Rain hammered against my hood as I picked my way through the long grass. The last tracing of a man-made path had disappeared — I was now following tracks made only by deer. As strange an idea as it might seem, here on the wave-battered cliffs above the beach of Sandwood Bay, in the far north of Scotland, I was deliberately plunging myself into the wilderness as night was beginning to fall and a squall was brewing.
My eyes scoured the undulating landscape ahead, then finally I saw it. Amid the folds of grass, a building: made of stone with a metal roof, it shone, beacon-like, in the dusk. This was a bothy — a mountain hut — and my shelter in the storm.
The building of huts in wild and remote places is not a concept peculiar to Britain. The Swiss Alpine Club has built them for climbers and walkers since 1863. The Appalachian Mountain Club in the US constructed its first backcountry shelter in 1888. And countries from Norway to New Zealand are home to a network of cabins offering refuge for those far from civilisation. Where the UK bothies differ is that they were never built for that purpose originally.
The one I arrived at was called Strathchailleach, and had been a gamekeeper’s residence from as early as 1840. However, come the 1940s, with the arrival of cheaper vehicles, agricultural machinery and greater transport links, demand for places such as these waned and many were left to ruin. Almost concurrently, soldiers returned from the second world war, working hours shortened and people began to use their extended free time to explore the great outdoors. Climbers and walkers started to discover these abandoned buildings and stay in them — sometimes with and sometimes without permission.
In 1965 the volunteer-run Mountain Bothies Association was formed to work with landowners to keep these shelters open and free to use for outdoor enthusiasts. And they still do today — the organisation celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and now has 100 bothies under its care, scattered all over Scotland, with a handful in northern England and a small number in Wales.
Inside Strathchailleach, the smell of firewood lingered in the air like burnt toast and the rain tapped on the window. Some bothies are tiny shed-like affairs, others are two-level, multi-room abodes. Inside this one were two rooms, one with a sleeping platform and another with a peat fire and chairs, where I sat and hung my waterproofs.
As with all bothies, there was no one waiting to greet me; they are not manned like their foreign counterparts. More stone tent than hostel, you need to bring a sleeping bag and mat, any light comes from your headtorch, and running water from a nearby stream. There are no toilets and you’ll need a camping stove for cooking but most — though not all — have a fire to give heat.
I lit my stove and waited for my camping meal to cook, wondering if anyone else would come. You can’t book a place in a bothy: you turn up and hope there’s room. Not knowing who you might meet is part of the charm.
Over the past 10 years bothies have provided the backdrop to some of my most memorable nights — from sharing a dram of whisky with climbers in a bothy high on the flanks of Ben Macdui, to telling ghost stories around the fire deep in a Northumberland forest and stargazing from the doorstep of a bothy perched on a cliff-edge on the Isle of Skye.
Here in Strathchailleach I had the place to myself and spent the evening next to the fire reading the visitor’s book. Among its pages were tales of great hikes, encounters with wildlife and an outpouring of love for the MBA.
Bothies remain unlocked for anyone to use but while there have been a few minor incidents of vandalism in those closer to cities or roads, the system of sharing these shelters with minimal organisation or intervention has worked well for the past half century. I was certainly grateful as I watched the rain; in bad weather bothies make a far happier alternative to a damp tent.
I woke to silence the next morning; the rain had stopped and sunlight crept across the stone floor. My clothes had dried by the fire and I was ready to head back out into the wilderness. As I headed over the brow of the hill I stole one last glance at the bothy, now merely a tiny speck; I smiled, happy to think it was hidden, waiting to greet the next adventurer.
Phoebe Smith is author of ‘Book of the Bothy’ (Cicerone) to be published in August, as well as ‘Wild Night: Camping Britain’s Extremes’ (Summersdale) and ‘Wilderness Weekends’ (Bradt)
Staying in the bothies is free. For details of where to find them, and of how to help support the Mountain Bothies Association, see mountainbothies.org.uk
Illustration by Matthew Cook
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