The Mountain Bothy Association celebrate their 50th birthday this year. They have been duly honoured with the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, a tribute to the graft, craft and ingenuity that’s required to keep around 100 buildings afloat, tiny ships adrift in lonely seas of bog and heather, places that exist against the odds. For me, the real reason to celebrate bothies is not a birthday, or a merit badge from Her Maj’, but for a love of stories and preservation of ethics.
The bothy code is a code for life. Turn no-one away, leave no trace, respect each other and the place you stay. Not ‘rules’, but an appeal to that rarest of elements in the modern periodic table - empathy. A wistful reminder of mountain ethics in an age of dumbing down and go pro drones, but the romantic in us kens it: These ideas are fit to guide our wider life, not just for taking shelter in the wilds.
A bothy stay will warm hands, but can also warm hearts and even save lives. Thankfully I’ve never arrived at death’s door, but I have fallen through the door at Corrour drenched and dehydrated, to find a fire already burning and a chair already waiting. Camban bothy is a favourite, purely because it saved a friend new to Scottish hillwalking from what might have become hypothermia. Fortunes change under a roof and four walls - even if the only running water is running down the walls, and the roof is shared with mice. These buildings are also places to share with new friends and old, and a gentler introduction for those new to big, wide-open spaces.
I used to vaguely disapprove of bothies, their nod to creature comforts where I thought there should be no concessions. But as my understanding of our backcountry has deepened, I’ve grown to love them, not as intrusions, but part of the landscape story. Bothies offer a link to our natural and cultural history, fragments of past lives lived.
By visiting, writing in the bothy book and meeting likeminded souls, we make the story new. A bothy book is my favourite kind of reading – episodic, as much about what’s absent as what’s present, accents unique, each voice given equal measure. Funny, stupid, poignant, pointless and poetic – all of life is here, the pages of an enormous novel thrown to the wind, each character given license to run riot in the hills outside.