For Pete Geall, a man who is quite comfortable with a sensibly priced Bivvy bag, the prospect of staying somewhere with basic brick and mortar was that of Airbnb luxury.
In search of the cold and uncrowded and intrigued by tales of old, the Cornish born surfer has set about seeking refuge in these remote outposts. Another caretaker of a time-honoured establishment leaving as little trace as possible but that of a few waves ridden.
Bothies are small, simple shelters often situated in remote places across the U.K. The majority of which are maintained by the excellent Mountain Bothy Association (MBA), who do a fantastic job of keeping the bothies accessible and safe for the use of walkers and hikers.
I’d first become aware of bothies after reading about how a lady named Margaret Davies died alone in a remote one in the North West of Scotland. It is a sad story. In 2002 the Cambridge educated geographer was found by two walkers, clinging to life in the Kearvaig bothy, emaciated and lying close to a note begging for help. Without mobile phone reception, one of the men was forced to run the 8kms to the lighthouse, where the alarm was raised.
She was airlifted to the Isle of Lewis for medical treatment, but died of hypothermia and starvation shortly after. A prolific writer and painter, she was working on a treatise on the nature of solitude, and had hiked from Inverness to Cape Wrath to experience the intensity of isolation and ultimately paid with her life. It was decided by the authorities that Margaret’s death was the result of misjudgement, without sufficient food she would have lost the strength to walk out the steep valley and lacked the means to contact the outside world. In the summer the bothy is frequently visited in by hikers and bird-watchers but in December when Margaret was found it is often abandoned for weeks at a time.
For reasons unknown to me I was compelled by that story. The melancholy, the quiet desperation of it all spoke to me in ways I still don’t quite understand. I was also drawn to the concept of wilderness; the dichotomy of isolation - simultaneously pure and dangerous. I experience a similar feeling when I look out from the cliffs near my home in West Cornwall at empty lighthouses being battered by winter storms.
Digging deeper I was intrigued to read about the presence of small, maintained shelters or ‘Bothies’ that were available for people to stay in for free. Having spent a number of budget trips camped out all over Scotland, mainly in carparks adjacent to surf breaks or hills - the concept of staying somewhere without any facilities was not alien to me. In fact the presence of walls and a fireplace already sounded like a decent upgrade.
I decided to study the MBA’s map of bothies with the blinkered eyes of a surfer, allowing me to discount outright many locations far from the coast. For many the bothy serves as a stepping stone to a physical challenge, a place to seek refuge before or after tackling a mountainside - therefore using them in the context of a surf trip did not feel like an unnatural fit. During my research I also discovered that many bothies are deliberately kept secret by those in the know, echoing the secretive and protective nature of surf culture - only serving to draw me further down this rabbit hole.
The culmination of this fantasy came a year or so later. An energy sapping thirty kilometre, multi-day hike through boggy moorland. Resting overnight at a couple of bothies, somewhat conveniently located along the way. Weighed down with a surfboard and heavy pack filled with four days supplies - Light amble in the hills this was not. Both me and my travelling partner Harry hadn’t underestimated the physical and logistical challenge, but we hadn’t bargained on how intimidating the 277 square kilometres of unforgiving moorland known as ‘Cape Wrath’ would be be.
With much of the Cape owned by the Ministry of Defence, access was challenging (we had to time our trip around live-firing on the range) and information difficult to obtain. The waves were terrible of course. Two sessions: one terrifyingly large and raw; the other a confused lineup of cross-hair wedges bouncing around a bay at the end of the land. As far as I’m aware no-one has ever surfed there. The surfing a mere sideshow to the journey, bothies and stories we found along the way. A medium in which to explore this rarely visited corner of the country.
I’d originally approached bothies with a haunting romanticism for the wild. What surprised me most after staying at a number of them was their ability to amplify a social setting, framing it with wild. Their splendid isolation allowing them to represent shelter in its purest expression. A grand stage in which to sit around a blazing hearth, break bread - and put the world to rest over a dram with friends new and old.
Occasionally when I’m looking at the surf forecast for Cornwall, I find my eyes drawn up the chart by an especially large storm battering the NW of Scotland. I like to imagine the desolate scene at the bothies that I have stayed; rain and storm lashed. I wonder if they are empty? A solitary candle in the window. Four walls surrounded by the wild. In a world with so many monsters outside, that feels incredibly reassuring. Places where we can feel small and paradoxically big at the same time.
- A detailed account of my adventures in Cape Wrath: www.petegeall.com/cape-wrath
The MBA Bothy Code:
Respect Other Users
Please leave the bothy clean and tidy with dry kindling for the next visitors. Make other visitors welcome and be considerate to other users.
Respect the Bothy
Tell us about any accidental damage. Don’t leave graffiti or vandalise the bothy. Please take out all rubbish which you can’t burn. Avoid burying rubbish; this pollutes the environment. Please don’t leave perishable food as this attracts vermin. Guard against fire risk and ensure the fire is out before you leave. Make sure the doors and windows are properly closed when you leave.
Respect the Surroundings
If there is no toilet at the bothy please bury human waste out of sight. Use the spade provided, keep well away from the water supply and never use the vicinity of the bothy as a toilet.
Never cut live wood or damage estate property. Use fuel sparingly.
Respect Agreement with the Estate
Please observe any restrictions on use of the bothy, for example during stag stalking or at lambing time. Please remember bothies are available for short stays only. The owner’s permission must be obtained if you intend an extended stay.
Respect the Restriction On Numbers
Because of over crowding and lack of facilities, large groups (6 or more) should not use a bothy. Bothies are not available for commercial groups.