Anyone who applies for The Next Challenge Grant has to summarise their idea in a single sentence.
I get people to do that partly because I think it’s good practice to be get your pitch as succinct as possible. It’s also partly because it takes ages to read the hundreds of applications I get so a single sentence summary saves a lot of time. There’s plenty more to the application process but with Kerry-Anne’s, I didn’t really need to read further: 5 nights in 5 bothies with a 5 year old.
I thought this was a wonderful idea and bang-on the sort of thing I hope to encourage with this website. Having now read her story, I’m doubly glad we were able to give her and Finn some money. Here’s how they got on…
5 Nights in 5 Bothies with a 5 Year Old
by Kerry-Anne Mairs
Rounding the corner I was surprised to see the wide gorge that opened out before us, the meandering river and the picture-perfect red sandstone cottage sheltered behind a stand of tall Scots pine. Our forth of five bothies and our home for the night. As my son, rejuvenated by the sight below, bounded ahead along the heathery path a movement behind the trees below caught my attention and I strained to decipher what it was. Animal, human or just my imagination? It was still quite early in the day but could someone already be at the bothy? I felt a flicker of nervousness. Who would we be sharing a bedroom with tonight?
Towards the end of September my five year old son and I set out on a challenge to spend a night in five different mountain bothies in Scotland over a five week period. We travelled between Galloway in the south to the Isle of Skye and Torridon in the north before returning south to spend a final night at a bothy in Dumfriesshire. Now we gazed down into the gorge at our third bothy in a week, culminating in six consecutive days of walking. Today we had experienced the best weather the Scottish Highlands could throw at us and the gently winding path was dry and firm and with views across the water to the north of Skye on one side and the Torridon mountains on the other. It couldn’t have been a more perfect day but my son’s mood was dour. He was tiring, as was my patience. I battled with an inner conflict of emotions, between gratitude and anger. The challenge of balancing the needs of a five year old with my own needs made me literally cry with frustration. My son meanwhile screamed out “I don’t want to stay in any more bothies!” Yet despite this near constant emotional challenge which plagued our trip, looking back I feel only joy and a sense of achievement. I had expected issues with tiredness and patience before we began but knew that in spite of the anticipated challenges I wanted to introduce my son not only to outdoor adventure but to a deeper relationship with nature, landscape, place and community.
Our adventure started in a bothy in Galloway. We were less than a couple of hours drive from home but it felt even more isolated than our later escapades in Skye and Torridon. There were no signs of life as we drove down the single track road to a farm and we didn’t meet a soul as we ambled up the valley past long abandoned tumbling down homesteads. We couldn’t have timed our arrival at the bothy better; half an hour later the heavens opened and set forth a torrent of rain that continued all night, eventually dripping through a leak in the roof. Inside we set about all the usual bothy tasks; giving the bothy a sweep, setting up our sleeping bags and mats, cooking a simple meal on our gas stove, setting the fire, lighting some candles, settling down in front of the bothy stove with a pack of cards. It looked like we were in for a quiet night. My son fell quickly asleep but after blowing out the last candle I lay wide awake, listening intently for the arrival of late night visitors or any noises out of the ordinary. There were noises aplenty. Starting with various bumps and scrapes in the shepherd’s storeroom adjacent to the bothy followed by a strange continuous ticking and progressing to the scurrying and squeaks of four legged creatures close to our beds. The more obvious mice related sounds were surprisingly comforting after the unidentified noises from the next room. It’s truly amazing how the imagination becomes so enlivened after dark. I drifted in and out of sleep, woken frequently by a new, seemingly louder noise or by my son shifting over and slipping off his sleeping mat. Once he woke in the pitch black, heard the cacophony going on and asked what the noise was. “Oh, just the mice” I said. “Oh right” he replied and promptly fell back asleep.
An early start from the bothy number two
Memories of the night noises and my fear of the dark left me apprehensive ahead of our next bothy nights two, three and four. Yet, I also felt exhilaration as we escaped north to spend a week in the north west Highlands. Our second bothy night was spent alone at Rubha Huinish on the far northerly tip of the Isle of Skye. As my son skipped ahead along the footpath leading to the promontory I was falsely lured into thinking that our subsequent bothy walk ins would be approached with similar enthusiasm. Arriving at the small but characterful bothy, with it’s sweep of windows looking over to the Isle of Harris, I immediately checked the bothy for mouse droppings. Finding none, I hoped our second night would be quieter than our first. Alas, the wind picked up after dusk and I tossed and turned in rhythm with the gusts battering the wall behind me. The roaring wind and the bothy door banging repeatedly against it’s loose catch provided the soundtrack to my fitful slumber. Only as dawn approached did I start to relax and drift into a deeper sleep, which was broken shortly after my son woke me needing the ‘toilet’. Rousing ourselves out of our cosy, warm sleeping bags, we battled our way out into the fierce wind. Still with my eyes half shut I opened the east facing bothy door only to be met with the a vivid red sky silhouetting the distant Torridon mountains. Stunning, but the only thing on my mind was hurrying straight back inside to my still warm sleeping bag to resume where’d I’d left off. My son, however, had woken for the day and began demanding breakfast. I succeeded in stalling him for all of 40 minutes, then reluctantly left the comforting cocoon of my sleeping bag once more. The sunrise had matured to autumnal oranges and yellows and this time I thanked my son for his early wake up call.
A scream in the night
The following day we headed to the south end of the island. There was no quick sprint to the bothy today, and at odds with the incomparable scenery our walk was marred by our miserable bickering. Finally we summitted a col to look down towards the perfect horseshoe bay, the Cuillin mountains rising jaggedly beyond and dark shapes of Soay and the Small Isles out to sea. With our first sighting of the bothy my son forgot his woes as he waxed lyrical about reaching the beach below and playing in the sea. Arriving at the bothy I was excited to see two large bags in the corner indicating we might have company for the night but dismayed to see the various rubbish, cans and articles of clothing that had been abandoned by previous bothy occupants. My son wasted no time in dragging me to a patch of sand outside the bothy, stripping off and racing out to meet the waves, singing and dancing as he went. The frustrations of the morning ebbed away with the waves as we chased each other, laughing, and I enjoyed a moment of gratitude for our, at times challenging, adventure. Back at the bothy the bags had vanished along with any hopes I had for company for the night and we spent our third bothy night alone once more. All was quiet until the early hours of the morning when I was woken by a blood curdling scream. With my heart pounding I was already up and fumbling for my head torch by the time I realised it was my son, who promptly turned over and went straight back to sleep.
The fourth bothy with colourful characters
And so I felt a mixture of excitement and nervousness when I saw we might have company for the night as we approached our fourth bothy. The loitering figure outside turned to greet me and with his cigarette still dangling from his mouth he kindly offered us a cup of tea but ‘M’ was an elusive character and avoided any small talk. It later became evident that he had been staying there for quite some time and by the look of his well stocked pantry he was planning on remaining for quite a while longer. A kayaker had also arrived by sea that morning and we met him as he returned from collecting wood for the bothy stove. In contrast to M, ‘S’ was chatty and eccentric and prone to talking loudly to himself. The tension and distrust between the two gentlemen was immediately evident and no sooner was one out of earshot than the other would start complaining about the one who was absent. Evidently we would be in for an interesting evening.
After a protracted discussion between M and S over whether to have a fire, with my son and I used as a bargaining chip, the stove was eventually lit and we settled down for an evening’s entertainment, bothy-style. M kicked off the storytelling by candlelight with a short narrative, followed by some fascinating and daring tales of solo sea kayaking adventures by S. Encouraged, my son got right into the bothy spirit and launched into an adventure-filled story of his own. He got off to a promising start but an hour later and still going strong, the rest of us were staring into the fire with glazed eyes, so I did the gracious thing and whisked him off to his sleeping bag, still protesting (loudly) that he hadn’t finished his story. I dropped off to sleep a little easier than on previous nights but the longed-for peaceful bothy night continued to elude me. M was loudly traipsing in and out of the bothy until after midnight and then from 4am the bothy vibrated with the sound of his hacking cough repeated at ten minute intervals. Meanwhile S slept fitfully and every time he turned over he would sigh audibly and start talking to himself, as loudly in sleep as he had done when awake. By 3am the stags were roaring away outside (rutting season) and by 6am I’d given up all pretence of sleep as I heard both gentlemen arguing once more about whether to light a fire.
Strangers at the final bothy
A week later and my son had forgotten all about his declaration that he didn’t want to visit any more bothies. Instead he was surprisingly excited about our fifth and final bothy night close to home in the Lowther Hills. Being a compact one room bothy just a short walk from the road along a farm track I was apprehensive when I spotted two figures sporting large rucksacks and carrier bags slogging up the track ahead. My heart sank as we passed the two retired men who had stopped for a smoke. We mumbled a brief ‘hi’ all the while giving each other a distrustful stare, knowing that we’d probably be sharing a small room together shortly. It took a lot of harassing my son to get to the bothy in order to stake our claim to one side of the sleeping platform and all the way I was contemplating how I would deal with any possible antisocial behaviour. So it was to my embarrassment and a lesson to myself about reserving judgement when our companions proved to be lovely company, a hive of bothy information and full of interesting tales. Far from my visions of sharing with a couple of heavy drinking late-night revellers, we were all tucked up in our sleeping bags by 9.30pm and despite the loud snoring of our companions I had the best night’s sleep of our whole bothy adventure!
A few months on and some of the memories that have stayed with me most since our adventure are those surrounding the people we met. On every occasion my initial judgements and interpretations of people were overturned. It was a humbling experience to listen to and be granted an insight into the lives of others, both for myself as well as my son. Some have questioned my wisdom in taking a five year old to an isolated shelter with no idea who we’d be sharing our bedroom with for the night. While it can be difficult to silence the seemingly ever present voice of the media-fuelled horror stories, the voices of the strangers I spoke to revealed only similar passions, similar concerns and similar fears to my own. I was surprised to hear our well-built, close-shaved, chain-smoking bothy-mate in Torridon confide to me on the morning we left that he felt uncomfortable with the ‘open-door’ policy of the mountain bothies because as he laid in his sleeping bag after dark he was fearful of strange noises and of unexpected strangers turning up. I took comfort in knowing I wasn’t the only one who worried who I’d be sharing a bedroom with.
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