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Possibly Scotland’s best-known bothy, Corrour sits at the foot of Cairn Toul and the Devil’s Point, halfway though the Lairig Ghru. It might well be Scotland’s best used bothy too, making a convenient way to split the Lairig over two days, or a convenient base for those who want to take their time over the tops of the Cairn Toul-Braeriach massif.
Once a simple shelter with four walls and a roof – and little else – it’s now a comfortable destination. The front door gives access to an internal storm porch, which opens into the living area, with a small sleeping platform and an efficient fireplace. The room now has a wooden floor and is wood lined on three walls, with sheep’s wool insulation ensuring that it takes very little energy to heat and then holds that heat well. If the fire is stoked up, it may even be necessary to open the window!
Corrour’s other ‘selling point’ is the fact that, almost uniquely amongst bothies, it has a toilet. This is a composting toilet entered through an exterior door and, though it requires frequent attention from a rota of volunteers, makes a huge difference to the area in reducing (almost entirely eliminating) the amount of human faeces which used to disfigure and pollute the area around the bothy.
The origins of Corrour Bothy go back to the latter part of the 19th century. Around 1877 (the date given by the Cairngorm Club in a 1950 Journal article) it was built as a howff for a deer watcher. It was the deer watcher’s job to spend his days in the run-up to and during the stalking season wandering amongst the hills and glens making sure he knew where the deer were and in what numbers. This was partly to guard against poaching, but principally so that shooting clients (who had to come in by foot or on horseback in those pre-combustion engine days) could be taken to a coire or glen where they could be assured a target. In his classic books ‘The Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland’ and ‘The Charm of the Hills’ the naturalist Seton Gordon made many mentions of the bothy and some of the watchers who inhabited it – Charles Robertson and John Macintosh – recalling many nights spent under its roof as he explored the hills around. Both books are well worth tracking down.
After World War One the glory days of the shooting estates were on the way out, however, and Corrour fell into disuse – by the estate at least. It was still used as accommodation by climbers though, and – proving that bad behaviour is not a modern invention, was subject to vandalism even in the 1920s. In the early ‘20s it was described as still being wood-lined with an entrance passage, containing shelves, a table, a large armchair and even a box bed. However by the time of the Bairn and Barrie tragedy in 1927/28 the wood lining was largely stripped out and put up the lum.
By the ‘30s it was being described as ‘ruinous’, although it was still used as a shelter and, indeed, my own father talked of sleeping there in the late 1940s; by that time there was no wood, just an earth floor and armfuls of heather gathered for a mattress.
However that was also the time when members of the Cairngorm Club noted that the roof was on the point of collapse. In May 1949 the club received the permission of the estate to carry out renovations and launched a very successful public appeal for funds to finance the work. The work was carried out during July of 1950 and included a new roof (still in place) and the stone buttress which holds the north gable from collapsing. A full and entertaining account of that renovation can be found in the Cairngorm Club Journal Vol XVI No 87, which is worth searching out, but it’s just worth pointing out to those who claim that men were men in them days, that they would have used a helicopter to ferry the materials in if they could have afforded it – and did try to take some items in on a Bren Gun Carrier!
The 1950 renovation held the fort for a good number of years and I remember my first visit there in 1967 or 1968; there was still an earth floor, but the building was weathertight and had a supply of tins left for any walkers who might be facing imminent starvation. Spartan it may have been, but for many years that’s what I thought all bothies were like!
In fact, since originally writing this I heard from a Colin Campbell, who said he first visited Corrour in 1961 and decided to do some work to improve it.
He wrote: “I first stayed here in 1961, when a party of us decided to renovate the bothy. We put in another wooden floor and paneled the walls, rather than using planks. We brought in all the materials using garrons kindly lent to us by Mar Lodge Estate. Unfortunately, the next time we visited in 1964 all the paneling and the floor had ended up the chimney once again. The last time that I stayed there was in 1971 and the earth floor had somehow developed a slope, as when one woke up in a ball at the opposite side in the morning.”
That seems to have been the last major work until the ‘70s, by which time the care of the bothy had been taken over by the MBA, and a concrete floor was put in. I was never very sure whether that was an improvement or not, as, in those pre-Karrimat days, I used to reckon the unevenness of the earth floor allowed you to find a comfortable position. The concrete was less forgiving and, though dryer, a lot colder. One never-to-be-forgotten February night in the ‘80s, when the temperature in Braemar was -28C, I spent the night shivering on the concrete floor of Corrour and, come morning, found my groundsheet was frozen to the floor.
Corrour’s biggest change came with the new millennium, after the National Trust for Scotland took over Mar Lodge Estate.
The fabric of the bothy was once more showing signs of wear and tear and, more importantly, there was growing concern about pollution. It was clear that walkers who could face the journey in to Corrour were so exhausted by their travails that they were unable to walk more than a few paces from the bothy when they had to evacuate their bowels. The problem of human faeces in the area was a serious one, especially as the bothy was slap bang in the middle of a Site of Special Scientific Interest in a Natural Nature Reserve in the newly created Cairngorm National Park.
This time it was the MBA which took up the torch. Plans were drawn up, approval was sought from all the relevant authorities (and there were many) and preparations were made. Finally the work was carried out over 18 weekends in 2006 and 2007.
Materials were ferried in by helicopter and many a seeker after peace and solitude in the Lairig Ghru found instead a cacophony of noise echoing between the hills as a whole battery of power tools were brought into play, from electric drills to table saws to a cement mixer. A lot of hard work and partying went into the renovation to create the bothy as it is today.
Of course the flipside to having such a well appointed bothy is that, compared to the spartan shell of years gone by, it requires much more maintenance. Vandalism, thankfully, has not been a problem, but littering is a perennial moan, with far too much rubbish left by thoughtless and lazy users. The main activity, though, is servicing the toilet. It’s hard to credit how much sh*te must have littered the surrounding area at one time, for during the summer months the toilet bags have to be changed once every four weeks, which requires a considerable commitment from a rota of strong-stomached volunteers willing to give up a weekend to make the long journey in and manhandle a non-too savoury sack of shit from the toilet to the storage area. However the sheer volume of waste underlines what a success the toilet has been – after all, if the toilet wasn’t there that would all be left on the ground.
It’s a success that is partly due to the cooperation and assistance of the Mar Lodge Estate, which provided much assistance during the renovation and continues to be supportive. So to finish, a recommendation and a plea: go to Corrour and sample one of the best bothies in Scotland, but leave no litter and look after the bothy and its environment – both are worth it.
*During the 2006-7 renovation the existing fireplace, which usually sent all the heat up the lum and all the smoke into the room, was replaced by a multi-fuel stove. This proved too vulnerable to wear and tear and the general conditions, and in 2014 it was replaced by a new and efficient fireplace which throws heat out into the room and sooks smoke right up the lum.