|A bothy in the Scottish Highlands|
Way ahead of the political parties Ramblers Scotland has published its manifesto for next year’s Scottish Parliament elections. There’s lots of good stuff in it on access and conservation but the proposal that’s been attracting attention is one about developing hut trails. Ramblers Scotland says that while there are bothies these rough shelters are not appropriate and don’t offer the facilities many people require (there’s no mention of camping). Instead Ramblers Scotland would like to see long distance trails with simple huts like those in Norway and New Zealand that have wardens and offer facilities such as toilets, mattresses and stoves.
|A self-service hut in Norway|
This is a contentious proposal. Where would these huts be? Along current official long distance routes? Surely not as you can already stay in accommodation along these. On unofficial routes like the Cape Wrath Trail? A hut system would destroy the challenge and nature of that trail. Along new trails? Where would these be? Up in the hills? Through the glens? Overall I think this is an impractical idea that could actually do damage to wild lands.
|Inside a self-service hut in Norway|
I have experience of hut systems in many countries (though not New Zealand where I’ve never been). I’ve spent many nights in Norwegian huts as I used to lead hut-to-hut ski tours there. The simple huts far from anywhere don’t have wardens, except for a few popular huts at peak holiday times, and rely on users respecting them. There are food supplies which you pay for along with the accommodation fee in a box in the hut. ‘Huts’ – the name is inappropriate - with wardens are found on or near roads and railways and are often huge with hundreds of beds. They have all facilities including a meal service. Bunkhouses, hostels and hotels already provide this type of accommodation in Scotland. There may be a case for more of them in some areas but not in the hills.
|Finsehytta in Norway|
One of the joys of the Scottish hills is freedom – freedom to wander at will, freedom to sleep where you want, freedom to plan your own routes. I’ve talked to walkers from countries like Germany and the Netherlands who’ve come to Scotland precisely for those reasons, citing the hut systems in the Alps as off-putting. Scottish mountain traditions are different. We should keep them that way.
A hut system in somewhere as small as Scotland would require rules and regulations and would inevitably place limitations on these freedoms. Many years ago I walked the GR20 long-distance path in Corsica. It’s a superb route but it is controlled. There are huts a day’s walk apart and you have to use these or camp just outside. In Norway, where the wild lands are vast and the people few, it’s easy to wander away from the huts, which are only found in some areas.
|A hut on the GR20 in Corsica|
Popular bothies already have a problem with litter and, occasionally, vandalism. What would happen to huts in the hills? Would they be wardened year round? Locked at times? Who would be responsible if someone turned up in a storm expecting shelter and finding none? Would there be a membership system as in Norway, with keys issued?
In the Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern USA there are many lean-to shelters. In many places hikers are required to use these or else, as in Corsica, camp nearby. There are no wardens and the shelters in popular areas, such as along the Appalachian Trail, have problems with overcrowding, litter and general over-use.
|A lean-to shelter in the White Mountains of New Hampshire|
Huts make hiking easier but take away some of the responsibilities and adventure. I’d hate to see them in the Scottish hills. More accommodation for walkers beside roads and in villages – maybe some of those estate lodges closed for much of the year could be used - would be fine and really would encourage greater economic benefits for local communities, one of Rambler Scotland’s arguments for hut trails, but no huts in the hills please.