“I’ve absolutely got to go for this, this is my time. Everything has fallen into place.” Timing is everything and Geoff Allan is a man who has a deep and hard-won understanding of this. It’s only in the last week that he can admit that, “everything is gonna be alright.”
December 2015 marked the moment when Geoff reached the finish line. After four years, he finally realised his goal of visiting all 81 bothies in Scotland maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association (MBA). This is an achievement by anybody’s standards and one which is made all the more remarkable by the fact that his main mode of transport was a humble bicycle. It was a project that he confesses took over his life but also reaped some unexpected rewards.
Bothies were originally used as accommodation by farm labourers and estate workers right up until the 1920s. The ensuing depopulation of rural areas and the decline of hill farming were closely followed by the increasing popularity of mountaineering and hill walking in the post WWII era. The abandoned bothies were quickly repurposed as open shelters, free to use by any intrepid walker who needed refuge from the wildly tempestuous Scottish weather. Holiday homes they are not and it’s important to assume that there will be no facilities, these shelters are basic but are guaranteed to be waterproof and windproof. It’s more accurate to think of a bothy as camping but without the tent. Bothies are dotted all around the Scottish Highlands meaning some are remote, as in two hours walk from the nearest road remote. The beauty of bothies for Geoff is that, “if you have some good equipment, are happy to carry in a few luxuries in terms of food and drink, and get a fire lit, you can have a really comfortable evening in some amazing locations for very little cost”.
Geoff’s relationship with bothies stretches further back than the bothies on bike project. It all began when he was an undergraduate student at Edinburgh University and went on his first trip in 1988. He was instantly hooked and has been exploring bothies ever since. The idea to survey all the bothies on a bike came about through sheer necessity and the encouragement from a journalist friend. It all started with a conversation in a pub, an atmosphere that naturally leads to ‘blue-sky thinking as long as you can remember it all in the morning!” He tried to look up information about bothies on-line but quickly discovered that there was nothing there. This presented a golden opportunity to write a definitive guide on bothies. Having sold his car his bike was the only transport available to him and thus bothies on a bike was born. For four years he documented his cycling adventures around Scotland on his blog which you can read here. This caught the interest of media which lead to coverage in Scottish national newspapers (his mum still has his first article blu-tacked to the fridge) and it also prompted a proposal from a publisher with a book due out later this year. This attention although unsolicited, has been a very welcome intervention leading Geoff to assert, “I am quite happy, a plan is coming together.”
Man With A Plan
His excitement is palpable and Geoff’s mind is constantly buzzing with ideas and plans to capitalise on the coverage that the book will offer. One plan is to do a, “coast to coast, bothy to bothy route for a homeless charity which is very much close to my heart so if I get my five minutes in the sun I want to channel that media, or whatever, into a good cause and it feels good. The only problem is that I actually have to do it!” His mind is constantly alert; one question triggers an idea which naturally leads to another idea and then sparks a connection to a story. “Where were we going?” was definitely said by Geoff at one point. By his own admission Geoff is prone to tangents but rather than being some evasive ploy it highlights his passion for adventuring and bothying in a very disarming way. His energy is contagious and that’s another reason he hopes the book will have widespread appeal. He acknowledges that the bothy world can be a ‘secretive, word of mouth world’ and his hope for the book is that it will “open bothies up for people to experience it at least once because it’s achievable – it’s not like climbing the Eiger or something you’re just going to a bothy!”
Highs and Lows
Going to a bothy via car is one thing, but replace this with a bike and this complicates the journey somewhat. Added to that is the notoriously unreliable Scottish weather and you’ve got an adventure on your hands. Geoff is unassuming when he speaks about the physical demands of cycling 23 miles and climbing 4032 feet from Tornapress to Applecross taking in the infamous Bealach na Bá mountain pass en-route. The twisting single track mountain road is filled with tight hairpin bends that switch back and forth up the hillside in gradients that approach 20%. It boasts the greatest ascent of any road climb in the UK, rising from sea level at Applecross to 626 metres (2,054 ft), and is the third highest road in Scotland. He admits he doesn’t have any strict fitness regime and asserts, “I’m fit but not ultra-fit…I’m lucky when it comes to fitness –I can run a half marathon and walk away, I’ve never gotten stiff.” One thing that does push Geoff to scale these extremes is his focus and determination to reach the finish line and the one in question here was surveying all 81 bothies on a bike. He recalls an exceptionally tough trip on the Isle of Skye when he was nearing the last of the bothies on his list. “I absolutely had to do it, 25 miles absolutely soaking wet, freezing cold –that was a brutal day out”. Even after this experience Geoff never contemplated giving up, he set himself the challenge and he knew he had to finish. He recalls how his schedule was quite relentless at this time in an effort to tick all the bothies off the list but for any low point there are high points to match.
Keep The Home Fires Burning
One particularly memorable bothy experience came after a gruelling 50 mile cycle south of Edinburgh up and down three sets of hills to a bothy located in the Scottish Borders. As all bothies are open shelters without any booking system in place you never know which other travellers you may meet. Depending on the company this has the potential to be the making or ruination of an evening. Luckily for Geoff it was the former on this occasion. “It being a Sunday night I assumed that I would have the bothy to myself however, I could see tell-tale lights coming from the window, and I walked into the spectacle of six likely lads cheerfully knocking back a large carry out, and attempting to burn a stack of sausages on the stove. I gratefully accepted a seat by the fire, surveyed the scene and thought fuck it, I’m still down with the kids, opened my wine and just went with the flow. The guys turned out to be a band from Auld Reekie called Gathering Lights, who were just kicking back and were on their second night in. They not only had two acoustic guitars but also a bass, and we ended up having a fine old sing song, probably the most slick I’ve ever been involved in!” It’s this unplanned and unknown element that makes bothying unique and leads to some unforgettable evenings.
Whilst you can’t plan for encounters like the one above you can ensure that you’ll have a comfortable evening by preparing in advance. One vital element to this is warmth and for Geoff, “it’s all about the fire – if you go to a bothy in the evening without fire, it’s like going to a nightclub without music. It all comes alive with the fire.” Food is another key factor in enjoying bothies. Geoff certainly doesn’t subscribe to the mantra of food being merely fuel. He is more than happy to lug an extra heavy load if it means he can enjoy some nice food and that all important glass of celebratory wine after a long days cycle. He always brings something to read and when there’s company it’s a worthwhile to bring a story to share. Most of all, and one of Geoff’s top tips for a rookie setting out on their first bothy trip, is to go with a positive attitude because you don’t know who you’ll meet and if you’re lucky, like Geoff, you may even be treated to an acoustic set led by some talented musicians.
Another element to the bothies on a bike project is to capture photographs of the remarkable Scottish landscape which feed into Geoff’s other passion; his art. He originally trained as a surveyor but that was something that he was corralled into at school, “You have that careers interview at fifteen and I was advised to take physics, geography and maths for my A-levels and then I went onto study it at university and completed an MSc in surveying and became a surveyor”. He worked as a surveyor until he was 30 and has been pursuing a career as an artist and photographer ever since. Self-trained as an artist, Geoff brings the same focus and rigour gained from his career as a surveyor to his art. He creates virtual landscapes composed of squares taken from different images of Scotland. These squares are then painstakingly re-assembled to form a completely new ‘virtual landscape’ which doesn’t really exist. This methodical approach, “isn’t a chore, it’s very satisfying and the biggest compliment that someone can make is someone saying, ‘where is that?’” After four years absorbed in the bothy on a bike project Geoff has amassed an impressive visual archive of the vast Scottish wilderness which he looks forward to transforming into virtual landscapes over the next year. With the release of his book on the horizon he hopes this will bring a whole new audience not only to bothies but his art too.