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  • Sunday, September 28, 2014

    The Glendhu and Glencoul Bothies

    After another day in the wind, rain, and thick fog, I took refuge in the Glendhu bothy, an old home situated on the northeastern shore of Loch Gleann Dubh, now a mountain refuge for anyone willing to get there on foot.

    Another backpacker dressed head to foot in raingear was already inside. I knocked softly as I pushed open the door to not frighten him. It wouldn’t be crazy to assume you’d be alone out here.

    “Hello," I said. "Is there room for one more?”

    He walked to the front door smiling. He had a skeletal fragile look about him with a gaunt face and nearly as much hair in his nose as on his head.

    “Oh of course,” he said. “I’m the only one here and am sticking to this room, so that room is empty,” he said pointing to a room on my left. “And there are two more rooms upstairs.”

    “Excellent, I’m going to just have a quick look around,” I said. I chose the cleanest and least creepy of the three remaining rooms and set my pack on the floor.

    I went back downstairs to talk to my new roommate. “This is great,” I said. “I’m really loving these bothies. I'm still considering going on to the next one on Loch Glencoul four miles away, though.”

    “Ah, you’ll never make it before dark,” he said. “It’s only four miles, but the trail is slow and hard to see.”

    “Oh, okay. Well I guess I’ll stay put then.”

    “It’s an interesting bothy at Glencoul, though,” he said. “It's an old schoolhouse attached to a boarded up house. It’s so remote that it was easier to just pay a teacher to live with them then send them to school."

    "That sounds cool," I said. "I've always been a fan of living in things that weren't originally built to be lived in."

    "The schoolhouse has a separate room for the teacher to live in. The two boys who were taugh there were shipped off to France to fight in the war. Imagine living in this paradise and then being forced to go to France to fight in a war.” His tone made me wonder if it was the idea of living in France he detested rather than being forced into a warzone.

    “And apparently, they never came back home,” he said.

    The hike to Glencoul the next morning wasn’t as difficult as he made it seem. I stopped in to eat lunch. I loved it. It was even more remote than Glendhu, as there was no road and you had to hike an additional four miles past Glendhu to get to it, unless you took a boat from Unapool, which on a clear day you can see at other end of the loch.

    A copy of a journal written by John Elliot (1844-1928) who grew up in the house, sat on the mantle above a fireplace. I got a pot of water boiling, threw in a few handfuls of pasta, and read the journal while I waited for it to cook.

    The room I sat it was in fact used as a schoolhouse, and the eldest brothers who lived there, Will and Alstair, were sent to fight during World War I and never returned, but I learned more details about that history.

    Excerpts from the journal:
    "I was very lucky to be born and brought up in a place like Glencoul. The Glen was a place of such freedom as my children never knew until they had grown up and traveled. We did more or less as we liked out of school hours.
    School was in a bedroom in the house. Teachers were whoever we could get, my eldest brother, Will, as often as not. He ruled with firmness, but must have had some quality as a teacher, because he taught me to love books.
    We had a cousin, for one year, and he was tough. When he joined the Seaforths in the 1914 war we thought the German Army might as well give up. They didn't. Norman was killed in action. 
    We were self-supporting in some things. We had a venison allowance from the Estate. We had our own mutton, lamb, pork, hams, fowls, eggs, butter, cream, and cheese. My mother made soft cottage cheese and she had a huge stone cheese press for making harder cheese, which would keep for months. We salted venison in the shooting season and stored it in barrels.
    [The nearest shop] was 5 miles by sea, then 9 miles road journey, using a borrowed horse and cart, because we could not get our own horse and cart to the road, there being no road into the Glen. No wonder it was called Glen Coul (Gaelic for "the glen at the back of beyond.")
    I've dreamed for years of living in a small cabin in a remote and beautiful place. I considered staying there that night to live out that dream for a day. After lunch, I decided it was too early in the day to stay. The morning rain had stopped and the sky was blue again. I needed to get going, after all, winter is coming.

    I would soon go back onto a trackless path, but needed to head to a tall slender waterfall, the tallest in the U.K., which could be seen just beyond the house. While photographing it, I heard a splash in the water. Seals were bathing in the sun. The splash came from a curious one who swam up closer to me for a better look.

    After passing the waterfall, crossing the river, and following my compass needle southeast the weather turned again. Fog rolled in, rain fell, the wind grew stronger and colder. This would continue off and on for the next few days.