David Lintern speaks to Scottish hillgoer and microbiologist Nathan Francis
Please introduce yourself
I am Nathan, a microbiologist by day, and struggling to admit I’ve now entered my forties. I was born and raised in Fife but now living on the outskirts of Edinburgh at the foot of the Pentland hills. I was initially just a hillwalker but camping, bothying and mountain biking have been added to my outdoor activities along the way. I mostly keep to Scotland, but I’ve also branched out to England, Wales, Iceland and a few Alpine trips.
What’s your favourite Scottish hill/place and why?
My favourite Scottish place is the Cairngorms. I love that high plateau and all those vast corries. It just seems so expansive and there’s plenty of flora and fauna to enjoy too. As for individual hills, it’s hard not to go with Buachaille Etive Mor. It’s just such an iconic sight as you drive to Glencoe and such a great viewpoint from the top, too. Although it narrowly beats it’s smaller neighbour which is possibly my most-climbed hill.
How did you get into it first off? Was there a key moment where it all clicked?
I had always promised myself when I learned to drive that I’d see more of the country (and as a bonus saw it as a way of getting in cardio outside rather than in the gym). I originally started doing training walks in the Lomonds and the Ochils prepping for the “big hills”. I signed up for a work charity thing (where the aim was to have a team atop every Munro at the same time) as a gateway to the big stuff. By the time that came around I’d already managed to do a few on my own.
What does going out into nature mean to you? How does it make you feel, what benefits do you see in yourself, how does it challenge you?
To me it is just a great experience for the body and mind. Fresh air, ideally no traffic sounds – just open sky and green surroundings. The physical toil, however hard it seems, is worth it 99.9% of the time when I reach that summit. The endorphins, the sense of triumph not over the mountain but of myself and the views (when they’re there). You can’t put a price on that. Even on the rare occasions now when I head out on a cold, wet, windy day it all seems worth it in reflection when I’m back home and dry.
Wildlife is also a big love of mine so nature experiences needn’t be walking miles through a glen and up to the top of a hill, it can be poking around the margins of the field with my camera hunting birds, beasts and bugs. Throughout lockdown my nature experience often consisted of getting out with my macro lens to scour the gorse, grass and nettles.
The hills are seen as a refuge from the stresses of everyday life for many. Are they a refuge for you too, or is it a more complex mix of experiences? If the outdoors is (also) a racialised space for you, or has been in the past, how has that presented itself?
They do function as a refuge from everyday life, both the stress and the routine. I’ve never thought the outdoors to be a racialised space, largely because I’ve never really considered it before. The majority of my outdoor adventures are done solo, though I do have walking friends I have done a number of hills, bothies and trips with. All of whom just happen to be white.
Are there ‘blind spots’ in mainstream outdoors culture that discourage wider participation, and if so can you describe them or talk about how they might affect you, or wider communities of colour?
I think there may be blind spots in the outdoor culture but not necessarily intended ones. Something I have discussed on a few occasions with people is the impact seeing someone ‘like them’ can have. That can definitely help set off a ‘if they can do it, maybe I can do it’ reaction. You don’t tend to see many, if any non-white faces across outdoor media be it hillwalking, mountaineering, climbing or mountain biking, trail running.
How can white outdoor communities assist in changing or removing those blind spots? Is there anything specific that outdoors media or organisations could do?
In my opinion any work to remove blind spots needs to be based around raising exposure of what’s out there in terms of places and activities (although that might seem to be the last thing some places want/need given the issues some hotspots are having post-lockdown). That, and making it clear there’s no barrier to getting out there if the desire is there. Media outlets can make sure people are exposed to people who look like them, their families and the people in their community doing things. I feel it’s important to target all ages too – for example, it’s not enough to try and encourage kids if their parents have no comprehension or awareness of an activity.
Are there barriers within your own community that make participation in the outdoors seem less ‘normal’ or more challenging for you?
Personally, there was/is no barrier for me racially (or at least none I perceived). Being of mixed race of Scottish-Caribbean heritage having grown up in a Fife town my community was really no different to most of my friends, neighbours and classmates.
In what ways are you addressing those for yourself, or helping others to do so?
A big reason I always post pictures on Facebook and more recently Instagram when I’ve been out and about is to show what Scotland has to offer, and if I can go out and enjoy it there’s no reason other people can’t. I’ve never based that on race in the past, but maybe it’s something I’ll consider going forward.
Are there cultural differences in the way that communities of colour engage with the outdoors? If so, what are these and how do they shape the experience?
I think there probably are cultural differences holding back some communities. Maybe it’s seen as something of a frivolity less valuable than work or study – the guys shouldn’t be wasting time doing it and women are expected not to even consider it. Perhaps come the weekend you can’t get out and about because you’re expected to spend time in the temple of your chosen faith. There’s possibly not enough awareness of the benefits of the outdoors in some communities.
I grew up in the shadow of the Lomond hills and was taken up there on countless family outings, and many other central Scotland and Southern Highland outdoor spots as a youngster. Though not a hillwalker, my dad did Scafell Pike while working nearby many years before I did! Having a parent or parents who’ll take you places counts for a lot.
It’s been said that colour or race shouldn’t come into the outdoors, that we’re all more than just our colour or race and that it’s not a political space. Is talking through some of these issues reductive – or does it help, or is it some of both?
There may be a danger that talking about the outdoors and racial/colour issues is reductive, but I think it’s great that the question ‘does it matter’ is even being considered. As you say in the question, colour shouldn’t come into it, but talking about it can bring understanding on all sides and I hope the most likely outcome of that will be a mindset that we are different but what is focussed on is the commonality. That you might look different to me, you might have been raised as and follow a different faith to me, but you’re here for the same reason I am. That’s what I think anytime I meet someone out and about, especially in the more remote areas. I don’t think of what that person looks like or how they sound, I think “this person is here for the same reason I’m here”. It can be extremely interesting to have a quick chat and find out a little more about them having that already established as a common ground.
Where was your first trip to after lockdown eased, and how was it?
As a key worker I’ve still been going to work throughout lockdown. This has meant I’ve taken no annual leave so I’ve plenty to use now it’s over. To be honest though, my first thought was everywhere will be hoaching! For now, it’s just mountain biking locally in the Pentlands but I’ve earmarked some Donald-bagging routes in the hope of quieter hills.
Which place(s) in Scotland would you like to explore more, and why?
My goal at the moment is to visit more islands. I’ve visited pretty much every corner of the country now but too few of the islands. I’m aiming to tick off at least a new one each year. I had the Western Isles in my sights for this year before Covid hit, but suspect that might have to wait until next year.
Is there anything you wished we had asked but didn’t?
No. I had no idea what you were going to ask but it’s certainly got my mind thinking about not just about the present but about my experiences over the years in general. I can’t think I’ve ever had a negative experience over 10 years so far of walking, camping and hostelling. The vast majority of people I come across are white, and I still find it quite surprising when I meet another minority on the hill or in a hostel. Though I’m generally reserved and happy keeping myself to myself.
Our thanks to Nathan for his time.