Bearnais Story

                                                                                                                                              Bernard & Betty Heath

The Story Behind Bearnais

It was Ken the boy from Gairloch who mentioned that he had seen a bothy from a mountain top when out as a ghillie with an Achnashellach stalking party. Out came the maps and after some searching at last we saw the magic name but no little black dot to mark the spot. “Are you sure about the place Ken?” “Dead certain” he replied, “we put the glass on it – the place is roofed – and I saw right enough”. The months slipped by and somehow my cycling trips out from the Sheildaig road-workers camp did not encompass the Bearnais Glen. I was however familiar with the Bendronaig road from a previous rough-stuff trip through Glen Orrin and by Patt Lodge (before Loch Monar was raised) with none other than famous rough-stuffian Frank Goodwin from Huddersfield.

Then the years slipped by and it must have been Easter 1966 that together with Brian Bunyan of Dalmellington and John Harrison (then MBA Treasurer) I set foot again in the district having been too far long away from Wester Ross. We negotiated the two taught wires over the rushing River Carron at Achnashellach, a sideways shuffle over the wide torrent, hand over hand along the top wire. Quite hair raising. Like the fools we were, we attempted a compass bearing through forestry plantation trees and found ourselves crashing through interlocking resinous branches and fording swollen burns and actually forced onto our hands and knees to maintain direction. At long last we found at path. Some path. Snaking steeply upwards and incredibly taking a line up to the rocky escarpment and with a final scramble through to the plateau. We three jolly boys then descended into Bearnais Glen and discovered with bitter disappointment a ruin. Sad it was. A wee bit of roof hanging on at one end with a few ceiling boards still in place, the rest fallen or blown away. All the ground was running with surface water and the burn was in an awful spate. Wet and crumbling walls. We contemplated camping but it was too wet and so we pushed on to camp up near the loch. We did not even take a picture of the place we had travelled all of three hundred miles to see.

The years slipped by and it was October 1972 that the Loch Carron map was again opened and Betty asked about Bearnais, and would you believe it, I tried to put her off. But like a bulldog she would not let go and it came to pass that we popped over one weekend to have a look. What shook me rigid was the smallness of the place. In my mind’s eye it was a gaunt ruin of a place, a bit big like Camban. We were more than delighted and got our mountain tent down into the deep snow for the morning survey. What a glorious morning, the account of which is given below.

The next clear memory I have concerns part of a letter from our General Secretary, Angus Spiers, addressed to Betty in which he asks “How do you do it?” A letter of permission had come to hand plus a generous cheque from the Landowner to start the renovations off.

Reproduced from Journal No 33, Spring 1975

The ‘Advert’ – March 1973

A fairly heavy covering of snow lay on the hills above Achnashellach when we arrived there on the Saturday morning. The local stalker gave us permission to go and saw that we were well equipped with mountain tent and all. The snow was heavy when we started up the path but it cleared and became quite pleasant. After 3¼ hours of steady plodding up and over the high ridge following the stalker’s path (the edges of which were just showing above the snow) we arrived at the site, and were overjoyed to find, not that big barn like building vaguely remembered from a previous visit in 1965, but a squat and compact little shell of a cottage. One good chimney; four window apertures; one doorway, (these latter with lintels still in place), and with two rafter triangles in place – just waiting to be measured! Apart from these no roof was left. Digging revealed only a turf and stone floor. The only wall to have suffered severe damage was the east facing gable wall which had a gap in it from apex to base where the former chimney flue had been.

The frost that night was very keen, so we were glad of the heat from the candle and primus in our tent now firmly erected in a pit dug in the snow.

Sunday morning was brilliant. We were up early to make the most of it. Photographs were taken from all angles. Measuring was a pleasant task under the strong sun in the setting that appeared almost Alpine. What an area, and what a day to be there. Work completed, we drummed up in the open and packed all our gear clean and dry.

Back at Achnashellach, we had another word with Mr Sutherland the stalker and learned something of the bothy’s history. The last tenant was actually born there – Mr McRae of Balnora. He lived there before the war and during the 1930s still walked over the hills with a pony to get stores. The roof was apparently blown off during a severe storm which also devastated much of the West Coast in the mid-60s.

If you can picture Maol Bhuidhe in your mind, you will have some idea what Bearnais is like. It shares with this bothy (its nearest neighbour) the sheer remoteness in an equally wonderful setting of lochs and mountains. Note the nearness of several Munros – Bidean a’C hoire Sheasgaich 3102 ft, Luid Mhors 3234 ft and 3190 ft, Sgurr Choinnich 3260 ft, Sgurr a’ Chaorachaain 3102 ft and Bidean an Eoin Dearg 3430 ft. Reach for 1” OS map No. 26. Bearnais’s ref is approx. 021431 set in a glen bearing its name. Note the hill path approaches. No road to the door here. With special permission heavy materials could be road-hauled to Ben Dronaig Lodge on the neighbouring estate and back-packed on the path to the loch and then overland to site. Near the bothy the old field would take a helicopter if our luck was in with the military!

So Bearnais is a repairable ruin. It will be a major renovation. The size seems to be right, and it would make a one room bothy with floor area somewhat bigger than Ryvoan.

From MBA Journal No 28 March 1973

The Workparty Reports

[The first part of the diary up to 7th April was lost in the post between the printer in Dumfries and the MBA Journal Editor (David Howe). Thus unfortunately the story begins well into the renovation and Betty Heath’s interesting account of the early work is not available.]

Monday 8th April 1975 – The heatwave continued.

Peter & Norma worked until midday on the new gable – now progressing very well – and departed for Thurso after lunch. Stephen [Heath], Sue and Chris cleared the large ditch immediately behind the bothy and built a rather fine retaining wall to prevent the banking above from crumbling. Later, joined by Neal [Parrish] they went out to Bendronaig Lodge for floor joists and cement. New arrivals today were Liz Bibby and friend, while Donald Stuart, who had overnighted at the site, returned to Bendronaig none the worse for his efforts. Dave Kingham, using a brand new garden spade kindly lent by Daonal, made great headway with a long ditch across the gentle slope behind the bothy which would catch any water coming off the hill and lead it to the burn. Lenny, Fiona, Anne and the rest of us managed to finish most of the interior pointing. We all enjoyed ‘Spotted Dog’ round the big fire in the evening.

Tuesday 9th April – Yet another lovely day

Liz Bibby and her friend toiled for many hours at carrying sand from the river, and the new gable gained almost a yard in height. Stores were beginning to run low and so Stephen and I went out to Lochcarron with the Landrover to stock up. The communal supply of tea and sugar was holding out quite well but the biscuits had taken it hard – especially since the arrival of Wit (Neal’s dog)! On reaching Strathcarron Hotel, we enquired about shopping hours at Lochcarron and discovered we had an hour to kill before opening time! Well where better to go on a scorching day than the hotel bar! Over half a pint of cider, some retired shepherds told us how hard it had been in former times to get winter feed to the few cattle then at Bearnais. In times of heavy snow, the only passable route lay by way of Glenuaig and then over the Bealach Bhearnais to the cottage. It must have been a struggle indeed. During the evening the five of us brought in stores and more floor joists from Bendronaig. Stephen and I who had been absent for most of the day were surprised to find that the others had constructed a temporary roof above the fireplace consisting of the two original triangles, some old purlins and a few salvaged sheets of corrugated iron from the former roof. At least we now had a little shelter should the weather change suddenly.

Wednesday 10th April – Hazy sun this morning and somewhat cooler.

The new gable wall was now almost at eaves height. The wooden lintels on the interior faces of the doorway and windows were given an extra coat of creosote, and the two back windows were each fitted with a frame. More sand and gravel was collected and the wall tops levelled off in readiness to receive the new wall plates during the summer. Meanwhile Wit, unaffected by all this industry, occupied a horizontal position in a sunny hollow. Now and again his curly dewclaws twitched as he slept and, although unaware of it, he was the object of many an envious glance. Sue Jardine of Grantown-on-Spey joined us this afternoon and thanks to Dave Wilson and his guitar we had a grand evening around the fire.

Thursday 11th April – A complete change this morning. Bitterly cold with a vicious east wind and snow on the hills!

As the doorway of our tent was now receiving the full force of the blast we were obliged to transplant it and it appeared that most other people were doing likewise. We decided to cook our breakfast within the walls of the bothy, hoping the temporary roof would afford some shelter but this was not to be. The fire raged furiously in the grate and the walls created a whirlwind effect which enveloped everything in choking clouds of dust – including our boiled eggs. Bernard, Dave Wilson and Edward Jackson of Glasgow walked to Bendronaig Lodge for timber, Perspex sheets and stores. Those of us who worked on the gable were forced to put on everything we had to keep warm, but fortunately the weather improved as the day wore on. Stephen and Neal positioned the door frame and the front window frame, while the now returned porters tackled the job of re-instating the front window lintel stone, accidentally dislodged when the walls were being worked on. After being set into a bed of cement, it was held in place by ropes until the cement hardened. The cement work around the window frames was completed and more purlins were creosoted. Dave Kinghorn went home today, little knowing how useful his ditch was to prove later on in the year.

Friday April 12th – Still cold but sunny

Stuart, Chris, Anne and Fiona fetched the door, a large table and creosote from Bendronaig. The gable wall builders announced a shortage of suitable stones and so a team was formed to select stones from the burn and carry them up. The perspex was fitted to the window frames and the heavy door was cut to size. Iron bars were set into the walls to act as anchors for the temporary roof, and the two dwarf walls which would take the floor joists were laid in using sand/gravel/ cement mix and a shuttering frame. The cracked hearth stone was also repaired.

Saturday 13th April – Bright, sunny and cold

Today saw the gable wall built to eaves height and fully pointed up. The temporary roof was wired down and the door finally prepared for fitting. A central bar was fitted to each window in order to support the Perspex, and a layer of cement laid along the wall tops. A rather fine, heart-shaped stone which we found in the burn was set into the corner formed by the walls above the right hand ingle seat as you face the fireplace. The floor joists were laid across the dwarf walls to form a make-shift floor and the temporary roof was anchored down with wire in the time-honoured way. The Easter holiday was nearing an end now and it was time to think about packing up. An inventory was made of the heavy tools and items to remain at site until the summer while all the other equipment was divided between Neal, Diane, Bernard and I for the final carry to Bendronaig. We joined Donald Stuart for tea and spent the rest of the evening and quite a large part of the following morning sorting out tools and materials, listing what was still in store at the lodge and generally making sure everything was left tidy.

We would like to thank the owners of Alladale and Achnashellach Estates for their courtesy and co-operation, and also Mr & Mrs Angus Beaton and Mr Roddie MacCrae for all their help and hospitality, and all who have assisted, whether at the site or elsewhere. Without you, Bearnais would have remained a ruin.

Reproduced with some editing and précising from MBA Journal No 34 Summer 1975

Friday 5 July 1975 – Fine breezy day.

We left Thurso about 10.30 and after various distractions, we drove slowly up to Bendronaig Lodge. The light was fading when we set out for the bothy and by the time we arrived it was dark and raining. The place seemed deserted and forlorn in the murk, but once inside the doorway we made out the huddled figure of Dave Dixon, who was taking what shelter he could from the scanty ‘temporary roof’. One cup of tea later we put up our tent on the exposed but well drained lump of ground which we had now almost come to regards as our second ‘home’

Saturday 6 July – Fresh, dry weather

The three of us made a couple of trips to Bendronaig Lodge for stores, timber and tools. Thanks to the efforts in June of Donald Stuart, two lads from Dorset, Diane and three Duke of Edinburgh Award boys from Glasgow, much of the materials had already been moved from Bendronaig to Bearnais and the new gable wall had virtually been completed. As we returned with our second load, tents were being erected, the Princess Mary’s Own 10th Ghurkha Rifles from Fort George had arrived with their Officer, John Patchett and a Mountain Leadership Instructor. After a chat and a quick brew, they were off up Sheasgaich. Rubble clearance from within the old walls that adjoined the new gable was started, and after a couple of hours we stoked up the fire and put on two large black kettles. A large fruit cake and a bottle of Johnny Walker were put on the table and within minutes we spotted the bright clothing of the Ghurkhas on the hillside – “Could they smell it?” we wondered.

Sunday 7 July – mainly dry with some occasional drizzle

The Ghurkhas and their officers went to Bendronaig Lodge early this morning and carried in all the remaining Onduline roofing sheets and nails. Dave Dixon and Peter Moffat brought in the last of the floorboards and Irvine Butterfield, a new arrival with Peter, commenced the building of the porch. Vents were cut into the wall to ventilate the area under the floor which Dave, Bernard and I were preparing to lay. The new chimney pot and cap were also set up, and as the fire did not smoke back any more than before this work was declared a success. Around midday, the Ghurkhas were off over the hill again, we had enjoyed their company and were sorry to see them go. As soon as they were over the ridge, the figure of their Commandant, Ian Leigh, appeared on the Achintee path. Unfortunately he had just missed his troops as they had taken the direct route to Achnashellach, not the Achintee path.

Monday 8 July – Dull but mainly dry

Anne and Edward Wakeling, Glaswegian Edward Jackson and Dr Bennett and his two sons arrived today. Floor laying and porch construction continued. Edward creosoted more of the untreated timber. While digging a rubbish pit a short distance below the front bothy wall, I came upon a well-worn silver 1922 shilling, of little value today but worth something when it was dropped there.

Wednesday 10 July – Wind, rain and mist ad lib

Our flysheet started to tear in the wind and the tent leaked a little! Edwin and I fetched 8 loads of sand before the river rose and engulfed the sand bank. He and Anne then built huge stepping stones across the burn, very useful to those with tents on the opposite bank to the bothy. Edward, Irvine and the Bennetts worked hard on the porch – now nearing completion – despite the rain and Bernard made a shuttering frame around the broken hearth stone. Soaked to the skins, the unfortunate Bennett family walked out to Lochcarron, to be replaced in our comfortless glen by an equally wet Jean Roberts.

Saturday 13 July – Showery but much drier on the whole

Denis Mollison had arrived and continued to point up the porch walls. Bernard and I took out surplus tools to Bendronaig and brought back cement. Who should we meet on the way, but Bill Mejury himself, his bike loaded to the gunnels. Now that Bill had arrived, the roof was sure to go on.

Sunday 14 July – Dull and showery

Bill surveyed the building and pronounced the work done so far satisfactory, and while Denis and Bernard went to Bendronaig for more cement, the temporary roof structure was removed and the problem of constructing the first roof triangle was tackled. The chimney stack is not central in the bothy’s gable wall, and so one leg of each triangle would have to be cut shorter than the other.

Removal of the temporary roof almost spelled out tragedy for a pair of wagtails – their little nest, complete with eggs, was concealed under the old corrugated irons at wall top height. They would have to be moved or get trampled by the roof squad. With infinite care, nest and all were placed in an old coffee tin, fixed horizontally and projecting from the back wall, with an off piece of corrugated iron fixed over the new home.

Monday 15 July – Cloudy, dull and showery, wind completely reversed and blowing from the east

Completed the roof triangles, fitted most of the purlins and 75% of the Onduline. Quite a day’s work for Bill

Tuesday 16 July- Heavy rain overnight but better weather during the day with a nice evening

Finished roofing the bothy and the porch. Peter Moffat and arrivals Roy Turnbull and Janet fetched gravel for the cement coping at each gable end and started to prepare the gable wall heads for this, while Bernard erected shuttering and mixed cement. Aluminium ridge brackets were cut to size and drilled in readiness for securing the ridge irons to the top purlins. Bill and Denis made a door for the porch out of spare floor boards and spent a pleasant evening on Ben Tarsuinn – just for a rest!

Wednesday 17 July- Best day so far, only a spit of rain now and again

Bill hung the main bothy door and fitted a stout latch that would not be out of place on a castle. The cement coping was completed today, and a rowan tree planted near the burn. Denis and Roy went over Sheasgaich for a night at Maol Bhuidhe. The wagtails are doing well in their new home, quite unaffected by their removal and the general upheaval.

Friday 19 July – Mist and drizzle all day.

Roy and Denis left for home. The roof was secured by passing wire over the roof spars and securing this to iron bars riven into the walls. Cement work was done on one window sill, the hearth stone and the porch step. The ‘walled garden’ to the north of the bothy was cleared of all remaining rubble and the entrance to this sealed with iron bars to prevent deer from destroying small trees to be planted at the outer end. Bill hung the porch door and fitted a latch and the two doors were varnished.

Saturday 20 July – Cloudy but dry

Janet and I left for Lochcarron, taking with us several items surplus to requirement at the bothy. After lunch at the Strathcarron Hotel and a shopping spree, we returned to Bearnais to see that a roof had been constructed over the tiny barn lying near to the bothy and the ridge irons had been secured in position.

Sunday 21 July – Brighter weather at first but atrocious later with high winds and blizzards of rain

Finishing touches applied to the cement copings on the gable ends and the remaining cement used for the porch floor and the chimney top. urfs were cut and laid on the wall tops of the ‘walled garden’ to help restore its original appearance and more general clearing up was done around the site. Bill and Janet began the long job of stapling lengths of fence wire to the ceiling spars on all four faces to deter vandals seeking easy firewood as has happened at Maol Bhuidhe.

Monday 22 July – Wicked weather

Bill and Janet persevered on the anti-vandal measures whilst Bernard and I put up two shelves and sorted all the stuff collected in the bothy. Outside the burn was in spate and everything was waterlogged. We ventured outside, and found only one wagtail chick left in the nest. It was definitely an evening for a big fire and ‘spotted dicks’ made thereon the while away the evening.

Tuesday 23 July – Mainly showery

Janet, Peter Bernard and Bill walked over to Strathcarron carrying out a dismantled scaffolding trestle and surplus tools. Two geologists who chanced to be working in the glen stopped by for a cup of tea and kindly carried out several packets of spare drive screws and other materials. When they left, I was on my own at the bothy for the first time since our arrival but the day was taken up with clearing around the site, chopping kindling for the fire, collecting bogwood from the loch and making a crude seat from heavy timbers. Bill and Bernard reappeared around 7.00pm bring a load of stores, nails and staples. At long last we decided to leave our little tent still sat bravely on its hillock and to join Bill in the warmth and security of the bothy.

Wednesday 24 July – Clear and sunny with few showers – a dramatic change in the weather.

Our tent began to dry out! Bernard excavated the approach to the porch doorway and discovered what appeared to be cobblestones. He swept these clean and spread fine gravel on the surrounding area which made quite an improvement. Bill carried on with the wire stapling and I made another bench from the old wall plate. That afternoon, we went over to examine the old shielings near the loch and the walk made a pleasant change after being inside for so long.

Thursday 25 July – Bright again in the morning, wet later

Bill went off to capture the Glenuaig Munros, Bernard and I made for Sheasgaich and Lurg Mor. On the first top the weather closed in and we only got a glimpse of Maol Bhuidhe. Beyond Lurg Mor, which boasted a fine cairn, we traversed a knife-edged ridge to a spot height from which we descended to Loch Monar down very steep slopes. Stopped by the riverside to rest our jelly-like knees and have a snack, the rain poured down and some distance away on the opposite bank, a fine herd of Highland ponies grazed, the leader keeping a wary eye on us. The rain redoubled its efforts as we plodded home over the pass and we were most grateful to return to the ‘miracle’ of Bearnais instead of a miserable sodden tent.

Sunday 28 July – Bright intervals and showers

Bernard went out to Strathcarron under protest with the last section of the ladder, a pick, a shovel and some excess roofing felt. I spent a while sorting out various other stores, then made up a load and followed him with Penny and Irvine for company. Bill completed stapling the wire across the beams while we were away and his arms must have been aching by the time the last one was hammered home. Altogether 16lb of staples were used for this operation! Bernard had left long before us, returned early to the bothy and met us walking out. When I returned our brave little tent was now hung over the rafters to dry for the first time since the start of the holiday. A large stack of bogwood had been collected and we had a celebration supper of spotted dick and fresh boiled potatoes around a great bothy fire before starting to pack for the final departure next morning.

Monday 29 July – Heavy showers again

Summoned up enough energy to rise at 9 am and tackled the last clear-up. Eventually we were ready to go. Bill left a little ahead of us and Liz, now the sole occupant, came out to see us safely across the swollen burn. Climbing slowly up the Achintee path, we stopped many times to look back at the little cottage, blue wood-smoke rising lazily from the chimney. Bearnais is a ruin no more, it lives again!

Postscript June 1975

It’s thought that one wagtail chick survived, incredible to think it was hatched and reared amidst all that disturbance. Bill Mejury, it has to be stated, only came to construct the roof – 2 or 3 days was the plan – then off on a cycling tour of the West Highlands. But he stayed on and on. The weather helped here, or was it the company? Towards the end he did leave (big send off) but he was soon back as he had left his wallet behind! That seemed to put the tin-hat on his tour and he stayed on banging in staples instead!

Reproduced with some editing and précising from MBA Journal No 35 December 1975

Compiled for the MBA web-site by Richard Genner, Nov 2015

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Mountain Bothies Association is a charity registered in Scotland, no. SC008685 and a company limited by guarantee and registered in Scotland, no. SC191425