A Quiet Word


hill walking

Shenevall -Photo Chris Firth

The moment I walked into the bothy I could tell something was wrong, I could feel the tension in the atmosphere.  The last hour or so of the walk into Shenevall had become increasingly dismal as I’d followed the land rover track down into the glen and past the old ruined cottage towards where the bothy nestles at the foot of the hill.  What had started as mist had changed by degrees from fog to drizzle and then into a fine saturating rain.  It had become what my mother would have called a “wetting rain,”  all rain is wet, as we all know, but there is a fine mist of rain that laughs at Gortex and will eventually find your skin no matter how well clad you are.  This was that kind of rain and, by the last half mile of the walk in, it was beginning to ooze through my gaiters and to seep up the sleeves of my cagoule.  I was beginning to moisten at the edges, and not in a good way.

So it was with relief, that early autumnal evening, that I sighted the bothy, noted the faint welcoming glow of a candle at the window, watched a few wisps of smoke issuing from the chimney hinting at the warmth within.  I quickened my pace, anticipating an evening filled with laughter swopping tales with the occupants, I imagined, at that very moment,  sitting around the bothy fire with steaming mugs of tea and a dram or two.  It was with this image in my head that I pushed open the bothy door and shook the rain from my clothes in the small porch. Entering the bothy I was instantly aware of a stony silence.

As my eyes became accustomed to the gloom I began to discern the shapes of three figures .  Two older men were in a conspiratorial huddle on the far side of the room, their hunched backs to the door.  They turned to see who had violated their sanctum, the whites of their eyes registering a suspicion that bordered on hostility or possibly, even fear.  In the centre of the room a large young man sat, a mop of tousled red hair framing his wide browed face.  He at least was pleased to see me and welcomed me enthusiastically into the small wood lined room that reeked, as all bothies do, of wood smoke, three day old socks and decaying food.  He introduced himself; my mind has long deleted his name, so let’s call him Hector.  He even pulled a chair up for me and offered me tea, a kind gesture, I thought.  The other two men beside the fire huddled even closer as Hector offered his hospitality, the whites of their eyes flickered in the semi-darkness as they shot me furtive, menacing glances.

There was no mistaking the vehemence of the odd looks the two men gave me.  As I took my first sip of Hector’s tea I wondered if these anti-social creatures treated all newcomers this way or if I just stumbled in after there had been some disagreement the best way to drink whisky or whether Ben Nevis would make an excellent site for a wind farm.  The horror of  what happened next revealed to me the reason why these men cowered in the corner casting furtive glances in my direction, I realised later they had been trying to warn me.

Hector began to talk.  Looking back I have little recollection of anything he said, perhaps my mind has blotted that out, but talk he did. He talked in long rambling sentences that made little or no sense.  Words poured from his mouth like the rain issuing from the bothies gutters.  His words became a downpour, paragraphs deluged me, his mouth gushed gibberish out into the night air as he filled the bothy waist deep with a huge volume of verbiage.  Soon I was drowning in Hector’s verbal output.  He talked without cease, it seemed without end, by some mystical process he never drew breath but went on and on into the evening.

After a while I began to wish he was dead, I started to fantasise about how I would kill him, even to plan the act.  Smothering became my favoured option as I imagined his muffled words slowly ceasing as I forced my sleeping bag into his mouth. I looked over at my other two companions who were muttering to each other in the corner.  One of them looked up and, making eye contact, we exchanged a look of deep, dark desperate despair.  In that moment I knew that if I killed Hector, perhaps felled him with a blow from the cast iron frying pan that hung above the fire, dragged him outside and buried him beneath the nettles, it would be a secret that I and my fellow Hector sufferers would carry to our graves.  We would pass the rest of the evening in quiet, gentle conversation, knowing that there would be no need to even mention Hector’s departure from this mortal realm.  All of us understanding that his removal, like disposing of a sheep tick in the groin, had simply been necessary.

Eventually, long after I had begun to wish I too was dead, it was agreed it was bed time.  I think it was 8.30.  I settled into my sleeping bag content in the knowledge that now, at last, sleep would carry Hector off into the land of dreams and at last, finally, he would stop talking.  I was right, soon he fell silent and all I could hear was the sound of him gently snoring.  At least that’s what happened at first, but then, returning with all the joy of an unpaid tax bill, Hector’s voice began again its monotonous drone.  I realised, with mounting terror that he could even talk in his sleep.  Robbed of the influence of his conscious mind Hector’s diatribe made as little sense as it had when he was awake. Clearly the connection between his brain and his mouth was at best tenuous.

Hector’s occupancy of Sheneval was some years ago now. I still frequent bothies although, these days, in all but the most accessible shelters, you are less and less likely to meet other wanderers.  Only occasionally do I bump into other bothy dwellers as sojourns into the wilderness seem now to be the pursuit of those of us in middle age and beyond.  The source of the decline is clearly the lamentable failure of the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) to maintain bothies properly in accordance with the requirements of the modern generation of hill goers.  Those young people reckless enough to cast aside the strictures health and safety and leave the security of their game consoles must be horrified at the lack of facilities they find in bothies.  In many cases I have found it impossible to get a mobile phone signal whilst staying in a bothy.  Surely the MBA should take steps to ensure that one can at least send a text to tell your friends where you are and what you’ve had for tea.  How is one expected to update ones Facebook status or order pizza?  The Broadband connection in many bothies is terribly slow.  Unless the MBA can see the error of their ways and ensure that young people can use their smart phones and tablets to a reasonable degree bothies will eventually become empty and forgotten relics of a hill going past that no longer exists.

The following morning we all went our separate ways and I tried to push the lamentable evening to the back of my mind as I plodded back to my car over the hills.  Driving back to my home in Inverness I spotted a walker hitching by the side of the road.  Without thinking I stopped and the hiker climbed in to the passenger seat. To my horror I realised it was Hector, I hadn’t recognised him with his mouth closed.  He explained that he was sure he was about to miss his train home from Inverness as we were unlikely to get to the Highland capital before his train departed.  Sadly, he told me he would have nowhere to stay in Inverness if that happened and wondered if I might put him up for the night.

“Oh don’t worry,” I told him quietly, “I’m sure we’ll get you to the station in time.”  I am not by nature a fast driver but on that occasion I pressed the accelerator to the floor and kept it there for the whole journey.  I drove as though I was pursued by the devil, as though chased by every midge in the Highlands, I drove as though I was trying to catch last orders for end of time.  Hector sat in the passenger seat, his white knuckled fingers driven deep into the chair upholstery.   His feet braced against the dashboard, he sat with his eyes fixed on the road ahead, staring through the windscreen as though he could see Death driving a Forestry Commission lorry straight at us round every bend.

But, more importantly than all of that, he sat in total and complete silence.

First published on Uk Hillwalking Website http://www.ukhillwalking.com/articles/page.php?id=5284

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9 responses to “A Quiet Word

  1. You haven’t come across the bothy poet who washed in the bottom half of a spam tin? Or the mad guy who smashes windows as he can see faces looking in at them? If Hector is who I think, someone cut his rucksack straps in the night once (or so I heard) to stop him following them up the hill the next day. Think I ‘met’ him a few years ago but I camped outside while my friend endured the crepuscular commentary. Then there was the chap who turned up in the depths of winter hauling his gear behind him on a wheelie bin lid but that pales into comparison with the mob from Glasgow who turned up with the gear actually in wheelie bins, which they’d nicked and taken up on the train to Corrour! This was just after Trainspotting had been released. Bothy wildlife indeed.

    • Great stuff. Dragging my gear on a wheely bin lid! oh yes must try that one. Cutting Hector’s rucksack straps, you are full of good ideas!

  2. Great story! I do know that this is a conspiracy between you and all bothy dwellers though, to keep those uninitiated among your readers well away from your favourite haunts. Hector is actually a myth right? He was just a fabrication to ensure we will stay locked behind our various screens, too traumatised by your myth to venture out at all 😉

    • All true I’m afraid, although his real name isn’t Hector, I’ve changed it to protect the guilty. Shenevall is an MBA bothy, so you are welcome! There are secret bothies, although i think everyone should know about them too.

  3. That’s a truly brilliant tale and it had me in hysterics all the way through!

    If I ever pick up a male hitchhiker, just in case he’s dangerous to lone women, I always drive like a lunatic – keeps their mind on the road! 😉

  4. I found this post whilst planning a trip to An Teallach and was thinking of staying in Shenevall…..might wild camp instead after reading this. What a great read, I encountered a horrific bothy bore a few years ago in Wales, it was a long night and we made a concerted effort to get up and leave early before he woke

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