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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.)