Four miles from Aviemore, in the Cairngorms national park, is a cabin specifically designed for visitors seeking isolation and a self-sufficient, back-to-nature experience in the great Scottish outdoors.
A one-room hut with a platform bed, table, bench seat, sofa, sink and stove, the corrugated iron bothy crouches like a minimalist doll’s house in a secluded birch- and bracken-speckled dell.
Stoking the fire and lighting candle lanterns in the all-but-silent gloaming, you feel miles from civilisation. But the dell is in a far corner of the grounds of Inshriach House, a sensitively and sustainably restored Edwardian manor originally built by the A&C Black publishing family but now run as a large holiday home by former antiques dealer turned set designer and all-round handyman Walter Micklethwait and his mother Lucy, a children’s author.
The Micklethwaits already have experience in catering for off-grid guests, renting out a yurt in another corner of the grounds, and a pimped-up 1950s lorry, the Beer Moth, that has been converted into a campervan for two, with parquet floor, woodburning stove and Victorian brass-framed double bed.
The bothy, however, has been designed with a more challenging clientele in mind – artists. The creation of architectural designer Iain MacLeod and artist Bobby Niven, it is a response to grants they won through the Royal Scottish Academy’s Residencies for Scotland scheme. Instead of using the money for individual residencies they decided to build a lasting legacy – a bothy that could be used by other artists as an ongoing residency space.
In time they hope The Bothy Project (thebothyproject.org) will develop into a network of small-scale residency spaces around Scotland and beyond. The main aim is to provide a way for artists to explore the history, ecology, landscape and people of a place, but with this first space, built at Inshriach in collaboration with Walter and the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, MacLeod and Niven are inadvertently trialling a pioneering idea: the crossover between tourism and art.
This ties in with a growing trend towards recreational spaces that present a more earthy, Walden-esque existence. For every tourist attracted by a fly-and-flop sunshine resort, there’s another seeking an escape from their frenzied, over-digitised life in a space where all they have to think about is feeding a fire, gazing at the stars and cooking simple, foraged foods.
The Bothy Project is part of the same widespread attack of cabin fever that has seen a surge of interest in hutting in Scotland and a rise in services such as the cult Cabin Porn website (freecabinporn.com), which streams images of fabulously photogenic huts, cabins and cottages to desk-bound wilderness-wannabees.
“The whole place was designed around the windows – recycled sashes from Bobby’s Glasgow flat – and a ladder found in a skip outside Glasgow School of Art that now leads up to the sleeping platform,” said Walter. “Between its wooden frame and a coating of corrugated iron is a hefty layer of sheep’s wool insulation.”
There’s also a reclaimed wooden floor, rainwater harvesting for washing (and washing up) and some kitchen essentials – a starter pack of eggs from Walter and Lucy’s chickens, fruit, milk, tea and coffee, oats, candles, pots and pans, a corkscrew and a toasting rack. Once the stove is on it’s surprisingly cosy (no need for the hot water bottles and thermals we’d packed) and a short walk away there’s a compost loo with a view, strung with solar-powered fairy lights that we are glad of on a cloudy, moonless night, since the path to it isn’t very well-trodden yet.
Begun last July, the bothy was largely built with volunteer labour from Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop. “We wanted to do something bespoke and interesting,” said Walter. “If this looks relatively simple, that’s deliberate – it has been designed not to impose too much of an aesthetic on the artists who come here.
“There’s something about buildings with no power and made with natural materials that is just really good for the soul,” he said as we finished our tea and fell into a fire-lulled lethargy. With woodsmoke curling away through the chimney and the last of the sunset retreating through the surrounding trees it became clear just how contemplative and introspective a space this might be.
Breakfast is delivered, hanging on the door of the hut was a red and white checked napkin, tied up Dick Whittington-style around a pile of fresh croissants, butter and jam.
Surrounded by Forestry Commission land and the Rothiemurchus Estate, the bothy has access to some of the best biking, kayaking and, in the winter, skiing in Scotland. We wanted to avoid another drive, though, so we set off on foot to Loch an Eilein, a small lake around three miles away with a ruined castle in its middle. It was once a stronghold of the fearsome Wolf of Badenoch (1343-1405) the third surviving son of King Robert II of Scotland.
There is also tea and homemade cake at Inshriach Nursery’s Potting Shed Tearoom (inshriachnursery.co.uk), slices of chocolate torte and fresh berry sponge from vintage china plates inside the room’s long back window.
The bothy, which sleeps two, costs from pounds 95 a night through Canopy & Stars (01275 395447,canopyandstars.co.uk/the-bothy-project. East Coast Trains (0845 722 5333, eastcoast.co.uk) has single fares from London to Edinburgh from pounds 16.50. Europcar (0871 384 1087, europcar.co.uk) car hire from Edinburgh Waverley Station costs from pounds 23 a day. Or take a train from Glasgow or Edinburgh to Aviemore for pounds 10.90 (0845 601 5929, scotrail.co.uk) and a taxi from there to Inshriach (pounds 10)