Bothies: the abandoned huts that’ll make the ideal post-Brexit holiday home in the Scottish Highlands

Did we mention they’re free? Image: Wikipedia via Creative Commons.

It would be unlikely for you to find a bothy unless you already knew it was there. Scattered across the Scottish Highlands, the unassuming shelters provide a place for exhausted travellers to rest.

Bothies don’t have electricity or the mod-cons it allows for. Nor is there any cooking equipment, so you’d have to carry yours along with the food you’ve lugged across bog and bracken. The bed is most likely a wooden platform, on which you roll out your sleeping bag.

Not exactly the lap of luxury, but that’s kind of the point. Bare bones. Easily maintained and therefore sustainable, which leads to the most important thing about bothies: they’re free to stay in.

A country on the wrong end of English colonialism for a huge chunk of its history, Scotland hardly has a rose-tinted past. And the land on which many of the bothies are found harks back to one of these many grim times – the Highland Clearances.

The Highlands and the Western Isles are scattered with ruins, remnants of the clans driven out of their ancestral homes during the 18th and 19th centuries. Orchestrated by wealthy landowners, the Clearances saw massive depopulation of the Scottish Highlands, with the refugees ending up in the lowland cities like Glasgow, or emigrating to Australasia and the Americas. Meanwhile the Highlands were parcelled up for the benefit of Scottish aristocracy.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that access to the Highlands began to be wrestled back from a privileged few. During the early 20th century, working-class people from the cities started to have more leisure time, and the great outdoors became accessible due to train lines such as the West Highland Line. With the lodges remaining exclusively for the rich, the holidaymakers would bed down in the long abandoned huts, and the tradition of “bothying” was born.

These acts of disobedience, reclaiming the land from the landowners, were taking place all across the UK at this time. Perhaps the most famous case is the Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout; a coordinated protest by ramblers in England’s Peak District to challenge control of access to the open countryside. In both England and Scotland, the laws around freedom to roam were only codified in the last 20 years but the tradition is much older.

In Scotland, as the use of these old shelters began to be accepted by the landowners, those who stayed in them would make improvements. Small organisations such as climbing groups would adopt certain bothies, maintaining them and ensuring they would always provide a place to stay for anyone, from the rich landlords who owned the estate on which it was built to young people from the Glasgow slums.

In 1965 the Mountain Bothy Association was founded, which now maintains over a hundred of Bothies across Scotland, England and Wales. They have published a handy map of their bothies, but there are still many around looked after by different groups, estates or even individuals.

So get out there. If Brexit is going to ruin cheap holidaying abroad, it’s the perfect time to get exploring the UK. And where better to start than the bothies?


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.