A Scottish Dirtbag Tale by Graham Kelly

    I grew up in Scotland during the darkest of the Thatcher years, which started in 1979 and sadly continued until 1990. It was…





I grew up in Scotland during the darkest of the Thatcher years, which started in 1979 and sadly continued until 1990. It was a time where the Westminster Government introduced policies which made the working poor poorer and the idle rich even richer. She destroyed many industries, targeting those with strong union membership such as coal mining and steel production first.

I was one of the lucky ones who, having decided that college or university were not for me, avoided Thatcher’s unemployment lines by leaving school at age sixteen to start an engineering apprenticeship with British Rail, which operated the railway network throughout the United Kingdom. I was also lucky that my Dad had introduced me to the Scottish mountains at an early age and my childhood weekends were often spent exploring the mountains around Arrochar and Glencoe since these were within easy reach of Glasgow and offered a perfect environment for adventure.

In 1987, a book called Mountain Days and Bothy Nights was published and it was one of the first books that made perfect sense to me. It described a tradition and subculture of escape from the cities into the wilderness for the weekend and the use of basic shelters known as bothies, howffs and dosses. Bothies tended to be old cottages or cabins which were once permanent residences but as people had moved off the land these buildings had fallen into disrepair before being looked after by an organisation called the Mountain Bothies Association. Howffs and dosses tended to be natural features which had been improved by climbers to give a degree of protection from the elements. In hindsight, the terms “Weekender” and “Dirtbag” are easily interchangeable and are just both just labels for a style of living simply and spending as much time as possible in the outdoors. Given the lack of washing facilities in bothies, “Dirtbag” may have been factually more correct as well!


Inspired by the stories told within the pages of Mountain Days and Bothy Nights, myself and a bunch of liked-minded pals started emulating that style of adventure, with hitchhiking being the chosen method of transport as it was cost effective, environmentally friendly, since the van/car was usually going that way anyway and in most cases, the folks who stopped most likely had shared interests. We prided ourselves in being comfortable with the bare minimum of equipment. Another key focus of being a “weekender” was the bothy fire, which became almost as important as the mountain summits that had been the original aim. It was also in front of the bothy fire that we learned the art of drinking whisky. Whisky was carried since it offered the best “warmth” to weight ratio compared to the lower alcohol content of beer. Bothies couldn’t be booked and were open to all users. There were exceptions but for the best part, you usually found yourself sharing the fire, whisky and stories of adventure with folks who were strangers in theory, but who held the same values, beliefs and sense of adventure.

I’ve been asked many times why we chose to spend our time this way and the only answer I can really come up with was a deep feeling and sense of comradery. It didn’t matter where you came from, what you did or didn’t do for a living, where you were going, how old you were or how good a climber you were. All that mattered was you respected and contributed in whatever way you could to the community. Most of us returned to the life we were trying to escape on a Sunday night, as late as possible with plans to do it all again the following weekend.


As a “grown up,” I drifted away a bit from being a weekender. My sense of adventure was tempered by the pressures of obligation and responsibility. I tried to fit into an alien world of others’ expectations in terms of the cyclical nature of work, consumption, work some more to consume more, but it never felt right. Whilst many of my friends gave up and gave in, I struggled, and the echo of the mountains was never far out of earshot. To be fair, the others seem(ed) happy enough and we would never judge each other for choosing our own paths and lives, but theirs wasn’t mine and it wasn’t sustainable. I still escaped to the mountains whenever I could in search of the shared wild experience that I love so much.

In late 2011, I read the next book which would make a huge impact on my life, Born to Run. I sadly didn’t make it to the Copper Canyons in 2012 while Micah was lucky enough to make the journey from Glasgow to Urique in 2013. A bunch of apprentice Mas Locos met up in El Paso and shared a road trip from El Paso, Texas and hike into the Canyons. Despite the landscape being different, it was immediately clear that I was amongst family again. Over that week, bonds were formed that I knew would last for however many years I had left in my life. Deep in the Mexican Copper Canyons I had found the same appreciation of a beautiful landscape and sense of true community as I had found many years earlier in the Scottish mountains.

Later in 2013, after a couple of bad decisions …well one in particular, I made a fairly disastrous move to London. When the inevitable happened and I returned north to Glasgow with my tail firmly between my legs, rather than judging, my friends here in Scotland and a bunch of Mas Locos simply rallied to support. I got messages from around the globe with kind words, offers of places to stay and pretty much everything in between. The Mas Locos are often described as being a tribe and I will be forever grateful for being permitted to be part of that.

Late last year, plans to attend the tribal gathering known as the Born to Run Ultra Marathon were made with an excitable Canadian gal who I knew from the Copper Canyons trip. We shared a road trip through Death Valley and Yosemite on our way to the ranch at Los Olivos. To be honest, I was nervous since it would be the first time I had seen many of the folks since the trip to the Copper Canyons the year before and I wondered how it would feel. I needn’t have worried since within minutes, the time gap disappeared and natural order was restored. As well as catching up with folks, new friendships were made by with some people known through social media and many more from just sharing trail time, dancing, food and maybe even a dram of whisky.

When the time came to head back to Scotland, some reflection was inevitable. I was sad to be leaving but I knew I’d be back for more time with my tribe. Throughout the weekend, we really got a sense of what the best in humanity can be like. Simple, joyful times shared with great people with common interests. If only we could amplify that into the wider world, I truly believe it would be a better place.

To maybe illustrate a sense of what is possible, remember that excitable Canadian? After a road trip and week of living together in a dinosaur van, we found ourselves sitting sharing beers and pizza in Las Vegas and chatting about what our next big adventure could be. The idea of trying to make it a go as a couple came up and we both agreed that the only thing better than one Dirtbag is two Dirtbags together. The observant reader may make note of the obvious geographic challenge posed by the Atlantic Ocean but we prefer to think of it more as a puddle to be jumped across as frequently as we are able to, with new adventures to be had together on both sides of it. It has its challenges for sure but the shared belief in what is truly important in life makes it work.


In an age where we appear to be losing a sense of community, where cultural and economic divides surround us in much of daily life and the mainstream media are keen to highlight our differences, maybe being a Dirtbag, even if for only a short time, allows us to tap into a more basic and ancient sense of humanity that feeds the soul and allows us to continue to live in these crazy times.

Slàinte Mhath