Big Bothy Walk #20
No other bothy manages to be both as visible and as inaccessible as Essan.
Perched on the south side of Loch Eilt, the railway line that carries the trains between Fort William and Mallaig runs only 100 metres or so in front of the bothy, with the A-road carrying cars the other side of the loch.
Unfortunately, the train does not do request stops.
It is odd, having a view of tiny traffic; small glints off cars and the trundle of the trains, knowing full well that with a glimpse out a window, they will see you too. On a later train journey I took my own photo out the window as the bothy passed; taunting and smug, watching from the bankside plain, nestled between the dense lumps of Sgurr na Paite and Creag Dhearg. This is the very edge of Moidart; an almost entirely water enclosed area that forms part of the Rough Bounds. And the rough bounding started immediately.
I had walked in from Fort William, on a grass verge by the road to Glenfinnan beside the coaches arriving in their hordes carrying tourists waiting to linger around a viewpoint to snap the train as it passed. The Jacobite Steam Train passing over the Glenfinnan Viaduct having been a sight made famous by the Harry Potter films. A few miles up the road from Glenfinnan, an ATV track sloshed off to the left.
It had been a long road walk, and I could have taken a bus or hitched, but I had felt twitchy after the long bus ride from Lochaline the previous day and preferred to walk. I wish I had taken the bus; perhaps the absolute madness that followed would have been less mad if I had had more energy.
It is apt that ‘Moidart’ comes from the Old Norse for mud and fjord because for the first two miles the ground was barely stable. Just a constant sucking, slipping slodge of endless mud as it slid and tripped its way around the top of Loch Eilt and under a tiny gap beneath the railway line. From here it advanced upwards, to the col at the back of Sgurr na Paite.
It was only a 200 metre climb, but for every three steps I took, I slid back two. I remember thinking already that it was going to be pretty treacherous to head back on. The ATV track, or what was passing for one, disappeared here. I honestly thought the worst was over; it was barely a mile from here to the shore where the bothy was. I could almost see it.
That one mile must have easily taken me over an hour. In fact, the three miles from the road nearly matched itself in hours, but that last mile was an absolute beast.
From here it is up to the hiker to make their own way down the allt with not even a sheeptrack to mark their way. Bogs, tussocks, crags and, with it being midsummer, high bracken obscuring it all. My route down must have looked like the sort of frantic scribble a three year old with a crayon would produce. I was constantly recalibrating, going back, going wide, going in and, all the time, looking at the water for the right place to cross. I had been advised not to cross too early because the other side was cursed with even more bogs, but it was hardly like the east bank was a dream.
If I went higher up the hill, I found myself stuck between crags and jarring my ankles between tussocks in an endless round and round labyrinth of failed attempts to find safe passage. If I went nearer to the water, the bracken consumed the route. It was steep, and a misstep could easily see an accident occur that would be concealed by the vegetation until late September.
I had had more than enough of the trials of the east bank and made a messy crossing of the water. The allt ran steeply in small waterfalls all the way down and I chose to cross behind a ledge just before a small fall, the water temporarily calmed by the rocks. It was deeper than I expected. Good thing I was already pretty wet from all the bogs.
I scrambled out the far end with the knowledge that it was highly unlikely I was going to be able to face this route again to come out. The muddy half would be far more taxing on a descent, especially after being exhausted if I even managed to survive an ascent of this half without badly hurting myself in the process. For now though, the aim was just to get to the stupid bothy.
I turned from the water as soon as I could and just pushed through the bracken and slodge, the small stone cottage now within reach below me.
Essan long predates the railway which was built along the old winding path that once connected the remote settlements that sat between Fort William and the coast. Its first cartographical appearance is in 1876, though it is likely the building long predates it. Rubble around indicates the rest of the township, now entirely abandoned and fallen to time. The wide grassy area that flattens in front of it would have been a pasture. Now it is a floodplain.
In the winter, flash floods can rise two feet up the exterior wall of the bothy and swamp the inside. Bothy book entries from those finding themselves here at those times manage to be both dramatic and full of humour as they recount being trapped on upper bunks and watching the fireplaces fill with water. The burn has been intentionally rerouted a few times, but nature always seems to overthrow human attempts to change it. Photographs of the outside of Essan from just a few years ago show the water in a very different place; and yet it still floods repeatedly. Just how long will it be before the struggle to keep the bothy standing is no longer worth it?
It would be a pity if it had to be surrendered to the elements. It is a very pleasing bothy. Darkwood walls make the space dark, but high ceilings and large rooms give it grandeur. There are three rooms here; a living area with a kitchen counter to the right, antlers above the fireplace, and a bunkroom to the left. I set up in the bare middle room and went outside to enjoy the view of the approaching evening and try and put off my thoughts as to how in the world I would get out.
I had restocked my food and charged my devices in Fort William, meaning I had five days worth of supplies and longer in electricity. Seeing as I wasn’t injured and had shelter, this was far from a situation in which to contact Mountain Rescue again (though I since learnt that people do call the MRT when they don’t think they are able to get out again and the MRT gets the train to stop in front of the bothy. This is considered by many with disapproval and as a waste of resources). I could just wait around in the hopes a friendly canoeist would venture across the loch; after all the approach to Essan is best recommended to be undertaken by boat. For good reason it seems.
The other option was to walk along the railway line. I absolutely did not like this option one tiny bit and I don’t feel like I have to explain why. Regardless, many people DO walk in and out this way around the front of Sgurr na Paite rather than the back, on the firm railway sleepers above the bogs and the bracken. Presently, with much of what had gone on before, I did not feel like trying my luck at seeing whether I could dive out the way of an oncoming train quick enough or not.
This could just be my home now. I could just stay. I’d become a bothy hermit (I wouldn’t be the first) and people would venture in for the novelty of my company and when they asked me why I chose to become a bothy hermit, I’d tell them truthfully that it wasn’t a choice, I just couldn’t get out. Could they take me with them please? And then they’d laugh at how funny I was not realising that their dismissal cursed me to many more years of hermitting.
There was another choice. Unusually for a bothy, it has full 4G signal. I googled local watersports companies and sent them pleading messages explaining my plight and begging for rescue (and just how much would that rescue cost?)
The bothy book was full of expletives from others that had hiked in the way I had. There was definitely a vindication in seeing I wasn’t the only idiot suffering here. There had been plenty of idiots.
In the morning one by one the watersports companies called me back thanking me for the laugh I gave them all. Every single one offered to help. Apparently it seems like I am the first person ever who has attempted this method of evacuation from Essan. I don’t know whether this made me feel proud and ingenious, or if it made me more of a prat. Regardless, the fantastic Stewart from Rockhopper Sea Kayaking was over the water in his yellow boat by midday to take me safely across the loch.
So, if you want my advice on how to get to Essan; don’t bother walking, just get a boat. Or prepare to be a bothy hermit.
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
Owner: Inverailort Estate: 01687 470206
Fuel: Not much local wood. You are recommended to bring your own fuel.
Water: Burns to the left and back of the bothy
Notes: Open all year. During stag stalking season (1st September – 20th October) please contact Inverailort Estate to discuss access. You are asked not to walk along the railway tracks and to only cross at designated places; to do otherwise might incur a £1,000 penalty.