In March 2017, author James Crawford spent two nights in Sweeney’s Bothy as part of his research for the new book ‘Who Built Scotland: 25 Journeys in Search of a Nation’. James, along with four other contributors (the novelists Alexander McCall Smith and James Robertson, the poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie, and the historian Alistair Moffat) picked five buildings each from throughout Scotland’s history, using them to explore wider themes about art, politics, society and culture. Sweeney’s Bothy was the final building of the 25. In the spirit of Bothy Project’s aim to offer spaces for exploring artistic craft, James’s intention was to write as much as he could of this final chapter during the course of his stay. The text below, taken as an extract from Who Built Scotland, was written during his time in Sweeney’s.
A View with a Room
Sweeney’s Bothy, Eigg
I left Edinburgh at 5.30am. It was very cold, my car cocooned in a fine dry frost that scraped off the windscreen like icing sugar. The birds were already singing in the darkness. I was heading north-west, away from the sunrise. Every so often, I caught the distracting glimpse of a pinkish glow in my rearview mirror. Ahead, the Ochil Hills and the mountains beyond were a bright white, almost glowing. I passed Stirling Castle, turned off the motorway, and by the time I reached Lochearnhead the frost on the ground had turned to snow. The road wound upwards and then straightened out to cross the plateau at Glencoe. My car was the only thing moving. Either side the orange-white mountains were reflected in lochans still as glass. It felt as if I was driving along the hinge of a pocket mirror. When I emerged out of the other side of the pass the sun was up, the snow had gone and the sky was a near cloudless blue. I passed quickly through Fort William then joined the wide empty road to Mallaig.
I parked overlooking the sea, grabbed my bags, and within five minutes was sitting on the ferry. There were only a handful of other passengers, two families and a young couple, all speaking German. We stood on the open front deck, gazing out past the Saltire hanging limp from the prow and enjoying the surprising warmth of the March sunshine. The wind was so light that the boat barely seemed to rock at all on the crossing. Instead the islands came closer as if delivered by conveyor belt. The first, nearer island was long, blocky and flat-topped; although punctuated at its far end by a great, tower-like rise. The second was the antithesis of the first – all peaks and edges, nothing flat, just a series of looming, snow-capped serrations, like a row of saurian teeth. Eigg and Rum.
The ferry pulled into the bay at Eigg, swivelled round, and lowered its ramp onto the pier’s stone run-off. A jeep, a truck loaded with timber, a van and a quad bike drove out from the car deck. The rest of us followed on foot. A small crowd had gathered. I was supposed to find a man called Eddie, driving a green Land Rover. He found me first. He directed me to another man, Charlie, who would take me to the far side of the island. As we drove I remarked to Charlie about the calmness of the conditions. He laughed and told me about once being on a CalMac Ferry that was listing so severely that the wall-mounted television in the cafeteria flew off and exploded on the floor. And that was nothing, he continued, compared to his time serving in the Falklands, when a journey to Ascension Island saw his boat riding waves as tall as … he paused for a comparison and then pointed to the hundred-metre-high cliffs that surround Eigg’s high plateau. As tall as those. I considered myself fortunate.
The drive along the island’s single main road took just a few minutes. I was dropped outside a house where my host (and Eddie’s partner) Lucy greeted me and we walked with her excitable dog Fiji up a steep path, passing over a couple of makeshift wooden bridges. My home for the next few days emerged over the rise, surrounded by an orange and red mass of desiccated bracken laced with thorn bushes. Its entire front wall was a window – catching the reflection of the blue sky and the darkness of the Rum Cuillins behind me. It had a sloping, corrugated metal roof, with a gleaming cylindrical steel chimney poking out at one side. In front of the window was a small wooden decking with a neat little rectangular bench. And behind was the escarpment of massive cliffs – the great half moon of rock wall that cradles the land on this side of the island. It had been just over six hours since I’d hauled myself out of bed, but now I was here, at Sweeney’s Bothy.
I met Bobby Niven on a chill but bright morning in a timber-framed, corrugated polycarbonate structure called the Pig Rock Bothy, set in the grounds of Edinburgh’s Museum of Modern Art. We sat down at a simple wooden table and talked. Bobby wore a heavy black overcoat, a purple woollen beanie and gloves. There was an oil-burning radiator under the table to fend off the cold, but we both stayed wrapped up throughout.
Bobby, in collaboration with the architect Iain MacLeod, had designed and built the space we were sitting in. It is the third structure to emerge out of ‘The Bothy Project’, their plan to establish, across Scotland and beyond, a network of modern, hand-crafted, small-scale, off-grid dwellings: bothies (from the Gaelic bothan, meaning ‘shelter’) designed specifically for use by artists. Bobby is an artist himself – a sculptor, photographer and filmmaker, and a former student of the Glasgow School of Art and the Master of Arts programme at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. When I asked him where the project came from he struggled to pinpoint any one moment.
‘Sometimes it’s hard to know whether you’re going towards something or away from something’, he said. ‘I was always travelling up the west coast at weekends while I was at Glasgow. The art scene could be a bit of a boiler-house. It was nice to get out, switch off, just go for a walk or get some hill time.’
He would often stay in mountain bothies, taking his sketchbook along with him, drawing ideas for new sculptures, walking in the landscape, enjoying the fresh air, picking up bits and pieces as he went. ‘I guess it was a kind of recreation in a way, creative recreation or something like that.’ He enjoyed how, consciously or unconsciously, place and location could act as a source of inspiration. It was also, he said, about friendship.
‘You’d use jumping on the train and getting away for the weekend for talking, for getting to know each other and disengaging from other things that had been happening during the week. Or sometimes you’re hungover and you just get in the car and make it up as you go along’.
The one downside he found with the bothies was the same thing that was central to their appeal – their remoteness and lack of facilities meant any stay had to be brief. ‘Sometimes it’s a really intense experience, you get a lot from a short period of time, because it’s really visceral with extremes of temperature and weather. But you’ve got to really pack up all the gear, carry in all your fuel, get your food. You can only carry enough for a night or two.’
In 2009, Bobby and Iain were talking about bothies in a pub with a friend, the environmental artist Will Foster. They thought about how they are now almost entirely the preserve of hill-walkers and mountaineers, used as shelters and staging posts for venturing out into the more inaccessible corners of Scotland. But before that bothies were used for work: by people who were building, making and maintaining things. What, they wondered, about returning to that original idea? ‘Artists could go there for a longer period to undertake something, undertake practice, creative work rather than just recreation’, explained Bobby. ‘That’s a nice shift. Maybe that’s pioneering.’
They decided to turn their discussion into an open door event at Glasgow School of Art, ‘We filled a room with loads of books on architecture and travelling, and all sorts of things about Scotland. People came and did drawings on tables and drawings on the walls, showing the kind of structures they’d like to stay in. We had a map out and people were putting pins in the map to mark their ideal locations.’ They took the results from the event and put them up on a blog. Not long after, they received an email from the Royal Scottish Academy asking if they wanted to be a part of their ‘Residencies for Scotland’ scheme. The Academy had misunderstood the material on the blog. They thought that the fantasy bothies already existed, and that funded artists could stay in them. Bobby and Iain’s response was wonderful. ‘We don’t actually have a venue yet’, they said. ‘But could we apply to build a residency on a residency?’ The Academy said yes. In the summer of 2011, with a grant of £5,000, they found themselves installed in the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, designing and building their very first artists’ bothy.
They began by mocking up a scale model – a little wooden frame with corrugated cardboard for walls. The form was simple, vernacular. To a large extent the structural design was informed by practicalities and logistics. The idea was to build the bothy on-site at the workshop, then dismantle it and reassemble it once they had found an appropriate home somewhere out in the Scottish landscape. So it had to be a panelised structure, it had to fit on the back of a lorry, and its individual sections had to be light enough to be moved and carried by a small number of people. The bothy started to take shape in the car park space outside the sculpture workshop – a timber frame with plywood walling, sitting on rubber tyres to raise it up off the ground. At the same time, work was ongoing to find an appropriate host. A friend put Bobby and Iain in touch with Walter Micklethwait, the manager and family-owner of the 200-acre Inshriach Estate in the Cairngorms National Park. Micklethwait has form as a patron of quirky and innovative ideas – the estate already offered bespoke accommodation in a converted 1956 Commer Q4 fire truck, and had turned an old horsebox into an outdoor hot-tub – and he needed little convincing. ‘It is not every day’, he said, ‘that someone offers you a bothy, prefab, insulated, small enough to be a temporary structure, large enough to stay in.’
In the middle of August, just a couple of weeks after meeting Micklethwait, the bothy was reduced to its component parts and loaded onto a truck heading north up the A9 towards Aviemore. Using an old tractor, Bobby and Iain transported the large panel sections to a secluded spot among traditional woodland near the banks of the River Spey. A footprint for the building was roped out among the heather and juniper, and then they began digging the holes for the six concrete pillar foundations. Much of the structural work was achieved in the first two weeks. But the fine detail took a lot longer.
‘There were about fifteen people involved in the build’, Bobby explained. ‘All volunteers – a mixture of arts friends from Glasgow and people connected to the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop.’ They followed the same routine over some ten weekends between August and the following March. ‘We’d pack the car – an old Volvo 240 Estate – loading the roof rack with materials and trying to cram five folk in as well. We’d leave on a Friday night, drive up in the dark and all stay in the bothy.’ For much of this process it was half built with no windows – sometimes snow would be drifting in on top of them. ‘We had a beer keg stove that this pyromaniac American guy from the Glasgow Sculpture Studios had made. We’d sit around that and try to keep warm.’ Other times the weather was kinder. ‘If you get a high pressure sunny day and you’re building outside you’d get a really magical feeling. It’s a lot different to being in a carpentry workshop with the sound of nail guns and tunes pumping away. The woodland smells are amazing, the fire’s going, somebody’s taking care of the tea and the toast, some of you are having chat, some of you are just working alone. And enjoying that, being out in nature.’ Then, come sunset on the Sunday, they’d pack up their things and drive back home again in the dark.
They were operating on a shoestring budget, so they worked the building out as they went along. Much of the aesthetic of the bothy was the result a scramble to get material donated. They wrote a lot of letters to suppliers explaining the project and asking for discounts or freebies. The structure’s standout feature – its corrugated, galvanised-steel cladding, ‘the spaceship look’ as Bobby puts it – was gifted to them by a company called Cladco after a mis-order had left a pile of it lying unused in their yard. The narrow, floor-to-eave sash and case windows came from Bobby’s own Glasgow flat – two were fitted on either side of the building, with one on the gable end. Iain custom-designed and fashioned special clipped gutters. The bothy’s floor and mezzanine level – a bed in the roof space reached by ladder salvaged from the Glasgow School of Art – was formed out of reclaimed ash, while the gables were clad in locally sourced Scottish larch. The insulation came from sheep’s wool. ‘It smells good, it’s nice to work with, it’s non-toxic and non-abrasive, unlike the glass fibre stuff’, Bobby explained. ‘It helps you feel like you’re in a much more natural space.’
They fitted out a kitchenette below the double bed, installed a wood-burning stove with an oven, built a mini library, and furnished the bothy with two basic wooden tables, an old leather armchair and a desk chair. Lighting was provided by wall mounting a solar-powered anglepoise lamp, and hanging glass-lanterns to hold tea lights. Their shower was outdoors, a curve of the corrugation providing a partial screen for suspending a water bag heated by the wood-burner. When the Inshriach Bothy was finally completed in the spring of 2012, a business model was agreed with Walter – ring-fencing periods for creative practitioners, while opening up other parts of the year for public rental to ensure continuous occupancy and help with income and running costs.
Artists started arriving that autumn, alone and in groups, covering a wide range of disciplines – film-makers, painters, poets, musicians, sculptors, photographers. The residency, built on a residency, was now in use as a residency. But Inshriach was always just a starting point, a prototype. Bobby and Iain had envisaged a network of structures, and were already turning their attention towards their next build, their island bothy.
I dropped my bags on the floor and sank into a soft maroon armchair set in the middle of the bothy. What now?
The view was what now. The view is the answer to just about any question you might ask of Sweeney’s Bothy. Everything is orientated towards its floor-to-ceiling glass wall (actually four glass panels segmented by three narrow strips of wood, but so slim as to almost fade away after a first look, to seem like a single pane). The armchair, the desk with its own little wooden swivel chair on casters, the snug and bookshelves set in the back wall, the wood-burning stove, the double bed up in the roof space – all put themselves in service of the view. What is the view? Through the window the land undulates down to the sea. Rum appears impossibly close, the Sound reduced to just a few inches of water. You can’t see any buildings or any people. But the mountains stare in at you, heavy and implacable: Sgurr nan Gillean, Ainshval, Askival, Hallival, the Nameless Corrie, the Forgotten Corrie. And the rest is sky.
It was just past noon. The interior of the bothy was dim with the sun still so startlingly bright outside – only a sliver of light fell obliquely through the window. It made the view appear over-saturated, like a Technicolor cinema screen. It took a while to get up or to do anything at all. I was suffering from view-induced paralysis – a common affliction, it seemed, for those who stay in the bothy. I sat flicking through the visitors’ book and every testimonial came back to the view – a succession of people staring out at the land, the sea, the sky; at Rum disappearing or reappearing out of cloud, rain or mist; at the preponderance of rainbows. ‘It’s impossible not to be moved by this view’ said one entry, written in a neat, spidery hand. Kathleen Jamie wrote a poem about it, when she stayed in the bothy. It opens:
for too long I haven’t
glanced at the sea
– fully ten minutes!
I could understand those ten minutes now as an achievement of considerable willpower. The poem was called – what else? – ‘The View’. The very last entry in the visitors’ book, written the day before I arrived, recommended watching the ‘ever-changing elements’ – and then suggested that ‘if it’s a clear night, shower under the stars, you won’t forget it’. I won’t be doing that, I thought. I flicked to another entry from a fortnight earlier. It quoted Nan Shepherd’s line, ‘my eyes were in my feet’. ‘Walk as much as you can,’ it urged. This roused me.
I heated soup in a heavy cast-iron pan on the gas hob, and took it outside, sitting on the bench and resting my back against the glass. The wind had picked up and clouds had mustered over Rum’s peaks. The sun was being switched on and off now like a light. It was good weather for walking. Lucy had described a route up onto the cliffs behind the bothy: ‘duck under a clothes-line and then it’s a short, steep scramble to the top. Gets the torture over and done with straight away’. I did as suggested, hauling myself up through a rocky gun barrel, and arriving on a wide plateau of heather and soft, spongy grass. For the next few hours I followed the line of the cliffs south to north, moving from precipice to precipice, gaping at the waterfalls tumbling down, always looking for the bothy somewhere below. It appeared as a tiny black dot (three tiny black dots really: the bothy, the wood store with its solar panels, the composting toilet off to one side), set back from the smattering of houses that followed the main road. The landscape was a patchwork of oranges, greens and browns. As the light dipped, patterns began to emerge, lines and curves and circles, the tracery of old abandoned crofts, walls, fields and farms submerged beneath the undergrowth. I touched the trig point at the northernmost stretch of the cliffs, and looked out to Skye, smeared at its centre by a distant, isolated column of rain. The route looped back by a haphazard zigzag path, dipping down a gap between the rocks, then finally rejoining the very end of the island’s main road.
Afternoon was tipping into evening when I returned. The bothy was bathed in light now, the low sun reaching into to its back corners, filling the building with a gentle, drowsy heat. The view was back again, insistent and transfixing. The cloud began to thicken, but not too much. Clear pockets of blue and yellow were swaddled in white and grey gauze. The sky over the horizon shifted from gold to bronze. The sun was dipping fast now; it found the gap between the clouds and the sea and burst like a flare, turning the inside of the bothy crimson. Then it was gone.
I lit the fire in the wood burner, cooked some dinner and watched the window turn to black. Now all I could see was the reflection of the desk lamp and the glow of my laptop screen open in front of me. I had recorded my conversation with Bobby in the Pig Rock Bothy, and I wanted to hear it again now.
In the near-darkness, with the fire popping alongside me, I listened to the story of how Sweeney’s was made.
The project evolved with the creation of the second bothy. Bobby and Iain brought the poet and artist Alec Finlay into the design process, securing investment from Creative Scotland as part of ‘Year of Natural Scotland’. As Bobby explained, even at the stage of applying for funding, ‘Alec was building a picture around what the bothy could be, both in terms of its physical presence, but also in terms of cultural movements, mythology, sense of place’.
Alec’s idea was to take inspiration from Shiubhne – Sweeney – the mad king of Celtic folklore. According to the tale, after killing an old friend at the battle of Mag Rath, Sweeney loses his mind and escapes into the wilderness. He spends some ten years wandering the lands of Ireland and Scotland, looking each night for a new place to rest and sleep, and composing poems on both the beauty and cruelty of nature. At the furthest reaches of his flight, he comes to the Small Isles – to Eigg. But he can never escape the memory of the spears of battle. As Flann O’Brien puts it in his novel At Swim Two Birds, time and again Sweeney finds himself enduring, ‘the pain of his bed there on top of a tall ivy-grown hawthorn in the glen, every twist that he would turn sending showers of hawy thorns into his flesh’.
The thorn became the bothy’s key design motif. Alec’s original sketch for the building, submitted as part of the funding application, was a solid blank rectangle, stamped on top of a jagged scatter of overlapping straight lines. ‘The bothy begins as a frame in and for the wilderness, as every hut is’, said Alec. ‘The sketch catches the gist of Sweeney’s bed in the thorn trees.’ It was captioned ‘Sweeney’s Bothy: thicket without, shelter within’.
As the building developed, Alec, in the spirit of Sweeney, recorded the design process in poetry.
the thorn finds purpose
as pillar, or pilotis
the thorn turns its points skywards
away from delicate flesh
in our design
the thorn column suggested
extending the angled roof outwards
beyond the bothy walls
only when the revisions
will the bothy stand
square and plumb
on a hill facing
a rugged mountain skyline
has found its home
in the vale of Cleadale
on the Isle of Eigg
the furthest of the leaps
the outcast Sweeney made
in his mad journey
through the wilds
Sweeney’s wee hut
will have its windows
faced to the west
aligned so as to be
filled with the massif
skyline of Rum
‘Alec was creating the myth of the structure before it even existed’, Bobby said. The hut-yet-to-be-built was gaining a public following. And all the while, in his sculpture workshop in an outbuilding of his dad’s farm in Fife, Bobby was bringing the physical bothy to life. As before, the frame was assembled first and then dismantled for transport to its final site: a plot of land cleared out among the bracken on Lucy and Eddie’s croft at Cleadale on the north-west of Eigg. In the late autumn of 2013 a flat-bed truck piled high with spruce stud-walling, larch cladding and sheep’s wool insulation drove from Fife to the ferry port at Mallaig. The truck made it across on its second attempt, nosed right up against the on–off ramp to fit on the car deck. It was too big, however, to navigate the island’s main road. Everything had to be unloaded just a few hundred metres from the pier, above the sands of Galmisdale Bay. A crofter called Alistair then helped move the materials in instalments, wood panels balanced like a Jenga tower on a trailer hooked up to the back of his tractor. Bobby had estimated the build time at six weeks, based roughly on the number of actual construction days at Inshriach. It took far longer. The setting and the environment offered up challenges that he had not anticipated.
‘It was brutal,’ he said. ‘I ended up being on Eigg for five months of the winter. And it was the worst winter they’d had in fifty years. There were only five days with no rain the whole time. The site was a slurry, knee-deep mud round about it.’ Access was already difficult because of the steep slope up from the road, and it was made even worse by the persistence of the rain. They had to walk things up piece by piece: wooden panels, window frames, glass. ‘We ran out of money. But I was stuck there because I had to complete it.’
For large parts of this time, Bobby was by himself. It was tempting to picture him as a version of Sweeney – the solitary figure wrestling with nature’s harsh extremes. He kept a photo diary of the construction. It is a study in saturation, a series of images of mud, wet wood, squalls, snow, pregnant clouds, weak light and watery rainbows. I asked him if Sweeney’s felt like more of an achievement than Inshriach because of the adversity, because he had had to do so much of it on his own. But no, most of the time he was just annoyed with himself.
‘I felt stupid because I wasn’t able to predict how it should have been set up,’ he said. ‘For people who live on the islands that’s just how it goes – and you probably try to do most of your build projects in the summer. For me it was a new thing.’ Companionship made a difference. For the first month and a half Bobby’s step-brother stayed with him on-site. ‘He was at a junction in his life, so he came with his wee dog. He had no building or carpentry experience but wanted to volunteer. It was great hanging out with him. Now he’s doing a carpentry course in Australia.’ A couple of artist friends from Glasgow also did stints on the island. ‘They lit up the place for a couple of weeks, we had a hoot. To have someone visit for a week or a month would help get you through.’ With the funds almost exhausted – and Bobby no longer able to pay wages or his rental accommodation – he had to improvise and start pre-selling artists’ residencies to institutions, booking up slots in the hut-yet-to-be-built. It was this money that allowed him to employ locals on Eigg to help complete the bothy.
The involvement of the community was always important to him. ‘A lot of people think of the bothies purely as retreats. That’s slightly condescending to the locations. These are not places where there is nothing. What’s the periphery for one person is the centre for someone else. It’s the communities that bring the bothies to life.’ Bobby told me the colourful story of how he first came to bond with the people of Eigg. ‘We’d been building for about ten days when we walked over to the tea room one evening for a pint. We didn’t really know anyone in the room at all. When we walked in it kind of went quiet, and then there was this chorus. And we couldn’t quite work out what they were saying to start with. But basically it was this kind of chorus of abuse, heckling, just heckling as we came in. And then this one loudest voice at the end just shouted “fucking bothy wankers!”.’ He laughed at the memory of it. ‘We had a really nice evening. It was just a heckle to see if you could take it, and if you could then you weren’t too serious and you were alright for a chat. I told Lucy about it later and she said “that’s a good sign”.’
By the spring of 2014 it was almost done. One of the last interior fittings was the mezzanine level in the roof space above the kitchenette, right at the back of the bothy. To hold up the double bed they erected a timber pillar, rising up from the floor and then branching out into three struts. The three-pronged pillar came from one of Alec’s first drawings of the thorn motif: it was the hawthorn tree to carry mad Sweeney’s bed.
I woke in the hawthorn tree, climbed down its ladder and made a trip out to the wood store. The sky was a liquid blue, the sun painfully bright. But the air was brittle, the ground set in a hard frost. I got a fire going in the wood burner to heat the water for the outdoor shower. There was a little digital centigrade thermometer hooked up to a pipe on the bothy wall. When it climbed into the thirties, I dashed out onto the decking and twisted on the shower: a double hit of hot and cold. I made breakfast, then unfolded the big Ordnance Survey map from the bothy’s little library and spread it out on the floor. I had decided to climb the Sgurr, Eigg’s great skyscraper of volcanic rock.
It was late morning by the time I set off. The sky was still cloudless, marked only by the incessant scribbling of jet contrails. I had to walk back along the main road, almost all the way to Galmisdale Bay, before I turned up a track through the trees. The path opened to a green grassy field, leading up to a house framed beautifully beneath the grey knucklebone of the Sgurr. Beyond the house everything was clad in russet heather. The land was still swollen with rainwater. On up-slopes, the path often deteriorated into a riverbed. On the flats, it disappeared in stretches of murky bog. The route continued into the permanent shadow beneath the lee of the Sgurr. Now I was climbing over snow and ice.
Even at the summit, almost four hundred metres above sea level, there was only the lightest breeze. I hadn’t spotted another person since I set out. I watched an eagle ride the thermals below me. It felt like you could see all of Scotland. Looking north there was Rum and Skye. To the east was the mainland, the mountains still encased in snow. South was Muck, then Coll and Tiree. And finally out west was the long tail of the Outer Hebrides, with Mingulay as a last punctuation mark. Beyond that, there’s nothing until the coast of Newfoundland.
It was almost six o’clock by the time I got back to the bothy. I’d been walking for seven hours. I quickly ate soup, then made my way down to the beach overlooking the Bay of Laig. The air was perfectly still. Rum was in silhouette, its image reflected in the wide, glassy stretch of wet sands. I sat in the white dunes, listened to the waves breaking and watched the sunset.
I looked in on Lucy and Eddie on the way back to the bothy – taking a proffered can of Guinness eagerly. The darkness came again, and with the fire lit, I poured my drink, sat down in the armchair and started to write. I wrote much of what you are reading here now. At around eleven o’clock I glanced at the digital thermometer. The water temperature had nudged over forty degrees. I closed my laptop, undressed, stepped out into the night, and showered beneath the stars.
‘There will be loads of huts and cabins popping up over the next few years, which I think is a great thing’, Bobby said. We were talking about the ‘Thousand Huts’ campaign, an initiative started in 2011 to promote the building of simple structures for living, working and recreation in the countryside. In 2014, the campaign achieved a notable success: a first legal definition of a hut in the glossary of the Scottish Planning Policy. A hut, it says, is ‘a simple building … constructed from low impact materials … and built in such a way that it is movable with little or not trace at the end of its life’. A commitment followed from the Scottish Government to exempt huts from building regulations – contingent on developing a Code of Good Practice to ensure adequate health and safety provision. As the campaigners put it, they are attempting to revive a ‘hutting heritage’ that is in real danger of vanishing. ‘Simple, rustic buildings have always been an important part of Scotland’s culture’, they say. ‘From shielings to mountain bothies and shepherds’ huts, they have played a crucial role as temporary bases for people to spend time in the hills, forests, and countryside’.
I asked Bobby if he saw a role for his bothies in the campaign. ‘We have a slightly different agenda’, he said. ‘The hutting movement has always been about the right of the individual or the family to build and have access to their own hut. It’s about the hut in your imagination, and your right and freedom to have it’. All the same, the Bothy Project is offering up a blueprint for the hutters of the future. Soon they will be making prefab bothies available for sale, adapted from the original Inshriach design. ‘We’ll have two options’, Bobby said, ‘a volumetric one, that will be delivered to a site complete on the back of a truck; and a panelised flat pack version for self-assembly. You’ll be able to put them anywhere’. Their initial projections for this service are relatively modest: sell ten bothies in their first year, twenty in their second, and forty in their third. It is part of Bobby’s plan to turn the Bothy Project into a dedicated charitable organisation – on the one hand developing the creative network by running residencies, on the other selling pre-fabs and related materials. These include the work of the ‘Bothy Stores’, an initiative which is challenging designers to develop new products specific to the needs and locations of individual bothies. So far the results have ranged from a terracotta cool box and an ‘eco-dyed’ apron, to a 20-litre duck canvas shower bag and pulley system. ‘One strand is about the imagination and supporting people, the other is practical and tangible’, Bobby said.
The ongoing development of the dwelling bothies remains central, however. The plan is to supplement Inshriach and Sweeney’s with another eight residencies within the next five years. Each should be bespoke, Bobby said, the product of further collaborations with artists and architects. ‘And we will always be asking ourselves, “what is the need for it, why here, how can it contribute and be a part of the community?” The both- ies can’t just exist as facilities for people who don’t live there.’ They may
explore building on a bigger scale, establishing some dwellings for groups rather than individuals, and encouraging wider access. This is a project with international ambition. ‘We could form partnerships with institutions abroad for a residency exchange project or even a new bothy build’, Bobby continued. ‘There’s a hutting movement happening globally. And as the Scottish contingent we’d like to do exchanges and share our traditional material and carpentry processes – along with our innovations.’
It may be this last point that has the widest relevance. All of the bothies are developed under the auspices of the project’s commitment to sustainability, renewability and low carbon. It’s something Bobby doesn’t mention overtly because, as he puts it, ‘its intrinsic, there’s nothing less inspiring than people telling you the obvious’. Yet what is perhaps not so obvious is the potential for the scalability of the bothy designs. They provide the opportunity to experiment with new materials to showcase how they might be used. They can try things, they can make mistakes and, somewhere down the line, they can make a contribution to the essential conversation about how we all should build. ‘We don’t want to over-promise’, Bobby said. ‘But on some level it has to be the ambition of the project to achieve that’.
After a grey morning, the sun had pushed through. I was back on the ferry, sitting out on the deck, facing backwards to watch Eigg drift away. It occurred to me that one of the most fascinating things about the bothies is that, in the style of the hutting movement, they are built in such a way that they are movable with little or no trace at the end of their lives. Both Inshriach and Sweeney’s are ‘soft touch’ builds, erected on two-metre-long concrete pillar foundations. Which means that they can just be pulled out and taken away, and it will be like they were never there in the first place.
‘It should be that way’ Bobby had said. The bothies make no claim to legacy or permanence – they are visitors in the landscape, not fixtures. Where so many buildings are fixated on lasting, the bothies are preconceived as ghosts. What if, I wondered idly, somewhere down the generations, this becomes the new norm? Just as the digital age seems to offer up the eventual end of the physical archive – no one actually writes anything down anymore – will there be a new wave of buildings, a new generation of builders, that actively avoid inscribing anything in the landscape? What might this mean for our understanding of our past, if we evolve a built environment that leaves nothing behind – no litter, no detritus, no sign? Of course, we are not there yet – we are very far from there. But it is something to think about: that a time may come when what we build will no longer be left behind to tell us who we once were, and who we now are.
And would it be better that way?
Who Built Scotland: 25 Journeys in Search of a Nation by James Crawford, Kathleen Jamie, Alexander McCall Smith, Alistair Moffat and James Robertson is available now on Bothy Stores