Home Outdoors

Someone recently asked me how I created an article from scratch. What was my ‘process’? To tell you the truth, the answer was woefully inadequate and tangential. It should have been easy. Find the story, do some digging, check your facts, write it in the same structure shared by Adie or Waugh or Churchill. Finally, deliver the number one message in a catchy headline: Man bites dog.

I haven’t published for a while. Instead, I’ve spent my time being inspired by others, researching my next projects and thinking. The plan was to write about outdoor superstars. On the final evening of the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival, Swiss über-athlete Ueli Steck took the stage. Until recently he held the Eiger Nordwand speed record at a scalding 2h47 from bergschrund to summit. To accomplish such a notoriously dangerous route at speed needs single-minded masochism and 100% conviction.

Louisa Rodriguez and Simon Buckden

Louisa Rodriguez and Simon Buckden

However, rather than discuss those to whom all the accolades filter, I wanted to talk about sport for development. This ties in with planning the legacy from the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, as well as a role I’ve taken on as mentor for Sported, which has its origins in the 2012 Olympics and aims to transform the lives of disadvantaged young people. I’ve also been reading about the use of sport in Rwanda to repair divided communities as the world remembers its massacre 20 years on. In more general terms, I’m fascinated by how group outdoor activities assist individuals and communities to grow stronger, remember their similarities and become more equipped for the future.

My inspiring subject this month is a couple from Leeds who’ve done something very punchy. Like Ueli, their endeavour required devotion, planning and buckets of optimism. I’d like to introduce you to Simon Buckden and Louisa Rodriguez. In March they ran from their home in Leeds to Downing Street, a total of 216 miles in a week.

You may be thinking that yes, this is a long way to run and needs a high level of fitness. Or you may choose to compare it to the headline-grabbing explorers – whether Ranulph Fiennes or James Ketchell – who travel infinite distances across sastrugi-covered poles and mind-twisting deserts with enormously heavy rucksacks. And there’s not even a pub at the end. The classic adventurers inspire because they take something that might seem physically impossible, but try their hardest to destroy everyone’s assumptions including their own.

The couple from Leeds had a different motive for their outdoor journey. It was to bring awareness for their recently-formed charity, Positive Action for PTSD. Simon is a survivor of multiple traumas and is not afraid to stand up and be honest, thereby helping himself and others. He and partner Louisa aim to educate everybody to remove stigma relating to witnessing and surviving traumatic events, to show that it’s not the preserve of the military, and to highlight the amazing things can be achieved by those who’ve suffered. It’s a wonderful mission.

My gran used to say ‘least said, soonest mended’. And my hope for 2014 is that this is no longer the case. The history of enlightenment shows us that ignorance and persecution can be followed by commonality and acceptance. You can trace this path with the ‘C’ word – from stigma, through medical trials of the nineteenth century, past the 1913 founding of the American Cancer Society, to this disease becoming something about which we talk and support openly. A physical impediment cannot be a reason to not be invited to participate, and nor should mental health, sexual preference, colour, race or gender. The only possible reason to exclude is apathy.

Most people can appreciate the physical endurance it takes to run back-to-back marathon distances. A journey of 216 miles is tough, especially without motorcycle outriders and marshals in fluorescent tabards. On the first afternoon, Simon got lost in the rain outside Sheffield. And I can appreciate how, day after day, the impact of each mile, furlong, lamppost and stride really starts to bite. It takes real mental strength.

The couple ran a strong communications campaign. They contacted all the press, used social media continually, met with the lord mayors of the towns en route and were greeted by MPs on arrival to the Big Smoke. And later that day the run was mentioned in Prime Minister’s Question Time. Having since spoken to Simon, I know that this is only the start. Like real sportspeople, they have the passion to take their vision global.

At a personal level, it wasn’t the run or the media effort that inspired me most, nor that they did everything with a small team and very little money. It was a book that they carried. Weeks before, they had asked as many people to share their stories of trauma and survival. Among the writers were ex-policemen and prison officers, victims of domestic abuse and road traffic accidents: a terrible catalogue that makes for grim but important reading. As a survivor of mountaineering incidents, I also contributed. Simon and Louisa ran with that book, showed it to everyone they met and delivered copies to ministers.

But it wasn’t until they kicked off the physical challenge that I appreciated the symbolism. They had printed very private stories, some of which had never been shared, to be taken on a street-pounding journey to Westminster. Simon and Louisa helped bring the extraordinary tales of ordinary people into the light, and perhaps helped, in some small way, to turn down the volume on the original memories with the new narrative of their odyssey. No speed mountaineer could humble me in this way. Like the daughter who wears a message to her mother as she warms up before the Race for Life, or the family who turns up to watch the returning Royal Scots Dragoon Guards parade from Holland Street to George Square, it felt like the perfect act of redemption.


NWNick Williams may be known best for his Pocket Mountains guides to the Highlands and Islands, but he has also trained as a mountaineering instructor and has thirty years of experience climbing all over the world. He organised the first international expedition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan and written a memoir, Jagged Red Line, which describes adventure and trauma in the Caucasus. Nick works as a coach and consultant, specialising in resilience for individuals and organisations. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust was founded in 1964 by Sir Charles Connell, an Edinburgh lawyer and keen ornithologist. He brought together a small team of experts and enthusiasts who were inspired by the wildlife trust movement already under way in England. Within two years it had started a network of local groups and acquired its first reserve, a small woodland in Ayrshire. Since then it has grown to become one of the major environmental organisations in Scotland with 120 reserves, 35,000 members, a staff of about 100, 20 local groups and over a thousand working volunteers.

Puffin on Handa

Puffin on Handa

Most of its reserves are small patches of woodland, marsh, bog or moor, close to where people live, so that wildlife and human life are not seen as opposites but as part of the same natural world.

But the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) also has some large and spectacular reserves – the Loch of Lowes with its famous ospreys, the Falls of Clyde with its peregrines, the Montrose Basin for migrating geese and the isles of Eigg and Handa on the west coast.

This year the Trust is also celebrating the first five years of two important wildlife projects. It has re-introduced native beavers to Scotland after an absence of 400 years. There are now 15 beavers living wild in Knapdale in Argyll, the subject of an experiment to see what effect they will have on the local environment.

SWT LogoThe SWT has also been heavily involved in the fight to save the red squirrel and there are signs that this native species is holding out well against the grey invaders in the marginal lands of the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway and South Ayrshire and in the more northerly battlegrounds of Perthshire and Aberdeenshire.

The Trust has also branched out into wider campaigns to save Scotland’s landscape and marine environment. Its “Living Landscape ” project in Coigach and Assynt has recently won a £100,000 lottery grant to plant trees, restore bog and moorland and create footpaths. The idea is to link wildlife territories across a large and diverse area of the countryside. It’s also been campaigning hard to have marine protected areas established around Scotland’s coast.

Rabbit in AssyntSWT volunteers were recently invited to a reception in the Scottish Parliament, acknowledging their role in campaigning and working for the environment.

Along with the other conservation organisations – RSPB, WWF, John Muir Trust, Friends of the Earth – the Wildlife Trust has been influential in driving Scotland’s environmental agenda.

Its chief executive for the last ten years, Simon Milne, is a well known figure on the environmental landscape and has established the SWT as one of Scotland’s most respected institutions. He now goes on to the prestigious post of Regius Keeper at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.

His successor as chief executive is Jonathan Hughes who began as a ranger on the SWT reserve at Loch Fleet in the 1990s. Since 2009 he’s been the Trust’s director of conservation. He takes over with this disturbing thought in the latest edition of the Trust’s magazine:

“ We have entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. We are living through an era of profound changes to the planet’s biosphere, changes which are happening almost entirely due to the influence of human activity. It is within this context that the Trust faces its next 50 years.”

For details of your nearest SWT reserve: www.scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk

Scotland’s wild places need to be protected

The John Muir Trust has welcomed the result of a Scottish Natural Heritage public consultation on its core wild land map, describing it as a “resounding endorsement” of the proposal to step up wild land protection. According to its analysis of the 410 responses received:

80 per cent back the wild land map
14 per cent oppose the map
6 per cent are neutral

John Muir Truse LogoIn the view of Stuart Brooks, chief executive of the John Muir Trust, “the scale of support for the map and the eloquence of the responses underline how passionately people value Scotland’s wild land.

We would now urge politicians of all parties to come together to support the map as the next step towards protecting Scotland’s world famous wild land from unsightly and ecologically damaging development. In particular we would ask the Scottish Government to include a reference to the wild land map in the draft National Planning Framework, which is now being scrutinised by parliamentary committees”

John Hutchison Stop the "mass industrialisation of our wildest landscapes"

John Hutchison
Stop the “mass industrialisation of our wildest landscapes”

Hundreds of individuals and dozens of not-for-profit organisations, including environmental charities, councils, community groups, and national bodies such as SportScotland and Historic Scotland have thrown their weight behind the wild land map.

John Hutchison, who chairs the Trust, stressed that the map was about protecting wild land from energy corporations and landowners intent on exploiting it for profit. “As one of the main driving forces campaigning for the map,” he explained, “the John Muir Trust would emphasise that this is not about preventing small-scale development of renewables or other infrastructure by communities and local people.

“This is about stopping the mass industrialisation of our wildest landscapes under tangles of turbines, pylons, road and power sub-stations. These developments might generate lavish profits for landowners and distant shareholders, but they create few if any jobs for local people.”

All of the responses can be downloaded from this page on the Scottish Natural Heritage website.

Scotland’s favourite bird
[Photo by Jon Nelson, Creative Commons]

The Scottish Parliament has heard an appeal to make the Golden Eagle the national bird of Scotland. It came from the RSPB’s Duncan Orr-Ewing and wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan. During his comments to the Petitions Committee, Mr Buchanan called for an end to the “persecution” of the birds in Scotland, arguing that he along with others was “astounded” that both shooting and poisoning took place.

The petition was first lodged in December by RSPB Scotland. Mr Orr-Ewing described the bird as a “true bird icon of Scotland”. He pointed out that many highland chieftains wore an eagle feather, as did the Royal Company of Archers. With only 431 pairs of golden eagles remaining in Scotland, he added that this represented “the whole of the UK’s breeding pairs, and it is regarded as a Scottish species.”

There was an objection to the plan from the Conservative MSP, Jackson Carlaw. He pointed out that the eagle had been used as a symbol both by the Roman empire and later by Nazi Germany. In his words, “The golden eagle is the symbol of an empire that once invaded large parts of Scotland, and more recently of another empire that tried to.”

He went to say that it was “a symbol of imperial power of which Scotland is emphatically not, never has been, and hopefully never will be.” He asked why another national symbol was needed and suggested that the robin would be a better candidate. However, the Committee agreed to take the proposal forward and it will now go out to public consultation. It follows a similar appeal for the Scots pine to be designated as Scotland’s national tree.

A report published by RSPB Scotland last year said there had been a “significant number” of occasions where birds of prey had been illegally killed in areas managed for grouse shooting. Just last month, police in Angus appealed for information after tests showed that a golden eagle found dead there had been poisoned.

Last year, as part of the Year of Natural Scotland, the eagle came top in a poll run by Scottish Natural Heritage and VisitScotland to find Scotland’s favourite wild animal.

Highland estates – call for ‘radical reform’

The question of land reform causes hackles to rise – on both sides of the argument. On the one hand, there’s a certain resentment that so much land in Scotland is owned by so few people. On the other, much of the land in this country is so poor that few people would actually want to own much of it.

Scotland needs a  'fairer distribution of land'

Scotland needs a
‘fairer distribution of land’

But when Scotland’s environment minister, Paul Wheelhouse, said on a BBC Scotland documentary that MSPs would fail the people of Scotland if they do not reduce the dominance of large, traditional sporting estates, then the reaction was inevitable. In the programme, he doubted whether “anyone would design a system where you ended up with only 432 people owning half the private land.” He went on to say the he would have designed a system “where you ended up with such a concentration of wealth and ownership in such a small group.”

Even before the programme was broadcast, the land owners went of the attack. For example, the chief executive of Scottish Land and Estates, Douglas McAdam, said that “from what we have seen in advance of this programme, the contribution of estates is questioned by those who are opposed to their existence.

“The reality however is that estates do make a very substantial social, economic and environmental contribution. A recent survey of a cross section of our membership recently revealed that their combined investment plans in rural development projects are in excess of £820 million. Our very conservative estimate is that across the membership that figure would be well in excess of £1 billion.”

Jamie Stewart Director Countryside Alliance Scotland

Jamie Stewart
Countryside Alliance Scotland

Much of the debate about land reform in the Highlands revolves around the role of the large estates in ‘country sports’ – hunting, shooting and fishing. It prompted Jamie Stewart, director of the Scottish Countryside Alliance Director, to point out that an independent study had found that “Scotland generated £240 million pounds (GVA) from shooting and shooting related activities in 2004/5 and further reported that the sector supported 11,000 jobs. PACEC (Public and Corporate Economic Consultants) have been commissioned to repeat the study in 2014 with significant indications of growth on the previous study.”

“I am unaware of many sectors in the UK, never mind Scotland, that can report growth in the wake of the country’s greatest post war economic crisis; this growth can, in part, be accounted for by the sustained investment of those who own land and create employment. To break up the sporting estates would only serve to reduce localised employment opportunities and the knock on economic downturn it will surly lead too.”

Alex Hogg Scottish Gamekeepers Association wants 'clarification'

Alex Hogg
Scottish Gamekeepers Association wants ‘clarification’

The chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, Alex Hogg, immediately asked for ‘clarification’ of the minister’s comments. “It seems,” he said, that the voice and the jobs of working keepers, who are at the sharp end of the skilled management of Scotland’s countryside, are being forgotten in this debate. We will be seeking clarification from the environment minister on what the Scottish Government, and the leading SNP administration’s intentions are, when it comes to safeguarding the jobs of those drawn into what seems to be an ideological issue.”

By contrast, the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association, welcomed the idea that land reform was being placed higher on the political agenda. Its chairman, Christopher Nicholson, insisted that land tenure had been “cast into the long grass for too long and we look forward to some radical proposals from the Land Reform Review Group whose interim report dramatically shied away from any consideration of Scotland’s land tenure structure and tenant farming. We also welcome environment minister Paul Wheelhouse’s commitment to a fairer distribution of land and hope that the Scottish Government will now look towards creating a fresh vision for rural Scotland and press forward with a programme of land and tenancy reform.”

In a curious intervention in the debate, Charles Moore weighted in through a blog in the Spectator in which he suggested that Alex Salmond could be compared with Robert Mugabe! He wrote that the SNP had radically misunderstood the situation. “It believes,” he said, “that big Scottish landowners are rich because they own the land. For a long time now, it has been the other way round. They own the land because they are rich. Once they own it, they tend to become a lot poorer. Then they sell it to new rich people with money to burn, and so on. Hardly any Highland land makes money.

Without philanthropists, megalomaniacs and serious sportsmen pouring cash in to maintain these difficult places, their communities, and so the environment, would suffer. You can see this happening already in the islands where crofters’ rights have been exercised. One great independence leader who played this issue politically was Robert Mugabe, dividing the spoils among his followers and ruining the land in the process. Will the next be Alex Salmond?”

The team needs your support

Crowdfunding is an increasingly popular way of raising money for projects of all kinds. But this strikes us as being one which every cyclist in Scotland should support. It’s probably the first new safety device which will make riding in traffic in particular a lot less risky. It’s called ‘VeloCityLight’ and it’s a bright rear LED light which displays your speed, acts as a brake light and gives clear information to approaching drivers.

Euan Mackenzie Came up with the concept for VeloCityLight

Euan Mackenzie
Came up with the concept for VeloCityLight

According to Euan Mackenzie, an Edinburgh-based entrepreneur and long-time cyclist who came up with the idea, the idea behind the VeloCityLight is to make cycling safer. “It is a powerful rear LED light that displays your speed to drivers,” he explains, “and makes you bright, distinct and visible on the road.”

But the obvious question is why display the speed? “It can be hard to judge how fast a cyclist is going,” he says. “We think that showing an approaching motorist your speed will make them think, and help them make better decisions. Maybe you’re doing 15mph in a 30mph zone and they’ll think twice about how fast they’re approaching. Maybe you’re at the limit in a 20mph zone and they realise they shouldn’t try to overtake you. Or maybe you’re downhill at high speed on a country road, and they realise they’re going to have to allow more time to pass you. Or maybe you just like showing off your speed to other cyclists!”

On the road, these can be seen from 45m

On the road, these can be seen from 45m

The important thing about this device is that it can be read at a distance. When the team took it out on the roads, the display was clearly readable on the lowest brightness setting at about 45 metres. That’s about double the typical stopping distance of a car driving at 30mph. At normal closing speeds a driver will have many seconds to read it.

Drivers see the VeloCityLight and can associate the displayed speed with their own rate of travel. It’s a prod, a mental prompt to re-evaluate their own rate of travel and their subsequent actions. It’s effect on drivers is fundamentally different from any other red light, A red light is just another red light. A colour remains an element in sensory memory, it’s fleeting and passing. A number is a meaningful symbol that has to be processed, registered and stored in semantic memory. This is what makes the VeloCityLight something special – and as many of the Caledonian Mercury team are cyclists, it makes sense for us to support it.

The Great Outdoors should be an essential part of education

Outdoor education has been shown across time and geography to be an effective and safe means of learning. It’s relevant equally to participants from challenged backgrounds as for those who are more fortunate. The space beyond the classroom walls is suitable for the transfer of technical content and is the perfect medium for learning soft skills, such as leadership and resilience. As examples, we can turn look to the Scouts, the Outward Bound Trust or the concept of the traditional summer camp, which is a mainstay of youth activities in North America.

Outdoor Education  Debate in the Scottish Parliament

Outdoor Education
Debate in the Scottish Parliament

Over recent months, there’s been increasing discussion in Scotland about greater use of the outdoors in schools. A recent debate led by the Education and Culture Committee in Holyrood looked at the benefits to society in general as well as the potential to satisfy the aims of the Curriculum for Excellence. The country is blessed with a hugely varied landscape and, compared to most of the world, a generous attitude towards access for all and for free. In cash-strapped times, it seems criminal not to use the outdoors more.

The Scouts provide outdoor education (Picture: John Knox)

The Scouts provide outdoor education
(Picture: John Knox)

I believe passionately that everyone should have the opportunity to become the best they can in the domain of their choosing. Achieving self-knowledge is harder for some than for others, and that path can be forced, foiled or facilitated at school. Over the years, pedagogic methods have evolved with technology and fashion – everything from learning by rote (which I received ad nauseam as a student in early 1990s China) to remote, multi-media delivery by Webex. However, despite the internal combustion engine, globalisation and the internet, pupils in Britain are taught subjects indoors just as they have been doing since the Elementary Acts of the late nineteenth century within the same architectural configurations.

The effectiveness of the outdoors as a learning environment is because it is unstructured. Freedom from fixed seating creates liberty of expression; everybody can play director, while the teacher becomes a guide; the whole world becomes the object of study. In the outdoors you can discover physics from watching rivers, improve confidence by climbing mountains, develop communication through recounting stories around the campfire.

Future Shock CoverI don’t believe that everybody has to be academic to reach his or her potential. Using personal wealth as a benchmark, we can look at the education of the 50 richest billionaires on Slate: many flunked college or didn’t bother at all. In a balanced economy there’s a large percentage of jobs that don’t require traditional indoctrination: for the nation to get the best from its human resources, we should be encouraged to achieve possibilities that match our personal interests, drivers, values. We do not need the dystopian (but unfortunately reasonably accurate) vision of the Alvin Toffler Future Shock society. Our sustainability depends on using the positives of our heritage, creativity and human connectedness.

I’m a fan of incorporating as many learning methods as possible to bring knowledge and experiences to young people. There’s a long list of means to achieve this besides indoor school time, ranging from work placements and apprenticeship schemes to ball sports and adventurous trips. Variety is the key, but it’s not easy to get the balance. Application is more difficult than theory, while success is at least 99% perspiration. The Curriculum is challenging for schools to implement when the bricks and mortar reinforce old ways, teachers are trained to oversee single subjects and budget restrictions lead to difficult choices.

Wayne Bulpitt  UK Chief Commissioner The Scout Association

Wayne Bulpitt
UK Chief Commissioner
The Scout Association

Over the past two decades, health and safety culture has reduced the value of many organised outdoor activities. It has warped the definition of ‘risk’ into that of ‘danger’. I interpret risk as an entirely neutral term denoting outcome based on choice and the application of resources. As reported in the Telegraph recently, the Chief Commissioner of Scouting, Wayne Bulpitt, claimed the movement has benefitted in popularity because “schools have taken a more rigid approach to stopping activities”. Consider the risk of not letting young people get wet and be challenged in awkward ways… erm, perhaps a witless, scared society ten years from now?

However, I’m positive about the future of learning in Scotland. There are many initiatives, private and public, new and old, ready to integrate with schools. Examples include the Adventure Learning Partnerships from WideHorizons Trust and the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. In addition, the media seems to be adjusting its bias against outdoor adventures. So with a new year ahead, it’s my hope that the tide of funding for outdoor youth charities and state-run outdoor centres in Scotland will run full flow again.


NWNick Williams may be known best for his Pocket Mountains guides to the Highlands and Islands, but he has also trained as a mountaineering instructor and has thirty years of experience climbing all over the world. He organised the first international expedition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan and written a memoir, Jagged Red Line, which describes adventure and trauma in the Caucasus. Nick works as a coach and consultant, specialising in resilience for individuals and organisations. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.

www.nickwilliams.org // @jaggedredline

Life without TV
Adventures on a Shoestring

I just had to write about this story because it made me smile.

Kerry Meek and the children conquer their own 'Matterhorn'

Kerry Meek and the children conquer their own ‘Matterhorn’

It’s appearing on the inside pages of some the regular suspects. It began with the Daily Mail, was pursued by the Telegraph and who knows what will happen in the future: publishing deals and a slot on CBBC perhaps. It’s a young family from Nottingham, Kerry and Tim Meek, both teachers, and their two girls Amy and Ella, who chose to switch off the TV a bit more often and do something less boring instead. Their website dotrythisathome.com is inspiring, full of ideas from ‘going on a reptile ramble’ to cooking with snow. Yes, adventures don’t have to be epics.

Over the past two decades, outdoor activities have seen bad press. Landmark events, like the Lyme Bay kayaking accident of 1993 or the death of Alison Hargreaves on K2 in 1995, helped form public perception that our waters and mountains were dangerous. Regulatory boards sprung into existence. The qualifications industry burgeoned. Proposed school trips were canned. Lord Baden-Powell tussled in his Kenyan grave while our culture forgot that pursuits in the wild are healthy, engaging and developmental.

What makes the tale of the Meeks special is not that they are having adventures, because lots of other normal families do this kind of thing, but that mainstream media is behind them. Furthermore, they’ve been commended for sticking to a shoestring – the Nottingham four enjoyed their first 100 adventures for less than £500. Half a grand won’t buy harnesses, Canadian dugouts and waterproof jackets all round. During times of austerity, the family has tooled up on resourcefulness.

The family lists hundreds of ways of having an adventure

The family lists hundreds of ways of having an adventure

When I asked Kerry Meek where the inspiration originated to do the first 100 trips, it was from other adventurers, including Dave Cornthwaite. He’s swum 1000 miles along the Missouri and completed other long journeys, but doesn’t limit himself to the extreme: his current project is finding 50 ways to make £50. Al Humphreys is another favourite: he rowed the Atlantic last year, but he dedicated 2011 to microadventures, like sleeping out on a hill after work: ‘what’s the worst that can happen’ he says… ‘you get a bit wet, get a bit cold… big deal. I think it’s worth the risk.’

The next step forward for the Meeks, in terms of growing the impact they’ve had, is to get more parents involved. Unlike schools, mums and dads don’t have to fill in risk assessments and, once it’s clear to them that getting outdoors is good for concentration, ability and contentment, they’ll be motivated to encourage their children and their children’s teachers.

In Scotland, thousands of people are enjoying the outdoors – walking, paddling, climbing, biking, running … exploring. I’ve not looked at the figures of hours spent outdoors over time and perhaps it’s impossible to measure, but I feel that this has fallen since the 1990s. Rock routes seem more lichenous. The bogs and the forest have subsumed formerly well-trodden paths. Perhaps it’s fear – of the known or the unknown, or being judged for not having the ‘right’ kit, or encroaching consumerism and time pressures. My argument, as always, is that more people should benefit from the mental, emotional physical pluses of getting outdoors.

Being out of doors as a family lets children experience life in the raw

Being out of doors as a family lets children experience life in the raw

I’ll take intellect for a start. There’s nothing that generates creativity better than challenge. If you cross a stream using a spattering of slimy boulders that protrude from the froth, the brain begins to churn. It recalls similar patterns from the past, calculates how balance will be compromised and ascertains what’s needed if that manoeuvre doesn’t work. In one millisecond, you’ve done risk appraisal, spatial co-ordination, future planning and disaster recovery. This is also possible on the Playstation without getting wet: it’s your choice.

Our emotional state alters when we’re in nature. Broadleaf woodland is particularly calming, perhaps through the diversity of flora and fauna, the wholeness of this type of ecosystem and how light and shade interplay randomly. When we’re engaged in pastimes that require focus, our minds forget the minutiae of problems and deadlines. We can, for some brief period in time, switch off.

You may get wet!!

You may get wet!!

I’m guessing that the closer an activity comes to actual or perceived risk and the nearer it is to something our ancestors might have done and the better your level of skill, the more chance there is to rediscover the sense of flow. That’s a wonderful feeling.

The outdoors is also good for the body. It might be cold and rain often, but being resilient is a really positive attribute. When exerting ourselves, we force our muscles to work and burn off fat. Okay, so there are things that can hurt and cause physical trauma, like slipping on that rock when crossing the burn, but developing the skills over time and resting between adventures is good antidote to this.

When I spoke to Kerry Meek, she sounded very keen to return to Scotland with the family for more adventures. The girls wanted to undertake a ‘source to sea’ journey and sleep on a mountain. Hopefully, she’ll be joined in spirit by hundreds of others doing the same kind of thing. With our wonderful landscape, there’s probably no easier place in the world to get involved.


NWNick Williams may be known best for his Pocket Mountains guides to the Highlands and Islands, but he has also trained as a mountaineering instructor and has thirty years of experience climbing all over the world. He organised the first international expedition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan and written a memoir, Jagged Red Line, which describes adventure and trauma in the Caucasus. Nick works as a coach and consultant, specialising in resilience for individuals and organisations. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.

www.nickwilliams.org // @jaggedredline

Assynt – one of the last wilderness areas

They say Scotland has some of the last wilderness areas left in Western Europe. But where exactly are they? And how particular should we be about protecting them? The government agency Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) is inviting views on its latest map of 43 “wild land” areas which will be offered some sort of protection under the planning laws. The haggling over this map will pitch conservationists against developers, city dwellers against country folk, romanticists against realists and will define the sort of country we want to live in.

Most of the wilderness area are in the Highlands

Most of the wilderness area are in the Highlands

Most of the 43 areas are, of course, in the Highlands and Islands. But there are three in the south of the country – Merrick, Talla-Hart Fells and Broad Dollar-Black Laws. Waterhead Moor-Muirshiel, just north of Glasgow, is also included. The rest stretch from Arran to Shetland by way of the Arrochar Alps, Ben Lawers, Ben Nevis, the Cairngorms, the Cuillins, Torridon, the Flow Country, Harris and the Orkney island of Hoy. (see full list below).

“Measuring wildness in inherently difficult,” SNH admits. One man’s wildness is another man’s wasteland. But the agency has tried to come up with a scoring system that is scientific. Four factors are taken into account: naturalness, ruggedness, remoteness from public roads, and a visible lack of built developments or “modern artefacts” such as wind turbines, pylons, telemasts etc.

Some compromises have had to be made where features do not spoil what’s called “the wider sense of wildness” eg the General Wade road that runs through the Corrieyairack Pass or the railway line through the Flow Country or an isolated farm building. On the other hand, some borderline areas have been left out of the map that some people might think should be included eg the Lowther Hills, Strathy Forest and North Lewis.

All in all, about 20 per cent of Scotland’s landmass has been classified as “wild” which means that planners will have to take the new designation into account when they are deciding on any new development, whether that be a wind farm, or a fish farm, or radio mast or a hotel or housing estate, or, dare we mention it, a golf course.

We’ve seen that such designations are not sacrosanct. Donald Trump has demonstrated that you can build a golf course on a SSSI, a Site of Special Scientific Interest. And there are a dozen other such designations – NNR, SPA, SAC, NSA, AONB, not to mention national and regional parks – where such exceptions have been made. The John Muir Trust estimates that you can see a wind turbine from more than half of Scotland’s land area.

JohnMuirTrustGreenThe John Muir Trust is leading the campaign to preserve Scotland’s wild land and it has welcomed the new map. Other conservation organisations, like the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the RSPB and the National Trust are similarly hoping the new map will be widely accepted.

But it is likely to be opposed in detail by local councils, developers, farmers and tourism businesses. An earlier draft of the map was sent back to the drawing board and SNH has had to carry out further statistical analysis to prove that certain areas really are “wild”.

There are those who argue that nowhere in Scotland is wild. All of our landscape, they say, has been influenced by human habitation but grouse moors, farmland, crofts and fishing villages still make for a beautiful, peaceful and spiritually pleasing experience. But even those opposed to wild land designations, or particular lines drawn on the map, admit that there is a balance to be struck between economic gains and preserving the natural wildness that is attracting businesses in the first place.

The Scottish government’s National Planning Framework hints that the presumption will always be against developments in wild land areas. Paragraph 99, for instance, reads: “ Some of Scotland’s remoter mountain and coastal areas possess an elemental quality from which people derive psychological and spiritual benefits. Such areas are very sensitive to any form of development or intrusive human activity and great care should be taken to safeguard their wild character.”

We shall see whether the government will live up to these fine words when the final map of wild land is written into the planning rules. And then we shall see if we can stick to them. The consultation period ends on 20th December.

The Cairngorms – soon to be wrapped in winter snow
Pictures: Penny Haywood Calder

Arctic wind rasps my face. It’s November. I smile and think, somewhat guiltily, that nobody in Scotland should celebrate weather that dumps leaves on the line for commuters, smears ice across the path of the shop-bound elderly and chills the homes of those who can’t afford to heat them, especially in today’s harsh times. However, my heart, like those of tens of thousands of skiers, walkers and climbers, hums with delight as the promise of winter sport gets closer.

There's already a chill in the air on the higher ground

There’s already a chill in the air on the higher ground

The eye-stropping wind has shuddered through glens and over tops, pursued by anvil-black thunderclouds. Whenever I’m up here, listening to the grinding of ice axes on rock or how the mulch reeks in thawing cracks, there’s a sixth sense at work. Each decision I make, either edging me further into my personal unknown or back to civilisation, is tempered by an argument that I cannot see or hear. But it’s one I always heed.

Although I describe myself as a climber, I’ve done lots of walking in the Highlands, particularly to write the Pocket Mountains series. For my Cairngorms title, I did most of the research over the winter of 2002-03. The intention had never been to make life so hard, but the publisher’s deadline held me to account. At first the weather seemed constant only in its determination to drive me out. One day, I began a long circuit in horizontal rain and gales to Loch A’an via Beinn Mheadhoin, its summit tors stripped by warm westerlies. The burns were near impassable. The next week I visited Bynack More in waist-deep snowdrifts and a whiteout where the only thing visible was myself. Finally, many similarly unphotogenic adventures later, my luck changed.

Heading up above the snow line

Heading up above the snow line

One plan involved cycling from Inverey (Braemar) to walk the peaks beyond Glen Ey. The start was auspicious at minus ten before dawn. As I pedalled upwards, southwards, the sky shifted through shades of scarlet. I left my bike behind a dry-stone wall at the snowline and continued on foot. Not a cloud shadowed the land, the air was still and ice crystals glistened. I could see every peak for miles around. Sweeping hills led to high plateaux. I walked slowly, off path, noticing how the insulated heather catapulted me forward and the silence gave flight to my worries. Every scene was worth a picture, or at least one in the mind.

I rarely saw another soul on my travels in the hills that winter. On Saturdays and Sundays, there might be parties on Cairn Gorm or Lochnagar, but I mostly went mid-week or chose less-frequented places. The solitude was one of the appeals; I could laugh or cry and nobody would think I was crazy. At other times, I might bring along a friend. Together, we’d enjoy the quiet and mark a meandering trail that would be gone in the next thaw.

The harshness of the mountains is exaggerated in winter. Daylight hours are short. The ground can be sodden or snowbound. Navigation is trickier with numb fingers. It’s a challenge to be able to walk and climb through this terrain, especially to move fast and safely when necessary. But it’s an absolute pleasure when you get it right, like Walking in the Air.

How to enjoy the mountains in winter

An axe and crampons and the knowledge of how to use them are necessary in winter conditions. Always take waterproof and windproof kit, no matter how good the skies at the time of starting out. If you want to feel strong all day, it’s best to eat high quality food little and often, and carry extra in your bag for an emergency as well. In the Cairngorms, much of the ground seems quite benign, but steep corries hide cliffs where climbers play and the unwary have accidents. Skills with a map and compass are therefore essential. Finally, check the weather forecast and the avalanche predictions before you set out: all this can be found online.

Good mountain sense is a pre-cursor to success and enjoyment, but this can only be won by going out in the hills over a period of time, in a range of conditions and with experienced people. The Mountaineering Club of Scotland runs winter training courses. In addition, freelance guides also operate across the Highlands and there are plenty of clubs where you can meet like-minded individuals to appreciate the mountains as well as learn the skills they demand. It’s up to you to be as fit as you can and to take responsibility for your actions: when you do, that’s when you can really taste the freedom of the hills.


Nick Williams may be known best for his Pocket Mountains guides to the Highlands and Islands, but he has also trained as a mountaineering instructor and has thirty years of experience climbing all over the world. He organised the first international expedition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan and written a memoir, Jagged Red Line, which describes adventure and trauma in the Caucasus. In his professional life, Nick works in corporate communications and information strategy. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.

www.nickwilliams.org // @jaggedredline