The Bothy Project Neighbourhood Residency – Part 1

What better way to start this blog than by sharing the experience of my 6 days & 7 nights Neighbourhood Residency at the Assynt Arts Study at Glencanisp. The Bothy Project’s Neighbourhood Residencies offered nine participants from three areas in Scotland the opportunity to spend time in their local ‘bothy’ with a view to share, discuss and reflect upon themes of specific importance to them, and their communities. A bothy is a small hut or cottage in Scotland, especially one for housing farm labourers or for use as a mountain refuge, although all the bothies and studios in the project are a lot funkier than a traditional mountain hut.

For me having being accepted on this project meant to finally get some much-awaited time for immersion, reflection, and developing plans for some projects around nature connection and nature spirituality in Assynt and the wider North-West Highlands of Scotland. It was also a chance to look back on my relationship with this landscape as 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of my first visit to Assynt. I still remember my first impressions – awe, a sense of incredulity about its remoteness and admiration that people actually lived here. Seven years later, in 2008, I came to live and raise a family here, with my husband, who grew up locally. While not born and raised here, thirteen years into Highland life, this is truly ‘my place’ too. 

So how did I prepare for this week, or what plans did I have? Well, one challenge was to get my head around how much planning I felt I should/would like to do. I knew my overall theme, did I really need any more? As a project manager by trade letting go of to-do lists and deadlines was challenging, because who would want to waste such an opportunity by not deciding on tasks and goals? Even if not planning every minute, surely at least some objectives needed to be agreed upon with myself?

In the end I had a somewhat vague list of ideas, but being very busy the days before the residency started meant they were never sorted, prioritised or tidied up. And so I found myself with that list, a quickly thrown together bag of clothes, lots of food (husband to me: ‘are you going to spend all your time eating’?), a laptop and a phone, two books, one journal and my favourite fountain pen at my bothy. I was an impressively sunny Friday afternoon in April with what looked like a  glorious weekend, weather-wise, ahead.

I’m the kind of person who needs to unpack, settle in, straighten things out, get my bearings, read the space (also literally read – if this had been a self catering property for rent I would have looked for the ‘info booklet’ of house rules and recommendations). But in this case I knew the building, I knew the surroundings, I had visited here often, not to stay, but I had passed through many times, so my first mission was to move from the passing through attitude, to the being here mindset. It needed a different arrival, especially in the light of that messy, vague to-do-list. 

So I started to walk, with no real direction, although I was avoiding uphill, let’s be honest about that, which meant I would inevitably go downhill, to the side of the loch. Was I already taking the path of least resistance? Maybe allowing myself to take the easy route was the first concession to my true aspirations.

The key defining part of this landscape is a mountain, the most iconic mountain in the area, Suilven. Uniquely shaped, especially from the angle you can see it at this location, domineering, in your face. The Arts Studio is on the way to this special mountain and as I had entered my abode I had glimpsed the first sight of it through the side door and from the window in the little alcove where my bed was. Suilven in this place is omnipresent, it’s BIG nature (not big actually in mountaineering terms, although it looks deceptively big, but definitely big in character), and yet I had come to this week to reflect on little nature. I wanted to explore the much more accessible experiences, ideal for anybody not able or interested in scaling the peak of a mountain.

And maybe because of this strong contrast this was exactly the place where I had to dwell on the matter, and also dwell IN the smaller scale landscape, right on the doorstep of the big one. All of that dawned on me as I was drawn to the sit spot for the week, a sloping stretch of rock on the loch shore, covered in a wonderful variety of lichen. The mountain on one side, the sparkling loch with a backdrop of Scots Pines on the other side, and on the third side, a bridge. Somewhat worn and wonky and wobbly, leading into the wild of a week of the unknown – to be embraced, rather than project managed.

Since this blog post was first published a series of podcasts have been published, where participants of the bothy project neighbourhood residency are sharing their experiences:

Scotland Outdoors Podcast: Bothy Culture – Using Bothies to Reflect and Connect

And the bothy project‘s own series of three podcasts about the neighbourhood residencies: