David Lintern celebrates the humble mountain shelter, past and present.
As intimated in the close of my last piece here, I found it impossible to walk from Fort William to the Cape without reflecting on the past inhabitants of the glens we walked through. On the way, we passed many bothies I’d not yet visited; real highlights of the walk for me. While these buildings were officially closed due the pandemic, doing a long walk like the Cape Wrath Trail reiterates just how important these shelters are from a mountain safety point of view – there were days when we prayed for one to be open! Now, they are part of our mountain culture, but in the past, they were homes, often built on the site of earlier dwellings. The word bothy comes from the Gaelic ‘bothan’, meaning a small house. Here’s just a few of the known histories – some on the trail, some not.
Staoineag sits at the edge of a slightly tatty woodland in upper glen Nevis and is a favourite of mine since recce’ing the Ramsay Round a few years ago. The last time I was there, I found a story from Angus Montgomery of Kirkintilloch, who stayed there with his grandfather (and family) each summer. John Matheson was the stalker until his death in 1922, and Angus’ grandmother also died there. Both were evacuated from nearby Chiarrain after the Blackwater reservoir was built. They would arrange to meet with the nearest family, the Eliots of Luibeilt, for a ceilidh about halfway between the two settlements. That place is now a reed bed, but this lonely glen was once inhabited and rang with music.
This is one of the most remote buildings in the UK and one we were very glad to spy on the Cape Wrath Trail. It makes its debut on the first national census of 1841, as the home of gamekeeper Donald McRae and his wife, along with two servants. Twenty years later, and it was the turn of a young shepherd, John Maclean, his sister Margaret (a dairymaid) and one servant. Over the following decades, more families moved in and out, all employed as shepherds or keepers and all bilingual in both Gaelic and Scots. At least 14 children were born in the building during the 1800’s.
The last family to live there were the Burnetts in the early 1900’s, who had arrived from the Borders, with a flock of sheep but without speaking Gaelic. There were 4 children and as was not unusual for the time and place, they had a ‘side’ teacher, who stayed with them for one week in three, before travelling to the next outpost. The family kept poultry and cows, and there was plenty of meat from venison as well as dairy – but the house was often cut off completely in winter, so months of food was stored in a nearby steading.
It’s quite an overwhelming place, this tiny building shining like a beacon on a foul day in an endless sea of heather and bog. It radiates atmosphere.
This place, along with neighbouring Glendhu was high on my list of reasons for walking to Cape Wrath, and while I didn’t go into the bothy itself, the whole area is spectacular.
Britain’s most remote war memorial stands on a bluff opposite the wee house, which is reckoned to have been built in the late 1800’s and first lived in by gamekeeper John Elliot. His wife Marion gave birth to 5 sons there, four of whom fought in World War One, with only two returning. The memorial was originally erected by the Duke of Sutherland to mark the service of William and Alistair, and has, we were informed by a local man on our way through, recently been renovated by the current Duke to mark the centenary.
The present day bothy is an annex to the larger house, which although it was used until after the Second World War, is now kept locked and shows signs of disrepair. At one time the house was designated a school and became eligible for grants of books, with a teacher living in. John’s own parents lived ‘around the corner’ in the equally striking Glendhu, and when his father died there, his mother – without any other place to sleep – is said to have lain beside her husband until morning.
I had a strange experience of my own as I walked between these two houses on a bright spring day. I imagined myself in the presence of my own grandmother, walking alongside me. It wasn’t a haunting – more a feeling of warmth and reassurance – but it was overwhelming, and very ‘real’. Theresa left the Highlands during World War Two and our family mythology goes that she refused to return, even to visit her sister, as she missed it too much.
There are layers in these landscapes that are hard to fathom, logically. Some of these places feel like portals – keys for unlocking the past. But rather than read anything supernatural into that, I’m content just to acknowledge and value it.
This single storey shelter stands sentry in the no-man’s land between Sandwood Bay and the Parph, a worthwhile diversion on the final approach to the Cape Wrath lighthouse. It’s reckoned to be the last building on the mainland without road or any services to have been lived in as a permanent dwelling. James McRory Smith was there for over 30 years and would walk out weekly for his pension and supplies, often stopping at the Garbet Hotel for refreshments. On my own recent walk to the Cape, I heard a local fable about Sandy (as he was known) – a tale apparently relayed to the teller by some of the old road workers – who found him asleep one morning after a particularly heavy session at the hotel, his tweed jacket frozen to the tarmac.
Sandy shared occupancy with visitors in an uneasy partnership with the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) for over 10 years until 1994, with both resident and guests complaining about drinking and bad behaviour. The building was originally constructed as a shepherd’s hut in the 1840’s, and long before Sandy had taken up residence, the Morrison family lived there. One Norman Morrison wrote to the MBA saying, “my grandmother was born in Strathcailleach in 1897… one of the youngest of 10”.
It’s a testament to Sandy, the MBA and subsequent visitors that several of its interior walls are still adorned with the recluse’s distinctive artwork. Strathcailleach is an eerie moorland outpost that wears its history on its sleeve and absolutely reeks of peat smoke.
One of the most unusual (and poshest!) buildings in the care of the MBA, the Schoolhouse was originally built as a result of legislation in the 1870’s that extended universal basic education. In some cases, like at Maol Bhuidhe, teachers would have toured from place to place while in others, like at Glen Coul, they lived in more permanently with the family. Elsewhere, small schools like this one, made of tin, were built in strategic locations.
There was only one class but there may have been as many as 25 on the school roll at one time. Alick Mackenzie was a student in the 1920’s and remembers using stilts to cross the river Einig in spate to get to school. There’s also a story about someone drowning in this way.
The bothy has three rooms, and it’s thought that the teacher lived in one, with the middle (and smallest) being used as a store. It’s a relatively new renovation and beautifully done, but don’t get too misty eyed about the furnishings – they aren’t original, instead being donated by an MBA member.
The newly refurbished Ruigh Aiteachain bothy, in Glen Feshie, is now the sole building standing in the vicinity of a collection of small follies built by a 19th century aristocrat. The writer Patrick Baker describes it as a series of ‘faux rustic refuges’, by cruel irony freshly constructed at a time where generations of highlanders were being forcibly removed from their crofts.
Georgina Russell and her guests created a retreat from the prying eyes of high society, which included her husband and patron of the arts, the Duke of Bedford. The artist Landseer had his cake and ate it, painting frescoes and making studies for some of his best-known works there, while consorting with the good lady herself. The chimney stack of a building he decorated and likely worked in still stands a short distance away from the bothy itself.
There’s a lack of historical clarity about whether Ruigh Aiteachain is the exact site of Russell’s commune, but it was certainly home to her favourite servant, the gamekeeper John Fraser, his wife Mary and their two daughters in the 1850’s. It remains a popular spot for escapees and sits under slopes of knarled juniper trees that give the place its name. The independently minded Maintenance Officer has caused one or two raised eyebrows recently by constructing raised fruit and veg beds outside, but the prefix ‘Ruigh’ shows that this place was regularly inhabited as a sheiling site long before the arrival of modern romantics, past or present.
I admit to feeling sentimental about many of these places. For me, and I expect for many of you, they have provided much needed refuge after tough days out in all sorts of weather. They were most often also homes, and that sense of place is undeniably part of what creates an atmosphere of sanctuary there, too. I have the impression that the MBA are getting better at acknowledging that history – increasingly there’s information to be found in the buildings themselves, something which is fantastic to see. But while these buildings provide very tangible links to the past, I’m wary of romanticising lives lived there. It would have invariably been tough, sometimes lonely and short. Many of the buildings now refurbished only came into being after the Clearances, so their inhabitants would have been living in rapidly changing, anxiety provoking times – just as we are now. A lack of wifi would have been the least of their concerns.
I find myself reflecting on the bothy code, too, in the context of our own news about new refugees from conflict and climate change. We are all itinerant travelers in need of rest as we enter a bothy – all migrants after a fashion – yet we are all made welcome. The hills and these shelters are great levelers in that way, and the bothy code is all about respect and reciprocity. What a great example of something held in common that does us all good. Long may these simple shelters remain, places of safety and sharing, places where we come together.