Big Bothy Walk #7

I often get asked which has been my favourite bothy so far. I never really have an answer because so many factors make up an individual bothy experience that far extends beyond the building itself. However, despite it not being the most elaborate or large or impressive of bothies, nor placed in any illustrious location, Burleywhag was far and away my gleaming star of the lowlands. I absolutely fell in love with it.

I had arrived after yet another grey and rainy walk. From Brattleburn I had continued along the Southern Upland Way; after a bad sleep I was already searching for reasons to be outraged and the short hills really did the trick that morning. It was only a 400m climb over the course of a mile from the bothy to the top of Bald Knowe, but I decided the sides of Shiel Hill and Mount Joe that I passed over to get there were just too insulting for me to remain dignified. I was likely just looking for a reason to be angry (I turn into a four year old when I’m tired), and between the rain and the numerous trees that had fallen across the path, a torrent of cursing didn’t cease until I was level with the reservoir. The tussock filled, pathless tramp across the moor away from the Way didn’t so much appease me, but tire me enough to stop yelling obscenities.

It wasn’t good news at the reservoir. The powers that be had finally got around to trying to plug the leaks in the dam wall that had been growing since 2008 and shut the road across it. This would mean that I was now required to add a mile and a half detour to get to the other side and I wasn’t very happy about it. In fact, I was clearly looking miserable enough for a wonderful Glaswegian angel of a man to offer me a lift around. It was him that informed me about the leaky wall and I think I got my facts straight but, truth to tell, I’m not very good at speaking Glaswegian and only caught one in three of the words the angel was saying.

My day was turning around in ways I didn’t deserve as he took me not only to the other side of the dam wall, but all the way along the road to the farm at the other end of the reservoir, cutting out another two miles of road walking for me. This was excellent. I was a lot happier as I started out on the hillside track that followed the burn below.

Turning away at a small, white farmstead by the water, I ventured into pathlessness again, keeping close to the other side of the burn, heading southeast along the hillsides. Tumbles of a long dry wall made its way along the water also, petering out as the sheep started to take charge of the valleys, trotting in and out of the mizzle appearing like round ghosts. I eventually arrived at the saddle between Earncraig and Gana Hill and made a total hash of getting over the barbed wire fence that ran across it, ending up with the rear of my trousers being ripped. I would love to say that I would go on to dutifully sew up the rip at my next town stop to restore my modesty, but it wasn’t until way, way further north (and several more rips) when an acquired walking partner commented on the colour of my knickers that I would decide to do something about it.

On the other side, the valley dropped steeply below, disappearing quickly in the mist. It was a careful meander down the wet, rain-slopped slopes, following the sheep tracks along the lumped and lurching, banks of the Burley Sike to reach the crumbling sheepfold where, on the other side of the walls, Burleywhag would nestle.

A tiny haven with a blue front door, approached through a maze of stone-walled pens. It is still a working shepherd’s bothy, closed during lambing season, with priority given to the shepherds. Between April and May these pens would be used to house the sheep as the lambs were born, but now, at the start of June, they were empty. Flat and grassy enclosures sprawling out from the sides of the hut.

I didn’t hang around too long then to peer at the view downwards, along the Capel Burn in these rounded ice-carved hills. I ran inside to find a wood-walled interior and two rooms (a third, to the right, was a locked storeroom for use by the farm). The living area was neat, with two two tables; one under the window and another that seemed to be utilised as a kitchen with a small cupboard above it. A bench ran along the far wall and a couple chairs sat loose to be brought close and warm to a lit stove. There was a full stock of wood, so the fire was quickly lit and my wet clothes hung above it as I boiled water for hot chocolate to warm up my insides.

The tidy wood lining of the walls was decorated with laminated photographs and photocopies of historical records; none of which seemed to actually have any connection with this place. Nameless faces of farmhands and their families, and reports of births and deaths at other farms. It did seem that, at one time, in 1684, William Harkness that lived at the Mitchellslacks Farm that now ran the bothy had been an outlaw, accused with being a ‘resetter of fugitives’. It isn’t said who it was he was accused of hiding, but the dates fall in a time of unrest, after the Civil War, during the last breaths of the Covenanteer outcry and in the brewing decades of resentment before the Jacobite Uprising. It could have pretty much been anyone.

The sleeping area was more of a large cupboard. With a floor raised a foot above the ajoining living area, it was either accessed by a small open frame in that room, or by an even smaller hobbit-sized door in the hallway. This delighted me for reasons I can’t explain.

The stove quickly heated up the entire interior of the shelter. I would sleep soundly in the little cupboard room as the rain outside continued until morning.

There are many factors that make up a superior bothy experience; the setting, the company, the additional and unexpected comforts; but sometimes its just because it completely fulfils the original purpose; as a sanctuary and a refuge for those tired and weary in the wild and lonely places. A small blue door in a mist-laden and desolate valley that appears at just the right moment, and beckons you in to rest.

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

Burleywhap (1979)

Owner: Queensberry Estate, run by Mitchellslacks Farm: 01848330481

Fuel: Wood is hard to find, bring supplies

Water: Burn to right of bothy

Notes: Burleywhag is closed during the lambing season (12th April to 31st May). Situated on a working sheep farm, the outside pens may be used by shepherds. Keep dogs on leads (but, really, this isn’t a suitable bothy for dogs at all).

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