Bothies, litter and education – a step forward

Last August I let rip at groups taking young people into the hills. I love it that there are people who care enough to encourage youngsters into the mountains but, like so many others involved in bothy maintenance, I’d cleaned out one too many load of rubbish and abandoned kit clearly left by young folk, and seen just too many pieces of graffiti including the initials ‘DofE’.

Rubbish in Corrour Bothy, in the Cairngorms National Park

Close-up of some of the rubbish left in Corrour Bothy

So on the back of an exceptionally large load of rubbish at Corrour, much of it clearly from young people, I challenged youth group leaders to clean up their act – literally. There was a lot of the predictable “oh no, not MY young people” but some did come forward, notably Alex Cumming, Assistant Director of DofE Scotland, and Steve McQueen of the Perth & Kinross DofE Association, both with a very positive attitude. The result was several meetings and exchanges of views, with the DofE organisation accepting that, though they are not the only youth organisation using the hills, youngsters in the scheme have been part of the problem.

There was some initial reluctance by some to accept responsibility, but that ended with the arrival of a whole set of photographs taken by an outdoor instructor at the Fords of Avon Refuge, showing numerous examples of graffiti obligingly signed by DofE groups.

It was accepted that, although youngsters on DofE expeditions aren’t meant to use bothies, sometimes they do – even if it’s just to cook in bad weather or pop in and have a look. But in the past not all leaders have told the kids about bothies or the sort of behaviour that should be expected. It’s perhaps understandable that kids, coming upon an empty building, and knowing no better, treat it as they would an abandoned ruin. So over the early part of the winter the DofE and Mountain Bothies Association have worked together to prepare some very simple and basic educational material so that youngsters – and some of the leaders – can learn about bothies; learn about their value, how they are looked after, and – above all – their vulnerability to misuse.

Cover of Duke of Edinburgh Scotland Bothies 101 booklet

The first page of the DofE bothies leaflet

The material was launched at Expedition Festival 2015, when new DofE leaders and volunteers ‘learn the ropes’ before the new expedition season, and is now available on the Expedition Downloads section of the DofE website as a resource for youngsters and leaders. Bothies 101 sheet gives the basics of how to use a bothy responsibly, and the Bothy session plan gives extra information which can be used in expedition training.

This doesn’t mean DofE expeditions will now start using bothies to stay in. Their emphasis on camping and self reliance remains unchanged. It does mean they are taking a pragmatic approach that recognises youngsters will one way or another come into contact with bothies and making sure that, when they do, they don’t arrive in ignorance.

The effectiveness of all this will only be seen over the coming years, but there are other positive developments, not least of which was the presentation of a cheque for £584 to the MBA after the Expedition Festival 2015.

Alex Cumming, Assistance Director of DofE Scotland, presents a cheque to Neil Stewart of the Mountain Bothies Association

Alex Cumming, Assistant Director, DofE Scotland, presents the cheque to Neil Stewart of the MBA

The DofE Perth & Kinross Association has also expressed an interest in possibly even getting youngsters involved in simple bothy maintenance projects. That will depend on a lot of factors, including the dreaded ‘healthandsafety’ word, but is a welcome explicit statement of attitudes which were maybe held by most before but perhaps not filtered through to the kids.

The MBA has also received a frank and wholehearted apology from a fee-paying school in England, some of whose pupils were amongst those who left their calling cards scrawled on the Fords of Avon Refuge walls. This was followed by contact from a group from the school who are planning an expedition through the Cairngorms this summer and, as part of the community element, plan to carry out inventories at and carry out rubbish from all the bothies they pass. Another part of their expedition is to learn about the history and role of the bothies they will pass.

Back in August I wrote: “I have in the past defended youth groups in the hills, but I am in no doubt at all that a large part of this shameful heap was left by youngsters supposed to be learning self-reliance, self respect and a sense of community and social responsibility. “Instead they have trailed their bad behaviour across a national park, displaying their ignorance of how to behave, their laziness and their disregard of other people.

“So my challenge to all these organisations which enable kids to go to the hills, is for them to teach some respect. Because whatever they’re teaching now plainly isn’t enough. They need to teach the children they direct to the hills about bothies. Maybe, as with the Duke of Edinburgh scheme expeditions, the kids are meant to be camping and not using bothies except in emergencies. But teach them that they exist; tell them why they exist, why they’re important, what their value is – and also how they exist, and how to behave in them.

“Most kids do behave well in the hills, and most of those who don’t are being anti-social through ignorance rather than badness. So let’s do something about it. There are enough adults who leave their rubbish behind – don’t let us turn a blind eye as a new generation comes along and behaves with the same lack of consideration and ignorance.”

The Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme has responded to this challenge. How effective the response will be is yet to be seen, but avenues of communication have been opened up where there were none before and where approaches were once met with denial that has been replaced with an exemplary and positive attitude.

Cover of Bothies Resource Booklet

Bothies Resource Booklet cover

Of course the DofE isn’t the only organisation taking young people to the hills – there are any number of schools and youth organisations which do that. Any of them are welcome to make use of the material prepared by myself and approved by the MBA which DofE based their own documents on. It’s available for download here – Bothies resource booklet – and further queries can be addressed to me: just post a comment at the end of this article, and if you prefer it to remain private, just mark NOT FOR PUBLICATION at the start and include a return email address. (Don’t worry – nothing appears live on the site unless I hit the publish button.)

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19 Responses to Bothies, litter and education – a step forward

  1. Well done Neil. It is heartening to see the positive response from the DofE and other youth organisations. I know a number of DofE assessors in Moray, plus my eldest son has completed DofE expeditions in the Cairngorms. Having sat in on briefings prior to expeds and post exped presentations I have been impressed by the assessors and participants (Scouts and Explorer Scouts). I have forwarded your article to a number of Scout Groups, whom I am confident will utilise the booklet and will forward it to the Moray Council Youth/DofE Coordinator.

    Kind regards.

    • Cheers Davie. I did have contact from one scout group, but it would be good if more could come on board. Kids groups, like adults, are mainly very responsibly behaved, but such numbers are coming through the Cairngorms (and why wouldn’t they want to?) that the small proportion who don’t act responsibly are still numerous enough to be a problem, so it’s good that the DofE and, hopefully, other groups will respond so positively.

  2. John Bygate says:

    Great to see something good coming out of this Neil, and fair play to the DofE for recognising the problem and addressing it, and to yourself for raising the issue.

  3. Norrie says:

    Well done again Neil for highlighting the fact that young people need to be educated on how to be responsible in the hills and in bothies and stick to the Bothy Code. MBE for you this year my friend

  4. Tom Cunningham says:

    Well done Neil, the message will hopefully get through. PS Perhaps leaving the Behaviour Codes on display in all the bothies?

  5. Sinbad says:

    Another great article with hopefully a positive response from youth groups in the future. I agree, not all young people are irresponsible, it’s just a small minority who get the rest a bad name.

  6. gasdoc2857 says:

    Well done Neil. I’ve passed this on to my local DofE group and as an Expedition Supervisor and Assessor will continue to reinforce the message

  7. Dave says:

    Excellent as always Neil. I have passed this onto the Boys Brigade Training Officer for Scotland and will ask that he forwards it to England, Wales and N Ireland too.

  8. piper says:

    Aye, again , good reading . By the way…my camera will be travelling with me this coming trekking season .

  9. Pingback: DofE expeditions and the use of Bothies | East Lothian Council Outdoor Learning Service

  10. Hopefully, education into the use and operation of bothies, of the sort you mention, should stamp out the worst of the abuses. Fingers crossed anyway,

  11. peterraikmanpeterraikman says:

    Not only youngsters who leave rubbish – I was faced with a similar-sized pile at the Schoolhouse Bothy last month. The difference being that my lot was “MOD-style Rations”, and I have an entry in the bothy book, telling me that it was kindly left . Unfortunately, I don’t have a fire there, so couldn’t burn it. Fortunately, I don’t have far to carry it.

    • Wow! That’s a bit excessive. How long did they think they were out for? And how many starving bus parties were they expecting would turn up at the bothy? Gets pretty frustrating sometimes.

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