Friday 4 May 2018

GUEST POST - Lee's Bothy Adventures in Scotland

I was born and bred in London, but in 2009 I moved to Scotland with my family (my wife is from Edinburgh). As someone who loves amazing landscapes and getting outdoors, it was a great move – although I’m close to Edinburgh and Glasgow, it’s quick and easy to escape into some truly stunning scenery. There’s nothing I like more than getting out into the wilds with my camera, and enjoying some solitude in great surroundings.

In looking out for new places to explore, I remember hearing various things over the years about “bothies”. Just what exactly was a bothy? They seemed to be closely guarded secrets, but I eventually found out that these are a network of very basic buildings in remote areas, open and available for anyone to use at any time. They originated with a few people restoring derelict cottages for climbers and hikers to use, and now there’s a network of about a hundred of them across the UK, the vast majority in Scotland.

For many years, the existence of bothies was kept fairly quiet, and it was hard to find out where they were, but more recently the main organisation that maintains them, the Mountain Bothies Association, has publicised them more widely, and they’ve had more attention in the media. Having caught wind of them, visiting and staying in one sounded like an amazing adventure, so in August 2017 I made my first trip to one.

What do I mean by basic? Well, effectively, a bothy is simply a slightly more solid form of tent. It might have stone walls and a roof, but it’s not likely to have much more – no toilet, no electricity, no running water (there’s usually a stream nearby) and no proper beds, although there’s often sleeping platforms. It is, then, a form of camping. You’ll need a sleeping bag, stove, food, torch and any other things you’d expect to need when camping. Also, bothies are literally free – no reservations, no payments – so you don’t know if you’ll have the place to yourself or not. It’s not first come, first served – the principle is there’s always room for one more, but popular bothies might be sufficiently busy in summer to necessitate taking a tent.

So…back to that first expedition. I was lucky enough to have a long break in August and September 2017, as I changed jobs and had some time off between them. I used it as a great opportunity to do some things I’d been meaning to do for ages, and staying in a bothy was one. Having read up on a few of them, I picked Greensykes as my first one, given that it’s quite close to where I live, and also one of the quieter ones. After packing up a bag full of what I thought I’d need, I set off for a couple of hours’ drive to a small hamlet called Jamestown in Dumfries and Galloway. From there, it was a couple of miles of moderately easy hiking to the bothy, through undulating countryside.

It became very clear very quickly that this was a quiet spot! Given that anyone visiting the bothy would have parked in the same place as me, I was encouraged to find a distinct lack of other cars on my arrival. I didn’t see any other people on my hike in either. I really didn’t know quite what to expect, but I navigated my way in using some detailed directions and a set of GPS co-ordinates, and it was pretty amazing when I spotted the chimneypots of the bothy, in a clearing in the forest, for the first time. What a thrill! What was I going to find?

Yes, it was basic, but it was also amazingly beautiful. In an absolutely perfect spot beside a stream, this was an idyllic and gorgeous location, and the bothy itself was a lovely little building. Venturing inside I found a large communal room with work surfaces, sleeping platforms and a wood-burning stove at one end, a really nice wood-panelled room with a fireplace at the other, and a little dormitory in the middle. I also didn’t find any other people! Would I have the place to myself?

The communal area had some dried and tinned food and a stash of beer in it, so even though I’d brought my own supplies, I could have lived off what others had left behind. There was also a pile of firewood, a little selection of books, some candles, and the infamous toilet shovel. All bothies have these – as I mentioned, they don’t have toilets, so you have to go outside and do your business in the great outdoors. This involves digging a little hole and burying your deposit. It’s not for those who have a need for luxuries.

Having explored, I settled into the lovely wood panelled room at the far end, and had some food. I also attempted lighting a fire, which took several hours of faffing about – who knew wood was actually hard to burn? There was clearly a knack to starting a fire that I didn’t have, but I did eventually get a nice one going, and it made the place magically cosy as it started to get dark outside. I walked around and explored the surrounding area, wrote a letter to one of my penpals and read for a bit, but mainly I enjoyed the peace, quiet and silence of the place. It was a truly incredible experience, being in such an isolated spot without any mod cons. No phone, no internet, no disturbances – no other people showed up either, so I had the bothy all to myself! Waking up surrounded by – well, pretty much nothing – was a great tonic.

I was pretty hooked by the experience, and although many people use bothies as accommodation for mountaineering or long distance walking, there’s plenty of people who just go to visit them for the sake of it, and I think I’ve turned into one of those. Since that first visit, I’ve stayed overnight in three more, and visited two during the daytimes. They all have similar features, but they’re also all quite special in their own way. My most recent trip was to Allt Schiecheachan bothy near Blair Atholl, on the first weekend of decent weather after the horrible winter we’ve just had. It was quite an effort getting there, involving a hike of six miles over fairly challenging terrain, but it was lovely when I arrived. Unlike my first expedition, this one involved no less than twelve people staying the night. This is, of course, one of the risks of bothying – you have no idea who will be there, and you’re taking your chances a bit. Quite a lot of alcohol flowed and it was quite noisy and rowdy for a while, which wasn’t completely to my taste, but everyone was pretty considerate and settled down to sleep at a decent hour. Some bothies, however, have a reputation for pretty wild and antisocial behaviour, and there’s concern that publicising them more widely might lead to more of this happening. Still, so far I’ve been lucky. If you go midweek, or during the winter (take firewood!) you’re more likely to have the bothy to yourself.

If you fancy visiting one, I’d strongly urge you to do so, but make sure you’re well-prepared before you go. Most of them are pretty isolated, so if your phone won’t work, you’ll need to get yourself out of any trouble. It therefore demands a certain level of fitness and knowledge of the outdoors, so if you’re in any doubt about these things, make sure you go with someone who can help. Also, make sure you have any medicines or food you need with you, as you won’t simply be able to pop out to the shop for supplies. Bothies can be cold and the lack of electricity means you’ll need to be able to cope with a certain level of discomfort, but with a few candles and a fire on the go, even if it’s freezing outside you’ll be nice and cosy.

The thing that I really love about these resources is the way they allow spontaneous, flexible and cheap exploration of some of the most beautiful parts of the country. I won’t make it too easy for you to find them – if you’re interested, a bit of Googling will point you in the right direction. Put in the effort, and you’ll have a wonderfully rewarding experience.  

Lee's blog can be found at: 

Greensykes Bothy

Greensykes Bothy

Allt Schiecheachan Bothy