Big Bothy Walk #4
A shepherd, William Laidlow, lived in a small cottage in the Ettrick Valley in the early 1700s. A locally renowned athlete, he was supposedly never beaten. On one occasion he showed up unprepared for a race, lost his trousers soon after starting, and still went on to claim his victory without them.
This mishap can be better explained with the knowledge that he was also a locally renowned drunk, preferring to drink smuggled brandy rather than whiskey. William was also a locally renowned storyteller (as many great drunks do happen to be).
His belief in fairies far outlived the waning superstition. In fact he insisted he conversed with them. Occasionally they fell out and insisted the creatures were plotting against him, but it wasn’t a problem as the fairies would be leaving the area soon and migrating north.
His gravestone in Ettrick Kirkyard is inscribed with his legacy; “for feats of frolic, strength and agility, he had no equal in his day”.
Perhaps not in his day, but this most eccentric resident of what would become Over Phawhope Bothy had descendants that would have given him a run for his money. James Hogg, his grandson, was born further down the valley to Will’s daughter Margaret. Margaret was a superstitious storyteller in her own right, and such a keen protector of the oral tradition that she berated Sir Walter Scott for publishing her songs and stories after he had sought her out for his collection of Border ballads. She insisted that putting them into print had ruined them.
Margaret had moved out of the family cottage upon marriage, though her and her husband went bankrupt within six years of James’ birth. Rather than school, James was sent out to work in the fields for all of his childhood, becoming a shepherd himself as he approached adulthood. He was inspired by the stories and songs of his mother and grandfather and decided to write many of his own. This was going to be difficult for someone that had never learned to read or write. He taught himself, assisted by newspapers and theological texts given to him by his employer’s wife.
He went on to become one of the most noted poets and novelists of his day, which was no small feat when he was making acquaintances with the likes of Wordsworth and Southey. He was known as an eccentric, living a chaotic life of philandry and drunken misadventures but, throughout most of it, maintaining his primary role as a shepherd. He was mocked as a regular character in the Blackwood’s Magazine in the form of a caricature; ‘The Ettrick Shepherd’, a bumbling, part-animal, rural simpleton who also happened to be a genius.
His writing was vivacious, divergent and lyrical, binding in folklore and the supernatural to the most human situations, and was rich in his lived experience of rural Scottish life and culture. It was also deemed coarse and uncouth, and was subsequently pruned of much of its character after his death to make the books suitable for the fragilities of a Victorian audience. This unfortunate censoring lead to his work being posthumously seen as dull and his literature fell out of favour. Luckily, the works are now returned to their original form and you can enjoy them in all their coarse and uncouth splendour.
Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting, called Hogg’s novel Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner one of the most brilliant books ever written and cites it as a major influence on his work. Crime writer Ian Rankin claims the same book is not only relevant, but urgent, for the 21st Century.
Hogg was not the only writer to be an offshoot of William Laidlow. Man Booker Prizewinner Alice Munro, who also holds a Nobel Prize in Literature, is a direct descendant of Laidlow’s son, Robert. Unlike her relatives, Munro was not a drunk, and she branded James Hogg a liar, though she called herself that too. Such is the nature of storytelling. Robert Laidlow had moved to Canada, where Alice lives, but she visited the home of her ancestor in the Ettrick Valley and memorialised the small, stone hut in Stories about Storytellers.
Over Phawhope Bothy (pronounce ‘o’ Faw’p’) appeared to me out of the fog at the end of the journey from Dryfehead. I hadn’t needed to map this route myself; just back down the Dryfehead Valley, I had turned off on the markers of the Southern Upland Way to enjoy a walk marked by fingerposts and waymarkers that someone else had cobbled together for a change. Weaving around and descending the sides of Cowen Fell and Loch Fell in the mist-matted forest, the trees had fallen back and I continued on the hillside moorland where the rain and silver sheets of low cloud turned the rich, green grasses bleak and humourless. I had entered another plantation and walked along a plucked and stump-strewn burn until the forest track revealed the bothy below.
Whilst it does still have its issues with antisocial behaviour, Over Phawhope has managed somehow to avoid the extent to which this affects other border bothies. A shepherd I hitched with the next day would tell me this was because it used to have issues and then someone put up cameras to see what was going on and they found out it was a bunch of local kids and told their mums and their mums were not happy. As wonderful as this story is, it doesn’t seem too likely; it is more likely that greater diligence in closing the forestry gates blocked many with irreverent intentions from getting any closer. A three mile walk from the nearest gate can seem like a massive pain in the arse to many people, especially if they had become too used to being able to drive a car right up to it.
Over Phawhope is one of only two bothies that are fully owned by the Mountain Bothies Association after it was bequeathed to them by the late Harry Fairhurst. This ownership has given the MBA free reign to deck out the cottage as it sees fit. Native trees have been planted around the perimeter, in no small part to prevent erosion to the burn behind, but also to add a stubborn sense of permanence amongst plantation. At present, a temporary toilet has been built outside, though it was put up in 2019 and I can only assume that the whole pandemic thing scuppered the original plans for a more permenant loo. The door and walls only reach halfway up, so a person making use of the throne will have a poo with a view.
The front door was painted with a large saltire and entered a small hallway. Ahead was a small and cosy sleeping room with bays for only one or two, and at the far left was a large dormitory which could easily sleep six. In between was a completely wonderful living space with big, comfy sofas and a large range with a cherry-red surround. A long shelf sat along the back wall and a desk faced the window.
In a later bothy, another ardent bothy lover would complain about the sofas in this room, claiming that it destroyed the communal feel that is such a central part to bothy culture. I don’t know about that, I wasn’t joined by anyone. All I know is that I had one of my best sleeps of the whole journey on that sofa, and to cuddle down into it in front of a roaring fire as the rain pissed down with enough fury to rival teenage outrage was an experience I would not be loathe to repeat.
If any fairies came to have a chat I didn’t know about it. I was deep in an undeserved sleep of the just. Maybe they’ve gone north.
Over Phawhope (2014)
Owner: The Mountain Bothies Association: 01878700249
Fuel: Plenty of deadwood and fallen timber available in surrounding plantation
Water: A burn runs to the back of the bothy
Notes: Open all year. Positioned on a working sheep farm, so dogs must be kept on leads.