Big Bothy Walk #12

I had completed the border bothies with my night at White Laggan, and made a messy trip through the mire and marsh and mist that hung and clung around the path that headed north, sloshing and meandering around the hills. I had missed a turn to head up to a forest track, or I thought I had. Turns out it was another case of felled trees making things complicated. Thankfully it was only a short scrabble up the bank to plop myself onto a less wet and squishy track that took me down to Newton Stewart.

Newton Stewart was an odd place. It appears that the cattle auction is the hub of all activity and, since it was closed that day, Newton Stewart was a ghost town. Apt, seeing as it was used as a location for the original Wicker Man.

But Newton Stewart wasn’t alone in having had a moment in the horror film spotlight; the next bothy, Rowchoish, had also had its few minutes of fame when it featured in Under the Skin with Scarlett Johansson. It is the story of a skinwalking alien roaming Scotland in the guise of a beautiful woman and then seducing men so they turn into sludge for reasons that are never explained. Well they might have been explained, but I never got that far into watching it. Turns out its really boring. Pretension managed to turn a film with aliens, Scotland and Scarlett Johansson into something unwatchably dull which is really an accomplishment all of its own. I made it about halfway and gave up and never got to the scene in Rowchoish.

From Newton Stewart, I headed up on a series of buses and trains to Balmaha to start on a section of The West Highland Way along the east side of Loch Lomond. Have you seen the West Highland Way in June? Yes, it’s extraordinarily pretty; these lochside sections are particularly lovely with dappled light through big, richly leaved trees and views across the sparkling water to the silhouettes of the large mountains the other side. But a million other people also think it’s extraordinarily pretty this time of year. Hikers come from everywhere to walk the Way and, well, it’s horrific. Like being a cow in a cattle drove. And the longer you’re stuck behind a line of other hikers, the more frustrating it becomes and, like being in a traffic jam, you start to become certain that everyone else is an idiot.

If you want to walk The West Highland Way but don’t like people (or even if you do like people; I like people) then don’t go in June. Or May. Or July. Or perhaps any time between April and October. Just do it in winter.

Areas around Loch Lomond are the only spaces in Scotland that ban wildcamping and are marked out with various stern signs. In these ‘Camping Management Zones’ you have to book to camp between March and October. It all seems rather rude for the park to have made itself an exception to Scotland’s Right to Roam with a variety of excuses that basically translate as ‘the owners are so rich they can do whatever they want’. It probably isn’t worth the £500 fine to protest it though.

After stopping at Rowerdennan for lunch (and a break from the crowds), I carried on the easy path that tripped around the base of Ben Lomond. It seems the bar at Rowerdennan is a vortex because this second half of the day’s walk was far emptier. By the time the loch fell out of my view as I headed into the woods towards the bothy I hadn’t seen anyone in a whole twenty minutes.

There are two MBA bothies on the West Highland Way around Loch Lomond. The second, that I would visit tomorrow, is slap bang and obvious on the route. Rowchoish manages to hide itself only 50 metres or so away from the trail behind the trees and many Way walkers I spoke to hadn’t realised it existed. Not that that means it isn’t well trodden in its own right, nor does that mean it escapes the sort of litter problem that comes with being on a popular trail. I would like to believe that this behaviour here is more due to ignorance than malice; The West Highland Way is many people’s first long distance trail and there’s a good chance they’re just not completely fluent in either the Access Code nor the Bothy Code yet. Not that that excuses it because, really, who do they think is going to clean up their mess?

Thankfully, bar a large collection of mostly-used gas cannisters, Rowchoish was in good shape when I visited. The bothy was once a very large byre and was now one very large room. A step created a platform in the back half and hanging rails separated it as a designated sleeping area while the front half housed the fireplace and a dining bench. Counters ran to all sides and maps and posters decorated the walls. Large skylights in the roof brought in the light.

Pine martens, small weasel-like animals, have come to recognise the bothy as a place to scavenge (no thanks to all the littering). In an effort to deter them, large metal chests have been placed for occupants to store their food.

This byre is now the only building that remains of the small settlement of Rowchoish that once was home to nine families before the Forestry Commission covered the slopes in conifers. In fact it’s all that remains of three settlements that once sat along the banks towards Inversnaid. Occasionally amongst the trees you’ll find an old wall or foundation stones, the last remnants left of whole communities forced out in The Clearances, their homes left to ruin.

The byre would have fallen too if it hadn’t been for the Scottish Rights of Way Society that, with the consent and support of the Forestry Commission lovingly renovated it to create a bothy. The MBA took on guardianship in 1977.

I was lucky enough to meet the Maintenance Officer. Within fifteen minutes of his arrival, Richard had dragged in and sawed up four man sized logs, replaced the full bothy book (I got first dibs on the new one) and swept up the floor. I have aspirations to be an MO myself one day, but Richard’s efficiency was setting the bar really, really high. I was in awe.

We were soon joined by two men that lived down the end of the loch in Balloch. Despite this, neither Phil not Matt had ever gone camping, bothying, or even done much hiking in the area and had therefore decided to give it a shot before the comforts of their married lives and approaching middle age made them soft. Leaving wives and kids at home they had come striding into the woods to stay at Rowchoish. They would be my companions for the next couple days.

No one else would join us, and we all spent a fantastic evening becoming all the wiser for Richard’s expertise and passing around a bottle of whisky. One of the man-sized logs that had been expertly chopped made a good fire. Too hot really for this time of year, but it delighted Matt and Phil. Richard’s dog curled happily and politely by her owner’s side, being so damn good you easily forgot she was there. Richard said that the filming for Under the Skin had been such a secret he hadn’t even been informed about it. It rankled a good few since MBA bothies specifically do not allow private bookings. The least ScarJo could have done was leave a bothy book entry. She didn’t.

Richard had met his wife when he came up to walk The West Highland Way. He had met a bunch of girls en route who took him to town for a party. He had met this lovely lass and hadn’t completed the trail until their honeymoon. They had named their daughters (and their dog) after Scottish islands.

Matt had fallen asleep at nine thirty after getting ninja drunk. No one realised he was more than just tipsy until he lurched to the back and collapsed in his sleeping bag. It was probably a good thing that he wasn’t entirely sober as he had forgotten to bring a sleeping pad. Our conversation had revealed that all three of my bothymates were snorers, and as Matt’s honks started vibrating off the walls, I made the wise decision to camp outside.

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

Rowchoish (1977)

Owner: East Lomond Forest: 0300 067 6650 (Forestry and Land Scotland, Western Branch)

Fuel: Deadwood and fallen timber can be found in surrounding forest

Water: The loch is down the slope to the front of the bothy.

Notes: Open all year.

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