It would be unlikely for you to find a bothy unless you already knew it was there. Scattered across the Scottish Highlands, the unassuming shelters provide a place for exhausted travellers to rest.
Bothies don’t have electricity or the mod-cons it allows for. Nor is there any cooking equipment, so you’d have to carry yours along with the food you’ve lugged across bog and bracken. The bed is most likely a wooden platform, on which you roll out your sleeping bag.
Not exactly the lap of luxury, but that’s kind of the point. Bare bones. Easily maintained and therefore sustainable, which leads to the most important thing about bothies: they’re free to stay in.
A country on the wrong end of English colonialism for a huge chunk of its history, Scotland hardly has a rose-tinted past. And the land on which many of the bothies are found harks back to one of these many grim times – the Highland Clearances.
The Highlands and the Western Isles are scattered with ruins, remnants of the clans driven out of their ancestral homes during the 18th and 19th centuries. Orchestrated by wealthy landowners, the Clearances saw massive depopulation of the Scottish Highlands, with the refugees ending up in the lowland cities like Glasgow, or emigrating to Australasia and the Americas. Meanwhile the Highlands were parcelled up for the benefit of Scottish aristocracy.
It wasn’t until the 1930s that access to the Highlands began to be wrestled back from a privileged few. During the early 20th century, working-class people from the cities started to have more leisure time, and the great outdoors became accessible due to train lines such as the West Highland Line. With the lodges remaining exclusively for the rich, the holidaymakers would bed down in the long abandoned huts, and the tradition of “bothying” was born.
These acts of disobedience, reclaiming the land from the landowners, were taking place all across the UK at this time. Perhaps the most famous case is the Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout; a coordinated protest by ramblers in England’s Peak District to challenge control of access to the open countryside. In both England and Scotland, the laws around freedom to roam were only codified in the last 20 years but the tradition is much older.
In Scotland, as the use of these old shelters began to be accepted by the landowners, those who stayed in them would make improvements. Small organisations such as climbing groups would adopt certain bothies, maintaining them and ensuring they would always provide a place to stay for anyone, from the rich landlords who owned the estate on which it was built to young people from the Glasgow slums.
In 1965 the Mountain Bothy Association was founded, which now maintains over a hundred of Bothies across Scotland, England and Wales. They have published a handy map of their bothies, but there are still many around looked after by different groups, estates or even individuals.
So get out there. If Brexit is going to ruin cheap holidaying abroad, it’s the perfect time to get exploring the UK. And where better to start than the bothies?
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