Strathchailleach Bothy – And the Spade Behind the Door

One bright morning at Strathchailleach bothy

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.”

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About McFadzean

Alen McFadzean, journalist, formerly of the Northern Echo, in Darlington, and the North-West Evening Mail, Barrow. Former shipyard electrician. Former quarryman and tunneller. Climbs mountains and runs long distances to make life harder. Gravitates to the left in politics just to make life harder still. Now lives in Orgiva, Spain.
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8 Responses to Strathchailleach Bothy – And the Spade Behind the Door

  1. Bob Tateson says:

    Hi McEff
    Sorry to hear that you spent a cold night at Strathchailleach in 09.
    Since I have taken over as MO, I try to make sure that there is always plenty of peat, kindling etc. Nobody should now be without a good peat fire to dry their socks and warm their toes.
    I will begin cutting this year’s peat in May. Anyone wanting to try this very ancient occupation is welcome. The more the merrier!
    Thanks for sweeping the floor.

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    • McEff says:

      Hi Bob. That’s good news. Strathchailleach’s a nice bothy in a nice location. If you make sure there’s a pot of tea on the table and a fish supper I might come up and give you a hand.

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  2. Mariusz says:

    I left quite a lot of wood and dead heather for kindling when I stayed there at the end of September but I also had to stop two, otherwise very sympathetic walkers from the South,
    on their Fort William-to-Cape Wrath walk, from making fire from wood only, explaining that peat is used for this purpose there. They have never heard of such a fuel

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    • McEff says:

      Hi Mariusz. That is amazing. Peat is the main fuel in some countries and many parts of the UK. Peat was dug all over the north of England at one time. I suppose the time will come when very few people have heard of coal.
      Thanks for that. Alen

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  3. Geoff Suggett says:

    Hello McEff , Strathchailleach bothy and its copious amounts of peat were a very welcome sight on a glorious May evening this year 2013 after having just gone crotch deep in the “bog” 200 yards from the door and had to burn almost a full bag ( of peat) drying trousers, sox and boots .
    It has to be said fantastic little bothy though and refilled bags from the peat shed for the next weary travelers , funny thing too had the very same bog / toilet conversation at the head of Glen Oykel with my friend and walking partner Mark Patterson (ex Northern Echo journalist ) .
    Small world , many thanks .
    Geoff Suggett

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    • McEff says:

      Hi Geoff. At least you had good weather, that’s the main thing. Have you noticed that if you slip into a bog, it’s usually at the start of a long walk and rarely at the end?
      I’m glad someone else has explored the bog/toilet thing, and not just myself. My faith in human nature feels restored. I don’t know Mark Patterson, mind. He must have been at the Echo prior to 1995, which is when I started. I shall make inquiries.
      Cheers, Alen

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  4. Geoff Suggett says:

    Hello Alen , yes Mark was at the Echo early 90`s but has done some freelance work for the Echo since , I believe walking Hadrians wall was a feature he had published by the paper , he now lives and works in Nottingham . Anyway still enjoying catching up with your posts as I`m a new subscriber to “Because they`re there” loving all the cape wrath posts and had a good chuckle at Blencathra grudgingly post ,

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