Are you planning a trip to Scotland? Have you heard of bothies, Scotland’s secret mountain huts scattered throughout the highlands? No, well in that case we’ll let you into a secret but shhhh.. don’t tell anyone.
A bothy is a small dwelling place for mountain explorers, the jewel in Scotland’s open-access crown. Each one is part of a network of mountain huts, ranging from rudimentary shelters to charming estate houses. They’re free to use, open year round and available for travellers to stay overnight or simply shelter for lunch. The bothy network has previously never been advertised to tourists, and clues to their locations have been whispered through word of mouth. Frequented by generations of explorers, these huts can offer the perfect refuge to a travelling bike-packer, keen to explore the beautiful highlands of Scotland.
Bike-packing culture in Scotland
The highlands of Scotland are a prime destination for a multi-day bike-packing trip, trail riding overnighter or weekend break. Not only is the landscape unique and spectacular, but Scotland’s audible encouragement for outdoor recreation means that as long as the riders respect other trail users, care for the environment and take responsibility for their own actions, they are permitted to cycle anywhere in the wilderness, utilizing all footpaths and trail networks with no restriction. This tolerant approach opens up incredible ridges, serious distances and some of the world’s most rugged and natural mountain tracks. But for a truly Scottish experience, nothing beats a night in a bothy.
A Bothy is a small hut or cottage (in Scotland), especially one for housing farm labourers or for use as a mountain refuge.
Most bothies started life as single-story crofts (basically tiny scottish farms) or huts for shepards, however, the collapse of highland farming and the lure of work in the factories during the industrial revolution left many remote buildings standing empty. Repurposed as bothies, they became beacons of warmth and sanctuary for weary mountaineers. Traditionally, their locations, dotted around the Scottish highlands, were fiercely guarded, protected from overuse with total secrecy. Map-makers didn’t publish their names, just marking them as unnamed buildings high up in the mountains. However, in the spirit of an ‘open to all’ policy, the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) took the step in 2009 to release the locations of all 81 huts that they manage.
The bothy and the cyclist
With the growing popularity of bike-packing, cycle tourism and the increasing focus on Scotland, more and more experienced and adventurous riders are heading deeper into the highlands, unlocking new descents and discovering forgotten corners. A bothy can be the perfect base to explore a new or remote area, or even just to enjoy jokes and stories around the fire, it’s those late night conversations between friends that are usually the ones that mean the most.
What can you expect from a bothy?
This is a great question and generally, the answer is nothing at all. While some are well provisioned, most bothies are simply shelters from wind and rain–no running water, no power, no cooking facilities, no toilet, your comforts have to be carried in. If you are staying overnight you will need to bring in everything you need for a good night’s sleep. While the idea of staying in a mountain hut may sound romantic, Scottish bothies are nothing like the purpose-built lodges found on the continent, they are damp, cold and dark, but when the fire is blazing and the single malt is flowing, they can provide memories that last a lifetime.
Your comforts have to be carried in
How to be a good Bothier
You cannot reserve bothies, nobody has priority and you must make other visitors welcome. Culturally, there is an ethos that there is always room ‘for one more’. Be sure not to arrive in groups of more than 6 and always be sure to remove all rubbish from the bothy when you leave, collect and chop some wood for the next guest and, if you want to stick to tradition, leave a small offering for the next user; matches or candles go down a storm. Common sense prevails and if you abide by the ‘leave the bothy as you would hope to find it’ law then the beautiful network will continue to be part of adventuring in the highlands for many more generations to come.
What you will need to bring.
If you are bikepacking and hoping to use some of Scotland’s bothies, you will need to carry everything that you would normally carry for a camp out under the stars, including thermal mats, sleeping bags, cooking equipment and if you are heading to what could potentially be a busy bothy in the summer months, it’s worth packing a lightweight tent in case all the floor space or bunks are taken.
What about a fire?
Many bothies have a fireplace or stove for the colder months, so be sure to bring in some briquettes or coal for your stay, and replace any firewood that you use. If you plan on collecting firewood from the ground, be sure not to cut live trees and do not damage the fragile environment.
How do I find out where they are?
For many, the joy of finding bothies is in the hunt, but sometimes that’s just not practical. If you need to know more, you can scope out the Scottish Bothy network on the MBA website and more recently, the ‘The Scottish Bothy Bible’ has been published which – controversially to many – offers detailed descriptions and photos of Scotland’s most popular and elusive bothies.
Our top three recommendations for your first Bothy experience
- Alder Cottage. Remote and rural, this supposedly haunted ex-stalkers cottage is found directly under the Ben Alder massif. This large 3-roomed bothy features a stove, bunk beds and is perfectly located for some epic mountain trails around Ben Alder.
- Hutchinson Memorial Hut. Hiding in the very heart of the Cairngorms, the Hutchinson Memorial Hut is a tiny bothy on the popular route to Ben Macdui, accessed via a well-maintained path through the Linn of Dee. Its small size means the stove packs a mighty punch once lit.
- Craig Bothy. For those with a strong bike-packing kung-fu, we would suggest Craig Bothy. Deep in the heart of Torridon, Craig Bothy is the nirvana for those looking for the ultimate remote experience, surrounded by some of Scotland’s most beautiful scenery. Only for adventurers.
Done properly, staying in a bothy is a true highland experience, an undiluted mountain epic that will pack as mighty a punch as the land’s single malt.
This article is from ENDURO issue #033
Words & Photos: Trev Worsey