Mark Cottage

Big Bothy Walk #14

A century ago, Scotland’s oldest man lived on the western bank of Loch Long. James Grieve was a shepherd and he had worked as such for as long as he could remember. James was 110 years old, so he could remember plenty.

He still lived in the but-and-ben house he had called home for many, many decades. The home where he had raised his family and where his son, who was also pretty elderly, helped him with the sheep. The home had no electricity, and no indoor plumbing, but the Grieves were content with their life.

However the world had moved on since the illustrious days of sheep-farming, and his trade was struggling in decline. New industries had called most other farmers to leave and go to the cities for other work, but James’ advanced and notable age gave him a different income. He would have photos snapped of himself with tourists that caught the ferry across the loch and charge them for the novelty of having had their picture taken with Scotland’s oldest man.

But James might not have been all he appeared to be. In fact it appears quite likely that he took on his dead father’s credentials and pretended to be older than he was to stir some extra cash. His actual name was probably Walter, and he was likely twenty years younger than he claimed.

With all this being said, you still have to admire the hustle. And admire even more the fact that all this still meant that this man was working as an active farmer late into his eighties. His photo still sits on the wall of Mark Cottage; the whitewashed bothy that was once his home.

Mark Cottage is not on any well known trails, nor is it particularly close to any notable peaks. The approach to it is a repetitive trudge through a plantation, and the view? Of an oil terminus. All these factors mean that it is often overlooked, but what a gem it is.

I had caught the small ferry across Loch Lomond with Matt and Phil to Ardlui. The hotel there wouldn’t let us in for reasons that were unclear so we huddled away from the rain in the main doorway to wait for Matt’s wife to arrive as a kind hotel guest sneaked us coffees. My next bothy was supposed to be Abyssinia, but Richard had informed me that there would be a work party there so I had switched things around. In order to avoid a long walk along the road, Matt had said they would give me a lift to Tarbert.

At Tarbert I said goodbye to the boys, and got a quick bus to avoid the rest of the road. From Ardgarten Visitor Centre, I set started on the path, rising up through the legion of identical, perfectly placed, plantation trees. A large group of French hikers appeared to be walking the same route, and every so often we would pass each other. I would say hi, they would glare back. I would say bonjour, they would glare back. I was soon desperately hoping they wouldn’t be staying at the bothy because it seemed very much like they didn’t want me around them at all.

I was so annoyed by their glaring silence, that when they did actually stop and talk to me, to ask me directions to the bothy, I indicated the wrong way deliberately. This wasn’t my proudest moment, and it came back to bite me as I realised that, having said I was aiming for the bothy also I was now expected to be walking along the path that I had shown them. I made sure to walk very fast ahead of them, lose sight of the group, and then scramble into the bushes to sloppily hide as they passed. I have no idea what had gotten into me.

By the time I’d snuck back and round to the bothy I already knew there was absolutely no way I was going to be able to stay inside it with them. I had made things incredibly weird. I was now the weirdo that people thought might kill them. Or they might kill me when they realised I’d sent them off in the wrong direction. I had a short look around the bothy, and was dismayed that I had arseholed my way into camping.

It was lovely. It was really, really lovely. The white outside was a bright smile in the greyness, with a red lifebouy ring outside announcing the name of the bothy. Inside were two rooms; the central space of the but-and-ben had been knocked through to create a countered and shelved kitchen and library to the side of the living area where a sofa, desk and a large hearth sat invitingly. The other room had bunks, enough for six.

I looked out the front where a large firepit had been constructed and set up my tent next to it with the view across the loch. Yes, the view of the oil terminus.

It actually was fascinating. To be staying in (or in front of) a three hundred year old cottage without any electricity or running water and to be staring across at a giant tanker. An awesome juxtoposition that showed just how thoroughly this area had been changed. I imagine when James lived here there hadn’t been a plantation either; just big, vast grazing fields for all the sheep.

I heard the group approach and dove into my tent. I was too ashamed to face them. They didn’t call me out or come near me, and I hope they enjoyed their night in the bothy. I would look out in the dark from my naughty step and see the bright coloured lights of the terminus reflect off the water in the dark and wonder what James would have made of it all.

For what it’s worth, the current oldest man living in Scotland is David Crawford from East Lothian who is 107 years old.

…or is he?

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

Mark Cottage (2010)

Owner: Scottish Forestry: 0300 067 6005

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

Water: A burn runs to the right of the bothy

Notes: Open all year. On rare occasions, Scottish Forestry has to close access to the bothy for logging. If so, there will be a note on the MBA news page (link to MBA website above)

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