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A woman's place: in the hills

Monday 7th March 2022, 1:17pm


For International Women's Day, Mountaineering Scotland Director Ilona Turnbull writes about the joy she experiences in Scotland's hills and mountains - and her drive to share the health and wellbeing benefits with more women.


I知 writing this blog post sitting at the front of the Cal Mac ferry chuffing (or its sustainable modern equivalent) to Islay. I知 following my progress on the OS map app, trying to spot ancient duns, cairns and dolphins. I can see shafts of citrine sunlight, a Prussian blue sea and silvery-grey hills. I知 wearing jeans, hiking trainers, a windproof and my Mountaineering Scotland buff (you can get yours in our online shop!). I can assure you I知 wearing underwear albeit I知 heading to an island where Paps are rather celebrated! The journey will take me to Bruichladdich - not for whisky, but as my base for the next five days as I continue my Corbett quest.  All being well, I値l conquer Corbett 131.

If you壇 asked me in 2017 what I壇 be doing on a random Thursday, I壇 have had nothing interesting to say. Fast forward, it痴 a different and much better life that I have. And I知 itching (not from midges) to explain why: I found hillwalking.

I知 an average lass who hailed from Brisbane and found her way to Scotland. I知 not a fell runner, I work in an office, I知 short (163.5cm in the morning before my spine compresses), I like to read, I知 a big fan of food (except for tripe and pumpkin) but I love to hike and I知 passionate about Scotland. I知 also the Director for HR, Governance and Equalities for Mountaineering Scotland - if my references to branded kit hadn稚 given it away yet. I知 the first Aussie Munro compleatist and I知 hoping to fly the Aussie flag again on a final Corbett summit in the next wee while. But I can read about my achievements at the start of this paragraph and I still feel like I知 an imposter. Perhaps I always will; but in my heart of hearts, I know simply that I never feel like a failure when hillwalking.

I知 hoping this wee insight into what got me into hiking might spark something in anyone reading this - but particularly women. I知 keen to spoil any notions that in order for you to begin, or get back to or to see more of the best parts of wild Scotland, you need to be some kind of extreme athlete, that you need to leave behind your Est馥 Lauder double-wear mascara (it survives multiday hikes), or that you need to be able to make fire or name all the Munros and their English translations.

I moved to the UK in 2006 and lived in London until 2010. I did some Munros during that time as I was introduced to them by friends. I would read in awe of journeys into Fisherfield or Torridon, of stomach-churning ridges above Glen Coe or on Skye, of bog fests in, well, quite a few places (I知 talking about you, Crianlarich hills). But I never thought I壇 get anywhere near to completing those hills.  I felt unworthy, self-critical, scared.

I ear-wigged on conversations where hikers could name not only Nevis, but many other hills. I also thought they were a bit pretentious but, secretly, I wanted to BE that person naming those hills and talking about their history. And those hikers - well, you could hear the passion in their voices, the drop in register as they caressed Gaelic hill names (except for Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan - no-one can really say that), and the joyful way in which they discussed their love of the hills and how it provided them with mental and physical fitness. I wanted that. I致e suffered badly from depression and during 2017, spent time in hospital. When I got out, I thought about what I liked to do when I was younger it was hiking and being outdoors. So I re-started hillwalking.

I began with hills close to Edinburgh, on fine days. I asked questions, of friends, on social media. I read. And I walked. And it worked. Depression creeps up on me still, but hiking and the hills sustains me more than anything I致e tried. In periods of acute depressive episodes or long days at work, I look at my hiking pics, I route plan, I recall, and I feel like I知 worthwhile.

As to what I want to achieve as a director at Mountaineering Scotland I simply want more women to feel what I feel about the Scottish hills and how it makes me feel about myself. I知 delighted to see so many more women on hills than 10 years ago but there痴 still a gender gap. Hillwalking痴 given me confidence, amazing friends and wonderful adventures, but in the end, I知 still just an average lass from Brisbane who now owns seven rucksacks to two handbags.

So what do you need to get into or back into hillwalking? You just need to want to learn, to explore, to feel, to recall in your mind痴 eye what a joyful experience it is to be out in the hills. You also need to be pragmatic (the weather痴 not always glorious but it痴 ever-changing), sensible (always pack a spare pair of socks) and inquisitive (map reading skills can be learned).

What would be great, too, is if you are willing to share your ideas, hikes, adventures, photos and tips with others but particularly other female hillwalkers. That was a lifeline for me. It made me feel less alone and out of my depth. I know I can bore non-hikers or outdoor lovers rigid with my hill chat, but I知 also aware that my passion is writ large on my face, that my eyes sparkle and that I come alive when I talk about it. There are lots of women who share that ardour, but we can always do with more recruits. I知 always keen to speak about hiking, and I share pics of my adventures to hopefully inspire others, so do find me on Twitter or Instagram.

Twitter: @ilona_turnbull

Instagram: @ilonaturnbull