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The Radical History of Scotland’s Bothies

Scotland's network of remote shelters, known as bothies, are among our only genuinely free, communal institutions – and they were won by trespass. 

The Coulags Bothy, Achnashellach, Scottish Highlands. (Gordie Broon Photography / Getty Images)

Bothies—or ‘simple shelters in remote country for the use and benefit of all who love wild and lonely places’, as they are described by the Mountain Bothies Association—exert a particular fascination for anyone concerned with collective, communal leisure. These crude huts, often hours’ (or days’) walk from roads or train lines, usually lacking in electricity, running water, or even a toilet, but unlocked and free for any passing hillwalker or mountain-climber to use, contain a hint of a possibility of free, shared leisure entirely missing from the privatised, monetised consumption of leisure activities more common today.  

While the rudimentary facilities provided by bothies could hardly be classified as ‘communal luxury‘, to borrow Kristen Ross’ term for the proletarian cultural activities of the Paris Commune, the existence of a network of simple shelters that anyone can walk into and use for free does point to a remnant of the commons, hidden away in isolated mountain glens throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. While much of the way leisure time is spent today is private, isolated in hotel rooms or Airbnbs with the very same individuals, nuclear family, or small friendship circle in which we spend most of our lives, bothies (the name derives from the word bothan, Gaelic for ‘hut’) are places where strangers must sit around the same fireplace, and often share the same bottle of whisky, ‘the wine of the country’. 

The traditional bothy ethic is that there is no such thing as a full bothy, that no matter how limited the space the inhabitants find themselves in some more room can always be found for latecomers arriving in from the snow or the rain. That ethic rings very different from the familiar, exclusionary slogan that claims that everything is full—even countries. On another level of abstraction, the value of the bothies and the commons they represent lies in their use, for free, by thousands of strangers, and not in their nominal ownership by large estates on which they often lie.

Like much of what is taken for granted in the Highlands—the slow death of Gaelic, the uninhabited wilderness—the bothies are themselves not some natural phenomenon, but the result of a class struggle—in this case a class struggle that was waged, sometimes openly, more often quietly, in the decades after the Second World War

As Scotland’s remaining crofting communities abandoned the Highlands for the bigger cities to the South and East, searching for jobs in places like Glasgow, the homesteads they had once inhabited were abandoned. In the forties and fifties, however, in a process that has been described as the ‘Proletarian Revolution in Hillwalking’, working-class young people from those same cities in the Central Lowlands of Scotland began making their way into the hills at the weekends on their brief days off work, and taking part in outdoor pursuits that until then had been seen as the exclusive hobby of the well-to-do.

Usually hitching lifts or taking public transport, they traveled into the Highlands, defending and expanding a tradition of free access to the countryside that was only fully codified into Scotland’s Right to Roam laws in 2003. There, they often stayed in the remnants of the crofters’ cottages left over from the time of their grandparents. There was little point in the landowners locking these huts—isolated in the hills as they were, weary young hillwalkers would simply break into them. Over time, more and more landowners accepted the inevitable and turned a blind eye to the use of bothies.

The confrontational, political attitude of this first generation of proletarian climbers is mapped in Mountain Days and Bothy Nights. This memoir that describes the perhaps apocryphal story of anarchist climbers affiliated with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, who daubed ‘Ban Monarchy’ on the gable wall of the Gelder Shiels bothy on the Balmoral Estate as a royal convoy approached. 

The authors, Brown and Mitchell, reflect on the importance of mountaineering and bothying to a burgeoning working-class culture, a space where for two whole days of the week ‘they were out the control of the bosses, and clocking on and all the rest of the rules and regulations.’ Like all truly public spaces, the bothies captured in the memoir are not places of rustic tranquility, but of the inevitable clashes and confrontations between different groups sharing small spaces, clashes that often fall along class lines—as well as spaces where early rises and long walks often took second place to hard drinking. The authors even go as far as accusing the Mountain Bothies Association, who maintain a network of most of the bothies in Britain, of class collaboration, for working with the lairds who own the land most of the bothies are situated on.

While in the rest of Britain and Ireland the principle of private property allows landowners big and small to bar access to nature to everyone else, Scotland’s Right to Roam laws guarantee a right to the countryside that parallels Henri Lefebvre’s call for a right to the city—opening a possibility of shared and collective enjoyment even in remote and isolated places. This right supersedes the private property of the landowners—the 400-odd families, including the Royals, who own more than half of Scotland’s land. In turn, these rights evoke a vision of the countryside and nature as a communal, collective good that is not just tied to a productivist fetishisation of work and labour, such as that captured in the slogan ‘land to the tiller’, but also to leisure and culture. 

But this small vision of the commons is itself a product of a much larger defeat. Like many places that have become fixed in the popular imaginations as places that were always empty, a ‘terra nullius’, the uninhabited wilderness of the Scottish Highlands to which the young working-class hillwalkers of Glasgow and Dundee traveled at the weekends in the forties and fifties was not always so sparsely populated. The Highlands are only a wilderness because of the violent expulsion and expropriation of the people who once lived there—the Gaelic-speaking, crofting communities that were expelled in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In this process, dubbed the Highland Clearances, the Scottish lairds consolidated their ownership of the land, mirroring the earlier enclosures to the South and the contemporaneous dispossession of indigenous peoples throughout the British Empire. In this context, bothies and the Right to Roam are a only tiny concession to freedom of access won from a propertied class in which land ownership is more concentrated than anywhere else in Britain.

The question then for us today is how to redeem the promise of the commons implicit in these scattered lodges—a promise of the countryside owned and managed by all those who work and enjoy it. For the commons to be really common, it must be for all. If the depiction of the ‘Proletarian Revolution in Hillwalking’ captured in Mountain Days and Bothy Nights can be relied upon, the bothies of the forties and fifties were very masculine spaces, the young proletarians who broke into them mostly men. Indeed, the narrators seem to find the presence of the few women hillwalkers and bothy-dwellers who appear in the book as outlandish as the lairds would have found the presence of working-class men from the cities. 

The challenge is to expand the right to the countryside (and the vision of the commune implicit in the culture of bothies) to everyone. Beyond the landowning lairds on stag hunts or middle-class hillwalkers, and beyond even the young proletarian white men from Glasgow and Dundee who pioneered the culture of bothying, the hills belong to us all. 

24 April marked the 90th anniversary of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass that won some limited access rights for proletarian hillwalkers further south in England. The Kinder In Colour anniversary walk organised to commemorate that direct action made the demand quite clear—the hills, as a space of work and leisure, belong to us all, regardless of gender, race, or class. And trespass, whether on private land or in abandoned dwellings, remains one of the most effective ways of winning that demand.