Big Bothy Walk #27

Glenpean sits just the other side of Monadh Gorm from A’chuil. So close, and yet so entirely different. Where the setting for A’chuil is both well walked and wild, the Glenpean valley is off the Cape Wrath Trail and thus the bothy is much less visited. However, where A’chuil looks out over the long grasses and rough peaks of an undisturbed Glendessary, industry advances on Glenpean; the walk the other side of the hill covered with the pruned stumps of felled plantation.

A’chuil is basic; sparse walls and a utilitarian format. Glenpean, however, is splendid.

After veering off a forestry path to navigate half a kilometre of bogs, I came to the front door which opened up to a living area; large windows and a hearth sat beside a sleeping platform. A room off to the left had another sleeping platform forming an L-shape around two walls with a cabinet and counter against another. A wheelbarrow sat in the space beneath the stairs that went up to the attic at an alarming angle

A large open space spread to the left of the attic, with a small room on the right. A tent had been set up by some unknown previous visitor and left. Initially I didn’t know if someone was in it or not and gingerly prodded it a few times with several greetings to make sure. Bats squeaked in the roof.

The interior whitewash of A’chuil contrasted to the darkwood of Glenpean, hiding holes and crannies in the rafters. A thrush of some sort was already trapped in the living area when I arrived and I had opened the door and tried to usher it out but the frightened bird had, instead, flown upstairs. Any time I made an attempt to coax it down, it would hide away in a space I would not see.

Glenpean’s name has Norse origins, coming from a peighinn of land. A pennyland; roughly the size of one farm. Twenty pennylands would be worth an ounce of silver in rent. The building was constructed as another outpost for the sheepfarm that A’chuil had also been part of, and its use as such was short lived. Having been built in 1870, only one tenant shepherd and his family ever lived here. They left after forty five years having seen the wartime deaths of all three sons in close succession. The wool industry was floundering, and the farm was failing. Without a shepherd, it was abandoned and lived a life as an open shelter, and now a formal bothy, longer than it had ever been anything else.

That isn’t to say the area hadn’t been anything else. Knoydart was once a lot busier and far more populated than it was now; the Glen Pean Valley would have been home to two settlements alone. One would have sat here where the bothy is, and another would have sat where Oban bothy now stands, incredibly lonely, on the bank of Loch Morar farther west. The population of Knoydart prior to the Clearances would have been around a thousand, now it is 120. In 1842, four hundred people were evicted from Knoydart and left to Canada and over the next century, a string of powerful and ambivolent landlords saw the remaining residents descend into dire poverty at the mercy of high rents, and suffering the famine brought on by potato blight. The situation became so awful that the Priest Father Coll arrived to feed and clothe the population at his own expense; at one point he sheltered 8 families under a canvas in the chapel garden at Sandaig.

The later Victorian era brought new and vibrant economy to many rural areas of Scotland, and Knoydart essentially became one large shooting estate which, at least, provided stable employment for the residents. However, with the event of the World Wars and the decline of the wool industry, the 1940s saw the vast remainder of families pack up and leave for the cities in search of better lives.

A glen once full of people and many houses, and centuries of history, had now been reduced to just two cottages, and often described as lonely, or isolated, or remote as if that had always been the case. You could be forgiven for thinking so; the ground has swallowed many relics of what remained though a ruin seen across the river was the home of Donald Cameron, a pathfinder, that guided Prince Charlie across the mountains to Loch Shiel after his defeat at Culloden.

I went on to bore the two girls that arrived after me with all this history. They were from Tasmania, and had spent the previous night down the glen at Oban bothy in the company of a strange man who turned out to be something of a conspiracy theorist, claiming everything from linseed oil to toothpaste was doped secretly with something else. Maddie and Maggie worked in the outdoors back home, and were therefore entirely confident in traversing the ranges of supposedly remote outposts of another small island. They were completely impressive.

I became excited because I started to believe I might finally be experiencing an all-girl bothy night. Twenty seven bothies and I’d finally have one with all ladies! In fact, sadly, the amount of fellow females I’d seen had been extremely small. Three had arrived as parts of couples, and I’d only met one other on her own at Gleann Dubh-Lighe. Unfortunately she had been one of the most annoying people I’ve ever had to share a space with.

We were well into preparing out girly sleepover, with a new stack of wood freshly cut and all our socks drying over a fire, when company entered. Male company. I suppose, if we were to have our ladies night interrupted by a man, we were all incredibly happy that it was Bill, the 80-something year old Maintenance Officer.

Bill had come accompanied by his daughter, Laurie, who no longer allowed her stubborn but aging father to go gallivanting in the hills alone anymore. Along with them was Laurie’s boyfriend; a very polite man who had absolutely no experience whatsoever in the outdoors and was wearing Wellingtons because that was the only outdoorsy shoe he owned. It was his first outing, and to say it was all coming as a bit of a culture shock is an understatement. He grew gradually quieter and quieter as Laurie told us enthusiastically of New Years Eve nights spent in bothies as children with a whole bunch of strangers and waking up on January 1st on the top of the alpine bunks to see frost clinging to the walls. Her and her father laughed at their many memories of entire lives spent outside. The boyfriend was starting to realise the reality of what falling in love with Laurie meant.

Bill pointed out the stairs and said that they were finally going to be replaced. The President of the local climbing club had fallen down them and broken bones and that was sort of the last straw. When a man in charge of a expert group of mountain climbers in an area dense with Munros manages to have an accident on a flight of stairs, it indicates how dangerous the stairs might be. Glenpean is one of only two bothies (the other being Over Phawhope) directly owned by the MBA. When the surrounding land was sold for forestry, the area of the bothy was purposefully excluded from the sale, allowing the MBA to look after Glenpean forever.

Laurie and her boyfriend took the other attic space, whilst Maggie and Maddie retreated to the side room downstairs. Bill slept by the fire. The bats squeaked in the roof and, at some point, the thrush made itself known by fluttering out of the window frame above me and banging around the walls until I jumped up to try, yet again, to free it.

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

Glenpean (1981)

Owner: Mountain Bothies Association: 01878700249

Fuel: Deadwood and fallen timber in nearby plantation.

Water: Burn to the right of the bothy.

Notes: Open all year, but deer control takes place from 1st July to 16th February with the critical period being between 20th August to 20th September. When stalking is happening, a sign is attached to the Strathan road end marking the areas to avoid. Please stay on low lying routes and ridges during the critical time.

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