Many outdoors enthusiasts in Scotland take advantage of free overnight accommodation in a remote and basic shelter known as a bothy. There are more than 100 bothies dotted across the country that are open to anyone to use.

23th April 2018 | Words by Fiona Russell

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Shenavall Northern Highlands, credit-Scottish Bothy Bible
Shenavall Northern Highlands, credit-Scottish Bothy Bible

What does bothy mean?
The word bothy comes from the Gaelic “bothan” and means “hut”. A bothy was originally used to describe basic accommodation provided for bachelor estate workers.

What does today’s bothy look like?
A bothy is usually a simplistic building with walls and a roof but little else. Inside you might find a fireplace, sleeping platforms and occasionally a sink and toilet (compost). Many bothies in the UK are looked after by the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) with the aim of maintaining them to a basic but watertight and useable shelter.

Dibidil Bothy, Isle Of Rum
Dibidil Bothy, Isle Of Rum

What is bothying?
Because most bothies are in remote locations it is usually only possible to reach them cross-country on foot, mountain bike or sometimes by kayak. Bothies serve as a convenient place to sleep if you are in pursuit of a distant mountain top or hiking an off-the-beaten-track long-distance trail. Some people enjoy “bothying”, which is the pursuit of setting out with the goal to reach a bothy and stay overnight or enjoy a rest and a bite to eat before returning.

Mangersta Bothy, aka Eagles Nes, Isle of Lewis
Mangersta Bothy, aka Eagles Nes, Isle of Lewis

Bothying as a recreation
Bothying started in the 1930s in the UK when people from the towns and cities started to go walking and climbing. Weekend groups of young men would hitch-hike or use public transport to reach the hills. They started to use a number of remote and partly derelict cottages for meeting and sleeping. The leisure pursuit grew after World War II, especially among Munro baggers, and bothies became even more popular.

Corrour Bothy, Mar Lodge Estate, Braemar
Corrour Bothy, Mar Lodge Estate, Braemar

However, by the 1960s, many of the shelters were falling further into disrepair due to lack of maintenance. Around this time an idea was conceived by a cyclist Bernhard Heath to make some of the UK’s bothies more useable. This led to the founding of the Mountain Bothies Association, with the aim of formalising the refurbishment and upkeep of a wider network of stone-built shelters. Although looked after by the MBA, the bothies are still owned by the land or estate owners, who give permission for public use.

Cruib Bothy, Isle of Jura
Cruib Bothy, Isle of Jura

Where are the bothies?
For many decades, the exact location of the MBA bothies, 80 of which are in Scotland, was revealed only to members. Then, in 2009, the association decided on a more “open to all” policy and published the first online guide to the bothies. There are also other bothies that are not looked after by the MBA and their location is often revealed through word of mouth. More recently, a book, The Scottish Bothy Bible, has been published that offers a wealth of information about location, size, facilities, routes and key attractions of 104 Scottish bothies.

Tomsleibhe Bothy, Isle of Mull
Tomsleibhe Bothy, Isle of Mull

What do I need?
Bothying requires you to reach a bothy under your own steam, on foot, bike or by kayak. They are basic shelters so you need to take all your own equipment and supplies. For a bothy overnight you will require camping equipment, such as a sleeping mat, sleeping bag, but not the tent. You’ll be cooking outdoors, or just inside the bothy, so you’ll need a cooking stove, pans, crockery, cutlery, and food and water. It’s recommended that you take your own fuel as well, such as coal, or collect fallen wood nearby. Bothies can’t be booked and you will only discover who is using the shelter on arrival.

Staoineag Bothy, walk in from Corrour Station
Staoineag Bothy, walk in from Corrour Station

The Bothy Code
There are no formal rules for using bothies, although the MBA has compiled a simple code of conduct. It’s requested that people respect each other and the environment. You should leave the bothy clean and tidy – and how you would hope to find it yourself. If there is no toilet, make sure you bury human waste out of sight, and take all litter away with you. Groups of more than six people should not use a bothy or camp nearby without seeking the permission from the owner. Anyone who stays in a bothy is asked to sign a logbook so a record is kept of visitors.

Tomsleibhe Bothy, Isle of Mull
Tomsleibhe Bothy, Isle of Mull

Who is it for?
Bothying is for anyone with a sense of adventure and an ability to navigate cross-country. Author of The Scottish Bothy Bible, Geoff Allan, said: “Anyone can get into bothying and I’d love to see a wider range of people enjoying bothies. “You could be a family, a keen walker, a Munro bagger or a mountain biker looking for somewhere remote to visit. You could walk to a bothy for a picnic and walk back again or hike there for a night or two with friends. “I have also heard of people ticking off different bothies as a hobby.”

Schoolhouse Bothy, Lairg
Schoolhouse Bothy, Lairg

How do I find out more?
The MBA website, Bothies on a Bike, The Scottish Bothy Bible website or buy the book The Scottish Bothy Bible by Geoff Allan, Wild Things Publishing, priced £16.99.

Can I help?
The MBA is a charity and relies on volunteers to maintain the bothies and for donations. If you can help with their work please do so.

Gelder Shiel (Ernie’s Bothy), Lochnagar, Balmoral Estate
Gelder Shiel (Ernie’s Bothy), Lochnagar, Balmoral Estate

Fiona Russell, better known as Fiona Outdoors, is a Scotland-based outdoors journalist and blogger.

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Images: Fiona Russell

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