They’re free, simple shelters in remote country that anyone can use. But bothies can be much more than just a place to sleep – at their best they represent a culture and a community. Here’s how to join in.
These days, we seem to insist on a bit of luxury with our outdoor experiences: glamping, camping pods, yurts, hostels with honeymoon suites. The seemingly unstoppable fashion for putting an indulgent twist on staying outside suggests that many now prefer the wilderness with Wi-Fi.
While it’s easy to romanticise the days of mandatory chores and cabbage-smelling hostels, perhaps previous generations of outdoorgoers at least had a sense of common purpose. In this individualistic era, such a sense is harder to come by. All the talk these days is about consumers, not community.
Except, that is, when it comes to bothies. The Mountain Bothies Association (MBA), which runs around 100 bothies all across the UK (mostly in Scotland, with a handful in England and Wales), has a wonderfully pure mission statement: “To maintain simple shelters in remote country for the use and benefit of all those who love wild places.” Not all bothies are run by the MBA, but those which are share the same ethos. They are free to use, open to all and maintained by the generosity of members and the wider bothy community. And in contrast to today’s identi-hostels, each bothy is an individual, with its own history, character and rugged appeal. Accordingly, bothy users must respect the building – don’t leave litter or perishable food, and when leaving make sure the fire is fully extinguished and the door securely closed.
Bothies don’t offer luxury. Volunteers who maintain them try and ensure they are kept robust and watertight, but beyond that the facilities on offer vary – some offer little more than a roof and a concrete floor, but most have raised platforms for sleeping and often a fireplace. One or two even have fancy mod-cons like electricity or toilets. As a rule, though, you should take everything you need to be self-sufficient. Part of the appeal of bothying is encountering unexpected acts of generosity in the form of candles, coal, or even tinned food left behind by others – but don’t rely on it.
Never ‘crowd out’ a bothy. There is no booking system, but the rule is a bothy is never ‘full’ – you can always squeeze another in. According to some recollections, bothies seem to assume Tardis-like properties; stories of a dozen people cramming into a shelter meant for three or four have been recounted. If that doesn’t sound particularly fun, plan to avoid busy bothies at peak times and you stand a good chance of having the bothy to yourself, or at least a decent amount of personal space. To help keep numbers under control, groups of six or more are discouraged, and bothies are not for the use of commercial parties.
Then there’s the matter of sanitation. As the MBA website delicately puts it: “Few bothies have toilet facilities apart from a spade and the advice is that you should walk at least a couple of hundred metres from the bothy and 60 metres from the water supply before excavations and evacuations commence.”
By now, you’ve probably got the picture that bothies are not necessarily to everyone’s taste. They offer free accommodation, but they can be much more than that. 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.
Carey Davies is the BMC hill walking development officer. Follow him on Twitter: @BMC_Walk.
EXPERT Q & A
This issue’s expert is Neil Reid, Mountaineering Council of Scotland Communications Officer and Mountain Bothies Association volunteer.
Q. What if I get to a bothy and it’s full?
A. The mantra goes that a bothy is never full: there’s always room to squeeze one more in. Realistically, though, it’s often a good idea to have a tent or bivy bag just in case.
Q. Have you ever found yourself in a bothy with less-thanpleasant companions?
A. Very rarely, but an open mind, mutual toleration and a willingness to go with the flow does help. Some bothy nights can be a bit boisterous for those who’ve had a sheltered upbringing, but most people are looking for a good night with no trouble. I haven’t experienced any aggression in almost 50 years but scary encounters have been reported. Try to avoid trouble however you can, even if it means swallowing any notion of who’s in the right and walking away.
Q. When are bothies at their busiest?
A. Broadly speaking, in summer at weekends – particularly holiday weekends. Some bothies are busier than others and it doesn’t do any harm to do a little research first. The ukbothies forum (www.ukbothies.freeforums.org) is a handy source of information.
Q. Say I’m doing a long-distance walk and I come to a bothy where someone has unexpectedly left coal, candles etc. Is it acceptable to use them and not replace them?
A. Of course – that’s what it’s left for. However, it’s good to pass on the favour when you have the opportunity, either at that bothy or at another. Coal and candles are always appreciated but perishable or mouse-vulnerable food is a no-no, as are sleeping bags, wet socks or bottles.
Q. What are the challenges facing bothies?
A. Cheap lightweight tents. Bothies aren’t an essential resource as they used to be in the days when tents weighed a ton and cost a fortune. Now people can make their base virtually anywhere in the hills, with a versatility bothies can’t offer. Fewer folk using bothies means fewer looking after them for the future. Another serious threat is rubbish. Selfish idiots have always left rubbish in bothies but in some, such as the very popular Corrour Bothy in the Lairig Ghru, this is reaching crisis point during the summer months. If you use bothies you can help by burning or removing any rubbish you find there. Don’t just leave it for already hardpressed volunteers.
Q. What makes the bothy system special? Why don’t we go for the staffed alpine hut approach?
A. Expense. And bothies are looked after by hill-goers for hillgoers, and that gives a sense of ownership and community lacking from commercial huts or bunkhouses. Bothies, at best, are more than just a refuge from the weather: they’re a place for sharing information, food and drink, assistance and friendship.
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