Nestled deep in the heart of Britain’s wild spaces; beneath looming crags and on secluded shorelines, small shelters lie camouflaged against a backdrop of uck and earth. Flickers of amber glimmer in the darkness and the air is filled with the smell of wood smoke, funnelled down the glens by the cold winds of winter. These shelters, or ‘bothies’ as they are called in the United Kingdom, offer precious accommodation for those with a love of wilderness and a desire to explore.
From the slate covered fells of the Lake District, over the frozen munros of the Cairngorm Mountains and all the way to the northern most reaches of the British mainland, the UK’s bothy network has spread far. Unlocked and free to use, these shelters are tirelessly maintained by volunteers from the Mountain Bothies Association who, with help from landowners, have restored the buildings from their previous lives as crofter’s cottages, farmhouses and stalkers huts, and converted them into arguably one of the outdoor community’s most valued assets.
Bothies provide a refuge from the vast terrain that surrounds them and have rapidly become an iconic feature of the British landscape over the past fifty years. They are synonymous with the outdoor experience in the UK, and word of their existence has spread, attracting people from all corners of the world.
Black Dots is a photographic exploration of Britain’s mountain bothies. What began as mere curiosity quickly grew into fascination; and it was this very fascination that remained a constant driving force behind the project.
Black Dots is the result of almost three years spent exploring Britain’s most remote landscapes in an attempt to better understand what these buildings are, where they’re located and the culture that surrounds them. I was drawn not only by the primitive beauty of the bothies and the landscapes they sit within, but also the human element to the bothy story. I wanted to capture the faces of those who trek for hours to temporarily inhabit these spaces, many miles from the nearest settlements.
What I discovered was a rich and diverse community of all ages, from day trippers to seasoned mountaineers. At Kearvaig bothy on the weather-beaten coast of Cape Wrath in Northern Scotland, I met Jake, a 19-year-old from Chicago. With one bag and a fishing rod, he’d hitchhiked his way through the country, caught a water taxi and hiked over miles of peat bogs to reach Kearvaig “because he could”.
We shared the bothy with an older gentlemen, also alone, who had walked across the Cape for much the same reason. We sat around a crackling fire, sharing whisky and stories before retreating to our sleeping bags, with nothing but the crashing of the waves and the bellows of a Stag to fill our ears.
Fleeting encounters with strangers is for me one of the highlights of bothying. The individuals in Black Dots all shared the same shelter with me, we cut firewood together and grumbled about the weather. We all sat and shivered, laughed and exchanged tales of past days in the hills. The following morning, we’d shake hands, wish each other well and disappear into the mountains once more.
The work took me on a pilgrimage through Britain’s most magnificent wild spaces and served as a reminder to how fortunate we are to have practically uninterrupted access to such beautiful landscapes. I experienced 60mph gusts high up on the Cairngorm plateau, sheltering behind boulders as spindrift charged into my side. I sat and watched huge herds of deer pick their way through the glen below me, and stood alone on tiny islands off the West coast as giant storms rolled in from the ocean.
Black Dots was photographed entirely on a large format 5×4 camera system. Operating a large format camera on location is such an enjoyable, therapeutic and almost cathartic process and is a world away from the digital workflow I adopt in all of my commercial work. It’s slow, considered and in the case of Black Dots encouraged me to give the landscapes and the people the time that they deserved. I’m drawn to the aesthetic properties of colour negative film, and when paired with the way in which these cameras render a scene, it seemed to me to be an obvious choice.
There is a degree of controversy surrounding the promotion of bothies, due to a fear that they may become too popular, resulting in an increase of litter and damage to the surrounding areas. It’s important to remember however, that these buildings are there to serve everybody. We all have the right to enjoy the landscape and to experience a night in a bothy, yet we also have a duty to ensure they are protected and preserved for future generations to enjoy.
The longevity of these ‘stone-tents’ relies heavily on bothy-users following a code, which is outlined on the MBA website. My hope is that Black Dots not only documents bothy culture as the MBA pass their 50th anniversary, but also that the work will generate a wider dialogue celebrating the relationship between humans and the wilderness in the 21st century.
Words and Photography: Nicholas White
To see the full series and to watch the Black Dots film, please click here.