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16 Jul 2019

A Grey Mare’s Tale

Written by Stuart Gillies
Five people stand beside a mountain path, holding long tools used to shape the path. A National Trust for Scotland ‘Love’ sign sits in the foreground, on the path.
Volunteers learning all about upland footpath maintenance at Grey Mare’s Tail Nature Reserve
I recently got back from a week taking part in a National Trust for Scotland working holiday. The scenic location for the project was the famous Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall, near Moffat.

The main reason I booked the holiday was because I am a professional seafarer and I am on holiday for 6 months of the year. With all of this free time I decided to challenge myself by doing something a bit different! Working with other volunteers to repair part of a footpath on a hillside was not something that I had done before. I appreciate experiencing new things though, so I decided to book a Thistle Camp and find out what it was like.

Whilst I enjoy being outdoors and hill walking, having bagged a few Munros in my time, I didn’t quite know what to expect on this holiday. Would it be hard work? Would it be fun? Would we be forced to do back-breaking labour in torrential rain each day? The first two were true, but thankfully not the third … not quite anyway!

The routine for each day was we’d get up and have breakfast at about 7.30am, make some sandwiches for lunch and then walk up the hill to the stretch of the footpath that we were maintaining. By the time we made our way to our work site, at Grey Mare’s Tail in the Moffat hills, it was usually 10am. We’d have a short rest break and enjoy a cup of tea (helpfully tea bags and flasks of hot water were provided) and then commence work.

There were various tasks to help maintain the footpath, like making a cross drain, smashing stones, digging a pit and collecting gravel. Usually we would work from 10am to 4pm, with plenty of breaks for tea and biscuits (Toffee Pops are definitely my new favourite!) to keep us sustained.

The work was physically demanding at times but it was satisfying at the end of each day to see the progress we had made. The path started to take shape slowly but surely, with layers of large rocks at the base, smaller stones on top of that, and then a topping of gravel that was flattened down with metal tampers to give a nice finish.

A man works on a rocky mountain path. He holds a rake. Yellow buckets of path material stand in the background.
The path starts to take shape.

Early summer in Scotland meant we experienced a mixture of all sorts of weather. Pouring rain, bright sunshine, then rain again was a pattern that was often repeated several times in one day. Decent waterproofs are something I would definitely recommend for this type of holiday. Thankfully, wellies were provided for wading in the river to collect gravel.

The group was an interesting mix of people with various backgrounds. At 31, I thought I would be the oldest in the group but I discovered there were people of all ages. I found myself sympathising with two 18-year-olds who had only just completed their A Level maths exam the day before and had travelled up to Scotland from London!

Accommodation was in the Heatheryhaugh cottages at the edge of Moffat. There were large kitchens and living rooms – definitely enough space for us to live comfortably for the week. Our clothes got pretty muddy, especially when it rained and we got soaked, so we were thankful for the washing machines. We were in shared bedrooms and I discovered on the first night that my friendly roommate had a rather loud snore. He was swiftly (and amicably!) banished to the living room for the rest of the week – I slept soundly after that.

Something I didn’t quite realise until we got there is that we were cooking our own meals. This worried me a little, as my cooking skills are usually terrible! Luckily, this wasn’t an issue as our leader Johnny kept us right and we all pitched in to make some rather lovely meals in the evenings, including the all-important desserts.

After dinner we would spend the evening socialising and playing games. It was nice to do something relaxing after spending an exhausting day on the hillside. I must admit I was ready for bed by about 10pm most nights after expending so much energy during the day. A high level of physical fitness is certainly recommended for this holiday. That’s not to say people should be put off going, just be prepared to have tired arms and legs after each day.

A large group of people stand on the mountainside beside a waterfall. They all are holding spades, or similar tools. The lady to the far left hold her spade above her head. The man in the centre holds a National Trust for Scotland ‘Love’ sign.
Thistle Camp volunteers and leaders with the magnificent backdrop of Grey Mare’s Tail in the background

Overall, I was impressed by the well-organised support from the office. It was straightforward booking myself onto the holiday. Our intrepid leader Johnny was well prepared. He knew what he was doing and had boundless energy in getting us working, cooking dinner, and teaching us the various aforementioned evening games, the most memorable of which was Chinese Pictionary! I learned a lot during the week and got an insight into what the National Trust for Scotland does, plus how reliant it is on volunteers and staff. I also got an appreciation of how much work goes into the paths that visitors walk up and down every week. It’s something I’ll certainly bear in mind next time I’m out hill walking.

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