This is Part 2 of my bothy work party write-up. This part is about the bothy and the work. If you want to read about my planning and travel please start with Part 1.
I spent the first couple of days fixing the stone walls with lime mortar. This traditional product has advantages over cement-based mortars. I’m sure there’s a lot of science behind it – and there are many interesting webpages out there if you want to learn more – but the most important feature of lime mortar appears to be that it is porous; it allows an old, natural building to breathe and expel dampness from the inside through to the outside. Of course, this will only work if the mortar is mixed and applied properly.
The mix of lime to sharp sand had been worked out in advance by Jim and Pete and the Lime bucket marked with a fill-to line. Making up the mortar was a job for two or three people with spades cutting the lime into the sand then working their way round the pile of dry ingredients, folding the mix into the pool of water in the middle. It could have been done by one person but a three person folk dance was more entertaining.
Once the texture was “just right” it was time to apply it to the walls. I tried to keep the reason for this job uppermost in my mind; it was all about strength not cosmetic appearance. The mortar was to hold stone against stone providing strength from the floor all the way up to the roof. For each section of wall we’d brush out the crumbling old mortar, spray some water into the holes – always keep it damp! – find a suitably shaped stone to mostly fill the hole, spray it with water, tap the new stone as tightly as possible between the existing stones, then pack the gaps with lime mortar. Ideally, a newly mortared section of wall would be covered with wet hessian – especially if outside where the wind could dry the mortar out too quickly. At the very least we’d respray the wall later. Just a light mist of water to make sure it could dry out slowly from the inside rather than quickly from the outside. Before the mortar was completely dry we’d beat the surface with the bristles of a stiff brush; a milk churn brush to roughen up the surface and increase the surface area to make it more breathable.Like I said, there’s good science behind this and most of it was bewildering to me but I did feel that I was doing things the proper way that had stood the test of time for centuries.
In a big project it’s important to have people productively occupied at the right time. It’s good to have plenty of keen volunteers but sometimes there is nothing for them to do until the skilled workers have done the measuring, planning and fettling to get a task underway. I was there as an unskilled General Hand; keen but clueless, but the mortaring was a task that I could always return to in between other jobs.
While I was busy mortaring there were people working on the roof. The old roof had been completely removed and new trusses built before I arrived. Over the next few days the corrugated aluminium sheets were fitted in place. Sometimes, when I was mortaring on a platform inside the bothy, I could hear the roof-workers inches away on the external scaffolding and see the daylight slowly disappear as the roof became weathertight.
Once the roof was substantially complete, ie it looked like a roof although there was still plenty of work to do with chimney flashings etc, we could start building the internal ceiling and walls out of wood. This was the bit that I learned most from and found most rewarding.
Using tongue and groove boards – with several people on platforms or ladders and others down below, cutting, drilling and passing up the boards – we built a ceiling. We measured the boards from alternate ends of the bothy and cut them so that the ends of neighbouring boards would overlap rather than looking like a continuous split in the ceiling; predrilled the nail holes in the boards (but not in the joists, of course, or the nails wouldn’t have held); then nailed each board in place with lost head nails. Then, step back 4 inches and repeat.
Hammering can’t be difficult, can it? No, it isn’t, unless you’re doing it over your head and aiming for a tiny nail whose head you’re trying to neatly embed just below the surface of the wood. I got better with practice!
We had a busy production line of measurers, markers, cutters, drillers, nailers all working on the ceiling. At first I was just doing what I was told but it soon started to make sense and I understood why we doing things a certain way. It was great that I was given the opportunity to fully participate in the work, and the more experienced workers were very happy to teach me how to do things …. like saw wood. Again, that’s something I got better at!
After the ceiling was built we moved on to the internal partition walls. With two larger living rooms and a smaller sleeping room to build, we split into teams and I worked with Rebecca on the right-hand room (as you go into the bothy). Given that this type of work was new to both of us, I was pleased with how much I’d learned and with how we were managing to turn a bare stone building into somewhere that I’d be very pleased to spend the night in the depths of a bleak Scottish winter (or summer!).
Throughout the work I was picturing how the wood would look to a cold, wet hiker in the depth of winter. Fearing the prospect of our fine work going up the lum, I made every effort to sink each nail deep into the wood. The work continued for another week after I’d gone home and I was pleased to later see photographs of not just the completion of the work I’d been doing but also the little extras, like skirting boards, which make all the difference to the appearance.
To support the work on the bothy we had excellent domestic facilities. For a wild and lonely place we had some incredible luxuries. With so many people on site for a month-long work party we needed a toilet – which was basically a barrel in a wooden hut. Nothing fancy but it met the requirement. The shower – yes, we had a shower! – would not have been out of place in a B&B. Gas heated and with a choice of (environmentally friendly) shower gels, this provided a very pleasant start or finish to the day.
With the bothy unavailable as a shelter or bedroom, I slept each night in my tent. People self-catered their breakfasts but all other meals and tea breaks were provided by John in the group canteen. As a Vegetarian, and not wanting to complicate mealtimes for the majority, I had carried in 6 days food but was very happy to supplement my supplies with the team’s spuds, rice, veg and bread. We even had a fridge-freezer a few hundred metres away in a hydro scheme shed. Yeah, roughing it!
There was so much for me to learn on this work party but the most important question I needed an answer to was how to say Leacraithnaich. It’s something like LeCrannoch. The locals all seem to call it Teàrnait, after the loch, and there was some discussion during a tea break about whether the Ordnance Survey had given it the wrong name and whether we should really be renovating the ruin a couple of hundred yards away!
The tea breaks were an important part of the day. A cup of tea and a slice of Christmas cake gave us the opportunity to have a natter and enjoy the scenery and wildlife. One day, a white tailed sea eagle soared in giant circles off to the East. Of course, my attempts to capture it in a photograph failed but this was the first time I’d seen an eagle in the wild and I was felt so excited and privileged. The dry weather, which was good for us on the work party, had exposed Loch Teàrnait’s sandy beaches. It looked beautiful but the lack of rain was a cause of concern to the estate and our own drinking water burn started to run low – until the rain arrived on the day I departed.
The wildlife which made most of an impact on me was, unfortunately, the ticks. My one evening walk, after dinner, convinced me never to stray from the path again as I could see the little blighters waiting on my trousers until they could find a nice juicy bit of bare flesh to latch onto. I routinely brushed myself down before getting into my tent and performed tick checks morning and night. 5 managed to find a way through …. but they didn’t survive their meal. I’ve not had a tick for several years so either Ardtornish is a hotspot for them or it’s a good year (ie bad year) for ticks in general.
I really enjoyed my week on the Leacraithnaich work party. It was such a beautiful location in which to spend my holiday and I learned so much. At the start I’d have been happy to do the fetching and carrying and to be the tea wetter but I was given the support and guidance I needed to learn new skills and “get stuck in”. If I ever stay in that bothy I’ll know that not only did I help out at the work party but I mortared that wall; I built that partition; I made that ceiling. Of course, I did none of this on my own but it was good to be part of a team which achieved so much.
The aim of the Mountain Bothies Association is To maintain simple shelters in remote country for the use & benefit of all who love wild & lonely places. If you’d like to support this work please consider becoming a member or making a donation.