Bothying for Beginners – the low down of the Highland bothy

by Mags Nixon
highland bothy camasunary

Ever heard of the term ‘bothying”? I’m met with a raised eyebrow (most of the time) when I mention we’ve recently been bothying in Scotland. What on earth is a highland bothy?

We were so incredibly excited to have our first experiences of the ‘highland bothy’ a couple of months ago and are now complete bothy converts. If you’re new to bothying or have never heard of it and want to know more, look no further to get the insights on what exactly is a highland bothy, what makes bothies so special and why highland bothies are so brilliant for adventuring families.

From following the bothy code, to what to do when (after hiking for several hours, or even all day), you rock up to find the bothy full, to our pick of the most family friendly bothies for beginners, read on and be inspired to try bothying for this first time with your family this year.

 

What is a highland bothy?

highland bothy

This highland bothy is an easy walk from the road – perfect for families with little legs

Simply put, a bothy is a rudimentary shelter in the wilderness where you can stay for free.

Bothy comes from the Gaelic word ‘bothan’ meaning hut and were originally (and some still are) used for accommodation for farm labourers or estate workers who looked after livestock or crops.

Bothies are generally croft houses or estate cottages, previously ruined, that have been simply renovated to provide basic accommodation. They do not have any electricity or running water.

Bothies have been around for eon ages, and have previously been used by hard core climbers, lone hill walkers or hardened mountaineers, those in the know, that used them. Now the secret of bothies is well and truly out, with popular bothies full all Summer. Bothies are for everyone and anyone who shares a passion for the outdoors is truly welcomed.

 

“A simple shelter in remote country for the use and benefit of all those who love being in wild and lonely places”.

Definition from the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) members’ handbook.

 

Before we go any further, lets get this clear – bothies are not for those who like the luxuries in life. It’s camping with a stone canvas. But luxuries are subjective. In our book, one of the finer things in life is simply to marvel at the ocean, memorised by the incessant waves crashing in or cupping a steaming hot cuppa watching wisps of cloud gather amid rugged mountain tops. Give me these any day over a flushing toilet or running water (well for a few days anyway).

If nature’s your thing, you’re going to love bothying as much as well do.

Can bothies only be found in the Highlands of Scotland?

Bothies do not only exist in the Highlands, however England and Wales only have a smattering of bothies, whereas the Highlands of Scotland have a most extensive network.

highland bothy in the wilderness

Highland bothies are rudimentary shelters in the wilderness of Scotland, often occupying a magnificent setting

Why are bothies so special?

If you’re outdoor folk, like us, you’ll soon see why bothies are so captivatingly special. Set in remote locations, often languishing in the most truly magnificent landscapes, bothies allow you to truly get away from it all and get close to nature.

One of the many draws of bothies are you’re practically guaranteed to meet like minded individuals, who, like you, have a true affinity for the outdoors and the wilderness. What I particularly love about bothies are that they are all unique. No bothy is the same. Each seems to have their own personality. We’ve only visited highland bothies – one of our favourites was visiting the former coastguard’s watch tower on the Isle of Skye’s rugged North coast for it’s distinctive personality (below).

The Scottish Bothy Bible is an excellent guide for beginners which features many bothies and includes details such as how to get there, the bothy code etc.

former coastguard tower turned into a highland bothy

The Lookout Bothy on the Isle of Skye certainly oozes it’s own flair and personality. A former coastguard watch station this is the perfect spot for whale and dolphin watching

 

Hiking out to a bothy is a great adventure. For one, bothies cannot be booked. They have an open door policy so you have no idea, traipsing in along a rough track in wind, rain or shine if that open door policy means you’ll be bedding down that night alone or indeed arrive to find all the places on a sleeping platform have been bagged. Hold on a minute. If you’ve got kids with you isn’t that a little unsettling? Find our tips below on how to avoid a full bothy situation or what to do in this case scenario.

bothies are all over the highlands of Scotland

Most bothies are maintained by the MBA (mountain bothy association) but sometimes someone local will tell you of a secret bothy.

What to expect bothying

Lets manage expectations first up. This is especially important for children. Whilst I prepped my kids for our first bothy stay (or I thought I had), they were still exceptionally unenthusiastic after checking out the interior. In fact, to my astonishment they actually began to hot foot it back to our campervan (parked up in a passing place several miles across the wilderness as the crow flies). When I stopped them demanding further explanation, it turned out the creepy attic was too much for them – they thought they’d be sleeping in there alone with us in another room. There and then we made a bothy pact – to always sleep together in the same room on our bothy adventures, and agreed to bed down in the much more inviting front room with the cosy fire place. And just like that, our bothying adventures begun. We haven’t looked back since.

So what to expect from bothying:

 

1. A HIKE

hiking out to a bothy

Hiking out to a bothy is part of the adventure. Try to avoid arriving late in the day in case the bothy is already full

Bothies do not have roads leading to them. Expect a hike in lasting from anything from half an hour to a whole day’s trek.

 

2. CARRY IN ALL YOUR EQUIPMENT AND CARRY OUT ALL YOUR WASTE

hiking to a bothy

There are plenty of bothies with short hikes in. Try a few of these first with the kids before setting off on a longer adventure

There is rarely any running water and never any electricity in a bothy, so stove, fuel, water, food and sleeping gear need to be carried in. Equally it’s crucial to carry out any litter, including soiled toilet paper (unless you burn it) with you. The ‘leave no trace’ concept is expected with no exceptions. You can read about the ‘bothy code’ below.

 

3. BASIC ACCOMMODATION

Ready yourself for basic accommodation. Bothying is bare bones necessity. What you are guaranteed is shelter from the elements but you’ll need to take everything you’d require for camping in with you (see our kit list for bothying below).

Expect to bed down on a hard wooden sleeping platform, no cosy beds here (you’ll need to take a sleeping mat and sleeping bag)

Bothies often have a fire, a fabulous source of not just warmth, but soul. Gazing into the flames, feeling the heat on your face and re-living or listening avidly to stories told by a friendly stranger’s tongue is one of addictive qualities of bothies.

Remember to carry fuel in with you, or gather dry kindling locally. It’s unacceptable to destroy estate property or cut green wood for fuel. Always replace what you use and leave dry kindling for the person after you.

 

We found this note on the Camasunary bothy door. The sheep fank is the enclosure used for penning in sheep. This is a classic example of people burning whatever they can lay their hands on. Carry in your own fuel or collect kindling from the woods but never abuse the landowners property

 

4. PEACE & QUIET IN A MAGNIFICENT WILDERNESS SETTING

Expect to be removed from the hustle and bustle of normal human life. It’s easy to imagine life in a bygone era, living a night or two in a remote cottage with no running water or electricty. This is the ultimate in getting away from it all.

There’s something heart warmingly satisfying of bringing only what you can carry and making the best of the little possessions you have. Expect to find joy in the sounds of nature, switch off from technology and find wonder at the small miracles of nature surrounding you.

 

5. Lack of privacy

Us waking up to find all our squeezed in bothy buddies off early to continue their hardcore Skye trail. Expect to sleep in close quarters with strangers – bring ear plugs!

Each bothy is individual in layout and demand. With more remote or secret bothies you may well score the bothy all to yourself.

With popular bothies expect a high volume of trekkers and a high occupancy rate. Expect to be sleeping next to a snoring stranger unless the bothy has the luxury of different sleeping rooms. Some, like the Camasunary bothy on Skye only have one sleeping room with just one large bunk bed sleeping platform for 14 people, whilst others such as Achnanclach, have several different sleeping rooms where some privacy may be gleaned.

Expect to be social. Bothies are a great place for meeting like minded people. Often it’s the tales shared with strangers around a comforting roaring fire whilst the wind howls outside that make a bothy adventure so memorable.
 

What is the Bothy Code?

The Bothy Code is a basic set of guidelines that users of bothies are expected to follow. These are always posted up on the wall at all the bothies that the MBA maintains but should be used for all bothies whether they are maintained by the MBA or not.

In a nutshell, the Bothy Code is all about respecting the bothy and leaving it in a condition that you would want to find it in. Bothies are a refuge from the elements for everyone. This is the key ethos of bothying and it is high on the agenda of bothy etiquette to accept everyone, however full. It doesn’t fly that just because you got there first, that you have more right to a bed than the last person that showed up. We’ve seen this in action first hand rocking up to the Isle of Skye’s New Camasunary bothy late afternoon to find it jam packed with Skye Trail trekkers. We were instantly accepted and welcomed with people shuffling up their sleeping bags to squeeze us in.

Certainly in the short period we’ve been bothying, it has been such a joy to find the gentle acceptance, the eagerness to meet new people and the genuine interest from other wilderness lovers. Everyone I have met has always followed these guidelines and it’s a good place to start reading if you’re new to bothying.

Here is the bothy code:

 

1/ Respect other users

Leave the bothy clean and tidy as you would wish to find it. Make sure you replenish the fuel supply – dry kindling and wood for the fire. Some estates re-stock fuel supplies but always replace what you use.

Make other visitors welcome.

2/ Respect the bothy

Take out all rubbish brought in. Do not bury it (even toilet paper). Do not leave perishable food as this attracts vermin. Guard against risk – make sure the fire is completely out and doors and windows are firmly closed on leaving the bothy. Inform the MBA of any damage to the bothy you discover or any accidental damage that happens during your stay.

 

3/ Respect the surroundings

The surroundings of bothies are complete wilderness. Respecting this environment is paramount.

Don’t expect bothies to have a toilet. You’ll normally find a spade with which to dig yourself a hole (at least 15 cm deep) but remember to do this well away from the bothy and any water course (at least 180m). Bury all human waste and burn or take any toilet paper away with you. Never cut live wood or damage estate property for fuel.

The toilet spade in Achnanclach bothy in Sutherland

 

4/ Respect the Agreement with the Estate

Bothies are privately owned. It is only due to the goodwill of owners that bothies exist for us to use. It’s crucial to respect any restrictions placed on any particular bothy, for example at stag stalking or lambing seasons, when walkers are not encouraged onto the land and estate workers may be staying in the bothy. Bothies are also only intended for short term use – one to two nights maximum. If you wish to use a bothy for longer than this you need to ask the landowners permission.

 

5/ Respect the restriction on numbers

Large groups (6 or more) should not use a bothy without seeking the landowners permission. This is down to the potential for overcrowding with limited facilities. It is generally accepted practice to be able to camp near the bothy if on arrival the bothy is full. For this reason many people carry a tent or bivvy bag when bothying.

Bothies are never available for commercial groups.

 

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Read our post

4 easy highland bothies for adventuring families

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Kit list for bothying

Pack as light as possible when hiking into a bothy. Remember you might have to hike for several hours with your backpack getting heavier with each step. All equipment and fuel needs to carried in so stick to the basic kit list which is generally exactly what you would need to go camping.

 

    • sleeping bag (3-4 season) and silk sleeping bag liner (optional)
    • sleeping mat
    • head torch and spare batteries
    • stove, gas and lighter
    • pans, utensils, cup, bowl, plate
    • scourer/biodegradable washing up liquid
    • food – quick easy dinners will be appreciated after a long day hiking so noodles, pasta etc
    • high energy snacks for hiking (dried fruit, chocolate, nuts)
    • water
    • waterproof jacket & trousers
    • basic first aid kit, tick remover, insect repellent
    • hiking poles (if accessing the most remote bothies and hiking all day)
    • sun hat, sun cream
    • good hiking boots with good ankle support
    • ear plugs (to combat snorers) & eye mask (bothies rarely have curtains)
    • candles and matches
    • map, whistle & compass
    • toiletries and a travel towel
    • penknife
    • toilet paper
    • bivvy bag or lightweight tent
    • fuel

 

What to do if a bothy is full?

Okay so this is a very real question and something that weighed on my mind with taking the kids bothying. So with the main ethos of bothying all about accepting everyone and nobody being able to book, it’s not really supposed to be a problem although it’s still a worry if you’re hiking late in the day (like us in Skye – it had rained incessantly the entire day with the forecast looking to break late afternoon, so we avoided the rain but took the risk of a full bothy).

In theory, even if the bothy is full, everybody should make room for you. In peak season, in popular bothies I’m unsure whether this would physically be a possibility. Many people trekking to bothies take a tent with them as backup in the event of this very scenario as camping in the vicinity of the bothy is acceptable by landowners.

As everyone has a sleeping mat, these can easily be laid out on the floor even if sleeping platforms are full. My advice though, is if you are worried about the popularity of a particular bothy is to get there early, lay your sleeping bag out and bag your area. Bear in mind though, you may have to shuffle and squeeze up when others arrive.

What are your bothy experiences? Have you been with your family? We’d love to hear from you.

If you’re heading to the Highlands and have a stop in beautiful Edinburgh, check out Chrissy from Travel Passionate’s 3 days in Edinburgh itinerary.

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