Big Bothy Walk #10

Bothies and informal open shelters existed long before the MBA came about. Depopulation of rural areas followed the World Wars as hillfarming rapidly declined, leaving many farmsteads abandoned. At the same time, there was a national initiative encouraging the population to take their leisure time outdoors, and as cars became a more accessible purchase many took up the pursuit. The empty buildings provided shelter for many exploring the outdoors, originally without but increasingly gaining the owner’s consent. The concept of ‘bothying’ had begun. Logbooks were left in the shelters, and occasional activity would see a platform built or a fireplace cleaned out, and many became known by word of mouth throughout the hiking community.

But the decades were marching on, and time was besting the buildings. Many began falling badly to ruin; roofs caved in, gables fell in storms, damp and flooding and vermin started to claim them. Sometimes hiking and climbing clubs would take it upon themselves to try and repair the damage, but more often than not renovations were temporary and sporadic. Bernard Heath, an off-road cyclist, came across a comment in the bothy book at the Backhill of Bush shelter that suggested a club should be set up to save the bothies from ruin. So that was what he did.

In 1965, Heath and a group of friends and similarly inspired outdoorsmen and women, obtained the permission of the owner of a rough, nearly entirely destroyed croft that lay in the valley between the ranges of the Galloway Hills, and set about that summer to completely restore it. This was Tunskeen.

A meeting held at the end of the year in the Town Hall in Dalmellington showed a huge support for Heath’s aspirations and supported his lead. The Mountain Bothies Association was born.

It was time for me to visit the first bothy, but I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it. It has been over fifty years since that resurrection of Tunskeen, and a lot of things have changed. Initially, as the first project, it was a comfortable and celebrated place with the original wood panelling on the walls, large comfortable chairs and was frequently stocked with food. Now it is so well known for extreme antisocial behaviour; excessive drinking and hardcore drug-taking, that it has the distinction of being the only bothy I was warned repeatedly not to sleep at.

From Clennoch, I had descended the track around Cairnsmore and out at Craigengillen; the reverse of the route I had been told not to take up to Clennoch. I can only think my advisor had been either pulling a prank on me or was misinformed because it was entirely fine. Apart from the rain. I was spurred on by the knowledge that there would be a teashop in Carsphairn, and was utterly devastated to find a note on the door when I arrived declaring it closed for the day. I wasn’t in the mood to start climbing the hill across from the village, so I camped in its shadow and continued the next day.

Up through Garryhorn and over Knocktower, I came down the other side to the lovely banks of Loch Doon and turned south, starting to enter the famously lovely Galloway Forest. From its head, I would start to head generally west, skimming the edge of the Rhinns of Kells.

There are three ranges within Galloway Forest, all with amazing names. The magical sounding Rhinns of Kells has an etymology obscured in translation, and could refer to a number of things; religion, elevation or woodland that once covered it. Sometimes a name is more fantastic if its origins are unknown. Parallel to the Kells are the Dungeon Hills; theorised to refer to the tough challenge it throws the hillwalker. Not in the height of the hills, as they are some of the lowest in the region, but in the density of the terrain; where there isn’t blanket bog, there is thick heather and gnarly thin roots that ensnare walking feet and ensure that someone traversing the range finds themselves held here for longer than they anticipated. Trapped almost, as if they were in a prison.

Lastly, the final range lies the other side of the Dungeon Hills. The Awful Hand holds eleven hills, all higher and more isolated from each other than those found in its neighbours. The prominently formed peaks appear like knuckles on clenched fists.

I would round the edge of the Dungeon Hills next, via Loch Riecawr and, from here, make my way into the heavily forested valley. The crags of the Dungeon Hills on my left, and the threatening dark points of The Awful Hand on my right. The trees suddenly disappeared, felled, in sight of Macaterick and Tarfessock and the trail lead nakedly to the small, white, shepherd’s hut, cupped in the palm of these terrific stone ogres.

I had not expected much from Tunskeen, but it was even worse than anticipated. The one room held an L-shaped sleeping platform, a fireplace and a table, all covered in graffiti. The spraypainting and scribbling continued on the chipboard walls and even on the ceiling. Food from a previous visitor covered the table and was rotting. The room was sparse; it was clear that it was felt there was no point giving it anymore embellishments when the issues here were so bad that even the carbon monoxide detector had a cage around it to prevent it being damaged. I stayed inside just long enough to write my entry in the bothy book. It was an angry one.

Tunskeen was an embarrassment as far as I was concerned, and it seems to be kept open purely out of sentimentality for its significance to the MBA history. It is a hovel now, and no amount of love poured in has anyway of ending its abuse. In 1965 the plantation around it did not exist, and the forest roads had not yet been built and, even before the MBA chose to put the bothy locations online, it was well publicised and well known. These factors have brought a level of attention to it that Heath could not have anticipated. It is no longer a place to be proud of.

Tunskeen’s neighbouring bothy, Backhill of Bush, was relinquished by the MBA in 2010 for similar mistreatment. The same fate has to eventually lie in store for Tunskeen. This is not a monument anymore, it is completely desecrated and will continue to be so, over and over again.

As you might expect, I had always intended to camp at Tunskeen. I was wary of being a solo traveller and meeting the sorts of unsavoury strangers known to frequent it, late at night and alone. I set up my tent back from the bothy, concealed by small mounds from the approach.

Of course, either despite or because of my vitriol towards the state of the bothy, life would make other plans. A huge rainstorm came in late at night, and the wind slammed my tent. I moved the tent twice, dragging it across the ground in the dark and the wet and the wind to places I thought safer only to be proved wrong. Eventually something in my brain clicked that no one else had approached the bothy, and no one else was going to now at midnight in this weather in the dark of a new moon. Without any reluctance at all I quickly and messily struck my camp and tripped my belongings over the mounds. It was so dark, I was glad that the bothy was white. It gleamed in the treacherous night, beckoning me.

Tunskeen may have been a hovel, and I will never visit it again. But that night it was pure in a bothy’s purpose; as a place of shelter and safety. For that, I suppose, I am thankful.

Bernard Heath died peacefully in Thurso on the 31st March 2022

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

Tunskeen (1965)

Owner: Galloway Forest Park: 0300 067 6900 (Forest and Land Scotland, Southern Office)

Fuel: Deadwood and fallen timber can be found in nearby plantation

Water: Burn to the left of the bothy.

Notes: Open all year.

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