If you didn’t know what it was as you wandered past a bothy, chances are you’d probably just assume it to be some sort of run down farmland storage building, which in reality, they often are.
But the history of bothies and their modern-day popularity across the UK are not only an important part of the outdoors tourism industry but also an enormously valuable safety feature for hikers.
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But what are bothies? And why are they so popular with the UK hiking community? The first of those questions is relatively simple to answer. Unlike in other countries like Norway, where similar buildings are built for the purpose of offering free shelter to hikers, in the UK, for the most part, these buildings are acquired from other, often historical, uses.
Although the rise in the number of bothies over the past few decades has been a gradual process, their increase is largely due to the decline of their original purpose.
The history of bothies
Buildings that have now become bothies may have had a variety of purposes in the past, but a large percentage of those were for the workers on secluded farmsteads. In those days a convenient commute by road didn’t exist, so small buildings were built to allow the workers to rest and shelter from the often difficult weather conditions of the UK.
A combination of a decrease in manual labour and technological improvements led to many of these bothies becoming unused, meaning hundreds of buildings were left derelict across the more remote areas of the UK. That was until a time when long-distance walking ceased to be a mode of transport and instead people headed out into the mountains to do it for enjoyment. It was at this point that those hikers stumbled upon the empty buildings, perfectly placed as protection from the elements during long walks.
For the most part, these buildings were used by hikers for convenience, and although some might ask the respective landowners for permission, there were no agreements or safeguards in place for either the bothies themselves or the people that rested in them. That was until 1965 when a passing remark in a bothy book led to the formation of the Mountain Bothy Association. Starting with the ruins of Tunskeen farmhouse in Galloway, the founding group began work on many renovation projects in the following years.
Now, over 50 years later, the MBA acts as a central governing body for over 100 bothies around the UK. As well as handling the financial side of the various renovation products, they also maintain the specific rules relating to how the bothies are managed and maintained, including conforming to health and safety regulations. A full list of the MBA managed bothies can be found here. Only one of the bothies is actually owned by the MBA, with all others existing in agreement with the landowners.
What’s in a bothy?
What you actually find inside a bothy can vary enormously, but as most users would explain, the vast majority are little more than a tent made of stone. That basically means that, aside from four walls and a door, you’re unlikely to find any luxuries like running water, bedding or even a toilet. But out there in the cold, a stone building works a lot better than a tent.
Although some bothies may just be a small square hut, others can differ massively, with certain bothies having multiple rooms, stocked bookshelves, a stove, sofas and even the occasional outhouse (although don’t count on it working). However, any trip to a bothy is a gamble, so always expect the bare minimum.
How do you go to the toilet? Well, all bothies come complete with a shovel, although the MBA website states that all bothies have “a spade and the advice is that you should walk at least a couple of hundred metres from the bothy and 60 metres from the water supply before excavations and evacuations commence”.
What do you need to take with you?
"Treat your visit to a bothy as camping without a tent." says Neil Stewart, Publicity Coordinator for the Mountain Bothies Association. "Consult the MBA website in advance about what, if any, facilities are available. Many bothies will have open fires or stoves but you will need to take fuel with you, and do not in any circumstances cut live wood."
You must take all your own bedding and cooking equipment and be prepared to sleep on a wooden platform or on the floor. While there is an unwritten rule that a bothy is never full, some can be very busy and the MBA advises intending users to carry a tent where they think that that might be the case.
Where are they?
The Bothies currently managed by the MBA can be found in mountain areas all the way from Wales to the Northern Scottish Highlands, with a handful around the Lake District. The densest number of bothies can be found across Scotland though, which isn’t surprising considering the tricker landscapes, remoteness and the weather you find there in comparison to more southern parts of the UK.
There are also a number of bothies that exist outside of the MBA, but the location and state of these is often a closely kept secret amongst hikers. So if you hear of one, prepare for the worst as it’s likely that it could have fallen into disrepair.
The bothy code
One of the fundamental developments in appointing a committee to look over the running and maintenance of the various bothies was to implement what is known as the bothy code. Like most outdoor activities, a set of rules was set out to help people understand what can and can’t be done in an effort to not only protect the surrounding environment, but also the hard work put in by the MBA volunteers and to respect the bothy owners.
These rules can be found inside any MBA managed bothy and cover everything from leaving the details of your visit in the individual bothy log book to the specifics of how and where you can go to the toilet.
According to Nell, ‘‘Unfortunately, there have always been some visitors who seem to think that the Bothy Code is for others, particularly as regards littering and toilet practice. Not following the Code creates extra work for MBA volunteers and for other bothy users."
Key elements of that code include:
- Letting the MBA know about any accidents
- No graffiti or vandalism the bothy
- Removal of all rubbish which you can't burn
- No burying of rubbish; this pollutes the environment
- Leave no perishable food as this attracts vermin
- Make sure all fires are out after leaving
- Never cut live wood or damage estate property
- Large groups (6 or more) should not use a bothy nor camp near a bothy without first seeking permission from the owner
A full list of the bothy code can be found on the MBA website here.
Safety in bothies
As with any sort of hiking in a remote area, anyone heading out to use a bothy should ensure that they take the relevant precautions. "Wear appropriate clothing, be sure that you are fit enough to carry everything that you will need for an overnight stay in a building with no facilities,” says Neil. "Take a map and compass and know how to use them, tell someone where you are going.”
If you want to get involved with the Mountain Bothies Association all you need to do is join one of the working parties across the year by checking the dates. You can also join the MBA for just £25 or just leave a donation to help their continued work across the UK.
A Mountain Bothies Association Facebook group also exists where friendly hikers post frequent updates on the individual bothies.