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Issue 92 - A history of Bothies in Scotland

Scotland Magazine Issue 92
April 2017

 

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A history of Bothies in Scotland

Geoff Allan, author of the Scottish Bothy Bible, tells us a little about the colourful history of bothies and bothying

A very distinctive feature of Scotland's outdoor culture, the network of open cottages and crofts known as bothies has grown haphazardly in the wilderness areas of Scotland over the past century. These ruins were left behind by the various waves of rural depopulation, clearances, and resettlement from the late 18th Century until after the Second World War.

Now, many have been renovated and left unlocked for the use and benefit of hill climbers, walkers, and all those who love exploring wild places. This unique system of basic accommodation has been developed and maintained by the Mountain Bothies Associtation (MBA), a volunteer-led charity that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015. The organisation was founded to support and maintain the ad hoc collection of rough-and-ready shelters, barns, and caves that had become renowned congregating places for a groundswell of working class outdoor enthusiasts, from as far back as the 1930s.

From the conurbations of the Central Belt and the estates of Aberdeen, groups of (for the most part) young men from Glasgow or Edinburgh set out to the mountains of Loch Lomond, Glencoe and Ben Nevis, and Cairngorms. They could barely scrape together enough money for the bus fare, let alone pay for a bed for a night, so improvising somewhere to sleep for free became a necessity. In some cases their use of the shelters was clandestine but, increasingly, various estates gave their tacit consent and the term ‘bothying’ in its modern sense came into common usage.
This trend became more firmly established after WWII as the pursuit of ‘Munro bagging’ (reaching the summit over 3000 feet, or 914 metres, in height) captured the imagination of many. Using former army kit lowered the cost of equipping oneself for the hill and a number of guidebooks on the subject were published. However, by the 1960s those who frowned upon, or could not afford to stay in, the newly expanded Youth Hostelling system — let alone stump up for a tent — had put a strain on the network. As a result, the fabric of many bothies began to suffer through misuse and lack of maintenance.

A few, such as Corrour, Ryvoan and Shenavall, were cared for by climbing clubs but the remainder received only sporadic attention. This neglect motivated a number of like-minded individuals to begin a programme of renovations, starting in the Galloway hills. These people met together in a village hall at the end of 1965 for the inaugural meeting of the Mountain Bothies Association. Alastair Borthwick's book
Always a Little Further (1939) details the exploits of the 1930s pioneers and the seminal text Mountain Days and Bothy Nights (1987) by Dave Brown and Ian Mitchell provides anecdotes from the post-war period.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the MBA extended its work from Galloway to the Cairngorms, Knoydart, and then across the country to now iconic properties such as Ben Alder Cottage (on Loch Ericht, near Dalwhinnie), Dibidil (on the Isle of Rùm), and Maol Bhuidhe (in Wester Ross) — as well as taking over the upkeep of many bothies that had been cared for independently.

By 1975 the organisation had a list of 35 bothies that were under its care and there has been a steady increase throughout the following decades, as more estates accepted requests to transform what were, in many cases, redundant properties.

Today, there are 81 MBA bothies in Scotland and enthusiasts continue to be on the lookout for more restoration projects to add to the roster.
I've been roaming the hills ever since I moved to Edinburgh as an undergraduate, inspired by the beauty and variety of the country's Highland landscapes. Once I had discovered the bothy network, my curiosity was piqued and, although I’m a keen rock and ice climber too, I have always returned to bothying if I have the need to recharge my body and soul.

Back in 2011, a friend suggested writing a book about bothies and I set to work on what finally became The Scottish Bothy Bible. Time rich but money poor, most of the research was undertaken by bike and public transport, which gave me the opportunity to rediscover the country at a slower pace and a less pressured environment in which to build up my photographic archive.

An aura of secrecy has always surrounded bothy locations, a mindset encouraged by the folk who undertook the maintenance of the shelters. Old stalwarts wanted to protect them from overuse, even though this ran contra to the ethos of them being ‘open to all’.

In fact, it was only in 2009 that the MBA made the locations of its bothies publicly available online as prior to this significant decision the information was only officially available to MBA members. There are still many more estate bothies in the Highlands, not maintained by the MBA, the whereabouts of which are closely guarded and only passed on by word of mouth, hinted at in online forums, or alluded to in bothy book entries.

Happily, the bothy network maintained by the MBA has never been in better shape. Once famous for being cold, draughty places to spend the night, many bothies now sport new stoves, sleeping platforms, and even sofas, as well as small library shelves and insulated wood panelling. You almost have to pinch yourself, as you cosy down in your sleeping bag after a hearty meal and stimulating fireside conversation, that this sociable resource is made available free of charge.

In 2015 the MBA was honoured with a Queens Award for Voluntary Service, the highest accolade that a UK voluntary group can receive, and due to increasing awareness of the MBA's good work, there has been an influx of new volunteers who are eager to participate in an ambitious programme of maintenance across the country.

Further Information
Geoff Allan is author of The Scottish Bothy Bible: The Complete Guide To Scotland's Bothies And How To Reach Them, which was published on 1 March 2017 by Wild Things Publishing. It is available in good bookshops and on Amazon.
www.wildthingspublishing.com