Big Bothy Walk #5

I had spent the night before in Moffat enjoying such luxuries as laundry and showers. After resupplying, I set off with the encumberment of a freshly refilled bag to go and climb a Corbett.

The route up Hart Fell rolled up along the Auchencat Burn from the road, parting from the water to clamber up to Arthur’s Seat before a final push to the summit. It was a bright morning and a clear day and thus the otherwise nondescript moorland seemed awash with Disneyfied loveliness until the wind started at the top. A turn along a blustery Hartfell Rig saw a brief descent and steep ascent up Cape Law before I trekked down the side of Din Law, hopped the fence and made my way to the Gameshope Loch.

These Moffat hills were said to once be home to the man who inspired the Arthurian Merlin. This Merlin was Chief Druid to his clan who, in 573AD were slaughtered by their enemies in an act of genocide. Back then, these now bare hills were covered in the dense Forest of Celydon where Merlin ran to hide. He survived in a shelter he built just above the treeline on Hart Fell as Christian missionaries absorbed his former clan’s territory and converted the Pagan borders. He existed as a hermit and outlaw for a decade until his twin sister persuaded him to meet his Christian enemies.

The Druid made his way to the Upper Tweed to meet with St Mungo. He was now in his sixties, and with the borders largely converted he was far less of a political threat. He and Mungo never saw eye to eye on issues of faith, but they parted with good will. As Merlin made his way back to the refuge he had come to call home, he was ambushed and met with the ‘triple death’ he had predicted for himself. He was stoned and clubbed by his attackers before he fell backwards into the Drumelzier Burn and drowned.

Now sheltered from the wind, I walked around the loch to where the Gameshope Burn emerged from the valley and made my careful way up the remaining two miles. It involved wearing my water shoes (which are also my camp shoes) for much of it as, from this direction, there was plenty of water crossings as one bank would lurch into crags and the other would settle down before switching.

From the stories of Pagan Merlin, this valley now holds a history of rebel Preachers. The Convenanters were a religious and political movement who supported the Presbyterian church and the authority of its preachers against the religious changes that James VI and Charles I attempted to bring to Scotland in the 17th Century to unify the religions of England and Scotland. In retaliation, the Presbyterian preachers continued their sermons in the valleys and fields and on the hills. The preacher, Alexander Pedan frequented the Gameshope Valley and there is a stone were it is said he read his sermons from. The Convenanters ultimately preserved the Presbyterian faith in Scotland.

Whatever direction you approach Gameshope; from here or from the far easier route along the Talla Reservoir, you will have to make at least one water crossing. Gameshope sat on the other side of the burn, across from the track that lead from the north, and also from the bank that I had arrived at from the south. In spate this crossing is incredibly treacherous, and a marker has been placed on the bothyside bank so visitors can judge how high the water flows.

The squat, one-room shelter was a welcome sight as I made my way across the water. Unlike the previous bothies I had visited on this walk, it was not formed from a cottage, but from a byre. Many of these former farmers and shepherds cottages would have had a byre attached to them – a small stable for a couple of animals. At Gameshope, it is the cottage that is gone now, and without the usual three room template the MBA had got creative.

Long bunks were built on two sides of the room with counters sitting beneath the windows on the other two sides. Stacked chairs provided seating and the bothy had many high hooks and counter platforms to help hikers place their bags to avoid the mice. The floor was the cobbled stone of an animal stall, and Tibetan prayer flags criss-crossed the ceiling (no doubt acquired at the large and beautiful Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery I had passed through on my way from Eskedalemuir)

The MBA has also embraced humour here; putting up yellow warnings of electrocution in a place without electricity. They are known for this; light switches, fake plug sockets, and WiFi passwords are some of their common pranks.

You may notice that I didn’t mention a stove, range, fire, or hearth. That is because the Borders Forest Trust has established the area as a rewilding and regeneration project, bringing back native trees and scrubs to the balded hills and valleys. In doing this and removing invasive species, they hope to also encourage wildlife to return to and breed in the area. Their longer standing project in Carrifran Forest, which borders Gameshope, has already seen an increase in birdlife, as well as in foxes, badgers, stoats and otters. Because of the nature of their goal and the fragility of encouraging the newly planted environment to thrive, fires are absolutely forbidden. No fire is provided inside the bothy, and no fires are to be lit outside.

If you ever do visit Gameshope, please don’t be like the group of students from Edinburgh that arrived on bikes late at night and, on seeing there was no fire, promptly created a campfire outside. I protested and pointed out the reasons behind the rule, but was laughed away (and I really didn’t want to create a spat in the middle of the night with people I was to be sharing a room with). In the morning I took a picture of the scar left on the ground and filed a bothy report.

You might be confident in your ability to control an outside fire, but even if you do then the scar left behind gives the message to future visitors that, actually, it’s fine. Light all the fires you want. It isn’t fine. If a fire is so central to the bothy experience, as the students informed me it was, then go to any of the vast, vast majority of bothies that facilitate it. Leave Gameshope alone. If fires continue to be lit, then the Borders Forest Trust will close the bothy. The firelighters won’t suffer fines or convictions, but everyone else will be worse off for the loss of this place.

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

Gameshope (2014)

Owner: Borders Forest Trust: 01835830750

Fuel: No stove or fireplace. All fires, indoor and out, are strictly forbidden for the protection of the rewilding reserve.

Water: A burn runs to the front of the bothy

Notes: Open all year. From mid-April to the end of May shepherds use the adjacent pens to house sheep during lambing season. Dogs are to be kept on leads, though it is advised not to bring dogs to Gameshope at all during this season. Note that there is a water crossing to access the bothy which can become perilous in spate – a measure has been placed on the bothy-side bank so you can see how high the water may have risen.

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