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Ben Dolphin: Whistle while you walk – how my eyes have been opened to the true spirit of the Ramblers

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I’m generally not a fan of maxims. They pop up on my Facebook feed, posing as sage advice that can improve your life at the click of your fingers, but the majority just make my eyes roll.

However, one notable exception suggests: “If someone offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes, and then learn how to do it later.”

Ben Dolphin.

Richard Branson, apparently. My other half offered it as advice three years ago when I was in something of a quandary. Ramblers Scotland had asked if I’d consider taking up the role of honorary president, but I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t a member of the Ramblers, all my walking was done solo and I’d never even met a Ramblers group before, much less walked with one. Yes, I liked walking but what on earth did I know about the organisation? Or walking in groups?

Branson had it covered, though: “Say yes! Learn how to do it later!”

It clearly was an amazing opportunity so, with an equal mix of apprehension and excitement I said yes, and then hoped I’d find a way to make myself useful.

Keen to plug the knowledge gap, I walked with my first Ramblers groups. I’m not sure what I expected really, but after just two walks it was obvious that the stereotypes and preconceptions about Ramblers that persist out there were an obstacle to new people engaging with us, and that bothered me. I therefore decided I’d try to walk with all 54 of our groups in Scotland, in as many different places and on as many different types of walk as possible. By doing so and by blogging after each walk, I hoped to tell our story to the non-Ramblers world and thus, hopefully, dispel some stubborn myths. That mission ended up being a bit like Munro-bagging, albeit with considerably more cake.

Not all myths can be dispelled of course. This is Scotland, after all. It’s cold, and bobble hats are warm. But while it’s certainly true that the membership is mostly made up of folk older than me, it’s not exclusively so. Indeed one of my favourite walks was with a group from North Lanarkshire that consisted of walkers in their teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s, all on one walk. All happy, all chatting with one another. Age was no barrier, and the inter-generational dynamic turned it into something special.

Then there are the Young Walkers groups, generally aged 18 to 40, with their wild camping trips, night hikes, coastal strolls and hillwalks followed by fish & chips or a curry. Or the Family groups, where parents bring their weans along in a valiant attempt to tire them out. Besides, from what I’ve seen, age makes little difference to people’s outlook and disposition where getting outdoors is concerned, because we’re all doing it for the love of it. The mind is willing even if the body isn’t, and sometimes the body follows the mind regardless. I climbed West Lomond (520m) with three 80-somethings who showed no signs of stopping any time soon, one of them telling me on the summit “I can ache on the sofa or I can ache up here”.

I’ve been on fast walks, slow walks, high walks and low walks. Easy walks, hard walks and everything in between, through villages and cities, along rivers and beaches, and over Munros and Corbetts. And along the way I’ve learned a lot from our members, not least when someone from Glenrothes Ramblers pointed at the plastic clip on my rucksack strap and casually asked: “do you ever use the whistle?” I’d used that clip for ten years and had no idea it doubled as a whistle, and I don’t think I’ve ever smiled as broadly as at that moment. I’ve also had some of my most pleasurable winter hill days ever, having finally discovered that trail-breaking in deep snow is more pleasurable when you have eight other people to help you, rather than doing it entirely by yourself.

I’ve heard amazing stories, and I’ve discovered places and paths on my doorstep I never knew existed, but my biggest discovery is the extent to which the Ramblers, as with much of Scottish society, relies upon volunteers. They’re the heroes at the heart of many an organisation, and ours is no exception with 1,300 in Scotland alone. Some 1,200 of those are walk leaders and most are doing another role on top of that. They’re amazing people, arranging 3,500 walks per year all across this beautiful country, through which they consciously and unconsciously promote the physical and mental benefits of social walking.

Representing them, our 6,500 members and Ramblers Scotland over the past three years has been the most enormous privilege. And in two weeks’ time when I step down from this role, I really hope I’ve succeeded in telling our story to a wider audience, and perhaps even helping folk to see us differently. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity, and I’ll always be so very happy I said yes.

Ben Dolphin is an outdoors enthusiast and president of Ramblers Scotland