An ode to the Scottish bothy

A wild, isolated beach populated by seabirds alone, or perhaps a snow-dusted valley far removed from phone signal. In either scenario, the only evidence of humans is a solitary structure. It could be a  stone-clad cottage with a tin roof and a rickety door, or a wooden cabin with a picture window made sticky from the salty sea air. 

If you find the place unlocked and venture inside you’ll notice rudimentary sleeping quarters (some raised mattress-less wooden bunks, or some benches), a guestbook and, if you’re lucky, a fireplace and some kindling, left by the previous visitors. 

If you decide to make the place home for the night, you might get it to yourself. If you’ve trekked or cycled a long, remote trail to get there, you almost certainly will. In which case you will pass the evening listening to the quietness of the wild, tending the fire, and reading the comments left by others who’ve spent the night. 

In the morning you’ll wake up and it will be chilly. But you’ll feel alive. The air will be fresh and the landscape outside the window will inspire you to leave your own comments in the book.

If you’ve arrived after a shorter journey or via a popular trail, you might unpack your sleeping kit and lay it out to reserve your spot on the sleeping bench.  While you’re out looking for kindling some other friendly explorers will arrive and you’ll spend the evening sharing stories of your lives and adventures.

Your sleep might be broken by someone’s gentle snoring, but it’ll be worth it for the sense of camaraderie you share. 

Luxury accommodation they are not, but what bothies lack in traditional comfort, they make up for in spades with beautiful settings, character, and a sense of community. 

Bothies are an iconic feature of the Scottish Highlands adventure scene, and there are a smattering in isolated spots in Northern England and Wales. 

Almost always set in mind-blowingly beautiful spots, bothies are desirable destinations for explorers of all experience levels. What makes them extra special is their history and the unwritten code and values shared by those who enjoy them.

The history of the humble bothy

Many bothies started life as cottages for farm workers or gardeners. As the world evolved and more people moved to cities, many were left abandoned. It didn’t take long though for adventurous souls to start using them for shelter while exploring the hills. 

Today, many bothies are formally maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association, with permission from the estate owners. Bothies and their upkeep have become a local outdoor movement.

What to expect

Expect adventure, great scenery, and basic shelter. Do not expect running water or electricity. There may be a water source nearby, but there may not be. There will definitely not be a toilet, but there is usually a spade. Hopefully there will be kindling to light a fire (if there is a fireplace), but you should come prepared with your own cooking set up just in case. The same goes for sleeping – there are no mattresses or bedding. 

In short, you should pack as if heading out for a wild camp. As the Mountain Bothy Association sums it up, bothying is  basically “camping without a tent.” The joy of staying in a bothy comes from the fact that they are so simple. And that there is a community of people invested in the same things — exploring beautiful places and maintaining the bothy spirit.

Scottish bothy in a wild and isolated location

The bothy code

The bothy community operates on simple principles: Bothies are free to use and available to anyone and everyone. 

But there are a few other things to consider when using one:

  • Respect other users
    There is no such thing as a full bothy – unless of course, it is physically impossible to squeeze another body inside. As a kindness to other users replace the kindling you use and pay it forward by way of candles, non-perishable snacks and other  “treats” you find in a bothy, even if you only return the favor at the next one you visit.
  • Look after the bothy
    Treat it like you would if it were your own personal sanctuary. Be aware of fire risks, remove your trash and perishable food so the place doesn’t get overridden by mice.
  • Respect the surroundings and the regulations
    Remember that bothies are usually maintained because estate owners have granted their permission. Therefore respect the land surrounding bothies by using the loo (or spade, in this case) responsibly (well away from water sources and the building), and only using dead trees and dry wood for kindling. It’s also important to observe regulations such as restrictions on bothy-use during lambing season.

You can read the full bothy code on the Mountain Bothy Association website

If you’re up for an adventure, and willing to play by the (minimal) rules, bothies are a glorious way to experience the wildness that the UK has to offer.