Recent years have supported the appreciation of Scottish nature, culture, health, food and adventure – but this year is our year!
The Scottish Government’s Year of Young People is a great opportunity for people to come together across the generations to celebrate one of our nation’s precious assets.
The theme was developed to challenge many of the barriers encountered by young people. These include under-employment, zero hours and seasonal contracts, and low income – and this is for the lucky ones given the opportunity to work.
For the less fortunate, the challenges are even greater. Despite being one of the most highly-educated generations yet, many young people struggle in the labour market. I’ve had personal experience of these challenges. Brought up in Fort William, I was lucky to have the outdoors as my playground. All around me were mountains, rivers, forests and vast, wide open spaces.
Growing up in this amazing environment can be double-edged. Nature can be a major distraction from lessons and studies. School was difficult for me: I struggled with dyslexia and the targets I was expected to reach. Yet the time I spent outdoors taught me things that you can never learn from a textbook.
Later, I scraped into university to study geography. Again, I struggled. Eventually I graduated and decided it was time to pursue a career. But there was one serious two-word problem – professional experience! Like a lot of other young people, I was knocked back time after time by employers. I began to think I was unemployable. The labour market seemed saturated with older people with years more experience.
After saving some money from my bar job I decided to combine travelling with volunteering, mainly as ranger in one of Iceland’s largest lava fields. The experience was life-changing. It taught me hard skills and some invaluable soft skills.
Back home, I enrolled in a nature-based tourism Masters with the University of the Highlands and Islands, and began to realise the passion I felt for conservation and rural land management. Through more volunteering while working part-time, I tried to learn everything I could about the area. I was determined that, when the opportunity arose, I was going to be ready for it.
In time, this paid off. I was taken on by the John Muir Trust, as a Wild Land Ranger on their Glen Nevis estate. I love every minute of working in the spectacular landscape I grew up in, with inspiring individuals.
But I’m also aware that these roaring rivers and snow-capped peaks must seem like a different planet to many young people. Around a third of children in Glasgow are living in poverty. Many will never have the opportunity to go on adventures and learn about nature as I did.
One of my hopes for 2018 is that we can find ways of getting more young people out into Scotland’s wild places.
Occasionally, I have the privilege of talking to mountaineering legends about their experiences of growing up. My partner’s father, Dave Bathgate and the famous Hamish MacInnes – both brought up near Scotland’s major cities in the mid-20th century – often tell me stories of their adventures in Glen Coe and abroad.
They had to overcome geographical and other obstacles. They would often thumb a lift from the Central Belt to the Highlands. Hitchhiking was widely practised then – and public transport in rural areas was cheap and comprehensive.
These days, if you don’t drive or have access to a car, it can be easier and less expensive to travel to Ibiza than to Skye. Maybe our politicians at local and national level could give serious thought to finding ways of making Scotland’s mountains more accessible, not just to overseas tourists, but to thousands of young people in our towns and cities for whom Ben Nevis or the Cuillin might as well be on the other side of the world.
In the meantime, many young people might want to start exploring wild nature on their own doorsteps by checking out the John Muir Award.
Run by the John Muir Trust, it’s free, non-competitive and accessible – and delivered by hundreds of organisations, including schools, colleges, environmental groups, outdoor organisations, youth projects and Scotland’s two national parks.
This Year of Young People will have many strands, from arts and culture to health, education and equality. For those who are looking to add a bit more colour and adventure to their lives, then 2018 might be a good year to start discovering Scotland’s wild outdoors. Find out more at www.johnmuirtrust.org/john-muir-award
Nathan Berrie, John Muir Trust land manager.