By Geoff Allen
Wild Things Publishing £16.99 304pp
Towards the very end of the seventies, I came across a spiral bound, cardboard covered copy of A Survey of Shelters in Remote Areas in the Scottish Highland. The author, Irvine Butterfield, had divided the mountainous areas of Scotland into 22 regions that roughly corresponded with the divisions made by Munro and Corbett and, as the title suggested, compiled a list of all buildings that might be used as an overnight shelter. The survey produced a grand total of around 450 potential havens with a further two dozen private mountaineering huts and hostels thrown in for good measure. The collection ranged from the then habitable and already well-used such as Shenavall and Ben Alder Cottage to the likes of “A stone structure which was almost certainly a barn. The walls stand to a height of approximately 5 ft. and there is no roof”. He also included such buildings which were at the time either locked or obviously being used by the various estates.
The function of that publication seemed to be twofold. First, to check on the state of repair of the bothies already being maintained by Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) and second to identify any properties that might be adopted by the MBA in the future. The book under review is a much more glamourous affair with double page colour photographs on good quality paper and has a rather different purpose. As the subtitle “The complete guide to Scotland’s bothies and how to reach them” suggests, this is some sort of cross between Trivago and a Michelin guide. Not only does Allan’s Bible give the exact location of each bothy and alternative ways of reaching it, it also provides details of size, layout, sleeping arrangements and availability of fuel. This amount of detail will surely fire the ambition of those who might otherwise be uncertain about wandering off into the wild and, equally surely, resurrect the old argument as to whether such details should be made public at all.
The argument for a full, clear and up to date publication is contained in the MBA’s mission statement – “To maintain simple shelters in remote country for the use and benefit of all”. If the existence of a bothy can save lives then the publication of accurate and easily available information is not open to question. There have been well reported cases of deaths that would have been avoided if the climbers involved had had prior knowledge of a shelter that was relatively close at hand and similarly with parties banking on shelter that had been recently demolished. There is no doubt Allan tackles this problem head on with notes, for example, that Culra Bothy is due for demolition and that Glenbeg, a key component in any coast to coast crossing of the Northern Highlands is, because of local difficulties, no longer maintained by the MBA and may well suffer the fate of its neighbour, Alladale, and be shut down by the estate.
The arguments against such a publication are many and varied and it can’t be denied that some of them betray an elitist approach. But, unfortunately, the picture, painted by Jamie Andrew in his Foreword, of like-minded people sipping whisky before a roaring fire does not always hold true. Most experienced bothy users must have come across abuse ranging from the abandonment of empty bottles (thought I’d leave it as a candle-holder) to a full-blown invasion of the premises for the purposes of what is euphemistically described as a ceilidh. Sleep after a hard day is difficult to come by when your ears are assailed in the small hours with one off-key lullaby after another. In this context, it must be remembered that most bothies are the property of the estate on which they stand and Landlords do not take kindly to acts of vandalism or the use of the bothy as a base for poaching and are well within their rights to close or even demolish the buildings altogether.
It is, however, hard to assess the extent to which advertising the bothies’ existence leads to the above and there is no doubt that it is the case of the few spoiling it for the many, so if you feel the greater good outweighs the occasional evil, then Allan’s Bothy Bible is the book for you. As well as the details of location and approach, mentioned above, there is a useful section on bothy etiquette and what you can expect to find when you arrive. In addition to a history of the Clearances that caused so many of these buildings to be abandoned, and an explanation of the good work carried out by the MBA, the description of each individual bothy contains an often-interesting account of its own associated history and legends. No doubt to stimulate discussion, there is a series of “Top Five Bothies” suggesting the best choice of location to suit a variety of tastes from watching the wild life to best for bagging. Finally, for the novice, there are very helpful tips on hill craft with particular attention being given to the problems of river crossings. And to cap it off there is an informative bibliography, the contents of which will fruitfully while away the dark hours.
To sum up – a must have copy for those climbers who wish to lose themselves in the idyllic remoteness of the Highlands and Islands.