Bothy: noun. a basic open-access shelter, usually in remote parts of the UK. Most are managed by the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA). Every bothy has a “bothy book” where visitors write a record of their stay.
Bothy culture: the temporary culture of a disparate community of walkers and cyclists when they informally use bothies as free shelters.
I am fascinated by bothies because of the socio-ecological micro-histories maintained within and about them. Bothy stories exemplify a “grassroots” practice of historical ecology – a discipline within environmental history, where practitioners use biology, ecology, earth sciences, social sciences and humanities to understand the past of an ecosystem, especially how humans interacted with the landscape. I have discovered many bothy stories set at the hauntingly beautiful Kearvaig (Cearbhag in Gaelic) – a whitewashed bothy in the barren Ministry of Defence (MOD) bombing range on Cape Wrath, a remote peninsula at the Northwest point of Scotland. Kearvaig is notorious among the Scottish bothy community for its isolation: an 8-mile track from the Keoldale ferry, or a rough 10 miles along the cliffs in the howling wind following a compass bearing from the road at Kinlochbervie. Either route, the landscape is dotted with signs improbably reading “Do Not Touch Any Military Debris. It May Explode and Kill You.” The artist Margaret Davies spent weeks stranded in the shelter in winter 2002, writing a treatise on solitude and becoming increasingly desperate for help, until she succumbed to hypothermia.1 In September 2019 I shared the bothy with a Christian pilgrim intending to stay for 40 days and 40 nights, relying on the generosity of strangers for food, and a German man with a broken tent, stove cobbled together from salvaged rubbish and no map, who had walked through remnants of “wilderness” from Strasbourg, following locals’ route advice and pencil sketches. To investigate these stories, I draw on anthropologist Tim Ingold’s2 understanding of time as a pattern of tasks – a “taskscape” – performed within (meaning with, in and on) a landscape. By using an interdisciplinary mix of sources including archaeological surveys, archival records from the bothy book and Mountain Bothy Association (MBA), and the graffiti on the shelter itself, I discuss bothy culture as a taskscape and the recording of stories and memory in relation to the landscape.
If bothy stories are amateur historical ecology, then their storytellers draw from any relevant disciplines to ‘form a picture of human-environment relations over time in a particular geographic location.3 Many visitors engage with the shelters in this way since bothy culture involves researching and travelling to a site, assessing the terrain on foot and using maps, informally studying the archaeology, observing and recording animal and plant-life, and reading and adding to the recent historical, ecological and anthropological record of the bothy book. In this meta approach to historical ecology, I collect what historical geographer Hayden Lorimer calls “small stories”4 – local histories intended to give voice and agency to individuals in a mundane encounter. Lorimer narrates the story of a teacher and participant in a geographic field course. Lorimer’s article is both a geographic account and an anthropological study of what he calls a “grassroots” geographical pedagogy. Similarly, I bring together “small stories” to construct an account of both Kearvaig as a place, and the “taskscape” of bothying culture as a way of learning about a place through embodied historical-ecological engagement.
Ingold characterises social time as a “taskscape” or ‘pattern of dwelling activities’.5 In Kearvaig these might include human stumbling, match-striking and socks-wringing; seabird flight and cries across the bay; midges swarming; waves swelling and crashing; the wind blowing up the sand. Human activity is entangled with the landscape and the activities of other actors. This is a non-linear conception of time, where the present is rooted in the patterns of past and future. The dwelling activities of 21st century human bothy visitors are conspicuous because ordinary domestic tasks are rendered unfamiliar and labour intensive. Cooking alone involves a string of tasks: purchase gas and dried food from shop; pack food, gas, stove, pot, pot grip, cutlery, and water carrier in rucksack; carry to bothy; collect water from the stream (itself engaged in an intersecting cycle of tasks as it bubbles over the pebbles to the sea); light stove; boil water; cook. Bothying tasks, like collecting and drying wood, lighting the fire, and drying clothes also vary based on weather and seasonal patterns.
Ingold develops the analogy of music in relation to the taskscape. Both a musical piece and a taskscape have multiple overlapping and intermingling cycles (for example, the seasons intersecting with bothying practices) where tension builds and releases, refrains repeat and interact to change one another. Both music and taskscapes are performed by moving actors. The difference, Ingold writes, is that the taskscape encompasses all the senses, rather than just sound. This conception of time complements Fernand Braudel’s 1973 grand theory of three interacting timescales: “the longue durée” (geological time), “socio-political cycles” (5 to 50 years), and ephemeral events.6 In Ingold’s “taskscape”, simultaneous medium-term cycles intersect in events, here analysed as “bothy stories”. To research the “taskscape”, one can follow any rhythm as it weaves through the others and find a contingent narrative.7 No single cycle determines the others. To apply Ingold’s theory to a bothy story: On the 5th of December 2002, in the geological cycle, Cape Wrath had been formed by tectonic forces as part of the Lewisian Complex,8shaped by floods and eroded by the waves, forming sea stacks and inlets. The seasonal cycle was deep in winter, meaning a harsh wind blew across Cape Wrath, and the Cape Wrath Ferry Service suspended crossings across the inlet until the spring, cutting off the peninsula from “civilisation”.9 Margaret Davies arrived at the bothy towards the end of a refrain of tasks on the Cape Wrath Trail from Fort William. A group of shepherds bringing sheep in for the winter stopped at the shelter for lunch.10 These cycles in the taskscape intersected in an event: the shepherds discovering an emaciated, hypothermic Davies in the bothy. To investigate a past event in the taskscape of Kearvaig, it is possible to use evidence from newspapers and the landscape to follow the rhythms of bothy visitors, the crash of the waves, the crossings of the ferry, or the patterns of sheep. By seeking to understand the past, I entangle myself within the taskscape, my tasks of investigation intersecting with the waves’ sighs or the ferry’s drone like musical notes combining in a chord. The individual notes in the chord are indiscernible to my tone-deaf ears, so I cannot recount their tasks without reshaping them with my own.
According to Ingold, if taskscape is music, landscapes are paintings.11 Not painting as a finished product, but a conception of an ever-changing “embodied form” of ongoing processes. Landscape is the embodiment of the taskscape – formed by and forming the tasks of winds shifting, currents dragging, walking, building, etc. Tasks are verbs; landscapes are ever-changing nouns. Analysing the landscape can help to understand the past of the taskscape as if analysing the medium and technique of a painting, as with the archaeological remains at Kearvaig. Canmore12 surveyed the site in 2001 and discovered that the task of building the bothy was evident in the stonemasons’ mark, dating the bothy to 1877.13 Canmore could deduce that the Sutherland Estate performed this task, based on the architectural style with “overhanging eaves” and “extended skews”. There is evidence of sheep herding and sheering from the late 18th century. The Sutherland Papers14 record that the bothy was built as a shepherd’s hut, although Canmore initially thought that it was a lodge for fishermen and hunters based on the interior layout and fittings.15 From the nearby remains of a blackhouse, Canmore deduced that the site had been occupied for at least 200 years – 200 years of human tasks. Seamen’s tasks from longer ago leave intangible traces – supposedly the name “Wrath” in Cape Wrath comes from “hvarf”, the Old Norse for “turning point,” indicating that the peninsula was where Norse fishermen turned back towards Scandinavia.16 More recent tasks can be gleaned from the interior of the bothy, where in 2001, a fireplace was boarded over,17 presumably by a maintenance party. When I visited in 2019, this had been removed and the fireplace repaired. Eventually all these marks will be painted over by future tasks.
The past of taskscapes are particularly conspicuous in the fabric of bothies compared with other dwellings. The shelters are inhabited temporarily by many actors who are actively engaged in recording a memory of a place even as they transform it – visitors writing in the bothy book, on the walls and the furniture, and leaving behind firelighters, chopped wood and alcohol for those who come after; work parties maintaining the buildings; MBA archivists collecting bothy book entries and older histories. As an example of written tradition, the MBA found text hand-written on the plasterboard in the interior of Kearvaig: ‘Visited by R W Nicoll on the 11th September 1966 whose father Edward John McCallum was born here on the 9th August 1862 and her Grandfather before him, Robert McCallum who was here before the lighthouse was built.’ This and examples of similar records in the bothy book show that part of bothy culture is tracing back history to previous inhabitants and sharing historical knowledge to future visitors. To draw on Ingold’s18 metaphor of landscape and painting, the written tradition of bothies are like signatures. A process of small self-ethnography is carried out whenever anyone records their bothying experience in the book before leaving, then signs the entry.
Strangers interact through material history at these shelters because bothying is a kind of temporary nomadism. Anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup19 finds that the nomadic people in Thule, northern Greenland occupy “indefinite” “open space”,20 while sedentary cultures tend to create enclosures, dividing space between individuals as semi-permanent private property. As a network of free shelters, bothies create routes for people to find indefinite space. Despite facilitating nomadism, bothies are almost always on land which has been owned privately by aristocratic estates for generations. Kearvaig is unique in that it is on MOD land. Here there is tension between bothy tourism for the local economy, and the MOD’s desire to close off Cape Wrath to the public.21 This unease between the nomadic and sedentary landscapes culminated in a public dispute when the Durness community challenged the MOD’s attempt to buy the remaining parcel of land under the lighthouse so it could own the entire peninsula.
Both Arctic nomads and bothy visitors leave spare supplies for others to find. Hastrup22 links this practice to ‘the precariousness of living’ in Northern Greenland. Bothying is temporary, voluntary precarity23 with similar social consequences. The Arctic weather persistently compels ‘people to regroup and redefine the social space as a particular moment’24 while the place itself ‘effects peculiar encounters and social events.’ Strangers gather in bothies, brought together apparently by chance, each choosing to stay after the weather and terrain has regulated our routes through the landscape and our need for shelter. The German I met at Kearvaig was there because his tent had been destroyed by the harsh highland wind, and to discuss with fellow visitors the best routes to take south. Based on these experiences, I consider bothies to be equivalent to Hastrup’s ‘spatial centres’25 in a nomadic landscape where ‘an infinite spatial realm takes its beginning’ and ‘movement is integral to both memory, sociability and experience,’ as with the forming and sharing of bothy stories.
As bothy stories result from an interdisciplinary approach to studying relationships between people and their environment, they exemplify grassroots historical ecology and, by extension, environmental history. To gather bothy stories is to attempt to create ‘a comprehensive, interdisciplinary framework’26 accounting for the past of an ecosystem. I am sure there are many other examples of people practicing environmental history in their everyday lives in ways that environmental historians could learn from, and which would allow us to better explain our field to others. To better understand the events in the stories I have discussed, it would be necessary to consult not only contemporary news reports and historical, biographical and archaeological data, but also anthropological, ecological and geological sources. My account of these histories will always be fragmentary because history can never be “read” unmediated from the present landscape and is never separated from the task of trying to read it. In Kearvaig’s case, the history is embedded in the fabric of a place several hundred miles away from where I write now. Sheltering with strangers at a bothy could easily resemble ethnographic fieldwork, and if I were to return to encounter people at Kearvaig, I could have a better understanding of how bothy stories are told, retold and inscribed on the landscape. Together we would add our own tasks to the landscape – cutting some stalks of wild rhubarb for a novel bothy meal or deepening the smoke stain above the fireplace. I would write my own stories in the book, perhaps about the pilgrim, the man with the broken tent, or whatever strange happening had occurred today in the nomadic landscape. Before signing my name and moving on.