Fire and Men

Success, a roaring fire!

Success, a roaring fire!

It’s dark and raining heavily now. The bothy fire smokes for a few minutes, coughs, splutters and then dies. Charlie, my walking companion on this trip, who has been working on the fire, stares disconsolately at the cold hearth.

‘Well that’s it then, we’ve blown the on the bloody thing, chucked paraffin on it, tossed everything we can think of and still it won’t light. It’s going to be a cold night. We’ve tried every trick.’

It’s my fault, I left my kindling in the shed and it got damp and won’t light. An elementary mistake but a costly one. I’ve lugged 10 kilos of coal up the track beside the sea and finally dumped it on the floor of Glendubh bothy (Pronounced Glendoo, meaning black glen) only to watch it sitting there like a bag of black rocks. Both of us are shivering, as we watch our breath misting the air in the candle light.

Charlie kicks the hearth in frustration, ‘All that coal and we’re still cold. There’s nothing else we can do.’

I am deep in thought. I pride myself in being a Fire Master, a veteran of a thousand artic bothy nights. Lighting a bothy fire is a dark art, one only learnt through years of patient pyromania. Walking in to a bothy I am always painfully aware of the load of coal crushing into the base of my back. It presses down on you. On hills it holds you back and on descents it pushes you forwards, hurling you downhill in knee crushing jolts.

‘It’ll be worth it,’ I tell myself, picturing myself toasting my toes before a roaring fire while a storm rages outside the bothy. Tonight, that image fades like a mirage and I resign myself to a never ending frigid evening.


Glendubh bothy on left


Then it happens, I am suddenly back in a thousand dark winter glens, like a Kung Fu Shaolin monk, I have returned, in my moment of crisis, to the temple. I remember all the battles I’ve had trying to coax fire from reluctant wood, I have blown through tubes, used newspaper to create a draft, prayed, threatened and cajoled fires into life in my many nights of travel.

At last, I remember, there is one thing I’ve not tried on tonight’s reluctant fire. A trick I’ve never used before, an untried technique of fire lighting I’ve held in reserve until now. Charlie watches in mild curiosity as I assemble my little gas cooker, carefully attaching the burner to the gas cylinder by the little foot long tube. He’s even more fascinated when I remove the front of the fire and push the burner under the grate.

‘Oh my God! You can’t do that,’ Charlie, always a man firmly attached to his mortal vessel, exclaims in growing panic.

Oh, but I can.

The culprit

The culprit

I light the gas and the little stove hurls flames up into the cooling coal. I turn to reassure Charlie but his chair is empty and I find myself alone in the bothy with only the swinging bothy door to remind me of Charlie’s passage.


Now, let’s just get a few things strait. I’ve got a gas stove with a highly flammable gas canister only a few inches from a fire. Some of you will have already passed judgement on the safety of this practice. Others of you will be undecided. For those of you who have not reached a conclusion, let me quell any doubts.


Is this safe? – NO

Is it likely to cause permanent injury or even death? – YES




It Is not long before the coal begins to smoke. The stove is doing its job. Looking up I, see a startled expression peering in through the bothy window from the darkness outside. The expression is attached to a face, Charlie’s face, with its fingers in its ears.


At this point I could be using a lot of words in paragraph the that follows. I could be using words like, devastating explosion, horrific injuries or searing pain.


But I’m not going to use those words, I’m going to use these.


Suddenly the fire bursts into life and I decide the time has come to haul the little stove out of the inferno and rescue both myself and the bothy from instant oblivion. Seeing me do this the spy, outside, comes in from the cold.

Charlie is pale and sweating, ‘Was that wise? I mean, was that a good idea?’

I sit in silence, watching the flames lick up the chimney, pondering Charlie’s question. It occurs to me that the phrases ‘good idea’ and ‘wise’ are usually co-dependent. If something is not a good idea, it can’t be wise. In this case, however, as the warmth reaches my toes, I decide that my little gas stove trick was definitely a good idea and absolutely, completely unwise.

That’s a bit like the paradox of bothies themselves…we go into the wild outdoors so we can be completely comfortable.

I can’t emphasise enough that shoving your stove into a fire is not a good idea, just because I’d do it doesn’t mean you should.


That’s cleared that up then.


Portable bomb

Portable bomb




Okay, so you arrive at the bothy, it’s dark, freezing and you are wet through. You throw your coal kindling, and firelighters on to the fire, put a match on to the fire and what happens?


‘Er…it bursts into flame, producing cheery glow etc.’


Maybe but what frequently happens is, as the fire begins to light it gives off a lot of smoke. The smoke rises, as it does so it hits a column of cold that’s been sitting in the chimney since that bloke Burns was here three months ago and set fire to his trousers. The smoke cools, comes back down the chimney and fills the bothy. Unless you are a trainee kipper, this is very unpleasant and it can take at least an hour before the chimney is finally warm enough for the smoke to behave itself and head out the chimney instead of into your sleeping bag.


My trick is to put the stove in the fire place again, this time before you put any fuel in and burn it for a few minutes, this will help move the cold air out of the chimney and may stop it smoking. It doesn’t always work but it’s a start.


Of course, if the fire won’t light you now know what not to do.




I’ve been getting some great responses to this blog on

Here’s one from David Beynon who sounds like he’s followed around by a constant burning sensation.

Once upon a time I had been kipping in the upstairs room of a bothy, and was in the process of waking up with a stinking hangover when there was a huge explosion from downstairs. The floor shook, and there was a shower of dust from the ceiling.

Thinking that someone had blown their stove up and killed themselves we got up in record time & rushed down to find Albert unharmed but looking a bit sheepish.

He had decided to get the fire going by filling up an empty ham slices tub with paraffin & sitting it on the hot coals. Apparently he was quite chuffed when it started smoking nicely, and it was only when it started billowing out into the room that he realised he was looking at paraffin vapour & started to get an “oh crap” feeling.

Cue him backing away slowly followed by a billowing cloud of fuel until after a few seconds it inevitably ignited.

Amazingly the building survived without so much as a broken window. The gloves and socks hanging above the fire were never the same again though.


nocker, from the same ukclimbing forum adds his own tale of wo.


I led a public school scout group to summer camp in the Lakes. The advanced party of myself and DofE Gold sixth formers idled over breakfast in the mess tent. The dixie for tea / washing up had almost boiled dry so I topped it up from one of the several water containers. There was a loud hissing and escape of vapour. Suddenly the tent was filled with rolling banks of flame and we all shot backwards and out from the inferno. It turned out that one of the highly intelligent but completely lacking in common sense sixth formers had brought a gallon of acetate for canoe repairs and ommitted to mention having put it in a water container. After several minutes of confusion as to what had happened he came clean. Obviously the acetate had vapourised in the dixie, and when the cloud of gas filled the tent down from the roof, it eventually met with the gas flame and provided the morning’s entertainment.


7 responses to “Fire and Men

  1. Like yourself I’ve always considered that I’m pretty adept at getting a reasonable blaze going in testing circumstances. Failure isn’t an option. I’ve coped with crap chimneys, damp wood and even the total lack of a grate. I take it as a personal challenge which just cannot pass me by.

    Just getting the fire going doesn’t, I experienced, mean you can relax and enjoy the banter gazing into the flames. There’s logs to shuffled about to ensure pre drying before their cast onto the flames. Then there’s the risk that one of the non fire building blokes in the party could try their hand at adjusting the fire; never a good idea. A friendship can be sorely tested when one bloke messes with another’s fire.

    Keep the stories coming……

  2. You know when things get desperate when you have to throw on a splurge of Malt Whisky to get the fire going

  3. Can you leave your visit to Scottie’s till I’ve been please!

    Another hilarious post (but just a bit scary!)

    My only tip is fircones – they’re full of resin and delicate so easy to light and burn for long enough to get your other stuff going. You can also carry huge amounts of them as they weight nothing.

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