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!