As my son lost his footing and slipped into the shallow burn, cursing me repeatedly, I questioned once again what had possessed me to propose a five week bothy challenge together with my five year old. We were midweek into our trip to stay in some more northerly bothies, having just spent a night at a bothy on the Isle of Skye, and despite the bright sunshine, Finn’s mood was dark.
After our first bothy trip in Galloway a week and a half ago I’d been feeling apprehensive as I planned and organised the logistics of our trip north and thought ahead to the impending bothy nights. However, as the road wound north of Glasgow I felt a sliver of excitement mixed with the anxiety. My husband and I had spent two years living on the Isle of Skye nearly ten years ago and I was feeling pleasantly nostalgic as I recalled particular views and bends in the roads. I can’t believe I’d forgotten how stunningly beautiful the North West Highlands are, but basking in the sunshine they reminded me at every turn and beckoned me closer.
Our first destination was to the far northern tip of the Isle of Skye, Rubha Huinish, to spend the night in a former coastguard station, now an MBA bothy. It’s a compact bothy and as we drove the final single track stretch to the road end I was nervous with anticipation that the bothy would be occupied. Arriving at the small parking area to find it full did nothing to alleviate my fears. Although I’d packed a tent in the car in case of the bothies being full or unsuitable for Finn and I, I’d decided in the end to risk not carrying it on our trips because of my already bulging, overweight bag.
After having been cooped up in the car for so long, Finn skipped ahead, which lured me into thinking that our subsequent bothy walk ins would be approached with similar enthusiasm. His mind was fully occupied with outrunning a man in a kilt with his gaggle of German tourists approaching behind us. We’d made such good time that as we rounded the headline we were surprised to see the bothy just ahead, standing sentinel at the edge of the headland. The bothy was surprisingly clean and bright and sported a high wooden stool, that became Finn’s lookout and binoculars for scanning the sea below, less these days for ships in peril, more for the numerous whales that can be frequently spotted rounding the headland. Unfortunately the sea was too rough today for any whale spotting and the powerful winds prompted a lecture from me to Finn about not wandering far from the bothy as within about 50 metres of the door was a sheer cliff dropping to the churning grey waters below.
The German tour party arrived hot on our heels and filed in one by one, curious to have a look around, but after their departure we were alone once more for the evening. Having checked the bothy for mouse droppings and finding none, I hoped our second night would be quieter than our first. Alas, the wind picked up after dusk and I tossed and turned in rhythm with the gusts battering the wall behind me. The roaring wind and the bothy door banging repeatedly against it’s loose catch provided the soundtrack to my fitful slumber. Only as dawn approached did I start to relax and drift into a deeper sleep but shortly after I was woken by Finn needing the ‘toilet’. This involved rousing ourselves out of our cosy, warm sleeping bags, getting togged up and battling our way out into the fierce wind. Still with my eyes half shut I opened the east facing bothy door only to be met with the most incredible sunrise silhouetting the distant Torridon mountains. Despite some of the most vivid red skies I’d ever seen, in my dazed state all I could think of was hurrying straight back inside to my still warm sleeping bag to resume where’d I’d left off. Finn however had other plans. He’d woken for the day and began demanding breakfast. I succeeded in stalling him for all of 40 minutes, then reluctantly left the comforting cocoon of my sleeping bag once more. By this time the still spectacular skies had matured from a pinky-red to autumnal oranges and yellows so we headed back out to experience the awakening of the day and for once I thanked Finn for his early wake up call.
The following day we travelled for two hours back through Skye and down the Elgol road in glorious and unexpected sunshine that was to grace us with it’s presence for three whole days. Three days of sunshine in October on the Isle of Skye! I couldn’t believe our luck. I hadn’t checked the forecast since before we left when it predicted overcast skies and showers for the week so it was with surprise that we woke to vibrant blue skies every morning. We passed through the dramatic landscape with regret that there wasn’t time to stop and linger but as we rounded each bend in the road leading to Elgol, memories came meandering back of my time on Skye, sixteen years previously when I worked a summer at Elgol. That summer I slept in my first ever bothy, in a spectacular setting overshadowed on one side by the Cuillins and overlooking the islands of Soay and Rum on the other. And it was to this bothy (it’s new replacement in fact) that we headed to now. I was quickly brought out of my pleasant reverie by a grouchy Finn. No sprinting off from the car today, on this occasion, I had to drag him out. At odds with the cobalt skies and breathtaking scenery our walk was marred by miserable bickering until we summitted the col to look down towards the bay and Finn forgot his woes, perking up at the thought of a splash around in the sea when we arrived. Despite my anxiousness about this trip and the anticipated sleepless bothy nights I knew just then that this was a privileged experience to be granted.
As we arrived at the spacious new bothy I was excited to see two large bags in the corner indicating we might have company for the night but dismayed to see the various rubbish, cans and articles of clothing that had been abandoned by previous bothy occupants. Finn wasted no time in dragging me to a sandy patch of beach close to the bothy, stripping off and racing out to meet the waves, singing and dancing as he went. As we chased each other, laughing, I was able to forget once more the difficulties and frustrations of meeting a five year old’s constant need and demands and enjoy a perfect moment, the one that makes our adventures worthwhile. I would freeze frame this shared moment and remember it for the rest of my life.
On our return the bags had vanished along with any hopes I had for company for the night and we spent our third bothy night alone once more. The bothy was well insulated which made it strangely quiet but as usual I was on full alert listening out for any unidentified noises or potential late night visitors. At some point I must have drifted into sleep because I was woken in the early hours by a blood curdling scream. My heart pounding I was fumbling for my head torch by the time I realised it was just Finn who promptly turned over and went straight back to sleep.
I continued to be challenged and tested on the walk to our forth bothy, a former remote youth hostel on the coast of Torridon. By now, day five, Finn was beginning to tire of the travelling, the consecutive days of walking and the sleeping on bothy floors. This I had understandably expected but I hadn’t appreciated that I too would be suffering from sleepless bothy nights, which wore down my patience somewhat. So after several days with just each other for company it was a mixture of feelings that greeted me when I saw a faint movement outside the bothy as we approached. Finally, some company! But of course, staying in a bothy you can never be sure quite what company you’ll be landed with. We met M first, loitering outside the bothy, a cigarette protruding from his mouth. He kindly offered us a cup of tea but was an elusive character and avoided the usual small talk of when he arrived and where he was from. It later became evident that M had been staying there for quite some time and by the look of his well stocked pantry, including three large jars of instant coffee, he was planning on remaining for quite a while longer. A kayaker had also arrived by sea that morning and we met him as he returned from collecting wood for the bothy stove. In contrast to M, S was chatty and eccentric and prone to talking loudly to himself. The tension and distrust between the two gentlemen was immediately evident and no sooner was one out of earshot than the other would start complaining about him to me. Evidently Finn and I would be in for an interesting evening.
After a protracted discussion between M and S over whether to have a fire, with Finn and I used as a bargaining chip, the stove was eventually lit and we settled down for an evening’s entertainment, bothy style. M kicked off the storytelling by candlelight with a short narrative, followed by some fascinating and daring tales of kayaking adventures by S. Encouraged, Finn got right into the bothy spirit and launched into an adventure-filled story of his own. He got off to a promising start but an hour later and still going strong, the rest of us were staring into the fire with glazed eyes, so I did the gracious thing and whisked him off to his sleeping bag, still protesting (loudly) that he hadn’t finished his story. With fellow company in the bothy, albeit a bit strained, I dropped off to sleep a little easier than on previous nights but the longed for peaceful bothy night continued to elude me. M was loudly traipsing in and out of the bothy until after midnight and then from 4am the bothy vibrated with the sound of his hacking cough repeated at ten minute intervals. Meanwhile S slept fitfully and every time he turned over he would sigh audibly and start talking to himself as loudly in sleep as he did when awake. By 3am the stags were roaring away outside (rutting season) and by 6am I’d given up all pretence of sleep as both gentlemen argued once more about lighting a fire. Evidently the tension between them still hadn’t dissipated by morning but by now I was feeling less anxious, more amused by their obvious distrust of each other. S left early to resume his kayaking expedition whispering to me as he left that he would have stayed another night if it wasn’t for M. No sooner had S left than M disclosed that he hadn’t left the bothy yet this morning for fear that S would have stolen his things while he was out.
Finn’s cheerful nature resumed as the sunshine of previous days receded and the leisurely walk back along the scenic path in front of the mountains of Torridon gave me a chance to reflect on our bothy adventures over the week. It hadn’t been without it’s challenges, predominantly my frustration with continually submitting to Finn’s pace and needs and my night fears, but it had been an incredible experience and one that with my rose-tinted glasses of hindsight I’ll probably only ever look at favourably. And the most surprising and most wondrous thing of all was that we’d just spent a week in the Scottish Highlands without a drop of rain or a single midge. Incredible.