Author’s note: I applied to the Bothy Project as a writer / filmmaker to work on a certain developing project. I don’t really like opening my kimono too much as regards works-in-progress, and will not do so here. In preparing for my trip to Inshriach Bothy I did find it very helpful to be able to browse the blogs of the previous occupants. But I wanted more detail. I have met several prospective applicants who, having read the small print about outside toilets and accessibility, were a little daunted by the prospect. I suppose I was too. I hope this little diary will encourage anyone considering applying to seek a week in the wilds.
Arrive (almost). It’s nearly dark, and very snowy. I overshoot the farm on the B970 having turned off at Kingussie and both mis-remembered and mis-noted the directions. Reach the snowy car park at Coylumbridge. I am driving my father’s BMW X5. My Honda is in the garage. An X5 is supposed to be good in the snow, but here it demonstrates all the wintry nimbleness of a Glasgow black cab (i.e. not much). After checking the directions on my phone I wheel about in the car park. The wheels slip completely, and I execute a slow motion pirouette, missing someone’s grey Nissan Micra by inches. As the car rotates and the rear ends of the two vehicles pass within touching distance I hunch over the steering wheel and breathe in, as if this will make a difference. Perhaps it did. I thank God, and, chastened, drive the four miles back to Inshriach Farm in 2nd gear. (Colyumbridge is literally a few yards from the edge of Aviemore and therefore a mere stone’s throw from a pizza. But pizza’s not what I’m here for.)
I pull up at Inshriach Farm and explore the various buildings until I find humans. Sam, a nice young man who works for the farm, is volunteered to take me and my bags (two expedition bags, one containing a load of shopping from Tesco Perth) out to the Bothy in the Land Rover. He is a new off-road driver, and enjoys slithering around in the snow. We traverse several fields, I opening gates in between. We arrive at the approach to the Bothy. Sam guns it up a rutted hill and as the engine roars and the wheels slip he tells me he is not sure we will make it. I am not sure if he means it or is attempting to spice things up with a little jeopardy (a tactic with which I am not unacquainted as a fledgling novelist). I hear my groceries chinking in the back and fear for the bottles. Why had I not swaddled them more carefully?
We make it. Sam helps me unload, tells me where the toilet is (‘the flat roof over there’) and departs. Alone in the dark I put a match to the fire, which is set for my arrival, and light my lights. (I have brought 2 LED lanterns, a head torch, a spare head torch, a number of tea lights and several fat little candles.) I arrange my belongings, and take the measure of the place. It’s a split-level single living space. The apogee of rural chic. There are three 5-litre water containers, and a wee kitchen area well stocked with basic herbs and spices, some rice and packet soups and other leftovers. I hang up the washing I did not have time to dry in Glasgow (there is a drying line with little pegs on it hidden under the lower lip of the mezzanine bed).
I try out the toilet not without some trepidation. I pick my way along a track of packed snow which appears to have been well trodden by woodland critters, though presumably they do not make use of the same convenience. Badgers, Sam has told me, are everywhere, and I must not leave any food outside. The toilet is a little shack, fully open on two sides, with a wooden toilet seat set over a hole, a couple of rolls of regular toilet paper, and a hopper containing fresh saw dust. (Put down a handful of sawdust with every load to help with the oxidization process.) I have crossed the personal Rubicon of extramural defecation before, in a mining camp in West Africa. Here, as there, the trick is not to look down, especially if you are wearing a head torch – though there is a lot less in the way of heaving insect life here. It’s private and refreshing. Many people find their first experience of this daunting – my recommendation is: enjoy the view and hum the tune of Let It Go (or even sing it – no-one can hear you, except the badgers).
The fire is doing well. I shut the metal door and leave the vents open so the top heats up. I have planned to subsist off several slow-cooked dishes, each of which I mean to last for 2-3 days. First up: venison stew. Olive oil in a frying pan on the stove top. Chop garlic, an onion, some of the lone carrot. Soften them in the pan, then season the venison pieces: salt, pepper, cumin, coriander, Tabasco, rosemary, thyme. Brown the venison in the frying pan, then place all into large soup pot. Add bisected shallots, button mushrooms, miniature tatties, water, spoon of beef gravy powder, and special ingredient: a handful of dried cranberries. Lid on. Let the slow cooking commence.
A whisky is called for. I crack open the first bottle of Grouse – and am immediately reminded of the sheer bloody remoteness of this place. There are no ice cubes, and no prospect of getting any. My wilderness lessons have begun. I wonder what Thoreau would have done in these circumstances. I am quite sure that he would not have been a drinker of neat whisky. But – if my memory of other people’s accounts of his book Walden, which I have not read, serves – he knew how to improvise. In that spirit I step outside, barefoot in the snow, ungarbed but for my camouflaged long johns and t-shirt, and scoop some frosty whiteness into my tumbler. In goes the Grouse. Et voilà: the Cairngorm Slush Puppy is born.
The radio – FYI – gets a semi-decent DAB signal. Radio 3 and Radio 4 are good, but Radio Scotland and Radio Nan Gaidheal are not. After some fiddling, however, I manage to pick up Radio Scotland on FM. (Stick it on the desk for best reception of FM, on the little wall mounted shelf for DAB.) I listen to Tak the Floor with Robbie Shepherd’s boyish-sounding replacement and then the unnecessarily oleaginously-named Pipeline with Gary West. This is my favourite show on Radio Scotland. This week West plays an inspirational selection of pipe tunes and performers with a theme based around the Island of Lewis. I sit in the leather armchair, and have my first transcendental experience of the week. Dram in hand, wood burning stove, candle light, game in the pot and piping on the wireless: I am channeling my ancestors.
I forgot to put some red wine in the stew. I pour myself a glass, and add a slug to the pot. I have to be careful with the wine levels. I have not brought enough. Rationing will be necessary.
A couple of hours, some pipe tunes and a few Slush Puppies later, I attempt the stew. It’s good. I can do stew.
Retire early. I remove the stew pot from the heat and place it beside the stove. I bank it up with a couple of fresh logs, and close the door and vents, so it will smoulder gently through the night. I close all the window shutters to conserve heat and clamber up to the mezzanine sleeping deck. It’s hot up there. I open the window by the bed and am cooled by a blast of subzero. I awake some hours later with a lightly chilled, exposed rear. No frostbite. Shut the window, roll over.
Rise at 6am, like Cinderella, to rekindle the fire. Rumour has it the kettle has a lengthy boil period, and while I have no intention of commencing serious activity before 10am I must ensure that there is coffee ready to accompany my long wake cycle. I open the stove door: just ash, and some embers. Good enough. The Bothy is still warm, so the stove has done its overnight work. I set a new fire, wait till it is flickering, then shut the door and close the vent, set the kettle to heat, and back to bed. Radio on. I’m not much into the religio-bucolic early morning Radio 4 Sunday offering and I have already heard most episodes of the Archers this week, thus obviating the need to take in the Omnibus edition. So Radio Scotland it is. I doze fitfully through a Sunday Service from Musselburgh which reminds me of everything that is wrong with the Church of Scotland, and sleep soundly through Good Morning Scotland. Light creeps in slowly, and I circle upward from the depths of my somnolent pond to the sound of Ricky Ross chatting brightly with Colin Mackay. I remember – not being fully conscious – few details of the conversation, but I do like Colin Mackay, a distinguished old political journalist of Christian faith whom I remember from other conversation shows on this station. He describes himself as ‘non-moralistic’ but confesses that he sometimes feels young people need ‘firm guidance’, which he has felt compelled to deliver at certain points in his life, in order to help them discern the ‘path of Eden’ from a more ‘stony, difficult’ way. Amen to that.
Colin Mackay’s admonition serving to propel me from bed, I rise and check the fire (one more log) and pop a pain aux raisins on the stovetop to warm (recommend this idea). I wish I had not bought the custardy ones. There is not a hope in hell that my little espresso pot is going to heat sufficiently to do its interior bubbling. I have no cafetière. I touch the side of the kettle lightly – warm, not boiling. It needs a boost. I open the vent, the fire is oxygenated, and heat spreads. I have brought a jar of instant, thank the Prophet, peace be upon him.
I open the window shutters. Outside, the view is bright but occluded – fog. And lots of it. The temperature has risen, and the snow is melting. It feels wet outside. I hope it snows again. I love snow. There are only a few logs left. I line them up by the fire, get suited and booted, and head down the precipitous hill to the wood store. The bend of the river Spey opens up before me. It looks wet and un-inviting. I load up the wicker cradle and trudge back through the melting snow.
[Note: I am a writer. Or at least, I am here to write. I love the idea of going analogue and have brought a big plain pad, as well as a Moleskine notebook and my lucky pen. But I am a digital bairn, really. I’ve been forewarned that the power here will definitely not sustain a laptop, and it’s true. (Despite clearing the solar panels of snow as directed, there has been not a peep from the photovoltaic array and the big batteries that sit under the kitchen area’s seating bench.) I have brought an iPad with keyboard, two large (20,000 MaH) USB battery packs, and a couple of dozen of Duracell AAs for the LED lanterns. These, as it turns out, are also necessary for the radio, which goes through 3 AAs per 36 hours of reasonably constant use at moderate volume. This setup works very well – I write using Scrivener (the indispensable writing app) and Notes, both of which back up to the cloud every time I connect the iPad to the Internet via my phone – which is possible here.]
Lunch: miso soup from a packet. And venison stew. I love you, venison stew.
Radio impasse: someone who sounds like Neil Diamond on R3. (Is it Leonard Cohen? Whoever it is, I am not in the mood.) Sportsound on Radio Scotland. No. Some smarmy QI-style comedy show on R4 about a museum with really funny exhibits. No. Too early for a drink. Suppose I had better do some more work.
Interlude for a visitor: Sam from the farm is here with glass lanterns for the tea lights, and bringing (as I have requested, via a text to Walter) a ladle and long, sharp knife. Look out, onions.
Late afternoon. The sun is well and truly over the yard arm, so wine and Grouse. Not necessarily in that order. The snow is on the way out and judging from the amount of newly exposed badger spoor in the vicinity I have decided to take it easy on the Cairngorm Slush Puppies, at least the slush part, opting instead for a top up of water on naked Grouse. Dinner: venison stew.
More channeling of the ancestors. On Radio Scotland: a repeat of Tak the Floor. At least it sounds like one. Then fiddler Bruce MacGregor’s brilliant show Travelling Folk – kicked off in style by our host giving a wonderfully peevish account of being locked out of a hotel while recording his latest album, which is a distinctive introduction to a great selection of music. Tracks from an Altan tribute album and then some Burns creeping in, because it’s that time of year. A Man’s A Man with a very sensitive acoustic guitar from someone whose name I do not catch. Goosebumps. Music producer Kieran Murray discussing Burns and Jamaica (Burns almost went there to work on a slave plantation but changed his mind at the last minute, etc), and the fantastic reggae interpretations of Burns he has done with his Jamaican partner Brina. A discussion of Burns, love and transgressive sexuality through the prism of Gaelic. The difficulties of Gaelic and innuendo. MacGregor withholds comment.
Rise with the lark. (Not literally, the larks are overwintering in Senegal or something, sensible creatures that they are. Although there is something tweeting out there. God knows what.) I open the shutters to impenetrable darkness, re-light the fire. Kettle on. Head torch on. Boots and body warmer on. A walk through the heather to the toilet hut. Let it go. Back to the Bothy.
Washing: there is a shower. It’s outside, on the balcony. You will not use it. Water scarcity. And utter frigidity. I use baby wipes on my nooks and crannies – an old special forces trick I know from my time in… not the special forces – and wash my face and hands in the basin.
Breakfast: the last of the pains aux raisins, heated on the stove top, coffee, a glass of water with a Guarana Berocca.
Lunch: mushroom soup from a packet, with the dry remainder of the ciabatta sawn up as croutons. Brown bread and butter. And venison stew. Again. My sense of awe at my own stew cooking is beginning to lose its lustre. It’s been fun, venison stew. But out you go. Attending to the dictum that a hungry cook is a cook with poor judgement who cuts corners, I begin preparing dinner immediately after lunch. Next up: Spaghetti with venison meatballs in spicy tomato sauce. The venison meatballs have been hanging on the back of the door since Saturday, and I regret not leaving them in a plastic bag hanging outside, somewhere cooler but out of reach of the Badgers. I press the filmy lid and it does not have the pressurised feel of meat which has been festering en el paquete de plástico. I open it, and the ‘balls smell just fine. I season them, then shallow fry – a little more thoroughly than usual – with garlic, before adding the herbs and tomato sauce etc. Then transfer to another pot, cover and leave on the stove-top with the vent closed to slow cook through the afternoon.
Interlude, for a visitor: turns out the couple of poops outside are not from badgers but from the farm’s dog. He’s a muscly little terrier who comes patrolling around, micturating meticulously around the Bothy, and laying a couple of soft pooh-voles in the heather. I wait for him to finish then freak him out by opening the door suddenly (I know it is a he for he is underslung with a torpedo-like schlong half the length of his own body) and he calms down when I offer him a Tuc biscuit. He proceeds to lie shivering on the balcony like Greyfriar’s Bobby until I give him several more. Then he departs.
With an hour to go until The Archers, I start on the whisky (no more snow, so with a splash of water) and put a pot of water on for the spaghetti. The spaghetti is a disaster. There’s no such thing as a fast boil here. Plus it turns out I’ve bought some weird type of spaghetti which has been pre-roughened, to soak up the sauce etc. By the time it is soft enough to eat, it’s sludgy. Tomorrow: tatties. The wine is gone. A failure of planning. This may necessitate premature contact with the outside world.
Bank up the stove and close the vents. In bed by 9, asleep by 10. Miss the Miles Davis special on R3 at 11pm.
Awake at 7.30. It’s mild again. I’ve slept with the window open all night and am not chilly.
There are still embers in the stove, and it sparks up keenly, with only one bit of kindling and a couple of fresh logs. (So far no difficulty lighting up – I have generally only had to use one or two sticks of kindling each day, plus or minus a firelighter – so have not yet had to use the axe to chop more kindling sticks.)
Breakfast: no more pastries, so I pop on a little pot of Heinz Beanz (sic) from one of those screw top fridge packs, with a dash of Tabasco. I also discover and deploy the ‘toaster’ for the first time. If you have an elderly relative with pretensions to the Cotswold cottage who owns and pretends to love an Aga then you will have seen one of these before: a double metal frame which folds over and clasps in its wiry embrace two slices of bread, which you then lay on the stove top and attend neurotically until they have come to resemble toast. It works. Beans on toast it is.
No radio so far today – I don’t feel like it. I write a little bit of this diary, since for my ‘proper’ work I will not be composing sentences but outlining again. Feels good to put one word in front of another.
Lunchtime. I take in Theresa May’s Brexit speech, while making Leek and Potato soup. It’s rhetorically sound (the speech, not the soup), which is annoying, and leaves precious little leeway for Nicola Sturgeon. Can’t help fearing the next referendum, if it comes, will be harder to argue than the first.
Foodwise: mushroom soup from a packet. Decide to venture some fish. Open and mash up the mackerel in a bowl with sweet corn, mayo and Tabasco. It (the mackerel) has not been kept refrigerated. But it seems fine. There’s a fishy smell when I peel open the packet, but this is not entirely unexpected. Create a sandwich. Nirvana.
Dinner. Leek and potato soup with copious light medium cheddar cheese grated on top and freshly ground black pepper, followed by:
Whisky. Amazing programme on R3 with Matthew Sweet about experimental novelists. A guy who sounds like an unassuming geek-genius of that adorable English school, has written an alternative history of the world since the 1910s, as if the War of the Worlds had actually happened, including a detailed critique of the pivot in military policy of the British Empire (we avoided the First World War through a neutrality pact with Germany designed to increase our capacity to cope with the Martians, who were inexplicably unconcerned with the Germans), and which goes into detailed descriptions of Martian, Venusian and Jovian societies. (All far more advanced than ours, and communal. We are to them, as Wells said, like intelligent rabbits. I wonder whether it’s worth explaining any of this to the badgers.) In any case, I am going to buy that book.
Then more Grouse, and a programme about Kitchen Sink cinema, Saturday Night Sunday Morning etc. I never liked the term Kitchen Sink, and never really got the British New Wave. Somehow not as sexy as the French one. Karel Reisz did not hit his stride until he got to America and made the awesome film The Gambler with Sonny from The Godfather.
I like the brief interludes when R3 goes talkie.
I’ve had too much Grouse. Bed.
Oh wait, Late Junction is on. I decide to stay up. There’s an experimental jazz thing on now which opens with some Tibetan or Tuvan throat-singing type stuff. (Wrong. It turns out to be from a Japanese temple.) Further weird music abounds. I scribble down notes of many tracks to be used in a burgeoning slate as yet un-thought of films.
Early: I awake with the consciousness that I am not alone. I look down and see a luminous white arm, skinny and spindly, like a white walker, reaching in through the open window, just next to my bed on the mezzanine level. Its hand encircles my protruding ankle and begins to pull me gently towards the black void. I stifle a whimper and reach for my service revolver, which I keep under the pillow. It is not there. Or it is there, and it is not loaded. I am not sure which. I begin to shriek. I wake up. The mackerel must have been on the turn. But just in case, I slip down the steps, don my head torch, hiking boots and bodywarmer, pick up the axe which is sitting warm-handled next to the stove, open the door and circumnavigate the Bothy clockwise, following the same route as the dog to whom I supplied the Tuc biscuits. Nothing there. Back to bed.
Morning. Check my ankle. The white walker has left no marks. Descend the ladder. My feet feel leathery. Wish I had brought moisturiser. Slather them with Vaseline lip balm instead. Socks on. Coffee.
Mid-retreat, I sit in the armchair and take stock. There’s no two ways about it. I am smelly, and short on booze. I would love to have been able to claim foresight-ful self-sufficiency for the entire week, but sadly lack of carb sources (potatoes and pasta, bread) and drink mean I must venture out.
A kitchen discovery: there is a cafetière here. Stainless steel. Nice. I thought it was an egg-boiling jug of some sort. It has four declivities on the lid that look like they are for eggs. But within lurks a plunger, whose purpose is clear. Scoops of coffee. Sweet, sweet coffee.
Decide to go back to bed. More slumber.
I walk to the farm, and plug in my batteries to charge in the gin-still. (There is, sadly, no gin available during my visit.) There’s a shower in the bathhouse at the farm, and the hot water feels good. I drive to Aviemore, carrying with me a piece of mail which Walter has asked me to post.
Being in Tesco is weird. I am in there for 45 minutes, basket on arm and phone to ear. I walk up and down the aisles feeling like a Sasquatch. I make a call about a documentary film I am developing, then have another with the Scottish Book Trust. Acquire additional whisky and wine, and a steak, a haggis, some tatties, a ciabatta and a sourdough loaf.
Outside, I sit in the car park of Tesco and Google Aviemore’s lost tourist attraction: Santa Claus Land. I spent a holiday there once at the age of 9. I remember it looked like a Cold War airbase. I took a family-fabled ride with my mother and sisters around the concrete installations on a brake-less four wheeled death trap of a pedalo. I hung around obsessively by the video arcade. They had the big sit-in Star Wars game, a wireframe X Wing vs Tie Fighter affair, like a zero-G Battlezone. I remember shooting the tops off the artillery towers. Nothing remains of Santa Claus Land now – it was demolished in 2002. Sic transit gloria.
Radio: 5 Live. Sir Andrew Murray is tennis-fighting with a Russian called Andrei Rublev. Fo’ real? What’s next? Serena Williams vs Anna Karenina?
I drive back to Inshriach. Forgot fags. Drive back, via the dump, where I leave the refuse sack I have filled over the first few days. Drive back.
Lunchtime radio: The World at One. DIscussion of something. One lady says – with apparent lack of irony – that the ‘pinnacle of Britishness’ was winning WW2 and ‘the 1966 World Cup’. Swerve back onto the road.
Radio: A stunning evensong. I like high church Anglicanism.
Dinner: Fillet Steak, corn and tatties.
Evening listening: the omnibus edition of a series giving a very anglo-centric view of the Reformation. Disappointed there isn’t more about the Spanish Inquisition, but that wasn’t entirely unexpected.
Exit the sleep zone at 0730, naturally. Put the fire on, over embers and a bit of charred log. Brief repose while the place (and the kettle) warms.
I sweep the floor, as I’ve done every day. There’s something very satisfying about sweeping the previous day’s detritus, crumbs and ash, from the wooden floor. Breakfast: Beans on toast, Berocca, coffee, can of Coca Cola.
R4. It’s my old mentor Melvyn Bragg and a panel of not-quite-ready-for-prime-time academics, trembly-voiced specialists in their field, talking about… Mary Queen of Scots. John Knox gets a big menshie as a terroriser of poor MQOS. (He made her cry). Next week, Melvyn announces enticingly: Parasitism.
Lunch: traditional Highland fare – mushroom soup, re-hydrated, with buttered ciabatta.
Our local star has, once more, migrated o’er the mizzenmast. Grouse. Listen to repeat of earlier broadcast of Crunluath, the piping show on Radio Nan Gaidheal. It’s great to listen to pipe tunes bookended with Gaelic. This is how they are meant to be heard. The host Cailean Maclean speaks slow, clear, sonorous, crooning Skye Gaelic the sense of which I can just about hang onto. Pipe music is bad for writing to – it’s like musical cocaine, and makes me feel like marching around, which I do. Inside and on the decking outside.
Dinner: Haggis. I don’t have the tin foil in which MacSween’s suggests one should shroud one’s simmering intestinal pocket, but I am undeterred. Slow simmer on the stove, howk the brain-sized mass out from the grey cranial-looking bouillon and dismember it on a skillet. I should have been a surgeon. Pour whisky over it and set aflame before consuming. Eat half with remainder of yesterday’s tatties.
Radio 3: Simon Rattle doing Mahler 6 From Barbican. Wow.
Resolve to consume remainder of Grouse. Do.
Tomorrow (Saturday) I have to be out of here by 11am. I begin to feel sad, don’t feel inclined to work, and have decided to clean up in daylight and head home this afternoon, rather than spend a final evening. If I was in company I would stay and enjoy a final night on the sauce as the capstone to a successful residency, but the sense of impending ending and the itchiness of travel always get to me. Plus I would quite like to watch Donald Trump’s inauguration live on the telly – I am a closet Kid Rock fan and am hoping the rumours of his command performance will turn out to be true. And in case anything bad happens.
I sing Let It Go one last time to the unseen badger community. I expect they will miss me.
I have enjoyed and gained from my time here hugely and hope this blog will serve as a useful field guide to anyone contemplating application to the Bothy Project. I like this place. It’s got a psychic exclusion zone around it. Or maybe it’s just that I can project my mental spikes here to their natural length. There’s something to be said for isolation, in all senses. I hope it won’t be the last time.
Epilogue: such has been the deep calming effect of this retreat on my psyche that I get a speeding ticket on the way down, just north of Perth. Don’t be fooled by the average speed camera system on the A9 – they still have the vans out.