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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.