I’ve always been interested in gaining a deeper and more fundamental understanding of Scotland’s natural environment. As part of the UK Summer Mountain Leader award, prospective leaders are required to demonstrate knowledge of mountain geology, flora and fauna. This doesn’t need to be in great detail though. So although I can tell the difference between ling heather and cross-leaved heath, I’d be the first to admit that my knowledge of how we can identify and use natural resources to support living in the wild – bushcraft, in short – has definite room for improvement. Bushcraft appeals to the hunter-gather in all of us, whether you’re more interested in the short term survival side of it or the recreational foraging and natural living aspect.
Over the weekend of 23-24 April I spent two days and two nights on a coastal survival weekend run by Wildwood Bushcraft. Owned and run by Leon Durbin, Wildwood Bushcraft offers bushcraft and survival courses in a range of environments and at a range of levels of competency. To make the experience realistic and therefore valuable, Leon places a lot of emphasis on getting your mindset away from 21st century living and into the wilderness. Participants are asked to bring no food of their own; the only food eaten is that which can be caught or gathered (though a few additional extras such as flour, and butter for frying, are brought along).
We were straight into the survival mindset, with a quick rundown of some common trees and their uses (birch bark for tinder) and a crash course in some common woodland plants, like primrose and pignut, on the walk away from civilisation. We set up in a secluded spot on the tidal shore of Loch Moidart, with the salt waters of the Atlantic lapping the rocks nearby.
Unlike mountains, coasts are a high energy environment. Coastal areas in Scotland offer much more generous opportunities for gathering or catching food than mountainous areas. Even so, finding and eating enough to avoid hunger was difficult! After a frosty but dry first night bivvying out in the open, the seven of us on the course started off with some fishing. Hobo fishing (using a tin can or another cylindrical object as a reel) didn’t work too well. In fact, none of us caught anything but seaweed, despite having several proper fishing rods to hand. So our lunch was mussels and limpets, along with with some bannock with chopped seaweed baked in a pan over the fire. A sprinkling of wood sorrel and wild garlic added a bit of greenery to the salty fare.
Time was also spent on the principles and practicalities of shelter building using natural materials. Although shelter is absolutely essential in a bushcraft situation, finding the ideal spot can be tricky, especially when it comes to finding dry ground. Marie (my girlfriend) and I teamed up to build a one-person shelter, but even a one-person shelter demands a large investment in time and energy. We didn’t finish ours in time, but made a respectable effort.
Firelighting was another challenge. In dry conditions, making fire with firesteel and natural materials isn’t too difficult. But Scotland is rarely dry. It took the seven of us a full hour to get a fire going on Sunday morning, after a few overnight rain showers had passed through. We also covered fire by friction using a bow drill. It’s very hard work. Day 2 saw crab soup for lunch, courtesy of the creel we’d put out at low tide the day before. Leon also covered the desalination of seawater, knife sharpening and maintenance, and wood carving. We had a couple of hours to practice carving skills before returning to the road.
Modern living doesn’t encourage self-sufficiency. Nor do we often realise just how energy-laden our grab ‘n’ go, 24/7, pre-packaged high calorie diet is. The coastal survival weekend was a valuable personal experience and it taught me to better appreciate wild food, survival necessities and the benefits of modern equipment such as tents. The professional benefit to a mountain leader is that many of these lessons carry over into the upland environment too.