Scotland is undoubtedly the Mecca of bothies. With 80% of Mountain Bothy Association shelters scattered the length and breadth of the country, the remote wilderness of Scotland is truly the epicenter of bothy culture in the United Kingdom. In fact, it was in the heart of the vast Galloway Forest Park where the MBA launched its ambitious journey, with the renovation of a small cottage now known as Tunskeen Bothy. For my first of many trips to Scotland, I decided on the Cairngorm National Park. Twice the size of the Lake District, the Cairngorms are home to a large number of MBA bothies, many of which lie in the shadows of munros, accessed by long treks through challenging and mountainous terrain.
For this trip, I based myself at Braemar - a popular spot for walkers. climbers and munro baggers - many of whom leave their cars at the Linn of Dee car park and walk deep into the mountains towards Ben Macdui, making full use of the number of bothies in this particular section of the park: Corrour and Hutchinson Memorial Hut "Hutchy" then further north towards the Fords of Avon Refuge Hut, Faindouran and Ryvoan. I’d planned to focus my attention on Corrour & Hutchy, which are located on an impressive circular trek via Ben Macdui: the highest mountain in the Cairngorms and second highest in the UK.
The walk towards Corrour follows a reasonably well marked track tracing the Luibeg Burn. This very much feels like a prehistoric landscape, with the un-spoilt woodland glades of the Mar Lodge estate and crystal clear waterfalls showing little sign of human intervention (aside from the track itself). Small spruce-trees seem to sprout from the rocks amongst the heather and perfectly rounded boulders scatter the riverbank. This approach provides a fantastic view of Carn a'Mhaim - the 1037 meter munro considered the little sister to Ben Macdui, and as you reach the rather precarious looking Luibeg Bridge the path skirts around its southern contours and onwards towards Corrour.
As I continued along the track, the vast sweeping landscape that is Glen Geusachan revealed itself. A wonderful Glen, it lies sheltered beneath The Devil's Point and Beinn Bhrotain; both of which are impressive mountains. When partnered with a brooding sky & the remains of the winter snow, it's a menacing view to confront. Looking North, Corrour bothy came into view. I was treating this as a scouting trip to time how long it would take to reach the bothy and planned to return the following day for a two-night trip, visiting both Bothies. It was at this point that I met two gentleman heading back towards Linn of Dee. They had been out hillwalking and had stopped off at Corrour for a cup of tea before making their way home. We chatted on the path for about 45 minutes as the older of the two (an ex-SAS serviceman) regaled me with some hilarious stories of past-encounters on the hills. After managing to shoot some portraits, I retraced my steps back along the track.[caption id="attachment_26903" align="aligncenter" width="900"] William at Corrour Bothy, Cairngorms.[/caption]
The following day, my walking partner Andy joined me and we headed back along the same route I'd taken the day before towards Corrour. The weather was incredible, and we set off in hot sunshine with blue skies. We took it slow, making the most of our surroundings and stopping to enjoy the amazing views this area offers. Arriving at the bothy as the light faded, we joined two German climbers - Hannes & Lorenz - and made headlamp-conversation over ration pack dinners. We were later joined by four more hikers and the bothy soon filled up. Wedged in like Human-Tetris, and grateful for the warmth the bothy provided we fell asleep to the crack and spit of the fire.
The following morning, we woke early. The area around the bothy was busy, with a university research team pitched up on the ground outside. It was an interesting scene, and my intention was to catch the bothy & The Devil's Point (which looms menacingly to the rear) in some early morning light. Frustratingly, a heavy layer of cloud hung over the mountains. For all the planning that goes into organizing a photography trip like this, a bit of foul weather can limit your productivity by 100 percent. Frustration and patience are familiarities among landscape photographers, and returning to the same location on multiple trips is a common occurrence. There’s a great photograph to be made here, so as I packed up and readied myself for the day ahead I knew that I’d be returning later in the year.
For our second bothy night, I'd planned to head North-East to the popular Hutchinson Memorial Hut. I'd been told that it's one of the most spectacular bothy locations in the UK and there had been rumours of much harsher, wintry conditions in that section of the park. From Corrour, we could either walk back the way we'd come the previous day, cutting North up Glen Derry and essentially skirting around the bases of Carn a'Mhaim, Carn Crom and Derry Cairngorm or alternatively, we could head Northwards, following the Lairig Ghru mountain pass before cutting East up and over Ben Macdui, past Loch Etchachan and then down into the valley to "Hutchy". We chose the latter, as it gave us the opportunity to tackle a particularly tough winter scramble over the UK's second highest mountain. Loading up our packs and setting off, we were both aware that this wasn't going to be a particularly easy hike. Lugging all of the equipment, including coal and firewood up and over a snow-covered Ben Macdui was going to test us. That said, the views were absolutely mind-blowing and the ascent was broken up with numerous breaks to absorb our surroundings.[caption id="attachment_26904" align="aligncenter" width="900"] Hutchinson Memorial Hut, Coire Etchachan, Cairngorms.[/caption]
The rumours of harsher conditions East of Ben Macdui were true, and as we began our descent towards the frozen Loch, miles upon miles of snow-covered mountains panned out in front of us. Hutchinson Memorial Hut or "Hutchy", came into view at the bottom of the valley and a faint amber glow suggested that we wouldn't be spending the night alone. From this vantage point you can really appreciate the importance of bothies and the grandeur of the landscape that surrounds them. The tiny flickering beacon got closer and with great relief we pushed open the door, and dumped our bags. Hutchy has a closed porch area for equipment, and a separate room with a modern stove and sleeping benches. The bothy has undergone maintenance, and is wooden clad - it's incredibly warm, cosy and watertight! As we entered the main room, we were greeted with two familiar faces; Hannes and Lorenz, with whom we'd shared Corrour the previous night. They'd already got the fire raging, and so with dinner on the go - we all sat outside and watched the moon rise over the mountains.[caption id="attachment_26905" align="aligncenter" width="900"] Hannes & Lorenz at the Hutchinson Memorial Hut, Cairngorms.[/caption]
The following morning, I set off early with the large format camera to shoot a few frames of the bothy. Now visible in the daylight, I can understand why people claim that this is the most spectacular location of any bothy. The sheer rock faces of Creagan a' Choire Etchachan & Stob Coire Etchachan create a perfect symmetry, looming over the bothy on both sides. The morning fog and fresh dusting of snow brought out the dark rock and contrasted it beautifully against the sky. After shooting two slides of film, I dashed back into the warmth of the bothy.
Asking complete strangers whether you can take their photograph is always a tricky subject to broach, especially when you also have to convince them to stand in the snow for thirty minutes in a bitterly cold wind while you fumble around under a blanket with a vintage camera. But bothies bring people together and, while you may enter as strangers, you certainly leave as friends. Once you’ve shared a fire and some good laughs, people are generally more than happy to be photographed. After photographing Hannes & Lorenz, we packed away the kit one last time and walked south, out of the glen, eventually meeting up with the path at the Luibeg Burn. All in all, a successful few days in the mountains and a great introduction to the bothies of Scotland!