Big Bothy Walk #2

It was a two day walk from Will’s Bothy to arrive at Greensykes. The first had ambled on paths and small lanes alongside waterways to begin with, passing by the imposing ruins of Hermitage Castle; once known as ‘the guardhouse to the bloodiest valley in Britain’.

The mediaeval stone walls still rise, austere, judgemental and unwelcoming, pierced with the dark pinpricks of small windows and gunloops. For much of its long history it was central to the control of the Scottish Middle March, and has a brutal past of its own.

The original occupants and builders of the castle, the de Soulis, forfeited the stronghold after accusations of witchcraft and plots to kill the King Robert the Bruce. William de Soulis died during his imprisonment, though legend would rather you believe he was boiled alive. It passed to the Douglases who preferred to starve their captors to death.

Having already seen the downfall of one family, the castle saw the disgrace of another. The Black Douglas line threw themselves into active rebellion against James II of Scotland, a choice that did not pay and saw their lands forfeited also.

It was under the Hepburns of Bothwell that Mary Queen of Scots rode the 60 miles from Jedburgh in one day to visit her wounded lover here, who she would soon marry after the murder of her second husband. There was no happily ever after; Mary would be forced to abdicate and be held prisoner for nineteen years by Elizabeth I until her execution, whilst James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, fled to Norway. He would be arrested in Denmark and die, insane, in prison. His body was then mummified and briefly put on display.

The Hepburn occupation of Hermitage Castle ended after James’ successor was, like the unfortunate de Soulis, accused of witchcraft. His supposed involvement with the North Berwick Witches saw the castle again revert to the crown.

King James granted Hermitage to Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch. Scott was a notorious reiver, making many infamously bloody trips across to Northumberland where he and his men would torch entire villages, steal cattle, and kill anyone who got in their way. Whilst Scott would defy the castle’s curse to have a peaceful and ordinary demise, the stronghold became obsolete after the Union of Crowns in 1603.

Whilst the ruins are now owned by Historic Environment Scotland, the castle falls under the Captaincy of the Eliots; the clan that inflicted the almost fatal wound on James Bothwell. Madam Margaret Eliott of Redheugh is their 29th and current chief. She still holds clan gatherings, making pilgrimages to the site.

The castle itself may have fallen from grace, along with the de Soulis, Douglases and Hepburns that lived there, but its great brooding walls that sit so out of place in the lush dale where once so much blood was shed needs no myths to grant it stature. The huge, loveless stone structure that guards the valley remains dark and eerie even on a bright midsummer’s day.

Or so I thought chomping down haggis flavoured crisps on a bench outside. I had been informed by the woman in the small kiosk that the crisps were vegan. I am not vegan, but I guess it is a good thing that the one snack on offer can meet different dietary requirements. I doubt the starving prisoners of the Black Douglases would have complained.

I had turned west, away from the lane that ran to the castle. The hills started to get bigger and I wound around fells and knowles until I crossed the main road to make my way up the Eweslees Burn to wildcamp on the side of Whin Fell.

The next day was pathless and increasingly terrible. The sort of day where ‘only six miles’ become several long hours of endless swearing. The initial pad around the back of Pikethaw Hill to the top of Causeway Grain Head was a heather bashing, moss bouncing affair, but I remained in good spirits until I entered the plantation.

I’m not the only one that gets wary mapping routes through plantations. The paths through them change without warning as felling takes place and, today, it was clear that sometime between the publication of the map I planned on and this present moment, a hell of a lot of felling had gone on. An uninspiring struggle down steep slopes of stumps; fragile earth sunk my feet and endless sticks and ripped roots tripped them. Nothing to even look at, as so much of the view was just a brown massacre of trees. I would be plucking dust and dirt and splinters out of my clothes and myself for days.

Eventually I got down to the track that was polite enough to still exist and lead into the stranding forest, and found my way along it to Greensykes. What a sight for sore eyes it was. The regimental conifers opened up to the narrow valley that surrounded Meggat Water and a small path brought me over a footbridge to the white cottage on the other side.

Like a refuge in a fairytale, beside the dancing burn, hidden amongst the trees.

Once upon a time, it had been a shepherd’s cottage. Built after the clearances for the expanding wool industry, the cottage is a typical but-and-ben building; one floor with three rooms. Two outer rooms, both with ranges, chairs and sleeping platforms; the larger right hand room also with a counter that held the pots and pans and accumulation of canned goods that makes up a bothy kitchen with a large bench central, in front of the fire. The final room was a small one person sleeping space, sandwiched between the two. A narrow hall connected the doors.

The Maintenance Officer had created a file that contained photocopies of the parish records that documented the past residents of the hut; the earliest being the birth of Michael Anderson, the youngest of seven children and part of a family that would reside at Greensykes for seventy years providing several generations of shepherds. Two more families would go on to live at Greensykes before the wool industry started to struggle, the world wars started, and it was abandoned.

Each of these residents had created their own additions to the house, and when the MBA took guardianship and started renovating in 2011 it was a significant undertaking to shape the various odds and ends into the bothy that now stands. Two rickety outhouses had to be demolished and unsafe extensions removed. All worth it in the end, because even now the memory of that first sight of Greensykes was one of the most enchanting welcomes I had to any bothy.

Clearly well cared for with a thoughtful MO who had even left wellington boots to better convenience nighttime toilet trips. And speaking of toilets, even the drop toilet built across the water had its own net curtain.

I settled in the left hand room, but was soon joined by an older man who arrived on a bike. He introduced himself and his name was familiar but I couldn’t initially place it. It was only later when he was pointing out the house marten nests under the roof that I realised this was Eddie Dealtry, something of a hiking legend and the first completist of the Marilyns along with his friend Rob Woodall. I had even mentioned him here in this very blog before.

Somewhat starstruck, I listened to him talk about his life’s adventures and decided that there was no way I could have asked for a more impressive bothy companion.

Then John arrived, also on a bike. John was, like Eddie, also in his seventies. John hadn’t climbed any Marilyns as far as he knew, but he had lived for two years in Antarctica. He had had to have his wisdom teeth removed in order to go.

Call me fickle, but Eddie was no longer the most interesting person in the bothy.

I was the first to leave the next morning. Eddie had given me his jam sandwiches and called me impressive, a compliment I would happily live off for months.

For more information about bothies, visit the Mountain Bothies Association website

If you are visiting a bothy, please be sure to follow the Bothy Code

When hiking in Scotland, familiarise yourself with the Outdoor Access Code

Greensykes Bothy (2011)

Owner: Greensykes Estate

Fuel: Plenty of deadwood available in surrounding woodland

Water: Burn passes in front of the bothy

Notes: Open all year. Due to past misuse of the bothy and damage to the nearby farm, Greensykes in under Bothy Watch which means the police occasionally pay it a visit. Anyone parking at the farm in order to access the bothy is advised to put a note of their whereabouts in their car window.

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