Highland flings abuse hospitality of remote refuges

Trouble in the hills: Parties and litter threaten a Scottish tradition of providing shelter for lovers of the wild
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"Please note that Corndavon Bothy is closed until further notice due to vandalism and misuse." Behind the notice on a stone building in an empty Highland glen is a story of an estate's patience too-sorely tried and a warning on the fate of similar mountain shelters.

Bothies have a warm place in Scottish mountain tradition - a place to escape wild weather and enjoy the crack over a dram before a wood fire.

The reality, though, can be different, particularly for those bothies not too far from a road to shoulder a substantial "carry-out" or easily accessible by mountain bike. Corndavon, east of Ben Avon in the Grampian mountains, was both, and perhaps too well-appointed for its own good. Like many of the 150 or so bothies dotted across the Highlands, Corndavon is a disused estate building. Bulldozed tracks and Land-Rovers have removed the need for stalkers and estate workers to stay out in the hills for days on end. But their former lodgings have remained open for anyone seeking shelter.

Misuse rather than vandalism has been Corndavon's downfall. Standing above the River Gairn, five miles from a road, with black-faced sheep and the plaintive call of the curlew the only signs of life, it is hard to believe the bothy had what in urban areas might be described as a "social" problem.

Soon after Simon Blackett took over as factor of Invercauld Estate, he had to accompany the police on a drugs raid. "It was fairly unpleasant," he recalled. "A real den, perhaps not of iniquity, but there was a real party going on that would have made it very difficult for any innocent member of the public coming off the hill hoping to find shelter." Alcohol rather than drugs was the stimulant on that occasion. The police had apparently been called in by members of the Aberdeen-based Grampian Hillwalking Club that managed the bothy, having renovated it a decade earlier. They too were fed up. Closure followed in 1994.

Corndavon was unusual in the "luxury" of its fittings, an old sofa and chairs, cooking utensils by a range fire and beds in upstairs rooms. By contrast, the 86 bothies managed by the Mountain Bothies Association are spartan places, just a bare floor or perhaps raised shelf to unroll a sleeping bag. A charity, founded in 1965, the MBA's object is "to maintain simple unlocked shelters in remote country for the use and benefit of all who love wild and lonely places".

But several MBA bothies too have become victims of their own popularity. The association has even stopped circulating a list of locations to its own members. Bothy details appear in guide books and on maps, and copies of the old list have even surfaced on the Continent. As a result a handful have become surrounded by sprigs of toilet paper. Timber, fallen or growing, gets stripped for firewood and gradually estates begin to think of the buildings as a nuisance.

The MBA spent pounds 20,000 last year keeping bothies weatherproof and in good order, with the work carried out by some 400 of its 2,300 members.

Some of that effort has literally gone up in smoke. A group of people calling themselves variously the Sgordrum Wrecking Crew and the Blackhill Antisocial Hillwalkers has torched or vandalised several bothies in Lochaber and Sutherland to rid the Scottish hills of, they say, rowdy youngsters and "bloody foreigners".

After a good deal of internal debate, the MBA has forsaken its low profile in the hope of educating hillwalkers and climbers into a more considerate use of bothies before others go the way of Corndavon.

Surveying the boarded-up building in Glen Gairn, Jim Maison, the MBA's eastern Highlands organiser, sympathised with the factor's decision. "For all its terrible loss to the hillwalking community, in all honesty I think he was right. We're not here to supply shebeens for people or cheap accommodation for people to live in for a week and go away leaving their litter behind."

Now, the Ordnance Survey has been persuaded by the MBA not to describe buildings on its maps as bothies, both to deter over-use and to guard against finding one locked.

Two winters ago another bothy on the vast Invercauld Estate, by Loch Callater, proved a life-saving haven for couple of hillwalkers who had lost their way in fierce weather. The woman had lay down by the frozen loch expecting to die before her partner came on the open bothy.