If much of the beauty of the natural world can be said to come from contrasts - think wild peaks rising from flat plains, warm breath steaming in frosty air, or the bright light of dawn on a dark forest canopy - then bothies must be one of the most beautiful features in our landscape.
That’s because no matter how brisk the wind or keen the cold or hard the hail, a well-maintained bothy will contain its own atmosphere. It will be sealed and safe and quiet. It will see you sheltered from the storm. And if you fill it with enough heat and light and life (and whisky) it will feel like the most welcome little home away from home that you’ve ever inhabited.
But before I get too poetic it’s probably worth mentioning what a bothy actually
The best people to ask would be the Mountain Bothies Association, the charitable keepers of these little wilderness dwellings. The motto of the Association is “to maintain simple shelters in remote country for the use and benefit of all who love wild and lonely places”. And what a beautiful sentiment that is. So, from my purple prose and the MBA’s concise mission statement, we learn that a bothy is a basic structure in an untamed landscape which all of us are free to use in our wanderings.
The MBA currently lists 99 bothies
on their website (and there are plenty of others out there on private estates too), each page containing an image or images, basic information about its location and a guide to its current condition. As you may have guessed, these buildings are a far cry from the alpine huts you will find in Italy, France, Austria and the rest of central Europe. You won’t pay to use a bothy, but equally you shouldn’t go expecting a hot three-course meal, a comfy mattress for the night, charming guardians and crisp lager on tap.
Instead, expect something that looks like a shed, with a bolt-secured wooden door, cold stone walls, a window or two, a broom for sweeping the floor and - if you’re lucky - a stove with a small amount of suitable fuel left by the previous occupant. You may also find a spade or trowel and a few faded packets of dry noodles and a battered old tin of custard. You lucky thing.
But let’s not give a grim impression of these places. There’s something magical in the basic, untrammelled freedom that bothying as a hobby allows. Most of these buildings were once crofting huts or workers cabins on great estates (which is why the great bulk of them lie north of the Scottish border), and you generally enjoy within them only what you are dedicated enough to carry to the door. Decide to go “all out” and you can sit around a roaring fire, the shelves and sills lit by legions of tea lights, your stomach full of warm food and some welcome drink or other in your hand. All for free. And all in one of the various heart-fluttering locations that they tend to stand.
Take the Corrour bothy, for example. It sits at about 560m above sea-level and roughly seven miles in either direction from anything resembling civilisation. Above it loom Cairn Toul and the Devil’s Point - which means it sits in the pointiest and most dramatic part of the Cairngorms - and around it lies nothing but open space, the cold, clear waters of the River Dee and (on the right night) a sky brimming with stars. Do it right and a bothy night can be a fairly life-defining adventure.
Can you spot Carrour Bothy in the image below?
Below you’ll find a gallery of just some of Britain’s great mountain bothies*, as well as images of the Corrour’s wonderful bothy book. Essentially a forum for guests to leave their mark, the bothy book is a tradition kept up in every one of these shelters, and a document that typically provides an hour or two’s concentrated reading, guffawing, frowning and bafflement if you choose to click on a headtorch and indulge yourself.
One small word of warning, though: you really never do know what you’ll expect with a bothy. You may be alone on a windswept night, you may find the bothy already overflowing with guests and not a single square metre of bunk space or dank cobblestone to call your own. In which case it’s worth bringing a bivvy bag or tent with you, just in case you’re obliged to sleep outdoors by the immutable laws of physics.
However, if you do successfully visit a bothy and want to help maintain them (the MBA relies entirely upon donations and volunteers) then head over to their website and get involved. While you’re there it’s probably worth
familiarising yourself with the Bothy Code too, so that you can leave these unique and characterful places in as good as, or ideally better, condition as you found them.
Here’s to some great adventures to come. Aaaahhh, what treats we’re all in for...
*with kind thanks to Alex Berry for many of the Scottish bothy images.
Dan Aspel is a journalist and Mountain Leader. You can find him at www.danaspel.com
Visit www.lifesystems.co.uk to find headtorches, windproof matches, midge repellent and many other products you may find handy on your next bothy visit.