Colin Hutchison

IN AN age when even the hostelling network boasts digital wifi, for the uninitiated a night in a bothy can be a humbling experience. Often lying in a remote upland pass in the shadow of a mountain, from Kearvaig in Sutherland to Corrour in the Cairngorms and Over Phawhope in the Borders your stay is always free in these simple stone dwellings.

Yet a shock awaits anyone who hikes to the small, often one-roomed cottage with thoughts of a bothy being akin to glamping. For check-in only requires finding space on the floor for your sleeping bag. There’s no beds or Egyptian cotton sheets within a spartan interior that by torchlight or creeping daylight also reveals itself devoid of electricity and running water.

After a day spent savouring the ever-changing light of a wild landscape, pray you’ve remembered matches. For unless equipped with Ray Mears-esque fire-lighting skills, the only alternative is to hunker down with cold rations, a warm jacket and perhaps a dram.

Hopefully, previous occupants have followed the Bothy Code, leaving the interior clean and carrying out their rubbish. The absence in many bothies of a toilet also requires all to safely ‘deposit’ ablutions away from the building and water courses. "Leave no trace" is the watchword.

Yet despite the scarcity of amenities, there’s never a guarantee of room at the inn. For in the 50th anniversary year of the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA), a charity that with the support of landowners maintains 101 such shelters in the UK, (including more than 70 in Scotland) it seems the bothy is increasingly an appealing destination.

Glasgow-based Neil Stewart has been a member of the MBA for almost 30 years. He notes the 3,700 membership is steadily rising, as more hikers and climbers recognise their convenient location and wish to ensure the shelters don’t fall into disrepair.

“Bothies are mostly located in remote wilderness areas that enable people to stay close to the mountains,” explains Neil. “The facilities are basic but you can keep warm by the fire and meet people from all walks of life.”

In the recreational sense bothying began after the Second World War but the genesis of the MBA started with Bernard Heath. In 1965, aided by friends he transformed the ruined Tunskeen farmhouse in Galloway into a basic shelter.

Since those early days, the commitment of volunteer work parties has seen the MBA breathe new life into many remote dwellings. Hutchison Memorial Hut, dwarfed by the imposing crags of Creagan a Choire Etchachan in the midst of the Cairngorms has been one such beneficiary.

So too has Camasunary on Skye. Neil says: “There's a new bothy at Camasunary. The owner had to take back the original building but was so keen to offer hill-goers such a refuge that he’s kindly paid for the construction of a building nearby. The Royal Engineers laid the foundations.”

As always, from installing windows and stoves to constructing walls, volunteers are heavily involved in making the bothy habitable. Not all are natural Bob the Builder’s. “You always need someone to help make the tea,” quips Neil. Impressive statistics underline this selfless endeavour. Last year, 396 people participated in 113 separate work parties at 59 bothies. In excess of £44,000 was spent. Yet the MBA only owns one bothy – Over Phawhope on the Southern Upland Way.

For those who have found space for their sleeping bag, the warmth of the fire provides a convivial setting for kindred spirits from all walks of life. Academic, lawyer, joiner, student – within these humble walls all share an unspoken joy in safely exploring wild areas by compass and map and finding temporary escape from the hubris of everyday life.

Dave ‘Heavy’ Whalley MBE, for 36 years a member of RAF Mountain Rescue and who was involved in over a thousand such rescues has penned his deep appreciation of the bothy in verse:

Descent to Shenavall (bothy), steep, slippy and wet,

Eroded now by so many feet.

Collect some wood. The bothy, the deer, they are still there;

Shenavall. It never changes, only the seasons.

Fire on, primeval. Tea in hand, alone with thoughts.

the Deer rattle the door, time for sleep.

(Extract from The Journey to Shenavall with kind permission of Dave Heavy Whalley)

Still an active climber and walker, he is drawn to the simple joy of bothies like Shenavall, tucked on the edge of Fisherfield Forest south of Dundonnell in the north-west highlands. He says: “A few years ago I was sitting alone in Shenavall by the fire. It was a crisp snowy winter’s night, a full moon shone and there can’t have been another soul for miles. Next minute there’s a tremendous battering on the door. To say the least I was startled. On going to investigate I found a huge stag battering its antlers off the door. Moments like that scare you to death – especially after a wee dram has got the imagination going,” he laughs.

Whalley, who hails from Ayrshire, was first introduced to bothies by his father. “I first visited a former bothy called Backhill of the Bush in Galloway. Dad would tell me how stalkers or crofter families once lived there. It was amazing to think you were in someone else’s wee house with a stack of wood for the fire and roof over your head for free.

“As a teenager, I’d explore many more. You’d get the fire going, dry your clothes and open a tin of beans for dinner. I loved the camaraderie and the roughness of it all. If you wanted wood and water you had to go and get it!”

Years ago, while on RAF training exercises, he recalls whisky and coal being hidden near bothies for retrieval at a later date. “Like Whisky Galore there must still be one or two whisky bottles amidst the rocks of a few Scottish hillsides. Unfortunately, I’ve long since forgotten where,” he says.

Yet almost 40 years of active involvement in mountain rescue, searching for the lost or injured in all seasons and weather, also sees Heavy offer up more sobering thoughts on the value of such shelters.

“Knowledge of bothies has helped me in my searches all over Scotland. If someone was reported missing we’d quickly check the nearest bothy as quite a few people would leave a note of where they were going. Who knows how many people bothies have saved.”

With dark humour he recalls when in December 1982 a few walkers staying within the old bothy at Camasunary near Loch Coruisk on Skye thought the world had ended.

“A US fighter jet had crashed in Skye and six of us at RAF Kinloss were tasked with going to help. The weather conditions were atrocious. Near the crash site, I told the pilot of a relatively flat area near the secluded bothy. On landing we met the three terrified walkers. Unaware of the plane crash, when it hit the nearby mountainside, the shockwave had sent plaster and dust flying within the wee bothy. It was still the Cold War and the trio had thought a huge bomb had exploded!”

Mountain rescues aside, the secluded location of many a bothy can stir the imagination. It has been said Benalder Bothy, lying in the shadow of Ben Alder far to the west of Dalwhinnie was haunted by the ghost of an old stalker. According to Neil of the MBA, that ghost story has long been laid to rest.

Yet this writer can attest that strange goings-on do occur. On Halloween last year, as darkness fell a friend and I sought refuge from a storm within the Glas Allt Shiel bothy that’s maintained by Dundee University Rucksack Club. Overlooked by tall pines, it adjoins Queen Victoria’s former lodge, shuttered and eerily quiet by the shores of Loch Muick near Ballater.

As we cooked up dinner by torchlight, the door creaked ajar and two smartly dressed men entered. As their powerful torches swept the room, the probing questions were friendly but persistent. Seemingly satisfied our plans were to hike the Lochnagar circuit, they left.

Nature soon called. Outside, my head bowed against the driving rain, powerful lights from two Range Rovers pierced the darkness either side of the bothy entrance. Hours later, huge bangs and whistles jolted us from slumber. At daybreak, the cars were gone, the shutters of the lodge were open and a pile of used fireworks and wine bottles lay neatly stacked for collection. Had we slept near the presence of a royal visitor? We’ll never know.

Still, there’s little mystery in the enduring appeal of the bothy. “I’m sure a lot of people go to bothies to escape and to reflect on life by the fire. Today, when society is so much about take, take, take, the bothy simply gives. It’s unique,” says Heavy. Fifty years on, the humble mountain bothy still offers sanctuary to all.