Munros, Mallaig and Moorland: Volunteering in the Last British Wilderness.

Eleven long hours it took to travel from Shropshire to the remote village of Inverie on Knoydart, Scottish highlands. Supposedly ‘the last wilderness’ of Britain – this peninsula is only accessible by boat from the small fishing village of Mallaig or via a 20-mile hike through craggy mountains. An area for serious walking and camping; this is the place to go if you crave rural solace.

A few months previously I’d noticed an advert in Positive News. ‘Helpers wanted for eco-build’. An on-going home renovation project, Joiner’s Croft is accessible only by a rough track from the small village of Inverie. The house was designed to be ecologically friendly with an oak and elm frame, stone and log cladding over Hempcrete walls (a concrete-like material, made from hemp) and a turf roof. A wind turbine to supply power with a compost toilet to keep to the theme. The work was tough but satisfying to the structure start to take shape.
During my period of work, the house was still without most of its roof or flooring. It was frightening and exhilarating to be on top of a wild cliff above the powerful Scottish sea in such a remote location. Looking out to the Isle of Skye and Sound of Sleat, urban bustle was but a distant past-time.

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In order to create the Hempcrete walls a temporarily built panel was created and placed around a foot away from the original stone. The ecologically-friendly alternative to concrete is mixed in a cement mixer and poured it in to the gap. Once dry, the temporary panel is taken away and – voila – a new wall.

Before I volunteered on the house I must admit I couldn’t have known less about building. At a loose end about the definition of a “2×4” – a piece of wood I found out – very embarrassing. I couldn’t bang in a nail to save my life; I learned a lot about the eco-build while I was there and was shown the ropes by fellow builder Adrian – volunteering as part of his qualification as a joiner.

On my afternoons off I’d take walks through the mountain pathways. Ancient bothys (cottages) cropped up from time to time, shadowed by munros (mountains) whose forms reached colossal into the sky. On occasion I’d take a walk down to the river leading to the loch. A little wildlife cabin provided a secret reading nook; on the wall there was a chart for hikers to mark their best wildlife spots.

12/02 ‘A golden eagle soaring above.’

19/03 ‘a herd of highland cattle were lowing in close range.’

09/05 ‘This afternoon I saw a border collie.’

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The most remote pub in Britain, The Old Forge, was brilliant all round and far from the League of Gentlemen bolt-hole I was expecting. It was local without it being ‘a local pub for local people’, as the locals were warm and welcoming. The food was excellent and the company even better. Many a Saturday evening was spent with a pint of the finest listening to an impromptu fiddle and bodhran ensemble. With my interests, their slogan ‘up a mountain, down a beer’ suited me just fine.

As well as drinking real ale in the pub, I also helped to home school the three boys of the family who was hosting me, all who have a varied and exciting home education. Unfortunately the youngest, Coll aged 8, was diagnosed with autism in 2003. Rather than institutionalising Coll, parents Kath and Tony Robinson decided to embark on an American autism programme called ‘Son-Rise’.

While I was working with the children, I had an in depth view into their life style. I found it fascinating the amount of activities they get up to in their day to day life. From exploding chemistry experiments to coracling in small home-made boats on the loch, the boys had varied days building the blocks of their rich education. The two older boys, Lachie and Finn have a great time playing and learning together, yet have been somewhat perplexed by their little brother’s lack of interest and attempts to engage.

Being a builder, dad Tony has built Coll his own playroom for intense one-to-one Son-Rise sessions, complete with a one way observation mirror. This amenity has been invaluable to the family as over the few years since they have had it, Coll has begun to talk and interact on a basic level with the people around him.

People on the autistic spectrum tend to be ‘in their own world’, finding it immensely difficult to communicate and socialise. The Son-Rise approach focuses on encouragement, unconditional love and acceptance, emphasising the importance of attitude and respect for who the child is and any behaviours they might display.

The programme was founded by the Kaufman family who were told by medical authorities that their son Raun’s condition was hopeless. They however, saw their boy as different and unique, making a decision that this special-ness should be celebrated. This decision saw them begin a patient journey, which they claim has lead to Raun’s recovery from autism.

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Helping Mum, Kath, sweep the path outside the house I was humbled by her ability to take the needs of her three boisterous and demanding sons on board. “Finn just needs to go and ‘explode’ sometimes – which basically means running around in the woods on his own. He was initially showing signs of mild autism but through being patient with him and letting him have his little quirks he’s come out of himself a lot.”

My volunteering experience in the remote area of Knoydart was the right balance of hard work, play and peaceful reflection. The scenery was picturesque and whilst I was on a wedge of a steep learning curve with the work at hand; the real experience came from the Robinson family’s warmth and the expanse of th e great Highland sky.

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