Night falls swiftly on our tiny patch of wilderness in the Cairngorms. A cue to birds and bothy dwellers alike to prepare for the inevitable. For them, it means singing their way to silence. For us, it means putting down the books that have been inching ever closer towards our noses, heading outside, and beginning the evening rituals. We must act fast before the forest is reduced to shapes and sounds and subtleties beyond the ken of mere human eyes. Yet nothing happens fast when you’re in a bothy in the Highlands. It’s slow and steady that wins the race.
We light lanterns, get the woodburning stove going and place a large copper urn filled with harvested rainwater on to heat. We will need this later for washing dishes, and maybe, if we’re brave enough, having a shower. Outside. In the dark. In Scotland. In autumn. Maybe tomorrow …
We wander down to the river, partly to watch the sun drop behind the hills, but mainly to gather a last bag of kindling. Back at the bothy, we chop a few more logs with an axe. Like camping, everything here revolves around fire and water. Tomorrow my shoulder and arm – more accustomed to wielding a computer mouse than an axe – will ache, but for now I pull back and swing, enjoying the primal fact of it all. I am a person in a forest, chopping logs.
Before we head inside for the night, a last trip to the composting loo, a hut strung with solar-powered fairy lights which may be the most beautiful toilet in the Cairngorms. It’s a short meander away, along a barely there path through heather that rubs against your ankles and bounces underfoot. Just far enough that our bothy, with its reassuring puff of wood smoke scenting the air, dips out of sight. But soon it will be too dark, quiet and, okay, too spooky to venture this far from our cabin in the woods.
Welcome to our home for the next three nights. Our bothy nestles in a riverside valley in Inshriach Forest, which lies on the west side of the Cairngorm massif and borders the better-known estates of Rothiemurchus and Glen Feshie. Inshriach still contains some of the ancient Caledonian pinewoods that covered most of Scotland after the last Ice Age and a walk in any direction from the bothy leads somewhere remarkable, whether to an unexpected loch or a family of grazing red deer. This may be the remnant of an ancient world but just a few miles away is civilisation, the A9, the outdoor shops of Aviemore and at Inshriach Nursery, one of the best cake shops you’re likely to find in Britain.
The bothy itself is in the grounds of Inshriach Farm, owned by an enterprising man called Walter Micklethwait, who used to build props for the BBC, and his mother, who writes children’s books. They also rent out an imposing Edwardian manor on the estate, a yurt and a beautifully upcycled Fifties truck called the Beer Moth, complete with Victorian brass bed and wood-burning stove. In the summer they host the quirky Insider festival and Micklethwait shows me around the rustic bars and stages he has built over the years, pointing to a DJ booth that looks like the porch of a log cabin: “Optimo loved playing in there last year.”
The bothy is something else altogether. It’s the first creation of The Bothy Project, set up by Scottish artist Bobby Niven and architectural designer Iain MacLeod with a £5,000 grant from the Royal Scottish Academy’s Residencies for Scotland scheme. The idea is to use bothies as a space for artists to make work. During the winter months, member artists (so far, Edinburgh and Glasgow Sculpture Workshops) can rent the bothy for a nominal fee, subsidised by the project itself. During the summer Micklethwait will take over and rent it to “glampers” who, it should be added, pay considerably more.
“Artists’ residencies tend to be very competitive and only open to the few,” Niven explains. “The Bothy Project is truly accessible, like the tradition of bothying itself. Eventually we want to develop a network of these small-scale, off-the-grid, artist-led spaces all over Scotland. Hopefully they will be spaces for reflection, inspiration, but also production. I prefer to see them not as retreats, but as places of attack, just as Ian Hamilton Finlay saw gardening.”
The Bothy Project is currently looking for more locations in Scotland in which to build their simple structures with designer flourishes. In the future they would like to involve artists in the building process, design bothies that respond to their particular surroundings, and perhaps even help to sell the work made there.
But why bothies? “They represent an alternative vision of life,” explains Scottish artist Alec Finlay, who has long been interested in the culture and history of hutting and bothying in Scotland and has signed up to stay at Inshriach. “It’s a tradition that goes back to the ancient past, to hermits, saint’s cells and caves, and anyone making a conscious choice to see things anew, and set themselves apart.”
Bothying as a recreational activity dates back to the post-war years. As wages increased and working hours became shorter, people, mostly working-class men, started taking to the hills and mountains and using abandoned buildings as temporary shelters. In the Sixties the Mountain Bothies Association took over the buildings, many of which were falling into ruin, and have maintained them ever since. The rules have remained the same (in essence, an open door policy and leave no trace) and the facilities basic. There is an area to sleep, a place to make a fire, some wood if you’re lucky, and a spade for burying human waste.
Our bothy, admittedly, is rather more flash. There’s the composting loo, for a start, as well as extras such as six bottles of Highland Spring, chairs, a mezzanine bed and Ikea crockery. It’s a beautifully designed space, with its corrugated iron coating and cosy wooden interior, making it smell and feel like you’re in a sauna. It gets almost as hot as that too, thanks to the ferocity of the stove and the sheep’s wool stuffed between the walls, providing the kind of insulation you wish you had at home. But it’s the details that set it apart: the ladder leading up to the bed that was found in a skip outside Glasgow School of Art, the reclaimed wooden floors and the sash and case windows from a Glasgow tenement. It’s a bothy by name, but not entirely by nature.
Yet you’re still roughing it. The only way to get here, unless you hitch a bumpy ride in Walter’s Land Rover with Monty the dog on your lap, is on foot. Not easy, carrying your luggage, a cook box and a bottle of Laphroaig. There is no running water, no electricity and all cooking is done on the wood-burning stove. It takes four hours one night to make a stew. Perhaps the artists, if they’re going to get anything done, should stick to bacon rolls.
Day two is drawing to a close. What began with an epic walk at nearby Glenmore will end with an equally epic stew. The top of the stove is crowded with a pot of bubbling Rothiemurchus beef, some sizzling socks and the copper urn. It’s 7pm, which feels like midnight here. Time to get washed.
Outside, I untie a sack poised over the deck and fill it with hot rainwater. Then it’s back inside to take off my clothes by the fire and make a mad dash back outside, naked and shivering, to fumble in the dusk for the nozzle. A twist, and a shock of hot water falls, the steam rising from my body and mingling with the woodsmoke from the chimney. Just me, the stars and a couple of curious chaffinches in the heart of the Cairngorms forest.
The bothy sleeps two and costs from £95 per night through Canopy & Stars, 01275 395447, www.canopyandstars.co.uk/the-bothy-project For more information on The Bothy Project go to www.thebothyproject.org