Big Bothy Walk #19

I had managed to wrench myself away from the islands for now, which was good because I somehow lost all track of time and myself on them. Their slower pace, friendliness, individuality and, well, many distilleries, means I could pretty much turn into whatever the equivalent would be of an Odyssean sailor on Aeaea. I’m a transformed pig at a feast of all feral beauty and temptation and, before I know it, a decade would have passed and I’d definitely have mega cirrhosis.

Jude stayed in the pastel painted village of Tobermoray, whilst I took the ferry north to Lochaline to make my way to the next bothy, Leacraithnaich.

Leacraithnaich had been built in the late 1800s to house fishing parties that arrived at Loch  Teàrnait, but through the many centuries this site has had many different uses. Iron Age remains of a former settlement lie beneath where the cottage now stands, and sometime in the in-between a small monastery sat here. The loch itself was once deemed sacred, with the power to redeem.

A lonely tree rising marks an island, a crannog. Oral tradition tells a tale where fleeing fugitives from the law could obtain permission from the clan chief to stay on the island for two days and, in doing so, be pardoned. It feels like something is being left out of this story – the island must have been full of massive, spiders, snakes and wolfsharks. Stuff gnarly enough that temporary residency would be seen as punishment in itself.

The walk from the ferry terminal saw me up the west side of Loch Aline and east at the head through the Ardtornish Estate, climbing gently after between the short, scrubby hills of lower Ardgour. The Rannoch River flowed below, and every now and then the arched doorway of a small boathouse opened on the opposite bank.

Its history might be sacred, but that didn’t stop Loch Teàrnait from having a hydroelectric facility built at the outflow. An irritating, small eyesore in the corner of sight as I approached, but unseen from the bothy itself. What took me by surprise was the amount of people gathered at the loch, frolicking in the water just under the bothy; their cars parked just down a track. I wasn’t used to bothies being so public. Many would venture up and poke around out of curiosity throughout the afternoon, every single one surprised that someone had set up to stay here. I’m not sure what they thought the bothy was for.

For a long, long time Leacraithnaich was just a glorified shell of a place, a rough slab of wall cutting the room in half. Draughty and tired, known for mildew and a dodgy gable; not a place many would stay unless it was necessary.

But a huge work party had completely revamped it; fifty volunteers arrived from eight countries to give the former estate lodge a glow up. And what a glow up it is; now the interior has been restored to have three rooms, the two larger outer ones with huge and inviting hearths, both with two person platforms. The left houses a kitchen counter, and the right a large bench while a small room in between squeezes in another one person sleeping space. The work party fixed the dodgy gable, replaced the roof and built skylights into it, secured the walls and spruced up the inside, leaving traces of quirk and charm all over. A blue front door has been used as an interior door, a shelf full of various helpful nick nacks sits among the small library. One of the volunteers, John, put his heart and soul into cooking for the party, and his painted, wooden herb box has been left outside next to a bench that looks out across the loch to the lone tree peering up from the crannog.

It’s a pity the work party took place in 2019. During the pandemic, the bothies were all closed to discourage mingling, and the newly lovely Leacraithnaich had to wait for the chance to show off its new look.

The crowds below eventually dispersed. A flustered cyclist arrived and we studied his map. The onward trail from here around Beinn a’ Chaisil to Glensanda, which he had hoped to follow and then turn north to reach the bridge to Ballachulish was marked on the maps with the green squiggles that indicate marsh or bogs. During the ride up, he had been increasingly alarmed as people repeatedly told him that the onward trail was unrideable, that he would be carrying the bike the whole way as he sank to his knees. There wasn’t much alternative; another route along the contours of Meall a’ Chaorainn was without bogs, but had no northward route along the coast at the end. I wasn’t much help, his only real option was to turn back and return the way he came. At least the days were still long.

Another man arrived soon after he had left; Steve. Steve was one of the happiest people I have ever met and had a passion for scuba diving shipwrecks. With 15,000 vessels lost to Scottish shores, he wasn’t about to run out of new ones to explore anytime soon. Steve had hailed from Yorkshire, and clearly had a passionate and lengthy experience with all the UK’s outdoor spaces, yet he couldn’t pronounce a single one. He was very aware of this and made jokes at his own expense. When we talked about Tunskeen, the nearby mountain Macaterick became Maverick, nearby Loch Linnhe became Loch Line, the village of Lochaline (‘loch-alan’) we had both walked from, was announced phonetically. Even Scarfell Pike became Scawfell Pike which, actually, was its original name before the OS misprinted it. Here Steve was in the right, just not many people knew he was in the right.

It was Steve who told me of Stephan Pern who, in 2015, had walked (properly walked; not cheating by taking buses on roady bits like me) from his home on the south coast of England on a mission to put a new brass hook in every bothy. He made a film, which you can watch on YouTube. From this point I would study the backs of the doors in every bothy to try and find Stephan’s hooks. His trip had been before Leacraithnaich’s makeover, so Steve and I drew a dead end in trying to locate one here; it had most likely been on the door of the original partition which was now demolished.

It had taken Stephen around 220 days and 3,000 miles to walk from his southerly home, to all the hundred or so bothies, and back again. Which sounds like a long time, but it had already taken me a month and a half to get through just nineteen bothies. And I hadn’t even started at home! Was I going to be at this a year?! At least my carbon footprint would be impressively tiny.

We went off to our respective rooms to sleep, and he carried on listening to music and singing along joyfully and with abandon. The sorts of singing the rest of us only do in the privacy of our shower. It was fantastic.

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

Leacraithnaich (1983)

Owner: Ardtornish Estate: 01967 421292

Fuel: Not much local wood, though sometimes the estate leaves a bundle. You are recommended to bring your own fuel.

Water: Loch and burn down in front of the bothy

Notes: Closed during stalking season 1st September-20th October. From then until 15th February it is advised to keep to the keep route from Ardtornish; if you are hoping to access via a different route, please contact the Ardtornish Estate for guidance. Do not fish in the loch without a permit.

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