THE annual committee meeting and meal at the Crask Inn is a highlight of the year for those Mountain Bothies Association folk who look after the remote shelters in the north and north-west Highlands.
A gathering of people who think nothing of spending a week or two, many miles from the nearest road or habitation, rebuilding walls and roofs, replacing windows, digging ditches, installing stoves or doing any of the countless other jobs required to keep an old house exposed to the worst of mountain weather in tip-top condition.
We discuss all the bothies, a litany of names which few other than the most dedicated hill-goer will ever have visited or even heard of, yet so familiar to those present. Work done since the last meeting? Work planned over the next year? Fire risk assessments completed?
Maol Bhuidhe, one of the remotest, is to get a memorial plaque to Mike Pratt who looked after the place for many years, sometimes living there for weeks at a time, but who sadly died a year ago. A stove is planned for Bearnais and perhaps too at Strathcailleach, up towards Cape Wrath, but then maybe not as the peat fire there is one of the best of any bothy. Can anyone find the source of the roof leak at Kearvaig?
Major renovations continue at Shenavall, perhaps the most well-known and busiest of bothies and a flagship for the organisation. And will the estate be willing to let the stone bothy at Glenbeg be renovated after the neighbouring hut burnt down, a bothy in as remote a location as you’ll find anywhere in Britain?
After the meeting, a grand meal, venison stew always on the menu. We sit at long tables with the hubbub of conversation so loud that my voice is always hoarse afterwards. People have travelled up to 600 miles to attend this meeting so many will stop the night, mostly camping or in the bothy next door.
Being a relative local, I usually travel home afterwards. It’s always the same. I step out of the warmth of the bar into an utterly black night, the Crask is the only habitation for miles and has its own generator. Rain is lashing down from the north-west.
With no torch (I should have learnt by now) I stumble down the inky-black road into the bitter wind and rain, trying to find the car. Then a long drive back via Altnaharra and Strathnaver, keeping the speed down because deer can appear from nowhere. This time, on the road, I see a fox, a mouse, sheep, deer, a cat and a rabbit before reaching Bettyhill and meet the second car just before Reay.
The night before I’d been at ‘my’ bothy, Loch Strathy; as maintenance organiser I’m supposed to go out there at least twice a year. But with the whole of central Sutherland likely to become one of Europe’s biggest windfarms, stretching all the way to the bothy, it’s been hard to summon up enthusiasm for more than these statutory visits.
Until the turbines go up, however, the bothy is still one of the most quiet and out-of-the-way places in the north. The usual route in is by a 12-mile cycle down a long, long, potholed and rutted track from Strathy, passing through endless plantations dating from the ’80s tax-break days. A more interesting approach is to walk in from Rhifail in Strathnaver, across the Sutherland flow-country.
A car is very useful to reach places far from public transport but can then be a right nuisance. A strange car left overnight by the road soon gets the local people concerned, next the police are called, then the mountain rescue, and before you know it the man spending a peaceful night in a remote bothy is woken by the sound of a helicopter. It has happened, but never to me. So I leave a note in the car saying I’ll be back the next day, a thing which of course carries its own risks.
My pack is heavy with a new spade, saw and fire-bucket for the bothy and I sweat slowly up the slopes of Beinn Rifa-gil, a hill which fortunately only just breaks the 900-foot contour.
In the early sun, the sound of one or two rutting stags carries from slopes across the valley. Quad-bike tracks criss-cross this landscape of low hills, lochs and wet moorland, nobody walks to the fishing or stalking these days. But it’s still a largely unspoilt, severe landscape and I enjoy being out in the empty places again as I slosh my way through the bogs and round the lochans.
Sun comes and goes, occasional light showers blow in from the west. The long line of the forest-edge comes into view and at last the bothy hoves into sight, after keeping my feet dry all this way, one of my wellies disappears into a hidden hole and fills with water.
I’ve work to do. The bothy had been quite heavily used over the summer and needs a good tidy and clean – there’s lots of rubbish to burn and bury and I need to move the meagre furnishings from one room to another to reduce the fire risk.
Before dark, I wander a mile south for a view of Loch na Saobhaidhe with its little islands, then return for a leisurely evening by the fire.
The Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland is at last being recognised as unique and one of the most precious landscapes in the world. But not even that can stop the combined might of the Scottish Government, the biggest electricity companies and the landowners in putting huge wind-turbines right to the edge of the former tax-break plantations – which themselves were a rape of the landscape, justified then in much the same language as is now used for the windfarms.
Very similar language was used, two centuries ago, when 2000 people were cleared from Strathnaver, for their own community benefit of course.
The RSPB now looks after the land just south of the forest and a lot of work has been done to block up old drains. It must have been in the late 1960s or early 1970s that landowners found they could get money for digging ditches, so within a short time the whole of the Caithness and Sutherland moors were scarred by long straight drains.
Presumably it was supposed to improve the grazing or something. Anyway they made very little difference to the wet conditions but – to be on the safe side some 40 years later – are being blocked up again by the conservation organisations. The forest fence marks the boundary between destruction and tender loving care.
Saturday morning brings gleams of sun between heavy showers. After a last sweep out of the bothy I leave it looking much more inviting than when I arrived, and splash southwards to Loch Strathy.
My route now keeps higher up, a landscape of low hills, a few rock outcrops, lochans and peat-bog.
The showers and wind pick up, on the last top above Strathnaver an almost wintry blast of hail greets me, and I find myself unexpectedly above a little line of crags with small waterfalls blown backwards by the wind. But the steep rock is easily bypassed and soon I’m back down to the more sheltered strath. Sheep-grazed pastures just south of Rhifail Lodge, built by the infamous Duke of Sutherland in the 19th century, have been turned into a little private golf-course, complete with greens and flags.
The car’s still there, without broken windows or police notices and I hurriedly drive off southwards for a few miles to stop again at Rosal.
Everyone should walk the Rosal clearance trail, a sobering experience to read of what happened in what is now such a beautiful location.
It was simply about money, cash-strapped
landowners could do so much better by ranching the big sheep than from the meagre rents of crofters.
Now, as then, if big money is involved it will happen. All the so-called justifications and (temporary) jobs created are simply a smokescreen.
Conservation organisations like RSPB and SNH have had a bad press. But it’s only because of them, and volunteer groups like the Mountain Bothies Association, that we know that at least some places will never be sacrificed on the altar of the god of money.