This year has been one like no other. With restrictions on foreign travel, the typical summer holiday abroad in the sun has just not been possible.
But that’s no reason to miss out on having a break. Instead people have been turning to the possibility of holidaying closer to home. This has given local businesses the opportunity to showcase what’s available only a few miles away, from the produce grown to the beautiful landscapes ready to explore.
I was invited to spend a weekend at Cairngorm Bothies, near Aboyne. These six self-catering bothies – each named after “something or someone pertinent to the area” – are nestled at the easternmost edge of the Cairngorms, where the rolling farmlands of Aberdeenshire meet the pine forests of the Highlands.
Each of the wooden bothies is built on stilts sunk into the forest floor. There’s no Wi-Fi and only four plug points, with electricity provided by a bank of solar panels in a nearby field. Visitors are encouraged to limit their use of electricity and technology during their stay, and instead invited to “spend time soaking up the jaw-dropping sights which surround”.
To me, this sounded like bliss. At a time when the news has felt relentless, I was excited to be able to escape from it all for a few days.
Upon arrival at Ghillies Bothy, I was surprised at how roomy it is. Unlike the traditional bothies found on Scotland’s mountains, Cairngorm Bothies are far from basic. The bothy comfortably sleeps four – ideal for families or a couple – and is also dog friendly.
Clean, welcoming and comfortably furnished, the main living area has a small fully equipped kitchen, dining table and chairs, and a trundle bed. The wood-burning stove sits in pride of place, and everything needed to keep it alight is provided. As there’s no heating, the stove is key to keeping the bothy cosy on cooler nights.
Leading through the short doorway (watch your head!) on one side is the bathroom, with a surprisingly powerful walk-in shower, WC, sink and heated towel rail.
The bothy’s water supply is sourced from a nearby well and is fresh and safe to drink.
Through the other door is a small bedroom containing a double bed.
The front door opens directly out to a stunning view of the forest. Outside the bothy there’s decking with a wooden picnic bench and barbecue – perfect for whiling away these autumn evenings.
One of the attractions of staying here is the abundance of walks that begin right at the bothies themselves. We walked a circular route to Tomnaverie Stone Circle. The recumbent granite stone circle is set on a small hill near the village of Tarland. This fascinating Bronze Age monument also serves as a magnificent viewpoint of the surrounding countryside.
In more recent times, a Cold War bunker was built into the hillside, right under your feet.
The nearby Muir of Dinnet Nature Reserve is also well worth a visit. We walked the circuit around Loch Kinord, where you can see the remains of an Iron Age crannog – an ancient dwelling built on wooden piles driven into the loch bed. Ideal for nature lovers, we spotted greylag geese as they arrived to weather out the winter months. We saw only one elusive red squirrel during our weekend, but the Cairngorms is home to a healthy population of this protected species.
After all that walking we were ready to eat, and luckily there’s a great choice of restaurants only a short drive from the bothy. We visited The Boat Inn in Aboyne, which has friendly, attentive staff and a bustling atmosphere, despite the recently introduced coronavirus measures. We enjoyed its hearty pub grub, in particular the rather special pheasant served with dauphinoise potatoes – a tasty example of its locally sourced seasonal menu.
Back at the bothy, we set up the stove for a cosy evening once the night drew in. The stove took a while to get going, but once it was roaring, it kept the bothy snug all night while we sat reading and playing board games.
The most magical moment of the trip was when we went outside on to the decking to look at the clear night skies. The seclusion of the bothies means there is minimal light pollution. Punctuated by the dark silhouettes of the pine trees, I have never seen such a clear view of the stars. We even saw a meteor streaking across the sky.
Waking up on my final morning in the bothy, I felt reinvigorated. Our forest retreat was just the tonic needed during a year that has felt never-ending. Far away from the bustle of the city, we relished the chance to relax in a safe, isolated setting where we could forget about our anxieties and enjoy the moment. And in such uncertain times, it’s these little moments that count.
Click here for more information on Cairngorm Bothies and to make a reservation