Humble bothies help locals to make life-changing decisions

Humble bothies help locals to make life-changing decisions <i>(Image: PA)</i>
Humble bothies help locals to make life-changing decisions (Image: PA)

Simple structures with little in the way of mod cons, bothies have traditionally provided a welcome refuge for many a weather-beaten outdoors type to bunk down on a cold night.

Now a group of locals living in the shadows of two remote bothies have also experienced the simplicity of being off grid - with unforeseen impacts that could bring a range of benefits for their communities.

Arts charity Bothy Project wanted to give Highland and Islands residents a taste of the peaceful solitude that comes with being in a remote spot minus the comforts or distractions of modern life.

The Neighbourhood Residencies project was an extension of its work with artists and creatives which has seen more than 400 residencies at its two bothies since 2011.

Once there, the remoteness and need to rethink ordinary day-to-day tasks such as cooking and bathing are said to ignite creativity. Artists who have taken advantage of project’s bothies on the Isle of Eigg and in the Cairngorms have included Turner Prize winner Charlotte Prodger, artists Hanna Tuulikki and Corin Sworn, and writer Maria Fusco.

Now it’s emerged giving a bothy ‘residency’ to a group of nine locals living in the Highlands and west coast islands has had unexpected results and ignited new approaches to dealing with shared problems: from how to tackle housing issues to the problems caused by over-tourism.

In one case, a resident’s stay in Bothy Project’s Inshriach Bothy in the Cairngorms National Park – close to the remains of a former mill that made bobbins for Scotland's textiles industry in the 19th Century – has led to new research into the area’s links with empire and the slave trade.

While another resident says her week spent in Sweeney’s Bothy on the Isle of Eigg has prompted collaborations with others from the Small Isles and raised hopes of joint projects between Canna, Eigg, Muck and Rum which could help solve a range of perplexing issues.

The group of residents who live close to the bothies in Badenoch and Strathspey, the Small Isles and Assynt and Coigach have shared their experiences in a series of podcasts in which they reflect how being off grid affected them on a personal level often leading to them making life-changing decisions or inspiring them to rethink certain aspects of their own characters.

Despite living hundreds of miles apart and not having met before, it transpired they shared similar concerns such as the impact of rising visitor numbers, the purchase of homes as holiday accommodation and ‘fast’ tourism which sees large numbers of people swoop in to visit specific sites without taking time to fully appreciate the area.

Fliss Fraser, who lives on Rum, said her week spent in Sweeney’s Bothy on the Isle of Eigg last winter led to her making significant changes to her life and work, and ignited new steps towards solving niggling issues that affect the Small Isles.

“I’m a single mum, I run my own business and I do a lot of community work that keeps me occupied for most of the time. Going to Eigg gave me space just for me to explore what I wanted,” she said.

“The bothy is simple - you realise how little you need to live and get by with.”

She said a pivotal moment was experiencing the simplicity of having a night-time shower, outdoors in January.

“Experiencing an outdoor shower in the snow in the moonlight, was quite liberating,” she said. “You feel remote and it takes away so many problems.

“The beauty of being in the bothy, the wood burner for heat and cooking, compost toilet and outdoors shower made everything more simple. I spent time doing things that voice in my head says I’m not good at or I’ve not got time to do, like writing.”

Sharing her experiences with others from the Small Isles was “like a little think tank” and prompted discussions surrounding shared housing maintenance, and the possibility of a jointly run housing association that would help look after new build homes on Eigg, Canna and Rum.

It has also led to a joint tourism initiative which aims to market the Small Isles as a single destination and with emphasis on how tourists can better understand island life.

She added that the bothy had also led to her rethinking her personal life.

“I thought through what I wanted. I’m now an open water swim coach and have changed my B&B to vegan and vegetarian which I was afraid to do before in case I lost business - which hasn’t happened.”

If rural residents retreating to a bothy seems like a busman’s holiday, participants point out that the challenges of rural life make it as hectic as urban living.

“Although we live in really beautiful area, we all have busy lives and never get enough time to spend outdoors as we want to,” said Sarah Hobbs, a professional storyteller from Aviemore who spent time at Bothy Project’s Inshriach Bothy.

The bothy gave her time to uncover stories connected to nature and the surrounding area which have led to new projects aimed at exploring its dark connections with the empire and slavery.

“In the bothy you have to live the way that the weather and season dictates, and you go into a different headspace in terms of timeframes: the 9 to 5 doesn’t exist,” she said. “You’re not at home you are not thinking about cleaning the bathroom or shopping, it frees you from that - I think that some of the best times in my adult life were spent there.”

The Neighbourhood Residencies project was initiated by Bothy Project, in partnership with the Small Isles Community Council, Isle of Eigg Residents’ Association, Assynt Foundation and Cairngorms National Park Authority. It has been supported by Creative Scotland, Cairngorms National Park Authority and the Highland Council.

Bothy Project was conceived by artist Bobby Niven and architect Iain MacLeod to provide creative spaces for practitioners in visual arts, craft and design, music, literature and performance, as well as thinkers and researchers.

There are now plans to expand it to involve researchers, academics and experts involved in landscape and nature, and proposals to increase the number of bothies.

Lesley Young, Director Bothy Project said the Neighbourhood Residency initiative had given participants “the chance to see their locality from a new vantage point, which has impacted each neighbourhood in exciting and positive ways”.

The residents’ project podcasts are available on Bothy Project website. They form part of a new programme of online talks and artworks that have emerged from artists and creatives involved in recent bothy visits.