Feith Uaine Bothy (Tarf Hotel)

Feith Uaine Bothy (Tarf Hotel) in the Cairngorms

The Tarf Hotel during a work party in 2013

AA hotel sign on door of Feith Uaine Bothy (Tarf Hotel) in the Cairngorms

The famous AA sign on the door of the Tarf Hotel

Feith Uaine Bothy, at NN 926 789, better known as the Tarf Hotel, is in real mamba country (miles and miles of bugger all), sitting at 1750ft in Glen Tarf, south of Carn an Fhidleir and An Sgarsoch and to the northwest of Carn a Chlamain, fully 15 miles’ walk from Blair Atholl and almost the same from Linn o’ Dee.
The bothy has four main rooms, three gained through the main door and one – the easternmost, which used to be an open porch – via a door at the back, or northern side. There’s also a locked storeroom on the north side.
The original functions of the three main rooms can be guessed at, with a left turn at the front door taking you to a ‘living room’, with a bedroom leading off that. By turning right as you enter the front door you come to a smaller room with a concrete floor, which could well have been the kitchen. All three of the main rooms have a fireplace, as does the end room entered by the separate door.
This, when the MBA took over the running of the bothy, was open to the elements in the form of a walled porch, although it had a fireplace. A work party of some years ago enclosed this space to form a good, concrete floored room which, for a time, was the driest in the whole building. More recently its appearance and weatherproofing was improved by lapped wooden planking fixed over the upper half. At that time the problem of dampness from the ground up was lessened by clearing out the drainage ditch that surrounds the building.
Recent work parties (in 2013) have done much to improve the state of the building, with much-needed pointing to the exterior walls and fireplaces rebuilt to use up less fuel and throw out more heat – important since all the fuel you burn will have been carried in on your back. Chimney pots have also been installed, improving the draught and reducing the amount of water ingress. The two increasingly frail wooden floors have been ripped up and replaced and lots more smaller jobs done to improve the state of the bothy.
It is understood that the first building at Feith Uaine was a blackhouse, occupied by the ancestors of present-day Blair Atholl farmer John Burns as far back as the 1680s.
It is first mentioned in the Atholl Estate’s records in 1794, when a John Forbes of Auchgobhal was paid to take baggage there. But whatever state it was at in at that time, in 1799 the estate factor noted that it was in need of repair, part of the side having fallen in, leaving the roof in danger of collapse.
In 1806 the dilapidated drystone structure was replaced with a stone and lime building with a slated roof, containing two rooms, each with a fire. This was occasionally occupied by a deer watcher for the estate but, because it ended up being used even more regularly by poachers, it was eventually burnt down in 1826.
It remained a ruin until 1870, when Mr Ashley Dodd, tenant of Forest Lodge in Glen Tilt, had the walls repaired and a thatched roof put on.
Three years later the 7th Duke of Atholl took it over and the building was improved. A slate roof was once more installed, wooden floors laid and the interior wood-lined. A stable was added on at the east gable and a fuel store at the west.
A sketch of 1874 seems to show the west room occupied by the 7th Duke and his wife, Lady Louisa, while the ‘hillmen’ occupied the east room. However, in 1881 this east room was converted into an apartment for Louisa and the old stable converted for use by the hillmen. A new three-stall stable was built and a dog kennel. It was at this time, too, that the passage was built on the south wall. At the same time the course of the Feith Uaine was altered to avoid flooding.
There was an odd incident in December 1883 when a man escaped from the Murthly Asylum (Murthly is about 5 miles south-east of Dunkeld) and went on the run. He found his way to Feith Uaine and stayed there for several days before being found and taken back.
A more regular resident, though, was the 7th Duke himself. Between 1872 and 1906 he stayed 124 nights at Feith Uaine and he was said to prefer the peace and solitude of this most remote of his shooting lodges to the bustle of the more accessible Forest Lodge.
But don’t picture an entirely Spartan solitude for the duke. In October 1906 he wrote a letter from Feith Uaine bemoaning the fact it would be his last there as ‘bad times’ meant he was going to have to let out Forest Lodge. In the letter, pointing out his location nine miles beyond Forest Lodge (itself a good distance from the public road) and at 1750 feet in elevation, he casually mentioned being accompanied by “Donald Gow, stalker, Neil McBeath with my pony, Neil Irvine with a dog, Sandy McDonald as ghillie, and John McNaughton, a woodman.” He also had “Donald McDougall as my butler, valet, cook and housemaid.” However, he did note that, among the lot of them, he didn’t hear much English.
In 1909 the building was burnt down, the blaze possibly caused by a fire left smouldering and it wasn’t until 1914 that work took place to rebuild it.
I’m not aware of when it fell into disuse but it’s not too unreasonable to guess that it happened in the wake of the Great War, as at other remote shooting lodges. An era ended with the war and, as the 20th century wore on improvements in transport meant it was easier for shooting parties to base themselves in more civilised parts and still travel out to enjoy a day’s shooting.
Certainly by the 1960s, and almost certainly before that, it was being used as a bothy by hill climbers visiting this remote area below Carn an Fhidleir and An Sgarsoch, and it was in 1966 that the Feith Uaine Bothy’s alter ego of the Tarf Hotel was born. It’s said (and I would love to have this confirmed or otherwise) that the noted Scottish climber Graeme Hunter acquired an AA hotel sign and hung it on the bothy.

Old image of Tarf Hotel, Cairngorms

Tarf Hotel with the ‘sun porch’ shuttered with corrugated iron – and two signs.

That sign remains there, on the door of the bothy, even today. In fact at some point there appear to have been two signs, both visible in an old photograph on the corrugated iron covering of the ‘porch’ at the east end.
However Ian Mitchell, in his and Dave Brown’s classic book ‘Mountain Days and Bothy Nights’ (1987), notes that whatever delights the building once offered, it had fallen on hard times. He noted the remains of plumbing and a hot water system, with an old boiler rotting away at the back, but all the rooms bar one were missing their wood lining and ceilings and floors and lath had, in the way of neglected bothies, disappeared ‘up the lum’.

Old image in interior of Feith Uaine Bothy in Glen Tarf

The one habitable room in the bothy when it was taken over by the MBA. The remains of a sprung bed can be seen, along with chairs and a fireplace, which has just been renovated (in 2013).

The one remaining habitable room, said Mitchell, had a fireplace and two spring beds, as well as a table and chairs, but the ceiling oozed water from the damaged roof.
Ian Mitchell doesn’t say when this was but it sounds like it was probably sometime in the 1970s and he foresaw an end to the bothy in just a few years.
It hung on though and, in 1992, was saved when the MBA came to an agreement with the estate. MBA volunteers installed a new roof and floors. Much work was carried out over the years but the problem of damp never seemed far away, whether rising from the ground, penetrating the walls or coming in at the roof and chimneys.
The last couple of years, from 2011, have seen a power of effective work done to tackle the problem of water and make the bothy a far more pleasant place to stay than it has been for almost a century.

Tarf Hotel in 1990s

The Tarf in the late ’90s, with the ‘sun porch’ open to the elements.

Tarf Hotel from the north in 2013

The bothy today (2013), pictured from the north

(Historical information and photos used on this page were collated by Ricky Marshall, maintenance organiser for Feith Uaine Bothy.)

9 Responses to Feith Uaine Bothy (Tarf Hotel)

  1. Colin Campbell says:

    Hello Neil,
    I’ll have to look out some of my photos from years past, take a picture of them and post them to you. As I have a number of photos of bothy’s in the ‘Cairngorm’ area that now don’t exist, most of which were burnt via the chimney.
    Cheers Colin

    PS. Beware the damp

    • Be good to see those, Colin. I have photos of Altanour and Bynack in the late 50s from George Adams, which I still plan to use in a post. I think there’s a lot of interest in old bothies and bothy history.

  2. Martin Rye says:

    Been there once and in August I pass that way again. Set in the most remote place and it must be in top 5 remotest bothy locations? Great stuff as always Neil.

    BTW way up that way August 2nd to 4th and leave for home the 5th if your about.

  3. Ashie brebner says:

    Hi Neil, Was looking at the Tarf Bothy. In the 1950s we used it and it was in good condition then. We had to gain entry through a window at that time but there was quite a lot of furnishings including a large excellent quality table and a complete set of high quality crockery which we used. I remember that Jim Robertson had a large potted head which we ceremoniously placed in an enormous ashet and helped ourselves to it by spooning it on to individual plates of the same design. Seem to remember the roof was quite good then

  4. Dave says:

    Superbly written. Do I detect a book coming on?

  5. Phil says:

    I was very interested to read this article. Back in the early nineties I made a rather bold ski tour of the White Mounth with two friends. We arrived at the Tarf Hotel in the dusk and it took us all our navigational skills to find it.
    It was perishing cold and we were all in our sleeping bags as soon as we’d had our dinner. We lay there chatting for a while but the day had been long and arduous and the conversation soon dwindled to nothing. The mice grew bold in the silence and began to investigate the cooking pots.
    It was then just as we were drifting off, when I heard the others arrive. It was that familiar sound of the bothy door opening, the trudge of boots down the passage and the rustling of wet weather gear. We were hardened bothyites and all our weekends were spent in this way. The late arrival of other folk was all part of the fun. That moment when folk stumble through the door and head torches flash round the interior.
    This was unusual though. It had stretched our navigational skills to the limit to find the bothy in the dusk. To find it in pitch darkness was impressive.
    But the folks that arrived that night never crossed the threshold to enter the inner chamber.
    The moment was a little unnerving but tiredness dulled my nerves and I drifted off into a dreamless sleep.
    In the morning I resolved not to say anything, preferring to see if my pals had heard anything. As we drank our tea Donald asked if I’d heard anything the night before. “Maybe. Why what did you hear?” I queried. Both he and our other friend heard the same, The arrival of someone who never came into the room.
    I’d say that the three of us are pretty rational folk but to this day I have never doubted that we were visited by a ghost that night. I would love to know if anyone else has had strange experiences in The Tarf Hotel.

    • Never heard of anything, Phil, and, though I’ve heard a few strange noises in my time, have never heard of seen anything in almost 50 years of hill and bothy-going that I reckon was a ghost.

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