Musings of a Former Vegetarian (without a current label)

 

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I decided, age 11, that I wasn’t eating meat.  Not no more.  Not no how.  My mother was horrified and thought I would die of malnourishment.  To be fair to her, she learned to cook a few staple dishes: her version of a veggie paella (with burnt tomatoes that tasted surprisingly good) and a cheese, potato and onion bake.  We also discovered pasta – a never seen before carb’ in our potato dominated house.

As you will note, I lived!  I soon found out about various aspects of nutrition, which sparked a life-long interest (and various certificates along the way) in diet, food and cooking.  The average supermarket didn’t have ‘veggie options’ in the early 70’s and meat-spurners were forced to buy weird things from wholefood shops that were packed in brown paper bags.  You had to be creative and engaged to survive without turning into a lentil-eating, sandal-wearing hippy.  As an up-coming teen, that was definitely not a cool vibe.  Rose Elliot, and later Sarah Brown, were my lifelines.  I cooked every recipe in those original books, discovering the amazing array of plant based foods, without the need for weird things from hushed wholefood emporiums.

I remained a vegetarian for over 30 years, fairly strictly.  I was never a vegan, I relied on eggs too much, but I’ve since dabbled with vegan cooking and enjoy the challenge from time to time, although not as a permanent lifestyle choice.  Being a vegetarian definitely made me more adventurous than my meat and two-veg mates, though it by no means guarantees a healthy lifestyle.  Over dependence on dairy can be a recipe for weight gain, and eating vegetarian versions of junk food – pizza, chips, convenience foods – will leave you equally lacking in vital nutrients and  as drowning in surplus calories as your carnivorous counterparts.

I didn’t make a conscious decision to stop being a vegetarian. I simply decided to add a little fish protein to my diet at a time when I was unwell and needed to make an extra effort to look after myself.  I’m not saying that you can’t be healthy and look after your nutritional needs on a plant based diet – I did it for over 3 decades.  What I am saying is that for me, eating sustainably sourced fish was something that I incorporated into my diet and found I enjoyed.

When I moved to the Highlands of Scotland I decided to try wild venison.  A healthy and sustainable option for meat protein.  (The deer need to be managed, to some extent, to keep numbers supportable in the environment, and make sure weak herd members don’t starve in harsh winters. ) So, I enjoy some locally caught and butchered wild venison occasionally.  And occasionally is the key word.  My diet is still largely based around vegetables meals, with one fish dish a week and a meat meal very rarely.

There is absolutely no doubt that in the UK we all need to reduce our meat consumption.  The current levels are not sustainable.  There are issues with the conditions of animals reared in other countries. There are issue with transportation of livestock. There is also some question as to the ultimate healthiness of a high meat protein diet. Above all there are environmental issues with excessive meat consumption, where land is given over to growing meat, when it would be better used for growing crops. However, it is also true that there are areas of the UK where crops cannot be grown.  Some areas of the highlands are prime examples.  The land is designated as ‘rough grazing’ and the fact is that you couldn’t grow crops on it if you wanted to.  In this instance, ruminating animals are the best way of turning poor grassland into a viable protein source.  If we all reduce our meat consumption and concentrated on buying better quality grass-fed UK animals, we could do a lot better by our farmers, who often struggle to turn a living, never mind a profit.  Farmers in the highlands, along with crofters, have always struggled with the poor land and the harsh environment, if they were supported with better networks and better prices, we could be self-sufficient in beef and lamb, without the need for imports.

Raising meat well takes time and effort.  The inputs are greater and it costs more, but it is a better option than antibiotic laced, GM fed imports.  I appreciate not everyone can afford the price of an organic chicken or a slow-growing grass-fed piece of beef, but if you only ate it once a month, once every few months, it would make it more likely.

Many people will disagree with my stance, and that’s fine.  I’m not preaching for people to stop being vegetarians, or to become vegetarians.  I’m encouraging you to be conscious about what you’re eating and the implications it has for your health and the health of the planet.

If everyone became vegetarian tomorrow, or next week, it would not save the world!  Many vegetarians eat soya, which has its own set of ethical issues.  The UK would not return to some mythical ‘green and pleasant’ land.  It is more likely to become a barren place of housing estates, out-of-town shopping centres and miles of tarmac.  In the highlands, where some of the grazing animals contribute to environmental schemes, the land would be overrun with non-native species and gorse, the deer would run riot, and new forestry would be under threat.  The natural world has a delicate balance and humanity has intervened for centuries, impacting it for both good and bad.  Without management, many highland species of plant and animal life would not survive.  Already threatened by habitat loss, they would struggle even more with herds of wild deer and sheep rampaging across the countryside.

Eating is both an ethical and political issue these days.  There is much to despise in modern farming, and there is also much to admire: there is good husbandry and bad; people who care about the environment, and people who don’t.  As consumers we need to encourage the good practices by demanding high welfare, slow growing, grass fed, non GM fed animals.  We need to be prepared to eat less meat and pay more for it.  We need to shun cheap imports that out-compete our home-grown meat on price, but not on quality.

So much of my life has been spent as a vegetarian that I still think of myself as such.  Most of my meals continue to be plant based, and when I do eat meat protein, it is always locally sourced, usually from someone I know personally.  We don’t all have the luxury of those choices, but we do all have the responsibility to think about what we eat and where it comes from.  My way of eating doesn’t have a label.  It’s individual, and so will yours be – flexitarian, pescatarian, vegetarian, vegan, carnivore – it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s a thought-out position.  That will mean you’re doing what you can with the resources you have, to eat well – for you and the planet.

 

 

 

 

Food ethics, security and sustainability is a huge topic.  If you want to find out more, the food ethics council is a good place to start:

http://www.foodethicscouncil.org

Island Resilience

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve often written about travelling to the Scottish islands – Harris, Lewis, Mull, the Orkney Isles, Shetland – remote outposts of the far north of our own island home.  My perspective is usually that of holidaymaker, traveller and visitor.  Perhaps not your typical tourist, if such a thing exists, but certainly my visits are not much more than a dalliance with island life.

 My trip to the Outer Hebrides this year was to a part of Harris I hadn’t been before, the bays area, along the so called Golden Road (so named for how much it cost to build).  It is a bleak landscape; treeless, rocky, full of lochans and peat bogs, similar in some ways to the flow country in Caithness.  It is wild and beautiful and full of life, but it is a harsh and unforgiving landscape.

The ruggedness and remoteness clearly encourages creativity.  In a 2 miles stretch there are 3 art galleries, a ceramic artist and photographer, and that’s in one small area.  The road is dotted with artists and artisans drawing inspiration from their surroundings.  It’s a tough place to make a living and a tough place to live; people have to be self-sufficient, resilient.

I have never met anyone more resilient than Eddie.  He and his wife owned the holiday cottage we were renting for our stay.  I don’t know how old he was, almost certainly retired, but it was clear that he had some illness which affected his speech and his core strength.  It later transpired that he was living with late-stage Parkinson’s.  This didn’t seem to hold him back: he cycled most days, did jobs about the house, gardened, and cooked.  We learned that in 2015 he had undertaken a charity bike ride up the spine of the Uists and headed all the way up to Stornoway.  Physically this should have been impossible, but he has grit and determination which seems to make up for some of the physical challenges he must face daily.  Eddie is not a native islander, but he has certainly adapted to island living and displays those characteristics – both flexibility and toughness – which make the difficulties he faces wholly surmountable.

He also makes an awesome Key-Lime Pie!

60 Degrees North

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A similar latitude to Moscow, and closer to Norway than London, Shetland is a collaboration of about 100 islands, only 16 of which are inhabited.  Described as a ‘subarctic archipelago’ of Scotland, it’s as far north as you can go, and still be in the UK.   In reality it is a world apart from the UK, Europe, and even Scotland.  The ferry crossing is 12 hours from Aberdeen to Lerwick, and can often be rough.  It gives you plenty of time to adjust to a holiday in such a remote location, surrounded by sea and nothing else.

I think Turner, the artist, would have liked Shetland: a place of light, and water, always changing.  It’s one of the charms of the north of Scotland, and is particularly applicable to Shetland where the light, and the sea, can change from one minute to the next.  Stunning beaches and wide open skies characterise the landscape.  There are hardly any trees, and the wild scarcely populated places can seem by turns both barren and captivating.

I was hooked the first time I visited.  A long weekend, and a whistle-stop tour of some of the key visitor attractions, persuaded me I needed longer there, and finally, last September, I went back.  I felt in-tune with the place instantly.  The weather was stunning, and gave me plenty of opportunity to take advantage of the many spectacular sandy beaches, accessed from a rugged coastline.  Nowhere in Shetland is more than 3 miles from the sea, and if you’re a water-baby, like me, that’s a joyous statistic.  The beaches are often described as ‘empty’, though that’s not strictly true.  Wildlife, particularly birdlife, is abundant in the Shetlands Isles, and it’s difficult to go anywhere without experiencing something of that richness of life.  Birdwatchers are in their element with puffins, bonxies -the local name for great skuas- and gannets evident in larger numbers than anywhere else in the UK. Even if you’re not a bird watcher, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the scale of some of the colonies.  Noss is home to 150,000 gannets in the height of the breeding season, and a spectacular sight at any time, with birds clamouring for cliff space, or diving for food.  Puffins are riotous little birds, with their own charm and character.  I watched them for ages, and I’m no ‘twitcher’!

The shore is home to seals a-plenty, and it’s not difficult to get reasonable shots, if you’re a photographer, or even if you’re not.  Shetland is also the place to see otters.  The islands are one of the otter’s main strongholds in the UK, with numbers up to about a thousand.  You can see them during the daytime here, helped by the extra hours of daylight in the summer.

Further out at sea you might see dolphins, and even whales.  One of the main whale migration routes is 40 miles west, out on the edge of the continental shelf, and it’s possible to charter a boat to this area, although chance sightings of whales are possible on any boat trip, and I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of a breach on one such trip.

There’s plenty of impressive coastline to see, if you’re sea legs aren’t great, and Eashaness, on the northwest tip of the mainland is the result of crashing waves making their mark with saw-toothed stacks and a jagged coastline.  Dramatic scenery like this is not uncommon in this part of the world.  There are more soothing coastlines, and quiet sandy beaches, Meal Beach on Burra, is one such place where I spent a pleasant morning in the sunshine, seeing 2 dogs and 4 people in the whole time I was there.

Another are of the coastline worth exploring is the tombola at St Ninians Isle.  Reputedly the most spectacular example in Britain.  I hadn’t seen one before, didn’t even know what one was.  It was strange walking across the strip of sand and shell, sea pressing on either side.

If wildlife and coastline isn’t your thing, then perhaps Shetland isn’t the destination for you, although there is plenty of history, and, my other main interest, food.  Shetlanders have to be pretty self-sufficient, and seafood and grass-fed animals are very evident on menus.  There are plenty of local delicacies and some excellent cafes and restaurants.  I stayed on an organic sheep farm, and both their wool and meat could be bought locally.  On a trip to Yell and Unst, we were offered lobsters for our tea, by a local fisherman who we met on the ferry.  He refused to take anything for the catch.

The friendliness of Shetlanders should be legendary.  Despite the TV programme ‘Shetland’ giving the impression that a murder is committed every week on the islands, in reality, there’s little crime.  People know each other, and there’s a genuine sense of community.  People will still speak to you, visitor, or islander, and even children waved at us as we drove past in the car!

It is not an idyllic place to live, I’m sure.  The weather can be harsh as Atlantic storms batter the coastline, especially in the winter.  In spite of the oil industry, employment is an issue, especially for young people.  All the difficulties of rural life are multiplied ten-fold on an island.

There’s lots more to be said about Shetland, I’ve not even touched on the crafts, or the baking, or the Vikings, for example.  You can find out more on the Visit Shetland website http://visit.shetland.org/]

For me, Shetland is about wildness, the elements and particularly the sea, and I’m sure I will be returning to immerse myself in its enchantments again before too long.P9250223P9250223

Box of Delights

Organic Veg Box
Organic Veg Box

The red van draws up by the kitchen window, and I know something is about to be delivered.  The excitement of a parcel arriving never dulls for me.  Before you protest, I don’t have a rampant internet shopping habit, it’s simply that I live in what the census would describe as ‘an isolated rural hamlet’, and the niceties of shopping civilisation are a long drive away.

Of all the things that arrive, the Friday delivery is my favourite.  I can’t wait to rip off the tape and reveal the goodies inside.  It might surprise you, if you don’t know me, to note that it is not clothes, shoes, household furnishings, or indeed, any commodity that might generally be thought to inspire glee, but rather a box of freshly picked, mostly UK grown, organic fruit and veg! As I peel back the tape and the prise open the cardboard and packaging, it feels like Christmas; even though I obviously know what I’ve ordered, the suspense is palpable.

Before you consign this article to the bin -though I would rather the compost heap- let me explain further.  This time of year is not known for its wondrous abundance of fresh fruit and veg – most of the root veg are stored over winter, and there’s certainly no local fruit about, however, we are just beginning to see the first peeps of asparagus, and the blush of the first rhubarb; and purple sprouting broccoli –vastly superior to calabrese, in my view, the bog standard green broccoli on sale in supermarkets- is coming on stream, a saviour in the gap between the winter veg and spring greens.  New season Scottish carrots are making an appearance, and the cauliflowers are superb.  The local herb growers are producing the first bunches of the year, and this week I allowed myself a treat of the first lot of artichokes (albeit from Italy).

As I solicitously unpack this seasonal cornucopia, my mind starts racing with all manner of meal ideas, tasty treats and recipes.  The delectable artichokes will be devoured for lunch tomorrow, with a garlic and herb oil, and maybe some bread, plucked leaf by leaf, until the prize of heart is discovered, and divvied up for dunking; the cauli and coriander will make a delightfully fragrant curry along with store cupboard chickpeas, and the rhubarb, of course, will make a healthy, oaty crumble.  The possibilities are endless, and my imagination takes flight!

I generally get a local organic veg box each week from The Natural Vegetable Company, but this is only available when I can collect it from town – an 80 mile round trip which is unjustifiable when I’m not at work.  Otherwise, my Friday order from Real Foods is the norm.  The company has been established for 50 years, and excels at supplying fresh local organic veg from their Edinburgh store.  Although they do stock some imported items, their extensive fruit and veg list is based largely on UK suppliers, often local, so the list is predominantly seasonal.  For me, this is what makes the deliveries so exciting: the first rhubarb and asparagus, the last of the Seville oranges – for a whole year- and when the time is right we will get the first strawberries and Scottish raspberries.  It’s inspiring.  The same can’t be said of the supermarket fruit and veg aisle, and whilst I won’t make this a ‘bash the supermarket’ moment, there is no way they can compete with the freshness and vitality of this calibre of fresh produce.  You will see exotic items from all over the globe, no doubt, but the quality is dubious –even though they may be the same shape and size- and the flavour is always a disappointment.  A strawberry ‘fresh’ from a plastic punnet, is nothing like a ripe, un-refrigerated berry, carefully packed and rapidly shipped to the dribbling-mouthed recipient.  For organic veg you will probably find that the price of a box from a local box scheme, or a local supplier, or farm shop selling their own produce, is very favourable compared to supermarket equivalents, and very often cheaper. 

I would encourage you to give an organic veg box scheme a go.  If you live in Scotland you can order from Real Foods, though if you’re concerned about food miles try a local scheme.  Other national suppliers include Abel and Cole, and Riverford, both of whom I can recommend.  Give it a go, and you could soon have your own box of delights racing its way to your door!

The Long Commute

View to end of Caledonian Canal into Beaul;y Firth Ben Wyvis distance smallMy current commute is longer than some, not as long as others.  I don’t relish the 5am starts to get into the city, but the journey is quite lovely, and I suspect, quite unlike most other journeys from suburb to city.

I live on a hill overlooking the Cromarty Firth (the hill to be exact, is the North Sutor, and the Moray Firth runs alongside), 10 miles from the nearest train station, and even further from the bus route.  Although the drive into town takes about the same time as the train, on the train I get to look at the changing scenery rather than someone elses bumper.  It’s true that in the winter the journey is dark, and the train is often delayed or cancelled, and when it does turn up the heating is very often broken, but for nine months of the year commuting is a joy!

I don’t commute to Edinburgh or Glasgow – a four hour jaunt at a ridiculously early time of the morning- but into Inverness, the highland capital.  The rail line, mostly single track, traces the peninsulas from the Cromarty Firth, across the Black Isle, and up through the Beauly Firth into Inverness.  The Kessock bridge, spanning the Beauly and Moray Firths, was only built relatively recently, in 1982, and the Conon Bridge, across the Cromarty Firth in 1969.  The line was active long before both bridges were opened, although if the Beeching Report had been acted upon it would have been closed in 1963, and there would have been no rail services north of Inverness.  Thank goodness for the protestors who put pressure on politicians of the day to keep the line open.

The line follows the east coast, along the Moray Firth for much of the way north, and at times runs very close to the shore.  Along the Firths, from Invergordon to Dingwall and Beauly into Inverness, the carriages feel more like sea-faring vessels, so close does the track run to the water’s edge.  It gives a fantastic view of the sunrises and sunsets across the water, at the relevant times of year and day, as well as spectacular views of wildlife, especially migrant birds, herons, oyster catchers, cormorants, northern divers, and common seals:  the colony at Foulis can often be seen when the tide is right, hauled out on the shore, or banana-shaped, relaxing on partially submerged rocks.  Buzzards are a common sight, and red kites are often seen on the Black-Isle stretch.  In the summer evenings, and autumn mornings, deer – both red and roe- are a common sight along the route, and the ubiquitous sheep are everywhere.  The route also boasts some goats, donkeys, and the iconic red-haired highland cow.

Whatever the weather, the scenery is stunning: Struy Hill, Fyrish, Mount Gerald, Mount Eagle, and the Ben Wyvis range, ever present, brooding over the market town of Dingwall; visible at various points on the journey, and covered in snow for part of the year.

Michael Portillo travelled the route, from Invergordon to John O’Groats, in Series 4 of his Great British Railway Journeys, and my fellow commuters recall the filming.  It may not be classed as the most spectacular rail journey in Scotland -Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, I believe has that honour- but it is certainly up there with the best of them.

I won’t be travelling by train into the city after the end of next month, and although I won’t miss the 5am starts, in many ways I will miss my long commute.  Apart from the scenery and wildlife, there’s the conviviality and banter, often absent from the silent, impersonal commuter trains of the UK’s capital city.  Instead I will have a short drive to the cathedral town of Dornoch to look forward to, and although I’m sure there will still be plenty to see, I’ll need to keep my eyes on the road, and not on the scenery!

Photo Credit D Ruppenthal, all rights reserved.  View to end of the Caledonian Canal and into the Beauly Firth, Ben Wyvis in the distance, taken from the train.

A Thing About Trees

IMGP1446I was going to begin with the line ‘I’m not a tree-hugger’ as if it were some kind of criticism, but actually, I am, and it isn’t!  I am not your classic eco-warrior, protesting about trees being destroyed for roads, although sometimes I wish I had a bit more courage!  I do have a ‘thing’ about trees though, and I think always have had.  I was a tom-boy when I was younger (a lot younger) and climbing trees was one of my favourite things to do, partly because it was viewed as something slightly daring and ill-advised by my parents, but also because I liked the scuff of bark and branches, and the different perspective that height gave. 

We had a huge garden at home, but sadly there were no trees.  My mum was, and still is, intimidated by large growing things.  I’m not quite sure why, but I think it’s partly a control thing.  Like our Victorian forebears, she has a need to control nature, to make it conform to what she needs and wants from it, perhaps because there is so little else she controls in her life.

As a species we have a history of exploiting the natural world for our own gain.  Scotland’s barren landscape is testament to that.  The ancient forests may have been decimated before warfare took its toll, but the desolation is still manmade.  There have been moves in recent decades at restoration, and education, and all to the good.  I can’t help feeling that having more of a love of our natural world, in general, and trees in particular, might do more good.  ‘Project Wild Thing’ is tackling one of the fundamental issues – our lack of connection with the natural world-and is encouraging young people in particular to engage with nature: to get muddy, to climb trees, to look in ponds, to realise that there is much more to life than an illuminated display and keyboard.  Simply being outside is good for our health, and conversely, there is a good deal of research that now suggests the disconnect we have with our natural world is actually damaging our health.

I was at a workshop at the weekend, entitled ‘words for health’.  Lapidus, the organisation running the event, believes that creative writing promotes mental well-being, and as a writer and artist, I would agree.  The weekend workshop was about their new project ‘writing place’ which embraces writing where we are, and has real connections for those of us who live in the stunning scenery of the highlands.  A sense of place has always been evident in highland writing, and the landscape informs our creativity in an elemental way.  We did a lot of writing this weekend, and much of it was inspired by the stunning venue, Anam Cara, high above Inverness, set on the edge of forest.  We were lucky to have a real ‘tree lady’ taking one of the workshops!  Mandy Haggith is a writer based in Assynt, in the north-west highlands of Scotland. Her current project is ‘ A-B-Tree’and celebrates the link between trees and writing.  It was an interesting and energising day, encouraging us to engage more with ‘outside’ and the words, and health, that being there promotes.

Currently about 13 million hectares of forest are cut down each year 1.  Although there is some re-forestation, the net loss is massive, and includes some of the world’s remaining unique and pristine habitats: the five countries with the largest annual net loss of forest area in the period 2000-2005 were Brazil, Indonesia, Sudan, Myanmar (Burma)  and Zambia.  These forests cannot be replaced, and the systems they support are likely to be lost.

 Even in the UK, the rate of loss is greater than the rate or replanting, and the truth is even we need more trees.  We all know intrinsically that trees are good for us. Their leaves improve the air we breathe by trapping particles and releasing oxygen. Their roots help water travel deep into the soil, capturing pollutants and reducing flooding. By planting more trees we can capture more carbon and help species move in response to climate change.  The world’s forests have been described as the ‘lungs of the world’, and I think that description aptly conveys their importance to life on earth.  Without them we cannot survive long term.

 OK, you may not want to go and hug a tree – though personally I would recommend it, it’s a life-affirming experience- but you could certainly plant a tree, or support one of the organisations who are currently engaged in replanting schemes.  Wherever you live, your environment will benefit from a tree or two.  I would also encourage you to get out there into the outside. Whether you live in a town, city or the countryside, there are green spaces where you can re-engage with your natural environment.  Getting out of the office at lunchtime is a lot more beneficial to your well-being than playing Angry Birds, or updating Facebook! If you really can’t spare a few minutes, then make a point of getting out at the weekend with your family and appreciating the natural world.  Trees are amazing natural sculptures, and some of them have been around for centuries.  I guarantee you will be enriched by your experience.

 If you want to be more involved with re-forestry, or need an excuse to get outside, there are lots of organisations who would welcome you as a volunteer.  The Woodland Trust, Forestry Commission, and Trees for Life all have schemes you can get involved in.

 For more information on Mandy’s project see her website: http://mandyhaggith.worldforests.org/a-b-tree.asp?pageid=336781

 If you want to find out more about Lapidus, their website can be found here: http://www.lapidus.org.uk/  look at their ‘regional networks’ section for more information about what’s going on in your local area.

 If you want to be inspired by some tree images, take a look at my pinboard: http://www.pinterest.com/drnaturegirl/trees/  and http://onebigphoto.com/worlds-most-beautiful-trees-photography/

 Happy Tree hugging!

 

References#

1 United Nations Environment Programme ‘Forests’ http://www.unep.org/forests/

 

A week ‘Out There’

Most of us, at some time or another like to get ‘away from it all’, and a holiday is the ideal opportunity to do just that.  In this age of connectivity, Wi-Fi and 3G, very few of us actually manage a real break from our inter-connected, online, 24/7 lives.  There are probably few places in the UK outside the reach of technology, but in the far North West of Scotland there are still places where you can’t get a mobile phone signal, never mind the internet, so those who get the jitters when they can’t check their Twitter or Facebook accounts regularly, beware!

I have just returned from a delightful week wild camping in one of the few places in the UK where wilderness really does still exist.  Now I am the first to admit that the idea of being under canvas and digging holes in the woods for shitting in, in wild and wet September, is not my idea of fun.  So, yes I was in a motorhome, sheltered from the vagaries of the UK weather, with chemical loo and cooking facilities, but make no mistake, if you chose to eschew the facilities of caravan and camping sites, you are very much out there on your own.

Scotland has an enlightened view of land use, and actively encourages people to get out there and explore.  The Land reform Act (2003) which came into effect in February 2005 establishes a statutory right to camp in the wild, repealing a section in the Trespass Act of 1865 which contained the offence of ‘camping on land without the owner’s consent’.  We can argue about the impact of tourism on wild places, erosion, and the louts who ‘take more than photographs and leave more than footprints’, but that is for another day.  Most people who wild camp do so responsibly and follow the best practice guidance which is issued with the act, and most of which is common sense.  Michael Surman, owner operator at ‘Outthere Campers’, where we hired the van from, actively encourages people to get out and explore the Scottish Highlands, which he believes is every bit as dramatic as his native South Africa.  Certainly taking a van out and camping off-line is the ideal way to experience some of the Highland’s wild places and wildlife.  On this trip I saw my first sea otter, and spotted a golden eagle, which looked like a jet on the horizon; I took a ferry to the most north westerly point on the British mainland and walked over a 25m swing bridge suspended high above a box-canyon cut by ancient melt-water .  I’m not fit enough to climb mountains or fearless enough to raft white water, but if that’s your thing, the highlands are the place to do it.  In this fast-paced techno world we so often have our backs to nature, tuned out of natural sounds, sights and smells.  Getting back to nature may not be achievable, or even desirable for most people, but a few weeks a year with an absence of electrical interference and 24/7 communications is surprisingly refreshing.

John Muir the pioneering, influential Scots-born American conservationist who was passionate about the wild, said that ‘one day’s exposure to mountains is better than a cartload of books’ and whilst as an avid bibliophile and bookworm, I may not 100% agree with the statement, I certainly agree with the sentiment.  There is something about exposure to raw nature that is exhilarating and life-affirming.  Nature isn’t necessarily all that peaceful and tranquil: a river in spate, or a waterfall after a storm is a noisy affair, and trying to sleep when the wind is howling and the rain is pelting in sheets across the landscape you’re inhabiting is not necessarily relaxing, but it can be.  There is a soothing hypnotic quality to rushing water, like white noise, that you can chill out to or engage with.  Sunshine is great, and always welcome, but there is something magnificent about the power of a storm or an angry sea.

Living in a campervan or motor home for a week may cosset you against the worse of the elements, but if you take the opportunity to live ‘off-grid’ and camp wild, you do become aware of the resources you use on a daily basis, as well as how little ‘stuff’ you actually need.  Water may come out of the tap, but the supply is limited by the capacity of the on-board tank; the electricity is not on mains, and won’t power a plethora or electrical gadgetry indefinitely; heating and cooking are via gas, which again is limited by the size of canister.  You can see how much packaging is on the things you buy, and how much waste you generate; grey water has to be disposed of, and there’s no putting sanitary or food items down the plug hole – they will not magically disappear! Tesco, thank goodness, is not on every corner, and if you run out of something you are unlikely to be able to pop out and get it! It’s a good life-lesson if you take it away with you -the earth’s resources are limited, however we chose to live.

Getting out there and wild camping for a week or two is not primarily for didactic purposes, but enjoyment and refreshment, anything else is a by-product of the experience.  You may not have to hunt down supper and cook it over a camp fire, but you will have to find somewhere suitable to camp that doesn’t see your wheels sink in mud, or down a drainage ditch; you will soon learn to work out which way is the prevailing wind direction, and how tall your vehicle is.  You may not need the survival skills of Ray Mears, but if things go wrong you may need your wits about you, as a mobile phone signal cannot be relied upon, and practical decision making may save the day.  There are areas in northern Scotland that are uninhabited, where few man- made structures exist and only the deer, wildcats, pine martins and eagles roam.  Scottish wilderness may be readily accessible by motor vehicle, boat or foot, but it is still wilderness, to be treasured, preserved and enjoyed.  So what are you waiting for?  Get out there!