Two Wee Adventurers

Rediscovering the great outdoors with a little one

Month: September 2016

Burley Whag Bothy: Things that go bump (and squeak) in the night

Perhaps now is a good time to admit that I’m afraid of the dark. Not the dark, per se, but an irrational fear that something or someone is lurking around every corner after dark. Determined that my son won’t inherit the same anxieties, I do my best to model a calm confidence in the face of any fear-inducing night time situation. A night spent at Burley Whag bothy last week gave me the perfect chance to practice. I failed miserably.

This all started with an idea I had in the summer to spend 5 nights in 5 different bothies within 5 weeks while my son was still 5. Very kindly supported by The Next Challenge Adventure Grant we set out last week to sleep in Bothy Number 1 after some necessary mental and organisational preparation. Apart from coming face to face with a dead and decaying wild goat, the walk in to the bothy was blissfully uneventful.

Our timing was perfect, arriving half an hour before torrential downpours that lasted most of the night but which had cleared to a fresh blue sky and fluffy cotton wool clouds by morning. Abandoning our exploration of the bothy surrounds we set about all the usual bothy tasks; collecting water from the burn, giving the bothy a sweep, setting up our sleeping bags and mats, cooking a simple meal, setting the fire and lighting some candles. All complete we settled down in front of the stove with a pack of damp cards that we discovered in the bothy. I taught Finn rummy and much to his satisfaction he beat me almost every time. So far, so good, but the real adventure started after ‘lights out’.

In comparison with our usual frenzied bedtime routine at home, our bothy bedtime was calm and peaceful despite my anxiety as darkness approached. I stared out into the darkening night searching for the lights of any approaching walkers caught out in the rain, but of course saw nothing. Finn fell quickly asleep but as expected I laid awake, eyes wide open, listening hard for any noises out of the ordinary. There were plenty. Starting with various bumps and scrapes in the shepherd’s storeroom adjacent to the bothy followed by a strange continuous ticking and progressing to the sounds of scurrying mice close to our beds. The more obvious mouse related sounds were actually quite comforting after the unidentified noises from the next room. It’s truly amazing how the imagination becomes so enlivened after dark. I drifted in and out of sleep, woken frequently by a new, seemingly louder noise or by Finn shifting over and slipping off his sleeping mat. Once he woke in the pitch black, heard the cacophony going on and asked what the noise was. I explained in my calming, confident voice that it was just the mice. “Oh right” he replied and promptly fell back asleep. Oh how I envied his calm, unconcerned reaction! With the approach of daylight, all my fears were exposed as what they really were. Irrational. Well, mostly, depending on your relationship with mice.

I welcomed the fresh breeze and blue skies of the morning. I washed away my grogginess and night time worries in the refreshing burn water and replaced them with gratitude to be waking in such a stunningly beautiful place with no-one for miles around. We swept out the bothy of mouse droppings accumulated during the night, packed up and played a couple more rounds of rummy. It was a leisurely hike back to the farm where we left the car, over terrain somewhat boggier than the previous day, not surprising after the wet night. We saw wild goats (live ones this time), buzzards, red kites and the still visible gibbous moon. There was just one challenge left to deal with. Finding the car keys. They weren’t anywhere where I thought they might be and would expected to have stored them. I put aside the possibility of having to walk back to the bothy and instead methodically unpacked every single item in my backpack. I finally found them in the bag full of rubbish (any rubbish, including toilet paper needs to be carried back out with you). I still have no idea how they got there. Maybe it was something in the night?

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Setting off for our first bothy of five with enough stuff for two and a bag of firewood

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Finn opted to carry his own jacket and lunch

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Feeling like an overloaded pack horse

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The path became increasingly boggy as we passed some long abandoned buildings.

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The bothy at last! It’s in the process of being re-roofed and there was a bit of a leak during the night

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Welcome to Burley Whag

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Playing outside the bothy before the downpours

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Setting up ‘camp’

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Despite the extra weight, it was worth bringing fuel to light a nice cosy fire

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Evening entertainment

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Washing up after breakfast

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Leaving the bothy with a lighter load

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Bothy mornings: My favourite time of the day

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Hiking home

 

Mountain Bothies for the Uninitiated

As Finn and I prepare to embark on our 5 nights in 5 bothies in 5 weeks adventure, I thought it might be an idea to explain a little about mountain bothies and bothy etiquette for the uninitiated. I came across my first bothy in the summer of 2000. While a student I worked for a summer at a guest house in Elgol on the Isle of Skye. On my days off I’d head out to explore the local area. There’s a wonderfully scenic walk from Elgol to Loch Coruisk in the heart of the Cuillin Mountains, via Camasunary Bay where there’s a bothy popular with walkers and climbers. I guess I had a sense of adventure then, even though I didn’t have much outdoor knowledge, experience or decent kit and one weekend I walked to Loch Coruisk staying overnight in Camasunary bothy. I feasted on spaghetti with tomato purée cooked on my tiny, cheap gas stove and slept in a very basic sleeping bag placed over some newspapers spread out on the stone floor. Tip #1 Always take a camping mat! If not improving comfort all that much it will at least insulate you from a cold stone floor. I speak from experience. I spent one more night in that bothy before packing up and heading back to Edinburgh earlier than planned to sort out some boyfriend trouble. That summer I ended up losing one love (all for the best!) but I discovered many more loves, including one for wild landscapes, time spent in the outdoors and the Scottish Islands.

Bothy Nights: The Lookout, Isle of Skye

Bothy nights

Bothies are essentially open shelters with four walls and a roof that are available to anybody and are usually found in remote locations, the majority in Scotland but also in wilder parts of Northern England and Wales. There is no booking system and they are unlocked and free to use but the majority are very basic with few, if any, facilities. They all contain a spade, which is as close as all but one or two bothies come to having a toilet. There might be a wooden sleeping platform, a stove or open fire and a motely collection of chairs and tables. Or there might not. Water needs to be collected from a stream nearby (and boiled or treated) or carried in. Basically, it helps to think of bothying as wild camping without the tent. Yet it’s so much more than that (and it still might be wise to carry the tent as a back up!)

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The now demolished Minch Moor bothy

It’s not a luxurious accommodation choice to say the least. Some bothies are abused by people who visit and leave rubbish or don’t follow the toilet etiquette and in many you’ll be sharing your abode with mice (while once staying alone in a bothy on the Isle of Islay I was kept awake most of the night by mice partying in the walls). However, there’s just something about getting spending a night or two in a bothy, in a beautiful, wild place, away from everything. A bothy offers more space than a tent, a more weather-tight shelter, a refuge from the midges in summer and if there’s a fire, warmth in winter.

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Deluxe bothy with a wooden sleeping platform

Given that bothies are open to all you never know who you might meet when you arrive at one and without fail I always feel a bit anxious on opening a bothy door! We’ve often had bothies to ourselves, especially when we’ve been staying midweek, in the winter or in some of the island bothies away from popular hill walks and munros. On the other hand, time it right and you could meet some wonderful people who will share with you their stories and offer you a drink and a place by the fire.

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Self catering kitchen

My most memorable bothy experience so far was a trip with my husband to Glengarrisdale in the far north of the Isle of Jura to see in the New Year 2003/2004. The north west of Jura is incredibly inaccessible (unless you have your own boat) and involves a four hour drive from Edinburgh to Kennacraig, a two hour ferry to Islay, a further short ferry journey from Islay to Jura, a drive over an hour long on Jura’s only road, most of it single track and finally a five mile walk over rough ground to reach the bothy on the uninhabited west coast. We hired a car especially for the occasion but there wasn’t a bed to found anywhere in Jura for New Years Eve. However, the hotel at Craighouse were happy for us to pitch our tent in their garden and we planned to camp there for a night before heading to the bothy the following day. As we drove west the weather began to worsen and after a rough ferry crossing we arrived in Islay to be told the Jura ferry wasn’t currently sailing because of the adverse weather conditions. The ferry to Jura is a lifeline to the island so we hung around until the end of the day when the boat made a single crossing in some appalling weather to stock Jura with essential supplies. We made it but there was no way we could put up our tent in the gale force wind and torrential rain, so we parked up and went to the pub. Unfortunately the ceilidh band booked for the New Year celebrations never made it because of the weather and the locals all abandoned the pub for home just before the bells. We were offered some space on a floor by a kind local but instead opted to sleep in the car, so the turning of the year was spent listening to the car radio as the wind swayed the car from side to side and gave me a minor case of seasickness.

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Leaving The Lookout bothy, Isle of Skye

The wind had calmed by the morning and we set off north. I had heard that a path of some sort existed from the road to the bothy but we never found it so struck west over the rough ground. As well as all we needed to survive in a bothy in winter conditions we were each carrying 10kg of compressed peat blocks to fuel the fire and my bag was so heavy that every time I got my foot stuck down a ditch between the grassy hummocks (of which there were many) I had to call for my husband to come back and push me upright again. As a final obstacle we had to wade through a river to reach the bothy. At least we’ll have the bothy to ourselves we thought, for what other crazy people would make this kind of journey?! No one as it turned out, but we did meet some very much more sensible bothy stalwarts who had chartered a boat over from the mainland to carry them and all their supplies for a week directly to the bothy door. So while we hunkered down with our instant cous cous, our companions dined on a three course meal complete with china plates and a tablecloth. Still, they were great company, expect at night when one of them snored very loudly. So tip #2 Don’t forget your earplugs!

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Finn’s first bothy adventure

Not every bothy presents the same level of challenge and some are a lot more accessible to families. Last autumn when Finn was four we took him on his first bothy experience, closer to home in Galloway. As anyone with children can imagine, there were challenges but Finn (and I) enjoyed it enough to propose spending five further nights in a bothy this autumn. You’ll be able to read more about the bothies we’ll be visiting and about our trip in a future blog post. There’s sure to be plenty of stories for the bothy log-book!

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Tips for family bothy visits

  • For a first bothy visit with the family it’s best to locate a bothy as close as possible to home with a short walk in. Grid references for MBA bothies and basic information are published on the Mountain Bothies Association website. You’ll obviously need to have some basic map reading skills but for first timers seek out the bothies accessible by obvious tracks rather than those accessed over pathless moorland.
  • Find a bothy close to home with a short walk in take a picnic and a stove to make a cuppa and just go for lunch rather than an overnight stay!
  • Take a tent with you as a back up for if the bothy is busy.
  • Some bothies can get busy on a weekend and a few can get rowdy, so opt to go mid week in the school holidays.
  • One night in a bothy is enough for a first visit and means you don’t need to take many clothes or much food with you and don’t need to worry too much about whether the kids are getting adequate vitamins! You can buy fancy backpacking food from outdoor shops but it’s just as easy and a lot lot cheaper to take your own food. If we’re keeping things quick and simple we opt for basic meals brought from home packaged in ziplock bags. We’re a vegetarian/vegan family so take things like oats for breakfast (we add extras like hemp, chia seeds, raisins, cinnamon, dried apple pieces and brown sugar before we go, then just add boiling water), oatcakes and nut butter for lunch and vermicilli brown rice noodles (just add boiling water, no need to cook) and make your own combinations using different seasonings and extras before you leave home such as vegetable stock powder, onion and garlic powder, chilli powder, freeze dried vegetables, nuts, dried seaweed, pre-chopped vegetables to add if I’m happy carrying a bit more weight. I like to add noodles to a miso soup paste or make up a peanut sauce using a spoon of nut butter and some seasonings. Don’t forget plenty of snacks, treats and hot chocolate!
  • Bothies get cold so bring plenty of warm clothes for everybody and some thick socks. A fire really makes a difference if your bothy has a stove or fireplace. Wood is in short supply at most bothies so you’ll need to carry in your own fuel and kindling – definitely worth the effort if there are a couple of adults to share the load. We also take plenty of candles to give the bothy a nice warm glow.
  • Get the kids involved in some bothy tasks depending on their age and abilities, such as collecting water, washing up, making a fire, making up the ‘beds’, sweeping the bothy floor and digging a toilet!
  • Finn likes to take his own headtorch and a story to read while cuddled up in his sleeping bag. Or take a pack of cards or small travel game for entertainment in the evenings.

More information about bothies

  • For more information and before planning a trip it’s a good idea to acquaint yourself with The Bothy Code.
  • Most bothies, and all those I’ve mentioned above, are maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA), although there are others maintained by landowners or climbing clubs. The MBA was founded in 1965 and only owns 1 of the 100+ bothies it looks after. The Association relies on volunteers to carry out most of the maintenance work and administrative tasks. The majority of maintenance work is financed by membership subscriptions so if you’re interested in supporting the maintenance of ‘simple shelters in remote country for the use and benefit of all who love wild and lonely places’, please consider joining the MBA.
  • All bothies have a Bothy Log-Book, where you’ll find all manner of things recorded and can record your own visit. One of the first things I do when entering a bothy is to locate it and have a read. If you’ve forgotten to take a book, you’ll find some great stories with it’s pages.
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Approaching Burleywhag bothy

Grey Mare’s Tail

One of last week’s adventures led us to the Grey Mare’s Tail Nature Reserve, with one of the UK’s highest cascading waterfalls. As the crow flies, it looks only a short distance from Biggar to Grey Mare’s Tail but getting there involves a rather more lengthy detour around the hills of the Southern Uplands including a car-sick-inducing stretch of winding road down the Moffat Water Valley.

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The last time I walked these hills was over 10 years ago as a PhD student accompanying a group of undergraduate geography students on a field trip. Glacial geomorphology was never my strongest subject but feeling nostalgic for my academic days I couldn’t help but point out to Finn the spectacular example of a hanging valley. I felt a twinge of pride as Finn seemingly appraised the scene and exclaimed “let’s just stop here for a moment mum and admire the view… Of the car park”. Oh well, maybe Finn’s not quite ready to follow in the footsteps of his geographer mum. But wait. As he raised his stick and pointed it down the valley, I followed his gaze. “Yes, Finn! Can you see the deep U-shape of the valley that was carved out by a glacier?” “Actually, I’m following that car with my stick until it disappears round the bend”. Yes, well, give him a few years…

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Is it a U-shaped glacial valley? No, it’s a car park!

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Finn bounded up the steep but well constructed footpath clinging to the gorge with ever changing views of the cascading waterfall. Then he stopped to admire a large beetle in his path. And so began The Great Grey Mare’s Tail Beetle Rescue as I was instructed to remove every single beetle (and there were many) off the path to avoid them being stepped on, even those who had already suffered the fate of feet. “They’ll more quickly decompose into the earth off the path mum”. Maybe biology is more his thing?

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Another beetle saved

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Hide and seek in the hummocky moraine

Then the heavy rain started. Now Finn is not usually too bothered by the rain but he does object to putting on his waterproof outer-layers. I’m quite happy if he wants to get himself soaked down at our local park but it’s a different matter up in the hills where a cold, wet child is a danger. On this occasion I won out in our battle of wills but Finn made it quite clear for the next 40 minutes that he was unhappy about the outcome. On nearly every one of our walks we go through a stage where Finn complains about the wet or the heat or the path or lack of path. However, if I’m able to see the whining through with patience and calm something always then catches his imagination after which he’ll walk (or run) for hours without complaint. It’s a bit like having a bored child at home. If you can resist the temptation to intervene, they’ll eventually have a flash of creativity and start a project that will keep them engaged for ages. On this occasion Finn’s flash of creativity was discovering the myriad little drainage ditches along the path, most of which contained water which could be conveniently flicked at mum with the clever wielding of his stick. This very stick was one found on our previous walk to Loch Enoch and which has accompanied him on our adventures since. It’s Finn’s equivalent of a multi-tool.

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The ‘stick’

Another picnic in the rain

Another picnic in the rain

People we meet are often surprised to see a such a wee person out in the hills and apparently enjoying himself and he’s always complemented on his fine choice of waterproof clothing. Our hikes along the more popular paths often become quite social occasions as we stop to chat to everyone we meet and to befriend every dog we pass. Close to Loch Skeen, the highest large, natural upland loch in the Southern Uplands, we met a group of National Trust for Scotland employees and volunteers making improvements to the footpath. On our return leg they were very interested to hear Finn’s opinion of the completed repairs. “Good” was Finn’s eloquent response. In return for his valued input he had his photo taken for the NTS twitter page, resplendent with his green jacket and ever present stick.

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As I walked the meandering path through the hummocky moraine I was lost in daydreams of my student days so was surprised when we finally stumbled upon the tranquil shores of Loch Skeen. Cue a lot more splashing of water until Finn eventually deduced that splashing the water into the wind would just result in giving himself a soaking. Maybe that was the idea but rocks and water were all that were needed to detain him at the loch side for an hour and put a big grin back on his face. The clouds parted and we were suddenly bathed in sunlight as we made our way back down the gorge, Finn long having forgotten about wanting to remove his waterproofs.

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