Sometimes you really do wonder just why you bother.
Up at Corrour Bothy again, the plan was for Neil Findlay and I to replace a broken toilet seat and do a quick repair to the stove, then I would head round to the furthest reaches of the Garbh Choire and explore the snowfields, which would be approaching their smallest before the winter gets going.
But now I was seriously wondering why I spend so much time on this bothy.
It wasn’t the fact that the toilet bag needed changing already. It wasn’t that there seemed to be a population explosion of flies in the inner section of the toilet block.
It wasn’t discovering that the plastic box which sits under the storage rail to catch drips from newly hung bags was literally crawling with ill-defined creatures and in serious need of scrubbing out, or even deciding that the drip tray under the ‘live’ bags needed cleaning too and, in fact the whole floor of the back section needed scrubbing down.
Sure, it all took a couple of not very pleasant hours to do and I’d had to say goodbye to plans for the Garbh Choire, but it wasn’t that.
It wasn’t even when Neil Findlay pointed out that the steel tubes under the loo seats were minging. No, I kept calm even when down on my knees before the cludgies (there are two seats and two tubes to clean – one wouldn’t be enough) scrubbing away at dried-in faeces with a j-cloth, with my head almost down the tube and trying not to stare at the all too fresh pile of turds and bog roll in the bag below. Even though this wasn’t how I ever envisaged spending my birthday, I never questioned what I was doing there.
What finally broke me was the black bag.
The toilet was changed, mended and scrubbed into submission. The collar to fix the flue to the stove was in place and a new coat of stove paint applied (Neil F’s work). I’d even been sung ‘Happy Birthday’ by a nice group of DofE Award kids.
But then came the bag.
We’d seen it when we arrived: a black polythene rubbish sack hanging from a hook on the wall, obviously pretty full of rubbish. We knew that we’d have to go through it all and burn what we could and carry out the bottles and tins, along with the various bits and pieces left on the shelf: a festival tent, plastic bags, plastic cutlery (some used), a couple of tent pegs, a mess tin full of shredded and burnt tinfoil…
So I sat in front of the now lit stove and started pulling out wrappers, fag packets, polythene bags – the usual. Only the smell from the sack was pretty pungent, and getting worse.
First I came across the bag of lettuce. Well past its sell-by date. Then half a pack of sushi, a long way past being edible. There was half a banana: the suppurating brown parts were the healthiest-looking. By this time I was gagging. Most of a half pound of butter came next. And the finale was a something wrapped in tinfoil which no-one would look at long enough to attempt an identification and which I couldn’t bear to smell any longer.
What, really, was it all about?
Up here probably at least once a month and the same shit every time. Change toilet bags filled with shit and then come into the bothy to burn and carry out even more shit: shit left by selfish, lazy bastards who know damned well the council bin lorry doesn’t come up this way; filthy buggers who make bothies unfit for the people who come after them; dirty arseholes who don’t care that they make the bothy smell foul, that someone else has to deal with their waste, who don’t care if someone has to give up a hill day just so long as they don’t need to bother picking up after themselves.
And then, I really did wonder. Why – I – fucking – bother.
It was after four in the afternoon. I’d been up since seven, walking in to Corrour and then housekeeping all day. That was finished but it was going to be a long night. So I pulled on a jacket and headed up the back of the bothy to do the Devil’s Point, the first steep pull good for stamping out some anger, setting a fast, leg-burning pace. As the angle eased into the lovely hanging coire with its arms coming out to enclose a lush green sanctuary, a little calm returned to both pace and temper.
Finally, on the zig-zags up the coire headwall, aware of the steepness of the ground, of the boulders and rocks casting long shadows in the lowering sunlight, of a covey of ptarmigan contouring white-winged round the rugged coire wall and of the vast space enclosed and the vaster spaces beyond, I remembered why I was there.
Crossing the burn just below the lip of the coire, a few more feet took me out into the wide open spaces of the flat col between Cairn Toul and the Devil’s Point, and a short wander due south allowed me to look over into the abyss of Glen Geusachan and the sun-burnished slabs of Beinn Bhrotain, shafts of sunlight pillaring the hazy atmosphere.
Just yards from the summit cairn my phone suddenly burst into life with birthday texts from my wife and sister and, by the time I stepped those few paces past the summit cairn I was looking almost straight down over a thousand feet to see a group of kids arriving, all relief and excitement, at the best wee bothy in Scotland.
So why do I bother?
Lots of reasons really. Sometimes I tell people it’s because I’ve used the bothies all my life and it’s about time I ‘put something back’. Corrour was, after all, where almost half a century ago my father introduced me to that unique Scottish bothy culture where every man was your neighbour and no-one was left needing. So that’s true, maybe. Pride, certainly: pride that I, a wee bauchle who knew this iconic bothy when it was four bare walls, a roof and an earthen floor, have been able to help others more skilled than I to turn it into an exemplar of modern bothy culture and am entrusted to help look after it.
It’s for the craic, too. The craic and the company, for they’re a rare gang of folk who look after the bothies – like-minded hill gangrels with years of experience and tales to tell and share – and the Cairngorms crew are the best of all. (Although many trips to work on Corrour are solitary ones, and the friends I have made are true whether I remain MO or not.)
The gratitude of my fellow hill walkers and climbers is nice too. It would be a lie to say I’m not chuffed when someone says well done, when people who have enjoyed a night’s comfortable shelter and perhaps a dram and a tale or two around the fire say thanks for all the good work.
But, at heart, it’s because it is a chance, however small, to make a difference. By walking a few miles into the hills I love and doing a few hours of work, I can make a small part of the world a better place than it was. For the very existence of a bothy is a defiant subversion of the dog-eat-dog world of business and politics. Maintaining a place of refuge and shelter in the wilderness, open and free for all people to come together as strangers and share each other’s company as friends, to help one-another and share tales and experiences, is a proud assertion and reminder of humanity in a world where humanity too often seems in danger of being overwhelmed by fear and greed.
To be able to help in work like that is a privilege and a gift. How could anyone say no?