July 02, 2021 7 min read
Staring blankly at the The Scottish Bothy Bible and Scottish Bothy Walks books by Geoff Allan on our store bookshelf, this is a question we hear frequently from visitors from outside of Scotland (and some locals).
A walkers best kept secret, a refuge in the wilderness, an escape into the past - bothies are all of these things and more. They are a culture and an experience combined into one. Part of the mystery and magic of a bothy is that no two are the same. Each bothy you visit brings its own unique history and adventure.
WTF is a Bothy?
By definition a bothy is a building used as a rest stop or overnight shelter, completely free of charge, for intrepid adventurers out in the wilds of the UK. Although the word bothy comes from Gaelic and they seems like an inherently Scottish concept there are a scattering of bothies around England and Wales too. The Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) describe bothies as “simple shelters in remote country for the use and benefit of those who love being in wild and lonely places.”
It is not really known how many bothies there actually are or have been in the past. The MBA currently care for over 100 bothies, whilst others are looked after by whomever’s land they are on.
Origin of the bothy
The history of the how the bothy we know today came in to being is a little bleak. Bothies can be dated all the way back to1745. Built to house shepherds and Ghillies (hunting and fishing assistants for the landowners) in a time just after the highland clearances where Scottish Clans were forced to sell their homes to landowners who in turned it into farmland or hunting grounds.
A huge decline in rural farming coupled with the after affects of the potato famine meant that by the late 1800’s many bothies had been abandoned in the hope more money was to be made in factory work. The remaining rural communities were then hit hard by the two world wars. By the mid 20th century bothies had been left for ruin.
It wasn’t until the 1930’s when the practise of recreational bothying as we know it today began. Walkers started to use these abandoned buildings as shelters and often shared the locations with one another when they met on the trail. Although it was a much more hush-hush activity back then carried out with only the inference of approval from landowners. By the 1960s munro bagging was also a popular recreational activity and many a guide book on being out in the hills was being published.
The only problem with bothying in the early days was no one was maintaining these buildings and many visitors to bothies mistreated them. Not being up-kept since the mid 20th century meant many bothies fell into disrepair. A few lucky bothies were protected by climbing clubs or the odd visitor but the vast majority were neglected.
The Mountain Bothies Association was the bothies saving grace. Purely by coincidence, in 1965, Bernard Heath read a comment in the visitors book of Blackhill of Bush bothy implying the need for an organisation to help repair the bothies. A few months later he then went on to form the Mountain Bothies Association. Since its formation the MBA has preserved around 123 bothies.
For years the locations of bothies remained illusive. Many would just stumble across one as they were walking or another hiker would let them know where to find one. These days, since the publication of guides such as The Scottish Bothy Bible and Scottish Bothy Walks by Geoff Allan have made the location of most MBA and a few non-MBA bothies known. There are still a select few that are kept a secret known only to those who frequent the hills or are lucky enough to find them.
The Bothy Experience
Staying in a bothy has been said to be like going back in time. It’s like staying in a piece of history. Not just because these bothies are hundreds of years old but they have no modern amenities like electricity or running water and often you are sharing the living quarters with other walkers who show up. Theres no booking system and everyone is welcome. Although bigger groups of 6 or more are discouraged from using bothies.
Some might look at these as negatives but it’s all part of the magic of a bothy. The social aspect of meeting new likeminded people, all huddled round a fire sharing stories, booze and singing songs. Each bothy is totally unique, they all have different layouts, some have beds and bookshelves. But the most basic will have a few chairs and a fireplace.
The secret of the bothy and staying somewhere for free can make it seem a little rebellious when you are there. It’s exciting, especially if you find a bothy you didn’t know was there. Not knowing who will turn up or what it will be like on the inside could be someone’s worst nightmare but for many bothy goers its part of the unique experience.
This is why staying in a bothy is often romanticised, being out in the wilds secluded in an old characterful building. However, reality is staying in a bothy requires a lot of preparation. If you have packed everything you need then there is no reason your stay won’t be just as magical as you want. The MBA describes staying is a bothy as “camping without a tent - though lots of things can be useful in a bothy that have no place in a tent, such as candles or a line for drying socks from.”
Bothies have fostered a culture of respect and generosity. The MBA have formulated a bothy code around respecting the bothy and others:
Respect the Bothy
Respect other users
Respect their surrounding
Respect Agreement with the Estate
Respect the restricted numbers
Bothies are very social and you’ll often find those who frequent them are very generous. Most will leave gifts such as fire wood, books, booze and food (that won’t go off) for the next adventurers who chose to stay there. It’s customary to bring something along with you that you can leave for the next traveler. Geoff Allan, in The Scottish Bothy Bible, describes bothy goers as having a ‘community spirit’. The magic of these bothies wouldn’t be the same without the people you meet along the way so its important to be respectful and friendly to everyone you come across.
Unfortunately though, the revelation of the location of some bothies has led to the over use and sometimes vandalism of bothies. Some hikers have even turned up to bothies being used for parties. There was one case where a few hikers had to be rescued after the bothy they planned to stay at had been overrun with partygoers. There is some controversy around wether the locations should have been released in the first place. Many say their illusiveness is what helped to protect them for people to enjoy. It’s an interesting debate as the bothy represents freedom and is for everyone to use. So keeping them a secret seems to defeat their purpose. However people can’t enjoy them if it’s a free for all.
The MBA has a volunteer system where you can help restore the bothies alongside other passionate bothy goers. Even just reporting the state of the bothies you stay in can be a big help so they know how where to focus their efforts. You can find more info on the MBA website here.
Our Scottish Bothy Picks
There are so many bothies and choosing one to visit can depend on what you are out hiking for. Each bothy has something different to offer from it’s breathtakingly unique view to the fact it has a working loo. Here’s 3 bothies we think should be on your ‘bothies to visit’ list…
One of the most unique bothies you’ll come across. Situated on a cliff edge on the Isle of Lewis, Mangersta boasts amazing views out over the Atlantic Ocean and over to St.Kilda and the Flannan Isles. This bothy only has one room with sleeping space for two so you do have to book in advance if you want to stay overnight, but don’t worry it is still free of charge. Being built just over 30 years ago by The Linda Norgrove Foundation, this is a more modern bothy than most but its incredibly unique location makes it worth a visit.
Find out more about Mangersta and how to book here
If you’re walking the West Highland Way this bothy is a great rest stop. Nestled within peaceful woodland with views out over Loch Lomond and the nearby mountains this bothy has room to sleep 12. As if its location wasn’t appeal enough this bothy launched its film career in 2013 starring alongside Scarlett Johansson in “Under the Skin”.
Find out more about Rowchoish here.
Known to be a ‘luxury’ bothy Ben Dronaig has 4 rooms, a kitchen and a loo! This bothy is maintained by Attadale Estate so it’s location is not as well known as some of the MBA bothies. If you are a keen Munro Bagger this bothy makes a great choice of base for climbing Bidein a’ Choire and Lurg Mhor. If you want to know more about this bothy it’s featured in “The Scottish Bothy Bible” by Geoff Allan or a quick google search should help you find it.
Why not have a read of our “A Beginners Guide to Bothies ” to find out more about the bothy code and what you’ll need to take with you. If bothying appeals to you we suggest grabbing a copy of "The Scottish Bothy Bible" and "Scottish Bothy Walks" both by Geoff Allan to find the location of more great bothies.
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