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North man’s nature walks helping scores of people find their feet

Stephen Wiseman has been running nature walks in the north for more than a decade - and says many are surprised by the benefits.

Stephen Wiseman has been leading nature walks in the Highlands, including through Nature 4 Health, for more than a decade. Image: Stephen Wiseman
Stephen Wiseman has been leading nature walks in the Highlands for more than a decade. Image: Stephen Wiseman

The feeling of gravel under his feet. The sound of the wind blowing gently through trees.

Around 11 years ago, Stuart Wiseman began exploring the outdoors in a bid to help clear his mind.

The former countryside ranger had been struggling with anxiety and panic attacks, and began to find solace in nature.

“That connection was very beneficial and therapeutic,” he recalled.

“There was an enormous amount I could get from being outdoors – the sunshine and wind, and the crunching of sand and leafy forest floors.

“All those feelings, the smells, and sensory elements, and the wildlife you come into close contact with.”

People of all ages take part in the Nature 4 Health walks. Image: Stephen Wiseman
People of all ages take part in the Nature 4 Health walks. Image: Stephen Wiseman

He wasn’t aware of it at the time, but the 59-year-old was practising a form of mindfulness – living in the moment, being acutely aware of his surroundings, detangling his thoughts.

It was a “grounding” experience – and one which set Stephen off on a somewhat unexpected journey.

At the time he was working with the Scottish Waterways Trust, and wanted to use this knowledge to help others.

He designed a poster with all the details and linked up with a local charity to help spread the word.

And his eager actions were met with a “resounding” response.

“No one was interested – it was a big, fat zero,” he said.

The walks usually finish with chat, cups of tea and mystery-ingredient flapjacks. Image: Stephen Wiseman

The need to persevere

Undeterred Stephen, of Nairn, kept trying.

He said: “A lot of the time when people are struggling, they won’t have the ability or desire to go ‘that sounds good, I’ll go for that’.

“There’s often a need for ambassadors and people to lend a helping hand.

“I licked my wounds for a bit and kept on with it.”

He reached out to another contact and invited him for a walk – and they then began telling colleagues and friends.

The walks tend to have 10 to 12 people joining in. Image: Stephen Wiseman

Soon Stephen was regularly taking groups of eight, 10 or sometimes 12 people out into nature, with the movement growing steadily.

After the first session in Inverness, he organised another, and another.

This Muirtown Basin walk has continued almost every Thursday since, from 1.30-3pm come rain or shine.

They usually end with a get-together over some Kelly Kettle tea and crowd-pleasing flapjacks, often with mystery ingredients for people to guess.

The unexpected mental health benefits

The organisation also runs dedicated sessions for children. Image: Stephen Wiseman

After a few years and some difficulties with funding, Stephen and colleague Ruaraidh Milne started Nature 4 Health as their own charity.

Walks have expanded into Nairn, Forres, Elgin and Aberlour, with scores joining them every single week.

Some are also led by people who initially took part as walkers before getting more involved in the set-up.

In addition, the charity has specialist sessions for school children as well as adults with referrals from mental health services.

It also offers a hybrid course of an online workshop followed by a day in nature, with glowing testimonials from staff at councils, countryside rangers and the NHS, among others.

Nature 4 Health offers training on outdoor education and bushcraft. Image: Stephen Wiseman

Stephen says it took people some time to realise all the benefits of their work.

“The people who came along at first generally didn’t think it could improve their mental health,” he said.

“They understood it was good for their physical health and social wellbeing, but not that.

“Society generally tells you it’s pills and maybe some talking therapy, then gradually it will get better.”

18 of us caught the weather window today in Inverness ☔👌😁 A nature walk by Muirtown Basin with tea and flapjack. Why don't you join us some Thurs afternoon 1.30 till 3pm, every week, rain, hail or shine 🌞😎

Posted by N4H on Thursday, 12 January 2023

The sessions have also proved beneficial for those on the other side of the healthcare sector, who have joined patients taking part on walks.

“They can struggle with a very difficult job as they’re constantly surrounded by very dark emotions,” Stephen explained.

“It can be a challenge so, when they were coming out with us, they said it was their time too.

“And that relationship between health staff and the group can be really powerful.”

‘There’s a safety and comfort’

He added: “The management of poor mental health is much easier than trying to bring yourself back from a difficult place.

“So we encourage everyone to come along, not just people who are struggling.”

“You get people who say they’ve left hospital much earlier than they thought because of this newfound desire to be outdoors, and the vitality it gives them.

“We work with a lot of people who will never be fully recovered – they’re on a journey, but it’s a constant chronic battle.

“Sometimes we see them on good days, sometimes bad. But they know when they come to us there’s a safety and comfort, and a chance to just re-energise.”

Stephen’s dog Logan, a German Wirehaired Pointer, often accompanies the groups.

And he says there are more similarities than you might expect with the 13-year-old rescue: “If he isn’t getting walked or out of the house, he’s going to be a nightmare.

Stephen says you can still benefit, even if you don’t feel like chatting. Image: Stephen Wiseman

“And with that, you can see the necessity for us to be outside.

“I love going up hills by myself and walking by myself but having the ability to go out with others and socialise (is important).

“Sometimes people who come out with us may not want to speak at all to anyone but, because they’re accepted and welcomed and feel safe, they can live vicariously in a way through other people’s chat and laughter.”

More information can be found at