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Northern exposure

The muddy delights of a Scottish working break.
Shovelling mud from a waterlogged ditch on a rainy October morning in Glencoe may not sound like everyone's flask of tea. But as a refreshing, cheap, life-enhancing escape from a sedentary city existence, a National Trust For Scotland working holiday is one of those experiences that everyone should try at least once.

As the NTFS has more than 100,000 acres of countryside in its care and is the largest voluntary conservation body in Scotland, opportunities for volunteers are numerous. From hacking rampant Rhododendron ponticum on the island of Arran to reconstructing turf dykes on the battlefield at Culloden, scene of the Jacobite uprising of 1746, work is energetic and enlightening.

Accommodation and living conditions on NTFS working holidays can be primitive - the fact that they are known as Thistle Camps provides a clue as to the potential discomfort. Sharing a tiny, bunk- bedded dorm in a stone bothy may sound a touch grim and puritanical, but, in our Highland Hilton, the power shower and microwave at least ensured that we were well fed and warm after a day in the rain, chopping down trees and manhandling rocks. Food is provided and cooking duties are shared between the volunteers and camp leaders. It's haggis, neeps and tatties rather than pine nuts and polenta (although vegetarians are catered for), and there's more oatmeal than aubergine, but after a day's hard labour, your body will thank you for it.

Last year approximately 22,000 volunteer-hours were spent working on NTFS projects and the organisation's role is vital for the future of the Scottish countryside. The NTFS says that much of the essential groundwork on properties is carried out by volunteers. Next year there will be 42 Thistle Camps, with about 400 places. If you want a chance to do something "different" this summer, such as restoring a section of General Wade's Old Military Road in Glencoe (you may have seen Liam Neeson being dragged along it by a horse in the film Rob Roy), book early, as camps soon fill up.

"They're not all dyed-in-the-wool conservationists," says Jim Ramsey, an NTFS volunteer co-ordinator. "But they all have a vaguely greenish tinge." Present in our party were a 43-year-old graphic designer from Germany, a brasserie manager from Edinburgh, and a Swiss schoolboy, while two Ghanaians cancelled at the last minute, unable to obtain visas. Philip, our charismatic leader in Glencoe, is a former art student who now finds all the creative satisfaction he needs from digging holes in the ground.

With tea break an hour away and water dripping from the end of his nose, Andy from Inverness summed up the slightly perverse appeal of Thistle Camps: "I can't work out whether I'm really miserable," he mused, "or whether I'm really happy." There is, indeed, something cleansing about the experience - it may be altruism, exhaustion or the effects of exposure. But it's refreshing to gauge the effects of a hard day's toil by the soreness of your arms and the redness of your cheeks, rather than the high blood pressure and nervous tics from a day in a stressful office.

Thistle Camps take place in some of the most beautiful and remote areas of the British Isles and provide a unique opportunity to experience, in both an aesthetic and a practical sense, the unspoilt glory of the Scottish countryside. Volunteers repair mountain footpaths at Kintail, build dry- stone walls on the island of Canna, put up fences in West Affric and even maintain historic marble-quarrying equipment on Iona. A new camp sure to be popular in 1997 is on Skye, where the NTFS has recently acquired Beaton's Cottage, an old crofting cottage in the far north of the island. Minor repairs to the Tigh Dubh (Black House) are needed, including the thatching. A week learning an exotic new skill on Skye, with full board, for just pounds 37, has to be one of this summer's bargains.

However, if you want something yet more adventurous, head for the romantically named Puffin Basecamp on Fair Isle. The two camps there last a fortnight or three weeks (not including a two-day journey on the mail boat from Aberdeen), and volunteers help the families with crofting jobs and haymaking. "The islanders really look forward to the volunteers coming in the summer," enthuses Jim Ramsey. "They have a chance to get to know them as they stay for a couple of weeks, unlike the tourists. It's important for them socially." Pairs of NTFS volunteers are assigned to a family, to whom they offer their enthusiasm, and are rewarded with lunch and companionship. The NTFS provides valuable support to the 50 islanders, while volunteers can visit somewhere extraordinary, and feel rather special, in future, whenever they tune into the Shipping News.

NTFS Thistle Camps run from mid-April to late October. The cost ranges from pounds 37 (pounds 22 concessions) for a one-week camp, to pounds 82 (pounds 67 concessions) for the three-week camp on Fair Isle. All food, accommodation and equipment are provided as well as some transport. To receive a copy of the 1997 programme, send an sae to: Thistle Camps, National Trust For Scotland, 5 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh EH2 4DU.