Bothies would be great if not for the other people you have to share them with. The allure of whisky, mouse droppings and the chance to torch stuff seems to be irresistible to all sorts of oddballs, misanthropes and German students. At the risk of insulting practically everyone, John Burns identifies the main types of bothy goer. The trick is not working out who they are, but knowing which one you are...
There is much more to a bothy than simply a place to rest your head. It would not be a proper bothy night without some random strangers, a shared nip of gutrot and a few jokes. God forbid, there might even be singing. I once asked a friend, a committed hill walker and wild camper, why he never spent a night in a bothy. He turned to me and said, his voice trembling a little, ‘Oh, you never know who you’ll meet.’
There he is right. In these lawless places, there is no way you can govern who your fellow bothy dwellers will be. In this over-civilised and regulated world, the bothy, with its dark, smoke-filled rooms, remains closer to a mediaeval inn than the cloned, corporate hotels of today.
So here are some of the bothy folk I have met in my travels - the good, the bad and the frequently ugly. Long may they all live.
They come from somewhere in Scotland, no one really knows where, their language is incomprehensible to anyone who lives more than five miles from their place of birth. These are the Heavy Goods Vehicles of the bothy world. They carry huge rucksacks crammed with kilos of coal and crates of beer, vast quantities sausages, bacon and pork pies. They are Scottish, vegetables are an irrelevance, apart from chips, which are thought to be some kind of meat. Their aim is to raise the temperature in the bothy to the same level as the surface of the sun, only then can beer and whisky be consumed in sufficient quantities to liberate 'The Craic.’ The Craic, (pronounced ‘crack’) is a form of alcohol induced ritual where the winner is the person who produces the most creative insults for the assembled company. Despite their ferocious appearance, and the aggressive sounding grunts with which they communicate with each other, they are quite friendly. The only exception to their good nature is if you were to deliberately damage one of their beloved bothies, in which case you better be able to run because they will hunt you down with a terrible vengeance in their hearts.
Back in the 1970s a group of European hikers strolled into the Cairngorms and headed for the Fords of Avon Refuge which they could clearly see on the map. They carried with them nothing but waterproofs and cash, planning to pay for an evening meal and a bed for the night. No doubt they hoped for a cordial welcome from the resident warden and his team of cooks and housemaids, expecting a continental style alpine hut. What greeted them was a small, coffin-like, wooden box in which four people could spend the night, provided they knew each other very well and didn’t mind spending eight sleepless hours with their knees folded under their chins. A long and very uncomfortable night followed.
Such folk still visit bothies, expecting hotel style accommodation and filled with horror when they ask where the bathroom is and are handed a spade. You will find them searching the walls for the electric plug sockets and they always leave, at first light, heading for the nearest place where their credit cards can be used.
The Bothy Ticker
He’s done all the Munros, all the Corbetts and every Graham, but his list addiction (and it usually is a he) drives him on relentlessly. Without a long list of places to visit his life is bereft of meaning and so he turns to ticking off bothies. Late at night, when everyone is sleeping, they indulge their guilty pleasure. Their hands quivering with excitement, they eagerly seek out their precious list from the bottom of their rucksack and tick off their latest achievement. Look into their eyes and you will see a sadness, a desperate longing, for every ticker knows that that the list always ends. They live in dread of the final tick and know that when the list is done, they will feel again that awful, empty, yearning. It is then their endless quest begins again and they must seek another list until, at last, it is they that are ticked.
Some come to bothies to leave the world behind, others come for solitude; but Pilgrims seek that most elusive of things, themselves. They wander the lonely glens and moors, cross high hills and raging rivers, feel the bite of the Midge and the sting of the Tick. They endure all these things so that they might better know themselves, thinking that truth lives behind the bothy door. You will know them by their restless eyes that are forever seeking things unseen. The Pilgrim never sees that the quest is in vain, for the thing they seek is inner peace and they never understand that that’s been with them all the time.
Chavs, sometimes called Neds, are the mortal enemies of the HGVs. They are easy to spot, they don’t use rucksacks and carry their possessions, usually consisting solely of a huge quantity of Buckfast tonic wine, in those wheeled suitcases that are designed to trip you up in airports. You will find them sawing up the furniture and hurling it on to the fire. Life does the Ned no favours, they were failed by the education system, they can’t get work and know no other way than to vent their anger on everything around them. Perhaps they came out into the wild to try and find an escape from the urban grind but, like all of us, they have brought their problems with them and so resort to the thing they do best, pissed up destruction.
The Veteran has been stravaiging the hills since he was a boy. When he began walking phones were attached to the wall via cables and everyone marvelled at pocket calculators that could do long division. You can spot the veteran by the way he sits and scowls beside the bothy fire. His equipment is always ancient and faded and he gives off a peculiar pungent smell of damp clothes and rotting socks. The Veteran has been everywhere and done everything. In his day, miles were longer, mountains higher, and rock faces steeper. The Veteran climbed in Halcyon days and always looks back to a time when the hills were wild and free and your wife couldn’t phone you.
The Gear Freak
This type of bothy dweller always has the latest equipment. Their waterproofs are always dry for they are far too expensive to take out in the rain. Given the opportunity (don't, whatever you do...) they will tell you that you are wearing the wrong socks and how inadequate your jacket is. They can wax lyrical for hours over the benefits of different types of stove, explain the intricacies of head torch components and drone on for an eternity about which is the best fork to eat packet noodles with. Oddly Gear Freaks and Veterans make good companions as they argue late into the night about the pros and cons of modern gear, neither willing to concede a point until the other is exhausted or dawn breaks.
The Bushcraft Expert
This type of bothy dweller is becoming much more common in the British Isles as climate change increases their natural range. Once mainly a Continental European or North American phenomenon, with a small anomalous population in the Home Counties, they are now seen further north.
Mostly they have limited experience of the outdoors but they have been on a course that taught them how to survive on berries and make fire by rubbing sticks. Having flown to Inverness and hired a 4x4 they spend their days worrying about the carbon footprint of their time in the wilds. For this reason they forego camping gas and instead gather a few twigs together and sit shivering over a meagre fire whilst they stir tepid water into their five grams of couscous, flavoured with foraged bark. Their gurus are celebrity survivalists who they see on their TV screen sitting in a remote forest fashioning an Aga from a few deer teeth and the heel of an old Hunter wellington. Ray Mears shows them an ancient way of lighting a fire by using the sparks generated from the static of a nylon pullover, a technique handed down from his forefathers. My Dad showed me how to light a fire too. He used matches and firelighters easily obtainable from places called shops. Matches work a treat Mr Mears.
An ancient Highland word meaning ‘he who strangles deer for a posh bloke in a helicopter', Ghillies have an unparalleled understanding of the hills. They never stay in bothies because they know that the outdoors are best kept where they should be, outdoors.
The Ghillie is a man who has discovered something wonderful, central heating. He has no wish to go near anything cold or wet or remotely natural or unpleasant unless he is paid to do so. He sometimes visits bothies but only to get out of the rain or avoid the midges. He will tolerate the collection of halfwits, as he regards anyone who voluntarily goes outdoors, that he finds in the bothy, because it’s been carefully explained to him that shooting them is illegal. As soon as the rain eases off he steps out of the bothy and finds something natural to kill. Then he goes home to his house, where it’s warm and dry and there’s none of that awful weather stuff.
Someone, somewhere, once produced a book about bothies in German or Dutch, or some other non-English language. This has resulted in swarms of these volk catching ferries, trains and airplanes to come a suffer in the Scottish Highlands. Wander Scotland’s hills and drop into any random bothy and the chances are that most people you meet will be from the other side of the Channel. What is wrong with the Continental hills: are they not as capable of producing aching limbs and rain soaked misery? Perhaps these folk journey to the land of Irn Brew and shortbread to experience the abject misery that only the Highland midge can inflict. If you are not soaked to the skin, freezing to death, and something isn’t trying to drink your blood, then you can’t be in the Highlands.
No amount of banter with our visitors is likely to raise so much as a stifled titter as they seem completely devoid of anything approaching a sense of humour. Even painting on a fake Hitler moustache and jack booting around the bothy won’t raise a glimmer of a laugh from these folk. They simply have no understanding of The Craic.
Something odd happens to people in bothies. Deprived of the opportunity to watch barely recognisable celebrities competing on the dance floor, or spend hours wandering the corridors of the Internet, some people feel the urge to put their 'thoughts' into doggerel. Bothy logbooks are full of dreadful odes to wandering across the hills pursued by midges, or mysterious Swedish women's volleyball teams, often accompanied by illuminating illustrations that no one would normally own up to in polite society. The evils of TV and the web are much alluded to but if without them we would be subjected to voluminous outpourings of barely literate adolescent drivel then all the technology we watch clearly has an important role to play. If TV prevents poetry, then it should be provided free everywhere - bothies included.
The last on our list of people you are likely to stumble over in bothies is the most odious of them all. The Pontificator is normally a solitary animal but in the small group of folk huddled round the bothy fire they find what they crave most of all, an audience. Fuelled by whisky they will expound to all those captive in this crude shelter. They are keen to tell anyone and everyone their views on bothies and the outdoors. They are not afraid to stereotype and offend. Sometimes, sadly, their ramblings get published on websites about hill walking, further inflaming the ego of this crushing bore.
- PRODUCT NEWS: The Last Hillwalker, by John Burns 22 Aug, 2017