High in the hills across Great Britain, bothies serve as shelter for hikers, ramblers and wayfarers alike. But they’re so much more than just somewhere to lay your head, as photographer Nicholas JR White discovers.
Cobwebs glisten in the corner of the room as the sun bursts its way through the small window. Makeshift clotheslines zig-zag from wall to wall, adorned with clothing from the previous day’s hike. Hundreds of inscriptions are scratched into the metal ceiling, telling a vivid story of the people who’ve laid here before me. Powerful gusts charge down the valley whipping the walls with spindrift and forcing the wooden door to rattle on its hinges.
Jumping down from my sleeping platform and onto the cold hard floor, I slip into my boots, unbolt the door and step outside. The frozen ground squeaks and cracks as I walk, and the call of ptarmigans echo around the mountains.
A low rumble gives little warning as another gust of wind slams into my side and almost knocks me from my feet. That ought to wake me up, but I’m slow to rouse after my first night of whisky and wood smoke in a bothy.
Far from civilization and mostly accessible only by foot, bothies are secluded mountain shelters scattered across the British Isles and tirelessly maintained by volunteers from the Mountain Bothies Association. Unlocked and free to use, they provide a refuge from the vast terrain that surrounds them and have rapidly become an iconic feature of the British landscape over the past 50 years. From the first MBA project in 1965—a tiny white hut in Scotland’s Galloway Forest Park—there are now over 100 of these shelters located around Britain.
Some, like Peanmeanach and Glencoul in Scotland, sit on the shorelines of white-sand beaches and sea-lochs. The gentle lapping of the water and the calls of the stags in a nearby glen provide the soundtrack for a satisfyingly lonesome experience. Others, such as Corrour in the Cairngorm Mountains, embrace a more hostile environment; exposed at the mouth of a great mountain pass and confronted by the worst of Scottish weather.
There are also those who simply embrace the isolation of it all—the bothies provide a space in which to disappear for a while.
Then, there are the woodland dwellings; Penrhos Isaf in the forests north of Dolgellau in Wales or Wainhope in Kielder Forest Park in the northern English county of Northumberland may not provide the most challenging of hikes, but as you sleep underneath the dark skies and evergreens, you discover that they are equally as enchanting.
Bothies are very much a no-frills affair; these are mountain shelters after all, so expect four walls and a roof. Anything else is a bonus. Many have sleeping platforms raised off the ground which helps to separate your living space from that of the mice, and you’ll have to carry in your own coal and firewood. But despite this incredibly bare-bones and slightly primitive aesthetic, a roaring fire soon evolves these cold, dark spaces into a cosier environment.
Before long, you’ll be stripping layers, cooking food and drinking whisky with whoever you happen to be sharing the shelter with that night. Bothies have the magical ability to bring people together—and while you may enter as strangers, you’ll certainly leave as friends.
For some, bothies provide a practical base in which to break up a multi-day trek or offer convenient access to the more remote munros of the Scottish Highlands. For others, it’s just a nice spot to duck out of the rain, fire up the jetboil and have a brew. There are also those who simply embrace the isolation of it all—the bothies provide a space in which to disappear for a while.
It was curiosity that first attracted me to these small, stone tents. Thumbing through old walking guides and clicking through the archives of online forums, I became fascinated by them. What are they? Where are they? Who is using them? And so down the rabbit hole I went, embarking on a three-year photographic exploration to seek answers to these questions.
Armed with a Large Format camera, three lenses and a few boxes of film, I set about walking through some of the most remote and breathtaking landscapes that the British Isles has to offer, from the rugged coastal hideaways of Cape Wrath on the northern reaches of the mainland, across the Western Isles of Scotland and south, to the dark woods of Central Wales.
There was Jake, a 19-year-old from Chicago, Illinois, who’d hitchhiked his way across Scotland. Then there was John, who had perhaps overestimated the amount of cheese and cured meat that one man would require for a single night in a bothy.
The result of this bothy pilgrimage is a series of photographs entitled Black Dots. For me, the project is as much about the people as it is the bothies and the landscapes. The weary travelers who trudge many miles to temporarily inhabit these spaces have forged a unique culture, embedded in the British landscape, forming a story that continues to evolve.
My fleeting encounters with such individuals opened my eyes to the diverse community that underpins bothy culture. There was Jake, a 19-year-old from Chicago, Illinois, who’d hitchhiked his way across Scotland and found himself at Kearvaig with nothing more than a fishing rod and a bag of food that he’d accumulated through various generous donations on the road.
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We foraged for nettles and huddled around a boiling stove as he improvised a nettle-soup by torchlight. Then there was John at Strabeg, who had perhaps overestimated the amount of cheese and cured meat that one man would require for a single night in a bothy. He offered, I accepted, and we sat around the fire until the early hours sharing food, drink and stories of past days in the hills. We’d each take it in turns to saw a gigantic piece of bog wood that somebody had generously hauled out of the peat, and ensured the fire kept roaring.
The following morning, a swift handshake is sometimes all it takes to bring closure to this encounter and once again, I’d find myself alone. Setting off across the hills, the person I shared shelter with becomes nothing but a faint speck on a distant horizon. The smell of wood smoke hangs thick in the air and clings to my jacket as I pull shut the bothy door and swing the latch.
The bothy sits in stillness for a short while, until the next gathering of strangers comes along and brings it to life once more.
Watch Nicholas’ stunning film about The Black Dots project on Vimeo, or find out more about bothies on the Mountain Bothies Association website, a charity which maintains about 100 shelters in some of the more remote areas of Great Britain.