Bothy business: Scotland’s free-to-use holiday huts

Fancy a break from civilisation? There are more than 150 rural bothies that may be just the ticket

Peanmeanach sits above a raised beach on the rugged headland of Arnish on Scotland’s western seaboard. Photograph: Geoff Allan

Peanmeanach sits above a raised beach on the rugged headland of Arnish on Scotland’s western seaboard. Photograph: Geoff Allan

 

Scotland’s wilderness has a rugged beauty, where nature soothes the soul. Imagine trekking through the twilight of a soft summer evening after a long day in the hills. You ford a stream and scan the horizon, wondering where to set up camp for the night. And what could be more uplifting than peering through the gloaming to see a fire’s welcoming glow behind the windows of a distant croft that’s always open and where you can stay for free?

Welcome to the world of the bothy.

A bothy – from the Gaelic bothan (via the Old Irish both), meaning hut – is defined by Scotland’s Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) as “a simple shelter in remote country for the use and benefit of all those who love being in wild and lonely places.” There are more than 150 bothies scattered across the Scottish landscape – 81 maintained by the MBA – an eclectic mix of crofts, mountain huts and once-abandoned farmhouses. Now, thanks to Geoff Allan’s The Scottish Bothy Bible (published by Wild Things , March 2017), the hitherto unpublicised locations of 90 of the most popular are for the first time revealed, together with instructions on how to reach them.

Tomsleibhe. Photograph: Geoff Allan
Tomsleibhe. Photograph: Geoff Allan

But the Bible is not just a guidebook. The Edinburgh-based artist, photographer, surveyor and author has compressed his encyclopaedic knowledge of bothies into a 300-page celebration that is crammed with historical and philosophical perspectives, lavish photographs, advice – only seven bothies have toilets, although “toilet spades” are provided at the others – and anecdotes. For example, the Rowchoish shelter by Loch Lomond featured in the science fiction film Under the Skin (2013), starring Scarlet Johansson, “ . . . and (just in case you were wondering), she did not leave a note in the bothy book.”

How did bothying start?

“In the 1930s,” Allan says, “walking and climbing were no longer middle-class recreations, and at weekends groups of young men headed for the hills, often sleeping in derelict cottages, with many estate owners giving their tacit consent. The trend continued during the postwar years, but by the 1960s, with bothies falling into disrepair through lack of maintenance, something had to be done. In 1965, Yorkshire cyclist Bernard Heath recruited some friends to restore the ruins of Tunskeen Farm in southwest Scotland into a basic shelter . . . and the MBA was born.”

The Schoolhouse at Duag Bridge. Photograph: Geoff Allan
The Schoolhouse at Duag Bridge. Photograph: Geoff Allan

Allan’s love of Scotland’s remote places stirred in the late 1980s when he was studying at Edinburgh University: “I was bowled over by the beauty of the mountains,” he recalls, “and I remember staring up in wonder at Aonach Dubh in Glencoe on my first trip with the mountaineering club, stars glittering in a crystal-clear sky, and the smudge of the Milky Way disappearing behind its towering cliffs.” During his first Hogmanay, Allan visited a bothy at Camban, beside Glen Affric: “This stunning location in remote, wild terrain, spurred my fascination and exploration of these basic shelters. I was smitten . . . It started a long love affair which ultimately led to this book.”

Having visited all of Scotland’s MBA bothies, what are his recommendations? “I’m always attracted to the islands on the west coast, so if I were planning a trip tomorrow I’d head to Jura or Rùm, where I maintain a bothy called Dibidil for the MBA. But it’s probably best to break them into categories.”

On the coast

Peanmeanach sits above a raised beach on the rugged headland of Arnish on Scotland’s western seaboard, with fabulous views over to Ardnamurchan and Eigg. This stretch of coast south of the A830 Fort William to Mallaig road has a rich history pre-dating the Viking settlers, and the bothy’s name reflects the Norse system of land division. Pean derives from peighinn meaning “pennyland”, and meanach translates as “middle”. The mid-19th century cottage forms part of a line of ruined “black” houses (which had very thick walls, roofs of straw or heather thatch, with no windows or chimney). Although it is hard to imagine today, this remote spot was once a bustling fishing village with a population of more than 150, and the bothy served as the post office for the whole area round the Sound of Arisaig.

Bendronaig Bothy. Photograph: Geoff Allan
Bendronaig Bothy. Photograph: Geoff Allan

Family-friendly

After a glorious walk up through the perimeter grounds of Balmoral Castle, on to the expanse of heather-dappled moorland beneath the Lochnagar plateau, you quickly reach Gelder Shiel Stables, hidden in a stand of Caledonian pines. Set directly across from a royal hunting lodge commissioned by Queen Victoria in 1865, the bothy lies beside the Gelder Burn, which gives its Gaelic name “white water”, on the path leading up to Lochnagar’s impressive corrie, or natural amphitheatre. The bothy was once reputed to be a cold, draughty place but has recently had a major renovation, and now offers five-star accommodation, as befits its royal association.

Best for wildlife

Tomsleibhe looks down upon the fertile floodplain of Glen Forsa, in the heart of the hills east of Mull’s distinctive volcanic peak, Ben More. The name translates from the Gaelic for “mountain knoll”, a description of the fine hill that overlooks the shelter, Beinn Talaidh (761m). It is a simple climb and has fabulous island-wide views from the summit. Until finally vacated in the 1950s, the cottage was a small farmstead. Mull is one of Scotland’s premier destinations for wildlife tourism. In this quiet valley you can see buzzards, peregrines and short-eared owls, and on the western side of Ben More is the Eagle Watch centre in Glen Seilisdeir. Collecting supplies from the nearby village of Salen, otters and seals are often spotted from the harbour.

Eagle’s Nest exterior. Photograph: Geoff Allan
Eagle’s Nest exterior. Photograph: Geoff Allan

Best for history

The Schoolhouse at Duag Bridge served the scattering of families who lived in the remote glens of Easter Ross between Bonar Bridge and Ullapool, until the late 1930s. The ghillies, gamekeepers and shepherds took advantage of the 1870 Education Act, (extended to Scotland in 1872), which offered free, compulsory and non-religious education for all children aged between 5 and 13 years. By the 1920s, up to 20 pupils were supervised by a teacher who probably lived on site. In winter, the children brought peat to fuel the classroom stove, and one enterprising family used stilts to cross the swollen river in times of flood. Once the MBA took over the maintenance of the building, a succession of work parties replaced all the windows and rebuilt the roof. One room has even been returned to its former state as a classroom, with school desks, a blackboard, and pride of place a bookshelf containing the complete works of Shakespeare.

A romantic hideaway

Picking your way down through the shattered pink gneiss to the Eagle’s Nest bothy at Mangurstadh on the Isle of Lewis, you feel like you have reached the edge of the world. Teetering on the cliff edge, waves crashing over the islands and inlets below and the vast wild Atlantic stretched out before you. It is a breathtaking spot. On a clear day you can see St Kilda and the Flannan Isles, while in the evening the blink of the lighthouse on Eilean Molach is a comforting friend. The bothy is a simple structure of wood and stone with two small windows facing out to sea and two skylights in the roof, designed and built by John and Lorna Norgrove more than 30 years ago. At first its construction aroused little interest, but then people began to visit and admire it. More recently, the bothy became a poignant memorial to the Norgroves’ daughter Linda, an aid worker in Afghanistan who died in 2010 in an attempted rescue by US forces following her kidnap. The Linda Norgrove Foundation, a trust that funds education, health and childcare for women and children affected by the war in Afghanistan, continues her work.

Eagle’s Nest interior. Photograph: Geoff Allan
Eagle’s Nest interior. Photograph: Geoff Allan

Practical considerations

If, like me, you’ve caught the bothying bug, and are itching to explore, it’s worth noting that although accommodation is free, bothies are maintained by MBA volunteers, courtesy of the landowners, and users are asked to respect this privilege.

Remeber that there is no gas, no electricity, no water taps, few toilets, so be prepared.

Expect only a windproof and waterproof building

For toilets, find a location at least 180m from the bothy, “away from streams and standing water, dig a hole at least 15cm deep and bury your deposit. You are also advised to burn your toilet paper, or bag it and carry it out.”

If staying overnight, you’ll need all the gear you would normally take camping, plus candles and – if there’s a fireplace – fuel, such as coal, for “bothy TV” ie a good fire

A fire is essential outside the summer months but “[T]he absolutely sacrosanct rule is never to cut live branches; this damages trees and green wood will not burn.”

The Scottish Bothy Bible: The complete guide to Scotland’ s bothies and how to reach them by Geoff Allan is available in all bookshops and wildthingspublishing.com (£16.99)

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