Cabin fever: how Scotland is back in love with the joys of ‘hutting’

Bothies once offered a bolthole for urban workers. A legal change has revived them

Cabin fever: how Scotland is back in love with the joys of ‘hutting’
The long-established hutting community at Carbeth has succeeded in buying the land it occupies.
Photograph: Morven Gregor

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Cabin fever: how Scotland is back in love with the joys of ‘hutting’” was written by Tracy McVeigh, for The Observer on Sunday 15th January 2017 00.05 UTC

Dylan Thomas had one. So did Roald Dahl, Arthur Miller and Norman MacCaig. Virginia Woolf wrote her last words in one and Gabriel Oak had one in Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd.

Fishermen and shepherds have long recognised their value and between the wars they were promoted as boltholes, a means for the working classes to escape toxic cities for the good of their health. In Scotland, the hut, whether a mountain bothy or forest retreat, has long been part of both the scenery and the cultural landscape, immortalised in the “but an’ ben” of the Broons cartoon strip – a tiny two-room, one-storey holiday cottage.

But a toughening up of land access rights, a change in attitudes by landowners and tighter planning regulations led to the tradition of the rustic getaway almost disappearing, leaving just sheds for those with gardens, and holiday lets for those who could afford them.

Now a ‘hutting’ revival is predicted after the Scottish government signalled that later this month it will change legislation to exempt huts from building and planning rules, allowing people to put up these most simple of second homes in the countryside wherever they can rent or buy a plot of suitable land.

It is the end of a long campaign by enthusiasts and conservationists, who have been battling for years to re-establish the hutting tradition in Scotland. Karen Grant, from environmental charity Reforesting Scotland, has been working to promote the group’s Campaign for a Thousand Huts which has attracted interest from people all over Scotland and beyond. The group is working on good practice guidelines for the burgeoning trend. New groups of enthusiasts are springing up and architects specialising in small eco-buildings are reporting high levels of interest.

“Some people will just want to quietly build their own hut using whatever they can reclaim in wood and materials,” said Grant, “while others will want to have something designed and built. I know one chap who built his for £200 while others will come in at £15,000 – it’s a sliding scale in terms of cost. And so is the kind of hutting people want – part of a community, maybe, or else out on their own. The important thing is that it’s a simple human dream, to have a place of tranquillity, close to nature, and it’s absurd that it has been outlawed.

Launch of Reforesting Scotland’s planning guidance
Richard Lochhead MSP, left, at the launch of Reforesting Scotland’s planning guidance for new hut developments, with Richard Heggie and Karen Grant of the Thousand Huts campaign. Photograph: Michelle Lowe
“We’ve got a great level of interest from people who have just been waiting for this move so they can go ahead and establish their hut. The building and planning regulations are likely to exempt huts for recreational use that are of 30 sq metres or less, and they will be weighted towards the use of low-impact materials, generally off-grid.

“If you’re going to want a flushing toilet you’ll still be looking to apply for the right permission, but we’re hoping most people will be thinking of compost toilets or that kind of green thing, in keeping with the ethos of hutting.

“We will have to be careful and make sure this freedom isn’t abused: but our primary goal is improving people’s relationship with the forest and the environment while improving mental health and wellbeing.”

Already a pilot project with the Forestry Commission has started in Fife, on Scotland’s east coast, while a community of hutters in Carbeth, which has been established since 1918, has successfully bought the land it occupies to be held in community ownership.

Richard Lochhead, the Scottish National party MSP for Moray, was the cabinet secretary for rural affairs, food and environment until last year and played a key role in pressing the Scottish government to act on easing regulations after meeting with diehard hutters and seeing the impact on their lives.

“A renewed hutting culture in Scotland would be hugely beneficial because it will would encourage people, particularly in our towns and cities, to connect with the countryside and our spectacular natural environment. This can only help the nation’s health and wellbeing,” he said.

“There are clearly different models of hutting and we can learn from other parts of the world, such as Scandinavia, where having access to a hut or smaller countryside property is very common. In Scotland, there is potential for both private developers and community groups to play a role in establishing hutting communities, which would also help ensure their sensible use.”

And for those south of the border with a lust for a basic rustic retreat, there is no obligation to live in the country of your hut – “although we would hope their hut would be something people would use regularly, to build a deeper understanding of place, and so you’d maybe not want to live too far away,” said Grant. “It’s a lovely thing that many people dream of: we’ll just have to hope enough sympathetic landowners think so too.”

RAMSHACKLE SHELL TO GREEN GETAWAY

Chris Cunningham runs a guitar shop in Edinburgh during the week. At the weekend he is a hutter. He bought his getaway in a small off-grid colony of 23 huts on farmland near Peebles in 2011 when it was a ramshackle shell.

“It was a cold January day when my girlfriend and I went to look at it, it was falling to bits and had birds living in it. She turned to me as we were leaving and said, ‘you’d have to be mental to buy that’, but I was already sold. It’s given me something I never thought I’d have, I have a greenhouse and a little allotment there, and you have to constantly think outside the box about how to manage things off-grid. I’ve just devised a solar-powered watering system for the greenhouse.

“There is an ideology, the hutter growing veg and reading by candlelight, but also some who do use their huts as a bolthole for drinking and leaving rubbish about so I do worry there is a risk of how manageable sites will be if hutting is opened up to the masses. We’ll have to see how it pans out”

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