in your stride in good grace and treat it as part of the fun, or go and wild camp somewhere quieter.
The MBA's short list of dos and don'ts is a good guide to all bothy stays, MBA or not:
Respect other users
Leave the bothy clean and tidy with dry kindling for the next visitors; make other visitors welcome.
Respect the bothy
Tell the MBA about any accidental damage. Don't leave graffiti or vandalise the bothy. Take out all rubbish which you can't burn and avoid burying it; this pollutes the environment. Don't leave perishable food that'll attract vermin. Guard against fire risk and ensure the fire is out before you leave. Make sure the doors and windows are properly closed when you leave.
Respect the surroundings
If there is no toilet at the bothy (almost always the case) then bury human waste out of sight. Use the spade provided, keep well away from the water supply and never use the vicinity of the bothy as a toilet. Never cut live wood or damage estate property. Use fuel sparingly.
Respect agreement with the estate
Please observe any restrictions on use of the bothy, for example during stag stalking or at lambing time. Please remember bothies are available for short stays only. The owner's permission must be obtained if you intend an extended stay.
Respect the restriction on numbers
Because of overcrowding and the general lack of facilities large groups (which the MBA class as six or more) should not use a bothy, nor camp near a bothy without first seeking permission from the owner. Bothies are not available for commercial groups.
Volunteers' work comes cheap, but the MBA still have to pay for all bothy maintenance out of their own funds. Ultimately, the continued existence of MBA bothies rests on the generosity of members and the wider hillgoing public. You don't have to grow a beard and join them in order to help them out, but an occasional modest contribution seems a small price to pay for years of free accommodation in the wilds. You can make a donation to the MBA here.