It’s been almost a year since I last hiked off to a bothy and spent some time in it, so earlier this week, I rectified the situation and trekked off to Coire Fionnaraich. Various things just seem to have got in the way recently, including weather, stuff I need to do, and a problem with my foot that has made long hikes difficult. I think I’ve also suffered bit of a confidence problem after overdoing things on my last bothy trip – I went to Knockdamph in less-than-ideal weather, and found the hike in rather too demanding. The result was a less than pleasant stay overshadowed by dread of having to hike back again.
I therefore figured it was important to ease myself back into the bothy game gently, so I drew up a list of bothies with fairly short hikes in. Coire Fionnaraich turned out to be a very modest two miles, and also looked like a very attractive bothy and location – but more on that later!
I spent Wednesday evening and Thursday morning loading up my backpack with essentials (food, fuel, sleeping bag etc) before driving off to Coulags, up to the north-west of Inverness. With a stop for lunch as well, it took me just over five hours, and it turned out to be a fine drive in beautiful weather. Many of Scotland’s A-roads have a tendency to turn into dirt tracks north of Inverness, but only the last few miles were a particular challenge, and it was easy to find a place to park. It was around 4.30pm when I set off for the bothy on foot, and about six o’clock when I arrived.
I always like to try and get bothies to myself, and use a few tricks of timing to improve my chances. When I parked up, I noticed three other cars and tried to work out what people might be doing. On my hike, I soon noticed a group hiking back, and they drove off, so that was one car down, and then I met some others a bit later who were returning from hillwalking. They told me the bothy was empty when they’d passed earlier. Possibly only one car load to worry about!
The hike was short but certainly packed quite a punch in terms of spectacular scenery. It initially involved bit of a tough uphill slog, and it was surprisingly hot for an April day, so a few stops for rest and water were required. None of it was particularly tricky, but there was a bridge that proved a little daunting. It went over the river, and was very narrow. It had no handrail and was very high up, with a steep step to get onto it. With my foot not being in the best shape and my big pack, I was genuinely a bit scared of tumbling off the bridge into the river, but I made it across safely, just about.
I ran into a few more people just as I approached the bothy, including some mountain bikers, but they just stopped for photos before riding onwards. It was indeed empty when I arrived, and I found it to be in superb shape. Just a week or so before, there had been a workparty at the bothy, and I found it boasting new windows, new panelling and a worktop in one room, a fresh lick of paint in another, and a good supply of offcuts for use as firewood. Very important in the treeless environment around the bothy. Everything was in tip-top condition, and with the stunning view out of the window, I congratulated myself on my excellent choice.
Three other people soon arrived, though – it’s clearly a busy bothy, with lots of people passing on the path that runs very close to it. Two of the three were doing the Cape Wrath Trail. It sounded like they were doing brutal distances each day and the whole thing made me feel exhausted just listening to them. I suppose there’s something to be said for challenging yourself, but my outdoor existence is on an altogether more relaxed level than that. I reflected on this as I saw trail runners and mountain bikers battle through the landscape at great speed. I feel no particular need to prove myself, be that to me or anyone else, and when I’ve reached a bothy, I’m happy just to chill in it for a while. The people were nice enough, though, and a pleasant evening was spent by the fire. As they faffed about with expensive gear, swapped horror stories about camping in freezing and wet conditions, and discussed their plans to walk 22 miles the next day, I contemplated a much easier agenda which involved staying within sight of the bothy at all times.
I slept in the room with the fire, while the others went and used the generous upstairs space for the night. I didn’t sleep well, but that’s nothing unusual. It was a comfortable enough billet, and I enjoyed the peace, quiet and solitude of this beautiful spot.
I awoke to a full day of bothy living, and this for me is the point and pleasure of the exercise. The others were all off on their way fairly early, leaving me to a leisurely breakfast and cup of coffee. Once fuelled up, I sat at the table staring out of the window, and spent most of the morning writing a letter.
Lots of people walked past the bothy without giving it a second glance, making me wonder if most people even know what it is. One guy walked up, stared in the window, saw me looking back at him, and walked away extremely quickly, not seeming to twig that if he’d wanted to, he could have come in and used the building. Various people did pop their heads around the door and say hello, but none stayed for any length of time. I also took a chair outside for a while in the afternoon, and chatted to people as they passed by. Mainly, though, I was left to my own devices.
This was the most interesting and surprising visitor of all, and was on the doorstep of the bothy just as I was about to step outside. It took a while to notice me, enabling me to grab the picture. It’s an adder, the only snake species native to Scotland, and it’s the very first time I’ve ever seen a snake in the wild. All a bit exciting. Once it had seen me, it quickly slithered away.
I soon found myself slipping into the quiet and timeless rhythm of living in such a wild and remote place. Time ceased to matter and passed slowly, the sky gradually changing as the day wore on. I didn’t bother keeping regular mealtimes, simply eating when I was hungry, and I went to bed when I was tired (quite early, in fact). I wasn’t distracted by anything at all – my phone stayed switched off because it wouldn’t work anyway, and it made my mind far more focussed. I ploughed through an entire book over the course of the day, and did a lot of thinking. I only wandered far enough from the bothy to take a few photos, and just savoured the absolute pleasure of being able to sleep and wake up in such a spectacular setting.
This is truly the miracle of bothies. In a world where just about everything is monetised, it’s amazing that you can just turn up and effectively just live here, albeit for a very short period. It costs nothing, and there’s no hurdles or hassles involved. You can simply take up residence for a little while, and feel like you own the place. It’s a strange feeling of liberation and luxury I find hard to describe. Admittedly it’s not everyone’s idea of luxury, as having to go outside to pee in the middle of the night isn’t fun, but what it lacks in physical comforts, the bothy more than makes up for in its charm and its location. It’s truly wonderful, and an experience that enriches the soul in a way that few other things can.
Much to my surprise, I had the bothy to myself on the second night I was there – looking at the bothy book on the table, it’s clearly a popular and busy location. As tiredness caught up with me a little, I slept better on that second night, although I did wake at about three in the morning needing to answer the call of nature. This happens to me extremely rarely, but I’m glad it did on this particular occasion, as it gave me an opportunity to look at the stars. Oh my, the stars! The sky was incredible, I’ve never seen so many. I’m sure I also saw the International Space Station pass over, although it could have been something else. It was a human-made contraption of some sort, in any case, as it flashed at regular intervals. A form of space bothy, perhaps.
I woke up later at about half past eight, and was soon packing up and tidying before setting off for my car. It took me just an hour walking back this time, as it was all downhill and my pack was lighter. The bridge really intimidated me this time, though, and I was very scared as I attempted to climb up on to it – I gave up and waded across the river instead. Thankfully it wasn’t deep or particularly difficult to cross, but I squelched the whole way back to the car. Certainly a pole on each side of the bridge to grab on to would have made things a lot easier, and it’s something I’ll try suggesting to the landowners.
It was about eleven o’clock when I got back to my car. The drive home felt a bit tedious and interminable as I got caught up in roadworks on the A9, and I returned to the world of routine once more. I won’t forget the trip in a hurry, though – it was absolutely superb. Some amazing weather, a wild and spectacular landscape, a charming bothy, some fascinating wildlife, a book, a letter, and plenty of staring into space. I can’t honestly think of much that can top that.