In the wilderness areas of Scotland, an eclectic collection of basic accommodation has grown into what is now a well-established network of mountain huts, known as ‘bothies’. The term comes from the Gaelic bothan (via the Old Irish both) meaning ‘hut’, and originally described rudimentary accommodation provided by landowners for bachelor farm labourers or estate workers who tended crops or livestock.
In recent times, a bothy has come to mean a shelter that is freely available for anyone to stay the night or use as a lunch stop. The vast majority are single-storey crofts, farmsteads or estate houses that were abandoned, then saved from ruin and renovated. The network was formalised by the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA), which now maintains 81 properties with the agreement and support of the landowners and estates that own them.
As well as their historical associations, bothies differ from other systems of mountain huts and refuges around the world, in that very few are purpose built and the locations of the majority are not the result of strategic planning, so they may not necessarily lie close to a particular peak or along a recognized long- distance trail. Neither are bothies attached to particular national parks: they are randomly scattered across Scotland, some in very remote places that are rarely visited.
Another distinctive aspect of the culture which sets bothies apart is the concept of ‘bothying’, an eccentric ethos that revolves around purely going to a bothy for its own sake, without any other objective in mind, some regulars adopting a particular bothy as a home from home.
Many of the properties now used as open shelters were originally built to house shepherds and ghillies in the decades after the forced evictions known the Highland Clearances – events that occurred in the aftermath of a failed Scottish uprising in 1745 against the ruling Protestant government of George II.
Although there are no formal rules, there is a bothy code formulated by the MBA and posted at every property the association maintains. Put simply, it is the common-sense philosophy of treating others with respect, and leaving a bothy in the condition you would wish to find it in. Most importantly, no one has an exclusive right to a bothy and the concept of “first come, first served” does not exist.
Bothies are open shelters, available to all, and the overriding ethos is that, however full, there is always room for one more.
Shenavall, Northern Highlands
Latitude/Longitude: 57.7768, -5.2541
A flagship MBA bothy, Shenavall is one of the best known and busiest in Scotland and a visit is the perfect introduction to the delights of bothying. Spectacularly located on the edge of the Fisherfield Forest and close to an area of peaks described by Alfred Wainwright as “the Great Wilderness”, it has been a magnet for walkers for over a century. You can read a wealth of background material from accounts by the people who lived there, to entries in journals and bothy books, including vivid passages in Ken Wilson and Richard Gilbert’s classics, The Big Walks and Wild Walks.
Renowned author and mountaineer WH Murray visited in the 1950s, and HRH Prince Charles also hiked out here while still a pupil at Gordonstoun. Unless you are visiting out of season you are unlikely to have the place to yourself, but this region is one of the jewels of the Scottish Highlands.
Faindouran, Eastern Highlands
Latitude/Longitude: 57.1370, -3.5189
Lying beneath the looming presence of Beinn à Bhuird and the distinctive granite tors of Ben Avon, Faindouran bothy overlooks the crystal-clear waters once proclaimed the purest in all Scotland. This wild expanse of heather, moss and grit is one of the remotest corners of the Cairngorms National Park, and the bothy is certainly among the most isolated in the country.
A safe haven in bad weather, the bothy rose from the ruins of a former Victorian hunting lodge on the Glen Avon Estate and was one of the first projects the fledgling MBA took on in the late 1960s. Following extensive damage by extreme winds in 2013, the gable end was reconstructed, the replace blocked up, and a stove installed. The bothy’s structure occupies only the west gable end of the original footprint, and consists of a ground-floor room with an attic above, accessed by steep stairs.
The communal area is bright and airy, with whitewashed walls and a two-person sleeping platform to the right of the doorway.
Oban, Western Highlands
Latitude/Longitude: 56.9522, -5.5151
Sheltering above the uncharted chasm of Loch Morar, Oban bothy is one of the most remote MBA properties accessible on foot. You could easily run out of superlatives for this breathtaking spot, where the deepest lake in the UK is set amidst wild, isolated hills. Among seasoned bothy-goers, a pilgrimage to Oban has quietly earned a reputation as an unmissable experience. For a long time there was a real pressure to keep the shelter’s whereabouts under your hat, its location only passed on by word of mouth.
And up to the late 1990s, the bothy’s owners requested that the grid reference be withheld from the MBA membership book. Those days are gone, but access is now restricted by the estate, which chooses to close the bothy for up to six months from August.
Oban sits close to a small sandy inlet at the end of Loch Morar. Its Gaelic name means ‘white’ or ‘fair bay’. Small communities still existed here in the early 19th century, despite the pressures of the Clearances, and over at Kinlochmorar, the ruins of a township are visible.
The Lookout, Skye
Latitude/Longitude: 57.7013, -6.3444
The stunning 180-degree view from the bay window certainly gives this bothy its wow factor. This former coastguard watch station, positioned precariously close to the cliff top above Rubha Hunish, offers a panorama encompassing the entire Western Isles and, on a clear day, the profile of the mainland all the way to Cape Wrath. The bothy is also a fantastic spot for whale and dolphin watching: schools of migrating minkes pass through the Minch in the autumn, and various other sightings are recorded in the logbook.
The watch room was built in 1928 and the station operated until the 1970s when advances in radio technology superseded the need for a duty officer. The building was then adopted as an open shelter, but a violent storm in 2005 smashed the windows, damaging the interior and leaving its long-term
future in doubt. The MBA took on the renovation with support from the local community, following the design of the original structure as closely as possible.
The work was dedicated to the memory of David JJ Brown, an MBA stalwart, and a plaque in the bothy describes him as an “anti-materialist and wilderness lover”.
Greensykes, South Scotland
Latitude/Longitude: 55.2897, -3.0841
Concealed in a small clearing within the extensive Eskmuirdale forest, on the northern side of the picturesque Eskdale Valley, Greensykes is a great place to escape the relentless pace of the modern world for a while, much like its near neighbour the Samye Ling Tibetan monastery. Like so many remote outposts in the Borders, the bothy was originally a shepherd’s cottage, and much of its history can be found in the local parish records.
The earliest entry dated 1826 records the birth of Michael, son of James Anderson, and the youngest of seven children. The family lived in the farmstead for more than 70 years, before the Jacksons and then the Pringles took over the shepherding duties, remaining until the 1940s. Jamestown, at the road end, was originally built to accommodate miners who worked periodically at Antimony mine in nearby Glenshanna until 1921-’22.
There is also an information board and plaque commemorating the great civil engineer and surveyor Thomas Telford, who was born at Glendinning in 1757.