The Angry Corrie 56: Jan-Mar 2003


The bothy politic

Ed. - Throughout the lifetime of TAC, those who have even occasionally lowered an ear close to the ground will have become aware of a low-frequency grumble emanating from one of the most unique and important areas of the Scottish hill world. Although the Mountain Bothies Association has long done much good work - crucial work, in fact - the traditional hammering of nails into roofs and hinges on to doorframes has at times been almost drowned out by the squabbling from within its ranks. Work has continued, and the bothy network has been maintained, but only amid all manner of ructions, factions and some very vehement feuding.

At various points it felt tempting to report on these disputes ("Shenavall shenanigans", perhaps?), as, for all the tedium of the internal politics, there is no doubt that the 99 bothies maintained by the MBA comprise a significant resource for the wider hill-tramping public. Bothies are in the public domain, basically. But TAC has tended to steer clear, partly out of caution - at least one of the disputes has involved the forces of law and order - and partly out of confusion, there being the age-old problem of not knowing who to believe, especially in a situation where every grouping seems to include a good many genuinely committed, honest souls.

The past year or so has however seen a further series of upheavals within the MBA, most notably relating to the "Slugain affair". This centred on the ruin in Gleann an t-Slugain north of Braemar, the proposed "rebuilding" of which (and consequent conversion into a usable bothy) was formally rejected at an October 2001 meeting of the MBA's Eastern Highland area committee. All bar one of that committee's members voted against, but this didn't stop the decision being overruled/ignored by the MBA's executive committee, which arranged funding for the scheme from the Cairngorm Partnership and SNH while continuing to talk up Slugain in the MBA newsletter.

A generous take on this might be to say that something got lost in transmission, but the outcry was considerable, the plan was finally abandoned (again), and the associated ill-feeling played at least some role in the wholesale regime change which befell the MBA at its AGM in Roybridge on 12 October 2002. Few of those thought likely to win the various up-for-grabs executive positions were elected come the day, and while the long-time chair Colin Scales had already indicated his intention to step down, his elected replacement, Lynda Woods, felt unable to take up the position. The chair duly passed to John Arnott, while Calum McRoberts was elected to fill the vacant post of general secretary. (For more specific detail on the changes, see the MBA's website, http://www.mountainbothies.org.uk/)

Several of the current MBA officer-bearers - and numerous of the foot-slogging, work-partying ordinary members - are regular readers of TAC, so this seemed as good a time as any to take a deep breath and plunge into the politics. MBAers from various different sides of various different fences were asked for a few hundred words about what has happened and how they see the association's future. It wasn't meant to be a comprehensive let alone definitive survey, merely an attempt to bring the issues more out into the open via a few people who worry about bothying and who are able to express these worries in a coherent and hopefully constructive way.

Five responses came in, and are printed below. Among those who declined to contribute (at least for now - it will be surprising if there isn't more on this come TAC57) were Colin Scales and Lynda Woods. The fact that Dr Scales felt unable to comment due to some kind of in-house - sorry, in-bothy - investigation (by no means the first in the MBA's history) gives some indication as to why the association has become so sadly riven in recent years.

Andy Mayhew (current MBA newsletter editor)

Over the summer I heard rumours that the MBA chairman, Dr Colin Scales, was planning a move towards a more "professional" organisation with full-time administrator(s) and, in time, the upgrading of bothies to make them more akin to simple hostels. In the September MBA newsletter he endorsed the election of a number of candidates who, from their nomination statements, seemed to have little - if any - experience of bothying. But plenty of experience of the Youth Hostels Association.

Meanwhile, many of those members involved at the front end of the MBA's work - those who spend a great deal of time (as well as their own money) in renovating and maintaining old buildings and who still appreciate the simple pleasures of a few days in a bothy, isolated from a maddening world - were becoming increasingly alarmed by Dr Scales' presidential style of chairmanship. It seemed to many (wrongly, as it happens) that meetings were being held in camera with ordinary members having no say in decisions. The "Slugain affair" did not help matters, suggesting an association ruled entirely from the top down. With further rumours that Dr Scales himself wanted the post of full-time administrator, the stage was set for a bloody rebellion...

As I expected, I was criticised for allowing the chairman to say as much as he did in the September newsletter. But I think that events have proven me to have been right in doing so - it brought into the open the obvious differences of opinion between Dr Scales and other senior members of the association and - I think - prevented some people from blindly following the chairman's recommendations. Whatever, it was mostly those candidates clearly in opposition to Dr Scales who were elected as trustees - the two exceptions declining to take up their positions. [Lynda Woods / Barbara Holl.] The MBA will adapt - as it must - to a changing world. But it will always remain a simple organisation, maintaining simple shelters, run by volunteers.

Noel Darlow (MBA trustee 1989-1998)

You'd think that a charity devoted to maintaining simple, unlocked shelters would be pretty straightforward. A bunch of volunteers with a shared aim get together, work out how to repair some bothy roofs, and that's about it. Trouble is, sometimes you fix one bothy and that's not enough. Whole vistas open up: irresistible dreams of national expansion, high-profile media interviews, cheering crowds in Tiso as you step up to receive honours for services to the outdoors world - and maybe a nice little pension to boot.

I served as a trustee in the MBA for most of the 1990s and was constantly amazed at the empire-building antics of the chairman of the time, Colin Scales. Every flimsy pretext, every twist on the truth was employed to push the MBA "forward" towards becoming a bigger, higher profile, more "professional" organisation. Crises were invented, referenda skewed, criticism neutralised. A creaking, top-heavy management structure was created - with our chairman seemingly at the centre of every web. As in all the best-run dictatorships, we were constantly told how clever and hard-working our leader was and how lucky we were to have him - not least by Colin himself.

The ground was being prepared. We would have open reviews where the unthinkable would be thunk. Ideas would be aired about improving facilities in bothies or charging overnight fees. Impediments to expansion such as our commitment to maintain open, unlocked bothies were quietly abandoned in the process of becoming a limited company. It was obvious that there was some kind of long-term plan which, rather dishonestly, was not being set out for proper scrutiny. It brings to mind the old adage about the frog: stick one in a pan of boiling water and it'll jump right out. Put one in a pan of cold water, bring slowly to the boil, and it'll gradually cook right through.

There was a great deal of over-reaction to relatively minor problems. Financial crises were invented but failed to materialise. The over-complicated management structure predictably became difficult to man, not least because several otherwise enthusiastic volunteers had become disillusioned and dropped out. It was almost as if there was a deliberate plan to create the impression of an inadequate voluntary structure creaking at the seams, unable to deal with the demands of its own success. The solution favoured by our chairman to all these self-generated problems was to abandon our voluntary ethic and create a paid managerial post with a salary of around 25k. You have to ask how, in a small charity whose annual expenditure is only 40k or so, you could justify this level of expenditure. Talk about the tail wagging the dog.

Coincidentally, Colin Scales was in the process of taking early retirement and, as it happened, we were fortunate that he was willing to consider a paid position with the MBA. An initial plan to advertise the job to all-comers was a disaster: several other candidates applied. Some curious back-tracking followed - with Colin stating that the committee was no longer sure if a paid post was a good idea. There were suggestions that we couldn't trust these people to have the necessary commitment - they might resign and move on to fairer pastures at any moment. Soon, he got over it and once again was pushing the line that Yes, we should create a paid position. Meanwhile, other applicants seemed to have drifted out of the picture.

Eventually, several trustees and/or committee members (it's hard to keep track of who's who) awoke from their slumbers, belatedly realising that, if it barks, yes it must be a dog. A major split occurred and Colin was very strongly criticised for attempting to create a paid post for himself. It became clear that, as long as the current board was in place, he would never succeed.

Which brings us to this year's MBA elections, and the opportunity to elect a new board. Colin first had to resign s chairman in order to be eligible for a paid position. So, he persuaded a "safe" candidate, Lynda Woods, to stand in his place, at the same time as making plans to bring some new faces onto the board of trustees. A whole raft of new, unknown candidates materialised with little or no experience of bothy work, most singing from Colin's hymnsheet: "I'm a high-powered management pro and you're all very lucky to have me". Indeed.

Helpfully, Colin named all his supporters in the election leaflet so that MBA members could identify them. That they did, voting massively against. Lynda Woods actually won her vote but appears to have seen the writing on the wall and withdrew without taking up her post. So, Colin and his supporters are out in the cold - and all by his own doing. It seems that turkeys really do look forward to Christmas.

Was Colin Scales cynically exploiting a powerful position for personal gain, or was it all just delusions of grandeur? Maybe he genuinely believes the MBA must move on to become a high-profile, professional organisation to rival the Youth Hostels Association and that, naturally, he is best person to take us there. Bad or mad, it doesn't really matter now. At least, by dealing with the threat, the organisation has shown that it's functioning properly.

Finally, let's not forget that the MBA does an amazing job maintaining open shelters for all to use. The organisation still needs and deserves our support and it's time to rally round. Who knows, it might actually start to be fun again. The newly-elected chairman and board of trustees appear to be committed to the traditional aims of the MBA. On the whole they seem pretty decent people. In the end that's all it takes: honesty, fairness, trust. Simple ideas, yet so difficult for some.

Mick Furey (ordinary MBA member)

I joined the MBA to support their work in maintaining "simple shelters". To read in TGO that some guy used a bothy as his own holiday home didn't seem right. [TGO Oct 2002, p6: letter from Frank Brook re a maintenance organiser using a room as his own, complete with ghettoblaster and locked door such that "at least three other walkers" were denied shelter.] I've met Frank Brook, and I've no reason to doubt what he says. He's an Olympic gold at snoring, but that's no reason for doubt. So for a member of the MBA management committee to reply in such a way in TGO makes me wonder what the hell is going on. The reply read like the PR stuff that Youth Hostels executives give out. [TGO Dec, p5: Peter King, Southerness trig fan and MBA trustee: "...visitors to MBA bothies may occasionally find a shed or even a room locked against them. This is done only to safeguard building supplies..."]

More disturbing is the current mess over the election of officers. In the last MBA newsletter, the then Chair, Colin Scales, used his "Comments" piece to advise us as to the candidates we should vote for, and at the same time slagged off some of the others. There's obviously been something rumbling in the background for a long time, because he's made various comments of a personal nature about these people. The editor stated that these were the Chair's personal views and not an attempt to influence the outcome. I guess he was trying to soften the impact, but he failed with me. He shouldn't have been put in the position of trying to explain away the reason for the diatribe in the first place.

I've no particular wish to get involved in the organisational side of the MBA, as I use bothies only infrequently, and then only as a means of staying close to the hill. I'd no more think of "bothying" as a pursuit than of hunting for the remains of crashed aircraft. I don't mind other people doing it, fair play to them if that's what they want to do with their time. So far as I'm concerned, so long as the MBA was ticking over that was good enough for me. But when the Chair intervenes so blatantly in an election, there's surely something wrong.

I was so annoyed by the whole thing that I swore that I'd vote for anybody but those recommended by the Chair. In the event, some of them were elected but immediately resigned from their positions. I understand that now there is a totally different crew at the helm, and one not likely to endear itself to the outgoing Chair. It's such a mess that I'm sorely tempted not to renew my subscription, although resigning would be a more positive action in this case.

Definitely a shoot-yourself-in-the-foot scenario, Dr Scales. I hope you're pleased with yourself.

David Gray (ordinary member)

As a member of only two years I am still coming to grips with the MBA, which since I joined has always had some major point of debate ongoing - grid references, elections etc. The thing which has made the biggest impression on me is the MBA having real problems relating to / communicating with both its membership and the wider hillgoing public. The Slugain debacle is a good example of how the MBA inner sanctum attempted to ride roughshod over any form of dissent. Yet during the formation of the idea for a bothy in that glen there had been no mention of it on the website or in the newsletter. Local MBA meetings were not advertised, so finding out that the project existed was a revelation. Even the neighbouring estate was not informed.

It seemed to me that the MBA view was that if they, a small number, wanted the bothy and the estate agreed, then that was enough. This approach fails to recognise that there are many both inside and outside the MBA who may have a valid opinion on the suitability of a bothy in a particular location.

For me the way forward for the MBA is to communicate effectively with the membership and the wider hillgoing public. Only then will the work parties be full and the MBA controversy-free. Having been involved in non-MBA bothy work for some years I think that much energy is wasted in the MBA debating spurious points of order etc. It's time to convince people that you do not need to be a headbanger to be active in the MBA and its main purpose is in fact the provision of simple shelters.

Richard Webb (maintenance organiser, S Scotland)

I have been involved with the MBA for 15 years now, and things have changed quite a bit in that time. The association has been faction-ridden and torn between groups with differing visions for its future. Now the latest change has possibly returned the association to its foot soldiers, those who maintain the buildings. Previous reforms led to a business environment with the usual buzzwords. The budget swelled and swingeing membership-fee hikes were imposed. (This led to our household switching to just one membership instead of two.) Expansion in numbers of buildings and increases in the standard of refurbishment along with new sources of income led to a much expanded budget. Sadly this led to a split between the pointing-trowel wielders and the accountants. It was as if you needed the other sort of MBA to be in the MBA.

Something had to give, and after the several instances of conflict between the area committees and the central management it became obvious that a change of direction was needed. The outgoing chairman used the newsletter to tell the membership who to vote for and the membership, with a mind of their own, voted elsewhere. The approved slate, rumoured to comprise disaffected English YHA types, was routed. It appears that control was back in the hands of the pointers and slaters.

So what of the future? Never have I been so unsure of the future direction of the organisation. The last AGM was a real turning point, but I doubt that the truce in the traditional squabbling will last much longer. There are also some big challenges:

The next year is going to be interesting, but there is a great feeling of optimism amongst the membership. The last area meeting I attended was quite a joyful affair, but for the future to be sustainable the MBA must remain true to the new spirit of openness and, above all, resist the temptation to overstretch itself.


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