Travel: UK: I'm a lumberjack with inner calm

Labouring in the wilds of Tayside may not sound like fun but the fresh air and beautiful scenery are a real tonic.

Like its strung-out sister stress, the cherished state of relaxation has a tendency to arrive unannounced. So it was that half-way through a week's manual labour in the foothills of the Scottish highlands I gazed at the fingers of my left hand and was surprised to see lengths of white nail which had grown in place of the usual chewed stumps.

Cheaper than therapy, healthier than a health farm - there's a lot to be said for a National Trust for Scotland Thistle Camp Holiday. Volunteers between 17 and 70 are eligible to pay good money for some hard labour. The age-range on our group spanned 40 years, and the experience varied widely - it included two Duke of Edinburgh's Award scheme participants, a former teacher, a prospective lecturer and a computer flooring installer.

The work which was required in the Pass of Killiecrankie was hard and Thistle Camps are a contradictory experience. Projects take place in beautiful areas of Scotland such as Glencoe, Arran and Kintail, but the labour itself is hard; physical exertion is strenuous, but the end result is an inner calm. There are few better feelings after a hard day's work in the bracing outdoors than a hot shower followed by a cold beer with Miles Davis trumpeting from the stereo.

Work for the week was split between two historic sites owned and managed by the National Trust for Scotland; the Pass of Killiecrankie, just south of Blair Atholl, and the landscaped environs of the Hermitage, just outside Dunkeld. The steep gorge of Killiecrankie owes its narrowness to geology - a sparkling grey mica-schist rock stranded with bands of quartzite which defeated the ice-age glaciers - and was the scene of the battle of 1689 in which the Jacobites defeated the government forces of William III, marching up the gorge from Perth.

In the shaded pass, afternoon strollers trooped past, hopping over the gaping hole we had dug into the footpath in an effort to install a new drain. The day-tripping tourists probably thought we were serving some sort of community service order as picks were swung and shovels pushed with weary grunts.

It's the constructive anarchy that was so appealing. The liberating feeling of throwing around gravel, of excavating a perfectly sound looking footpath until it was instead a heap of rubble, of standing thigh deep in a pool of mud. Never before have I opened the floodgates of a dam draining a pond and, to be frank, being that dirty in public gave me a child-like thrill.

Most satisfying of all was felling trees, the ultimate in rural vandalism. Stunning auburn-leaved beech line both sides of the pass and the sight of such species being unceremoniously terminated worried passers by, many of whom stopped to ask for an explanation.

Thousands of years ago much of Perthshire, like the rest of Scotland, was covered in woodland' less than one per cent of this remains.

Neither beech nor sycamore is a native species and both are very invasive, casting heavy shade that kills ground flora as well as native trees. The idea in woods such as Killiecrankie, designated a site of special scientific interest, is to preserve Scotland's natural woodlands.

As another mighty beech hit the deck it was comforting to be able to quote some statistics. Oak trees can support 284 insect species, willows and birch only slighter fewer. Beech trees sustain just 64, sycamores less than half that number of species.

Steve, a ranger, taught us how to fell properly. The idea is to saw a large notch, known as a bird's mouth, into one side of the trunk. This dictates the direction of the fall and is critical; get it wrong and you have a tree in limbo caught in the branches of its surviving neighbours. Most satisfying of all you get to put your hands on hips and cry "timber" as the tree descends with a crack and a crash. The take-as-you-find domestic arrangement is not to everyone's liking. Our home for the week was in a Boys' Brigade club where sleeping quarters consisted of male and female dormitories. Meals are prepared by the volunteers The only money needed is of the beer variety.

We explored the surrounding region on a day off, a lovely area which even inspired a decent line from the poet William McGonagall, a man famed for the epic dreadfulness of his verse. From the summit of Ben Vrackie ("speckled hill" in Gaelic) there was a long view down to the "beautiful, silvery Tay" as it winds towards the poet's home town of Dundee, and north to the highlands across Loch Rannoch.

On the fast train back to London, I spent the journey cleaning my new white fingernails before watching the sun set with a dreamy grin, one which only began to fade somewhere around Milton Keynes.

Thistle Camps run from late March to early November. Prices range from pounds 35 (pounds 20 concs) for a one-week camp, to pounds 90 (pounds 75 concs) for the three- week camp to Fair Isle. All food, accommodation and equipment is provided as well as some transport. For a copy of the 1999 programme, send an A4 SAE to Thistle Camps, National Trust For Scotland, 5 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh EH2 4DU

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Frank Turner performing at 93 Feet East
musicReview: 93 Feet East, London
News
Toronto tops the charts across a range of indexes
news

World cities ranked in terms of safety, food security and 'liveability'

Extras
indybest
Voices
A mother and her child
voices
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Assistant

    £19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a friendly, confident i...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Primary Teaching Assistant

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: At Tradewind Recruitment we are currently l...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Physics Teacher

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind Recruitment is currently working ...

    Recruitment Genius: Case Manager - Occupational Therapist / Physiotherapist

    £28000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee