From Lagom #6

Wild running in the Scottish Highlands

​Freelance filmmaker, broadcaster, and photographer Calum Maclean lives and works in the Highlands of Scotland, and as an avid outdoor enthusiast and hill runner, he’s perfectly placed to recharge among stunning the vistas of this dramatic landscape.

Photographs Rab Fyfe

What draws you to hill running? 

Ever since I was a child I’ve had a passion for exploring the hills, spending many holidays hill walking and camping. This exposure to the hills at a young age instilled a great love and appreciation of the outdoors. As I grew older, I wanted to push myself, to cover longer distances, to reach more hills in shorter times, and to see more.

I started hill running around four years ago, prior to which most of my running had been on road. Although I still do run on road, I often find it very unsatisfactory, and yearn for a run through the hills when in a city or town for too long.

I particularly love the achievement of reaching a view — seeing a stunning vista laid out in front of me, without sight or sound of another soul around.

I prefer quiet days on the hill, away from the crowds — the feeling of having a hill to yourself, with miles of lochs, moors, and mountains laid out in front of you, can rarely be matched. The mountain possesses you, and you possess the mountain, if only for a while.

There’s a simplicity to the sport that I love: there’s no need for major equipment or organisation. I can simply choose a map, scope out a new route, and as long as conditions are suitable, set forth. I can travel very lightly and reach places that I’d never get to otherwise. I love maps, and when I look at a map, I feel an urge to explore it — hill running is the method I use for this.

But ultimately, for me, the real pull is the satisfaction and feeling once you’ve reached a summit: the effort it takes to get there, the pain that your body endures on the ascent, the incredible buzz as you look back to where you began your route. It’s an incredible release; you get the physical satisfaction of a hard run, and the aesthetic reward of a landscape viewed from on high.

As a Gael I understand many of the hill names, which gives me a deeper understanding of landscape, of place, and of how people viewed and used the land over hundreds of years.

So would you say that the benefits are more psychological than they are physiological?

Hill running allows me to think. I often find the initial 20 minutes to be a struggle — at times I can’t really be bothered at the start, and I need to force myself to continue. However, once I get over that hurdle, I find my mind clears, my thoughts flow, and new ideas come to me readily. If I have a problem or an issue I need to think over, there’s no be er place to do this than in the hills. There’s no doubt that it helps to relieve stress and retune my mind to a much healthier state.

As a Gael I understand many of the hill names, which gives me a deeper understanding of landscape, of place, and of how people viewed and used the land over hundreds of years. I feel a connection to the land, particularly in the West Highlands — I feel that this is where I’m meant to be. As I explore more of the land and see more, this feeling is only strengthened.

Are there any common names for the hills in the Highlands? How do these names help you to understand more about the places themselves?

Gaelic has many words for hills — commonly describing the shape. Sgùrr means a jagged peak, whilst meall means a rounded hill. Tom is a hillock, and càrn would be a mass of stones or a stony hill. There’s an extensive list! If I’m looking at a hill name, I can immediately conjure what shape the land may take.

In addition to the hills, almost all the features of landscapes had names at one time. Although much of rural Highland Scotland now lies empty, this wasn’t the case before the Highland Clearances. People would name each hillock, stream, and small loch around them. Some names refer to people, and o en the names refer to features of the landscape, the colours, physical descriptions, or events that took place. Ruadh Stac Mòr, in Torridon, translates as ‘big red-brown steep hill’ and this name perfectly describes its cap of red Torridonian sandstone. Ruadh describes a dark reddish-brown colour, although it’s often more common to see the name dearg (as in Beinn Dearg), which generally describes a brighter red than ruadh.

The Ordnance Survey did a pretty good job when creating their maps in naming many of the features of the landscapes. However, many were lost over time, due to the changes in population demographics, language use, and by not being documented. Having even a basic grip of some Gaelic can mean that a whole new world is opened to you when viewing and moving through a Scottish landscape.

Conditions can be treacherous in the Highlands, particularly during winter. Are there any weather conditions you wouldn’t run in?

I think I must have run in every weather condition possible, and in Scotland this can all happen in one day on the hill!

I generally avoid running in icy conditions, especially on exposed hills, and I’m certainly more wary once winter begins. Once you’re up on the hill, or in remote land, the weather can suddenly and very unexpectedly change. On a descent of Canisp, thick fog engulfed me. Once down the hill I couldn’t tell north from south, as I had no compass, and ended up rejoining the path out several miles from where I had intended. That was a wake-up call and caused me to plan future runs more carefully.

Do you ever struggle to find the time to go running? Can work get in the way?

I’m very lucky in that work can take me around the Highlands, meaning that on time o  or early mornings I can explore new areas, and run new routes. My mind can trick me at times into believing myself to be too busy for a run, but I know that a er a run I’m more productive (providing I’ve left something in the tank), yet sometimes I find it hard to take the time to realise this, to set aside the time to run in the wild.

After a period of intensive work, I yearn for the freedom of the hills, and will o en set aside several days in order to take myself away from technological distractions, and run.

Is any training needed before going hill running, or is it something anyone can pick up and do at any time?

People should know the potential dangers of where they’re going. Terrain, weather, and confidence in the hills are important factors to take into account, as well as fitness levels. Far be it from me to try and put anyone off  hill running — once you get started on a long day, you may be a long way from help should something go wrong! A twisted ankle in the hills is different to a twisted ankle in the park! Certainly a good base level of running fitness is needed. After a period of not being in the hills, I can notice that I’m much slower than usual.

Is there a community of people who go hill running, or is it generally more of a solitary sport?

There’s a good race calendar, and you’ll see many of the same faces at events — the people are always fantastic. A shared love of the hills brings people together, generally. However, I rarely compete, and if I’m out with friends it’ll usually be a more relaxed pace — a walk rather than a run. I prefer the solitary aspect of the sport. For me it’s a release and a means of exploration. I find that the clarity I want comes best when alone.