The group agreed to take over and repair the property, allowing the hermit to stay there — providing walkers and others looking for shelter for the night could also stay. However, according to author James Carron, not everyone was made welcome at Strathchailleach. Ill health forced McRory Smith to leave the bothy for good around and he moved into a caravan at Kinlochbervie Harbour.
After a short illness he died in at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness and was laid to rest at Sheigra. McRory Smith was one of 15 siblings but did not keep in contact with his Dumbarton family, although three of his sisters and a nephew visited him in after discovering his whereabouts from a story in a national newspaper. Only four of his siblings are still living but the oldest, year-old Winnie, is to attend the family reunion. The family gathering in Kinlochbervie has come about after relatives watched a film, Bothy Life, which was screened in the New Year and included a section on Strathchailleach.
It just all snowballed from there. Bobby Smith contacted the MBA which put him in touch with Mr Tateson and the two have since corresponded by email to organise the gathering, which takes place next weekend.
When they get back they are going to have a meal and a party. While at Strathchailleach, the family will be able to see what remains of artwork McRory Smith painted on the bothy walls.
If McRory Smith had still been in residence at Strathchailleach he would no doubt have taken a dim view of the increasing numbers of people seeking shelter at the bothy. Mr Tateson, who checks on Strathchailleach every two months, said: With the two children from his marriage entrusted to the care of their maternal grandparents, he returned to Scotland, a broken man. He made no contact with his family, choosing instead a life on the road. He slept under the stars, or found shelter in bothies and abandoned cottages.
In the winter of , he reached Sutherland. The north coast was close at hand; soon the ground beneath his itinerant feet would end. James found refuge in a former schoolhouse west of Durness and made a little money doing odd jobs on the Keoldale Estate. But there was resistance to his occupation of the building and he was pointed in the direction of Strathchailleach. The cottage at Strathchailleach was probably built sometime in the s.
It first appeared on census records in and remained occupied by shepherds until the turn of the century. Thereafter there is only vague evidence of occupation suggesting the last permanent residents moved out in the s.
Occupying a shallow trough, it is built from rough stone and lime mortar. Back then, as today, it had an iron roof.
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Inside James found two main rooms and a small bedroom. There was no kitchen and no bathroom. All who had gone before him took their water from the Strath Chailleach river. There may have been some rudimentary items of furniture, tables and chairs used by shepherds who occasionally stopped over.
He wasted no time in adding to these, spending much of his time foraging through the flotsam at Sandwood Bay. Wooden fish and fruit boxes formed the basis for much of his furniture and they were a ready source of fuel for the fire. James also cut and dried peat from the moor. The eastern room became his main sitting room while he slept in the backroom.
His diet consisted largely of fish caught with a rod and line while snared rabbits and the occasional deer also found their way into his pot. It was a simple life and James enjoyed few luxuries, other than cigarettes — his favourite brand was Capstan Full Strength — and a wee dram or a can of beer. High Commissioner whisky and Carlsberg Special Brew were his drinks of choice. James McRory Smith's painting of a lady with harp at Strathchailleach. Content in his reclusive ways, James gave his own reasons for moving to Strathchailleach in a rare newspaper interview published in I moved to this area when I decided to drop out of the rat race.
Now my life is perfect and I would like to stay here forever. The only trouble is that I keep wearing out my wellies.
There is little doubt he harboured a great love of the countryside. He spent many hours tramping the hills around the bothy and cultivated a keen interest in the birds and wild animals that were his only neighbours.
He read, listened to the radio and painted; some of his murals remain to this day on the bothy walls. Life at Strathchailleach may have been simple but it was lived at the mercy of the elements. Storms and blizzards could confine James for days on end while heavy snowfall rendered the weekly trek into Kinlochbervie for supplies an impossible task. For many years he survived unscathed, then, in the winter of early , a fierce storm tore a hole in the west gable and he was forced to move out.
Enquiries were made after James failed to turn up at the Post Office in Balchrick to collect his pension. Over time it was assumed he had died and the June issue of the MBA Newsletter records that in June , Bernard Heath and his wife Betty heard from police that James had not been seen for 18 months. They visited the bothy and found it in poor shape. Now, with him gone, the organisation drew up renovation plans. However, James was not dead. Word filtered back to the MBA that he had been squatting at Gorton bothy.
His other movements during the month period of absence remain a mystery but what is known is that he returned to the north only to be arrested. At Dornoch Sheriff Court he was sentenced to three months in Porterfield Prison, in Inverness, following a series of alcohol-related breaches of the peace. There he managed to broker an audacious deal with the MBA that would enable him to return to Strathchailleach.
In January , the MBA agreed to proceed with the project on this basis, fearing that without intervention the cottage may be lost. A work party was scheduled for Easter and this proceeded as planned, with James playing an active role. While he has never caused trouble, please let us know if any problems arise from this arrangement. Problems did indeed soon arise and worrying reports started to filter through to the MBA hierarchy, revealing members were being denied access.
James had reneged on his word. Stories told by those who visited Strathchailleach vary considerably; some were refused entry, while others found him to be very hospitable. Prolonged drinking binges were a common theme of his later life, suggesting he was not always entirely happy in his own company, far less that of others. An uneasy couple of years followed. Members planning trips to the area were warned they might not be able to use the bothy while efforts were made to negotiate a solution.
It is hard to say exactly why James went back on his word. Prior to the renovation, most visitors found hospitality rather than hostility at Strathchailleach. It is possible that following its addition to the MBA list, visitor numbers rose. There are other factors to consider too. James had experienced problems with outdoor activity groups, particularly wilderness survival courses aimed at the business sector. On more than one occasion, he found himself in conflict with these groups, as a conversation with Francis and Janet Whittington, who visited the bothy in , revealed.
There were incidents where groups, struggling to live on meagre rations, ransacked Strathchailleach. This may have been one of the reasons why James had little respect for official associations, even if he did seek their help in times of crisis.
One of his closest friends, Sallie Tyzsko, said he considered Strathchailleach to be his home as he was there first. The MBA did renovate the cottage and helped to maintain it. Some believe James made a promise he had no intention of honouring. There is no doubt the MBA was the only organisation that would have undertaken the renovation. Keoldale Estate had no use for the property and James did not have the resources necessary to undertake the repairs himself. His failure to abide by the agreement soured the relationship between the two parties and tarnished his reputation with many in the hill-going community.
Resentment remains to this day. With no amicable settlement on the horizon, the MBA was forced to admit defeat and, in , Strathchailleach was dropped from the maintenance list. But James was not to live out his days there. In , with his health deteriorating, he was forced to move into Kinlochbervie. Winnie Kilpatrick says he never settled there and in the spring of , he was admitted to Raigmore Hospital, in Inverness, where he died on April 20, aged Four days later he was laid to rest at Sheigra Cemetery.
It also stands as a lasting memorial to the old man who, for over three decades, called the cottage home, weathering all the storms that brought with it.