On a cold friday morning in March 2013 at our Veterans Headquarters in South Gosforth eleven hardy veterans set off for a weekend of Angling and Hill Walking in the Highlands of Scotland. During weekly group sessions facilitated by Forward Assist in Northumberland the veterans had described the multiple difficulties they faced one of which was living a life that had little structure since they had left the Armed Forces.
Several reported that they had started to ‘self isolate’ and had become disenfranchised from mainstream society; only keeping in touch with others via ‘Facebook’ and other social networking sites, text or mobile phone.
Social interaction is recognised by many as a key contributor to mental wellbeing. Most of the veterans that engage with Forward Assist have diagnosed or undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder PTSD and suffer from a suite of episodic mental health difficulties which include depression, low self esteem, anxiety, insomnia, addiction, melancholy and anger control issues. Access to specialist support is limited leaving many veterans waiting months before they can get appropriate help.
While engagement in sporting activities is not a substitute for proper medical care, an opportunity to join in regular exercise or team sports has been shown to be an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression.
It was therefore agreed that a trip to Scotland would be a great way to spend time together and away from the strains of everyday life. After an 8 hour drive which included a replacement van being driven out to Berwick to replace the one that had broken down we eventually arrived at the Ardenbeg Bunk House in Glanton on Spey.
The accommodation is owned by Rebecca herself a former serving soldier and the welcome and standard of facilities was excellent.
Half the group are keen anglers and the other group were keen to learn more about Winter Hill walking. As such we met up with Chris Pretty owner of Chris Pretty Mountaineering Ltd as he would be our Mountain guide for the duration of the weekend. Chris is an experienced mountaineer and was himself a member of the Royal Marines for several years before moving into teaching and climbing /Mountaineering Instruction.
“Running a Winter Skills course in the Cairngorms is not for the faint-hearted and, in my experience, those attending these courses come in all sorts of packages and skills and backgrounds. The potential for extra issues arising from a group of ex-Service people in this extreme environment is apparent to anyone who has served the Queen, and those who haven't too probably.
The military does train their people in Arctic environments but very few undertake this training because of Unit designation. This meant that the breadth of Regimental representation would be a challenge for me and I was anxiously preparing for these differences in the days beforehand.
However, as usual, the truth is stranger than the fiction in our heads. The lads listened and took on board all the skills I taught them. I noticed VERY quickly that they were quicker than all other groups I have worked with. I witnessed guys who have a challenging life in ‘Civvy Street’ suddenly relax into a system that they recognised and could function within.
The days were easy and comfortable and the only problem I had was trying to maintain a 'stretch' with them and make sure they were engaged with learning all the time. This allowed us to do things I don't normally do with Winter Skills groups, but they were so good they easily coped with the extra activities.It just goes to show that we all know that outdoor engagement is good for people. It's hard to quantify but you just needed to see the faces and listen to the chat. One chap was so promising that if he goes ahead and does personal climbing and likes it I will mentor him through the qualifications in climbing and hopefully he can have a future instructing in it. He was that good! As Wallace once said to Gromit...'it's been a grand day out'... and so they were! A privilege to work with such excellent people and see the 'system' work.”
Chris Pretty: Mountain Leader/ Instructor 2013
The group members were keen to allocate themselves bunk space and the Anglers choose the ground floor of the establishment whilst the walkers chose the upper floor! Up bright and early for the climbing team and the mini bus dropped them off at Coire Cas Car Park for a day’s winter Hill walking!
We woke on the first morning to find the trees covered with a heavy frost but set out in the minibus nevertheless to find that the lake we had planned to fish was frozen over! The six members of the team decided to check around the area and eventually we found a fishable lake near to Aviemore.
Although bitterly cold we had an enjoyable three hour session learning the basics of the roll cast and the overhead cast from our instructor Sid although all we caught was the local flora and in one case a hat!
The following day was the same in terms of the weather and we opted for the same fishery. It was noticeable to see the improvement in the lad’s technique as the day progressed but again the fish weren’t playing ball and we returned happy but fishless to the bunkhouse. The trip was deemed a great success with the climbers keen to develop their newly found skills and the Anglers determined to return to the Scottish Highlands and fish the waters once again.