(The Gear Loop) - As sheets of rain move across the dark lochans and the wind roars furiously, unchecked through the glen, a silent former croft building stands defiant below the towering crags.
There’s an unlikely glow emanating from its window and smoke rising from the chimney. Within its walls a group of hikers have hunkered down for the night and are preparing a meal on their backpacking stove.
Such a sight is surprisingly common in the Scottish Highlands, thanks to the network of bothies that are scattered among its remote glens and along its beautiful coastline.
A bothy, which takes its name from the Gaelic word "bothan" , meaning hut, is an open, free-to-use shelter in the British uplands, with the vast majority found in Scotland.
Some are abandoned croft buildings, others are buildings that are no longer needed by their owner. Most of them are managed by the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA), who work to maintain these remote treasures.
The increase in use of digital mapping has made their locations accessible to the masses, and it’s never been easier to plan a visit to one into your adventurers.
However, make no mistake – a bothy is no guest house. Expect nothing but the very bare essentials, by this we mean four water and windproof walls and usually a fireplace.
Five of the best bothies to visit
Naming the five finest bothies would be an impossible task. For a start, few people can claim to have slept in all of them and, even then, the choice would be highly subjective.
No two stays in a bothy are alike. The experience is highly dependent on a number of other factors, such as the adventure that led you there or followed on from your stay, the conditions on the outside and the people you end up sharing the place with.
What we’ve compiled here are three relatively accessible bothies that serve as a glorious introduction to this unique approach to Highland accommodation, as well as two that require a little more effort. We’ve ordered them broadly in terms of accessibility, with the easier to reach bothies first…
Ryvoan occupies a windswept spot on the beautiful Ryvoan Pass in the Northern Cairngorms. It’s about an hour’s walk from Glenmore Forest Park on the shores of Loch Morlich and makes for a lovely objective when conditions render higher adventures on the Cairngorm plateau unappealing.
There’s one main room with a sleeping platform for four and a fireplace. The main door features a poem by AM Lawrence about leaving London for the wild Cairngorms, a place that’s clearly close to the poet’s heart. As a base camp, the tor-topped Munro of Bynack More rises to the southeast, while the hills to the north of Loch Morlich are also easily accessed.
Around an hour’s walk from the A890 at Coulags, Coire Fionnaraich is a classic bothy surrounded by gorgeous North West Highland scenery. Once a stalker’s cottage (not that kind, horror fans) on the Ben Damph estate, it has the look of a house that’s been improbably plonked down in the middle of the mountains.
It is a frequently visited bothy by those exploring the Munros of the Coulin Forest, for which it is an ideal basecamp. The great red dome of Maol Cheann-dearg is an exciting expedition to the northwest and offers sensational views of the Torridon peaks. While to northeast are the Munros of Sgòrr Ruadh and Beinn Liath Mhòr, as well as the charismatic Corbett of Fuar Tholl and its spectacular 500-metre high Mainreachan Buttress.
If you only ever visit one bothy in your lifetime, let it be Shenavall. Nestled in the heart of the North West Highland’s 'Great Wilderness', it is surrounded by hugely impressive mountain scenery. Renovated in 2013 and 2014, it is a two to three hour walk from the A832 ‘Destitution Road’ into Dundonnell, and is perhaps the quintessential bothy.
Its backdrop is the ominous, jagged arc of Beinn Dearg Mòr, rising dramatically above Strath na Sealga. A short walk from the bothy is Loch na Sealga, an enticing proposition for an unforgettable wild swim. Shenavall is also the great base camp for the Fisherfield Six, a notorious journey across some of Scotland’s most remote mountains.
However, top billing goes to the gigantic massif to the north, An Teallach, frequently cited as Scotland’s finest standalone mountain.
Lairig Leacach is a small and back-to-basics bothy that can be reached either via a long walk from Corrour Station – the highest mainline station in the UK and made famous by the film Trainspotting – or from Spean Bridge near Fort William. It’s an area that’s particularly well served by bothies, with Meanach, Staoneag and Loch Chiarain all within a few hours’ walk.
It’s location between the Grey Corries range and the Eassians above Loch Treig make it popular with Munro baggers. There’s formally room for eight, or a couple more at a push, but don’t forget to bring your tent in case the shelter is full to the brim with keen hillwalkers.
Some bothies are situated exactly where they need to be, as if by design. Originally built in the 1870s as a deer watcher’s hut, today it is ideally located for those exploring the Lairig Ghru, the awesome cleft that divides the Cairngorm Plateau, separating Britain’s third highest point, Braeriach, from its second, Ben Macdui.
Corrour is situated to the south of these two giants, by the burgeoning River Dee and under the sheer, slabby flanks of the Devil’s Point. Like the others in this selection, it is often full during peak season – it actually only has room for three people – so don’t expect to have it to yourself. This is one bothy that has undoubtedly come to the aid of weary and cold hikers time and time again over the years.
Facilities in different bothies vary but as a rule of thumb, you should approach any stay in the same way you’d approach a wild camp. Your water source is likely to be a nearby stream, your human waste will need to be buried using the spade that’s usually provided (or carried out) and your main light source will be the fireplace.
Our standard kit list for a bothy stay is a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, head torch, toiletries, toilet paper, biodegradable washing up liquid, cooking stove, cooking utensils, a multitool, a lighter or matches and candles. Perhaps most crucially of all, always take a tent in case your planned lodgings are full.
The MBA suggest a bothy code for users to follow when staying in one of their shelters. It’s centred around respect and the shorthand version goes like this: respect the bothy, respect other users, respect the surroundings, respect agreement with the estate and respect the restriction on numbers.