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The Fascinating History Of The Scottish Mountain Bothy

Across the Highlands of Scotland from the Skye Cuillin Munros to the Cairngorms are a network of simple stone shelters known as bothies. These remote bothies were originally built to provide accommodation for itinerant farm workers. Today, many of them have been restored and are used by hikers and tourists, but they have a long history.

It is thought that most of the bothies were built during the mid to late 18th century to provide shelter for rangers and shepherds who did not have a farm of their own. As the Industrial Revolution changed the landscape of work, many of these insecurely employed labourers abandoned their rural lives and sought better paid jobs in factories and mills.

Furthermore, the number of farms declined and by the 20th century general living standards had improved, meaning the remaining estates and farmsteads were able to offer their staff better living conditions. Initially, many of the tiny mountainside cottages were left to decline, often unlocked and largely ignored by their owners.

However, by the 1930s, hillwalkers had spotted an opportunity and began to use the derelict bothies as overnight accommodation. Although technically they were trespassing, the remote location and indifference of most landowners meant that eventually ‘bothying’ became an accepted practice.

As the economy grew in the post-war period and people had more leisure time, mountain walking became a more popular form of recreation and the location of remote bothies began to spread by word of mouth.

Mountain walking clubs began to informally make repairs to a few of the bothies, and in 1965 the official Mountain Bothy Association (MBA) was established. A nominated individual known as the Maintenance Organiser (MO) was given responsibility for the maintenance of one or more bothies.

By the early 1990s the MBA was responsible for maintaining 87 bothies, some of which were in a severe state of disrepair and required complex work to bring them up to a usable level. Today, volunteer teams maintain over 100 bothies across Scotland, northern England, and Wales, carrying out tasks such as chimney sweeping and roof repairs.

The formal definition of bothy under Scottish law is as follows:

“a building of no more than two storeys, which does not have any form of mains electricity, piped fuel supply, and piped mains water supply; is 100 metres or more from the nearest public road, and is 100m or more from the nearest habitable building.”

They are obviously a fairly primitive form of accommodation, but most have an open hearth or wood burning stove to provide light and warmth, and some have raised sleeping platforms and indoor composting toilets. Amazingly, they are free for anyone to use, which means that there is no formal booking system.

However, anyone who uses a bothy is expected to follow the Bothy Code. These are simple common sense guidelines as follows:

Respect the bothy, taking all rubbish away, causing no damage, and leaving it as you found it; respect the surroundings, including burying human waste and not cutting down trees; observe any estate restrictions such as at lambing time, and gain permission for an extended stay; and do not stay in large groups of six or more people.

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