For International Women’s Day, we wanted to catch up with one of our outstanding female adventure guides who leads some of Wilderness Scotland’s exciting Women in Adventure trips.
Here, wilderness guide Gill McMillan talks with us about why she loves tourism, Scotland, hiking, and more.
Growing up, I really enjoyed the books of Dervla Murphy, Anne Mustoe, Christina Dodwell and others. Travel writers provided me with an escape to wild places and adventurous living. While I hoped to one day travel as they did, my own outdoor experiences took me in a different direction. I’m not nearly as brave or intrepid as they were.
Becoming a tour leader happened almost by accident. 10 years ago, I reacquainted myself with walking in the hills. At that time, my partner of 7 years died and I was at a loss as to what to do, both in the short term and to earn a living.
At the beginning, I didn’t walk so much as stomp across the hills. But I was keen to learn more about this wonderful world of the outdoors: rivers, open moorland, mountain tops. The questions at the back of my mind were the What if’s…What should I do if I get lost in the dark? What if I have to cross a river? So I signed up to do the Mountain Leader course, hoping for answers to my questions.
Then in 2015, I considered moving to Spain to teach English. While I was there, a good friend posted a photo of herself winter climbing, the smile she had made me realise that I wanted my future to be in the mountains, sharing what I love with people I care about.
For me, the best thing about guiding is when a client genuinely comes to appreciate something that they were previously unaware of.
This could be an episode from history, where the name of an island came from, or the many uses of nettles. All these small items of information go to make up a larger picture of a landscape as a whole. Or sometimes someone just goes, “Wooow” at a great view. All those things are hugely satisfying.
There’s a slow-moving but hopeful sign that’s growing in strength. It’s for women everywhere to be as positive about our achievements and those of other women as we can be. On the majority of the trips that I lead, women are in the majority. Some travel with friends, some solo. There are women-only trips, where the dynamic of the group is definitely different. More women are travelling in general and more of us are working in the outdoors too.
The younger women I meet now are far more active and adventurous, in greater numbers, than in days gone by. The older women are still scaling mountains, kayaking, running and climbing as they always were.
I’m glad that events like International Women’s Day allows women to share their stories. There’s an appetite for adventure and plenty of people doing amazing things. We can all support them by reading their blogs, going to our nearest mountain film festival and cheering them on. They inspire me.
When I try to describe or explain to people what I do for a living, they think I just take people for a nice walk. While that’s partly true, there’s an awful lot of preparation that goes into finding out all sort of things: what will the clients enjoy, how fit are they, are there any as-yet undisclosed medical issues, are the allergic to onions but have forgotten to mention it…the list goes on.
But, ultimately, it’s finding solutions to those challenges and answers to those questions that makes a guide feel it’s a job well done. We’ve succeeded when clients end their holiday feeling happy and contented.
When I was considering how to answer the question of “What’s one big success you’ve experienced in your career as an adventure leader?”, I realised that for me, the many smaller successes mean more.
I feel successful every time a traveller says “Wow, this place is amazing”or in feedback, when they’ve had a great time. I feel successful when travellers share with me that they have achieved something that they thought was beyond them. Or especially when they say they want to return. It means that they’ve really got beneath the skin of this quirky, fascinating little place.
The biggest challenge I’ve had to date was taking a group of young people to Morocco last year. For some leaders this might not seem such a big deal but for me, who had limited experience of working with young people, I had moments when I thought that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
I was remembering my own teenage years when I was moody, difficult and uncooperative. But the young people on this trip were largely helpful, kind and considerate. It was an eye-opener to me as I considered the time I had wasted in my teen years. In the end, it worked just fine and I thoroughly enjoyed being with the students (and 2 teachers). I’d go again.
One of the joys of being a tour leader is meeting all sorts of interesting people: sometimes the travellers, sometimes local people. When these two come together, there is often a moment of golden silence. That moment we all have when we realise we’ve just learnt, or witnessed, something really valuable.
When I’m in Harris in the Western Isles, I often take groups to the Sellam. Visitor Centre in the village of Northton. It’s an unremarkable building from the outside but inside, it’s a delight. This visitor centre came about from an idea by its instigator, Bill Lawson. To call it a visitor centre might suggest that the contents are aimed solely at tourists but this is far from the truth. Yes, there are photos and descriptions on the walls but in this small space, Bill and others have created a display that covers various aspects of life in these remote and wind-swept isles.
Part of the building is taken up with an excellent range of books on both the history and natural history of the area. Bill has a passion and it’s the genealogy of the people of Harris, Lewis and the St Kilda group of islands.
The reason I take groups there isn’t just for this hidden gem of a visitor centre, but to experience the passion that one man’s life’s work can achieve. Needless to say, on the days when Bill is there, he’s a gracious host who shares his knowledge of these islands and their culture very generously.
Travellers to the UK nowadays are often pleasantly surprised at the quality of our food. We have some excellent restaurants and not just in the big cities.
I know of some very small cafes producing fresh, tasty locally-sourced food and there’s one chef I know who excels at this. His name is Chris Loyle and he lives in the Isle of Harris, where he sources the freshest possible seafood and has a supplier of fresh vegetables, locally grown.
To anyone who has been to Harris, growing veg in the sandy soils of the west coast is quite an achievement. He has a passion for what he does which shines through every time you eat with him and travellers are often surprised at such quality coming from what appears to be a hostile environment: rock, water and sand.
Tourism is about meeting people’s needs in various ways. Often this is in very simple, basic terms, such as finding good simple food. Mostly these basic needs are more than fulfilled. Other times, they could be met with more friendly, interested, providers whether this is a café, restaurant or hotel.
Sometimes all it takes is a friendly manner and acknowledgement of the visitors needs. Being ‘on the ball’ just takes a bit of forethought and planning, which pays dividends for any business in the long run.
In 5 years time, I hope to be teaching more navigation skills and sharing the Leave No Trace message with not just outdoors folk but with the wider public. And I’d like to lead more trips abroad. But my greatest passion will always be to share this land with people who are yet to discover it.
As someone who is in middle-age, in 10 years I hope to still be working and sharing this amazing country with visitors. There’s always something new to learn and share: a song; a piece of folklore; a visit to an evocative site. I also hope that the Leave No Trace message will be taught in schools. I believe that this younger generation can be excellent caretakers of our fragile environment if they have the chance.
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