Following the road less travelled can be dangerous but also life-changing – Leonie Charlton

I have been intrigued by paths all my life. As a child it was the animal paths that most drew me: sheep paths through heather; cattle paths along and through rivers; deer paths articulating their knowing way across steep or boggy terrain.

Going off track can be a journey in more ways than one (Picture courtesy of Leonie Charlton)

Since my first long trip in the hills in 2010 travelling by pony, I have come to value the safe passage offered by other kinds of paths: coffin routes, herring routes, postal routes, deer stalking pony paths and drovers roads.

There are also those precious paths not marked on any map and pointed out to you by people who have inherited the knowledge. Then there are the times when you follow no path at all, for whatever reason, either through desire or necessity, you have to find your own path, and all your senses come fully alive.

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My book, Marram, is the story of a journey through the Outer Hebrides with my friend Shuna and our two Highland ponies. We follow many paths; some are sandy and a horse-rider’s dream, such as the Machair Way in South Uist that follows seemingly endless miles of machair and beach.

There are paths through hills of hardest Lewisian gneiss, and then there are the peaty paths, such as where Harris meets Lewis, in a breathtakingly beautiful place called Kinloch Rèasort, uninhabited with no road in bar the sea. It was there, many walking hours away from phone signal, I got my pony badly bogged.

I realise now, that without that dark event, and the three days surrounding it, there probably would have been no Marram. It was a life-changing event: I wasn’t mauled by a crocodile, or trapped in an underground cave for days on end, or held at gunpoint, but to me, it was a crisis; there was deep peat, and digging, there was isolation and blood. It took me to the edges of my own fear, a paralysing place.

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It was teamwork with Shuna and the ponies that got us out, and for me, there was also a sense of reaching out to all the people in the past who had known and loved and belonged to this land, their beehive dwellings and blackhouse walls still visible for us to see.

At the recent launch of the paperback in Oban, someone asked about those events in the peat bogs. I heard a change in how I answered; previously there had been primarily shame around how I’d got us into such a bad predicament, but this time, in my answer, I heard a recognition of the importance of danger in our lives, and the gifts it can bring. Sometimes danger is the only thing that can shake us awake into true aliveness.

The day after the book launch I was knocked off my feet by a chest infection. I spent the best part of a week in bed listening to podcasts made by a South African conservationist called Boyd Varty. He is an animal tracker and storyteller who apprenticed himself to the Shangaan, “a tribe of poets and rogues who abandoned the warring ways of the Zulu to go their own way”, and a people known for being the best trackers in southern Africa.

In this particular podcast series, made during lockdown, Varty spends 40 days and 40 nights sleeping in a tree, and animal tracking alone in the South African bush. He is a riveting storyteller, and uses animal tracking as a metaphor of how we can bring more meaning and consciousness to our own lives; the tracks of our authentic life leave signs for us, we need to be awake enough to pay attention to them, and we can choose to follow them.

In his book A Lion Tracker’s Guide To Life, Varty talks about his Shangaan teachers describing the unknown as “a discipline of wildness”, and that “too much uncertainty is chaos, but too little is death”. He talks about the very real dangers of having no danger in our lives.

I’ve heard our neural pathways being described as “well-worn cart tracks”, and most of us will have experienced the frustration of trying to change beliefs and patterns, but all too easily slipping back into old ways.

Sometimes we have to run out of path to make changes – that’s what I found that day out in the peat bogs of Kinloch Rèasort. Sometimes we need danger to wake up into the here and now.

I’ve come to see that the terrors of the peat bog, and the long night and day that followed, were an essential and guiding chapter in my life; the feelings of helplessness and fear and shame helped me to look into my own darkness, and to unearth the courage beneath the fear.

Those experiences at Kinloch Rèasort broke up the old cart tracks of stories of blame and hurt that were acting like a quagmire in my own life, bogging me down, stopping me seeing the way forward.

During the recent week spent ill in bed, dreaming of being out on the hills to hear the first skylark whilst listening to a man in another continent tracking lions, I could see how the learning from that peat bog experience is still reverberating through my life.

I believe it has given me a better nose for following my authentic life path, and that when we do that, in whatever tiny ways, we open up possibilities not just for ourselves but for our family and community. There is hope and inspiration to be found In the words of Renias, one of Boyd Varty’s Shangaan teachers: "I don’t know where I’m going, but I know exactly how to get there.”

Leonie Charlton will be appearing at the Boswell Book Festival on Sunday, May 15

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