What is a Scottish Bothy? Full Beginner Guide

What is a bothy?” you may ask as you plan your rugged adventure through the breathtaking wilds of Scotland; allow us to introduce you to these hiker-friendly, rustic accommodations that could turn your journey into a truly memorable experience.

The lovely nation of Scotland has a brilliant (and useful!) network of bothies, all tucked away in the nation’s most difficult-to-access areas…

… and if you like exploring and adventuring, they’ll probably become your best friends.

But who can use these bothies? How do they work? And where will you find them?

Coming up, all that and more—here’s our full beginner’s guide to Scottish bothies!

What is a Bothy

What is a Bothy?

A bothy is a basic wilderness shelter located in remote areas of Scotland. These simple structures, often resembling abandoned homes made of bricks, are available for campers, hikers, and outdoor adventurers as a free overnight accommodation option. Bothies offer rudimentary amenities, such as a roof and four walls, with some potentially including small sleeping platforms and fireplaces. Typically, people use bothies for one-night stays during hikes or outdoor journeys.

Before we get started, let’s set the scene…

Large pockets of Scotland are way more remote than most people realize.

Vast stretches of the country are mountainous, and very difficult to reach. In some pockets of the nation, you could walk for hours (even days) without seeing an inhabited house, or another person. North of Inverness, you won’t find any other cities (and even the towns are tiny). Many of the most northern villages have populations of less than 100 people, and are home to more animals than humans.

In short, many parts of Scotland are very wild and very rural. And huge stretches of the country don’t have much life, much civilization, or much infrastructure.

And that’s where bothies come in.

An old bothy in Glen Tilt, Perthshire, Scotland

These basic wilderness-based shacks are situated in various parts of Scotland—and they’re for campers, hikers and other outdoor adventurers who need access to an overnight shelter. They’re free to use, there are around 85 of them dotted around the nation, and anyone and everyone can sleep or rest in them.

Defined as a “hut,” or a “mountain shelter,” bothies aren’t hostels, or holiday homes, or sweet little chalets. They’re super rudimentary—and staying in a Scottish bothy is more like camping without a tent (but with a few more perks, and a few more conveniences).

I won’t bore you to death with the detailed history of bothies, but they were born due to a few different factors. In and around the mid-1940s, WW2 had ended, which caused an economic boom in Scotland, along with a more laid-back attitude to life. At the same time, lots of remote farms were being abandoned, as many people made the choice to relocate to cities. Hiking also became more popular around the same time.

Add those keen hikers to more time away from work and a bunch of abandoned homes, and what do you get? That’s right—bothies!

(If you’re mega interested in the history and heritage of the basic little booths, you can find more information here).

Glendhu bothy in the Northern Highlands, Scotland

The spirit of bothies hasn’t really changed much since those days. But during the intervening years individuals and charities (including the Scottish Bothy Association, more on those guys later) have updated, upgraded and maintained these bothies, to make sure they still offer shelter, protection, and a decent place to sleep.

Typically, bothies look like remote abandoned homes (because they usually are remote abandoned homes), and they’re typically made from bricks. Inside, you’ll usually find very little, apart from a roof and four walls. Other features might include small platforms to use as beds, fireplaces to keep warm, and whatever items and useables have been left behind by whoever was here last.

Usually, people only stay in bothies for one night. They’re largely designed to be mid-hike (or end-hike) stop-offs, where you briefly stay for one night before then moving on.

What to Expect when Bothying?

Is ‘bothying’ a verb? I don’t know, but it is now!

First of all, to get your bothy-using odyssey underway, you should check to see exactly where you’ll find the various Scottish bothies. You can use this map for this.

If there is no en-route bothy along your planned hike or bike ride or whatever, you (obviously) can’t use one. So if you really really want to use a bothy, plan a route that’ll take you beside one.

Next up, you’ll be arriving at your bothy. When you arrive, you’ll find a roof and four walls, and maybe not much else. There might be a place to make a fire. There might be a few basic facilities and amenities. If you’re lucky, there might be a toilet.

There’s not much to expect from bothying. You should simply expect to find a basic shelter that’ll keep you protected from the elements. If it includes or offers anything else, that’s just a nice bonus.

A bothy in Glencoe Valley, Scotland

What to Bring to a Bothy?

  • A sleeping bag: Yes, bothies are for sleeping inside of. But without a sleeping bag, you’ll probably be overnighting on the harsh realities of a cold hard concrete floor. Any comfort you need, you’re expected to bring it with you. Same goes for a small pillow or whatever other ‘luxuries’ you might want.
  • Firewood: Alright, you probably won’t be lugging around a big fat load of firewood in your backpack. But if you find any firewood close to your chosen bothy, it’s worth picking it up and bringing it with you. Unless it’s a very-rare warm Scottish night, you’ll probably need to make a fire—and it’s unlikely that you’ll find any firewood in the bothy. 
  • Water: Some bothies have nearby drinking water. Some don’t. But it’s best to assume that your bothy will offer no water—and if it does, that’s just a nice little surprise.
  • Food: Very occasionally, some bothies might have a few non-perishable snacks and foods that have been left behind by the last user. But that’s pretty unlikely—and any food you will find won’t be particularly filling or exciting anyway. So carry whatever food you might need (or want).
  • A lighter, or matches: To start a fire, you don’t need to rub pieces of flint together like some sort of caveman. It’s much easier to just use a lighter, or some matches. So carry some.
  • A tent: I know this seems like the very last thing you’d need in a bothy, but if you turn up and a bothy is full, you might need to sleep elsewhere—and that ‘elsewhere’ can be right beside the bothy. If you camp beside a bothy, you can still wander inside if the weather becomes dangerous or whatever—so you still get the perks of the building without actually sleeping inside of it.

Bothy Etiquettes & the Bothy Code – Rules and Recommendations for Using a Bothy

Yep, anyone can just turn up and use a bothy. But you should follow the rules and recommendations, and be all respectful. Here are the main things you need to think about:

The Bothy Code

There are five rules to properly use a bothy:

  1. Respect Other Users’: leave the bothy clean and tidy, in a state you’d want to find it in. If you can, leave behind dry kindling, so the next visitors can make a fire. If any other visitors come while you’re staying, make them welcome.
  2. ‘Respect the Bothy’: don’t intentionally damage or vandalize your bothy. Report any accidental damage. Take any trash with you. Don’t leave perishable food behind. Thoroughly put out any fires before you leave. Properly close all windows and doors before you leave.
  3. ‘Respect the Surroundings’: don’t do your poops right beside the bothy or the water supply. Use the supplied spade to dig a hole for your poops. Don’t cut live wood. If you find any fuel, only use as much as you need.
  4. ‘Respect Agreement with the Estate’: if a bothy is on private land with private rules, respect the rules of that private land. And don’t hang around for a long time—bothies are only meant for short stays (of ideally only one night).
  5. ‘Respect the Restriction On Numbers’: if you’re in a group of 6 or more, don’t use a bothy. The size and facilities can’t handle it.

These rules are in the official ‘Bothy Code’ which was set by the Mountain Bothies Association who I keep banging on about.

The whole code is built around respect, cos no-one is there to make sure you’re following the rules. The MBA aren’t gonna turn up in their cute little uniforms to make sure you enforce the rules they’ve set… which is why they ask and expect you to respect the bothy you’re staying in.

Only Use It if You Need It

In a way, the concept of a bothy seems pretty fun or novel or whatever. But bothies aren’t meant to be used for fun or novelty, or so you can put a bothy-selfie on your Instagram story.

Only use bothies for what they’re intended to be used for. So don’t have a party in a bothy, don’t use it as a pitstop to chug some beers, don’t use it to host an all-night illegal rave. Etc etc.

Mountain bothies are for people who really need the shelter, the facilities, and the overnight stay. So if you don’t absolutely need it, leave it empty for someone who might.

What Condition Should I Leave a Bothy in?

Broadly speaking, you should leave a bothy in the same condition you found it in.

Or if you’re a particularly nice soul, you could leave it in an even better condition than you found it in.

If, for example, you find some good firewood, leave it there. If you have too much (non-perishable) food you’re not gonna eat, leave it there. If you have like ten million lighters, leave one of your lighters behind. Help out your fellow adventurers!

Toilet with a View from a Scottish Bothy

Consider Leaving a Bothy Report

Bothies can only be repaired and maintained if the Mountain Bothy Association knows they need to be repaired and maintained.

You can make a report here, to notify the team of any problems or issues… or even to say that whatever bothy you used was in good working condition.

If you want to be a useful person and help out, check the roof, the windows, the doors, the walls, and the fireplace. If there are any problems or damages, you can (and should!) report them. Here’s more detail on the maintenance issues you can look out for when you’re overnighting in a bothy.

Whatever Trash You Take in with You, Also Take It out with You

Pretty self-explanatory. Don’t leave any trash behind.

Commercial Groups Are Not Permitted to Use Bothies

So, don’t plan a bothy weekend for your team-building event of 100 office staff.

What to Do if a Bothy is Full

That depends on exactly what you mean by ‘full’.

If you reach a bothy and 1 or 2 people are in there, you should ask to join them. Unless they’re absolutely horrible (being horrible isn’t really in the spirit of bothy use), they’ll probably say yes.

If you arrive, and 5 people are already using the bothy, you should move on, or camp nearby. As we’ve covered, bothies aren’t meant for groups of 6 or more people.

That said, you should obviously prioritize your safety. If leaving the bothy means you’ll freeze to death or maybe fall off the side of a mountain or whatever, you should use the bothy no matter the case. Even if it already has five or more people in there. Being dead is a bit worse than breaking the bothy rules.

Ben Nevis bothy in Scotland during the winter

Scottish Bothies: Pro Tips

  • Don’t just hope that a bothy will be plonked in whatever region you’re adventuring in. Yeah, there are around 85 of the things dotted around Scotland, but they aren’t everywhere and anywhere. If you’re hoping to find and use a bothy along some hike or whatever, check the official map of Scottish bothies.
  • Don’t expect any luxury: These places really aren’t comfortable. You aren’t guaranteed running water, or firewood, or a toilet, or a buffet breakfast. These should be treated like emergency shelters, not like a Hilton hotel.
  • You use a bothy at your own risk: Sorry to sound like a boring boy, but bothies are rudimentary shelters designed to aid survival and adventure. Using them can be fun, but they’re only an option for people who are well-prepared and well-equipped. So although bothies help you to stay safe, they’re not a guarantee of safety. You still need to be vigilant and sensible, and make sure you pack and carry all the right stuff. 
  • Because bothies are emergency shelters for hikers, the vast majority of them are up in the hills. They can be difficult to reach, and because of their altitude, they’re often very cold at night. So pack for cold weather!
  • They’re free to use: What a nice little bonus! Of course, you don’t need to pay to use bothies, and you don’t need to (and can’t) reserve them in advance.
  • There are a small few bothies in England and Wales, though they’re admittedly much rarer in those parts. There are around 100 bothies in the UK, but only around 15 or so of them are found outside Scotland. Non-Scottish bothies have the same form and function as Scottish bothies.
  • You might find some practical things in a bothy. If you’re lucky, others might have left behind some useful trinkets and treasures, including items like rope, string, spare pieces of clothing, candles, a basic line for drying things, firewood, lighters, pens, penknives, bottle openers, matches, etc etc. But probably not, so don’t get too optimistic.
  • If you want to avoid Scottish midges while using a bothy, lighting a fire will help (midges hate smoke). You can also use some sort of midge candle, and wear long-sleeved clothes.
  • I wouldn’t recommend using a bothy in the heart of winter: Yeah, you can keep warm with a fire, but bothies are in remote places—and reaching remote places during a Scottish winter can be pretty dangerous. So unless you’re super-experienced in hiking during winter months, wait until friendlier times of year.
  • If you want to contribute to the Mountain Bothy Association, you can either give a one-off donation, or you can become a member (because they’re a charity, the MBA rely on donations and memberships). Members receive an official bothy handbook (with information on specific bothies), and access to a four-times-a-year newsletter. If you’re super passionate about remote buildings in the middle of nowhere, you could even volunteer and give away your time! 
  • You probably won’t find a toilet. A small few bothies have working toilets, but that’s a rarity. Instead, you’ll probably find a spade. Use this spade to dig a hole.
  • Although bothies are all pretty similar to one another, they’re not identical—and some offer different features and facilities. The best and easiest way to check for this specific information is by hopping on the bothy map I keep mentioning. If you click on a specific bothy, you’ll be taken to a page on it. On this page, you’ll find details including what you will (and won’t) find there, along with any availability information, and some photos. Perfect for planning what you do and don’t need to pack!
  • To use bothies, you don’t need to be a member, or make an application, or have a subscription, or anything like that. 
  • You’re allowed to take your dog to bothies. But take precautions—make sure it doesn’t hassle any nearby wildlife, or poop in the bothy, or eat everyone’s food, or pee on someone’s sleeping bag. Etc.
  • You’re not allowed to drive to bothies. If you see any driving tracks near bothies (which you probably won’t), they’ll have been made when someone had to come and fix the bothy, or do some maintenance, or check for problems.
  • Check in advance whether the bothy you plan to use will definitely be open when you arrive. During some points of the year, some bothies are closed. This can be for a wide variety of reasons, including forestry operations, lambing season, stag-stalking, and more. The best resource for checking is the official MBA website (again!), because books and magazines might be out of date. All of that said, the vast majority of bothies are open and available the vast majority of the time.

Resources for Using Scottish Bothies

  • The official Scottish Mountain Bothy Association (MBA) website: these guys (as we’ve repeatedly covered) are the people who organize and manage all the bothies, and their website is of course the first resource you should use. On the site, you’ll find maps, advice, news, top tips, volunteering opportunities, chances to give reports on bothies you’ve used, and more bothy-related information than you’ll probably ever need. If you want free-to-access practical advice of any description, this is absolutely the best place to look.
  • The Scottish Bothy Bible: according to one review, “this book is everything the bothy lover could want or need.” An excellent resource, it covers all the bothies in Scotland, along with what you’ll find in them, and where they are. It’s also stuffed with beautiful photography.
  • Scottish Bothy Walks: an official follow-up to the Scottish Bothy Bible, this is a little more practical than its companion book. It’s a compilation of 28 bothy-based walks; some long-distance, some short-distance. Each wander either has a bothy at the end, or bothy (or bothies!) in the middle. Highly recommended.

Before You Go

Open your eyes, roll up your sleeping bag, and put out that fire—you’ve reached the end of our beginner’s guide to Scottish bothies!

For more information on adventurous experiences in Scotland, check out our guides to the best tents for wild camping in Scotland, the Scottish Right to Roam, and the 15 best hikes and walks in Scotland.

Thanks for reading, thanks for choosing Travelness, and we’ll see you again soon!

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