Back at the Tarf Hotel, with Ian Mitchell

And more photos from the past


Feith Uaine Bothy in 1983

The Tarf Hotel in 1983. Two AA signs can be seen on the ground either side of the door.

The Tarf Hotel is remote – a good couple of miles past the back of beyond, and in the wrong direction too – but it’s a bothy that seems to make an impression on folk.

For a couple of blogposts about the series of work parties this year to renovate it, and the bothy page I wrote containing much of its history, attracted a lot of attention and comment.

Recently Ian Mitchell (author of the classic Mountain Days and Bothy Nights and other great books) got in touch to fill in more detail about his visits there over the course of more than 20 years, showing how the state of the bothy changed with time, thankfully giving the lie to his gloomy forecast in Mountain Days & Bothy Nights that it would go the way of too many other lost bothies.

Ian writes:

If I was giving advice to a young mountaineer it would be to take lots of photographs and keep a log; I regret I didn’t have a camera till I was 30 or keep a log till I was 40. So I have to rely  a lot on memory, or seek corroboration from others’ memories, for anything before 1988.

My first visit to the Tarf – the one described in Mountain Days and Bothy Nights – was in 1977 or 1978 – or even 1979 – and I walked in from Linn o Dee, overnighted and walked back out; that was when the heating pipes and the old boiler were there. But none of the furniture Ashie Brebner mentions as being there 25 years previously – never mind the crockery!  [Comment by Ashie on the Feith Uaine bothy page, referring to a visit he made there in the 1950s.] Clearly the estate had ceased to use the bothy by the 1970s. There wasn’t much evidence of use by walkers, either.

I revisited, walking in from Blair Atholl in 1983, which I can date from the location of  Tarf images in my photo album, otherwise I would struggle to be so precise. The two images here [At head of post and below] were taken in March of that year. As you can see then there were definitely two AA signs, and the photos also indicate what the situation was with the side and front porches then.

Tarf Hotel (Feith Uaine Bothy) in 1983

The Tarf Hotel from behind, 1983. Of the two rear extensions in the photo only the further away remains. The wall at the near gable is also gone.

On both these occasions I visited the bothy alone and found no one there, and there was no sign of any bothy book, or even any official maintenance. And still little sign of usage by walkers, such as abandoned bottles or tins. Most frustratingly, I cannot recall what I did on this occasion, or on the first trip either, though it must have been the three local Munros.

Nor did I see evidence of maintenance on the third visit, this time by bike from Blair Atholl, and this trip  is one of the first entries in my log in 1988. Re-reading this account I see I saw signs of increasing use: candles, bottles tins, and the appearance of a bothy book. This was the first time I met someone in the Tarf, a lad from Blackburn. The Munro bagging phenomenon had taken off and the bothy book noted  55 ‘bed nights’ in the previous seven weeks. Sadly this had resulted in more of the doss going ‘up the lum’. One contributor to the bothy book had noted he had “collapsed the unsafe porch” – disguising an act of pyrolatry as being in  the bonum publicum. Climbed Carn an Fhidleir and An Scarsoch this time.

In 1994 I visited again, on a walk through from Blair Atholl to Gaick, overnighting at the Tarf, by which time I think the MBA was working on the bothy, although once again I had it to myself.  I noted that there was evidence of a  walked path for the first time along the Tarf Water, from the pony shed to the bothy and evidence of much increased usage in the bothy book;  this was at the height the great 1990s Munroing frenzy. The bothy was slightly flooded and a tale in the book told of a lad who had spent a couple of nights  sleeping on the table as the floor was flooded, and he claimed the Feith Uaine Mor and the Tarf Water had combined to form a loch several feet deep with flood melt, and that he was marooned in the bothy for a couple of days. Whether this is more credible than the collapsed porch story, I would hesitate to say.

The last time I was there was the first time I went accompanied, in 2000 with Dave Brown, he to do his first Munro round of  An Sgarsoch and Carn an Fhidleir, me my second, or possibly third. We cycled and walked in and met someone I had encountered  a couple of years previously at the restoration of Melgarve bothy, and whose name I had forgotten. He was (no kidding) Hugh Munro, along with his wife. Not a name you might think you would forget. [Hugh and Marlene Munro are Maintenance Organisers for Faindouran Bothy in Glen Avon].

By this time it was a three star doss, thanks to the MBA.

Looking at the image of the bothy now, it bears no resemblance to what I dossed in 30 years ago – is that a sauna on the old porch? I will have to go back a sixth time, as I have the local duo of Munros still to do for my third round, just to be certain. Maybe I will see if  I can filch a 5-star AA sign from somewhere and carry it in.

Anyway I am so pleased that my gloomy predictions from 30 years ago that the Tarf would go the way of the Geldie, Bynack, Altanour, Lochend and so many other dosses that were still in use in the 1960s, has proven unfounded.
All the best,

(Besides Mountain Days and Bothy Nights, Ian Mitchell has written a number of books on various topics. Of interest to the hill fraternity are the MDBN follow-ups ‘A View From The Ridge’ and ‘Second Man on the Rope’, and the excellent history book, ‘Scotland’s Mountains Before The Mountaineers’, which has a great deal of fascinating information about the early walkers and climbers in the Cairngorms as well as other areas.)

I’ve also heard from Bert Barnett, noted folk singer and producer of technical drawings for bothy renovations, about the legend that the well known climber Graeme Hunter had taken up the AA hotel sign.

Bert spoke to Graeme recently and confirms that it was indeed he who brought the first sign to the at that time dilapidated bothy. Bert added that it was also Graeme who placed the 30mph speed limit sign in the classic winter gully ‘Look C’ in Glen Clova. Now long gone, it was a fixture in the gully for a number of years.

And, because you’re worth it, here’s some photos…

Graeme Hunter and party at Tarf Hotel, Cairngorms

Graeme Hunter and others – I don’t know who is who – outside the bothy in what looks to be the late ’60s or early ’70s. The AA sign is resplendent on the wall beside them.

Graeme Hunter in bathtub on the Tarf Water, Glen Tarf, Cairngorms

Jim Cornfoot of the Carn Dearg Club in 1965 or 66, in what has to be the most unusual approach to the Tarf Hotel – by bathtub up the Tarf Water. They bred them hard in those days!

Graeme Hunter in Glen Clova with speed limit sign

Graeme Hunter on his way to Look C Gully with the 30mph speed limit sign. As if his sack wasn’t heavy enough as it was!

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23 Responses to Back at the Tarf Hotel, with Ian Mitchell

  1. Martin Rye says:

    Wonderful memories of days gone. Sadly the tracks are getting closer to the bothy, the river now has fording points marked out and the remote location it sits in is under threat. Your post could be a footnote in history telling of how this bothy once was, remote, a wonderful place to visit. It still is, but as I say the track down the glen is growing and the access is getting easier, the more that use it the threat it could be spoilt will increase.

    • Hi Martin, I don’t know if it’s all gloom. If you read the history of the place, on the bothy section, you’ll see all the changes in use it’s gone through, from being a farm to a shooting lodge to poachers’ den to bothy etc. The fords are visible just now because it was necessary to use vehicles to get the materials in for the much needed renovation, and the track must have been a lot more obvious yet when it was used as a home and as a much-resorted-to shooting lodge. I think the sheer distance will prevent it from ever becoming ‘too’ popular but you have to remember that, if no-one went there, there’d have been no need to do it up and it would have been lost. As ever, it’s a balancing act.

    • Ricky M says:

      Access to Atholl Estates and in particular the Tarf Water area is impossible unless it is agreed by the Estate. There is no vehicular access whatsoever unless specifically given permission is obtained from the Estate.
      The estate is a working estate and as I see it they can use the track thats been there for many years as as they please. To suggest access is getting easier is a nonsense.
      Had it not been for the Estate very generously giving both their time and vehicles, the bothy renovation would not have been done.
      As the M/O I have no problem at all if the bothy becomes more popular, but there is no chance that increased access by vehicle will happen.

  2. John Bygate says:

    Good article Neil as always, well kept bothies tend to stay well kept and along with its remoteness this should ensure that Tarf is safe from the bothy ‘morons’.

  3. alan.sloman says:

    I can believe the flooding incident at the bothy. I stayed over night there in May ’97 having backpacked in from Gaick and it poured down all night. The ground was completely saturated and the water was rising around the bothy. In the morning the Feith Uaine Mhor had burst its banks and rather stupidly I used the small plank bridge just a few steps from the bothy, slipped and fell in backwards, and damn near drowned until my mate Terry Leyland yanked me out.

  4. Bill Linton says:

    Again Neil, et al, great stuff!

    A terrific sense of relief comes with the knowledge that in this too fast, too quick to chuck-away age of computer technology, there are those who persist in the endeavour of recording our People’s History of Mountaineering.

    Of course the tales of heroic feat and derring-do have their places in mountaineering history, but those who listen carefully for the heartbeat know that the essence is in the couthy wee event, the snippets and stories that trigger a heart-warming chuckle, and bring it all flooding back, ‘cos if ye havenae done it yersell ye ken sumbdy wha did, wouldae, or shouldae… the unglamorous exploits of those great unsung antiheros!

    The names Nimlin, Borthwick, Weir, Patey, Mitchell & Brown, and the other Broon, come easily to mind before I have to pause to recall those other authors whose names come by association as having recorded people and events along the way with equal importance to the objective deed, and to my mind, the essence of mountaineering history must lie in the carbonised sausage, the drink, the cleg bites, scarts and plooks, the miseries and ecstacies o’ the stravaig!

    It isn’t quite clear to me whether or not the photos are by the grace of Mr Mitchell, but I can’t thank the contributor enough for the pic of Graeme Hunter paddling up the Tarff in the tin bath, as, having told my story around many a camp and bothy fire to more than one look of disbelief, that photo represents the only evidence I’ve ever seen that the tin bath did exist. And yes, I bitterly regret that my camera weighed the same as a bottle of whisky… but what would you have chosen?

    I hold a fond memory of four fine young men who had spent an entire day scouring that barren landscape for enough fuel to accompany oor evening drams ootside the Tarff Hotel, heating the bath-tub over oor precious fire, then drawing straws to decide who’d be last in… and though ye waldnae hae put a dug in it, it was steamin’ hot, it was oors, and it was the lap o’ luxury!

    The Bothy Ghost.

    • So well said, Bill, and good to hear you’re still with us. 🙂
      The colour pictures came from Ian Mitchell, but the black and white ones of Graeme Hunter and co came via Bert Barnett from – I think – Graeme Hunter himself. It’s really good that people are coming forward with these pictures. I have some more from other folk that I’ve not had a chance to use yet, but watch this space…

  5. Sinbad says:

    The photo at the door of the bothy was probably a Carn Dearg MC party in the mid-late 60’s. Although it’s hard to make out, the guy on the far left could be Tony Viveash(still active with the club) and the far right holding the dog could be Graham Hunter. I know the faces of the other two in the doorway, but can’t put a name to them

  6. Ricky Marshall says:

    Aye Neil
    Braw to see the photos from Bert, I also have a few more I found in stoory places and will send to you.

    With regards to the bath, I ken where it is NOW and still in use, It was carted doon the glen on the back of an Elgin mountaineer, partial to Silverback Gorilla impersonations. No names mentioned in case the Laird sends the polis after him, he still has it and I will see if I can get an updated photo of it.

    Auld bits of the plumbing and bolier can still be found about the bothy.

    Ricky Tarf M/O

  7. Dave says:

    Neil, as always a joy to read of our history.
    Keep it going – our new tradition!

  8. A great post; thanks Neil and Ian for putting it together. I crossed the Tarf upstream of the hotel last year and still remember the profound feeling of wildness dropping off the north side of Beinn Dearg and gazing out across this vast and mostly empty landscape. The history of bothy culture is both rich and fascinating and its great to hear some more about these iconic buildings and see some of the older photos. Great stuff.

  9. joyceklow says:

    Another great article. I first visited this bothy in the 80’s when it was just a ruin. Went back last year and will be returning again this year. Superb location and all the better cos you have to make a bit of an effort to get there.

  10. Robinho08 says:

    Great article, we stayed in the Tarf Hotel in Jan 2012 after a tough day bagging Carn an Fhidhleir and An Sgarsoch. Crossing back over the Tarf water in the dark was fun, we were all hungry and cold. We got the place to ourselves and had a braw night with whisky and a decent fire with the coal and ziplogs we lugged in from Forest Lodge. When the fire died, boy it was cold. -5 easy. The silk liner made the difference. Me and one other bagged Carn a’Chlamain on the way out while the others nursed a hangover walking out.

  11. fyrish53 says:

    this was a great article, many thanks for putting it together. totally agree with the comment about keeping a diary & taking lots of photographs, this is vitally important & something years later they become priceless. I too kept written hillwalking diaries from the mid 1990′s (but sadly they got binned and I regret this a lot). Nowadays you’ve got the internet & blogging & this is a very useful way of recording experiences such as those listed above. I now have a blog (only thanks to this one, it inspired me to put my travels in writing (actually written at the time, all during the 1990′s) and you can find it here:
    fyrish being the hill rising steeply above alness, where the missus & me used to live
    my one & only visit to the tarf bothy was in the may of 1995 (walked in from blair atholl via carn a’ chalamain) and it was so warm the river directly outside the bothy front door was like having a warm bath when I took a dip in it to get rid of all the grime etc. day two included the two remote munros (ealar, and the other one, sgarsoch or whatever) and a fantastic walk through glen feshie to the famous ruigh aitcheachn bothy… had both bothies to myself & another ‘warm bath’ in the feshie water, brilliant, blazing sun all day. I am a great admirer of ‘mountain days & bothy nights’ having been to most places mentioned throughout the book with the most notable exception being I never spent a night in the loch avon shelter stone, walked past it dozens of times though & had a look inside & have heard it described by my former venture scout leader as ‘the worst place in the world’ to be during winter, which is probably true.
    I really like this cairngorm webpage because it lets me keep up to date with all those various cairngorm doings, which bothies have burned doon & been rebuilt & so forth, so well done & many thanks for your efforts in putting it all together & there are lots of great photographs accompanying the text.
    p.s. stayed overnight in the latest version of bob scott’s 21st July 2014 & had the place to myself. here’s hoping this one doesn’t meet a similar fate tae its predecessors

  12. The bathtub photo is hilarious! Loved the 30 sign as well – I remember those signs with the little reflective glass studs around the edge – we used to have one on the no entry sign at the bottom of our (one-way) street.

  13. ardverikie67 says:

    Where is Queen Vicky’s bath now? I’d love to see it again. Ir was the most relaxing seat in Tarf!

    • Not sure if Victoria ever set her erse in it, but the guys were fairly certain about the Duke of Atholl. It made a guest appearance at the 2013 MBA AGM and is now back home in a secret location. 😉

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