Given the amount of rain that has fallen recently and the amount still expected, I wasn’t too confident about getting high any time soon.
Thank goodness for the bothy! In fact as I lay alone in my sleeping bag, a guttering candle or two for cheer and the occasional company of the resident field mouse, I wondered what on earth had possessed me to come in the first płace!
And yet bothy life has been as much a part of my hill going over the years as the hills themselves; many years ago it was that I forsook my tent for the relative comfort of a wooden floor or, better still, the ubiquitous raised pallet.
Culra was the first bothy I’d ever stayed in, but that was only the beginning. The Mountain Bothies Association maintain almost 100 such buildings throughout the Highlands, usually old shepherd’s homes of a bygone era, isolated buildings that estate owners have been happy to leave to the Association the responsibility of their basic upkeep. The history of the Association itself is very interesting, making for delightful reading on any wet and windy house confining evening.
I’ve stayed in so many of these welcoming howffs over the years as to be able to write a book of stories; let me tell you just one. Late summer it was. I’d coaxed my heavily laden cycle the long miles from Dalwhinnie to arrive at Culra by lunchtime. Two older guys greeted me, they were just finishing their packing in preparation for their own long trek back out the way I’d just come. Three or four days they’d spent at the bothy, their base for a glorious few days of mountaineering; as a finale they’d just “nipped” up and down Carn Dearg, the Munro right outside the door.
After staking my claim to a pallet, my bed for the next few nights, and wolfing down a rapid lunch, I stepped outside to climb the hill myself. To which end I wandered along to the track for Loch Pattack, my intention to get onto the foot of Carn Dearg’s long and gentle east ridge. The cloud was low enough to hide the tops of all surrounding hills; as I walked spits and spots of rain made rings in puddles like rising trout in a burn. The ascent was a drab affair, so soon was I in the lowering cloud. There were no views, unless you count the bothy a couple of thousand feet below; amazingly, from the summit cairn I could look straight down on it, almost, it seemed , into its smokeless chimney.
On boulders slimed green with moss and slippery, and then on grassier ground sodden to quagmire consistency by days of rain, I made my way back down to dinner.
Until mid-evening I thought I might have the bothy entirely to myself, a rarity given the venue’s popularity. But then the voices! And plenty of them. A rag tag band of 10 or so walkers had arrived on cycles from Dalwhinnie, their intention, so they told me, to invade the hills tomorrow as a sponsored group raising money for Water Aid.
Morag was the party’s live wire, and the life and soul of the whisky fueled party that soon ensued. A mixed bunch we made in all, men and women of varying ages, a couple of pre-tèen boys and a shaggy dog that stank!
“Did you see them ponies on the way in, Pete? “ queried one of the youngsters. “Aye!” replied his young companion. “I tried to give him a sandwich, bugger near bit aff ma haund.”
“Watch yer language, yer cheeky wee crater!” That must have been his mother...
Darkness was falling outside and candles were being lit when one of the men piped up: “eh, where’s ‘Big Eck’ by the way? Anybody seen him?”
“He got a puncture doon by Loch Pattack, he was fixing it last I seen him”.
“But that was hours ago, he should’ve been here long since! Do you think he’s okay, oot there in the dark alone?”
“Och he’ll be fine, you ken ‘Big Eck’, he’s scary enough his self to scare the devil”.
Not ten minutes later the bothy door flew open, almost off its hinges! The empty door frame perfectly framed a black rectangle of night, and in that black rectangle stood a huge, red headed and bearded man. I swear there was steam coming from his ears and nostrils!
Willie said the wrong thing! “Hey ‘Big Eck’, whar have ye been ar this time?”
You’ll just have to imagine the ripeness of the language that followed, it’s unprintable in these pages...
“Whar have i been?” roared ‘Big Eck’; his words dripping with sarcasm, “whar have been? I’ve been pushing ma bike ar the way from thon loch, for three bliddy miles; that’s whar I’ve been”.
“But could you not fix yer puncture Eck?” Willie sounded genuinely perplexed.
‘Big Eck’s’ voice went up a further decibel or ten: “Fix it!” he swore some more. “Fix it! How the blazes could I fix it? You’ve got the pump...my pump! It’s on your bliddy push bike!”
A hearty meal, courtesy of a somewhat sheepish Willie, and a good few drams, soon had ‘Big Eck’ in better spirits. And so it was eventually that time when everybody is warm and snug in sleeping bags and the candles are starting to sputter. With the delicious aroma of whisky mixed with the smoky, waxy tang of burned down candles, pervading the bothy, peace and quiet descended.
“is this thon haunted bothy?” came a voice from the dark.
“No!” said I, “you’re thinking of Ben Alder Bothy; that’s the bothy on the other side of the mountain”. Ben Alder, along with a number of others dotted around the Highlands, is indeed reputed to have its otherworldly visitations. Thankfully not The Culra.
“Pity”, came the voice again, “I’d love to be in a haunted bothy”.
“No you wouldn’t; now shut up and let us sleep!”
Darkness without. Within, utter black. No sounds other than a gentle breeze without and a snore or two within.
Crash! Bang! Wallop!
A dozen startled inmates sat bolt upright in unison!
More horrific banging on the bothy door; it sounded as though Thor himself was trying to flail the door with his battle axe!
“What the..who’s wanting in this time o night?”
“Go you take a look and see, ‘Big Eck,” A frightened fellow whimpered.
“Go you see for yourself”, was all the reply that Eck would give.
After four or five minutes more of hideous, wood splintering banging, strange, heavy footsteps could be heard slowly receding into the night. All went quiet at last. And, miraculously we all felt, stayed quiet for the remainder of the night. But I swear, judging by the lack of snoring in that bothy room, no one slept again that night.
It was Morąg who discovered the truth in the morning. She’d left a carton of milk outside to keep cool for breakfast time. Out she went to fetch it. “Well”, she said, stepping back inside; “porridge is off today!” In her hand she held aloft the remains of a battered milk carton. “The ponies have drank it all. Right now there chewing on some poor bodies tent outside...”