Path Map

6 Things I’ve learned as a trainee pathbuilder…

1.      There’s more than meets the eye

Picture this… you’ve decided to go for a nice walk out in the mountains, you’re admiring the stunning scenery, yet don’t look down to wonder “Whoa, who built this incredible path?”… or maybe you’ve mistaken that handy set of rock steps as a natural coincidence. If this is you, then you are like myself. If you do wonder these things – “Congratulations” – you are among the few. Pathbuilders are the unsung heroes of the outdoor enthusiast; and they’ve done their job well if you haven’t had to stop and think.

Before I joined The Mountains and The People, I never stopped to think about the paths I was using, to explore the mountains, forests and coastal areas. I didn’t stop to think about the complexity of the craft; what the purpose of the intricate features on the path were; I just simply followed the trails and admired what nature had to offer.

Over the past few months I have been working, learning; and embracing the opportunity to become a pathbuilder – it has been an eye-opening experience. I’m currently half way into the training and so far, I have met people from all walks of life who want to become pathbuilders; learned the surprisingly complex theory of path structures; then constructed them myself, and created habitats to help conserve endangered species.

2.  Casual day in the office

One thing I’ve gathered from my time on the course is that your ‘office’ can change; be that every few days, weeks or months. So far, I have already worked around Loch Muick, the Gelder Burn, Broad Cairn and a couple of sites in Glen Tanar. Outwith these parts of the Cairngorms I have also visited Schiehallion, Pitlochry and Glenshee where the team attended various training courses such as: plant identification with PlantLife, John Muir Award and First Aid training. It has been fascinating and a massive learning experience to visit and work in these varied locations day in, day out; each week. I can’t wait to discover where our next ‘office’ will be.


On the other hand, the location doesn’t necessarily have to change to make each day different – the weather itself can achieve this, dramatically sometimes. As many will know, in Scotland you can be hit by all four seasons in one day, this is especially true in the mountains. From the heavy rain, driving wind, glorious sunshine and heat. To the low claggy mist and drizzle – snow is yet to be encountered but there is still time! Every day is different in the office which makes this such a challenging and exciting job working close to nature and the elements.


3.      Rocks

If someone had said to me a few months ago that I would one day say “Wow… that is a beautiful rock”, I’d have thought they were crazy and laughed. Surprisingly, this is now a daily occurrence, whether it’s onsite or off; close up with the rocks now, I can see the details: the fractures, the individual crystals; the way different rocks weather, the hardness and the weight. Especially when I find myself an beautifully shaped boulder decorated in moss and lichen, that will fit perfectly into the cross drain I have been struggling with.

Now when I am out in the mountains in my leisure time, I find myself appreciating the path I am walking on: observing the characteristics and construction, and admiring the craftsmanship.


4 .     The gym is a thing of the past

I used to spend hours on end in the gym for many years in my previous life and I’m not going to lie, I thought I’d be in pretty good shape when I started the training, I was wrong. Nothing could have prepared me for this type of work.

Being a pathbuilder is mentally and physically tiring, whether that’s because of the long walks in, the unpredictable mountain weather, or the shifting of heavy rocks and material: you’ll want to have a nice sit down afterwards. The tea and lunch breaks are usually welcomed with open arms and sometimes followed by a quick power nap.

I can guarantee that for the first few months, I’ve discovered muscles I never knew I had and felt a new kind of fatigue. The guys who have been in the industry for years must be complete machines.

5.      The people

Throughout my time on the course I’ve met lots of different people: my fellow trainees, our supervisors, park rangers and the walkers… all who have one similar interest, the outdoors. It’s extremely humbling to hear the many encouraging compliments, from the people who passed by to stop and have a chat to us about what we do, and the difference we make. It’s rewarding to know that the work we do, makes a difference to the people’s lives. The Cairngorms trainee group consist of a former clerical worker, chef, engineer, guitar teacher, legal lecturer and myself, a dog trainer. We all have the aim of working in the conservation sector and this programme has been a great place to start.

In the second half of the course we’re getting the chance to go on work placements with path construction contractors, a drystone waller, park rangers and potentially many others.

6.      The downfall

Like most things there is always a downfall; in this case it’s the infamous midge and the occasional tick. For the most part they are bearable, but on some occasions, they swarm to the extent where you can’t see what you’re doing, and may have to evacuate to safer ground… one might think that you might get used to them; you don’t.

Other than the swarms of midges, being outside helping conserve the outdoors is an incredible experience and I’m looking forward to the next half of the course and then to the future working in mountain conservation.

See you out in the mountains,

Jamie W