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The curious world of mountain bothies, with Nicholas JR White

  • Written by  Images by Nicholas White, words by Jacob Dykes
  • Published in Geophoto
Glencoul, Northern Highlands, Scotland Glencoul, Northern Highlands, Scotland Nicholas J R White
09 Feb
2022
In his project Black Dots, Nicholas JR White set out upon the landscapes of the UK with a large-format camera. He found a curious paradox at the heart of mountain bothy culture

For over three years, photographer Nicholas White traipsed across the stark, mountainous landscapes of the United Kingdom, setting off whenever time allowed. The weight of a large format camera upon his back, his tired legs would reach the summit of a hill. Relieved, he’d gaze across at what he’d been searching for. There, nestled between distant valleys, would be a humble shelter of four walls and a roof, perhaps a shallow plume of smoke drifting from its chimney.

Originally houses for farmworkers and shepherds roving livestock in remote settings during the 19th century, ‘mountain bothies’ are today curious outposts for weary ramblers. Many were built in Scotland, during a period where the rural population faced eviction from their homes - an event known as the Highland clearances. Many private estates disregarded poor shepherds and farmhands, turning their land over to stag shooting and sheep rearing. The word ‘bothy’ itself comes from the Gaelic ‘bothan’, meaning ‘small dwelling, hut or hovel’. Now, they are free and open to any modern rambler daring enough to venture more than two hours from a public road. The Mountain Bothies Association – which manages more than 100 bothies across the UK, most of which are in Scotland – maintains no booking system. You simply rock up, prepared (hopefully) for their scant resources.

nicholaswhite Warnscale Head and Haystacks The Lake District EnglandWarnscale Head and Haystacks The Lake District England. Image: Nicholas J R White

nicholaswhite John at Strabeg Northern Highlands ScotlandJohn at Strabeg Northern Highlands Scotland. Image: Nicholas J R White

Although some locations are locked in secrecy, White painstakingly marked the location of each bothy with black dots on a UK map, working out which ones he could get to with the time he had. Setting out to capture the panoramic views, he chanced upon a rich culture anchored by each dwelling. Rarely was he alone in the expanse: not only was a friend and co-photographer often by his side, but somewhere across the barren land, others would be converging upon the same destination.

‘If you come across someone in a Highland bothy, you know you’ve got something in common. You’ve both made the bizarre choice to be out there in that environment,’ says White. As he explored bothy culture, he realised that the urge to ramble across the UK countryside is a levelling force. ‘It doesn’t matter how much money you earn or your situation back home. It’s all kind of stripped away.’ By spending time with each of his subjects before he approached them for a portrait, White identified a curious paradox in bothy culture: a mutual craving for space and isolation, and a sense of kinship within the urge to ramble. ‘You’re freezing, cold and miserable, and everyone else is too.’

nicholaswhite Corrour Bothy and The Devils Point The Cairngorms Scotland

White’s landscapes are panoramic, iconic vistas. But it is the presence of people that lingers most when viewing his work. There are signs of bothy-dwellers everywhere: in the emptied bottles of whisky; the markings made by those seeking warmth in the frigid night; the boxes and candles dripping with wax; or in subtler details, like the bottle of HP brown sauce left at Dulyn bothy, or the empty chair, idle beside the window at Mosedale Cottage in the Lake District.

Bothies are spaces of bare necessity. If you’re lucky you’ll find a foam mattress on a stone floor, or firewood leftover from the last group of ramblers, but only if you’re lucky. They are places of rest in the wilderness, welcoming shelters with few pretensions. ‘The beauty of the bothies is that they mean something different to every single person that uses them,’ says White. Some will merely stop for a cup of tea. Others stay the night. But to regulars, they are a refuge not just for tired bodies, but for tired minds. They are spaces in which to disconnect from the frills and troubles of modern society, hearkening back to a simpler way of living and wandering in cherished landscapes. If only for a while.’

nicholaswhite Glendhu Bothy Northern Highlands ScotlandGlendhu Bothy Northern Highlands Scotland. Image: Nicholas White

nicholaswhite Sandy at Peanmeanach Bothy Ardnish Peninsula ScotlandSandy at Peanmeanach Bothy Ardnish Peninsula Scotland. Image: Nicholas White

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