The secrets to life in a bothy
CAN YOU KEEP THE PLACE TO YOURSELF AND SHOULD YOU SHARE YOUR DINNER? GEOFF ALLAN, AUTHOR OF THE SCOTTISH BOTHY BIBLE, ON THE ETIQUETTE OF STAYING IN A ROUGH-AND-READY MOUNTAIN HUT
IN the wilderness areas of Scotland, an eclectic collection of basic accommodation has grown into what is now a wellestablished network of mountain huts, known as bothies. The term comes from the Gaelic bothan (via the Old Irish both) meaning hut, and originally described rudimentary accommodation provided by landowners for bachelor farm labourers or estate workers who tended crops or livestock. In recent times, a bothy has come to mean a shelter that is freely available for anyone to stay the night or use as a lunch stop. The vast majority of bothies are single-storey crofts, farmsteads or estate houses that were abandoned, then saved from ruin and renovated. They vary in size from Easan Dorcha, affectionately known as “The Teahouse”, which is little bigger than a garden shed, to a bothy like Craig, a former youth hostel which has two reception rooms and three bedrooms upstairs.
The network was formalised by the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA), which now maintains 81 properties with the agreement and support of the landowners and estates which own them.
Although bothies come in many shapes and sizes, the most common layout is a simple cottage with two rooms, often referred to by its Scots term, but and ben, the but referring to the kitchen and living room, and the ben the bedroom. If a bothy has an attic space, entry is gained from secure internal stairs. Generally speaking, the upper rooms are used as sleeping accommodation only, although if a bothy is particularly full, different parties have the option to stay together in their own space and set up for the night.
Bothy accommodation is very rudimentary, and in almost all cases, there are no facilities. This means no gas, or electricity or a tap. You should expect only a wind and waterproof building that offers somewhere dry to sleep. If you are staying overnight, you will need to carry in all the equipment you would normally take camping, plus candles, and if there is a fireplace, fuel to burn. As a bare minimum, bothies will have a table and a couple of chairs, but many also have sleeping platforms. Water comes from a nearby stream, and although some bothies have latrines or loos, answering calls of nature will involve a walk and the use of a spade.
Bothies can look romantic in photos, but in reality can be cold, dusty, damp and pretty dark. Yet in the evening, with the fire blazing and candles burning, hot food on the table and a glass of wine at your elbow, the place is transformed. Some of the more remote bothies boast original wood panelling and mantelpieces; others have sofas, bunk beds and even books. A few have the feel of a hostel rather than a shelter. Ultimately, it is how you make yourself at home that will shape your bothy experience.
Although there are no formal rules, there is a bothy code formulated by the MBA and posted at every property the association maintains. Put simply, it is the common-sense philosophy of treating others with respect, and leaving a bothy in the condition you would wish to find it. Most importantly, no-one has an exclusive right to a bothy and the concept of “first come, first served” does not exist. Bothies are open shelters, available to all, and the overriding ethos is that, however full, there is always room for one more. This is rarely a problem, as long as you take heed of the cautionary note about the popularity of certain bothies at Easter and in the summer months. The practicalities of carrying enough food and fuel for any more than three or four days, means few people stay for extended periods, and doing so is discouraged though nothing is formally set in stone. Also, while it is advisable not to leave valuables lying around when you go out for the day, there is a fundamental element of trust between bothy goers not to interfere with the possessions of others while they are left unattended.
Good social skills are definitely an asset and bothy goers tend to have a strong community spirit. People help each other out by sharing food and hot drinks as well as advice and experiences. Occasionally you may encounter an antisocial group and the two bothies on Loch Lomond side, Rowchoish and Doune Byre, do have a reputation for rowdiness along with Tunskeen and Backhill of Bush in Galloway. Some go to bothies for solitude, others for reunions and gatherings, taking guitars and a repertoire of songs. It is important to go with the flow, and maybe contribute your own party piece.
If there is a particular issue with a bothy, this is prominently indicated on the MBA website, and also in forums on internet sites (check out Ukhillwalking. com, Walkhighlands.com and Grough. co.uk). Recently, when a gable end collapsed (now repaired) word got round the bothy community pretty fast so no-one got stranded at that particularly remote location.
It is also a bothy tradition to leave some essentials behind for the next person to use. Arriving cold and tired to find a kind, considerate person has left coal or chopped wood and kindling is a godsend. Occasionally, people leave beer and, more regularly, the odd packet of biscuits, tea bags or pasta, although this is not encouraged because it attracts mice. Nevertheless, many bothies have a tin box or plastic container for storing food items.
Before you leave, spend a little time tidying up, collecting and chopping wood for the next person, and maybe leaving something – candles and spare matches are always welcome. It is heartening how much this happens, especially out of the summer season.
Also, do leave reading material, especially books. Many of the more remote bothies have a small library but even well out of date newspapers are worth a read on a slow bothy evening and make perfect kindling.
Bothying in winter
I find winter is the best time to go bothying, as long as you have additional kit and you can guarantee a fire. Carrying in fuel, a good sleeping bag and mat, spare warm clothes and enough hot drinks and food at this time of year is absolutely essential. Get it right and you’ll enjoy a winter-wonderland vista of Scotland; get it wrong and you’ll spend the night in a freezer, resolved to go bothying only in the warmer months.
When visiting in the winter, the objective is to minimise risk. For cooking and boiling water on gas, a 70/30 butane/ propane mix works much better in cold temperatures than straight butane. I generally take in a 500ml canister and cook a two-portion meal on the first night to guarantee eating the next evening. Fuel for the fire is essential (many regulars take a 10kg sack of coal), plus firelighters, maybe some packaged kindling, and candles.
In winter, bothies can be grim places without a fire. A good fire, affectionately known as “bothy TV”, is an essential part of the bothy experience. Although you can collect fallen wood close to a number of bothies, it is best to assume you will carry in your own fuel. Coal is the most effective but briquettes and fire logs can suffice. A few bothy fires have occurred over the years and problems have led to some fireplaces being blocked up. Never leave a fire unattended and make sure that the embers are extinguished before you leave. Carbon monoxide alarms are currently being installed into MBA bothies with stoves, along with fire blankets and extinguishers.
Water from Highland streams is usually safe to drink if you follow a few simple rules. Only take drinking water from a fast-flowing stream, never from standing water, and avoid water downstream of a bothy or any other habitation. If you have any concerns, boil your water first, or use a filter purification kit or iodine tablets. It is also considerate to wash up downstream of a bothy, and pour waste on the ground where it is less likely to flow back directly into the water. For the same reason, please avoid polluting streams by washing or brushing your teeth in them.
Only a handful of bothies have toilet facilities but each bothy have a toilet spade. The simple rule of thumb is to select a location at least 200 yards (180m) from the bothy, well away from nearby streams or standing water, dig a hole at least six inches (15cm) deep, and bury your deposit. You are also advised to burn your toilet paper, or bag it and carry it out.
Dried foods such as pasta, couscous, noodles and cup-a-soup sachets are quick to cook and light to carry. Porridge or breakfast bars are efficient in the mornings, and take plenty of chocolate, biscuits and sweets to keep up sugar levels and morale. Tea, coffee and dried milk are standard, and don’t forget lunch items: pitta bread and tortillas stay fresh longer than rolls. Condiment and sugar sachets (from cafés or ferries) are very useful additions. Many seasoned bothy goers, myself included, like cooking and take fresh vegetables, meat or fish, even eggs and milk. A bottle of wine is a welcome tonic and a hip flask is good to share. Carrying in an extra meal and rations, in case you are delayed by injury or trapped by bad weather, is also a wise move. And do hang up food supplies in a plastic bag. Mice can be a problem in bothies particularly in the summer. This is an edited extract from The Scottish Bothy Bible by Geoff Allan, published by Wild Things Publishing, £16.99
Pictures: Geoff Allan from his book The Scottish Bothy Bible Kinbreack, 15 miles north-west of Fort William, offers just the kind of peace and isolation that many bothy-goers are looking for. A bothy can give you a sense of camaraderie that it is difficult to find elsewhere. However, to make the most of your stay you need to heed the unwritten rules around food, drink, conduct and cleanliness.