Two Wee Adventurers

Rediscovering the great outdoors with a little one

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February Bivvy Microadventure

We’d done it again and managed to serendipitously time February’s bivvy microadventure with a dump of snow. We’d postponed bivvying in a local wood with our friends for the previous two Saturdays because of heavy rain. We didn’t want to dishearten our wee ones with such a wet night so early in the year. However as the last day of February rolled around rather quickly it was now or never.

To vary the view a little I asked my neighbour if we could use her garden instead of our own. Thankfully I have a very understanding neighbour who didn’t bat an eyelid at my strange request and not only offered to leave her back door open for us but presented us with chocolate to keep up moral too. Thanks Ashleigh!

When I stepped outside after dark I knew it was the perfect night. Crisp, cold and clear, snow below, stars above. There are no street lights where we live and little light pollution so we had quite a view. I helped Finn into his sleeping and bivvy bags, then attempted to shimmy into mine. It takes time when you’re wearing so many clothes, still, I warmed up a bit from the exertion of it. Then I laid back and gazed at the stars. Perfect (except for son’s constant chatter). We tracked satellites, saw a couple of shooting stars and spotted constellations. Then I turned over to sleep, Finn still muttering away.

An hour later he was shifting in his sleeping bag and sitting up. Mother mode kicking in I coaxed him back under cover and tucked him in to keep him warm. This repeated about every hour until 5.20am when he needed the toilet. We laboriously extracted ourselves from our protective cocoons and walked around to our own back door. Of course as soon as he was in the house, he wasn’t exactly keen on heading back out into the freezing night again so I returned alone, with a silent sigh thinking that now I might get an hour or two of interrupted sleep before dawn. I did have that chocolate to earn after all. (Alas, it was not to be, by then the rooks in the nearby copse of Scots Pine were waking up). Recent scientific research found that camping out can banish insomnia by resetting the body’s natural clock. Clearly the research was not carried out on bivvying families.

The morning after. Looking a bit tired and worse for wear!

After a dry but bitterly  cold night (I could barely feel my toes by morning), a shower of sleet on my face persuaded me to abandon ship and head inside for a cup of tea and hot shower while the boys continued their slumber, softly snoring away.

An Alternative Valentine’s Night Away

What could be more romantic than getting away from it all by escaping to a historic stone shepherd’s cottage perfectly situated by a meandering stream deep in the forest of Southern Scotland? Forget fluffy pillows, a hot bath and rose petals scattered over the four poster bed though. This cottage is without piped water, central heating, beds, electricity, a toilet or privacy; as well as having our 6 year old in tow, we could be joined by anyone else. OK, so I appreciate a night in a bothy wouldn’t be everybody’s idea of a romantic retreat, but thankfully both my husband and prefer to celebrate Valentines in a less conventional and commercial manner. We weren’t the only ones. A couple were already ensconced in the bothy by the time we arrived in the late afternoon. They had actually come for a romantic night though, having left their two young children at home (in the care of other family I hasten to add). At least they managed to get a full three hours of relative peace to themselves before we turned up and shattered the amorous atmosphere. They retreated to a smaller wood panelled room in the bothy (who could blame them) while we shared the larger room with a semi-retired gentleman who had arrived just before us.

This was Finn’s first winter bothy trip but we had carefully chosen a bothy equipped with a stove and plenty of dead wood in the surrounding forest plantation to keep us warm during the evening. In fact wood collection was the highlight of the trip for Finn. We gathered firewood from a felled plantation on the afternoon we arrived and gave Finn the job of Chief Wheelbarrow Driver, which he held with great pride until the impending darkness and a rain shower hurried us inside. Even better than the position of Chief Wheelbarrow Driver was hitching a ride in the back of the couples’ Land Rover the following morning, accompanied by their wee dog, Jack, to help fell a couple of dead trees up valley and bring them back to the bothy for the use of future occupants.

At this time of the year it still gets dark fairly early so after a sociable evening of conversation and cards and Finn wearing out our companion with his imaginary games we retired to our cosy sleeping bags squeezed together on a sleeping platform made for two. We woke to a mild, dry morning and our companion swinging a larger than usual mouse in front of us that he had caught in a trap overnight. After a candlelit breakfast (see, we didn’t forgo romance altogether) and helping out with some bothy maintenance we dragged Finn away from his play at the stream, where he had devised a game that only the imagination of a six year old can conjure up, and headed for home. I guess if we can spend a night like that together and actually enjoy it, it must be love 😉

Southern Scotland’s Secret Hills

Last Sunday afternoon I escaped alone to the Lowther Hills. I’ve not explored this overlooked but extensive area of hill country in the Southern Uplands of Scotland nearly as much as I’d like. On the occasional days when I don’t have the wee one in tow, I don’t have the car either so I’m restricted to walks more easily accessible by the limited public transport. So despite the grey, overcast afternoon, the usual Scottish damp chill in the air and the cold from which I was recovering, I was excited to be heading for the hills.

To reach my starting point I took a road I’d never been down before, a narrow single track that at one point went under a railway bridge so narrow there was a turning circle before reaching it and a sign urging vehicles to turn back. I braved it in our small hatchback (only after stopping and checking the map, and watching another car turn around) but if I’d been in a modern SUV I probably would have scraped the sides! I parked up at the side of No Through road servicing a reservoir and passed through an extensive farm dwelling that was eerily quiet. As I tramped through saturated fields I was led by a heron, then a hare that I followed away from the fields and up a valley to the moorland edge. The summit of the hill I was aiming for was shrouded in mist as I followed a circuitous route on the track of an ancient Roman road.

I love walking in the Lowther Hills. Most people will never have even heard of them. They are generally low and rounded but offer extensive views across Southern Scotland. The approach to them them feels like entering another world and there is a feeling of remoteness that is difficult to find elsewhere. They have a bleak wildness and beauty that I find alluring but they are overlooked by tourists and hill walkers who drive right through up the M74 en route to the ‘real’ mountains further north. Even on a beautiful summer weekend I’ve had these hills to myself and yet again, on this occasion I didn’t see a soul. The fact that mine were the only (human) tracks in the snow meant that I was the only person to have walked that way since the snow fell the night before, probably a lot longer. It wouldn’t always have been so. This is an area rich in Roman history, and there is evidence of their efforts to seize Scotland in the form of remains of Roman forts and fortlets, ditches and ramparts and Roman roads through the many passes.

As I followed in the Romans’ footsteps and passed over the snowline it became a little slippery underfoot but the presence of tracks in the snow revealed the normally hidden world and lives of myriad animals. Close to the summit the mist cleared, giant wind turbines loomed out of the mist and the Lowthers rewarded me with 360 degree views, distant features highlighted in the late afternoon winter light. I retraced my steps (easy to do in the snowy landscape and as mine were the only footprints!) and drove the half hour home feeling like I was returning from a venture into a secret world.

Beginning our “Year of Microadventures”

Last night Finn and I were joined by another mother and son to begin our “Year of Microadventures” with a backyard bivvi. For the next year we plan to spend at least one night every month sleeping out in the open with only a bivvi bag for cover. Being our first collective winter bivvi we decided to begin close to home with the safety of a shelter to retreat to if anyone grew unhappy.

The early evening skies were clear and in the absence of street lights where we live they were alive with the brilliance of thousands of stars. A hard frost already covered the ground as we began our microadventure with a night walk across crisp, sparkling fields down to the river. We searched for the star constellations we knew, listened carefully and tried to identify the sounds of the night and observed the effects of light pollution; an orange haze clinging over the nearby towns and villages like a cloak. The temperature had already dipped below freezing but dressed in several layers of clothes we were warm. Back in the garden we lit a fire and made up our ‘beds’ for the night, complete with the luxury of hot water bottles. Then began the greatest challenge of all – trying to get ourselves into our thick sleeping and bivvi bags while dressed in so many layers. A good fifteen minutes later with this finally accomplished Finn announced that he needed to use the toilet and so we repeated the procedure once more…

We fell into slumber to the accompaniment of a couple of owls hooting in a nearby copse and the smell of wood smoke. Three times during the night I had to rescue a very distressed Finn who had managed to sink right down into his sleeping bag and couldn’t find his way out again. Some time during the night I felt the cool pitter patter of what I imagined was rain on the exposed patch of my face not cocooned in my sleeping bag. It was only when I sat up to rescue Finn from being trapped in his bag that I realised it had been snowing and now a sprinkle of the white stuff already dusted the garden and it’s sleeping occupants. It continued to snow lightly through the night but we all remained snug and warm with no thought of retreat to the house. We awoke to the light slowly returning over a winter white landscape, the cawing of rooks and the honking of an arrow formation of geese flying directly overhead. We were all so cosy tucked up in our bivvi bags and enlivened by our achievement that we were in no rush to seek shelter back inside so we sat together awhile appreciating the moment.

Blowing Away the January Blues

As a popped into an art gallery and café near the station in Berwick-Upon-Tweed to kill time while I waited for a train to take me north and home, the owner looked me up and down in my muddy boots and sizeable rucksack and asked incredulously “why on earth would you want to go walking at this time of year?” Well, I guess there’s the ethereal light, the quiet paths and beaches, the plentiful accommodation (most offering special deals) and the chance to soak up plenty of mood-boosting daylight at the darkest time of the year while working off some of the Christmas excesses. Or, as I replied to the gentleman in the café, your husband and son decided to go and stay with granny for a few days at short notice and you’ve got to seize every opportunity you can get.

That is how I found myself just over a week ago planning a last minute walk 50 miles along the Northumberland Coast Path. For a day I toyed with where to walk, considering the West Highland Way (not enough time), the Allerdale Ramble in the Lake District (too difficult for me to reach by public transport), the Cateran Trail in Perth and Angus (would require winter walking equipment and more organisation) and St Cuthbert’s Way (I’d already promised to walk it with a friend later in the year). Although I’m more of a rugged cliffs than gentle dunes kind of girl, walking the Northumberland Coast Path would be easy to organise, offers plenty of accommodation, is easy access by bus and train and I wouldn’t need to equip myself with an ice axe or crampons. I also already had a guidebook and map that covered the path, which coincides with part of the St Oswald’s Way, the first half of which I walked a couple of years ago.

Apart from one day of walking where the route directs you inland around Budle Bay and the Fenham Flats it’s mostly gentle walking at low altitude so I expected it to be an easy stroll. But then I hadn’t expected a gale to hit from the north west that made my progress depressingly slow (I was headed north west). It did give my cheeks a warm rosy red glow though and I worked up quite a sweat despite the cold temperatures.

If I was seeking peace, quiet and solitude, I certainly got it. Apart from dog walkers on the most accessible beaches and when passing through towns and villages, I barely saw a soul. On day 3, which took me inland from Bamburgh and over moorland before descending back to the coast at Holy Island I didn’t meet a single person in 15 miles, except for when I passed through the town of Belford. In my first night’s accommodation in a small village inland of Craster I was the only person in residence, and aside from the alcoholic brother of the landlady, the only person drinking in the bar (just a half pint mind). As for the scenery, the wide, sweeping coastal vistas, which I mostly had to myself didn’t disappoint, nor the imposing silhouettes of castles brooding on the headlands.

Apart from the very windy conditions and a moment of excitement near the town of Bedford, where I had to use a special phone to call the railway signalman to check it was safe to cross the East Coast Mainline, the walk was fairly uneventful. But if I was seeking to blow away the post-Christmas blues, I can’t imagine a better way to do so, quite literally!

Walking with the Moon

I was disappointed that the cloud cover was too extensive to see the latest Supermoon on November 14th. Over the past few weeks Finn and I have been embracing the darkness by heading out on a few lantern-led night walks and we were looking forward to a moonlit stroll on Tuesday.

Our night walking adventures began with intention last year when we headed down to our local nature spot by the banks of the upper Clyde river to watch the rising of the Super Harvest Blood Moon and it’s red tinted reflection on the water. We took head-torches, but only as a backup; we didn’t use them. My intention was for us to experience our well trodden walk from a different perspective, one that embraced all of our senses as we are usually so predominantly reliant on our visual awareness. It’s surprising how different a familiar place can feel under the cover of darkness.

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Finn enjoyed that first evening microadventure so much he started to request a night walk a couple of times a week. Knowing Finn, it was probably just a guise to delay bedtime. But more often than not I’d agree and we’d head out, well dressed up, on a mini night-time adventure. On clear nights we’d star gaze, searching for the few constellations with which we were familiar and learning new ones as time went on. We followed the progress of the moon and learnt about the moon’s phases, we developed our night vision and awareness by seeing how far we could walk without resorting to turning on our torches and we noted how different it was on a moonlit compared to a moonless night. We admired our moon shadows and listened to the sounds of the night, our hearing becoming more heightened as our vision became more restricted.

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Moon Walk 3

It was an extra special experience to head out after a snow fall. We had snowball fights in the dark and could easily spot and identify animal tracks in the snow that would not otherwise have been visible. It surprised us to see how many different animals were prowling around so close to home, which we otherwise unaware of.

So as the nights draw in ever earlier, we intend to embrace the encroaching darkness by exploring the night time environment and all it’s magic.

Moon Walk 4

A North West Highlands Bothy Extravaganza

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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