For tonight I leave from Euston
And leave the world behind;
Who has the hills as a lover,
Will find them wondrous kind.
When I’m in stuck in the city, chasing deadlines and dollars and other men’s dreams, I often wish I could escape to something different.
When I’m jostling through crowds, hammering furiously at emails, working for money not love, I like to let my mind drift away to something that I really care about instead. Imagine, I say to myself, imagine this…
I could just jump on the sleeper train tonight, fall asleep in London and wake up in the massive silence of the mountains. Imagine that. I really could do it.
And so I do.
The sleeper train is, without question, my favourite way of getting to the Highlands of Scotland. It is a magical experience and an adventure in itself. I board the train with that same bustling excitement you got as a kid exploring a holiday cottage for the first time. I bagsy the top bunk in my cabin, heaving bags up onto the bed. Then I scamper down the narrow corridor to the bar. I take a seat and order a couple of beers. I am very, very excited by the beginning of my adventure, and the only grown-up way I know how to express this level of happiness is by ordering beers in twos.
The sleeper train always creeps and creaks out of London at snail’s pace. I like this. Night is settling over the city as I sip my beer and look out at the city. The train passes hundreds of homes, thousands of lights shining out into the night. On train journeys I normally love the brief glimpses of so many lives as you pass through cities. But tonight my eyes are drawn higher, above the rooftops and the chimney stacks and up to the sky. For tonight I’m thinking about the wild world beyond my city life. I watch clouds scurry through the twilight as the train edges past Wembley and I finish my first beer.
Sleeping on the train reminds me of a gentle night at sea in a narrow berth. You rock gently back and forth as you’re carried onwards through the darkness. I was woken in the morning by a gentle knock on the cabin door. An attendant handed me a cup of tea. I sat up in bed and reached to raise the window blind. Even though I knew what to expect, I still grinned with anticipation like a toddler who has seen the same cartoon a dozen times but still laughs out loud. The Cairngorms – sun-dappled brown flanks and flat snow-covered tops – absolutely filled the window. Goodbye city! Hello mountains!
I went to Scotland to cram a week full of three of the things I love most in life. (Actually, four of my favourite things if you include living out of a hire car: toothbrush on dashboard, engine revved harder than in any car I have to pay to service myself, radio on full blast, passenger footwell steadily filling with empty crisp packets…) I went to ride my mountain bike, to play with my camera, and to sleep in bothies.
A bothy is a simple shelter, in remote country, for the use and benefit of all who love wild and lonely places. Bothies are left unlocked and are available for anyone to use free of charge. The shelters are rudimentary and basic, but when the weather is howling, those times when you think “This is miserable, but the misery does mean something” – a night in a bothy might be all you need from life.
You have to take all your own supplies, gather your own firewood, scoop cold water from a stream, perhaps even brace the rickety door closed against a gale with a boulder. Any facilities you do discover are therefore a bonus and give the impression of great luxury. Perhaps there may be a string to hang drying socks, a candle stub in an old whisky bottle, or a small pile of chopped firewood ready by the hearth, kindly left behind by the last person to use the bothy.
A bothy, in other words, has absolutely everything I need. It offers shelter from the storm, and it provides me with a purpose for going out into the mountains in the first place.
My plan was to stay in a different bothy every night. I’d get to them on my mountain bike, and I’d use the car to zip from region to region so that I could get round the whole of Scotland in a week. I’d love to have done the whole trip by bike but just didn’t have time. Plus I really do enjoy living out of a hire car!
I’ve stayed in various bothies over the years. I’ve read about them in books and blogs. And I have friends with far more Scottish wilderness experience than me. Over time, I’d put together a wish list of bothies that I really wanted to visit. The best bothies are the remote ones; they are hard to access; hard to find; and all the better for that. It’s the way there that matters, and the harder it is, the more worthwhile the journey.
Equally enjoyable and futile as arguing about the best bothy is the discussion over Britain’s most beautiful mountain. That’s a question for another article and another beer, but it’s safe to say that Suilven will be on most people’s lists. I pedalled towards that unmistakable shark’s fin of rock grinning like a fool. Suilven is so steep and dramatic that it appears higher than it actually is. It doesn’t suffer the crowding curse of being a Munro, and I had the bothy to myself as I arrived in beautiful Easter sunshine. I filled my pan from a stream, cooked some tea, and gazed out of the window at the mountain’s profile. My home for the night, with a view greater than any fancy hotel’s, was completely free. I slept that night a very happy man.
Assynt is such a wild and beautiful place that I kept having to remind myself that I was still in the UK, that I was only a train ride from London, and had not somehow teleported to Patagonia. It makes for harder mountain biking than I am accustomed to though, so I felt I had definitely earned a second breakfast by the time I reached the legendary pie shop in Lochinver.
I wanted to experience a range of Scotland’s landscapes as well as bothies. So I battled through heather and gales to reach a tiny bothy perched on a headland, ideal for spotting basking sharks.
Another evening’s bothy was by a pristine white beach, tucked at the foot of the fells. Turquoise waves smashed ferociously up the beach. I was the only soul for miles around. I stood and savoured the emptiness until it felt as though it would overwhelm me. I could bear the stillness no longer and began spinning round and round on the beach, howling with delight. My footprints were the only marks on that beach. By morning the waves had washed them away and as I pedalled away from the bothy there was no trace that I had ever been there.
On my way to another bothy, high in the Cairngorms, I did leave trace of my passing. My footprints and tyre tracks sank deep into the snow as I slogged up a wide, lonely valley. I always find the Cairngorms a little melancholy. The whirring flight and churring call of grouse cheered me up. High above me a group of deer stood stock still and stared at my plodding progress towards the welcome shelter of four stone walls and a simple tin roof.
I remember reading once that the best cure for loneliness is solitude. My week in bothies felt like a good test of that concept. My favourite bothy night, alone in a shelter clinging to the cliffs above a maelstrom of milky white waves and swirling gulls at the very edge of the world, left me almost bursting with contentment. Someone had left a compendium of poetry behind, and I read by candlelight in my sleeping bag. The flame flickered as the gale outside plucked at the smallest of gaps in the rough stone walls. The walls were rough, yet they were beautiful. They had been built with care and love. A central wooden column supported the roof, and a tiny wood-burning stove was inset into the boulders of the cliff wall. In the morning, as I sipped tea, I gazed out of the window at the cliffs and the eternal movement of the ocean. I felt calmer and more relaxed than I had in a long time. That bothy was the hardest to reach out of all of them, and worth every ounce of effort.
My favourite riding of the week was to a remote bothy that I had never visited before. At the last minute a friend of mine, Alex, texted to say he happened to be in the area and that he could join me. It was fun then to enjoy the opposite experience to bothying in solitude and to share the place with a friend (and Safi, his high-energy dog). After the days of quiet I enjoyed chattering away as we rode, puffing away on the rocky climbs, whooping and scything down the other side, dropping fast and far down to a lovely valley beside a river lined with wizened old alder trees. We reached the bothy in warm afternoon sunlight, with time to enjoy pottering around and reading the stories of those who had been before us in the well-thumbed Bothy Book. Each bothy has one of these books and I like to flick through them and read of other people’s experiences; the unexpected piss-ups, the disturbed sleep in wild gales, the weary limbs and glowing faces from a long day in the hills.
That night Alex slept outside. It was a fine night to be outside. The weather was mild and the stars blazed with that brilliance which never fails to stop me in my tracks when I escape from the blurred skies of the city to somewhere wild where the whole universe was on show. Northern lights swirled above the peaks. But I wanted to make the most of every one of my bothy nights. So I lay inside in front of the fire, its red embers pulsing warm light as I fell asleep.
I rose early to sit on a big cold boulder beside a small stream and watch the sun’s first rays strike the mountains to the west and set them ablaze with colour. I hummed with happiness. One day like this a year would see me right.
I hope that I keep making journeys to the wilderness throughout my life. I don’t need to head to the ends of the earth these days. I don’t need to be gone for months on end. Something as small as returning, again and again, to a favourite bothy is all I need. It’s a chance to measure my life, to rebalance and reset and refresh, to think back and to look forward and to dream anew. Bothies are a part of the constancy that heading into the hills gives you, however your life changes.
If you’d like to visit a bothy or help care for one, click here.
This piece first appeared in Sidetracked.
Thank you to Alpkit.com for the bikepacking kit
‘Mountain Bikes and Bothy Nights’ is screening this week at the Banff Mountain Film Festival and I am blooming proud / delighted.
Thank you to the many people who have kindly “bought me a coffee” for just Ł2.50 as encouragement to keep this blog going.
“Yes, I too would like to donate a couple of pounds to this site..!”