There is something special in the stillness of a winter’s night, when frost renders the burns silent and dusts the grass with transient iridescent crystals. On such winter nights it feels as though the land is holding its breath, waiting for the sun and the warmth of the spring to set it free. Few people have my passion for visiting bothies in the teeth of winter when the temperature drops well below the minus sign and ice forms on you water supply. This is understandable and I often wonder myself as I’m walking up some isolated glen burdened by supplies to keep me warm and fed through and artic night why I actually still do this.
Last week I spent a night in LM bothy. It’s situated at the head of Glen Orrin, not too far from my home in inverness. Glen Orrin is a broad glen and the hydroelectric dam has created a loch within it running for several miles. The bothy is to be found on a small area of flat land just at the point the valley narrows and splits in two with one fork continuing and the other running a few miles towards the glen of Strathconnon, which was my route in. Walking in I saw no one and only the deer noticed my passing. They seemed surprised to see a human being at all and the bothy book revealed that only two other people had passed this way since the start of the year three months ago.
The bothy is a splendid place, one of the best bothies I’ve been to, and it could sleep thirty odd folk comfortably. There are two rooms with fire place and there is even a stable where you could leave your horse if you decided to ride in. Sad then, that as I read through the bothy book it became evident that the place had only had around 24 visits last year. The tradition of folk spending New Year in a bothy seems to have died out and, it appears from my visits to a variety of bothies, the large groups of folk from mountaineering clubs who used to invade bothies no longer trouble to make the trek. I wonder how long bothies will survive if the trend in their usage continues to decline. It will be harder and harder to justify spending money on bothies when they are only visited by a trickle of folk every year. Of the people who do visit, most come in the summer so the chances are fairly high that my nights, in the remoter bothies, will be solitary ones.
Once the names and locations of bothies were whispered amongst the mountaineering fraternity in case the hordes would hear about them and descend on highland glens in their thousands. Then, bodies like the mountain Bothies Association (MBA) who maintain so many bothies began to get public funding and could no longer keep the location of bothies secret. Now you can find most of these places on the net. http://www.mountainbothies.org.uk/
Would it matter if Highland bothies died out, surely only the handful of folk who visit them would actually care? Perhaps it’s true that mountain shelters in remote areas are slowly becoming a thing of the past, resigned, like the mass trespasses of the 1930s to the history of the outdoors in the UK. It is a shame that fewer and fewer people choose to visit these lonely places. I think that many of us are alienated from the land, and have little or no relationship with the landscape in which we live. We are cushioned from the cold, even from the seasons themselves, by central heating and air-conditioning. We run from one controlled environment to the next rarely noticing how the sky has changed or that the trees around us are in bud.
I spend time in bothies just looking at the hills, taking time to notice how the river is slowly changing its course or how the frozen bog is beginning to thaw. I have begun to photograph the minutiae of things, I’m slowly learning how to look at the land, how to listen to its heartbeat. This is a thing we have forgotten how to do. The world is viewed through computer screens and or from the other side of a car windscreen as though it were a picture. I can recall meeting other bothy dwellers years ago, we would sit around the fire telling stories, swopping lies and talking of the wild places we had been. This was cementing a brotherhood, a community of the outdoors, yet this rarely happens now and some folk even prefer to camp outside a bothy rather than share the space in side with other humans.
We need to learn again how to feel at ease drinking from a stream or walking alone through the moonlight to a remote place where we must rely on our own resources to keep warm and fed. We need to slow down, to walk at the pace of the earth. Bothies enable us to spend time in wild places, to wake to the silence of a frost covered dawn. We should celebrate them and promote their presence, if we do not we risk losing them forever.
Don’t stand looking at the view, become part of it.