Anticipation v realisation: the bothy book

Cover of The Book of the Bothy, by Phoebe SmithOne of the more anticipated new books this summer was the Cicerone guide The Book of the Bothy, by Phoebe Smith. As soon as it was announced the old guard bothy ‘guardians’ were up in arms: not only was this going to be a book about bothies – and probably giving their locations – but, perhaps even a worse sin, it was being written by someone who was not one of us.

On that basis alone I was inclined to stick up for Ms Smith. I’ve always been of the view that we look after bothies for everyone, and not just a small clique of those deemed worthy.

But, sad to say, despite being a book whose time had come, despite being well produced and published by one of the most respected guide book publishers, this is not the success it should have been.

Given that this blog is about the Cairngorms, I’m going to restrict my comments to the Cairngorm bothies included in the book but, sadly, here alone there are too many points where proper checking and proofing have been lacking, resulting in a number of inaccuracies.

Page from The Book of the Bothy wrongly titled Glendar Shiel

The wrongly named Gelder Shiel bothy

Some are glaring but relatively harmless, such as referring to the Gelder Shiel as Glendar Shiel, Derry Cairngorm as Derry Hill, and Loch Avon as Loch A’an. There’s an unfortunate piece of timing, with Gelder Shiel (or Glendar?) being referred to as a bit of a cold hole: the gap between writing and printing has meant that the book does not take account of the substantial renovation that took place earlier this year.

However it’s a bit concerning that the author actively encourages people visiting Bob Scott’s Bothy to go out and cut up deadwood for the stove. As explained elsewhere on this site and in a notice within the bothy, Mar Lodge Estate, which is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, has specifically asked people NOT to burn deadwood, which is a valuable habitat for insects and birds. The message should be to carry in coal – don’t burn wood. Encouraging people to do exactly what the estate has asked them not to is hardly responsible and could lead to trouble for the future of the bothy.

There are a a fair few more errors in the Cairngorm chapters, leading one to assume that entries for other bothies are similarly fallible, which does rather damage any authority the book may wish to claim.

I also wonder at the absence of Corrour Bothy from these pages. Given the importance, position and popularity of Corrour, I would have thought it would be a definite inclusion. To be fair, Phoebe Smith does say her choice is a personal one but, as the book is presented in a guidebook format rather than as a personal memoir, I think more should be expected than just a personal hodge podge. Perhaps including the full complement of MBA bothies (all the bothies included here are MBA apart from Scottie’s) is a bit much to ask but surely more effort should have been made to include the principal bothies.

So far so unremittingly negative.

Diary style pages in The Book of the Bothy, by Phoebe Smith

‘Diary’-style inserts add a personal flavour to the guide.

As I said, I was looking forward to this book and have no argument with its existence or with an ‘outsider’ writing it. So it’s only fair to say there’s also a lot to like about The Book of the Bothy. The format is a good one, with each bothy having a main piece of text complemented by bite-sized snippets and information panels. Each bothy also has a ‘diary entry’ section too, where the author records her own memories of finding and or staying in the bothy, which adds a personal touch. The photos are good too, and the whole spirit of the book is good: this is a book written by someone who, if not as experienced as some, has enjoyed her bothy nights and understands and supports what bothies are about.

But the devil is in the detail – guidebooks are built on attention detail – and it’s just such a damned shame that she didn’t do more checking and get her book more rigorously proofed.

So to buy or not to buy? A difficult one for, as I say, it’s a likable book, and maybe many of the errors I’ve spotted aren’t major but… on the whole I’d probably hang fire until the revised edition.

Since posting this and sending a full list of suggested amendments to Cicerone, I’ve been contacted by the author, Phoebe Smith, who contests some of my points – fair enough, we’ll just have to disagree – but does sound genuinely contrite about suggesting people collect wood at Bob Scott’s, underlining a commitment to make appropriate changes for the next print run of the book.

She also made the point that she did inform the MBA of her intentions and received no objection, although, in a way, I’d hold that immaterial. The MBA has no monopoly or veto on people writing about bothies and, in any case, some foreign guide books already mention bothies and their locations. From the comments below there still seem to be plenty who don’t believe the book should have been written or – if it must – that it should have been written by the MBA rather than an ‘outsider’ – a view I find totally insupportable. This is a book with good intention and, as I said above, good spirit – and, as with bothy users, who also may never have hammered a nail, that’s what counts.

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43 Responses to Anticipation v realisation: the bothy book

  1. I love it ❤ Need one! Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Great pity that proof reading wasn’t completed thoroughly. I fully agree with your comments Neil. The debate on publicising bothies is a difficult one, info on the majority that I’ve used have been from word of mouth. Probably a step too far, I’m assuming a guidebook produced by the MBA would lead to overuse and sadly misuse especially when you take into account the incidents over the last year at Corrour and Hutchinson. Real pity that encouraging use of deadwood is within the text rather than a statement stating not to. I accept years ago this was normal practice.

    • Hi Davie, I still believe that times have changed and that it’s wrong to keep the bothies ‘secret’ (although some non-MBA ones must remain so because of landowners). Phoebe Smith argues that the more people know about them the more people there are to care for them, and I tend t agree with that. But you’re right – shame about the wood recommendation.

      • Thanks Neil. My real point though not said clearly, is it time for the MBA to produce a guidebook and therefore recieve funds from book sales.

      • Heh heh! It probably is Davie, but I can imagine the outcry if someone suggested it at a committee meeting. There are still folk in the MBA who would prefer if it was a secret society with passwords and handshakes. I might just suggest it, but only if I’m closest to the door! 🙂

  3. Trevor B says:

    Thanks for the post Neil, interesting as always.

    For a professional travel writer and editor of Wanderlust, one has to wonder why Phoebe Smith has made such basic errors.

    Errors aside, thankfully this isn’t a guidebook simply listing every bothy in the country, although I suspect that’s only a matter of time. This is more a personal perspective of the 26 featured bothies and in this respect Smith has, in my opinion, done a rather commendable job with several pages devoted to each bothy and some excellent accompanying photographs (best viewed in the e-book version as the printed version is too small to appreciate them).

    I suspect anyone with a fondness for bothies will enjoy this book, rekindling old memories and perhaps inspiration for forthcoming trips. There’s a lot of useful and interesting info, although the walk-ins tend to focus on the shortest and easiest approaches, thus giving the impression that the purpose of the trip is the bothy itself rather than the start or end point of a more adventurous journey.

    Given that grid refs are now so readily available, including many of the estate bothies, the issue these days isn’t perhaps keeping bothies secret but more about preventing their overuse and misuse. Whilst I’m sure that Smith’s intentions are good, I’m not convinced that this book will do anything to address these issues and may adversely popularise bothies even more.

    • Hi Trevor. The photos ARE good, even in the print version and the book does have a good format and did impress when I first saw it. I’m with her on publishing the book – there are no ‘secret’ bothies here and she does strongly urge good practice – but feel the high volume of mistakes lets it down. I spotted a good few in the bothies I’m familiar with and can only assume that there are others. Frustrating but far from being irreparable aas far as future editions go.

  4. Good review. I was wondering why it said ‘Glendar Shiel’ on your title photo – threw me for a minute – I’m hoping to see that one myself in a month or so 🙂

    I have to admit to being a bit elitist about ‘them and us’ but at least she does go bothying. It is a shame she didn’t get someone to cross-check her facts first though.

  5. Dave says:

    Good review Neil. Perhaps a role for cairngormwanderer beckons as consultant to Ms Smith?

  6. garry says:

    Good review. I’m afraid I am much more concerned with the possibility of the bothies being inundated…the Hamish MacBeth effect still results in Plockton being more expensive than surrounding villages. I know that’s TV, but bothies being filled to over brimming because of guide book tourists would be a real shame. And the business of using dead wood etc around Bob Scott’s is just a disgrace. Bit disappointed in Cicerone’s editing….anyone knowing the bothy code could have flagged this up.Sound like a bit of a grump,but I hate the idea of bothies going on tick lists….

    • I know what you mean, Garry, but bothies already appear in guide books (where do you think all these German walkers find out about them?) and, in these days of lightweight tents, I think there’s a greater danger of bothies falling OUT of use than being overwhelmed. I was looking forward to this book and still think it will be good in future editions, once they’ve corrected everything that needs sorting.

  7. malcolm MacPherson says:

    Thanks for the review and all your valid points. My copy arrived in the post this morning! Once I finish “Big Hills and wee men” ill get started on reading it!

  8. john vaughan aka headingley bugle says:

    Wow, the estate say we should not collect wood cos birds and insects like it for their homes. Please tell the estate to Foxtrot Romeo Oscar! As for Neil, since you told me you had no interest in Gaidhlig and still think the Làirig Dhrù should be spelt ‘ghru’, I think I will believe Phoebe a little more than you – neither of you great but she wins on points. Regards from the Headingley Bugle!

  9. PIPER says:

    Wonder if she will donate some of the proceeds from the book to the M.B.A . ????

    • That’s up to her but it’s a bit like asking if you made a contribution to the people of Angola because you were making money out of their oil. Or asking if I helped criminals pay their fines because I used to make money writing about their court cases.
      As far as I’m concerned whatever money she makes is from her writing and belongs to her. It’s up to her what she does with it (apart from tax and National Insurance of course).

  10. PIPER says:

    Same goes for commercial users of bothies .

    • Hmm. Commercial groups using bothies is different: that’s depriving others of their use. Phoebe Smith is not only not depriving people of their use, but encouraging people to look after them properly. I’d have said that’s a benefit to the MBA.

  11. PIPER says:

    Nae much difference Neil .

  12. PIPER says:

    Well…as long as ye let folk ken , the truth aboot my good looks…nae problems Neil !

  13. PIPER says:

    Remind me to tell you of the tale of fred flintstone ….. an old pal and myself met in the original Bob Scotts bothy …a wee tale to add to your book Neil .

  14. PIPER says:

    Aye…well , kind of , will blame willie Mcgregor !

  15. Mark says:

    Thoughtful response and review. Like many regulars I’ve mixed feelings about the publication of this book. Down the years I’ve introduced over a dozen people to the enjoyment of bothying. I’m not elitist nor do want to keep bothy locations secret. The fact that Ms Smith isn’t one the in-crowd is, I think, a positive factor here. The issue that irks me is that the author is effectively exploiting the bothy network for personal gain and publicity. At no point in the book do they indicate if they have ever made any practical or financial contribution to the upkeep of bothys. I’d like to see a bit more transparency on this.

    As mentioned above the editing and proofreading is lamentable. This doesn’t surprise me. My partner has published several academic books and she had to do this herself, it is the norm.

    Why anyone would part with cash for this book is sadly beyond me. There’s a complete absence of humour and irony in the text, even the diary type of entries. Most of us would have had a few misadventures and epics when trying to reach a bothy. Here it all comes over as very uninspiring and bland. With so much material available free on personal blogs and hillwalking sites, give this a swerve.

    • I think it’s a guide book the same as any guide book. If you write a guide to hotels no-one expects you to have washed the dishes there or anything. No-one says you should have built the mountains before writing a guide book. You can’t say her being an ‘outsider’ is a positive thing and then lambast her for exploiting the bothy network. Yes, I wish it had been better proofed, but I have no argument with her making money out of her own skill and hard work.

      • Mark says:

        Not following you there Neil. In my world the most valuable interactions between people are those that don’t involve charging money. If the author seems to want to make money out of the resource but not give anything back. Thatchers children, eh?

      • I have been involved in journalism most of my working life, so to me there is nothing odd about her writing about bothies despite not having paid for the privilege. How much do you think the MBA should charge people to allow them to write about bothies? There’s a film being made about the MBA as we speak: should we call the guys up and say they can’t finish making the film unless they give us money?
        You may think the worse of her, but she has every right to write about bothies, whether she’s making money out of her writing or not. I personally have no problem with that, but everyone is entitled to their own view.

  16. Mark says:

    Never worked in journalism nor written much but there are only two two possible positions to take on the freedom to express an opinion…… Agreed there is nothing odd about anyone writing bothys and I would defend their right to do so. The rub is that we end up defending poor quality work.

  17. Hugh says:

    Well I guess anyone writing a guide book should make a donation to some aspect of the subject matter. However it always surprises me how many Gorm lovers don’t seem to regularly and significantly donate to the Mar Lodge footpath fund , or regular Gorm bothy users to the MBA , or to the NE Mountain Trust, or the Cairngorms Campaign etc, etc. Hopefully everyone who comments on the Wanderer’s excellent webpages does so. [ Mind you I’m not too sure about the refurbishment of the Hutchinson , Gelder , and Corrour. The useage , even in the dead of winter , seems to have risen exponentially since.

    • Hmm. I’ve already said my piece umpteen times about there being no obligation to donate, although obviously it’s nice if people do. As to your point about the usage of Hutchison, Gelder and Corrour having risen significantly since they were done up, surely we would have been doing something wrong if that weren’t the case. The purpose was to improve them,and if an improved service doesn’t attract more use then you’ve just wasted a lot of time and effort.

  18. peterraikmanpeterraikman says:

    It must be worth buying just for the cover picture of the best bothy around. Pity the photo is at least 5 years old. I have made Ms Smith aware. For a prize of a free night’s accommodation here, spot three differences in the outside appearance, by May 2013 [ N.F. not allowed to enter, as he was here then, installing the fireback ] –

  19. Great to see such wide coverage on BBC News on the 50th Anniversary of the MBA. Sure you’ll have an enjoyable AGM in Newtonmore this evening, with Heavy Whalley as speaker.

    I haven’t seen a copy of the following MBA book just released so can’t comment on the content. I did have a chuckle that in ‘traditional old style secretism’ noone seemed to publicise the release. Available here:

    Though I’ve previously commented on Phoebe Smith’s Book, for interested parties it is available here:

    PS l borrowed a copy from Burghead Library (yes the village won the battle for it’s retention). All comments above accepted, useful to encourage my son to accompany me on future Bothying trips, backs up Dad’s plan with some photos and mistakes add to the shared knowledge etc. 21 at Hutchinson Memorial Hut two months ago, including a large party from Munich. Over 25 years since I was last there, great to have a stove. Shelterstone was also clean, though we used a more airie shelter.

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