The Bothy Life

Ben Alder bothy

2022 for me is proving a bit of an experiment in outdoor living in Scotland. The first was a wild camping experience in a one man tent in May (see Big Day (and Night) In the Mountains ). This was followed in August by a night in a bivouac (‘bivvy bag’) on another mountainside. My regular trail running pal Cammie had instigated these trips. Please know that I love my creature comforts. Sleeping overnight in the wild is not something I dream about. That said I have slowly warmed, emotionally and physically, to the experiences. 

Buoyed by his success Cammie (‘C’) suggested a further mini expedition. This time it was a two night hiking / trail run trip to a remote bothy in the Scottish Highlands. It sounded a lot more civilised than sleeping on the ground outside. Bothies are basic shelters, usually left unlocked and available for anyone to use free of charge. They are found in remote mountainous areas of Scotland and the UK. The Mountain Bothies Association do a great job maintaining many of them with a network of volunteers. Despite living a good chunk of my life in Scotland I have never stayed in a bothy.

There is no financial transaction involved, only a reciprocal exchange of goodwill. Bothies demand that you be self-reliant, respect the building and possibly share a space with strangers. In return you get free shelter, the opportunity to wake up in magnificent wild surroundings, and the potential for rewarding encounters with like-minded people. Not exactly glamping, then – but approached with respect and an open mind, a special bothy experience can be far more memorable.”

Extract from Hill skills: how to use bothies 

Armed with the requisite ‘open mind’ I agreed to try out the bothy life. In summary the plan was to drive to Bridge of Gaur at the western end of Loch Rannoch. Then hike in to Ben Alder bothy with our food and gear. The next day we would leave most of our gear in the bothy and spend the day trail running/ hiking Ben Alder and surrounding area. 

A two night trip in an isolated ‘off grid’ place (no internet or mobile phone connections) requires a bit of planning. What food and gear to take as everything had to be carried in? There would be no corner shop! This included firewood to use in the bothy. Was glad C was carrying that! For the day in the hills we would leave our bedding and most of the food back at the bothy.

And so earlier this month we motored to a place just outside Bridge of Gaur. From there we hiked in the 14 km to the bothy.

Route in to bothy

Probably more than half of the way was good forest road which allowed for a good, marching pace. The wooded areas did not give a lot of perspective but the expanse of the area we were in really opened up on the shores of Loch Ericht.

Reaching shores of Loch Ericht

There we had a fantastic vista of this long loch and the surrounding mountains which stretch all the way to Dalwhinnie. Our track took us along the western side of the loch. Seeing a cut out model of a deer reminded us that it was the stalking season. We had informed the landowner we would be in the area. Hopefully our silhouettes would not be mistaken!

After a while the easy path disappeared. The last third of so of the route was very boggy and often with no visible trail at all. We were compensated with beautiful Scots pine forest scenery and dead pine remains on the shoreline.

Drowned Scots pine on the shoreline
Approaching bothy

In late afternoon we reached our destination beside Loch Ericht. A stream was conveniently located nearby to meet our water and washing needs. Weather was dry and quite warm. C suggested we go for a dip in the cool waters of the loch. I must admit my mind was more on brewing tea or coffee. Surprisingly I actually did immerse myself for a second or two.

There were 3 rooms and the only other occupants were two American women. They had come overnight by train on the London sleeper to Corrour station and walked 6 hours to the bothy. Imagine the contrast of embarking at a busy London station to then step off into the highest and most remote train station in the UK. They worked for the world’s largest search engine beginning with G. It seemed somewhat ironic that they delighted in coming to this remote place devoid of internet or mobile phone. We shared the firewood we (actually Cammie) had brought in with what they had foraged. 

The bothy had small windows making the inside dim for over an hour before sunset. It’s easy to forget that most Scottish homes 60+ years ago were like that. Outside the night sky was stunning. A true dark sky area.

Our food was more modern. Dehydrated meals that only needed hot water from a small primus stove was the staple of the food we had brought. Eating it out of a bag though was more primitive.

Was surprising at how many things previous visitors had brought. An assortment of dusty pots, pans, candles, shovels, even a chair and some clothing. There were fireplaces in two of the rooms. The rest of the building was locked for the use of the estate (the landowner). There was also a guest book. It was fascinating to discover entries for 2022 on almost every weekend and many weekdays. As we were sleeping on the floor the first night I took special note of the entry about being aware of rodents.

The next morning we set off for our day in the hills. With most of our gear left at the bothy it would be a mixture of hiking and running.

26.5km on an anticlockwise route.
Looking back at the bothy on our way to Beinn Bheouil

Shortly after starting we visited Prince Charlie’s cave. If interested in this legendary Scottish figure just google ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. He certainly lived in a lot of caves as there are plenty named after him.

A very poor ‘selfie’ of our visit to Prince Charlie’s cave.

Once on top of Beinn Bheouil there was contact on Cammie’s phone so borrowed it to call my wife. Cammie moved off whilst I talked and after the call he had disappeared! I wandered off where I thought he was but no sign of him. After about half an hour I heard C shouting. He had seen me in the valley below. I was lost but now found. Another thing that was lost were my gloves. Was too embarrassed to tell C as I often drop my gloves whilst running/ hiking.

Approaching Culra Bothy (right).

Leaving Beinn Bheouil we continued northwards descending as far as the Culra bothy where we had lunch. Due to asbestos people are not allowed to stay there except in emergencies. However the door was wide open. Quite a large building that could maybe accommodate 20 or more. 

A nice lunch spot.
View from the north of Ben Alder (left) and Aonach Beag (right)

We then headed southwards up the long valley between the Ben Alder massif and Aonach Beag. To summit Ben Alder we then made a very steep ascent to the left at the head of the valley. The big surprise is that eventually you arrive at a huge plateau. The top is just a little mound in the far distance, not some majestic peak.

Summit of Ben Alder

Got back to bothy about 5pm and after a hot drink enjoyed more rehydrated food from a bag. C did not seem too keen on swimming again and he would get no encouragement from me. We then set to and lit the fire with remaining wood. As with the previous night there were other guests. This time two men and a woman arriving by kayak. The retirees had canoed for 6 or so hours from the north end of Loch Ericht, near Dalwhinnie. We assumed that they would occupy the other end of the bothy. Instead they set up tents outside! Then they came in and lit a separate fire in the other room where they ate a warm meal. Apparently they found the bothy too stuffy to sleep in. It takes all sorts to make a world.

As we settled for the night a couple with a labrador came in. I had seen their head torch lights on the hillside about 15 minutes earlier whilst outside. We assumed they would relish coming in from the cold. Not at all, they were just passing by! They asked if any of us had lost gloves. The lady had found gloves on top of Beinn Mheouil and they decided to stop off at the bothy to see if anyone had lost them! Very surprised and sheepishly I admitted they were mine. They were lost and now they were found. Amazing kindness. Talk about going the extra mile. Once their mission was accomplished they then set off into the cold, dark night. They were camping a mile away beside the loch and assured us their dog would keep them warm. Why did those around us find tents so attractive?

On our final day we left after breakfast for the hike back to the car. We returned roughly the same route as we had come in.

On the way out
Goodbye Ben Alder

And so we said goodbye to the big, open skies. Was grateful for lovely autumnal weather which made for a more gentle experience. The few people we met were certainly inspiring. My short experience of bothy life leaves me feeling the attraction is not so much about the rigours of staying in such places. It seems more about a quest for solitude, about getting away from it all. A love for the simple things in life. About being immersed in the grandeur of nature and companionship without the world’s distractions. All that I understand as am sure most who read this do also. There is definitely a place for bothies in 2022!

The Dairy Round

‘Nimbus 2’ by Elisabeth Grant**

It was a good friend who got me in. He was a bit older than me. For some time he had had a job after school hours. I was 13, or maybe had turned 14. My pal’s reference gave me the opportunity to inherit a milk round. Some other lad had moved on leaving a vacancy. So I became a milk delivery boy. It felt great to have a first job.

Traditionally delivering milk was an early morning activity. However due to our age there was a need to stay awake when in school. Therefore we did our deliveries Monday- Friday after school hours in the late afternoon. Saturday deliveries were double runs, covering for the Sunday as well. In contrast they were done very early in the morning, getting up I think about 4 a.m. The main good bit about that was anticipating going back to bed at the end of the round.

For this six day a week part- time work I got paid the princely sum of 19 shillings and six pence. This was in the days of the UK old non-decimal money. Pounds, shillings and pence which changed to the metric system in 1971. In today’s money my pay equated to a mere £0.98. I remember feeling a bit miffed that I did not earn over a pound (20 shillings). These earnings were reserved for the older milk boys who got 25 shillings (£1.25) for the same job. Age discrimination.

Equipment was basic. A hand pushed, rickety, 2 wheeled steel wheelbarrow. This was used to cart milk around the streets near the dairy in the south side of Glasgow. My round was to deliver the dairy requirements of 60-70 households on my route. It took about 50 mins or so after school each day. Saturdays of course took longer with the heavier load of a double delivery.

Ordinary milk, full cream milk and cream were all transported by hand to peoples houses. Milk was either in glass bottles or cartons. There was recycling even in those days as we picked up people’s empty bottles from their doorsteps. Who got their milk in glass and who got cartons was, as I recall, based on the preferences of customers. I think the customers paid the dairy direct. There were perks to the job as we had the possibility of tips. These would be deposited weekly under door mats or occasionally in the empty glass bottles we collected.

The busy dairy shop we worked from was on a main road. It was managed very efficiently by a lady called May. Aside from my perceived slight at the aforesaid pay discrepancy she was fair and looked after us. Recognising perhaps the temptation of responsibly delivering hundreds of pints of milk we were allowed to drink as much as we wanted when on our round. I usually managed 1 or 2 pint cartons (about a litre). Another perk was that at on completion of your round May would cut a huge thick slab of gammon (ham) to put in a buttered bread roll. All in all I think we were well fuelled for the work.

As mentioned earlier Saturdays were the hardest. Getting up super early and pushing a double barrow load around the streets was not looked forward to. It was usually dark. The dairy was next door to a bakery. Like the dairy it was also busy in the early hours. We loaded our cargo in the lane at the back of the shop. On a Saturday you would see the baker hard at work making the breads etc. in time for a new day. He was a chain smoker. Someone whose cigarette stuck to his lips the whole time. This left his hands free to do the baking. It was amusing watching him blend his creations with a trickle of cigarette ash added to the ingredients.

After a time I got accustomed to the route. Where the most efficient places to leave the barrow were when carrying bottles and cartons to doors. Like the rest of the lads a work challenge was devising ways to speed up time taken to deliver our orders. After all, we were paid for job done, not time on the job. I had a multi storey building on my round. One technique for quick deliveries involved just stepping partly out of the lift doorway. With enough practice you could slide milk cartons from there to each flat door and still keep them upright.

First jobs don’t last. My older pal moved on to working in a supermarket and after a time I followed him. I suppose our motive was better wages and conditions. Grateful though to my friend for introducing me to the world of work.

** elisabethgrantart.com

The Sounds of Silence

New day on shoulder of Ben Lomond, 14 Aug 2022

Recently I have been reading the book ‘Ljudet av Tystnad’ (‘The Sound of Silence’). It is written by Tomas Sjödin, a Swedish pastor and author. Sadly only available in Swedish. Sjödin explores the many ways in which our lives need and are enriched by what he calls ‘good’ silence. Not always, possibly rarely, is such silence experienced through an absence of sound.

good [meaningful] silence is more about finding the [right] tone than being silent, not about what you want to avoid hearing, but what you long to hear”**. 

(My rough translation from Tomas Sjödin’s book ‘Ljudet av Tystnad’. Bracketed and bold words are mine. See end of post for the Swedish)

In our noisy world I lose my bearings and often cannot articulate what I long to hear. Instead a thousand noises and voices compete for attention. There is a need to recognise the voice that speaks in the silence.

And in the naked light, I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

The Sound of Silence (verse3), Paul Simon

A while ago I discovered that the English word ‘absurd’ comes from the Latin absurdus. Apparently the root of the word comes from being ‘out of tune’ or ‘deaf’. It struck me that to not experience ’good silence’ is to live an absurd (deaf, out of tune) life.

I struggle to hear but below are some ways I have been blessed with good silence.

The comforting silence of being understood

Praying should be like sharing with a good listener. It should be the one place to go where there are no expectations, where I can truly be myself. Yet much of the time my prayer is driven. I ask for change in people and situations, for God to answer my concerns and needs. Of course there is a time and place for this. Yet the first and greater need is to come as a child to the Father. To know I am understood. In recent years I have found the Ignatian practices involving silence helpful and refreshing spiritually. 

The many faces of longing

Sjödin cites the Reggio Emilia approach to education which says a child is born with a hundred languages. Sadly most of us grow up to discard all but a few. Nobody teaches a child to cry, scream, laugh, babble or gurgle with joy. Similarly Sjödin makes the point that we begin life equipped with many ways to pray but these ways often disappear as we go through life. So much for becoming older and wiser!

There are many languages, postures and ways of prayer. Hands clasped, hands open, hands raised, eyes open, eyes closed. It can take place while we sit or in bed, while we walk, stand, kneel, run or even swim. (The latter reminds me of a friend who said he prayed for me on the seventh lap of his daily swim. As his family grew and grandchildren came along he said I had been relegated to being prayed for, I think, on the 13th or 14th lap instead. Even though he is dead his prayers live on and I am grateful). 

Prayer can be praise, worship or song. It can be wordless. Asking, seeking, knocking. It could be a cry of joy, of sorrow, of anguish, of thanks, of need, of delight, of despair, of hopelessness. It can take place anywhere and in any of the 6,000+ languages spoken or those known only to God.

“God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.”

Genesis 21:17 NIVUK

The sacred silence of exhaustion 

“I lay down, strangely mesmerised by the tree branches overhead. Maybe it was my stress hormones but at 0200 the night was utterly quiet. Words can’t describe but I could ‘hear’ the silence and it was deafening”.  (from my West Highland Way Challenge – Race Report 2021). 

This was a silence of no strength. I had been moving, trying to run, for about 15 hours. On my own in the middle of the night in a wood near Crianlarich, Scotland. No doubt my blood sugar was very low and my senses and reactions were impaired. I was also very cold and so was vigilant about not resting or sleeping for more than a few minutes. I was fixated on my goal of going another 60km or so to Milngavie, Glasgow for 9pm that same day. Blood was pounding in my ears. In the midst of all that I lay down on a picnic bench and heard the silence.

The awesome silence of the heavens

“It was a balmy night with the occasional light wind to cool things a bit. It was keeping the midges (small, biting insects) at bay. Lying in my bivouac I kept looking up at what looked like the Pleiades cluster of stars directly overhead my mosquito/ midge net. To the southern horizon on my left the near full moon shone its reflected glory. I felt the immensity of space and time above. This coupled with the sense of my fragile head resting on the ground evoked both wonder and smallness. It was an ‘awe-full’ time. Eventually got to sleep about 0100 I guess.”

Journal entry, August 2022.
Camping on shoulder of Ptarmigan, overlooking Loch Lomond. August 2022. 

The refreshing silence of slowing down

With social media and the torrent of information around today mental capacities become overloaded, at least mine. There are little or no reserves left to give attention to what we are exposed to or going on around us. To focus is not easy and to ‘pay’ attention implies a cost. Sjödin observes that in the past people spoke at a slower speed than today. Nowadays we also apparently read 10% faster. All this doesn’t necessarily lead to more effective communication. There are times when I need a ‘sabbath’ break from mobiles and computers. Giving some space to create my own thoughts and not those that come from others. If these are too hard to come by then a good substitute is giving attention to the sounds and sights in nature. The silent, gentle progression of day to night is surely a calling to recognise a bigger picture.

Sunset over Loch Lomond, 13 Aug 2022

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** “Den goda tystnaden handlar mer om att hitta tonen än att bli tyst, inte om vad man vill slippa höra, men vad man längtar efter att få höra”.