Common Ground: Phoebe Sleath

Her watercolours of Scotland’s high mountains – painted in her sketchbook whilst in the field – have deservedly drawn attention for Aberdeen-based geology student and mountain leader Phoebe Sleath (see her website, Sketching from sea to summit). Here she tells of her approach to our great outdoors.

Can you begin by telling us a bit about yourself and your background?

I’m a Geology PhD Student and creative adventurer living in Aberdeen. I grew up in Herefordshire and, although my parents liked walking and took us on family holidays to Scotland and the Lake District, it took quite a long time for me to become “outdoorsy”. I really enjoyed a sunny DofE expedition with friends to the Bannau Brycheiniog (Brecon Beacons) and as I needed to restart my A Levels my Mum suggested I take up Geology and Geography. I went to Durham University to study Geology, and we were out walking in the Lake District or across the North East every weekend. I moved to Scotland in 2020 to start my PhD at Aberdeen. I study at how different researchers interpret the landscape differently in continental collisions zones like the Northwest Highlands and the Alps. It was on my first PhD fieldwork in Pembrokeshire I took my watercolours outside to paint and now I take my sketchbook out with me all the time to paint in breaks on adventures! My visual art has been featured in the Creatives publication by the Scottish Mountaineering Press.

How did you first get started? Can you remember your first outdoors trip?

We were always brought up going outdoors walking but I absolutely hated it, my parents joke about how much complaining I used to do! I think what really changed was starting to study the landscape with my A-Levels, I learnt about earth systems and processes, and the movement and impact of people. Suddenly the outdoors didn’t seem quite so different and boring, I could recognise what was going on underneath the surface – the history of the landscape. The first trip that really solidified for me that this is what I wanted to do was a very cloudy and damp walk up Bla Bheinn on Skye just before I went to university – my first Munro.

Phoebe’s painting of Bla Bheinn

Can you describe your ideal day out in Scotland?

My perfect day out would be a sunny spring day in the Northwest – which has the best Geology – on a lovely scramble or Diff multipitch climb with either my partner or friends. A nice bike in to cut the miles on the legs, and plenty of time for breaks to paint and eat chocolate! Plus, a dip on the way to wash the sweat off.

What does getting outdoors mean to you? Is it about challenging yourself, finding out about the world, getting closer to nature, something to enjoy socially, or just a great way to escape the everyday?

I think it’s all these things all the time, but challenging myself is really important. I’ve never been particularly confident outdoors and at the start of 2021 in lockdown I realised that inspiring myself was something I desperately needed but couldn’t do whilst stuck in the city. I found that if I went down to Aberdeen beach and just stood in the water, then I could begin to feel proud of myself and my body. Every time I went, it felt like I was getting a little piece of myself back. The first time I did it I sat on the beach straight after in my swimming costume all tearful and this woman walking past said to me “You’re so brave, I could never do that”. I have no idea who she was but she changed my life that day, I really hope she has found that experience too!

Have your outdoors’ experiences changed you in any way, perhaps affecting other areas of your life? 

When walking outdoors and when sitting and painting the landscape I just feel all parts of myself combine beautifully. I’ve found my creative voice, and my voice as a person, through experiences outdoors – which is something I desperately wanted when I was younger. We don’t have to separate all the parts of ourselves, in the outdoors we can be whole. 

It’s also really helped my PhD. I’ve got really interested in archive work through my fieldwork outdoors. Connecting with those who have been the same places and studied them before us just feels like a really special way of acknowledging each other. It has changed my whole perspective on time and connection with those in the past and future.

Phoebe’s sketchbook in the Cairngorms

If there was one thing you could change about Scotland’s outdoors – whether something in the environment itself, or in the culture around walking and mountains, what would it be?

A few of these entries have spoken about accessibility to the outdoors, so building on that I would really like it if we all appreciated a little bit more how lucky we all are to have access and to make sure that the relationships we have connected to the outdoors are healthy. For me it’s been the relationships I have with friends and my partner in the outdoors that has made such a difference. I was introduced to climbing through an ex-boyfriend and I really struggled with confidence for years. I think we are quite quick to feel competitive, or a need to impress each other, when the best way to learn is to be comfortable and enjoy ourselves. I’ve only started to improve through really focusing on who I am climbing with and getting proper training.

Some friends and I are developing a lovely inclusive climbing community for women in Aberdeen to try and share this experience. We focus on having fun, rather than constantly improving, because when you truly enjoy yourself and are comfortable enough to give things a go, then you’ll just end up figuring things out for yourself anyway. There is space for everyone to experience the outdoors as they wish, in their own way. This is why I have done my Summer ML, am a Winter ML trainee and will be doing my RCI Training next month.

Enjoyed this article or find Walkhighlands useful?

Please consider setting up a direct debit donation to support the continued maintenance and updates to Walkhighlands.

Share on 


You should always carry a backup means of navigation and not rely on a single phone, app or map. Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is every walker's responsibility to check it and to navigate safely.