The end of World War Two marked a brief period - before Britain’s postwar boom - when much of the country was out of pocket.
For owners of large estates in Scotland, this meant letting some employees go. A fact that might otherwise be inconsequential, were it not for the simple outdoor living quarters their employees left empty.
A few years later, when increased wages and shorter working hours led to an upswing in recreational hill walking, outdoor enthusiasts stumbled upon these remote shelters and gave them a new lease of life.
‘Bothy’, a term once used purely to describe an itinerant worker’s accommodation, became a catch-all for these unlocked shelters which have now for decades provided walkers with protection from the elements, a place to rest their head and a meeting point to share food, whisky and stories with other travellers - totally free of charge.
Once upon a time, bothying meant being part of a rather exclusive club. Even after the creation of the Mountain Bothy Association (MBA) in 1965 - aimed at maintaining the shelters - bothy locations were exchanged by word of mouth, crude maps sketched out by passing walkers or simply discovered en route.
Their relative anonymity was, however, altered forever when the MBA decided to release bothy locations to the public online in 2009, though they certainly weren’t the first to do so.
The decision sparked controversy that still rages today. Increasing access to bothies is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it democratises bothies, opening them up to keen new hill walkers and encouraging outdoor pursuits.
On the other hand, many have complained that increased ease of access has emboldened vandalists, ill-prepared walkers and disrespectful partygoers to take advantage of the bothy’s inherently trusting model.
And while growing popularity might bring more donations to the MBA or more volunteers for maintenance work, it undoubtedly leaves bothies vulnerable to littering, damage, or - perhaps worst of all - commercialisation, the antithesis of the original bothy ethos.
Tucked away in some of Scotland’s most wild and remote places, bothies often suffer damage at the hands of the nation’s unpredictable weather and harsh winter conditions.
As they continue to grow in number and popularity however, some are wondering whether the biggest threat might no longer be the lashing rain, wind and snow, but reckless users themselves.
‘Ideas of remote nature today are too centred on being alone’
Scotland, unsurprisingly, has the lion’s share of bothies, with just a few dotted around England and Wales.
It’s a fact that likely comes down to an accident of history and Scotland’s abundance of wild remote places, though the country’s liberal right-to-roam laws probably helped: it seems no coincidence that Nordic countries with similar laws often have equivalent “wilderness huts” - though these are rarely free of charge - scattered around the countryside.
By and large, bothies are incredibly basic accommodation. The MBA website is keen to stress that walkers will often find “no tap, no sink, no beds, no lights, and, even if there is a fireplace, perhaps nothing to burn”. Rumour has it that there are even fake light switches installed in some bothies as a kind of inside joke by volunteers.
At the same time, the diversity among bothies is huge: some have (compost) toilets, bookcases and stoves, and part of the appeal of bothying comes from each shelter being totally unique in character and history.
Coupled with being free of charge, it’s no wonder bothies have become romanticised as the ultimate antidote to the fast-paced, commercialised and antisocial modern lives many lead today.
Though the MBA is keen for users to avoid thinking of bothies as holiday cottages or a location stay in themselves, the romaticisation of bothies is understandable - especially to a younger generation.
In pictures: weird and wonderful bothy history
While the idea of free overnight shelter might not have been so extraordinary in the 1950s, today the concept of something for nothing has become relatively unusual, while the act of welcoming strangers into your (albeit temporary) living quarters is almost unheard of. For many, staying in a bothy is like being transported into a lost past.
Avid hill walker, bothy-goer and native Highlander Annie Gilfillan, 29, understands this kind of mentality well. She runs a podcast, “Stories of Scotland”, with co-host Jenny Johnson who is also a bothy user, and believes there is something transportive about staying in a bothy overnight.
“Bothies are one of those spaces which seem as though they come from the past, the way we imagine pubs must’ve been like 50 years ago where everyone could go and you’d end up knowing everyone,” she says.
Similarly, Annie believes that what might elsewhere be seen as ‘risky’ is normal in a bothy, where distrust among strangers quickly dissolves into camaraderie.
“All my city friends think I’m crazy when I say that I’m a single woman who will stay the night in an abandoned place where other people might turn up.”
However, it’s this element of bothying that she believes makes the experience so enriching.
“I guess there’s an element of risk in it but the benefits make it worth it. There are few other experiences in the remote parts of nature where mindfulness comes from being with other people.
“Ideas of remote nature today are too centred on being alone and being introspective. In a bothy it’s all about meeting new people and hearing about the hills they’ve been on that day.”
Annie points out that while there’s a stereotype of a bothy-goer as an older white male, it should come as no surprise that bothying is gaining popularity with younger generations who have grown up in a world saturated with technology.
“Nowadays you don’t speak to strangers in pubs and cafes, you never speak to anyone. A bothy is a place where you go there knowing you’ll speak to new people, and because you’re disconnected from tech you can’t fall back on the people you’re familiar with.”
In more than one way, Annie believes that bothying is a valuable way to return to the past, especially for those native to Scotland.
“It gives us a connection to the land that we wouldn't otherwise have,” she says.
“Being from the Highlands, we were brought up on stories of how land was always taken away from the Highland people. Bothying is a way of reclaiming that land, and I love sharing stories in them, and love how they’re open to everyone.”
Yet in spite of her enthusiasm for open bothy access, Annie, like many other avid bothy-goers, acknowledges that with this comes the risk of abuse.
“I think people need to be more aware of the [bothy] code when it comes to littering. A big worry is bothies becoming commercialised - very large groups of people are going to them and missing the point completely.
“I think we should be encouraging smaller groups to go as that’s what bothies are for. Little groups making new connections.”
The MBA: keeping bothies open
‘Their efforts have helped save a bothy from ruin’
Simon Birch, current chairman of the MBA, has also registered a spike in the visibility of bothies since he first joined the organisation.
“For the first 30 years bothies were relatively unknown,” he says.
“Until the Nineties, bothies were pretty secret but now we’ve put them all online and we’ve got the Scottish Bothy Bible too. Bothies are everywhere - they’re in the paper all the time and it’s other people putting them out there.”
In many ways, the MBA has benefitted from this attention. Membership to the charity has increased year on year, bringing much-needed extra funds for maintenance.
“Lots of our bothies are in very good condition,” Simon continues.
“We’ve got a very healthy bank balance thanks to a lot of legacies from members who like to leave money in their memory. We’re a very healthy charity.”
The spirit of generosity that bothy users often comment on experiencing during their stays is an extension of the organisation itself, which relies not only on donations, membership fees and legacies to survive, but a group of willing volunteers too.
These people donate their time to labouring on ‘work parties’, which involve travelling to remote bothies to fix them up and make them clean and habitable for the next users.
Their only reward, as founding MBA members Bernard and Betty Heath wrote in 1972, is “the knowledge that their efforts have helped save a bothy from ruin”.
Though many of the MBA trustees are older, often retired people, Simon notes that this isn’t true of the work parties, nor the bothy users themselves.
“The work parties are a real mixture of young and old - young people obviously come for a shorter period if they’re in work, whereas older retired people have more time and can come for weeks at a time.
“It’s fair to say that the trustees tend to be older men… [but] a lot of the people staying in them are younger, and I think it’s nice that the older generation are preserving these bothies for younger people.”
The future of bothies
Vandalism, littering - and the secrecy debate
Until this year, bothies had effectively policed themselves, with the “bothy code” followed widely enough by users that few problems arose.
In July, however, Police Scotland felt obliged to launch “Bothy Watch,” a new patrol aimed at policing bothies to make sure they are not being abused and misused - a problem most common in easily-accessible bothies like Over Phawhope in southern Scotland.
The initiative was launched after a number of troubling incidents, including one where a group of walkers was forced to carry on their journey due to revellers taking over the bothy they were planning to stay in. When weather conditions worsened, they had to be rescued from the mountain they were walking on.
Other bothies have seen random vandalism and damage - Simon Birch himself had a bench he constructed for Camban bothy destroyed one winter. In spite of this, however, he believes that the problem is no worse than it’s been in the past:
“It’s very localised and we’ve always had a bit of it. It’s sometimes vandalism but more often just obnoxious behaviour from people.”
One of the bigger problems, he says, is litter, with the increasing number of large groups meaning more mess is left behind when they leave - though he stresses that the MBA is managing to keep on top of the problem.
Some, however, feel that things have gotten out of hand. In 2018, it was reported that several landowners (the MBA owns just two of the bothies they maintain) received anonymous letters from hillwalkers demanding that bothy locations be made secret once again.
On bothy Facebook groups, users regularly post about litter left behind by others, while a pinned post on one reminds group members not to reveal secret bothy locations.
Everyone likes being in on a secret, and though not everyone might admit to it, there seems to be a feeling among seasoned bothy-goers that opening bothies up to everyone takes away some of the magic secrecy that once surrounded bothying.
Annie, however, points out that in real life other bothy users are happy to share their secrets: “To be honest, if you meet people online and ask them about secret bothies they’ll tell you nothing - but if you meet people in bothies they’re happy to tell you in person, they’ll draw out maps and everything.”
What’s more, though many people might be drawn to the idea of bothying, the reality is that not everyone is cut out for roughing it, and Simon doesn’t believe there’s cause to believe that bothies will get overwhelmed.
“Sometimes things get busy but I talk to a lot of people who simply say bothies aren’t for us.”
In spite of some of the fears and concerns expressed by hillwalkers and MBA members alike, both Simon and Annie have continued to hear overwhelmingly positive experiences of bothying among locals and tourists alike.
In a society where free public space is shrinking year on year and people are more lonely and isolated than ever, bothies represent a space where people from different walks on the mountains - and indeed different walks of life - can intermingle and make new connections.
As long as the majority of users follow the bothy code and respect the generous spirit with which these shelters are maintained, bothy-goers look set to continue enjoying bothies with the same enthusiasm as James Fergusson, who sent the MBA a touching letter after staying in Tunskeen bothy in 1966 - the first ever received by the charity:
“I remember being impressed and touched by the care with which the last occupants had left the place all clean and tidy.........a basket of dry peats was beside the hearth, and the doorstep even bore traces of the chalk marks with which in former days every good housewife used to decorate her step after washing it.
“I remember being grateful for Tunskeen’s shelter on a rainy day and I am glad to think that through your enterprise it will serve other wanderers for, I hope, many years to come.”
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