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29 Jun 2018

The fun of being a Trailblazer

Written by Johnny Wells
The 2017 Kintail Trailblazers, with group leaders Johnny Wells and David Hector
The 2017 Kintail Trailblazers, with group leaders Johnny Wells and David Hector
Since 2001, our Trailblazer programme has given 16- and 17-year-olds the chance to explore and enjoy Scotland through conservation activities.

As the school summer holidays approach, some young people will be taking the opportunity to lie in and play on their games consoles. But over 50 young people will instead be packing their bags to come on one of our 7 working holidays designed specifically for 16- and 17-year-olds, with the chance to discover Scotland and develop themselves.

Participants from the Ben Lawers Trailblazer experiencing Loch Tay
Participants from the Ben Lawers Trailblazer experiencing Loch Tay

Trailblazer camps are just a small part of the overall working holiday programme running during the school summer holidays, but they make a significant difference for the young people who attend. The programme originally started in 2001 as a result of changes in working regulations, which meant that under 18s were unable to come on adult working holidays; the Trust ran three Trailblazers that year. Following a grant from Scottish Natural Heritage in 2013, the programme expanded to seven camps and enabled the recruitment of paid leaders who brought specialised youth work skills to help maximise the experience for our participants.

The Ben Lawers Trailblazers standing on the replacement boardwalk that they built
The Ben Lawers Trailblazers standing on the replacement boardwalk that they built

Participants come for a variety of reasons. Some are motivated by the need to complete the residential section of their Duke of Edinburgh award; this requires them to go away for five days and four nights with a group they haven’t met before. Others come from abroad because they want to see Scotland for the first time, while some are sent by parents to broaden their horizons during the holidays. 

Whatever the reason, by the end of the week the staff aim to have shared their passion for the natural world, allowing participants to step outside their comfort zone, make connections with other people and, of course, have fun!

Participants mapping out an archaeological dig at the House of Dun
Participants mapping out an archaeological dig at the House of Dun

Trailblazers are run slightly differently from our traditional working holidays. This starts from the first minute of the trip, when we meet at the tool store – there’s an energetic game to break the ice and get to know everybody’s names.

Participants playing ‘wildcat, salmon, midge’, which is a version of ‘rock, paper, scissors’ with an environmental angle
Participants playing ‘wildcat, salmon, midge’, a version of ‘rock, paper, scissors’ with an environmental angle

During the Trailblazer camps, equal time is devoted to conservation work such as footpath repair, building boardwalks and planting trees, as well as environmental activities to explore and discover more about the local area through art, poetry, games, storytelling and movement. Many of these are inspired by the John Muir award, which participants complete as part of the week.

Participants share portraits of each other made with materials from the hillside
Participants share portraits of each other made with materials from the hillside

At the halfway point of the project, participants have a day off to take part in an outdoor adventure day to see the area they are working in from a different viewpoint and to get the blood pumping. This can range from sea kayaking with seals in Loch Leven, gorge walking around Aberfeldy or doing the high ropes course at Blairgowrie.

Letting off steam after a morning of raft building at the Compass Outdoor Centre
Letting off steam after a morning of raft building at the Compass Outdoor Centre

As the week progresses, the young people noticeably relax the more time they spend outdoors. Their self-confidence grows through mastery of using tools in a task, by being able to make mistakes without fear of embarrassment, and by having conversations with new people and connecting with others in the group.

Participants enjoying the sunset near Kintail
Participants enjoying the sunset near Kintail

Part of this relaxation comes from spending time at some of the Trust’s most awe-inspiring properties, including Glencoe, Torridon, Kintail, Mar Lodge Estate, Ben Lomond and Ben Lawers. Often, the views alone can show participants a different side of life they haven’t experienced before, giving them a sense of grounding in this busy world. The other part comes from making a connection with others around them. Sometimes it’s seeing a role model in our passionate rangers caring for the natural world; sometimes it’s finding a friend they connect with over a shared love for a band; or maybe just feeling part of something bigger than themselves as they work alongside others.

 A participant looks down into Glen Affric after a morning clearing cross drains
A participant looks down into Glen Affric after a morning clearing cross drains

The magic that happens on Trailblazer camps appears each year, enthusing the leaders to return to lead more camps and also sending ripples into the world of young people who care about the natural world. We hope it’ll continue for many years to come, allowing young people and nature to grow in partnership. As one participant said: ‘After all the work done, the muscles that hurt the most were in my face from smiling. I couldn’t speak highly enough of the camp and the people who ran it.’

So, if you’re reading this and haven’t made plans for your summer holiday yet, take a look at our working holidays website for an opportunity to be a Trailblazer.

A participant and leader working together on an end of camp song
A participant and leader working together on an end of camp song

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