The Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) is a charity made up of volunteers who maintain more than 100 remote shelters across England, Wales and Scotland. It was founded in 1965 by Bernard Heath after he spotted a remark in the visitor book at the Backhill of the Bush bothy in Galloway Forest park, suggesting the setting up of a club to save a growing number of deserted farm buildings from ruin.
Heath realised that a collective effort was needed to keep the abandoned cottages and huts weatherproof in order “to maintain simple shelters in remote country for the use and benefit of all who love wild and lonely places”. The MBA’s first restoration project was at Tunskeen, also in the Galloway Forest.
Bothying predates the creation of the MBA, stretching back to the 1930s with the rise in popularity of hillwalking, when groups would shelter in disused farm buildings while hiking in wild places. Robert Barton, maintenance organiser for the Northern Highlands and a member of the MBA for more than 30 years, says: “The houses were left empty, mostly after the war, when the estates didn’t have so much money to employ people, and walkers just started using them.” As such, bothies vary hugely in their original purpose, from Viking longhouses to simple sheep shelters.
This bothy, the Lookout on the Isle of Skye, is a former coastguard station that was operational until the 1970s
From its conception, the MBA extended its work across the UK, expanding from the first restored bothy in Galloway Forest to the Cairngorms and eventually across Scotland, and into England and Wales. By 1975, it was maintaining 32 bothies and had become a registered charity. There are 83 shelters in Scotland, a further 12 in England and nine in Wales. They are all hidden away in mountainous country, and gaining access to them requires sure-footedness and a head for navigation.
The determination required to reach a bothy has meant that for many years they were frequented only by the hardiest of hill walkers, munro baggers and rock climbers. Neil Stewart, publicity coordinator for the MBA, says that until recently, “bothy locations were really only found by word of mouth”. Barton says that in the early years it was more like a secret society: “We had various lists that had been photocopied but even then it was just a list of names and approximate areas … there were no grid references.” It was only in 2009 that the MBA chose to reveal the location of the bothies to the public.
Most bothies offer little in the way of creature comforts. Few have taps, toilets, beds or lights, and some don’t even have a fireplace. Perhaps the best definition is provided by MBA chairman Simon Birch, who describes them as “a stone tent”. Although some have light switches, these aren’t connected to anything and have been mischievously placed there by MBA members poking fun at the basic nature of the refuge.
(Above left) Any luxuries must be carried in, as in the case of this visitor to Glendhu, who brought his own cooking pot when he stopped overnight on his way north to Cape Wrath. The Instagram factor of bothies such as the Eagle’s Nest (right) on the Isle of Lewis has attracted many more visitors, bringing record numbers of visitors to remote parts of Scotland
The hand-built stone structure of the Eagle’s Nest Bothy perches on a cliff edge in the Outer Hebrides, hundreds of feet above crashing waves. The Instagram factor, combined with the publication of the Scottish Bothy Bible in 2017, has resulted in a huge increase in visitor numbers in recent years. This has provoked mixed feelings within the organisation, but in the MBA’s most recent newsletter, a trustee points out: “Looking ahead, we’re far more likely to attract future generations of bothy carers and maintainers by letting people know we’re here.”
Top, Cuillin Horseshoe, Isle of Skye; bottom, a cyclist approaches the bothy at Kearvaig Bay in Cape Wrath
Bothies now provide vital shelter in increasingly popular multi-day treks such as the Cape Wrath Trail and the West Highland Way, which continue to bring visitors in record number to the most remote parts of Scotland. This includes the Hebrides, where the Isle of Skye in particular has seen a massive upsurge in tourists wishing to see the famous Black Cuillins, and other natural wonders popularised by their appearance in television programmes such as Game of Thrones.
The main concern for longstanding MBA members is that inexperienced hikers may not treat the bothies with the caution they often merit. The bothy at Kearvaig Bay in Cape Wrath was a former hunting lodge that had been abandoned for 40 years until being restored. It is reached by a short ferry ride over the Kyle of Durness, where the weather can be treacherously unpredictable. If the ferry cannot run, visitors can be stranded for days. Barton, who helps to look after Kearvaig, says: “The mountain rescue coordinator was getting a bit concerned that people were reading about these places and charging off to them with just a phone in their hand and getting into bother.”
Clockwise from top left: in 2017, the MBA spent £80,000 on maintenance across the properties in its care. All the materials for the work party at Glendhu Bothy have to be carried in; with no access to power tools; and it’s veteran volunteers like Robert Barton who do the lion’s share of the work
The increase in visitor numbers to bothies has not been matched by an increase in people attending the MBA work parties. These voluntary working holidays provide essential maintenance to keep the buildings weatherproof and open to the public. In 2017, an estimated 400 volunteers contributed around 1,300 working days to the upkeep of the buildings by attending advertised maintenance parties throughout the year. Information about these can be found on the MBA website or is sent out to members in newsletters.
The unforgiving weather takes its toll on the buildings, with constant work needed to maintain roofs, windows, chimneys and doors. In 2017, more than £80,000 was spent on maintenance across the properties in the care of the MBA, all of which comes from membership fees and donations. “Once a bit of the roof goes, it doesn’t take long before the whole thing goes… It’s a shame to see these buildings disappear,’ says Barton.
The majority of the practical work is organised and undertaken by an ageing group of volunteers, many of whom joined when they were young and have now been a part of the association for over 30 years. There is concern that unless younger volunteers can be found, the future of the buildings could be at risk. “Most [of our members] are getting on in years and we clearly need a lot of younger people to come in,” says Stewart.
“This is why we publicise the work of the association and why we’re on social media now,” says Stewart. The most recent newsletter reveals that unsuccessful approaches have been made to groups of Scouts and members of the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. “I think these days it’s more difficult,” says Barton. “It was easy enough for me. I had a job where you worked 9-5 and you could plan time off and knew you would get it. These kind of jobs don’t exist so much now.”
The surge in popularity of bothies also puts pressure on the buildings, most of it wear and tear. One MBA member has stated that if it were not for their efforts “some bothies would disappear up their own chimneys”. Visitors are encouraged to abide by “the bothy code” to ensure fair and enjoyable usage for all. Simply put, the code can be expressed as “do as you would be done by” and encourages visitors to respect the bothy, the environment and other users.
The MBA asks for people of all abilities and skill sets to aid them in maintenance and organisation. This can be anything from gathering wood, boiling water for tea or cleaning the area of plastic. Barton says: “You can always find something for people to do. Sometimes you match the work to the people that are coming and the skills they have.”
Clockwise from top left: Building materials rest on the front of the building as volunteers start work at Glendhu Bothy; while volunteer Robbie repairs a skylight, he is kept in place with a harness counterweighted with a bag of rocks; a fully stocked fireplace at the end the end of the working day
Sometimes, however, depending on the repairs needed, specific skills can be required. They can vary from basic building experience or even just a head for heights.
Joining a work party offers the escapism that has made “bothying” so popular, plus a sense of camaraderie and shared purpose. Stewart describes how work parties also offer the opportunity to learn new skills: “There is no doubt that people learn to do all sorts of things they never thought they could do and have never done before. It’s a great learning environment.”
Volunteers from around the world are brought together by a shared love of the bothy culture, and that is fortified by the communal meals provided for volunteers throughout the day. “Everybody who goes has a love of the outdoors,” says Stewart. “You’re chatting away to people all day. You’re sitting around the fire with them in the evening. You make new friendships.”
The shelters are unique in that they cannot be booked in advance, are free at point of access and are defined by a spirit of always making room for at least one more. Strabeg (pictured above) is a former farmhouse that still has a Belfast sink, and a small library. In 2015 its roof was ripped off by a storm, but the building was saved by the quick actions of MBA members, who promptly carried in hundreds of slates before any more damage could be inflicted.
For mountain bothies to continue to provide shelter for those looking to enjoy the wildest regions of the UK, an increase in the number of people attending the maintenance parties is needed. Only if this happens will founder Bernard Heath’s ambition for the organisation to “go on forever” be fulfilled.