The First Workparty – Tunskeen 1965

(This account by Bernard Heath of the Association’s first project is taken from our anniversary book Mountain Bothies, Celebrating 50 years of the MBA.)

It doesn’t seem like ten years ago that I sat in the ruins of Tunskeen watching the Civil Defence men and Boy Scouts disappear from view – heading home to Dalmellington. The first ‘on site’ tea brew was over and the volunteers, some twenty strong, had done the first ‘carry-in’. But the work party plan then came unstuck as the two nameless gentlemen from Halifax failed to turn up and they were to bring up the tools and provide transport. At that time I had only my bicycle. I grubbed around in the debris of the bothy and eventually found an ancient worn down pick head. With a crude make-shift shaft this implement served its purpose in the dig out for the new gable wall foundation. I should have framed it.

After a day of working alone with that primitive tool, early darkness and hunger forced me to pack in and light a fire. I must say that this Tunskeen place was very much an open bothy from the start – open to the four winds and sky at one end. The west gable had collapsed and taken part of the roof with it. Since the chimney flue had been in this wall, my fireplace was now obliged to be in the middle of the old tiled floor. After a brew and a big cook-up I sat crouched at my open hearth with the whole of the interior alive with the dancing fire light.

Unknown to me at the time a party of young scouts were taking it rough on the Merrick and were descending downwind in some disarray. One lad out in front spotted a blink of light far below and shouted the others on. For me the first sighting of this boy was dramatic. Like an apparition on an elevated stage of rubble he appeared lit by the flickering fire and with a back cloth of total darkness. I was momentarily startled – but gathering my calm, seconds later bade him enter by the door. He disappeared suddenly to stumble round the building the long way round to make his entry. The others soon followed – some six or seven – all soaked to the skin like drowned rats. We soon had the fire stoked up. Did they think I was a tramp, or the Devil himself stoking up for the next sacrifice? The two leaders arrived at last, but in no time at all the boys were organised and lines fixed with dripping clothes hung up and pints of tea knocked down. Then the Spotted Dick session began. Two large frypans smoked and dollops of off- white (porridge-like) stuff was spooned in to spread with difficulty across the pans. The pans were dithered from time to time to prevent sticking and the contents tossed like pancakes until brown (black) on both sides. They were very good. So good in fact that I enquired for the recipe and got it – but sworn to secrecy never to disclose to others the secret ingredient ‘X’.

In a day or two I was joined by Brian Bunyan who was really co-opted by his older brother who knew what was going on at Tunskeen having been in before with the Civil Defence party. Strange to relate they came in together over the moor and I put the glasses on them, would you believe it – they too had bicycles! By jove, the work fairly progressed from then on. We panned sand from the nearby stream and later made the long trip to Loch Macaterick returning with better finer stuff and now and then a fish supper to boot.

And so the gable grew daily, slowly at first and then more rapidly as the taper commenced. We stuffed some concrete into that wall and lots of old fence irons, wire and old bed frames. Higher up we found our home made Heath-Bunyon scaffolding was a bit stretched so we built one bed frame into the gable wall to stand on and reached with ease the apex at what seemed a dizzy height at the time.

A fine perch for birds of the outside

A high and useless shelf on the in

A monument to our inexpert efforts, hurray!

That bed frame is still there today

A notable visitor was Frank Goodwin – he came trotting over that moor, with his bike on his shoulder, cyclo-cross style, and he stayed on for a day or two. Then we had the Rover Scouts who turned up most weekends to help the task along and ply us with stores.

About the third week, there was an accident. A kettle full of boiling water was tipped over onto Brian’s foot. A nasty scald. But he refused to go home. We got a huge sulphonet burn dressing from the District Nurse in Dalmellington and later when I was changing such a dressing the entire skin came off the top of the foot right down to include the tops of his toes. Brave lad Brian. He hopped about for another week and helped us get on with the work by taking over all the domestic duties and the one legged jobs.

The task completed – it was a good ‘bodge’ for amateurs like us – we helped Brian hop some four miles to the road.

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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