Big Bothy Walk #25

Invermallie was the 25th bothy on my walk and, up until this point, the majority had contained a now-predictable layout of two larger outer rooms sandwiching a smaller one – classic but-and-ben buildings. Occasionally the space would be separated into two rather than three, or there would be the added novelty of an attic. Sometimes the bothies had been byres and preserved with ingenuity as just the one room. Invermallie was none of these. Invermallie was huge.

Most of these bothies would have often squeezed in families of five or six people into the three rooms, historically contained in shelved beds curtained off on the side of the living areas. Invermallie had six rooms. Six! That was enough to have a whole room that would have been a parlour. ‘Parlour’ is just a fancy word for what people do with a room they have no use for; they already have a lounge, but then put a couple chairs and a rug in the ‘parlour’ and then never, ever use it.

There was once a whole settlement of 21 houses here by the southeastern banks of Loch Arkaig. The original house here was a blackhouse; a long narrow building with a soot stained roof made of thatch which had burned down in 1775. It was rebuilt by the Clan Cameron tackman, Alexander the 5th of Invermallie, and he proceeded to live there with his wife until he, and the rest of the settlement, were evicted in the Highland Clearances. Whilst the rest of the abandoned settlement fell to waste, the higher standard that Alexander had built his home to preserved it.

After the forced evictions, the cottage became a stalker’s residence and was modified. Originally a single storey building, the crucks were removed to raise the walls a metre and construct an upper floor. Its use by the ghillies of the estate continued until 1966, with the MBA taking guardianship fifteen years later. The unused and ridiculously large cottage was just too full of character and potential to allow to degrade.

On the first floor, three rooms and a cupboard extend off the hallway. To the left a sleeping platform for two or three lies around two walls with a fireplace opposite, in the middle is a bright single person room with green painted walls, and to the right is a large living space. A fireplace has a sign with the name of the bothy above it and many chairs and a table sit in front of a nook that holds a kitchen counter.

Upstairs, two rooms lie off a central area; both bright and comfortable, but I quickly nabbed the right hand room which housed a two person platform, made comfortable with durable, cleanable, rubber covered mattresses, a table and a chairs and a fireplace of my own.

The constant rain of the previous few days had altered my route in. I had originally planned to head over the low col of the hills opposite Gleann Dubh-Lighe to enter a narrow valley to the west of Gulvain, heading north, then west, to be conveniently plopped out pretty much at the bothy door. But the contours of the map showed the sides of the valley as being very steep, and lined with many, many small burns. I did not have enough local knowledge to know how high or how fast the water in these burns had become, but judging from the burns surrounding Gleann Dubh-Lighe they would not be giving me easy crossings. Or accessible crossings at all. The one alternative, to go high along the interrupted ridge of Corbetts and Munros was absolutely not going to be a fun one under low skies, dark clouds and constant rain.

This only left the alternative to make my way along the road east to Banavie, before Fort William, and go via the Great Glen Way north. Fortunately I managed to hitch a lift from a half awake commuter once I’d fumbled out to the road. I’m not sure he fully computed that he had picked up a hitchhiker. In fact, he might not have been stopping for me at all; he might have been stopping to nap and I just assumed it was for me. No matter, I got to Banavie. I hope he had a great day at work.

The River Lochy would be by my side for the first ten miles nearly all the way to Achnacarry. The Caledonian Canal is an incredible piece of engineering stretching the length of the Great Glen, utilising Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and Loch Ness and requiring the opening and closing of 28 locks to travel entirely. Designed by Thomas Telford, of whom I am a huge fan, 200 years ago, it took 18 years to build. Admittedly this was twelve years overdue and the whole thing went £425,000 over budget (£14 million in today’s money). By the time its delayed opening came about, ship technology had progressed and the newer goods ships were now simply to big to fit. Fortunately tourism in Scotland was really kicking off as the populace of the UK wanted to do everything Queen Victoria was doing, and she did an awful lot in Scotland. So it was the Caledonian Canal had a second life, that it still lives, as an incredible place to enjoy the dramatic scenery of Scotland, be it by boat, foot, or via a coach tour.

I will admit though, as much as I love my Tommy Telford, it all got a bit boring after a while, and I was glad for the swing bridge to appear to grant me something different. Up through Achnacarry and past the Clan Cameron Museum, I carried on through the forest.

Despite being only a couple gridsquares away from the busy Great Glen, it sits in Mìle Dorcha, the Dark Mile. Another glen, but this one covered with great, tangled knots of trees and every surface thick with moss. The greenery close and smothering; as enticing and silencing as hush money. It looms around the hiker, the trees soak up sound and spit out only shadow, trying to intimidate them from the path. But as Loch Arkaig nears, the darkness thins out, the knots loosen, the light starts to enter and sound carries once more. All at once, there is the loch ahead. Then this great, big bothy sitting smugly like a prize.

I hadn’t expected to be alone tonight. A bothy this big does gather a bit of a reputation as a party house, and not just for hikers; it has been the venue for several of the annual MBA meetings. I always wonder about those meetings; with 103 bothies, each one with at least one MO, at least half with two; if even a third of the MOs show up then that’s about fifty people. That’s not even including anyone involved in the running that isn’t an MO, nor any regular members like myself who are welcome to come along. With these meetings being held at bothies, imagine being a small group of hikers turning up to see this huge crowd of MBA members and MOs? You’d have to be on your best behaviour.

But I was alone that night. Well, nearly. There were two horses kept wild on the banks and with the midges and horseflies giving them constant grief, they would rub themselves frantically on the corners of the building. I opened the door a couple times to go outside only to come face to face with a horse. I cannot deny I was well guarded, but my concern was less about potential company and more for the continuing rain.

Like Essan, Invermallie sits on what has become a floodplain. The River Mallie beside it bursting its banks with relative frequency after heavy rain. An event that is enough of a problem that the MO had put up evacuation instructions on the wall. Like Essan, I wonder how long it will be before the struggle against the water is deemed too much and too expensive to keep addressing? How long before Invermallie is surrendered, and the last remaining cottage of a once bustling settlement is allowed to fall to rubble and have that history start to be forgotten?

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

Invermallie (1981)

Owner: Locheil Estate: 01397 712608

Fuel: Deadwood and fallen timber around river, but I would suggest bringing your own.

Water: Burn to the left of the bothy down the track, river down slope to the front

Notes: Open all year, but during stalking season (1st September-20th October) please contact the Locheil Estate to enquire about access if you wish to approach the bothy via a route away from the main track from Achnacarry. Be aware that the bothy is on a floodplain, and both the area and the building itself is prone to flood in the event that the river bursts it banks. To evacuate in these conditions it is advised you head west along the river to the sideburn and follow it up the newer forest road. This road is not visible on all maps, but it can clearly be seen from the bothy.

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