A version of this article first appeared on April 3, 2017 in The Times
By Nick Drainey
Geoff Allan does not do hotels, B&Bs or even campsites if he can help it, never mind vehicles.
For five years, he has been using pedal and foot power to visit nearly 100 bothies, from Cape Wrath to Galloway.
For the first time, the often hidden network of abandoned croft buildings and shepherd’s huts which provide little more than a roof to shelter under has been chronicled by Geoff. Far away from the usual tourist accommodation and without electricity or running water, he had to carry in his own food, as well as wood for fire to cook it on, battling the Scottish weather as he did so.
But the solo adventure was a labour of love which culminated in The Scottish Bothy Bible, which has just been published.
Geoff says: “It was a long process, I rediscovered Scotland at a slower pace on the bike.”
But it was a bit more than a long bike ride in the sun. Geoff says: “The hardest day was on Skye.
“I woke up at 7am and knew from the forecast there was a weather window of about six hours and then a big storm. It was 25 miles to Dunvegan, raining constantly, I was soaking wet. Then, there was a 10 mile hike to Ollisdal bothy.”
But when the weather lifted he was rewarded with a great view of Macleod’s Maidens, sea stacks just off the coast.
Geoff says: “Then, I got back to the bike and there was a 25 mile bike ride with a storm coming, all against the wind. That was a long day.”
Each bothy is different, according to Geoff. They can be small or multi-roomed, often in old buildings not used since shepherd’s were regular faces in glens. Some have a good source of wood nearby while for others it needs to be carried in along with your food.
But one of the most important things is to get on with others when you arrive.
Geoff, who lives in Edinburgh and trained as a surveyor but now devotes his time to photography and bothies, says: “I like to be on my own and I like to chat to people, I don’t mind either. Your bothy experience is what you make it in terms of the food and fuel you bring and your social experiences.
“I cycled down to Over Phawhope in the Borders and it was a Sunday night and I thought I would have it to myself.
“But there was a group from Edinburgh in there, and they were already drinking. There was one of two ways to go – a cold room to sleep in or go with it. They gave me a seat by the fire, a glass of wine and away we went. I had the best sing song I have ever had.
“They left in the morning and I had an extra night on my own, so it is a kind of balance.”
Since he began the book, Geoff says he has noticed changes in the Scottish countryside, not least that “bike-packing (rather than backpacking) has become a thing”.
He adds: “The key thing for me is that the bothies are getting more comfortable. There are more sleeping platforms and more stoves instead of sleeping on the floor with a badly drawing fireplace. The Mountain Bothy Association are spending a lot of money making them better. This is the best ever time to go bothying and it is only going to get better.”
Geoff, who first went bothying to Camban in Kintail as a student at Edinburgh University nearly 30 years ago, says the challenges are there when bothying, but not enough to make it dangerous for the well prepared.
He says: “There is a real frisson of being out in winter on your own, knowing there is no-one around for 10 or 15 miles if you get into trouble. Your eyes are wide open because you know you can’t make a mistake.
“But even if you do it is generally only annoying and uncomfortable. All these components make bothying a challenging but not too hard and then your reward is a being set up for the evening with a fire and a glass of wine.”
*The Scottish Bothy Bible is published by Wild Things Publishing and costs £16.99