Building in focus: the Highland bothy

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We look at these humble buildings, which offer refuge to travellers in a sometimes unforgiving landscape.

The bothy is an uninhabited cottage often in remote areas of the Highlands of Scotland left open for walkers or climbers. Many of them are provided by the landowners and maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association.

I think they do have architectural merits. They are mostly simple one storey buildings and follow a standard layout and look. Two rooms are on the ground floor with open fireplaces, with stairs up to two in the roof space, sometimes with dormer windows but more often just skylights. Some have tongue and groove wainscots to increase the insulation, but this may magnify in the night the sound of the mice behind them. I haven’t come across any with plumbing, but you seem hardly ever far from running water in the Highlands and the location would often be on the better drained land near a burn. Typically built in the 19th century of local stone blocks with slate roofs, they may be simple but they do fit into their landscape.

Shenavall bothy below An Teallach. Credit: Mountain Bothies Association

They all carry a sense of history and poignancy because they are not just houses but once were homes, in areas now uninhabited. The disappearance of the population and the ancient culture of the area is a sad story. There are quite a few such bothies, but there are many more homes which are now just ruins. In the bothies there are few visible reminders of the families that may have lived in them. However there may be a rowan tree beside it, the remains of gardens or fields, the imprint of potato beds and indeed the older even simpler ‘black houses’ that predated them.

Their current use is for me is also an attractive feature. They are free and open to all passing through as shelters – not a common feature these days. Other countries, such as in the Alps and New Zealand, have more organised approaches to mountain huts and refuges – the bothies are maybe the typically informal system in the UK . Our mountains and wildernesses are smaller scale. Bothies have certainly helped me out on several occasions when snow or the rivers in spate have made for difficulties and delays. Users often record in the book provided the circumstances of their staying there, which can be amusing and some of these have provided also links to the history of the house.

The Red House Bothy, near Braemar undergoing repairs. Credit: Mountain Bothies Association

When all of this is combined with their location, it makes the attraction of the bothy for me irresistible. I think particularly of Strathchailleach near Sandwood Bay in Sutherland, Shenavall below An Teallach in Wester Ross and Sourlies by Loch Nevis. They will likely be the only building in view. They may be by the shore at the head of the loch, by a river in the glen or on the moor, but there will always be the backdrop of mountains and hills behind.


By Richard Martin. This article first appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of The SPAB Magazine, a benefit of membership.

Like to know more? Join a talk from the Mountain Bothies Association organised as part of SPAB Scotland's Conservation on the Edge series, examining conservation in tricky or remote environments. Book your place

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