Author of Book of the Bothy – the first guidebook to British Bothies – Phoebe Smith takes us back to where the Mountain Bothies Association began, with an overnight under the dark skies of the Galloway Forest…
I often wonder if, when the idea to begin renovating and protecting old dilapidated buildings in deepest, wildest Scotland was first suggested, anyone thought that it would have grown to the extent it has 50 years later. Thanks to that notion – which must have been looked upon as completely crazy back then – we now have shelters not just spread over Britain’s northernmost country, but in England and Wales too.
It all started here… with Tunskeen. The very first Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) project, this building was taken on in 1965 and, courtesy of the small group that started this work, it is still open today for walkers like you and me to enjoy. The original MBA idea was to ‘maintain simple shelters in remote country for the use and benefit of all who love wild and lonely places’ – and it doesn’t come much lonelier and wilder than the Galloway Forest, in which Tunskeen sits.
Thanks to the lack of light pollution in the area surrounding the forest, this less visited part of southern Scotland, away from the more famous Highlands further north, is officially designated as a Dark Sky Park – the first area in the UK to obtain this designation. Being so far from any towns, it’s a great place to watch the night sky. From the bothy doorstep you may see The Plough, from which you can identify the North Star and even, when the cloud stays away, the smear of white that is the Milky Way. In winter there have even been reports of walkers spotting the green and red dazzles of the aurora borealis, aka the Northern Lights.
By far the most famous landmark close to Tunskeen is The Merrick, a high but fairly rounded bump of a hill that most approach from the car park at Glen Trool. But start at this bothy and you can tackle it from the direction that few others bother to.
The area abounds with tantalising names – from the Dungeon Hills, the Murder Hole and even the Grey Man of Merrick – but the one name that will always entice outdoor lovers is Tunskeen. Because without this stonebuilt legend, the legacy of all the other bothies we know and love may never have existed.
“Music echoed from the stones. It was an almost alien sound to my ears, so unexpected in a place that seems so far from electricity and mod cons. But here it was. Tunskeen was a start point for me and a friend called Matt. We were there to attempt a crossing of the range of peaks that make up The Awful Hand. We arrived by taxi, to make the crossing easier and, as it was mid-week in September, expected to have it to ourselves, to be able to luxuriate in our own separate sleeping platforms rather than being cramped in, and to enjoy the night sky in this quiet and lonely place. But it was not to be.
When we opened the door to discover the source of the music a single man was sat on the chair. This close the radio sounded tinny and raw, bouncing off the walls in the darkened room; it was like standing in a kitchen and banging pots and pans together.
He didn’t smile at first, only stared; I guess we’d ruined his plans as much as he’d ruined ours. But after making introductions, offering him a coffee and sawing up some wood for the fire he’d started, he seemed to warm to us.
It turned out he worked with a lot of troubled youths, and the more he talked, the more it became apparent that he’d come to the bothy to escape the dramas, to just ‘be’ without reference to the people who rely on him to offload their problems. Perhaps, I mused as he switched off the radio, the silence and the thinking space had become a little too loud with his own thoughts and he’d needed some noise to make them stop. Or maybe it was that he just liked music.
Either way, soon the music was replaced by conversation as he and Matt talked well into the night. I squeezed my sleeping mat into a corner and snuggled down into its warmth, the sound of their conversation lulling me to sleep quicker than any song could. Their voices turned to snores as they too retired to bed, and soon the only music was the rhythm of the mouse’s feet, pit-patting on the floor as it hunted for comfort in this building.
I smiled – it seemed everyone, man and beast, come to bothies in search of something. I just hope we all find what it is we’re looking for.”
Maps OS Explorer 318; OS Landranger 77
Grid ref NX 425 906
Terrain Forestry track, followed by boggy but clear trail to the bothy
Water source Small stream not far from the bothy
Facilities Stove (bring your own fuel); saw (if you use firewood left by others make sure you replace it – only with dead wood, do not cut live trees); shovel
Building Stone/brick construction, tiled roof
Inside The bothy is made up of just a single room. On arrival you see an L-shaped sleeping platform, a few chairs and a stove. The sleeping platform sleeps four comfortably; the floor space sleeps many more.
Nearby hills Shalloch on Minnoch, Kirriereoch Hill, The Merrick, Rhinns of Kells
How to get there
Quickest: The shortest way in starts from the car park at Loch Riecawr. From there follow the forestry track as it passes above the loch under the cover of woodland. At the fork take the path on your left as it bears south. Ignore any turn-offs and eventually you will emerge from the trees. The path becomes a little rougher and wet, but in just over 1km you’ll arrive at the bothy.
Very hard: If you want to arrive after piling on the miles, then start from the
south at Bruce’s Stones. From there head up to The Merrick and then follow the ridge along as it stretches over many undulating kilometres with plenty of knee-busting ascent. Eventually, after passing the summit of Tarfessock, continue on to the col between it and the next peak, from where you descend downhill (pathless) to reach the bothy. Make sure you have plenty of time and are confident in navigating using a map and compass even in bad weather.
If the bothy is full there is some space outside for a tent, although the ground is boggy and there’s a lot of long grass and ticks are prevalent. Make sure you take some tick removers with you, or at least a pair of flat-headed tweezers, in case you need to remove one.
Taken from Book of the Bothy (Cicerone; 2015)
For more bothy inspiration in England, Wales and Scotland, including full mapping, check out Phoebe’s Book of the Bothy (Cicerone; 2015). Get 25% off until December 2016 by clicking here. Discount applied at checkout.