Guest blog post from Anna Danby, Founder of Wild Roots Highland Guiding
I grew up in the Yorkshire countryside, it wasn’t wilderness but it was green. My family home sits in a small slither of greenbelt land, protected from the urban sprawl from Bradford on one side and Halifax on the other. When I visit my parents now it’s hard to imagine how such a developed bit of countryside felt wild, but to me, as a child, it did.
Most of my memories of being young involve playing outside; running through fields and rivers, riding horses, climbing hillsides, getting lost, making perfume from flowers and just sitting, watching the world go by. I’m sure these amount to only a small percentage of my childhood hours but they are the ones that stuck.
My relationship with the outdoors grew from being a place where I felt comfortable to one I wanted to understand. I remember looking at trees and wondering why branches grow in the way they do and how water shapes the land as it flows. In my GCSE geography textbook, there were page long explanations with endless text and diagrams on how rivers form different features, how waterfalls cut through rock.
I can still see these images today and feel the confusion in my brain trying to decipher all the arrows showing the action of the water this way and that. If only our teacher had taken us for a walk along a river, it would have been plain to see.
I don’t think I had that realisation at the time but it was definitely the start of a desire to be out in the natural world, experiencing it directly and learning its stories.
At university this led me to study Environmental Science. Naively I thought this would be all about understanding and protecting our planet but in fact it was mostly about how to exploit it.
I loved student life in Manchester, embracing a different kind of wild for a while but I always knew it was temporary. After 4 years of a very city heavy lifestyle I was more than ready to leave, I needed less concrete in my life.
I found a Post Grad course at the University of Edinburgh ‘Outdoor Environmental and Sustainability Education’ and decided to apply. Two things about this course stood out to me. 1; despite only having visited Scotland a couple of times I somehow already knew I felt at home here and 2; the first course was a week long open canoe journey along the river Spey.
Maybe finally I would get to learn about a river in the flesh as it were! I was not disappointed and the learning and experiences over the next year were truly inspirational to me.
If anyone is looking for further study in this area then I cannot recommend this programme highly enough.
At the end of this year a new sense of adventure was awakened in me. I finished the course knowing that I wanted to find work through which I could inspire others to learn about this wonderful planet of ours. And, on a more personal level I wanted to spend more time outdoors, in wild places, having adventures of any kind.
I got a temporary job running science workshops in schools across Scotland which meant I got to travel through a lot of the more remote areas of the country. This gave me endless inspiration but still not much actual adventure. At this point in my life I was still very much relying on other people to take me on adventures and hadn’t work out how to have them for myself.
In 2010 I took up a position within the Learning Team at Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh. Little did I know then that this would form the backdrop to my life for almost the next 10 years. It also provided the catalyst that kickstarted my hiking, running and climbing journeys.
Work colleagues persuaded me to enter a 10km race, at that time I could barely run 1km. I reluctantly agreed and being someone who likes to do things properly I got stuck into training.
To my surprise I found I actually really enjoyed training, the focus it gave and feeling my running ability improve was great. Especially when I realised that running doesn’t have to be on tarmac! Running on trails, now that’s a joy.
It was also through colleagues at Dynamic Earth that I started climbing again, something I enjoyed as a child but never found time for as an adult.
In 2014 I met Simon, an experienced climber and mountaineer who was willing to take me under his wing and share his expertise. He opened up a whole new world of outdoor adventures and encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone, learning as I went.
Climbing enabled me to develop a confidence in myself that I had never had before. As it turned out Simon also became my life partner and we now have a third member of the team in our daughter, Alina. I didn’t go looking for a mentor but I wish I had.
Don’t be afraid to ask people you admire to share their knowledge and skills with you. In my experience you can learn a lot this way.
People active in the outdoors are generally very happy to help and inspire others. I often wonder why it took someone else believing in me to give me the confidence to become an active, outdoor person.
I look back on all the missed opportunities to engage in these activities and don’t know why I was well into my 20’s before I made anything of them.
One factor was definitely confidence, another was time. In my younger life I gave most of my spare time and energy to volunteer work and projects, I didn’t have much left over for myself. It was hard making the conscious decision to cut back on this work to make more time for ‘me’. It felt deeply selfish and indulgent, but I don’t regret it at all. I think as women we often feel guilt for putting ourselves first, but by doing so I was able to become a better version of myself and give back in other ways.
Two years ago myself & Si took the decision to do something long talked about and relocate from Edinburgh to the West Highlands. I left my much loved job, friends & community in search of a lifestyle more closely connected with wild places. Although I miss lots of the things a city life offers, I have never looked back. Being able to step out of my front door and be in the mountains makes me a very happy person.
Immersing myself in mountain life gave me the final confidence boost to complete my Mountain Leader assessment and earlier this year I launched my own guiding company Wild Roots Highland Guiding. Finally, I hope to be able to realise my childhood dream of inspiring others with the landscapes that have given so much to me.
I still struggle with identifying myself as an outdoor professional.
Objectively I know I am experienced and have all the skills required but the mountain running, climbing, adventure girl part of me is a relatively recent voice in my self narrative.
The overweight, shy teenager and highly self-critical young adult still weigh heavy on my shoulders at times but I have learnt not to let those voices take over. I know so many women who talk about feeling like ‘imposters’ and lack confidence in what they do. The reality is that if you worked hard to get somewhere then you very much deserve be there and no one but yourself is doubting you!
I hope that sharing my journey to an outdoor lifestyle is useful to others who are seeking to do the same. There isn’t one way to do it and everyone’s path will follow its own unique route. What works for one person might not for another so it is hard to give generic advice.
One thing I do believe though is that there is always time. Time to learn, develop and follow your passion in life. Whatever has gone before will only add value to the person you become so use it to drive you forward and don’t let it hold you back.