BOTHIES play a vital role in Scottish mountain life but they also open a fascinating window into the past.
Many of these open shelters have been brought back into modern use through the fine work of the Mountain Bothies Association and the co-operation of estates.
Some were formerly cottages or crofts, some farm outbuildings or basic refuges, but all have a rich and diverse history.
During a recent visit to climb the Munro Maol Chean-dearg from the Glen Carron approach, I stopped in at the Coire Fionnaraich bothy for a lunch break. This well-maintained building sits in the Coulags pass, the dark crags of Meall nan Ceapairean towering above it on one side, Fuar Tholl and Sgorr Ruadh forming a high line on the other.
It is a popular stopping-off point for those planning assaults on the surrounding hills, and is available for all but one month of the year when the deer stalking season is at its height.
It had been a few years since I was last here, and I was relieved to see the lock on the door had been changed to prevent accidental lock-ins (one of our party managed to trap a climbing club from Bradford inside, much to their chagrin and his embarrassment).
I was also delighted to notice that the estate had since posted part of the history of the building on one of the inside walls, in particular, the employment details of the first tenant, one Kenneth MacLennan.
This display features a letter from 1913 outlining Mr MacLennan’s duties and his monetary terms and conditions as a stalker and watcher on the Ben Damph estate. He was third stalker, a post that carried a remuneration of £45 per annum. In today‘s money, that works out at around £4700, but the house came rent free and there were other perks.
For instance, he received a £2 allowance for his dog to herd sheep and he could keep up to two cows with a further allowance of another £6. He could also earn £1.50 (30 shillings) per mile for the upkeep of paths within a certain area. During one year he managed nearly five miles, back-breaking work that earned him an extra £7 plus. He was at liberty to cut peat for fuel, and he was also allocated a quarter of an acre to grow potatoes and other crops.
Pinned underneath these terms of employment is an extract of the wedding registration along with a picture of the happy couple, he in his best three-piece suit, she in a suit, hat and a fox fur stole. There’s mention that the fur came from an animal shot shortly before the big day by the groom. If you think that sounds somewhat primitive just think how much better it would be than spending weeks trudging round bridal stores.
It was undoubtedly a hard life but among the self-sufficiency and hard graft there was some semblance of pride and security.
We continued on to bag our mountain in deep snow and ice into the teeth of a blasting wind that scoured any exposed skin but it didn’t seem too much of a hardship after learning a bit about the MacLennans‘ existence in this wild country.
What we were doing was a hobby, a leisure activity that we could take or leave depending on the mood. There was no such choice for Mr MacLennan and his wife. This was their way of life.