Despite growing up in the countryside, in rural Perthshire, it took a while to find my love for the outdoors and the hills in particular – I had to be coaxed on family walks with sausage rolls as a kid! Growing up, I was unaware of the natural environments around me, and it wasn’t until moving to Edinburgh and heading back up north did a ‘mountain-mind' begin. I was fortunate enough to be part of a university running club which prioritised fun in the hills, and it was through them that I did my first Munro in 2015 - Ben Vorlich - ironically only 30 minutes from where I grew up. In typical youthful fashion we bashed up the mountain path, and back to the minibus in a few hours. A physical challenge yes, but hardly an embedded time in the rolling hills of Perthshire.
Fast-forward to October 2022 and I’ve just passed my mountain Leader assessment in the Cairngorms, three years after doing my training. I was fortunate enough to spend the months preceding the assessment, living and working on site at the Shieling Project.
Part of the appeal of the Shieling Project, as a place, is its location and abundance of native woodland, birds and upland plants and flowers. Thanks to effective land management practices, all sorts of wildlife is flourishing – from the yellowhammers that perch on the chicken coop to the blanket of blaeberry that covers the nearby hill.
Larch hill, which watches over Dumnaglass, is home to a pre-clearance livestock structure and a number of rare upland flora, such as tormentil and alpine lady’s mantle. These tiny flowers dwell alongside regenerating native trees like juniper and oak. The hillock became my favourite spot whilst living on-site. Other species like bog asphodel and bog cotton were scattered around the site – highlighting the reduction in deer-grazing intensity. Many of these plants are threatened further by climate change and form an important part of the ecological mission of the Shieling Project.
What have these plants got to do with bashing up hills and the mountain leader award? Part of your mountain leader assessment tests your ‘environmental knowledge’. Sadly, this is only a small part of the syllabus and as such assessments rarely focus on candidates' knowledge of upland flora. This is a shame and represents a missed opportunity to encourage more folk to look closely and pay attention to what’s around them. Our cultural focus on speed, efficiency and summits means that many miss the opportunity to appreciate, and learn about, the flora of the upland environment. Too often our time spent outdoors is rushed – whether that’s marching up a well-carved hill path or focusing on the quantity of ground covered.
More recently, ‘outdoor’ literature has focused on the slower journeying and immersive potential of many outdoor activities, which when done deliberately can bring us into the environment and further our understanding and appreciation of where we are. Books like Anna Flemming’s Time on Rock – which details the immersion afforded by climbing and shows how “a direct route into the spellbinding potency of place” lies at the heart of climbing journeys. Jini Reddy’s Wanderland captures the lure of the supernatural and the transformative potential of more gentle movement in natural places. Both books mark a wider turn in outdoor literature from a focus on conquering peaks and tortuous feats of endurance to recognising the importance and enjoyment found in simply being in our wonderful natural places.Read all Posts by Ben Murphy