Monday, 22 August 2016

THE WEE BOTHYS- Aberdeenshire, North and West Scotland

After so many towns and cities recently, we were both dying to get out to the wilderness of the Scottish Highlands, and be free from bookings, hotels, public transport, traffic, internet and people for a while.

We noticed Megabus had a promotion on their new sleeper bus between London and Aberdeen, so in the spirit of trying something new, we decided to give it a go. It certainly wasn’t the most comfortable night, with the lower bunks we had chosen being a bit restrictive, but we agreed for the price it had been worth a shot. The one hour trip from Aberdeen bus station to the village of Strichen in Aberdeenshire (where Richard’s daughter, Kim lives) was gently scenic with rolling green hills, farmland with new lambs and calves, and splashes of yellow from the rapeseed fields, gorse and broom. We weren’t so keen on the grim and dark granite buildings in all the towns in this area, but the absolutely brilliant warm and sunny weather somehow softened the severity of them.

We spent a lovely couple of days around Strichen with the unexpectedly great weather continuing (as it did for our next two weeks!). Highlights included :
Warming up for further walking adventures, with a long walk along a disused railway line from Fraserburgh, complete with old platforms, wild gooseberries, raspberries, apples, fuchsias, pansies and roses, scotch pines, birds fluttering and twittering in the hedgerows, and the coconut like smell of the flowering gorse sweet on the breeze.
A visit to the wonderful old farm house and garden of a relative, and the spectacle of a bluebell grove in full flower, along with rhododendrons, beech and elms.
A drive to visit the Bullers of Buchan, a coastal area with cliffs housing thousands of marine birds, including guillemots, cormorants, gulls and the first glimpse of a puffin, and Slaines Castle, an abandoned and atmospheric ruin rumoured to have inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula, sitting unprotected and unloved by the dramatic coast line.
The walk around the somewhat rundown town and port of Peterhead, a once thriving fishing harbour, now with an air of neglect and poverty.
Catching up with many years worth of news, and reminiscing with some old memories.

Glorious sunshine through the tree tops, Strichen, Scotland

Bluebell grove in flower, Strichen, Scotland

Beautiful garden with bluebells, Strichen, Scotland
Along the cliffs, Bullers of Buchan, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

So happy to see a puffin! Bullers of Buchan, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

Wildflowers, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

Start of Fraserbugh walk, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

We were surprised to hear about the local language called Doric, which is common in Aberdeenshire, and includes phrases such as “fit like min” (How are you?), “abdy” (everybody), “loon” (boy) and “bap” (roll).

The adventure started when we left the east of Scotland to hitch hike to the north. We had a map and a vague route planned, but when we reached Lairg, a village we thought might take us a couple of days to get to in four hours, we thought we’d better slow down a bit! Taking advantage of the light evenings (the sun never really goes down in summer in Scotland, it just gets a bit darker between about 11pm and 3am), we walked and waited a bit longer for a lift at the beginning of the tiny quiet road to Tongue, but there was too little traffic (as in none!). We’d seen a sign for a bird hide nearby, so after a walk in to Loch Shin, we found the small wooden building, chatted with the last twitchers of the evening and settled in for the night.

Spent a comfortable night in a bird hide, Lairg, Scotland

The scenery up to the north coast continued to become more beautiful, with many stone walls, lochs and hill sides with interesting breeds of sheep, and as we turned west, the spectacular highland scenery began with bigger, bare mountains, and not so many trees . It was in Tongue we leant about the “North Coast 500”- the coastal road that winds its way from Inverness and around to Ullapool, and has recently been promoted by the Highland Council as one of the most scenic drives in the world. Although this road has always been there, because of this clever marketing, it has now become incredibly popular for caravans, huge motorhomes, motorbikes, push bikes and classic car fanatics. It means the road is much busier, and the character has changed a lot. The woman in the tourist information in Ullapool told us how busy the area was as a consequence- even at the very beginning of the season tourists were arriving and finding everywhere in town fully booked.

The gorgeous road between Lairg and Tongue, Scotland

Leaving our bags after a chat with delightful local artist Mark Edwards, we spent the afternoon walking around in the glorious sunshine, exploring the castle and the stunning views, and enjoying a drink at the pub. 

Enjoying the heat! Tongue, Scotland

Tongue junction, Scotland

That night we encountered the first of the dreaded midges. We’d hoped we would be too early for the horrible little flying, bitey bugs, but because of the warm weather the previous few weeks, they were out in early force. We managed to get out tent up and down again in the morning with minimal damage to our skins, but Sal discovered an unfortunate allergy to the bites, and had to take antihistamines for the rest of the trip to balance the swelling and itching. The supposed repellent product Skin So Soft that someone gave us, caused a blistery rash over Sal’s face, and was actually worse than the bites in the end!

We were excited to embark on the next part of the trip, and visit Sal’s first bothy. A bothy is a small cottage, usually on a large estate, and once used for stalking, sheparding or fishing. The Mountain Bothies Association (which Rich belonged to in the 1970’s) has had permission from some land owners over the years to turn some of these old decrepit buildings into shelters for walkers. Because of their original purpose many of the converted bothies are in remote and wild places. And best of all, they’re free!

In Scotland, there is a law that allows hill walkers to pretty much have access to any wild land, and the cooperation involved between landowners and hill walkers is refreshing- it’s mutually beneficial for them both. 

The first one we visited was Strabeg- a relatively short, but gorgeous walk up the glen from the main road (the turn off was in the middle of nowhere), and when we arrived we found it empty and tidy. We set up our beds in a room upstairs, and rested on the grass outside in the warm.

Walking to Strabeg bothy, Scotland

Stunning location of Strabeg bothy

The bothy had  three big rooms, and a sitting room with a fire, and after collecting some firewood, and having a bit of a wash in the picturesque stream, we enjoyed chatting with a couple of other guests who arrived later in the day (mostly doing long distance walks), cooked some dinner on the fire, and slept soundly.

Collecting firewood, Strabeg, Scotland

A well need wash, Strabeg, Scotland

Relaxing in the bothy, Strabeg, Scotland
Strabeg bothy, Scotland

The bothy had a stunning setting, and when all the others had left, for the next two days we had the whole area to ourselves to walk and admire different views -from under the boggy and moody crags to the top of the smooth barren hills. There wasn’t a great deal of plant life on show here (apart from the small area of birch woods on the crags), mainly heather, the occasional windblown juniper, tiny tough wildflowers in cracks and rocks with psychedelic coloured moss. It was fun walking up and down the hill collecting lots of water from the stream to fill bottles and buckets, and collecting more firewood- really loved it. The glen held many sheep, and we found ticks a bit of a problem, with about six between us.

Making a cairn, Strabeg, Scotland

Lovely views from the bothy, Strabeg, Scotland

Washing area, Strabeg, Scotland

Cute bothy building, Strabeg, Scotland

View of the bothy from a nearby hill, Strabeg, Scotland

Rich was quiet shocked at how much the bothy system has changed. Having visited and worked on dozens of bothies in the past, in his day the existence and locations were all a bit secretive. But now, with the internet, new long distance walks, and several TV programs about the bothies, there are many more visitors- one couple even had a smart phone complete with Bothy App!! Rich was not amused!

Thinking about the old days, Strabeg, Scotland

Once we packed up and found our way back to the main road (Rich proved his talent for finding the way where there were no paths!), we had a long wait till the next lift. We found ourselves amusing ourselves by jumping around doing exercises, high kicks and ballet (well, Sal did......). The weather stayed warm, if not always sunny, and we were happy to wait, or sometimes, just start walking until a car came. 

On arrival in Durness, a place that should have been charming and beautiful, we were immediately put off by the HUGE numbers of enormous caravan and motorhomes, tour buses, B and Bs and tourists. Even the white sand beaches and the first of the white cottages typical of the west coast  we had seen, couldn’t keep us in town, and we got a lift through glorious mountain scenery to Scourie, on the west coast, where the landscape seemed even greener.

Rich had remembered a great little pub there from years ago, but when arrived, we could only find a hugely posh and expensive hotel aimed at the “500ers”. We felt a little down because of the tourism, and being tired, but we convinced each to keep walking to a beautiful coastal area out of town, where we found a spectacular camping spot on the cliffs overlooking ocean and islands. We were extremely exhausted from all the walking over the past few days, and after a picnic looking out at seals, the midges came out in the early evening, and we decided that was a very good time to retire and sleep in our lovely warm little tent. We talked a bit about perhaps moving down to England to walk to avoid the horrible midges.

A Highland coo, Scourie, Scotland

Looking for a campsite, Scourie, Scotland

Luckily we woke to bright sun and strong wind (midge removing weather), and headed to our second, very different, bothy at Kylestrome/Glen Dhu. The path in was long (for us), but well maintained and used by the wealthy estate. If it was possible to enjoy a walk more than Strathbeg, this was it. We saw the first purple flowers on the heather here, fox gloves and many other wildflowers.
We were quite exhausted on arrival, but the grand beauty of the loch and the walk up the glen, totally revived us and we were so happy. After not being able to lift her backpack off the bed in Cambridge, to carrying it for 10 miles or more by the end of the month, Sal felt quite proud of herself!

Long walk into Glen Dhu bothy, Scotland

Nearly there, Glen Dhu bothy, Scotland

Again, this bothy was empty when we arrived, so we tidied up a bit and made a little home there for a few days. This bothy had very little firewood nearby, so we scoured the loch side and brought a big bag back, so we could make a cup of tea and enjoy a small fire at night. We took a rest day, and although not sunny, we really needed the break from walking or carrying our packs. A few walkers came through (all doing the same Fort William to Cape Wrath trek), including the 80+ year old hill running Suzie, posh and quiet Nik with his 5.50 pound chicken korma in a bag, and a couple of mad retired middle aged cyclists, ticking off highland spots every weekend, and we enjoyed the brief company. The weather turned a bit cooler, with rain and gale force winds nearly blowing the bothy roof off on our last night
To be continued..........................

Rustic charm, Glen Dhu bothy, Scotland

Our room for a few days, Glen Dhu bothy, Scotland

What a location! Glen Dhu bothy, Scotland

Watching the weather, Glen Dhu bothy, Scotland

Appreciating the warmth, Glen Dhu bothy, Scotland

1 comment:

  1. A very nice bit of poetic travel writing prose which must have taken some construction (third paragraph, post colon ) with phrases like 'sweet on the breeze' that gave that Asiatic tropical sense within the lived experience of a geographical climatic zone of the northern hemisphere. As travelers I get a sense of your (plural) movement through space somehow becomes a tapestry of your psycho-geography as travel biography. Thanks for the insight.