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Lifestyle medicine at the centre of new empowering Wild-Ness retreats in the heart of the Highlands

After 21 years as a GP, Katharine Jones decided it was time to help others in a different way. reports.
Lauren Robertson
The Highlands are the perfect setting for Wild-Ness retreats. Image: NorthWest Photography.
The Highlands are the perfect setting for Wild-Ness retreats. Image: NorthWest Photography.

When we think of medicine, most of us are taken back to sticky sweet gloop from childhood, or made to think of a cold and flu pill catching in the back of our throats.

But a new approach seeks to sever this connection and replace it with something a little more palatable.

Katharine Jones worked as a GP for 21 years, working in prisons to transatlantic boats and even in the jungle.

She joined NHS Highland as an associate medical director in 2017, but soon felt the weight of the role dragging her down.

Wild-Ness retreats feature a wide range of activities. Image: NorthWest Photography.

“We moved to the Highlands for its natural beauty, but what actually happened was I was working all the time,” said Katharine.

“I got totally engulfed in it and it wasn’t a good lifestyle.”

She moved back into clinical work after three years, but realised something about the way she was working needed to change.

Finding lifestyle medicine

“I noticed a lot of the patients I was seeing had long-term or unexplained conditions,” she explained.

“The way I had learnt to be a GP was that people would come in and I tried to help them, but this didn’t really work. Problems were often to do with lifestyle or past trauma, it was frustrating for me and for the patient.”

On a more personal level, the stress of the last few years had taken their toll on Katharine.

Katharine Jones looking out over Loch Ness. Image: Katharine Jones.

She said: “I realised that my own ability to remember things and process information wasn’t working as well.

“Even things like packing and planning became difficult; I questioned whether I could continue being a doctor.”

It was then that Katharine learned of the benefits of lifestyle medicine first-hand, taking up running with another mum she met at the school gates.

“That whole thing of connecting with other people, being outside, I started to feel a lot better,” she said.

“I went from thinking I was going to leave medicine to finding the part of medicine I enjoy.”

Katharine is a trained open-water swimming coach. Image: NorthWest Photography.

Wild-Ness Spa and Retreat

Lifestyle medicine relies on six pillars: healthy eating, mental wellbeing, healthy relationships, physical activity, minimising harmful substances and sleep.

Katharine explained: “It’s a coaching approach, you try and hand the responsibility and control for the wellbeing of the patient from the clinician to them.

“It’s really powerful, it’s good for patients and for the system.”

The perfect setting for a little yoga. Image: NorthWest Photography.

Passionate about using what she had learned to help others, Katharine set up Wild-Ness Spa and Retreat last April.

In grand houses across the Highlands, she hosts wellbeing retreats, events and workshops to encourage others to implement this new approach.

Jam-packed retreat programmes include talks with experts, acupuncture, open-water dunks, horsebox sauna trips, live music, spoken-word performances and fireside storytelling.

Working in the Highlands

The Drumnadrochit area provides the perfect setting for Katharine’s retreats.

She said: “There is scientific evidence that green and blue scenery are good for mental health so where we live, overlooking Loch Ness, is perfect.

“For people who live in urban areas, the natural beauty is an important fit for what I’m trying to deliver – a mental rest and recovery, a place for reflection.”

From the get-go, Wild-Ness has been supported by a tight-knit network of locals.

Wild-Ness retreats encourage people to connect with nature. Image NorthWest Photography.

“I met lots of other people in the area who were doing holistic therapy and things like that, so we set up a wellness network with a view to working together and meeting up as like-minded people,” said Katharine.

“Normally when visitors come to the area they might go on a Loch Ness boat trip or go to the castle, but they don’t uncover this wealth of expertise in the local community – people who can give them a really authentic experience in creativity.”

Local businesses involved in Wild-Ness include Quila Cridhe Tearoom who provide tasty treats, Cairn Candle Co who make sure guests leave with a sweet-smelling gift and NorthWest Photography who capture everything on camera.

It’s hard to imagine a more idyllic setting. Image: NorthWest Photography.

Putting on your own oxygen mask

Now fully trained in lifestyle medicine, Katharine wants other clinicians to come along to the retreats due to the impact it had on her own journey.

She said: “It’s that idea of putting your own oxygen mask on before you help others. A lot of us go into the role of being the hero or rescuer.

“We have to look after ourselves, that’s not something we’re always good at.”

Looking forward to more events later in the year, Katharine said: “I am trying to make it a fun experience where people can connect with others, but also have space and time to think about their own health.

The retreats benefit from a friendly wellness network in the area. Image: NorthWest Photography.

“I want people to leave with hope and optimism, feeling empowered. If they can work out where they want to get to, we can find small changes to help them get there.

“For most people it’s not about winning the lottery or moving to Hawaii, it’s about finding what brings them joy.”

Find out more about Katharine and Wild-Ness, or book on to November retreats, at or @wildnessretreat on Instagram.