Cameron McNeish: Why Scotland's mountains are good for the mind

Spending time in the hills is good for mind, body and soul, particularly in the worst of times, says Cameron McNeish.

Getting up into the hills helps Cameron McNeish put life's travails into perspective (Picture: Richard Else)

It was the late Chris Brasher who came up with the title of my autobiography. We had travelled from the Cairngorms to Punchestown Races near Dublin to see one of his racehorses run, a journey we undertook by helicopter so there was considerable expense involved. We sat in the stand alongside the Irish punters expecting great things of Chris’ horse, when disaster struck. The horse fell at the first hurdle, dismounting his jockey, and was last see running off in the direction of County Kildare.

I immediately turned to Chris with thoughts of commiseration but he simply gave a wan smile and said: “Never mind, there’s always the hills.” Those words came back to me some years later on the morning after the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014.

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I had wakened early to the news that the people of Scotland had voted against independence and I felt crushed and dismayed. After what seemed like years of campaigning, building up hopes for a fairer society, I don’t think I’d ever experienced such bitter political disappointment. I went back to bed to try and sort my head out. I knew I could do one of two things. I could be angry and bitter and allow the result to affect my mood for days to come or I could resolve to accept the decision and get on with my life. It was as I lay there, trying desperately to pull myself together, that I recalled those words of Chris Brasher.

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It’s a simple notion, but I sense there’s something deeper than mere escapism in the idea of returning to the comforting bosom of Mother Nature. For as long as I can remember, that has been my panacea for times of disappointment or grief. The hills have always been my salvation. Today political events move so fast, and often in the strangest ways, that it’s very easy to feel alienated and ultimately stressed. We become aware that other people govern and control large portions of our lives, and some of these people (usually remote politicians) make decisions that directly affect us, whether we like it or not.

Many of the daily schedules that we adhere to are not of our own making, but are imposed on us by others. But more people are realising they can escape the constant barrage of negative news and ease themselves into the hills where they can connect with their timelessness, immerse themselves in their beauty and majesty and wonder again at the contrasting insignificance of man.

Even going for a short walk is good for you. Research suggests that the mental demands of making muscles function actually stimulates your brain, blood vessels and denser nerve connections with the effect that the simple act of walking actually keeps your brain in shape – and a healthy, well-tuned brain helps you deal with the complexities of life that often result in unacceptable high levels of stress.

I’m often asked just what it is that attracts me to the mountains, particularly in winter; what is it that draws me from my comfortable home into the cold, potentially dangerous world of rugged winter landscapes? Most people live in a permanent regime of nine-to-five repetitiveness with only weekends and an annual holiday to break the monotony. It’s perhaps not surprising that an increasing number of us attempt to escape the regularity of it all to find respite in a landscape that has a more lasting reality.

I fully accept our winter mountains are not only beautiful, but are potentially dangerous places. So are our cities, our road networks and our own homes. We wouldn’t handle bare electrical wires; we wouldn’t knowingly walk out in front of a bus; we avoid certain city streets late on a Saturday night.

We make every attempt to minimise the risks involved in everyday living, and yet people still die from electric shocks, from road accidents and from alcohol- and tobacco-related illnesses.

In fact, one of the biggest killers of Scots is lack of exercise, resulting in obesity and diabetes.

Winter mountaineering is like everything else: you learn to recognise the risks and you try to manage them. You find out what skills you need to cut that risk to a minimum and you learn those skills. In terms of mountaineering we learn how to navigate in bad weather; we learn how to use an ice axe and crampons; we learn about avalanches and how to avoid them and we learn how to listen to our natural instinct for survival. I appreciate that accidents do, and will continue to, happen. I will certainly continue to try and minimise the risks I face when I go to the hills and even after five decades of climbing mountains I’m very aware that I’m still learning.

What I do know with certainty is that the feelings I experience on top of a winter mountain are like a drug. I am addicted, completely and utterly, but I believe it’s a thoroughly delectable addiction. Let me explain.

There is considerable physical effort involved in climbing a mountain and this exercise releases endorphins in our body – a kind of feel-good natural drug.

The excitement of tackling risk and challenging situations releases another natural drug called adrenaline, which heightens our awareness and sensitivity. Add that to the sheer pleasure of being in a remarkably beautiful environment and a sense of achievement and the resultant mix is highly potent. A natural high like no other I know, a sensation that can last for days. Fatal accidents occasionally occur on the Scottish hills. Such deaths are tragic, but consider those deaths against the hundreds of thousands of people who are refreshed and rejuvenated by going to the hills, inspired and re-equipped to go back to their normal everyday world.

We need to put the accidents into some kind of realistic perspective. Going to the hills is not a route to your own death, as one journalist has suggested.

No, it’s the route to life, life in all of its glorious fullness, a respite from the stresses and strains of 20th century living. Thank goodness, there’s always the hills. 

There’s Always the Hills, by Cameron McNeish, will be launched on 15 February at Waterstones West End, Prince’s Street, Edinburgh at 6.30pm.