What you are about to read is an exclusive extract from the book "Wild Winter" by John D. Burns, which can be purchased here from the Vertebrate Publishing website. To see more books we love and books that caught our eye, check out our bookshelf.
The following morning I call an estate office number, but there’s no answer. I have a bothy in mind, and as this is Martin’s last day I don’t want to risk another fruitless walk. I don’t think even his patience with my bothy obsession can take that. I’ll be able to tell a lot by the reception I get from the office. This is one of my secret bothy-hunting techniques. You never know how an estate will respond to enquiries about the availability of their bothies for two old men with overly large rucksacks and a passion for fireside chats in remote places. Some are incredibly welcoming, and even offer to pop up and supply the place with logs; others give the distinct impression they’d like to murder you.
Martin is in the kitchen frying a breakfast packed with enough cholesterol to kill a regiment. A huge fried breakfast has become a tradition when he comes up for a long weekend, and over the years Martin has perfected the art of the fry-up.
I dial the estate office again. This time a woman answers, her voice redolent with a Scottish public-school accent. ‘Hello.’
I take a deep breath. ‘I’m thinking of spending a night in the Black bothy.’
I take another breath and detect the scent of tweed and wet Labrador coming through the receiver. ‘Is it open?’
There is a muffled intake of breath. ‘The Black bothy?’ I know what she’s thinking: why the hell would anyone want to spend a night in there?
I’m determined not to be put off. ‘Yes, the Black bothy.’
After a pause. ‘It’s not that sort of bothy.’ This is some lunatic who wants to spend a night on our estate for free.
As far as I am concerned, all bothies are that sort of bothy. If they aren’t locked, you can stay in them. That’s the rule. ‘Is it locked?’
Now he wants to know if it’s locked. Don’t tell him it’s open, for God’s sake. Put him off. She hesitates just a fraction too long before answering. ‘Och aye, that’s right. It’s locked.’
I don’t hesitate. ‘Oh well, if it’s locked I’ll not bother, then.’
She relaxes on the other end of the phone. ‘It’s locked, yes. That’s it.’ Go away – we don’t want your sort round here.
‘Oh well, thanks anyway.’ I hang up.
It’s open; we’re going in. It’s a widely accepted convention amongst the bothy-going community and most Scottish estates that if a remote shelter is unlocked, you can sleep in it. If the estate don’t want you in there, they can simply lock the door, which some do but most don’t. It sounds like we won’t be welcome at the Black bothy; this will be a guerrilla visit. I have visions of Martin and me dressed in khaki with blackened faces crawling through the heather. Our visit will be a tiny stand against the landed rich men who own most of Scotland and treat it as their plaything. For one night at least we will reclaim the bothy!
Martin appears from the kitchen bearing two enormous plates of full English, the consumption of which is definitely unwise for two gentlemen of our age, making it all the more appealing. As we both settle down for our appointment with fate, Martin looks up, knife and fork poised. ‘Success?’
‘Oh yes. Capital.’
At least we know the Black bothy is not a figment of Google’s imagination as we walk in across the moorland. I’ve taken an obscure route in to avoid passing the estate office and alerting them to our presence. The moorland we are walking on is typical of those used for driven grouse shooting. It is a vast, treeless expanse of rolling country where the heather has been kept artificially short by burning so that the red grouse can prosper. Here and there are lines of shooting butts, little shelters about chest high, made of turf or mounds of peat. The butts are where the guests hide with their shotguns, waiting for the hapless grouse to be driven towards them by beaters. The grouse are little more than living targets and are often shot in their thousands in the name of sport. The shooters – or guns, as they are known – often have an assistant who loads the shotguns (they usually have a pair) so that they can keep up a high rate of fire. It’s a landscape devoid of life apart from the grouse and any mountain hares who have managed to avoid being shot. On the map, there is a track heading over the shoulder of the hill and down and across the glen to the bothy. The track turns out to be a cartographer’s daydream, and soon we are both plodding through the heather.
Martin is a few metres ahead of me when he stops and points across the glen. ‘That might be it there.’
I step forward and can see a building half a mile away. Just as I am taking out the map to check its position, there is an explosion of sound and feathers at my feet. A grouse flies into my face, its wings beating the air furiously as it achieves vertical take-off. At the same time, it fills the air with its strange cry that is somewhere between a cough and a laugh. I stagger backwards in surprise, dropping the map, my heart rate somewhere in the thousands. Given the sudden shock and the fried breakfast earlier, I’m surprised my heart didn’t pack in and leave me stone dead in the heather. I curse the bird as it flies off. I would never shoot a grouse, but sometimes I’d cheerfully strangle one when they ambush me with their incredibly annoying habit of waiting until you almost step on them before rising in total panic and making a determined effort to fly up your trouser leg. Considering the number of times they have done this to me, they must have shortened my life by several weeks.
Fifteen minutes later, we are standing before the Black bothy. Martin recalls yesterday’s debacle. ‘Do you think it’s locked?’ I examine the door. There’s no padlock or keyhole. Seconds later, we are inside, dumping our rucksacks gratefully on to the wooden floor and hauling out stoves and coal. It’s a small bothy and, as you might have guessed, it’s black. It’s largely made of wood with only one gable end. There is one room, which has a long rough table, a few chairs and a fireplace. Many of the bothies I stay in are old shepherds’ houses. They are made of stone and have some age and character. The bothies on grouse moors are different. These buildings are not too old, perhaps seventy years, and no one has ever lived in them. They are con- structed by estates as places where shooting parties can stop for lunch when they are tired of blasting grouse out of the sky.
Martin sets off exploring. ‘My God, look at the size of these!’ He has found a shelf with a collection of enormous champagne bottles on it.
He turns one of the bottles round so he can read the label. ‘Moët & Chandon. I’ve never seen bottles of anything this big.’
‘I think they call them jeroboams. Must have had them for lunch. Any of them full?’ I ask hopefully.
Martin carefully inspects the tall green bottles standing to attention like soldiers on parade. ‘No, all empty. It’s a miracle they could hit anything after these.’
I begin to set the fire, always my job on our bothy trips.
Martin heads out to a stream to fetch water with his collapsible container, but he is back moments later. ‘The water’s no good. Come and see.’
I peer into the small stream that runs beside the bothy. Its water is as black as old sump oil, so full of peat as to be undrinkable. ‘Oh bugger. It’s miles back to the river.’
Martin points to a long wooden pole set across the stream, about two feet above the water. In the centre of the pole is a wire cage about the size of a shoebox. ‘What’s that?’
‘It’s a trap. I think they call them rail traps. They are there to catch stoats and weasels. That’s what the shooting community calls “vermin”.’
‘I thought they were wildlife?’
‘One man’s vermin is another man’s wildlife. If you call an animal vermin, it sounds fine to kill it.’
Martin shakes his head in disbelief. ‘Why would they do that?’
‘This is a grouse moor. Any animal that might predate on grouse is seen as a bad thing.’
Martin plods off with his water carrier and I go back to setting the fire. He returns half an hour later with a container full of peat-stained but drinkable water. By this time, as the outlines of the hills sink into darkness, I have the merry yellow flames dancing cheerfully in the hearth. We light the candles and the world shrinks to these four walls and Martin and me. Outside the bothy, the wind eases and the night sky clears. Soon the bothy is glazed with hoar frost, and fine ice crystals glitter on the fringes of the black water stream.
Later, as we sit before the fire, I talk about the moor around us. ‘It’s unnatural for this moorland to have to fight nature to keep it there. Truth is, to sustain a grouse moor with enough birds to shoot, then you have to keep the numbers of grouse high, and that attracts raptors like eagles and hen harriers.’
‘Why are hen harriers are so badly hit?’ Martin asks.
I explain that it’s particularly difficult for the hen harrier because it is one of our furthest-ranging birds of prey. The harriers may live many miles away, but because they travel such long distances from their roosts to find prey, they are likely to discover grouse moors on their range and be drawn to them as hunting grounds. As a result, the pressure for gamekeepers to eliminate the harrier threat is enormous – indeed, the estate’s economic survival might depend upon their killing harriers. This is, of course, illegal, but the land is so remote and the likelihood of being caught so low that the temptation to shoot or poison birds must be almost overpowering. Few keepers are apprehended, and the penalties for such activity have until recently been light. The great injustice when such men are prosecuted is that the real responsibility lies with the landowners, who perpetuate a system that forces their employees to break the law so that grouse moors can be sustained.
Martin looks up and casts his eye around the bothy, the empty champagne bottles catching the firelight. ‘I’m not sure I like this place much.’
Martin drains his mug. ‘No, this moor.’
I can understand how he feels; there is something about grouse moors that makes me feel uneasy too.
‘Yes, you’re right. This place reeks of death. Let’s not come here again.’
Now at least the woman I spoke to in the estate office can rest easy in her bed. I won’t be returning. The following day, Martin climbs on to the southbound train at Inverness station and rides off towards more confrontations with confused rail officials as he battles the absurd conformity of our age. Where would we be without the Martins of this world, who simply refuse to accept that carrying a lethal weapon on a train is no longer acceptable?