Kettleton Byre

Big Bothy Walk #8

Kettleton Byre may only have the one room, but its appearance has changed a lot in the years since the MBA took guardianship of it in 1983. An attic that was once accessed via a staircase that ran from the area where a draught-defying porch has now been built has since been boarded up, and the ruins of an old cottage that sat nearby demolished so entirely that not a stone remains. A person that last visited the bothy fifteen years ago would find it to be a very different place.

Reading through the bothy book, it seems to be a bothy that many choose as their first. Or their children’s first; a visitor the week before had brought his daughter and they had spent two nights here; she had covered a whole page in drawings and declarations of adoration and wonder for the hills, the birds and the bothy. Maybe if she returns in a decade’s time she’ll find it looks so much smaller than she remembers, but the hills and the birds and the enchantment she felt will be the same.

Once again, the wind kept me off the heights. I had planned a route across Gana Hill and Scaw’d Law down to the empty tracks and quiet road that continued up to the reservoir. Instead I left Burleywhag by the Mitchellslacks farm and followed the road all the way. Despite being an A-road, it was a single track of unmarked tarmac and I was only passed by a grand total of maybe ten cars and twenty cyclists. A clearer morning meant the views from the hillside went wide over the moorland and the lumbering, green fells; smooth like giant marbles clustered in a palm.

The distinctive squeaky cry of a curlew followed me for a long while. I can only say it is distinctive and name the bird now because a purple-clad cyclist educated me. Up until that point I had no idea what it was and was starting to feel somewhat insane. Since then I saw and heard them everywhere in the south, and every now and then in the north I would hear a squeak and have a self-satisfied beam of excitement that here was a bird I could finally recognise.

These wading birds, with their long downturned bills, flushed pink on the underside, would leave their breeding grounds here in the grasslands within the next month and make their way to the coast. It was there I would meet them again. They hold a ‘Near Threatened’ status, probably not aided by the fact that they were once considered incredibly tasty. The Cornish used to bake them into pies (or pastys) and butchers regularly sold them alongside chickens and pork chops until the 1942.

Probably more relevant that their tastiness, their habitat has also suffered as agricultural practices have intensified. The upland moorland and the bogs that the birds breed upon has suffered for additional drainage and reseeding practices. This adds to the fact that their ground nests (‘scrapes’) had always been a popular target for predators and eggs have frequently been lost to foxes and badgers. Whilst 30% of Europes curlews now winter along the British coast, the local breeding population is in a concerning decline.

As you can tell, I have now made it my business to know all about curlews.

Their bubbling, high pitched calls followed me all the way to the reservoir where a wooded track brought me up, around the hill above the water, and down again to cross the bridge over the burn and head to the bothy, nestled in a col between Glenreith Fell and Rottencraig Head. Both the hills rose swiftly and sharply around the bothy.

A green door this time, it lead through the porch to the single room. The space had been admirably assigned with a long L-shaped sleeping platform that could fit two, or three at a squeeze. A small desk sat next to it, and in the nook by the window a stove sat in the corner opposite an armchair. The bothy book holder was an elaborate, engraved affair, and the candle holder above the table was embossed with the name of the hut. Outside a bench looked out over the small flat lawn and south past the drop to the Kettleton Burn and out to the creases of the hills beyond.

There used to be a disused cottage that was falling to waste in the vicinity which had initially been built once the burn started being used to send water to Thornhill. A relocated family from only just below in the valley was moved here and it was only lived in for 20-30 years before being abandoned. The byre from some unrecorded time gone by outlived it and the newer building was removed in 2008. It was sad that all that effort had gone into cleaning up the appearance of the area around the bothy, and yet the nearby farm had left so much equipment scattered around outside.

I was spoiled by this point, but Kettleton Byre appeared tired and dark. My first impressions were not improved by the stench. I initially thought it was a remaining smell of a wet dog that might have visited just before, and had the smell trapped in when the owner dutifully closed all doors and windows on their exit. But on leaving the door open to air out the bothy, it resiliently stuck around.

The longer it remained, and the more stubbornly pungent it insisted on being, the more I became convinced that something had actually died in the bothy. I rolled up my sleeves and went over every inch of the hut, determined to find the corpse. What was it? A pile of mice? An unfortunate bird that had been trapped? A fox cub that had been wounded and dragged its way inside to hide away? It could be anything. It could have been a person. It could have been an unfortunate victim of a lover’s crime of passion, now secured beneath the sleeping platforms.

I couldn’t find anything dead or decaying at all, but stopped short of hacking apart the furniture, so I’m pretty sure that’s what it was. The MO had last recorded a visit ten days ago with no mention of a smell so the murder obviously must have been very recent.

I tried to sleep but never got used to the stinkiness and eventually left the bothy in the middle of the night to camp outside. I wish I had an answer for you as to what the unbelievably bad smell was, but investigating dead things is not my job so I guess we’ll never know.

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

Kettleton Byre (1983)

Owner: Buccleuch Estate: 07771 886949 (Head Keeper)

Fuel: Hard to find nearby, bring your own supplies

Water: Burns pass a short walk to both the left and right of the bothy

Notes: Historically closed during lambing season, but now open all year. Be aware that this bothy is on an active sheepfarm and dogs must be kept on leads. The estate asks for your cooperation during shooting season, particularly between September to November when there is shooting Monday to Friday. If visiting during August, December and January, please call the Head Keeper on 07771 886949 to inform them to inquire as to the shooting schedule and alert them to your intended presence.

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