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!

Cast your bread upon the waters

A nice fish tea for four.

As a boy nearly every summer holiday was spent staying with either my maternal or paternal grandparents. My mother’s parents lived in a small village on the North west coast of Scotland. My father’s were from a crofting community in the same area. My maternal grandfather was in his 70s but still a very active outdoorsman. He had lived most of his life as fisherman, crofter and gamekeeper. A crofter is a small scale tenant farmer. I think when I knew him he had retired from gamekeeping but he still continued to hunt, trap and fish. 

For a child coming from the city of Glasgow it was exciting following along with him in some of these activities. Especially fishing. One of the highlights was when he went night fishing in the nearby salmon river. What an experience as we would travel out with his motorbike and spend about 2 hours fishing from midnight till 2am. As a former gamekeeper he had the right from the landowner to fish the river for his lifetime. I didn’t fish with him, the rods were too big. Also working a fast flowing river in pitch dark was a bit much for a little lad. Holding the net, the possibility of disturbing a poacher and being awake at an unheard of hour was excitement enough. If a salmon or sea trout was above a certain weight he would hand in part or all of it to the current gamekeeper. It seemed to be a kind of agreement with the landowner. 

Granda (right) with a 36lb salmon (16kg) in 1937 (several decades before my time!!)

Though not fishing on the river I did get to fly fish in the lochs (loch is Scottish word for a lake). These dotted the whole area. Granda taught me how to cast and tie on flies. The ‘blue zulu’ was my favourite fly. Also had to learn the not so pleasant task of gutting any fish caught. He also showed how to tickle brown trout, I guess a lost art nowadays. To catch a trout in a burn (Scots name for a small stream) is quite a trick. Putting your hand in the water you wiggle your fingers and somehow mesmerise the fish to come near your hand. Then lightning quick close your hand and grab it! I never caught anything that way. 

Granda would also teach patience, necessary for any fisherman. If I cast and a fish rose to the fly but didn’t hook I would get excited. Stubbornly I would keep casting to the same patch of water. His instructions in such circumstances were always the same. “Cast 3 times, if they don’t bite move on to another area”. He knew what he was talking about as sometimes he would catch 40-50 brown trout in just a few hours. Maybe I’d catch 4 or 5. Such abundance of fish are not there nowadays. Living in a village where people depended on one another there was a strong sense of responsibility to the community. Whenever he caught more than the family could eat, whether from the sea or loch, it would be shared with neighbours. This was the norm. 

The routine preparing for sea fishing involved some effort. We would go to the shore and pick mussels. He would show me how to shell them raw with a knife. This was tricky with small hands as you needed to extract the mussel without cutting it. Then he’d teach how to put the shelled mussels on several dozen hooks as bait for line fishing. Strange nowadays that mussels are a delicacy for humans and not for fish! Again as with freshwater loch fishing there was an abundance of fish. Sometimes you could catch 80-100. Also a great variety which could include haddock, whiting, cod, pollack, saithe (coalfish) and flounder. In August when mackerel shoals were around you could catch very many of them. On occasions even a conger eel or a skate. Since these days throughout adulthood I have spent many times with my father carrying on this tradition. Times have changed though. Catching such riches from the sea just a few hundred metres from shore are not common today. Probably caused by decades of large scale seabed trawling near coastal shores.

Do I still fish nowadays? Maybe on average once a year and only fly fishing in the same place. For many years it’s nearly always been the same ritual. I go to a remote loch about an hour’s hiking from the roadside. Granda had shown me how to find it. He showed how to find the direction too this ‘hidden’ loch from the rock patterns on the horizon. He didn’t seem to use a compass in the hills or moors. Of course he knew the area inside out. There were many lochs but not all had fish. ‘Granda’s loch’ always had fish. He also revealed which areas around the loch to fish and where it was a waste of time. That knowledge of where to find it and where to fish I have kept mainly to myself. Am not divulging the loch’s name! 

In all my years of visits I never met anyone else on the loch though a few times others have accompanied me. Except for one occasion which I mention later. My routine is usually the following. A one hour walk each way to the loch with about 2 hours enjoyable fishing. Careful to only fish those spots granda told me all those years ago. I think I have always come back with something (a fisherman would say that!). The whole experience can be meditative, hopeful and refreshing. Perhaps explains why fishing is popular with so many. 

For each cast of the fly on a particular patch of water you are expectant of a bite. If it doesn’t work after 3 casts you move on to another patch of water which you think looks good. Occasionally there would be the drama of a fish on the line. Always exciting. Put small ones back in the water to live another day. In between savouring the quietness and solitude giving space to think. 

The one occasion when someone else was fishing was a surprise to me and think also to him. It almost felt an affront, an invasion of privacy. How dare anyone think they could fish what had become in my mind ‘my’ loch! It turned out he was a local and I knew him. He was a bit older than me and from the village I had spent childhood holidays. He also knew my grandfather. As we chatted I was encouraged as he spoke warmly of granda. In fact he said he had taught him all he knew about fishing! It seemed granda had more than one disciple when it came to fishing. It did look like he had learnt well as his bag was full of fish.

“Cast your bread upon the waters for you shall find it after many days”

Ecclesiastes chapter 11 verse 1.

The above verse is a picture to me of patience, hope, expectations of a bright future and generosity towards others. Looking back granda demonstrated these traits to a little boy though I didn’t know it at the time. I am grateful to him, to parents and other such mentors in life.