Walking for Life: Duncan McCall

In the third interview of the Walking for Life series, we're talking to Scots adventurer Duncan McCall. Duncan is a keen amateur photographer with a passion for all things outdoors, and in this interview he details the life-changing affect that getting outdoors has had on his health and wellbeing, starting in earnest after an impulsive trip to the north of Sweden...

Hey Duncan. So we recently came across each other on social media and I was struck by the easy honesty of your adventures around Scotland and beyond. There’s something very real and inspiring about your approach – can you tell us a bit about you and your love for the Scottish mountains?

I’m Duncan James McCall, a 25-year-old proud Scotsman with a deep seated love for exploring the outdoors of my country and beyond. I grew up in a small south west coastal town, Prestwick, in Ayrshire. During my formative years I would spend every spare minute of time that I had on my bicycle exploring the local area with my friends and as we grew older and more experienced we started to go farther and farther afield. I left Prestwick at the age of 18 and moved to the big lights of Glasgow to begin studying towards a masters degree in Physics. During my degree we studied Optics and this is where my love affair with photography began. It was whilst I was in Glasgow that I started to develop a pining for quiet places; I’d had enough of the big city and wanted some peace and quiet. So, the scene was now set for the adventures to begin!

I started out taking road trips in my Dad’s car which he bravely let me borrow. A few highlights included driving north of Glasgow for the first time up the side of Loch Lomond, across Rannoch Moor and into Glencoe and Glen Etive. Another early trip I took was a week-long tour around the Isles of Lewis and Harris with one of my school friends. We spent the week camping out in my Dad’s thirty-year-old ultimate equipment A-frame tent in one amazing location after another. Then in June 2014 I graduated and immediately went for a walk along the West Highland Way (WHW) with my Father as a celebration, and this was my first taste of long distance hiking, multi-day trips and wild camping.

After the WHW I started a PhD researching computational imaging techniques again at Glasgow University, and early in my first year I set a goal of climbing my first Munro. After a bit of research I decided it would be a good idea to start off with an “easy Munro”, if such a thing exists, and settled on Beinn na Lap beside Loch Ossian in the beautifully wild setting of Corrour bang slap in the middle of Rannoch Moor. This meant taking a three-and-a-half-hour train ride from Glasgow Queen Street to Corrour as there are no roads and getting off at the station that featured in both Trainspotting and T2. The reasoning behind this was that the station is already at an elevation of 400m meaning you are almost half way up the mountain when you step off of the train! But easy it was not! I huffed and puffed all the way to the top, but what a sense of accomplishment I felt when I finally reached the summit. After this I was hooked! I have since climbed mountains in all corners of the country and am now looking to climb something a little larger.

It’s wonderful that you can trace where it all started. Particularly that first Munro. I suspect many of us ‘mountain people’ can remember our first hill. So, we’ve talked a little bit about this ‘behind the scenes’ but I wonder if you could share something about how the outdoors came to be so important to you?

Growing up I was always a very independent person, something which I would attribute to my parents and how they raised me, which I believe naturally led me to the outdoors. As I said earlier, when in Glasgow I started to feel trapped in the big city and wanted to escape to the quiet places! So I think it was a combination of how I was raised, the values instilled into me by my parents and my natural instinct to explore that led to my love of the outdoors.

But it was during my doctoral studies the outdoors became incredibly important to me. This is something I’ve not talked about in great detail to anyone other than a counsellor and is quite daunting to write about but I hope that everyone can learn something from my words. That I can turn my bad experience into a good one for everyone else.

After around six months of being a doctoral student I began to notice a big change in myself. I had transformed into a shadow of my former outgoing, happy-go-lucky self. I was abjectly miserable. I felt trapped in a world that was not for me. I tried to verbalise my feelings with my Dad but in a typical manly fashion he told me to just put my head down and get on with it. Growing up I had the “manly stereotype” drilled into me; That’s to say that men have no feelings, no emotions and should just cruise on robotically through life. I suffered on in silence for another 18 months whilst all the problems compounded and intensified.

Throughout this time my only escape was getting away to the outdoors. As soon as I got away somewhere it was like flicking a switch in my brain and I was happy again. I have always found the outdoors to be healthy for my mind and wellbeing. What I mean by that is that being outdoors in wide open spaces really helped me to empty my mind of all that negative emotion, at least for a short time. I believe that the outdoors is what helped to keep me sane and prevented me from doing anything stupid.

It sounds like being outdoors at this time was much more than a hobby or a ‘just a way to pass the time’. It sounds like it saved you?

After two years as a PhD student I had reached my breaking point and finally spoke out. I had to wait almost a month to see a student counsellor but when I finally got to meet with her Wow what a transformative experience! We talked all the issues through until we were blue in the face, which in itself was very healing and positive. Throughout our discussions my passion for the outdoors would always come up and ultimately my counsellor suggested I leave the PhD and take a trip. So, this got me thinking!

I’d had the guidebook to the Kungsleden sitting on my bedside table for the last year. For those of you who don’t know the Kungsleden, or King’s Trail, is a long distance hiking trail in Swedish Lapland running 440km from Abisko in the North to Hemavan in the South. I went straight home, did a little research into the logistics of travelling from Glasgow to Lapland, booked return flights to Stockholm and a ticket on the overnight sleeper train to the arctic circle.

Within the next few days I was off on my first ever solo adventure and already feeling like a new man! On arriving at Stockholm Arlanda I headed off to buy some camping gas and a couple of maps before heading back to Arlanda to catch a 12 hour overnight train to a little town called Boden just outside of Luleå. I shared a compartment with a really interesting group of travellers. There was a retired couple from Australia heading all the way to Narvik in Norway to explore the Lofoten Islands, a Divinity student from a university in Stockholm returning home to the north for summer, a young Englishman who was off to the Lofoten Islands too after spending a few months in Vietnam and another Swede who has off pack rafting! Once at Boden I had to change trains and boarded the “Arctic Circle Express” which after another six hours dropped me off in Abisko. I was the only person to disembark here and as I watched the train leave I immediately found great comfort in my surroundings and noticed just how quiet it was. Lovely!

The start of the trail is conveniently located beside the station so I began my hike! I spent around seven days in total hiking along the trail, walked approximately 120km and finished off in a Sami village called Nikkaluokta. Along the way I met a grand total of seven other souls and saw some of the most dramatic landscapes I have seen to this day. I walked the route in June which is actually still considered winter in northern Sweden, or so I’m told, and there was still a lot of snow around in places. One particular highlight of the walk was fighting my way through waist deep snow approaching the Tjatka pass in the afternoon, having a siesta in one of the STF huts at the bottom of the pass, and then going up and over the pass at around 1am with the sky a magical pink colour with beautiful golden light being cast all around me.

Your Kungsleden experience sounds like a real turning point for you. That’s very powerful. There’s definitely a strong link between time outdoors and wellbeing isn’t there?

I found this to be a transformative experience for me. I reveled in the challenge, both physical and mental, and I truly believe that this helped me begin the process of putting myself and my mind back together again. 

I have most definitely noticed an incredibly strong link between my outdoor adventures and my wellbeing – my mental health in particular. I would strongly advocate the outdoors as a therapeutic ‘medicine’ for anyone who is feeling a bit gloomy. Considering the wider picture for a moment I would suggest that in this modern world we live in everyone should stop from time to time and appreciate what is around them.

I couldn’t agree more Duncan. Now, you’ve done some big adventures but you’re also a bit of a weekend warrior. I’m interested to hear how those shorter trips impact on your life, in comparison to the longer ones?

I believe that my shorter trips are what keep me sane and on an even keel. If I don’t get out adventuring I very quickly get ants in my pants and become restless. I also find that spending too much time in the city leads me to start feeling “penned in”. On the other hand extended trips are most definitely my favourite and I try to squeeze as many in as I possibly can. I’ve got one in the pipeline just now actually! I’ve just accepted the position of Laser Systems Engineer with Coherent Scotland but I’m hoping to head off to the Isle of Rùm for two or three days before starting, with a traverse of the Rùm Cuillin being the objective, and I would also love to spend a bit of time in the Dibidil Bothy there.

That sounds fantastic, and congratulations on your new job! So, what are you learning about yourself and the world, as you walk up in the mountains?

I have already learned a lot about myself from my trips and continue to do so. I have learned that I can push myself farther than I ever thought possible and have also developed a real passion for sharing, and trying to inspire others into, the outdoors. That being my primary reason from Instagramming!

It’s great to hear that you want to inspire others with your approach to the outdoors and when you ‘gram it’s definitely like you’re taking others along with you in some way. It makes me wonder; do you prefer adventuring alone or with others?

I think I’m going to have to say alone. Adventuring by yourself gives you so much more scope for thinking, reflecting and evaluating. That is not to say that I don’t enjoy heading out with my friends and girlfriend either.

Yes, the outdoors alone can be quite a different place to the outdoors together. That said when it comes to ‘stuff’ we’re not entirely on our own, are we! So what items could you not walk without?

My trusty Canon 7D and a wee bottle of Irn Bru!

Classic Scots choice there ;-) Given how important the outdoors has become to your life now, I’m curious to hear what other adventures you might have up your sleeve?

As I said before, I’m hoping to head off to Rùm soon. Other than that, me and my girlfriend are going to take my Landrover for a tour around the Alps this summer. We are hoping to check out France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria. That’s as far as my plans go for now but my head is rammed full of ideas for other trips: The Tour du Mont Blanc – a 170km hike around the Mont Blanc Massiv. A roadtrip around the Faroe Islands. A trip up a 4000m+ mountain. A trip to northern Pakistan to have a look at some proper mountains…and on and on and on!

Thank you so much to Duncan for sharing his inspiring outdoor story of how he caught the outdoor bug after a really rough time in his life. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and it sounds like there will be many to come!