Gimme shelter: the Scottish bothies designed as artist retreats in the wilderness


Artist Bobby Niven and architect Iain MacLeod have worked together to construct three new bothies – traditionally minimally equipped shelters in the Scottish Highlands – offering subsidised retreats for artists in the rugged landscape


Words by Alyn Griffiths

At the centre of a forest clearing in a remote corner of Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park stands Drake’s Bothy – a former shooting lodge converted into a simple overnight shelter for weary hill walkers. Inspired by the back-to-basics experience offered by this and other similar structures dotted throughout the Scottish Highlands, Edinburgh-based organisation the Bothy Project is developing a network of modern bothies intended to host artists on short, rural residencies. These architect-designed dwellings provide a distraction-free setting for creativity situated among some of Scotland’s most inspirational scenery.

The Bothy Project’s first building was erected in 2011 at Inshriach Farm, just a few miles from Drake’s Bothy. The project was initiated by artist Bobby Niven who, having visited many traditional bothies and similar mountain refuges in Canada during his studies, wanted to recreate the sense of freedom and creative energy they provoked in him. ‘When I stayed in the bothies I was always sketching and exploring ideas in ways that felt more meaningful than if I was in a hotel or B&B,’ explains Niven over a beer at an Edinburgh bar. ‘I realised, though, that they’re not facilitated to stay in for more than a couple of nights, and wanted to try to prolong that experience.’

The Bothy Project’s 2011 prototype was installed on Inshriach Farm, though it wasn’t designed with any specific location in mind. Photo Credit: Andrew RidleyThe Bothy Project’s 2011 prototype was installed on Inshriach Farm, though it wasn’t designed with any specific location in mind. Photo Credit: Andrew Ridley

A grant from the Royal Scottish Academy’s Residencies for Scotland scheme enabled Niven to team up with old school friend and architect Iain MacLeod to develop a prototypal building that could make longer stays more viable. This first bothy was developed and partly fabricated without a site in mind, following an ad-hoc design process that involved marking out and refining a full-scale floorplan in the yard of Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop. Its proportions were determined by what would fit on the back of a lorry, and the building makes use of reclaimed sash-and-case windows from a flat Niven was renovating in Glasgow.

The Bothy Project’s 2011 prototype was installed on Inshriach Farm, though it wasn’t designed with any specific location in mind. Photo Credit: Johnny Barrington The Bothy Project’s 2011 prototype was installed on Inshriach Farm, though it wasn’t designed with any specific location in mind. Photo Credit: Johnny Barrington

‘In a way, it seemed counterintuitive to design a building without looking at a specific site or knowing the environmental factors, for example,’ recalls MacLeod, who currently works at multidisciplinary design studio OPEN in Edinburgh, ‘but it just became about stripping it back and trying to simplify details to create a robust, vernacular form.’

The resulting cabin features a pitched roof and corrugated metal cladding that references the agricultural architecture found throughout much of rural Scotland. The gable ends are covered with timber boards that add a contrasting natural texture, while details like concealed gutters help to achieve a clean, modern aesthetic. Inside, the tall windows flood a single room with natural light and provide views in all directions. Every inch of space is optimised, with the pitched roof adding a sense of height and allowing a platform bed to be accommodated above the compact kitchen and dining table.

The Bothy Project’s 2011 prototype was installed on Inshriach Farm, though it wasn’t designed with any specific location in mind. Photo Credit: Graham Niven The Bothy Project’s 2011 prototype was installed on Inshriach Farm, though it wasn’t designed with any specific location in mind. Photo Credit: Graham Niven

The bothy is in a secluded glade on the edge of the estate owned by former antiques dealer Walter Micklethwait, who rents it out for half the year using glamping website Canopy & Stars. The additional income from vacationers helps to supplement the reduced rates paid by the artists. The project has never received any form of core funding, and relies on artists paying for their own residencies, although some receive support from galleries, institutions and organisations such as the Southbank Centre and the Modern Institute. A review in a broadsheet newspaper shortly after its launch helped raise the project’s profile and, since then, demand has been high, with the bothy typically booked up for months in advance.

Inside the Inshriach Bothy a log burner and use of technologically advanced building materials mean the traditional thick walls are not required. Photo Credit: Bobby NivenInside the Inshriach Bothy a log burner and use of technologically advanced building materials mean the traditional thick walls are not required. Photo Credit: Bobby Niven

In 2013, Niven and the poet Alec Finlay submitted a joint funding proposal to create a second bothy on the Inner Hebridean isle of Eigg, to coincide with Creative Scotland’s Year of Natural Scotland initiative. The building’s design was inspired by a folkloric king called Sweeney, whose nomadic lifestyle and descent into madness on the island is detailed in a famous poem. It is positioned at the base of a steep, craggy bluff on a hillside that slopes down towards the sea.

With input from Finlay, MacLeod and Niven undertook a more typical design process involving site visits and careful consideration of the region’s volatile climate. Sweeney’s Bothy has a mono-pitched form that accommodates a platform bed beneath the roof’s apex. The entire west-facing elevation is glazed to make the most of the spectacular view. ‘Although it’s another quite vernacular form, the building on Eigg is about using materials to create a modern variation on this typology,’ MacLeod suggests. ‘A traditional bothy is more about shelter, with very small openings and really thick walls, but as material technologies have evolved you can now afford to have big openings with excellent thermal properties.’

Facilities are kept to a minimum, but tall windows ensure plenty of daylight gets in and provide views in all directions. Photo Credit: Johnny Barrington Facilities are kept to a minimum, but tall windows ensure plenty of daylight gets in and provide views in all directions. Photo Credit: Johnny Barrington

Despite its compact dimensions, the visual connection with the landscape ensures the interior feels spacious and bright. Looking out at clouds scudding over the mountainous island of Rum in the distance, it’s easy to see what an inspirational setting this space provides for visiting artists. According to Lucy Conway, who runs and maintains Sweeney’s Bothy, towards the end of a residency the walls are often covered with artworks and the floor spattered with paint. ‘It’s comfortable but it’s also practical,’ says Conway. ‘It’s really just a simple box that’s warm, light and makes the most of its setting. When people leave they’re always amazed by how much they manage to do here.’ Inshriach and Sweeney’s bothies both include basic amenities for heating the space, cooking, sleeping, working and reading.

The Sweeney Bothy was created to a proposal by Bobby Niven and poet Alec Finlay. Photo Credit: Bobby NivenThe Sweeney Bothy was created to a proposal by Bobby Niven and poet Alec Finlay. Photo Credit: Bobby Niven

Niven was determined that they should be off-grid and sustainable, so warmth is provided by wood-burning stoves, and a thick layer of sheep’s wool insulation ensures that heat is retained. Photovoltaic panels positioned discreetly outside generate a limited amount of electricity, and composting toilets are located a short distance away.

At Sweeney Bothy, its mono-pitched form accommodates a platform bed in the roof and the west-facing elevation is entirely glazed. Photo Credit: Johnny BarringtonAt Sweeney Bothy, its mono-pitched form accommodates a platform bed in the roof and the west-facing elevation is entirely glazed. Photo Credit: Johnny Barrington

The construction of the two bothies (carried out by Niven and a troop of volunteers) was documented in an online photo diary that gained the Bothy Project a dedicated band of followers. In 2014, the curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, Julie-Ann Delaney, who had followed this process on Facebook, commissioned a third bothy as part of an exhibition celebrating 25 years of Scottish contemporary art. Pig Rock Bothy was meant to sit on the institution’s lawn for the exhibition’s three-month duration before relocating to the Highlands community of Assynt, but the planned move fell through and the gallery retained it as a flexible space for events and educational programming.

At Sweeney Bothy, its mono-pitched form accommodates a platform bed in the roof and the west-facing elevation is entirely glazed. Photo Credit: Johnny BarringtonAt Sweeney Bothy, its mono-pitched form accommodates a platform bed in the roof and the west-facing elevation is entirely glazed. Photo Credit: Johnny Barrington

The design of Pig Rock Bothy is more experimental than the earlier buildings and was developed in part to take advantage of Niven’s interest in timber-framed construction. Its slanted form was informed by the windswept landscape of Assynt, where even sturdy structures often end up bowing to the wind. Translucent polycarbonate cladding allows light to penetrate and illuminate the interior, while also ensuring the framework remains visible from outside. ‘I think it works well on this site because it’s leaning away from the main gallery, away from the artworks,’ says Niven. ‘When you’re inside you feel removed from the gallery because you can’t see it but it still has the prestige of being on the lawn.’

At Sweeney Bothy, its mono-pitched form accommodates a platform bed in the roof and the west-facing elevation is entirely glazed. Photo Credit: Ellis O’ ConnorAt Sweeney Bothy, its mono-pitched form accommodates a platform bed in the roof and the west-facing elevation is entirely glazed. Photo Credit: Ellis O’ Connor

Each of the bothies constructed so far has a unique character informed by its setting and programmatic use. From the outset, the project’s intention was to create an expanding network of diverse residency spaces so artists can experience a range of locations and variations on the bothy typology.

The intention for the coming years is to continue growing the number of bothies in collaboration with different architects. There are plans for open-call competitions that will ensure future additions have a distinct look resulting from the creator’s unique response to the brief.

The more experimental Pig Rock Bothy was commissioned by the curator of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, to be part of an exhibition celebrating 25 years of Scottish contemporary art. Photo Credit: Bobby NivenThe more experimental Pig Rock Bothy was commissioned by the curator of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, to be part of an exhibition celebrating 25 years of Scottish contemporary art. Photo Credit: Bobby Niven

The Bothy Project’s proposed expansion coincides with a movement that could see small-scale architecture appearing more regularly across Scotland. Prompted by a campaign called A Thousand Huts, launched in 2011 by member organisation Reforesting Scotland, the Scottish government has agreed to revise building regulations to exempt huts and bothies with dimensions of up to 30 sq m. The legislative change, which the government has said should come into effect this year, would make the construction of huts easier and more affordable, although the buildings still require formal planning permission.

The more experimental Pig Rock Bothy was commissioned by the curator of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, to be part of an exhibition celebrating 25 years of Scottish contemporary art. Photo Credit: Johnny BarringtonThe more experimental Pig Rock Bothy was commissioned by the curator of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, to be part of an exhibition celebrating 25 years of Scottish contemporary art. Photo Credit: Johnny Barrington

‘The hutting movement means that Scotland is going to become a base for architects to experiment, and the Bothy Project will be a part of that,’ adds Niven. ‘What we’re doing is different because it’s not about ownership by an individual, but I’m glad they’ve achieved their objective of proving that people need access to nature, no matter their means or backgrounds.’

The exemption from building regulations will make it more straightforward for the Bothy Project to develop new sites, and also expedite another of the organisation’s initiatives, which will see it launch a prototype for a prefabricated cabin to be sold through the Bothy Project website (Stores). This structure is loosely based on the successful and popular design of the Inshriach Bothy, which the team feels combines the most ergonomic and efficient layout with the sort of vernacular aesthetic that will fit unobtrusively on any site. Its sales will provide additional support for the continued residency programme.

Pig Rock’s slanted form was informed by the windswept landscape of Assynt, its planned final destination. Translucent polycarbonate cladding allows light into the interior while also ensuring the framework is visible from outside. Photo Credit: Johnny BarringtonPig Rock’s slanted form was informed by the windswept landscape of Assynt, its planned final destination. Translucent polycarbonate cladding allows light into the interior while also ensuring the framework is visible from outside. Photo Credit: Johnny Barrington

Other plans for the Bothy Project’s future include applying for charitable status and seeking to appoint a residency programmer to promote links with institutions. With some 150 residencies completed to date, the organisation has already made a significant contribution to the UK’s cultural output. Its target of bringing bothies to communities across the country and perhaps beyond will give more artists and architects opportunities to immerse themselves in spectacular and inspirational settings. ‘The feedback we’ve received shows that there’s a need for this connection between the arts, architecture and nature,’ says Niven, ‘so we’re going to keep developing and allowing the platform to grow organically.’ In the meantime, Inshriach and Eigg await anyone with an urgent need to get creative in the countryside





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