Located deep in the Forest of Atholl, Beinn Dearg is one of those far flung mountains that demands a long walk in before any real climbing begins. From Blair Atholl, to the south, the summit is a good 10 miles off. A bike speeds up this lengthy approach, but, for me, an expedition to the summit of this Munro was the perfect excuse to spend a night in one of my favourite bothies.
The former stalkers’ hut and stable at Allt Scheicheachan lies at the foot of the peak, an impeccably placed base camp that is well used throughout the year by walkers and backpackers venturing into or through this remote chunk of the Eastern Highlands.
Bothies like Allt Scheicheachan can be found tucked away amid the hills and glens of Scotland. Unlocked and free to use, these simple shelters are a welcome home from home for anyone escaping into the great outdoors, whether for a couple of days or on a longer stravaig.
Hoisting my heavy rucksack on to my back, I set off on foot from Old Bridge of Tilt, a hamlet to the east of Blair Castle. I was carrying everything I would need to survive self-sufficiently – sleeping bag and mat, stove and fuel, utensils for cooking and eating, food, clothes and so on. It was camping kit, minus the tent.
My route to Allt Scheicheachan would follow the Minigaig Road into Glen Banvie and then over barren, uninhabited moorland to the bothy. Linking Blair Atholl and Kingussie, the road was constructed towards the end of the 16th century and, in its day, it was a busy thoroughfare used by traders, cattle drovers and soldiers heading north to Ruthven Barracks.
Traversing isolated and often inhospitable country the journey was a challenging one, particularly in the depths of winter when blizzards and drifting snow frequently rendered it impassable, or claimed the lives of those unfortunate enough to get caught out.
Thankfully, as I climbed out of Glen Banvie the only snow I encountered were grimy patches stubbornly lingering in shadowy stream gullies and I made good progress.
The bothy hides itself well in the folds of the landscape. Indeed, as the track roams north, crossing the col between Meall Dubh and Meall Tionail, it waits until the very last moment to reveal itself.
The location of bothies like Allt Scheicheachan used to be a closely guarded secret and most simply happened upon them by chance or learned of their whereabouts through word of mouth. These days, thanks to guidebooks and the internet, they are much easier to pin down.
Descending into the valley, I spotted the wee bolthole below me, wisps of white smoke floating skyward from the stumpy chimney crowning a dark roof of corrugated iron. I recalled from previous visits that the doors were, for many years, a distinctive post box red. Now, they are a less conspicuous brown, more in keeping with both the stone work and surroundings.
I stepped inside to find the place empty (the chimney smoke emanated from the abandoned remnants of a previous dweller’s fire). Sometimes this is the way; you enjoy a peaceful night with the place to yourself. Then again, others may come at any hour, tales will be exchanged, drinks and food shared.
Bothies can be solitary spots or hubs of social interaction. That is one of the great joys of staying in a place like this – you never know whom you will meet and more often than not passing strangers become firm friends. It is a very welcoming, collective activity where people go out of their way to help one another, whether that be sharing hiking routes or offering up tea to a weary traveller who staggers in from the rain in desperate need of a reviving brew.
Like many bothies, Allt Scheicheachan is sparsely furnished. In the main room, there is a table by the window, a couple of benches that double as seats and sleeping platforms and some old plastic patio chairs. This is a humble shelter – there are no home comforts here. The adjacent stream provides fresh water and there is a spade for calls of nature (a handful of the more popular bothies, like Corrour in the Cairngorms, now have compost loos).
A row of pans hangs on the wall by the fireplace while another is decorated with a collage of bothy pictures and the obligatory safety notices. This out-of-the-way spot has not passed the march of Health & Safety unnoticed – there is a fire blanket, an extinguisher and carbon monoxide detectors. Better to be safe than sorry.
Allt Scheicheachan is one of around 100 bothies maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA). Most are in Scotland but there are some in England and Wales too. Out with the realm of the MBA, other less well known bothies hide in the hills and, for me, one of the great pleasures of exploring the landscape is stumbling upon one for the first time.
The term ‘bothy’ comes from the Gaelic word ‘bothan’, meaning a hut. Most were originally cottages or shacks built for shepherds or estate workers. Over time, they were abandoned as the arrival of new technology, particularly the Land Rover, made it easier to access distant corners of the countryside.
Allt Scheicheachan was built to stable the ponies used to extract deer carcasses during the hunting season and while it is difficult to say exactly when it was constructed, similar structures in the Angus glens date from the latter half of the 19th century.
After the Second World War, the lure of the outdoors grew and these vacant properties found a new use, offering free lodgings to walkers, mountaineers and climbers in a time of austerity.
Some were adopted by clubs while others were used clandestinely. The term ‘bothying’ was coined to describe what began as a penny-pinching past-time but became a culture among the hill-going fraternity.
This increase in popularity, however, brought problems and while some bothies were fortunate enough to enjoy the support of groups or enthusiastic individuals, the majority were not so well tended. Many deteriorated through lack of maintenance or vandalism.
In 1965, the MBA was formed to address this situation and the first renovation project was undertaken at Tunskeen in the Galloway Hills. Other new bothies followed, all consistent with the charity’s aim ‘to maintain simple shelters in remote country for the use and benefit of all who love wild and lonely places’.
And Allt Scheicheachan is certainly a wild and lonely place, a place to linger, to explore or just sit and ponder the world without interruption. There is no rush to leave, no check out time or curfew, no need to hurriedly pack bags and go. If rain falls or wind blows, refuge can always be found within the sanctuary of its solid stone walls.
To my delight, the heavens remaining firmly closed and, after exploring the narrow stream gorge and waterfalls below the bothy, I enjoyed an al fresco supper on the picnic table out front before retiring inside to construct a fire from kindling and peat carried in over the Minigaig Road.
There is precious little fallen wood in the vicinity of Allt Scheicheachan so the extra pack weight paid dividends as I sat by the glowing grate and whiled away the evening leafing through the bothy log book.
The majority of bothies have one, a diary where visitors record their passing and share their experiences. The pages – usually a mingling of text, doodles and drawings – offer a fascinating insight into bothy use, the different individuals, groups and nationalities who visit, their adventures and antics and, quite often, the adversity they face, usually at the hands of the fickle Scottish weather and notorious midge.
The book also revealed that over the weekend prior to my visit major roof repairs were undertaken. The MBA relies on an army of volunteers who attend its work parties. These range in length from a weekend to a week or longer, depending on the amount of graft needed, and jobs vary from running repairs to complete renovations.
Bedtime beckoning, I let the dancing flames dwindle and die and clambered upstairs (or rather up ladder) to roll out my sleeping bag in the loft space above, savouring the heat from the chimney breast as I drifted off below sheets of corrugated iron.
Undisturbed, I slept remarkably soundly and was up early, an invigorating wash in the cold stream dispersing the last vestiges of slumber. Breakfast consumed, I headed out on to the moor, armed with the bothy spade and a roll of biodegradable loo roll, to complete my morning routine in a quiet hollow.
With fresh legs (and my heavier gear stowed in the bothy), I travelled fast and light into the mountains, track and path rising over chunky granite slopes to the summit of Beinn Dearg.
The sun shining, I sat atop the peak and let the mountain and its little bothy cast their spell upon me – civilisation, I decided, could live without me for another night or two.
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