Two pinpricks of light appear through the darkness. Windows. I exhale and pick up the pace a little as the bog squelches beneath me, the beam of my head torch dispersed by rods of horizontal rain. A gust of wind carries with it that faint oiliness of burning coal: someone has already lit the fire. I’m getting closer. It’s only minutes before I can push open that wooden door, slump down in front of that familiar stove, and fall asleep in a fug of wet socks and whisky. The bothy is calling, and I am coming as fast as I can.
Since moving to Scotland in 2017 (and abandoning my dreams of writing half-decent mountain literature) I have developed a deep love for bothies – those quirky little dwellings scattered across the remotest parts of the country. I was introduced to bothying at the age of 19 by my university mountaineering club, and I quickly fell head-over-heels for this rare slice of mountain culture. But, hang on, what actually is a bothy? What are they for and how did they get here?
Most bothies were originally cottages built in the mid to late 18th century as accommodation for rangers or shepherds who worked for the wealthy landowners. However, the promise of better-paid factory work during the Industrial Revolution, and later the First World War, meant that estate workers deserted the countryside in droves – leaving these cottages completely abandoned. Many landowners left these buildings unlocked, and by around 1930, recreational walkers had begun using them illicitly as overnight shelters. Seeing as these cottages were so remote and of little use commercially, landowners generally turned a blind eye to this new practice, and bothies were born. This tradition has continued, and today is managed in part by the Mountain Bothies Association, whose volunteer teams are often responsible for the refurbishment of roofs, the cleaning of chimney flumes, and the general upkeep of over 100 buildings across England, Wales and Scotland.
Many bothies look like fairytale cottages but modern Scots Law defines a bothy as “a building of no more than two storeys, which does not have any form of main electricity, piped fuel supply, and piped mains water supply; is 100 metres or more from the nearest public road, and is 100m or more from the nearest habitable building.” And while all bothies must fit these criteria, they do vary hugely in terms of style and facilities – some are those classic two-roomed cottages while others are more like big wooden sheds.
Mountain Bothies Association
The majority have at least one fire, either an open hearth or a wood burning stove, and a select few have composting toilets. Some have an upstairs with raised wooden sleeping platforms, while some are just a single room with an earthen floor. You may have the luxury of a table and a few chairs, but don’t count on it. However, all bothies are only accessible by foot, bike or boat, and – somewhat incredibly in our day and age – are completely free to use.
As such, there’s no booking system; you turn up on the day, armed with some food, fuel and whisky, and see who’s there to share their stories with you. It’s this last point that really gives bothies their charm. Of course, in some of Scotland’s more remote glens, you might turn up to an empty room and have nothing to do but flick through the guestbook by the light of your head torch, with only the howling wind for company.
Personally, when it’s quiet, I succumb to the hold that bothies have over the bookish part of my imagination. I am Mrs Tiggywinkle, bustling and busy, making tea on the stove. I am Frodo Baggins, devouring my feast of cheese and oatcakes and whisky. I am Miss Honey, sitting next to little Matilda, gazing at the whitewashed walls and the rough, unpolished wooden floor. I am Hagrid, Goldilocks, and Snow White, and all of the other cottage-dwelling characters you can think of.
However, a bothy slightly closer to civilisation on a Friday night might become less of a setting for a Beatrix Potter story, and more of an illicit boozer, packed to the rafters with ramblers enjoying a good dram. There is little time to imagine yourself as one of the seven dwarves here; instead you’re caught up in tales of your adventures, the odd flutter of political chat, and then someone realises that two people from different parties share a postcode, or even a distant relative. Rowdier still, and no doubt lubricated by decent single malt, I’ve stumbled in upon impromptu ceilidhs, great big sing-songs and on one occasion, a fully blown bothy sesh with some IT consultants from Milton Keynes. It takes all sorts.
Mountain Bothies Association
Mountain Bothies Association
As to which experience you’ll end up having? Well, it depends when and where you visit. In the low season, on a weekday in the far-flung regions, you’re naturally less likely to encounter anyone except a wandering stag, or maybe an otter or two if you’re close to water. This is an ethereal experience in itself, especially come the silence of morning, when sunlight gleams through windows and the shafts of dust rise, dancing, from the flagstones. Conversely, a bothy closer to a main road on a Friday night in June is likely to be as crowded as the Tube at rush hour, although I’d take an overflowing bothy any day of the week over screeching down the Northern line with my face rammed into someone else’s armpit.
How to find a bothy to stay in is a slightly more controversial topic. In 2017 The Scottish Bothy Bible was published, much to the distaste of middle-aged men who decreed it a terrible plight on the sanctity of bothy locations. Not that the whereabouts of bothies were a particularly closely guarded secret – it just used to be the case that you had to do a bit more sleuthing to find out exactly what visiting that particular bothy might entail in terms of route and facilities.
Now, however, by googling any mountain region and adding “bothy” to your search, you’re guaranteed to find out if there’s one in the area, and possibly its coordinates, too. This is fine, but you should still do some of your own investigation at the nearest pub with the locals for insider tips – for example, if there any particular species of rare bird you should be looking out for on your way to the bothy, or if the second chimney is blocked and fills the room with smoke, or if there’s a good café in the nearest village for when you walk out in the morning, bleary-eyed and ready for a bacon roll. Doing things this way helps fight back against the relentless commodification of everything we hold dear, and ties in with the analogue nature of bothying in itself.
Bothying is for everyone. And everyone should follow the bothy code outlined by the MBA, when they visit a bothy, no matter who they are or where they’ve come from. This is a set of guidelines which mostly boil down to common sense, the main points being: respect the bothy and its users by leaving dry kindling for the next person, respect the landscape (don’t, for example, cut down any live trees for firewood, or poop in a stream) and make sure to take all your rubbish out with you, seeing as there’s no hope of a bin collection when you’re 15 miles from the nearest road.
Broadly speaking, generosity and consideration of your fellow bothy user are the keys to having a fabulous stay, but to help you along a little more specifically, read on for my five top tips for having the best time in one of these amazing spaces.
Bring a tent (or earplugs)
Sleeping inside the bothy might not always be possible, especially on weekends in the more accessible locations. It’s always advisable to bring a tent to pitch outside just in case, although usually there will be plenty of room for everyone. An added advantage of taking a tent means that you can bid your fellow bothy users goodnight if things don’t seem to be quieting down. With any luck, you’ll be able to sleep inside – but always bring earplugs for the inevitable snoring.
Welcome others in
You should never, ever turn someone away from a bothy. Bothies are public spaces, and even if there’s no more room for another group to sleep there comfortably, there’s usually ample space for someone else to sit down, cook their dinner, and enjoy the warmth after a long day outside, even if they have to pitch a tent to sleep in.
Learn to poop outdoors
This is always a sticky subject, as many newer hill users aren’t versed in how to manage things and often just squat right next to the bothy, with neither an ounce of grace nor a sprinkle of decorum. What you should actually do is this: walk at least 100m both from the bothy, and any water source (further than you think, by the way), then dig a hole in soft ground at least six inches deep. Most bothies will have a designated shovel for exactly this purpose, but you should bring a small collapsible one with you anyway. Hole dug, it’s time to go about your business, and then bury everything thoroughly, including the loo paper (if you can burn the paper with a lighter there and then, all the better, but this is easier said than done in wet weather). That’s it. Congratulations, you have successfully pooped outside.
Bring appropriate footwear
Having a pair of comfy indoor shoes for the bothy is a great idea: bothy crocs, clean trainers or tough slippers for indoor use mean you’re not trogging mud and dirt through the rest of the space, and means you can keep your feet warm and dry too. It’s a relief to pull your feet out of wet boots and slip them into something more comfortable at the end of the day, so if you have space in your pack, this is definitely a game-changer.
Give more than you take (except for your rubbish)
Arrive at a bothy with a little extra cake, or perhaps more whisky than you might drink, and you’ll soon make new friends, all while contributing to the generous spirit of bothying. If it seems suitable, you could leave a few non-perishable food items behind (stock cubes, perhaps, or the remainder of that bottle of olive oil you didn’t use) but definitely don’t leave anything that’s not mouse-proof, or that could rot and attract flies. And always make sure you leave the bothy tidier than when you found it, taking out every last scrap of rubbish. Leaving behind a couple of fresh bin bags in an obvious place will always be a helpful thing to do for the next user who might not have had the forethought to bring any.