The se­crets to life in a bothy


Sunday Herald Life - - CONTENTS -

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.

Bothy eti­quette

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, Walkhigh­ and Grough. 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.

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