I was at the Scottish Ramblers Gathering in Melrose last week which is an annual three-day celebration of social walking. That is, walking in a group.
I went on two lovely Borders walks, one with almost 30 people and one with about 20, and each was characterised by good company, good chat, and the simple pleasure of group camaraderie.
I feel very comfortable in that situation now, but only a couple of years ago the concept of walking in a group seemed – and this might sound a strange thing for the president of Ramblers Scotland to say – very strange to me.
That’s because for 20 years I have walked solo. Whether it’s at home in Fife, on holiday up north, or a post-work stroll in the Cairngorms. In the height of summer or the depths of midwinter, I almost always walk alone. It hasn’t always been that way, though.
When I started out in the 1990s I only ever went walking with my pals or my sister. The idea of walking by myself honestly never occurred to me, either because I lacked the confidence or because I specifically enjoyed having company.
But while we all enjoyed the forays we made into Wales and the Lakes, I was bitten by the hillwalking bug harder than my friends and family were. I wanted to go further, which meant getting up earlier. I wanted to go off paths, which meant being fitter. I wanted to walk in winter, which meant being cold. Unsurprisingly, one by one my walking companions fell by the wayside.
That wasn’t necessarily what I wanted but there was nowhere to find like-minded, similar-aged people to go walking with back then. There was no internet, no social media, no hiking clubs. Only Ceefax (Google it, kids!). Unwilling to compromise with my pals, I realised that if I didn’t go walking by myself I probably wouldn’t go walking at all. And so off I went.
I found I could now choose my own routes and be as ambitious as I liked.
I gobbled up as many miles and summits as I please – and I loved it. Logistically, solo quickly became my default (and preferred) setting, and solitude itself became the biggest attraction of hillwalking. I undertook the summer mountain leader training in 2004 with honest and professional intentions but never pursued it further, because although it was an amazing week and I learned a huge amount, it also confirmed to me that I definitely didn’t want to walk with other people any more. And some might argue that’s an unavoidable requirement of mountain guiding.
Times change though, as do people, and 15 years later guided walks are easily my favourite aspect of ranger work. I love sharing what I’ve learned about the natural world and seeing that same fascination kindled in other people. But it’s only really since I became involved with the Ramblers that I’ve realised what the pleasures and benefits of recreational group walking are, and what I might have missed out on during those early days of my walking career when we’re unsure of our abilities and competencies.
Joining a group means having someone to learn skills from. It means having someone to watch your back and call for help if need be. But perhaps most importantly it means having someone alongside you when you crest that ridge or round that headland, and suddenly see that amazing view or elusive wildlife. Experiences can be more satisfying when you have someone alongside you to share them with, someone to turn to and say: “Wow, did you see that? Wasn’t that amazing?” You can’t really do that when you’re alone on the hill.
I do wonder if that’s the main reason why I started filming YouTube blogs of my walks. It means I can chatter like a monkey even though I’m alone, and feel like I’ve got company even though I haven’t. It’s no substitute for the real thing though, and that’s where all the walking groups out there come into their own. They make it easier to meet like-minded people, to learn as you go, to meet up and socialise and share these vital experiences. I’d hate to think I could have gone through life without experiencing that group dynamic, and I’ll be forever grateful to the Ramblers for not only opening my eyes to new possibilities, but for fundamentally changing my perception of how the great outdoors can be enjoyed.
Solo walking is still important to me of course, perhaps more so now than it ever was, given my tendency to faff when I encounter wildlife. If I want to stop and spend 20 minutes watching a beetle or a newt or whatever, without completely ruining the walk for my other half, I can. But more fundamentally it’s also my downtime, my thinking time, my daydreaming time. It’s how I subconsciously work problems through in my head, it’s how I shift writer’s block, how I get new ideas. It’s an essential part of my life and probably always will be.