SO much for Sandwood Bay and the ghosts. So much for Scottish weather. Last night I spent a half hour walking along the sand while a thin drizzle leached off the Atlantic, and another half hour crouching under an overhanging cliff after the drizzle hardened into a steady downpour. The prospect of pitching the tent and spending a wet and windy night in the dunes was not appealing.
And I was so looking forward to some company, just a few words shared with the long departed. I even entertained the notion of lighting a fire and inviting them out of the shadows.
So it was with no small amount of reluctance I abandoned Sandwood Bay to the spirits and trudged a couple of miles in the rain over a boggy moor to the isolated Strathchailleach bothy, where I spent a cold and not too comfortable night stretched on a hard wooden sleeping platform.
And now the morning sun is flooding through the windows and the bothy actually feels warm. Things are looking good – I’m nearing the end of the Cape Wrath Trail, the sky is blue, and larks are singing above the scented heather.
After breakfast I sweep out the bothy before bolting the door from the outside and heading off into the bog, which I note has been recently cut for peat in places. Actually, there is a small stack of peat under a corrugated zinc shelter against the bothy’s eastern gable and a peat-cutting spade behind the front door, next to the bodily function spade.
(A note here for people who have never slept in a bothy. Hotels have en suite bathrooms; hostels and bunkhouses have ladies and gents; bothies have a spade. The idea is that, when the need arises, you take the spade, make a remark about Captain Oates to anyone who is listening, trudge a discreet distance from the bothy – and always downstream – dig a hole, perform the ritual, then replace the turf. The system works well and is extremely environmentally friendly. Of course, if you’re a bloke and you just want a pee, you open the door and stand on the step.)
In the sort of abstracted way that solitary walkers do – and prompted by the sight of the spades standing to attention – I muse over the origins of the expression “I’m just going to the bog”. This scholarly exercise keeps me entertained for most of the morning.
I recall being scolded for using this phrase as a child, rather than the more acceptable “I’m just going to the toilet”. Out here in primitive bogland, where at one time houses never had toilets – and bothies still don’t – the phrase assumes a more poetic and almost genteel aura.
What would a crofter say to his wife, or a wife to her crofter husband, when nature called? They would say: “I’m just off to the bog”, because the bog was the natural place, the only place, to perform the function.
Going to the bog was a statement of fact, dressed in simple fineries to spare the blushes of an unpretentious people. That it is viewed as a vulgar euphemism by posh folk with toilets illustrates that, somewhere down the years, we have snapped a silver thread to the past. Here in bogland the phrase remains a monument to Celtic coyness. In the overwhelming emptiness of Cape Wrath it retains its charm and delicacy.
I make a mental note to use the phrase more often and thereby revive a tradition. Bogs can be nasty black smelly things; they can also be delightful areas of wilderness studded with a variety of scented wildflowers and cottons. Next time I want the loo, I shall whisper to my wife across the dinner table: “Excuse me my dear, I’m just off to the bog.
“Pass me the shovel.”