By: Blonde Two
Images – Heather Elston
If you are wondering what to take on a walk that includes an MBA bothy, you might find that a bivvy bag and a pair of duck breasts might be a good place to start… If you have ever come across some of the more romantic photos of Mountain Bothies Association bothies, you might be forgiven for thinking that these idyllically located accommodations offer cosy, exclusive nights in comfy beds set in front of glowing stoves. In reality however, most of my bothy stays have been colder than my tent, required a bivvy bag even inside and included rather solid sleeping accommodation shared with strange (if usually friendly) men.
So what, you might ask, is the attraction of this increasingly popular form of outdoor accommodation? For me, as well as the remote locations, the exquisite views and the history of the buildings, it is the unknown that has got me hooked. When your walk takes you to a hostel, campsite or even a wild camping location, you have certain expectations; for example, you know you are going to get a bed, you know what the loo (or not-loo) will look like and, you know with whom you are going to spend the night.
Mountain bothies, which are neither all up mountains nor all in Scotland, don’t work like this. There is no booking, there may be no heating (unless you have carried it in yourself) and, if lots of people have had the same idea as you, you could well find yourself sleeping outside. The Mountain Bothies Association has a simple mission statement, ‘To maintain simple shelters in remote country for the use & benefit of all who love wild & lonely places.’ And that is what they succeed in doing and why those of us who visit their bothies remain grateful, impressed and keen to do our bit, usually in the form of general tidying and carrying out rubbish, once (in my case) by burning other people’s used toilet roll.
My friend Heather and I were lucky enough, on a recent visit to the Grwyne Fawr bothy, to meet up with a few of the stalwart Mountain Bothies Association volunteers. Our first hint that they might be in attendance at what must be one of the Association’s smallest bothies was our view of a mysterious group of gentlemen descending the path towards us. They appeared to have planks of oak strapped across their rucksacks, but were walking too freely for this to be the case, and one of them was pushing a rather awkward-looking wheelbarrow. A chat and a few introductions later we realised that the oak was in fact cardboard containing old sections of flue pipe and the wheelbarrow was awkward because it held the old stove, newly removed from the bothy. That this walk was four kilometres down a track with a very steep ascent from the bothy was impressive, that they had previously walked the new stove and necessary tools, cement and ladder up the hill even more so. My rucksack, containing coal, logs and kindling as well as a rather over-sized sleeping mat, suddenly felt meagre in comparison.
To say that the Grwyne Fawr Bothy is tiny is an understatement, with downstairs space for a fold-down table, a bench and a couple of chairs, and a loft platform for only three sleepers, it really puts meaning to the word compact. Upon our arrival, which for me involved a rather unladylike bottom-slide down the slope. We discovered that the bothy’s attraction, and perhaps its mention on Google Maps as ‘accommodation’ had led to a slight over-subscription in hopeful numbers for the night. The work party had done a first-rate job and the new stove was already lit, three of its members had remained to stay overnight and finish off in the morning. A young gentleman was cooking a dinner of aromatic sausages outside, with the intention of returning to his car and pitching a tent elsewhere and inside, a trio of friendly walkers were warming themselves before setting off back down the valley. These days, it is rare for me to walk without my bivvy bag and Heather was also suitably equipped so we were happy to ask for evening shelter and mentally prepared ourselves for a windy night by the river.
Like-minded is an overlooked term but one I often find to be applicable in the outdoors. If our hosts were harbouring doubts about two middle-aged women who were smiling about the prospect of a January night outside, in what essentially were a pair of plastic bags, they didn’t let it show too much and, once the visitor numbers had reduced and the cement been swept from the floor, we were ushered in, given seats by the fire and offered a warming tot of brandy. This general attitude of sharing continued, we shared drinks, food, stories and even trips outside to visit the facilities. It is at this juncture that I would like to recount the story behind why, at one point, Heather and I ended up, in the pitch darkness, rinsing a pair of already-cooked duck breasts in the river but it is a convoluted story and the most important thing to note about the duck breasts is that they and their accompanying potatoes, parsnips and beans (Heather’s organisation not mine), not only fed the five thousand but led to us being invited in for the night.
Preparing for bed was an exercise, for all of us, in logistics. Floor space was so limited that Heather and I couldn’t put our beds out until the gentlemen had ascended the loft for the night. She perched her mat on the narrow slate bench and I spread mine out on the floor, where it became clear that I was about to sleep with my head almost in the stove and my feet almost out of the door; anyone who wanted to enter or exit the bothy that night was going to have to push my feet to one side. We were very warm in bed and I slept well despite, at one point, Heather landing on top of me following a failed sleeping bag manoeuvre. As requested, we rose promptly in the morning and, with thanks and goodbyes, left the bothy in the tender care of the work party. I managed to get up the slope without adding mud on my knees to the rather unsightly patch on my bottom and we left carrying with us some rubbish and the happy memories of yet another totally unpredictable bothy stay.
I would like at this point, to offer a vote of thanks, not just to Boot, Ian, Alex and the other members of the Grwyne Fawr working party but to all Mountain Bothies Association volunteers for their work in ensuring this grand tradition of shelter for all (although maybe not all at once!) If, like me, you have been wondering what you can do to help guarantee the future of Mountain Bothies, take a look at the Mountain Bothies Association website and consider,
• Making a donation
• Purchasing life membership
• Becoming an annual member
• Volunteering to join a work party or help with administration