The big man grunted as he drove the shovel into the earth, his breath misting in the cold winter air. His two companions watched the spade rise and fall as the mound of soil grew. They stood beside the pile of earth – one stocky and bald, the other a thin and mouse-like creature with a black hat crammed onto his head. Every few moments the small man’s gaze would dart into the surrounding forest and he would scan the snow-covered fir trees in the steep-sided valley. He searched uncertain of what he might find but fearful of anything that might be watching him from the dark of the woodland.
At last the big man, sweating and blowing from his efforts, stepped back from the heap of dark earth and drove the spade into the ground with an unmistakable finality. The three stood in silence for a moment staring forlornly at his handiwork.
“Perhaps,” the small man stammered, “we should say a few words.” There was a pause as each man looked to the others to speak. “John, you’re good with words, you say something.”
John spat onto the ground, zipped up his red jacket as the wind had suddenly grown cold, and turned to the wee man. “Nigel, what’s done is done. We can’t change anything with words.” T hen John grew sombre and drew the little group about him. “We must never speak of this to our dying days. Not a word to anyone.”
Nigel whimpered a little but nodded in assent. The big man said nothing and John turned to him, grasped his sweat-stained waterproof, and drew him near. “Not a word, Kev. We’ve done a terrible thing.”
Big Kev shrugged. “Aye, a ken fine.” His face was wet from sweat and the melting snowflakes that were falling in ever-increasing flurries, beading in his grey curly hair.
“What did he say?” Nigel asked in his shrill south-of-England accent.
John turned and began walking back to the bothy. “He’ll say nothing,” he called over his shoulder. “I think we all need a brew.”
As the three men walked slowly back to the bothy the glen fell back into silence, save for the wind tugging at the tops of the pines and water babbling in the half-frozen river. The scene was as it had been for countless years past: Glen Dubh-Lighe, deep and quiet, hidden from the world, a place of winter frosts and summer rains, a tranquil gentle place save for one small thing. Save for the little mound of earth and its dark secret.
The seeds of what happened that morning had been planted in the dark of the night before. John had been dozing before the bothy fire, a generous mug of whisky balanced on his paunch, when the door had rattled open. Nigel walked in from the black, wet night and stood for a moment, melting snow dripping onto the wooden floor.
“Nice bothy,” Nigel had said by way of greeting, his eyes taking in the woodwork of the bothy walls gleaming in the candlelight. “Shiny!”
John stirred from his slumbers as he became aware of the soggy figure in the doorway. He rose to meet him as one might an honoured guest; after all the night would be long and dark and here was some welcome company.
“A dram?” John extended an arm to proffer a battered aluminium bottle, the veteran of many nights of lawless revelry.
Nigel drew back as though John’s fingers held a belligerent rattlesnake. “Oh no, I don’t thank you.” He grinned apologetically, sensing that this was not the reply the bothy dweller had been hoping for. “And besides, tomorrow I’m off up the hills. I calculate two hours forty-five minutes to the summit. I’ll need a clear head for that, you know.”
John turned back towards the fire and stared hard into the glowing embers. He had little time for teetotallers and even less for those who plodded the hills to rigid schedules.
The small man’s voice cut in to John’s thoughts once more. “Which way will you be going up tomorrow? I think the east ridge is probably the quickest, but then the west ridge might give better views.”
“Oh Christ!” he muttered to himself. The night had just grown darker and longer still. He picked up the poker and rammed it with venom into the glowing coal.
Nigel busied himself unpacking his neatly folded clothes from his rucksack an uncomfortable silence slowly filling the little shelter. “I heard this bothy burnt down a few years ago, accident with a gas canister.”
John laughed as he stirred the fire, his back to the room. “That’s what they tell everyone. That’s the story the Mountain Bothies Association made up. Truth is it was burnt down by a jealous woman who caught her lover here having a secret fling with another woman.”
At that moment a light flashed across the bothy window from outside. Seconds later something bear-like followed the light and the two men in the small room heard the sound of the outer door bursting open. This was followed by something heavy colliding with the walls until, finally, the door of their inner sanctum flew open. A figure filled the doorway. It was a man, but a huge individual. He bent himself almost double in an effort to heave himself through and, although he got most of his body through, his massive backpack wedged itself firmly in the opening.
Nigel cowered in a corner. John would have fled too but the whisky was beginning to take effect and he was having difficulty rising. The visitor moaned in frustration and heaved against the door, letting out a string of unintelligible oaths in a guttural tongue that could only be Aberdonian. The huge figure heaved again and, just when it seemed he might burst the doorway apart, he hurtled into the room followed closely by his massive pack.
The grey-suited figure stood grinning for a moment and said, “Muckle fir ma backpack twa yon door, ya ken.”
This was probably some kind of greeting for, despite his ominous size, the giant looked amiable enough. He unbuckled his pack. Freed from its bonds, it hurtled into the floorboards with a sickening crunch that made the whole bothy shudder. Gleefully the behemoth plunged into his rucksack and began pulling out tins of beer, bottles of wine, a whole ham, a cold chicken, and a gigantic sack of coal that he dumped beside the fire.
Muttering to himself, he thrust a can of beer into John’s hands and another into Nigel’s before opening one himself and downing it in several enormous gulps. Nigel cleared his throat – no doubt about to make his two hours and forty-five minutes speech – but he looked up at the creature towering over him and closed his mouth again, perhaps deciding that a few sips were unlikely to prove as dangerous as spurning the proffered hospitality.
It soon became clear that the newcomer could understand whatever was said to him even if his responses sounded like the last gasps of a drowning man. The colossus answered to the name Big Kev. This may not have been his name but it sufficed to get his attention so no further enquiries into the man’s identity were needed.
The night progressed as many do in lonely bothies in the hills. The fire grew higher as Big Kev waded through his inexhaustible supply of beer. Communication was limited but they got by with sign language and mime, the small Englishman giving a very passable imitation of a chicken being roasted over a fire when John asked him what flavour crisps he was eating.
Nigel began meticulously folding out his spare clothing into neat piles, watched by Kev and John as the piles grew higher and it became evident that he was prepared for every foreseeable eventuality (and a few that couldn’t be foreseen). Satisfied with his preparations, Nigel turned to John.
“So, where’s it to be tomorrow?”
“I might just walk up the glen,” John said, “take a look at the corrie. I’ll see how I feel.”
“Now if I were you,” Nigel began, “I’d walk up onto the ridge. Only take you an hour and you’ll get fine views from there.”
“I’ll see how I feel tomorrow.”
“You could walk to the summit from there in about one hour thirty,” Nigel persisted.
John was growing irritated at the Englishman’s attempts to organise him. “I might not want to go to the top.”
“Not want to go to the top? But you have to—“
John exploded. “I’ll go where I bloody well want!”
There was an awkward silence and Nigel excused himself for a moment to go outside into the snow and rid himself of the beer Big Kev had pressed on him. The pair who remained were silently warming their legs by the glowing embers when Nigel burst back into the room.
“There’s something out there!” he cried, the snowflakes from the blizzard outside melting on his jacket. “I saw a pair of yellow eyes watching me from the forest.”
Outside, the trio raked the darkness with their head torches but saw only the falling snow and the ranked trees of the forest. “Nothing,” Nigel stammered. “I heard it, it went beep beep.”
“Beep, beep, Nigel!” John winked at Big Kev. “That settles it. You must have seen the Yellow-Eyed Bird of Glen Dubh-Lighe!”
Back in the bothy, Nigel’s objections to drinking whisky were dispelled by his encounter with the bird and he held his mug in trembling hands as he swallowed the fiery liquid. “I’ve never heard of this Yellow-Eyed Bird before.”
“It’s not talked about, kept a secret by those who know,” John explained as Big Kev stifled a chuckle. “Prehistoric, you see, like the monster of Loch Ness. If word got out, the glen would become a tourist attraction and we wouldn’t want that.”
They fell to talking about monsters and creatures that walk in the night and after a while forgot all about the bird that Nigel had seen. Forgot, that is, until Big Kev glanced at the window and his eyes grew wide with fear.
“Ach a boodie!”
There, pressed hard against the icy window pane, were two yellow eyes peering into the bothy. All three men froze as the creature turned and headed for the door. There was the chilling sound of the front door being opened and then something moving down the short corridor towards the room where they sat.
“Beep, beep,” came the call and the door swung open.
Into the room came a thing made of metal, two glowing yellow lights on its head and, between them, a round cold-eyed camera lens. Nigel scrambled into the corner behind the coal bucket. John leapt from his chair and hurled his fist at the thing. The blow would have killed anything it hit but the whisky and beer had taken their toll and the punch arched wildly through the air, missing the alien thing by a foot or more. The momentum carried the inebriate round and he collapsed to the floor, overturning the bothy table on his way down; he found himself battered by an avalanche of pots and pans, candles and beer cans.
The creature took all of this in with its artificial eye. It saw Nigel attempting to make himself invisible. It saw John struggling to extricate himself from beneath the mountain of bothy dwellers’ accoutrements. It saw the fire and the candles and the overturned chairs, but it did not see everything – it did not see Big Kev behind the door with the toilet spade raised over his head. It did not see him step out of the shadows and summon all his strength for the blow.
The men stood in silence staring at the little robot. It made no sound but shuddered slightly as sparks flickered where its ears might have been. Smoke drifted out from its carcass before the yellow lights in its head flickered and died. Then all was quiet as the creature stood in the bothy, cold and silent, a great flat dent in its head just above the words painted in yellow: ‘GOOGLE BOTHY’.
So now if you walk up the little glen over the rickety wooden bridge to where the bothy stands, and make your way down towards the river, you will find a small mound of earth that looks somehow out of place. And if the wind is still, and the burn low and quiet, you can press your ear against the incongruous mound. If you do all that, you may just hear, so quiet you might think it your imagination, a muffled “Beep, beep”. For that is all that remains of the Yellow-Eyed Bird of Glen Dubh-Lighe.
This story is one of the ‘Bothy Tales’, by John Burns. From remote glens deep in the Scottish Highlands, Burns’ book of tales – some dramatic, some moving, some hilarious – are based around the isolated mountain shelters called bothies.