When we decided to explore Scotland’s remote highland bothies and swims, we didn’t expect to arrive by police escort.
We’d started our journey earlier that day at Fort William, where we stocked up on supplies for five days of walking and then looked round for a bus to take us to the path for our first bothy up near Glenfinnan. There wasn’t one. So with the light rapidly fading, we stuck out our thumbs to try and hitch our way to the start of the trail. Who wouldn’t pick up a large bearded man and two girls, each with a gigantic rucksack and wildly misplaced enthusiasm? Everyone, apparently.
Just as we were losing hope, we noticed the indicator and red brake lights of a police van pulling in beside us. We all hastily adopted positions of nonchalance and faces of innocence. Was hitchhiking even legal? But as it turned out, Hugo the policeman was not coming to arrest us. He offered us a lift – and not just to the start of the bothy path, but right to the bothy itself.
Hugo was the first of many kind people that we would meet, and the perfect start to our Scottish wild swimming adventure. As we pushed open the door of our first bothy, the smell of woodsmoke filled our noses and we were warmly greeted by a crackling fire. We couldn’t have planned for a better introduction to the world of ‘bothy-ing’, as we chatted late into the evening with eight other hikers from around the world. We eventually settled into our sleeping bags ready for our first day of walking and swimming.
We woke up to rain beating down on the tin roof – that sound was to be our constant companion throughout the trip. As we struggled out into the rain with our packs, dwarfed by Streap and Sgurr Thuilm mountains on either side of the tiny valley where we walked, the stone track where Hugo had driven us the night before quickly disappeared and was replaced by deep, slippy bogs and dripping forests.
Water. Scotland is full of water, we realised, and nowhere more so than the Great Glen. On every side we could see cascades of water, rivers big and small with crystal clear springs, rippling lochs and even a tiny windswept beach where we bothied on our third night. Over the course of the five days that we walked, we rarely left the side of a river. If anything, the main problem was choosing where to swim, when round every corner there was another perfect spot.
Our swim on the first day was in the River Dessary, under a wooden bridge in a deep clear pool fed by rapids. It was not warm. It was not dry. Standing shivering in the drizzle in our swimming costumes, we all began to question our own sanity. But as we dived in to the water, doubt was quickly replaced by adrenaline as we floated up and down in the rapids, our laughter and shouting echoing down the valley. We climbed out smiling, and after drying off as best we could in the rain, we struggled through more bogs to A’chuil bothy to change into dry clothes, set up the stove for a cup of tea, and explore where we were staying. And that became our routine over the five days: bothy; rain; walk; why-oh-why-are-we-about-to-swim; wow-we-love-swimming; bothy.
Every day we would find a new spot – from the beautiful Lochan a’ Mhain hidden at the very top of a highland pass, to the deserted beach at Sourlies, and the deep, crystal clear River Pean where you could float lazily downstream. That was our final swim, and we’d been tipped off the night before that the section of the River Pean that flowed beneath our next bothy was a perfect swim spot. So we waited until we arrived that evening and did a mad dash in our swimming costumes through waist-high ferns and rain to plunge into a deep pool just below. It was a wild swimmers’ paradise, and despite the weather, our daily swim in the rain surrounded by spectacular scenery was the highlight of our trip.
For days we wouldn’t see anyone on the paths or in the rivers. We had no phone signal or internet for the entire trip. On our second day, we passed a sign warning walkers of the remoteness of the area, urging us to turn back if we weren’t fully prepared for all weathers and terrains. And with the weather closing in around us and rising river levels, it was with increasing relief that we made it to the bothies each night – not just for their shelter and firewood, but also for the company of other walkers who brought news from around the highlands.
A friendly scout leader walking the Cape Wrath trail; a couple of friends from Scotland trying to make it across a broken bridge to the island ferry beyond; bike-packers from Lithuania battling through the rugged terrain. Night after night we gathered round a bothy fire to share tales with fellow walkers from around the world. There was no electricity and no running water. Four stone walls, flickering candles and a nearby stream for drinking water was what brought us together.
One night, I headed out of the bothy onto Sourlies beach to look for firewood. The sun was setting, and the rain had finally cleared for a brief hour or two. The water was lit up with red and purple, and a waterfall cascaded down into the sea in the distance. As I turned round to look up the beach, I saw a young stag standing there watching me, about 20 metres away. These bothies, unreachable by roads and surrounded by wilderness, were a truly magical setting to end each day of walking.
On the fifth day, we emerged from the same high pass that we’d used to enter the Great Glen and walked back to civilisation. As we reached the road (an actual road!), the sound of bagpipes drifted up from the Glenfinnan Highland Games to signal the end of our trip, and we stuck out our thumbs for the journey back to Fort William. We were drenched with rain, windburnt, and feeling like we’d returned from another century after five days without electricity or running water.
Scotland: you gave us bothies, you gave us baths, and you gave us rain so constant we could tip water out of our shoes. But above all, you threw wilderness at us so beautiful that we cannot wait to come back. If you love your paths rugged, your swimming cold and your accommodation remote, then the Western Highlands and its bothies should be your next adventure.