Abyssinia

Big Bothy Walk #15

I finally reached Abyssinia three days after leaving Mark Cottage. A rest day in Inverary had been spent exploring the jail and the castle, and the next day I had set out to reach the bothy. Things happened.

It was raining. A steady stream of rain had continued into the morning. The start of my route was a long walk along the road which didn’t become any more convenient or any less dreary than one would expect. I had nothing to prove, so eventually caught a bus to the Rest And Be Thankful Viewpoint. There was no view today, but I would be very thankful by nightfall.

I was already completely soaked as I made my way up Glen Kinglas. The tops of the mountains couldn’t be seen under the heavy layer of cloud and the colour seemed to have been sapped from the land. Unlike my previous bothy, Abyssinia is set in location that is highly appealing to hillwalking enthusiasts; nested in a perfect position at the base of Beinn Chorranach to lead onto Beinn Ime, Ben Vane and the rest of the cluster of Munros and Corbetts that make up the Arrochar Alps. This landscape of giants rose tall above me, launching into the sky to grumble and sigh as the rain continued to fall.

I was not climbing any mountains, and the track was easily followed up the side of Kinglas Water that frothed and furied, heavy and dark. I should have taken note but, you see, I had forgotten one quite crucial thing; that there was a water crossing in front of the bothy.

I was therefore startled and dismayed to see the red roofed building appear on the other side of the bank to what I had expected. The burn rushed past. I had no idea how high it had risen but attempted to judge from the track. There was only so far upstream I could go as a tall deer fence cut me off. I don’t know whether it was tiredness or just unwillingness to believe that the bothy was currently inaccessible, but I decided to risk it and, to complete the total misjudgment, did not undo the clips of my bag at my sternum or hips. My first foot in was fine, the second step was not.

I was smashed instantly off my feet and thrown into the fast moving water, my bag instantly weighting down as it saturated and pushed me under. I grabbed desperately at pieces of grass on the bank as I was ripped right by, gasping for air, now utterly terrified that I was about to drown in two and a half feet of water. My legs smashed into rocks underneath me as I flailed. Finally a grab at the bank held.

It had felt like ages, but must have only been a few seconds that I was in the water. I pulled myself up, shaking, drenched. This bank lead to a central piece of land in the middle of the two converging burns and I had effectively trapped myself. With the treacherous rush of water on both sides making an exit through was impossible, and with my bag and myself all soake on exposed and unsheltered land in the rain and the wind and the cold I realised this wasn’t something I was in any situation to be able to mess around with. Shock was setting in, and hypothermia would be quick on its tail. My tent, kept on the outside of my bag, had been thoroughly dunked and the old drybags surrounding my sleeping bag and clothes had not held. I had nothing to get me warm, I had nothing to get me dry. It was either take my chances with the violent spate or freeze to death waiting it out.

Or call Mountain Rescue. Which I did. My first ever call to Mountain Rescue and I wasn’t even on a mountain. I felt like a prize tit.

My phone had miraculously survived the ordeal, and had a bar of signal, but I also had my Garmin InReach so sent out my signal. Arrochar MRT quickly received my location and reassured me they would be with me as soon as possible. The police called, wanting my what3words to work out where to head.

“This can’t be right” the lady on the phone said “This says you’re in Africa”

Something clicked “No!” I yelled “No! ‘Abyssinia’ is the name of the bothy across the burn!”

I had always just assumed that if something like this happened that I would stay cool and calm about it, perhaps crack a decent joke or a really good pun upon being picked up. Turns out that this was not the case. As soon as I finished all the messaging and conversing, despite knowing help was on the way, the fear rose within me and my aloneness consumed me. I started screaming. Just screaming and screaming. I forced myself to move, twist my torso, stamp my feet, keep the cold out and away though all my extremities were already numb. Screaming, still screaming, now crying.

I was a total fucking mess by the time the first van pulled up; it was neither the MRT, nor the police, but a vanful of employees of SSE working on the dam nearby. As the rescue team arrived, they all worked together to get me, now a trembling weak and pathetic blub of a person, across the water. It was somehow vindicating that it took so many men to get me back to safety; like I hadn’t been a total time-waster, even if the situation I was in had been entirely my own fault.

I was put in the biggest, fleeciest, warmest jacket I have ever worn and placed in the car to warm up. Once it was established that my injuries did not extend past bruises and bumps and grazes, that I wasn’t concussed, that hypothermia had not had a chance to take hold, and that my state of shock was subsiding, I was handed over to the police who asked me where I wanted them to take me.

‘The bothy’ was apparently not a suitable answer. So, not knowing what else to suggest, I asked them to take me back to Inverary. With everything in the state it was, camping wasn’t exactly an option, and I quickly booked a far too expensive last minute room at an Inverary hotel.

“I’m a local lad from there” the policeman told the policewoman “I’m sure when I speak to them we can get her sorted with a tumbledryer and all the good housekeeping”

“The badges and uniforms generally do the trick”

I was sorted out with a tumbledryer and all the good housekeeping on my arrival. I’m not sure the influence of badges and uniforms or the charm of a local boy would have made any difference because the receptionist bent herself backwards trying to help out. A determined housekeeper would have my sleeping bag in a dryer pretty much through the night and an addtional heater in my room becamea centre point around which to cluster my bag and boots and everything else that had suffered in the water.

Thankfully the drybag that held my journal and routecards held out. The one holding my electrics did not. A bucketful of rice attempted to solve the issue but, in the morning, it became clear that my powerbanks were done for. I couldn’t really go very far without them, so I had to order new ones and made my way to the campsite in Beinglas to wait for them to arrive.

They arrived the next day at the last possible moment there was for me to make it back to Abyssinia by nightfall. I rushed to the bus that would take me back to the viewpoint, and made my way back up Glen Kinglas. The rain had died down now, and the skies cleared up and the mountains that had seemed so sinister and brooding a few days ago now seemed like friendly, gentle giants. Trolls that might actually help you across bridges.

It was shocking to see how much lower the water was when I approached the crossing. It didn’t even reach my ankles today. I think it was this moment, realising that I had not comprehended the volume of the spate that really unsettled me. It would take me a long time to gain any confidence back in my own judgement. To be honest, I’m not sure if I’m there yet at the point I write this twenty one bothies later. I question myself over and over again. I doubt my choices repeatedly. A scrape down my left shin has left a scar, but the mental impact has been far greater.

The work party that had been in the week before had done a lovely job. I had a feeling I was the first visitor since the party completed – there certainly weren’t any entries past it in the bothy book, and the whole place looked as if it had been completely spring cleaned.

When the MBA renovated Abyssinia in 2017, it was just a square shell. Fifty volunteers worked over three weeks to create the new bothy, placing insulation on the walls and separating the space into two rooms; a bunk room where six, or eight at a squeeze, could sleep, and the L shaped living area with a kitchen area and metal counters in the nook, a library shelf over a desk and a big picnic table under the front facing window. The stove came later; a big, effective barrel of a stove that would warm the room up in no time.

The bothy was blessed with huge windows that looked north up Glen Kinglas from its perch on the hillside. In front of the building was a large, twisted rowen tree. It is a superstition throughout rural Scotland, and in some places remains, that rowen wards off bad spirits and misfortune. A resident crofter had planted this tree over a hundred years ago to protect his home and his family. It would have been around the 1890s and the tree-planter and his family would have been living in the aftermath of The Clearances. Life must have been constantly uncertain then, but I hope the residents of this home went on to have happy and healthy lives. Regardless of whether or not a tree-spirit was involved.

Another mystery that I have not yet solved is the origin of the bothy’s name – Abyssinia. How did a cottage out in a lonely valley in Scotland come to be known by the old exonym for Ethiopia? The only repeated explanation I find, albeit from murky and unverified sources, is that when it was being built one of the masons had previously been part of the 42nd Highlanders and talked constantly about the Abyssinian War to the point where the other masons nicknamed the building as a joke that stuck. However there doesn’t seem to be anything that would fit a description of ‘the Abyssinian War’ that involved the 42nd Highlanders (which, incidentally, became the Black Watch). They did fight in the Sudan in 1886, which borders Abyssinia, so perhaps the mason had a few memorable visits. I don’t know. Maybe its more interesting not to know.

Two men crashed through the door; a skinny rake of an Irishman carried a pack that was twice the size of mine and his large, Northumbrian companion waved hello and started unpacking coal and beer and steaks. So it was that I was introduced to Kev and Euan.

Kev had worked as an outdoors guide for years out on Raasay before the pandemic came and Raasay House was closed, whilst Euan worked with kids with behavioural issues. Which may have been why he had such a fondness for Kev. The skinny Irishman had endless energy and the attention span of a gnat. He could manage four conversations at once and it was all on you to keep up. Having lived a pretty nomadic life, he had ventured everywhere, and where he couldn’t afford to venture he had hitched, begged, and bartered his way.

The one bar of signal allowed him to access Spotify, but he was unable to hear a whole song to the end before switching it. It was through him I was introduced to the Bothy Culture album by Martyn Bennett. And the amazing earworm that is I’m Walking to a Farm by Ivor Cutler. Seriously, give it a listen and it will never be out of your brain.

Euan was content to sit back and let his companion do most of the talking. He started up a fire and cooked their steaks on the heated top, smiling all the time. We argued about the sofas in Over Phawhope, and it seems the two of them had an equal fondness for Burleywhag as I had. The night grew late as we discussed our various adventures, misadventures, mistakes, milestones and passions. The two of them chose to sleep by the fire, giving me the whole bunkroom to myself. Who says chivalry is dead?

I was happy. The trail has a way of providing, as all hikers know, and that night the trail gave me a wonderful bothy, and equally excellent company at a time when I needed it most.

If you ever need Mountain Rescue and do not have an InReach device, call 999 and ask for the police. Inform the police that you need Mountain Rescue.

If you are rescued, it is customary to make a donation, of whatever size, to the MRT that assisted you.

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

Abyssinia (2017)

Owner: Strone Estate: 01499600284

Fuel: Deadwood and fallen timber can be found in surrounding woodland, but can sometimes be scarce. You are advised to bring your own.

Water: Burns run to the left and front of the bothy.

Notes: Open all year, but stalking does take place in the area. Signs will be posted at the start of the track when this is the case and visitors are asked to stay to the main path at these times. A burn must be crossed to access the bothy which is dangerous in spate (don’t do what I did)

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