Black Dots - The Cairngorms, March 2016
Scotland is undoubtedly the Mecca of bothies. With 80% of MBA maintained shelters scattered the length and breadth of the country, the remote wilderness of Scotland is truly the epicentre of bothy culture in the United Kingdom. In fact, it was in the heart of the vast Galloway Forest Park where the Mountain Bothy Association launched it's ambitious journey, with the renovation of a small cottage now known as Tunskeen Bothy.
For my first of many trips to Scotland, I decided on the Cairngorm National Park. Twice the size of the Lake District, the Cairngorms is home to a large number of MBA bothies, many of which are nestled under impressive munros and accessed by long treks through challenging and remote terrain. In March, we're in that crossover period where the lowlands are basking in sunshine but the mountains still have a substantial covering of snow, which always makes for interesting photographic opportunities as well as a requirement to pack a ridiculous amount of layers. For this trip, I based myself at Braemar and chose to focus on the handful of bothies located around Linn of Dee/Mar Lodge Estate.
The Mar Lodge Estate is a popular spot for walkers. climbers and munro baggers - many of whom leave there cars at the Linn of Dee car park and walk deep into the mountains towards Ben McDui, making full use of the number of bothies in this particular section of the park: Corrour and Hutchinson Memorial Hut "Hutchy" then further north towards theFords of Avon Refuge Hut, Faindouran and Ryvoan. There is also the famous Bob Scott Memorial Hut situated a short walk from the car park near an abandoned shooting lodge, however this is not MBA maintained.
I generally use Day 1 of my trips to get a feel for the place, suss out some potential locations and track routes on the GPS. It's easy to get carried away with the excitement of being somewhere new, but I've found that it pays to pace myself! Because of the remote-nature of these bothies, coupled with the dramatic change in hiking conditions once you hit the snowline I figured it would be a good idea to hike out towards Corrour bothy and gauge what equipment I would need to carry out with me when Andy arrives the following day.
The walk towards Corrour follows a reasonably well marked track tracing the Luibeg Burn. This very much feels like a prehistoric landscape, with the unspoilt woodland glades of the Mar Lodge estate and crystal clear waterfalls showing little sign of human intervention (aside from the track itself). This approach provides a fantastic view of Carn a'Mhaim - the 1037 meter munro considered the little sister to Ben McDui, and as you reach the rather precarious looking Luibeg Bridge the path skirts around its southern contours and onwards towards Corrour. I stopped at Luibeg Bridge to admire the gorgeous cascades tumbling down the valley. Small spruce-trees seem to sprout from the rocks amongst the heather and perfectly rounded boulders scatter the riverbank. After admiring the scene for a good 30 minutes I decided to set the 5x4 up on the high ground behind the bridge and made my first exposure of the trip. These landscapes that people pass through to connect the bothies are a vital part of the story. After all, it is these landscapes that draw us here to begin with.
Continuing onwards towards Corrour, the vast sweeping landscape that is Glen Geusachan revealed itself. An impressive Glen, it lies sheltered beneath The Devils Point and Beinn Bhrotain; both of which are impressive mountains. When partnered with a brooding sky & remains of the winter snow, it's a menacing view to confront. Looking North, Corrour bothy came into view. I opted to save the bothy for the following day when I would return with Andy for two nights in the mountains. It was at this point that I met two gentleman heading back towards Linn of Dee. They had been out hillwalking and had stopped off at Corrour for a cup of tea before making there way home. We chatted on the path for about 45 minutes as the older of the two (an ex-SAS serviceman) regaled me with some hilarious stories of past-encounters on the hills. After managing to shoot some portraits of the pair, I retraced my steps back along the track and made the most of a hot shower and warm bed.
The following day, Andy arrived and we headed back along the same route I'd taken the day before towards Corrour. The weather was incredible, and we set off in hot sunshine with blue skies. We took it slow, making the most of our surroundings and stopping to enjoy the amazing views this area offers. Arriving at the bothy as the light faded, we joined two German climbers - Hannes & Lorenz - and made headlamp-conversation over some lukewarm beers. We were later joined by four more hikers and the bothy soon filled up. Wedged in like a weird game of Tetris, we fell asleep to the crack and spit of the bothy fire.
The following morning, we woke early (as is the case most of the time in Bothies) having been kept awake most of the night by perhaps the loudest snorer we've ever experienced. The area around the bothy was busy, with a university research team pitched up on the ground outside. It was an interesting scene, and my intention was to catch the bothy & The Devils Point in some early morning light. Frustratingly, a heavy layer of cloud hung over the mountains. I did my best with the softer, flat light, but packed up feeling a little underwhelmed.
For our second bothy night, I'd planned to head North-East to the popular Hutchinson Memorial Hut. I'd been told that it's one of the most spectacular bothy locations in the UK and there had been rumours of much harsher, wintry conditions in that section of the park. From Corrour, we could either walk back the way we came the previous day, cutting North up Glen Derry and essentially skirting around the bases of Carn a'Mhaim, Carn Crom and Derry Cairngorm. Alternatively, we could head Northwards, following the Lairig Ghru mountain pass before cutting East up and over Ben McDui, past Loch Etchachan and then down into the valley to "Hutchy". We chose the latter, as it gave us the opportunity to tackle a particularly tough winter scramble over the UK's second highest mountain.
Loading up our packs and setting off, we were both aware that this wasn't going to be a particularly easy walk. Lugging all of our equipment, including coal and firewood up and over a snow covered Ben McDui was going to test us. That said, the views were absolutely mind blowing and the assent was broken up with numerous breaks to absorb our surroundings. I'd damaged my knee on the way in to Corrour, so the weight and relentless uphill climb was taking much longer than it should have done, so these stops were greatly received.
After limping my way to the plateau, we found ourselves in the clouds on a perfectly flat, untouched field of compacted snow and ice. Despite being near the summit of the UK's second highest mountain, there was hardly a breathe of wind. The only sound being the satisfying crunch & squeak of our boots on snow. Using the GPS we managed to follow where the marked track would have been, and traced this to the north-east towards Loch Etchachan. The rumours of harsher conditions east of Ben McDui were true, and as we began our descent towards the frozen Loch, miles upon miles of snow covered mountains panned out in front of us. As night approached, we upped the pace and followed the track East at the Loch and down the deep valley between Creagan a' Choire Etchachan & Stob Coire Etchachan. Hutchinson Memorial Hut or "Hutchy", came into view at the bottom of the valley and a faint amber light could be seen, suggesting that we wouldn't be spending the night alone. From this vantage point you can really appreciate the importance of bothies and the grandeur of the landscape that surrounds them. The tiny flickering beacon got closer and with great relief we pushed open the door, and dumped our bags. Hutchy has a closed porch area for bags, and then a separate room with a relatively fancy stove and sleeping benches. The bothy has undergone maintenance, and is wooden clad - it's incredibly warm, cosy and watertight! As we entered the main room, we were greeted with two familiar faces; Hannes and Lorenz, with whom we'd shared Corrour the previous night. They'd already got the fire raging, and so with dinner on the go - we all sat outside and watched the moon rise over the bothy. An incredibly tough day with an even more incredible conclusion.
The following morning, I set off early to shoot a few frames of the bothy. Now visible in the daylight, I can understand why people claim that this is the most spectacular location of any bothy. The sheer rock faces of Creagan a' Choire Etchachan & Stob Coire Etchachan create a perfect symmetry and loom over the bothy on both sides. The morning fog and fresh dusting of snow brought out the dark rock and contrasted it beautifully against the sky. The bothy, dwarfed by the mountains sits in the centre of the valley with the track to Loch Etchachan disappearing up and into the distance. After making breakfast and eventually managing to make portraits of our German companions, we packed up once again and headed back towards the car at Linn of Dee, following the Derry Burn down Glen Derry.
I dropped Andy at Pitlochry that evening, and although I'd planned to head out to explore some more locations for the remainder of my trip the knee injury I sustained at the beginning of the week had gotten progressively worse. Frustratingly, after a trip to A&E I was advised to rest and not to spend too much time on my feet. Unfortunately this ruled out any further trips out to bothies and into the mountains, so I spent the remaining few days drinking coffee, reading books and planning my next trip. In spite of this, all in all a fantastic few days in the mountains and a spectacular introduction to the bothies of Scotland.