Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 17, May 27, 2022
Bynack Lodge to Ruigh Aiteachain
Today was definitely a tale of two treks. I woke at the Bynack Lodge ruins to rain and wind on my tent. Not being in a hurry to start (only a 21 km day), I gathered my equipment and read until the rain broke briefly. As it was bitter cold (not quite freezing) and the wind was high, I geared up with my heavy rain clothes. The morning agenda included a number of river crossings, though the rains had not been that heavy, so the waters were not unmanageable. Still, wading multiple icy rivers first thing in the morning is a less than auspicious start. Being near where Nan Shepherd was wont to roam, I thought of her remarkable descriptions of the waters of the Cairngorms. Such as “For the most appalling quality of water is its strength. I love its flash and gleam, its music, its pliancy and grace, its slap against my body; but I fear its strength.” I’ve crossed a number of rivers where I truly feared “its strength” (some where I had to turn back), but today’s rivers strength was their temperature and not their current.
On crossing Bynack Burn, I was to pass an abandoned building but soon discovered it was surrounded by cars, truck, and tents (there is a road from Baeriach). The path turned as I was to walk up Glen Geldie until the watershed shifted to Glen Feshie later in the day. The wind was now full force in my face, and as I passed the building, I was waved in by the occupants— volunteers with the Mountain Bothy’s Association—who were there to put a new roof on the structure to finish the renovation. Soon SNT walkers will bypass Bynack and sleep in the comfort of a woodstove-heated Bothy. Four men and a dog— one quite elderly—but all were strong and enthusiastic about the task at hand. I soon had a worm cup of tea and a couple of KitKat bars, as well as some good conversation about bothies and the Cairngorms (though some accents still eluded my comprehension).
Soon I found myself out in the howling, the path alternated between the occasional hard based track, a muddy mess, and a trackless bog that required GPS navigation. The landscape was imposing (what I could see of it with my narrowed raincoat/hat view was imposing but featureless). I kept hoping that, like most other days, the weather would break and the views would open up. Toward the middle, (near the watershed transition), there were some powerful waterfalls coming in on the side burns, but by and large the walk was slip-sliding shoe-sucking mud. Still there was some sort of magic drawing me to Glen Feshie, as if it were some fabled land. In the last hour of the trek, the wind abated, rain stopped, and the sun started beating down on my black rain-geared body. The path firmed and I soon found myself in front of Ruigh Aiteachain, something totally unexpected.
The Appalachian Trail has campsites every so many miles with most boasting a shelter— usually a three sided structure with a flat wooden floor where trekkers can roll out their sleeping bags and hope their nightly sleeping companions don’t snore or talk well into the night. Like the Mountain Bothy Association, the various Appalachian Trail clubs volunteer to maintain those shelters. New Zealand has a series of huts, most administered by the Department of Conservation, requiring a permit to sleep. They range from purpose built large places with bunks, cooking areas, and well-arranged living spaces. But there are also old shepherd’s or hunter’s huts, made of various materials in various states of repair. In 2015, I spent Thanksgiving day in a storm, holed up in a corrugated steel hut, chicken wire bottomed bunks, and dirt floors. The sides and door clanged all night in the wind.
Ruigh Aiteachain (a widely renowned Bothy) is the opposite of that. Once a house in Glen Feshie, famous (or infamous) as the place where, in the 1830’s, the Duchess of Bedford built a series of buildings where she could meet with her lover, the celebrated artist, Edwin Landseer. While the others are ruins, the Duchess’s house remained and was, some years ago renovated to become the palatial Bothy I slept in. On arrival to an empty house, I was unsure what the exact etiquette was. There were wooden floored rooms in the upstairs, while downstairs was a stairwell/foyer and two nearly identical rooms. Each had a wood stove connected to a central chimney, tables, chairs and wooden platforms on the opposite wall. I assumed (correctly) that I could bunk on one of the platforms.
I unpacked a little bit, and famished, I sliced cheese and salami. After a few minutes a cheerful older man appeared, introducing himself as Lindsay. He took one look at me and stated that I was walking the Scottish National Trail, noting that he could always tell (we have a lean and haggard look I guess). A Glaswegian, he had a career in industry, living all over the world, but had returned to Scotland and spent almost all of his time in Glen Feshie, staying in the Bothy and working with the various organizations and landowners on the range of transformative practices designed to rewild the area— increase tree cover and wildlife populations. He had first been in the building 50 years ago and was involved with the renovation, including the outdoor toilets which were, at the time clogged because of negligent visitors. We grabbed buckets and proceeded to pour many gallons of water into the sump, eventually clearing the clog, returning triumphantly to the house.
On return we met Dave, a Devonshire man currently living in Wales and working for an organization dedicated to the preservation of wild plants and fungi— lichens are his specialty. I went to the room with my stuff, preparing for an evening reading and an early bedtime. Moments later, Lindsay appeared, asked if I could “go through” to the next room where he promptly opened a bottle of Prosecco. Although not quite the half-way point, he wanted to celebrate that moment in my trek. Dave and his dog soon joined us, and a long conversation about various environmental initiatives in the Cairngorms in general, and Glen Feshie in particular. I wish I could recount the topics, but we definitely discussed Pine Martins, re-introduced beavers, the need for lynx, invasive beech trees, families, careers, and significant others. Lindsay soon returned with another bottle of Prosecco, and then after more stories of wandering the world, produced a bottle of his favorite Cabernet, the result of his going to university in the south of France. Some time later, Dave retired with his dog to his tent, and Lindsay and I said our good nights and farewells as I planned to leave as early as possible and, anticipating more people arriving from the city later in the night (it’s Friday).
I crawled into my sleeping bag and was just drifting off when the anticipated crowd arrived, banging, talking loud into after 1:00 am— life in a Bothy.
T. Hugh Crawford