Hikers prescribe the walking cure for society’s ills

The Grassmarket Hillwalking Group is inviting members of the public to join them to break down barriers. Picture: Jane Barlow
The Grassmarket Hillwalking Group is inviting members of the public to join them to break down barriers. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Scotland’s hillwalkers have long spoken of the therapeutic and restorative power of a hike in the country’s mountains and glens.

Now a new hillwalking group has been formed taking people tackling issues such as homelessness, alcohol and drugs on hikes up into Scotland’s most scenic and serene locations as a form of therapy.

James Houldsworth of the Grassmarket Hillwalking Group, based at the Grassmarket Community Project at Candlemaker Row in Edinburgh, says it is when people are walking, and not making eye-contact, that confidence is more likely to emerge.

The group, which has tackled climbs in locations including the Pentlands, the Borders and Mull, often stay the night in bothies. The walks are never called off, no matter the weather, though the route will be altered.

Houldsworth, volunteer activities co-ordinator at the centre, described the group as a “unique icebreaker”.

“You get to know people better on a one-to-one basis when you’re out hillwalking,” said Houldsworth, a former police officer.

“Perhaps it’s being away from pressure or their family. They drop subtle hints. Some people are canny like that, not giving full sentences, but clues which can be picked up on. Sometimes it’s time to talk as we walk, sometimes it’s for later.”

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The group also invites members of the public to join them and Houldsworth believes that those who apply to join the project get unexpected benefits from the group too.

“It helps break down barriers between people who don’t often come into direct contact,” he added.

Elissa Ford, 35, from Leith, who lives with her mother and brother and suffers from depression, said: “Sometimes at home I feel like I’m trapped in a bubble. But being out in the open air makes me feel free like I can be myself and talk about things bothering me.”

Derek Duffy, who is training as a chef at the project said: “Walking with the group makes talking less scary.”

“I look after my mum at weekends and when I’m on the hillwalks I shake off my cares.”

Lesley Chilcott, 52, a former volunteer at Edinburgh Zoo, said hillwalking had led to her becoming friends with people she would never have come into contact with.

“I knew I had my own problems. Getting out the house and doing something like this has been the next step of my journey.”

Dr Mary Brown, broadcaster and former lecturer in psychology at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, said the hillwalking group created an “equality of relationship”.

“Walking side by side breaks down barriers and means that people get to know people as individuals. On a group walk they are not competing and this normalises relationships.”