Why on earth would anyone want to escape to a hut for the weekend?

Lesley Riddoch explores the joys of hutting…

What’s the attraction of living without running water, electricity, a road to the door or a fridge? Where’s the mystique in having a Calor Gas-fired ageing stove? Who fancies waking up in the night and wondering if the noise on the roof is a mad axe-man, a herd of clog-wearing elephants or just mice?

For 7 glorious years I did. I rented a cabin after a serious of professional accidents brought me to Glen Buchat, 45 minutes inland from Aberdeen.

My “bothy” was owned by a local farmer and had been occupied by a farm labourer and his family until the 1940s. It had a great roof but no electricity or running water. Without human occupation it had become the domain of animals. It took years of weekend work to make the bothy wind and water tight … and several summers to realise nothing would ever make it animal-proof. The bothy forced me to get re-attuned to the patterns of nature. Rabbit fur and bones under the duvet simply meant the polecat had been in again. A wedged shut door just meant there’d been heavy rain, causing the wood to swell. Cows wandered outside day and night – part of their cattle trough also served as my makeshift fridge.

Sometimes I was chuffed at my ability to chop up wood. Occasionally it was easier to heave a log indoors and just keep pushing it into the fire. I had to deal with a dead sheep in the (empty) outdoor toilet – collapsed pointing in the hardest to reach upper section of the prevailing wind-facing wall and near constant problems of dampness –bedding had to be hauled up and down with every visit.

I’ll be honest. The only time my husband said he had second thoughts about the wisdom of getting hitched was climbing the hill to behold the bothy.

But all these difficulties were minor. The constant delight was waking up in hills way above the farms, tractors, fields and houses of Donside with a direct view south to Mount Keen and behind me a ridgetop walk over the Ladder Hills. Practical tasks could cheerfully last all day, all night in summer – even all weekend.

I loved the freedom and the adventure. And I knew only a handful of people who felt the same. When I was sufficiently persuaded of the merits of country life to move permanently from Glasgow to “the country,” I let go of the bothy and moved to a small house with a garden in rural Perthshire. It was filled immediately with my responsible, serious self and worldly possessions. My balance of tame urban dwelling and wild country living was over. I had once again become a sensible, tamed Scot.

Bu the experience never left me.

Since then I’ve always wondered why so few Scots have huts, cabins, bolt-holes and mountain retreats.

Part of the reason – of course — is guilt. How can anyone justify owning or renting a second home when so many young locals struggle to find first homes. Isn’t it greedy to have two places to live – even if one is almost uninhabitable by “civilised” standards?

Eventually I started to see the “problem” differently. In a relatively empty landscape like Scotland we are reduced to fighting over scraps of land. There is enough land to accommodate far, far more people in all sorts of huts, cabins, mountain cottages and seaside shacks. So why are Scots squeezed into the three yards between the road and the lochside – why won’t Scottish landowners sell small patches of land? Why don’t Scots seem to demand it? Why don’t the authorities protect hutters trying to fend off the threat of eviction?

It took a chance visit to Norway to discover hut heaven.

Norway has one of the highest rates of second home ownership in the world with a holiday home for every ten Norwegians. There were 429,093 holiday homes in 2010 (plus 55,000 owned by Norwegians abroad) amongst a population of just 4.9 million people. More than half the Norwegian population has access to a hytte for relaxation, connection with nature, exercise, escape from city pressures and strengthening family ties. Some are very fancy – most are very basic huts (hytter) – wooden versions of my old stone bothy. Few have running water (with freezing conditions half the year pipes would simply burst) though some now have electricity and most are custom built with sensible central wood burning stoves not gable-end chimneys. They are close enough to reach every weekend – and the hytte habit is not a sign of poverty as it still seems to be in Scotland. Quite the reverse.

Grieg composed in a hytte. King Haakon rallied public spirits in the post-war rationing years by taking the public tram to the ski slopes above Oslo. Gerhardson Norway’s first Prime Minister was regularly pictured in hiking gear.

The father of the nation, explorer and humanitarian Fridhof Nansen articulated the national preoccupation with the great outdoors;

“The first great thing is to find yourself, and for that you need solitude and contemplation: at least sometimes. I tell you, deliverance will not come from the rushing, noisy centres of civilization. It will come from the lonely places.”

Hiking, fishing, ski-ing and hunting are part of the Norwegian ideal — to lead a simple life outdoors (friluftsliv). That ideal is made possible by having a hytte – and that’s made possible by the historic absence of large aristocratic estates. Norway is one of the world’s most equal societies, but having a second home isn’t regarded as elitist, greedy or wasteful. Actually the family hytte is often regarded as the really permanent home – in contrast to the “temporary” first house which may change many times over a lifetime to suit the changing demands of work, family and finance.

In the rest of Scandinavia and across the Northern latitudes the same attachment to cabins exists.

In 1991 there was one cabin per 12 Swedes, one per 18 Finns and one per 33 Danes along with relatively widespread cabin ownership in Russia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain and other parts of central and Southern Europe as well as the northern states of America and Canada.

Scotland is alone in having the lowest rates of second home ownership in Northern Europe – and even lower numbers of basic wooden cabins.

I’m now half way through a PhD jointly supervised by Oslo and Strathclyde Universities to try and explain why. During the 1920s and 30s working people from Norway and Scotland alike escaped the pressures and squalor of urbanisation by building huts around the big cities.

Norwegian efforts blossomed into a mainstream national “cabin” culture by the 1950s. In Sweden the state even awarded grants for hut building fearing workers with newly acquired holiday rights might otherwise spend their spare time drinking. But in Scotland cabin efforts just fizzled out. In 2000 only 630 huts remained in Scotland – most without rights of tenancy or improvement.

Since then almost all have been evicted with the exception of Carbeth whose hutter residents raised almost £2 million to achieve a community buyout of their land this year.

Does it matter? There has been landowner resistance to cabins and huts in the Scottish landscape for centuries. That resistance has now generated indifference and even self -harming hostility to nature amongst many urban dwellers. Is it a coincidence that Scots have the lowest rate of hut ownership in Europe and the highest rates of problem drinking? If urban Scots can’t physically “escape” the pressures of modern life is it any wonder there’s a dependency on “chemical” release? The majority of Glasgow pupils aren’t even sure that eggs come from hens – is lack of connection with nature to blame?

I don’t know – but I’m absolutely sure the hilltop hut calmed me down, boosted confidence in my own practical abilities and put every human problem in a bigger, wider perspective.

Couldn’t we all do with that?

 

See the report ‘Huts and Hutters in Scotland’ published by the Scottish Executive in 2000 for background on traditional Scottish hutting.

 

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