Our Scottish Summer Camp

A ten day trip to Scotland with 24 teenagers in tow – the ESL’s perspective…

After three years of hot, sunny summer camps in places like Holland, Austria and the Swiss Alps I knew from the off that selling a camp to Scotland would be hard. “Scotland! Rain and midges? Really Marlon, why can’t we go to the South of France? Spain? Anywhere but Scotland!” they would say, but the truth is that there weren’t any other options!

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Wild Wolf ESU in Switzerland last summer

When choosing the location for camp my hand was forced slightly by not having any minibus drivers, and by not having enough people to fill a coach (Tottenham ESU and Kings Cross ESU were doing their own things this year) – so camp had to be somewhere we could get to on the train if we had to, and that ruled going abroad right out, on account of cost.

We couln’t stay in England (I’d have been crucified) and we’ve been all over the best bits of Wales on DofE expeditions so it had to be Scotland. After trawling the Scottish Scout Campsite directory and using up all my free minutes making enquiries of booking secretaries all over the country (“Are you sure you want to camp here dear? There isn’t much to do you know!”) we stumbled upon Invertrossachs Scout Campsite. It was an hour and a half on foot from the nearest village, situated on the shore of a massive loch, there was a mountain, Ben Ledi, opposite (we never managed to hike up it, incidentally, but it looked good!), they allowed open fires and a quick Google revealed that there were plenty of challenging and exciting activities to do nearby. I booked it, and subsequently realised there were no on-site showers and that drinking water was also an issue. Nevermind, I’d solve that later and not tell the Explorers. Yet.

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The promising cover photo on the Invertrossachs website – looked good!

Despite my fears that no one apart from me would want to come if they knew how spartan it was going to be I still decided that they would enjoy some back to basics Scouting. I bought a map and planned a hike, booked a hostel at the base of Ben Nevis for a night (they’d like that!), went on a cheeky reconnaissance visit one weekend, hired out the local leisure centre for a day (so they could shower!), drew up a preliminary list of activities, sent out some begging emails to hopefully find minibus drivers, saw that we could probably catch the start of the Edinburgh Fringe and with the concept of a home-grown road-trip (still didn’t have any minibuses, but I had my fingers crossed!) in mind I called a parents’ meeting, explained the options and the deposits trickled in. They must have trickled in faster than we realised because we soon had just as many Explorers coming as we had for Switzerland the year before and we still didn’t have any minibuses… it was starting to look like any idea of going on some sort of road trip was foolishly hopeful.

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The campsite and Loch Venacher back at the end of March

Now with six weeks to go and the minibus situation reaching crisis point I decided to book the train tickets to Dunblane (a bargain in the end – return to Dunblane with a split return via Edinburgh for £52,80 each) and sort everything else out later. Still with no minibus, van or even a car available for us to use to get the kit there I was starting to believe we would have to take only the most lightweight equipment on the train and get cabs to the campsite (£££!) so I also suggested people might like to take their bikes. If we didn’t have a minibus we’d have to get about somehow!

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It’s not like we’re inexperienced cyclists – we’ve cycled to Brighton, Paris and all over the Peaks

Then, with barely a month to go we had a huge stroke of luck! Michel from 8th Holborn sent me an email saying he would love to join us, and that he could drive a minibus there and back with all the kit in, and run us about as we needed while we were there. Barely a day passed and more good news came through – Chris Dale from the 8th Muswell Hill said he could join us for a few days in the middle of camp to help with driving on our busiest days.

With as much minibus-support  as we could shake a stick at, all the important bookings made, and still no difficult questions about the availability of showers I began to feel like I might enjoy this camp. Rachel Gould had done a fantastic job of the catering and had prepared a huge shopping list which we click-and-collected from Tesco’s, hoping against hope that they would accept the ridiculously large order. They did, fortunately and I need to thank Rachel for getting it all absolutely spot on! There was just the right amount of grub – no one was hungry and there was barely any waste, except the 4 pints of milk that Marc Robinson somehow managed to later paint the ceiling with…

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Here be evidence of the mess Marc made later on in the kitchen…

The night of the Unit’s official 5th Birthday party was not far away and as that was also the only time available to us to pack the minibus with the boxes of cooking equipment, tents, bikes and all the other tat we would want we decided it would be a party-bus-packing-bike-loading night thing and got down to it. With Explorers displaying typical efficiency the bus was packed and the bikes tied onto the roof in under two hours, and we strolled down to the BBQ to cut the cake and enjoy the party. I did have to concede to the Explorers at this point that there were no showers on camp, and they mostly took it quite well, though I’ll never forget the blood-chilling stare I got from Lucy.

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Minibus loading. Kit in the back, bikes on the roof.

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BBQ! Time to chill out 🙂

Two days later we all left for Scotland. Myself and Marc left on Friday morning and had a very enjoyable train journey to Dunblane, and then cycled to the campsite. Michel and the minibus arrived and we broke our backs unloading it, and eventually collapsed into bed. The next morning we set off for Tesco in Michel’s minibus to collect a £1,000 click and collect order (the less said about the grumpy check-out staff who managed to mess it up and had to re-scan every item the better) and then headed to the 1st Stirlingshire Scout group to load up the roofrack of the minibus with pioneering poles. Well, we couldn’t have a summer camp without building our camp sofa, could we?! Meanwhile we heard from Annie and Rachel that they were all safely on the train and steaming north, enviously sharing their carriage with a prusecco –drinking party off to the races in York.

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I was very happy that I had my Tesco Clubcard to hand for this one.

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Minibus full of food and pioneering poles.

The Explorers arrived at Dunblane right on time and were collected in batches by the minibus and shuttled to the campsite where it began to drizzle… the rain soon turned to rain and that swiftly turned into a downpour. With forced smiles we welcomed everyone to camp, showed them the site, pitched the tents, played a wide game when the rain cleared up and then turned in. Before midnight!! No late nights on this camp, please!

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Welcome to Dunblane everybody!

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Sunset on the first evening

Sunday dawned much nicer and we were all awake early. The patrols lit fires, cooked breakfast, built tables and benches, collected firewood, cooked lunch, repaired tables and benches, collected more firewood and went for a swim. The next day was to be spent out of camp so after dinner everyone voted on what they would like to do – Stirling was a popular choice, followed by a day of cycling.

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Building camp on the first full day

I didn’t go to Stirling but the highlights seemed to be McDonalds, hot running water, Tesco, plug sockets and sweets (sigh!). After only two days on camp our city kids just couldn’t get enough of it… Instead of being forced to endure that first-hand I went cycling with the rest of the Explorers. We rolled out of the campsite in the blazing sun, had an ice cream in Callander, found a bridleway and followed that around the loch, found a different loch, swam across it, had lunch and when we finally got underway after that we stumbled upon a Scottish Explorer Scout Unit on a really cool wild camp of their own by Loch Achroy. We returned to camp via a fast, flowing cycleway in the woods and loved every second of it.

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Us on the bridge out of Callander

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Swimming!

That evening 8 of us trekked up into the hills to Loch Drunkie and wild camped on the shore that evening to escape camp life. We made hot chocolate, watched the stars and chatted late into the night. Sadly, after only a few hours in bed we were up again to hike back to camp in time for breakfast.  

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The spot we chose for our wild camp

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We found this cool old shack on our morning hike back from the wild camp.

Body odour was becoming an issue for some people too wimpy to swim and wash in the (actually not that cold) Loch by this time and with much relief we walked the four or five miles on Tuesday morning to the McLaren Leisure Centre, which was complete with hot showers. We spent the morning doing as much laser-tagging, crazy-golfing, climbing, gymnastic-ing and ping-ponging as possible and had lunch on the lawn outside. In the afternoon we played basketball, badminton and broke Theo’s little toe when the hockey got a little too competitive. Plenty of man-up later and he even returned to the match! Good lad!

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Climbing on the indoor wall at McLaren

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Xander organises some team games

Incidentally I have been told that the phrase ‘man-up’ is sexist, and that ‘Scout-up’ would be better.

We topped that off with a weird football/ hockey World Cup on the astroturf (I’ve forgotten who won, there was a lot of he-said, she-said about the complicated scoring system) and then the sports centre staff turned on the jacuzzi, lit the sauna, steamed up the steam room and made all the Explorers very happy by rolling out an inflatable assault course which floated on top of the swimming pool. Never have I seen Rachel Gould look as competitive as she did when she beat Annie Bowers to the finish line. However I have seen David’s go-pro face before but it still makes me chuckle.

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Patrick and Ari’s team takes the game away on the football pitch

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David’s 1,000,000th cheeky selfie.

That evening, like the cavalry over the hill, Chris Dale arrived with a swanky 17 seater Ford Transit minibus. The best bit of which was the auxilary-in cable for the stereo! YES! Now everyone would be able to love my ‘eclectic’ music collection at full volume J

Wednesday was the day we were booked to visit the West Highlands and go canyoning in Fort William. Canyoning is sliding, swimming, jumping, diving, zip wiring and climbing down a fast flowing river at the bottom of a canyon and we were all a little nervous. We were on the road by 10am and we were parked up outside Vertical Descents’ shack in the mountains by noon.

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Beach BBQ to celebrate a successful first few days of camp

Lunch was eaten by us and we were eaten by midges. We hid in the minibus and eventually we were let into the building to pull on sticky wetsuits, helmets, climbing harnesses and buoyancy aids. A steep walk and a safety talk later and we were at the top of the canyon looking at a waterfall which would surely make short work of something as fragile as the human body!

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Pre-canyon group shot

Before we knew it we were persuaded, coerced or pushed off the first obstacle. Ellie’s ‘I can’t believe the instructor just pushed me off a waterfall before I got to the end of the countdown’ face was definitely a highlight of the camp for me.

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Waterfall!

It was great fun for me to look upstream from my position at the head of the group to see all the Explorers getting stuck into the activity. There were plenty of nervous faces but everyone did really well on a very scary activity and made me very proud. The guides from Vertical Descents were very experienced and had plenty of banter, and gave us a really reasonable rate, and let Leaders go free! If you want to go canyoning in Scotland then go with them –www.verticaldescents.com.

Even at the end of the activity they were still full of suprises – they let the more confident members of the Unit head further downstream for a much bigger jump than any we’d done previously and I think it’s safe to say that some people only got through it by closing their eyes and screaming their lungs out!

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Obviously impossible to get any sense of it here but the sound that that thing made was impressive, and scary.

That evening we checked into Glen Nevis Youth Hostel, sneakily shifted some mattresses around without the staff seeing, cooked dinner, chose hiking groups for our attempt on Ben Nevis the next day and watched and re-watched footage of the camp so far shot on our Muvi action camera, available from Cotswold Outdoor. #shamelessplug.

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Dinner in the comparative luxury of a youth hostel.

Thursday morning dawned earlier for some than others – the Patrol Leaders were all in the kitchen at 7am cooking a hot breakfast for the Unit and the others soon began to emerge, bleary-eyed and in various states of undress, from their dorms. I had previously prepared all the group equipment (“mountains of it!” according to one Explorer) and dished that out over breakfast, and before long everyone was off and on their way up the hillside. My group was formed of six older Explorers and we were heading out to walk further around the Ben to the CIC hut, and from there we planned to scramble up to Carn Dearg before negotiating the Carn Mor Dearg arête to get to the summit of the Ben from ‘the wrong direction’.

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The unpredictable weather in evidence just before we reached the CMD Arete.

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The CMD Arete from the other end (nearly!)

We did it, and I pretty sure the Explorers felt satisfactorily challenged by the end of their ascent – it was a longer, harder and faster walk than any they had done before, and there was a huge sense of achievement in the group when we took the final few steps onto the summit plateau and heard complete strangers saying things like ‘did you see those Scouts climb up that ridge’ and ‘I don’t think anyone else did that route today’. It’s a shame that all the cloud meant there wasn’t a view but seven happy faces was the only view I needed to make it all worthwhile for me.

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The clouds parted for a brief second just before the summit

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Obligatory summit shot

We caught up with the other groups on the way back down the pony track, swam in the River Nevis by the Youth Hostel, changed into fresh clothes, tied all the bags onto the roofrack (the Explorers were getting pretty good at it by this time – “my bowlines are finally working Marlon!”, “Well done Patrick..” “Was that sarcastic?” “No…” – and we set off back for Invertrossachs, looking forward to a curry supper.

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Loading the roof rack was an irksome task that the Explorers got better and better at, even in the rain.

The next day was planned to be a chill day, but displaying impressive energy some Explorers still insisted on getting out and doing stuff. Most took the opportunity to go paddling for a bit and some cycled into Callander for the afternoon.

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Racing bell boats

Marc also ran a teambuilding session for each Patrol and everyone took part in our Burn’s Supper that evening.

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We’re not just about swanky activities. Explorers learn just as much from home-grown command tasks like the minefield Lucy is negotiating above.

That evening we (well, Michel) toasted the lassies, they (Lucy) returned the toast spectacularly, we all read the Address to a Haggis in our best Scottish accents and then we ate haggis, neeps, tatties, gravy and Irn-Bru until we could eat and drink no more.

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One well-fed Explorer

Realising at this point I had failed to bring any Scottish music with me I put on some Clannad (sorry!) and Lucy, appointed as a sort of Gaelic Zumba Instructor because she had once attended Irish dancing lessons, did a fabulous job of leading the Unit in a reel, a jig, a caleigh, the hockey-cokey and Auld Lang Syne. We played party games late into the evening and went to bet tired, sweaty and happy.

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Lucy always manages to make us smile 🙂

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Photo showing table-wresting (one of the Unit’s favourite recurring challenges) and Xander’s string vest (not a favourite in any way).

The end of camp was sadly visible on the horizon by this point and everyone was pretty tired from the party the night before. Bagels and scrambled eggs were served for breakfast and everyone spent the day napping, swimming, eating ice cream or reading. A ready steady cook dinner was prepared over open fire by the Patrols from whatever they had leftover and the results were, on the whole, pretty damn good, considering the downpour they got to slow them down.

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Camp delirium had really set in for Marc and this lunchtime we found him here serenading the baked potatoes to help them cook faster.

After dinner, and before Scout’s Own the Explorers did a fantastic job of packing down their Patrol sites in record time, leaving only tents up, ready for the move to Edinburgh the next day.

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Livia and Ellie receive the ‘Bravest in the Face of Adversity’ Award, for dealing with an awkward situation in a very mature manner. We’ll let you ask them for the details.

I saw and heard some new perspectives at the Scout’s Own and it was great to hear everyone’s best moments – they are far too lengthy and numerous to list here. Just like last night the music was cranked up, more fizzy drinks found and rolled out and the party continued until the early hours, celebrating the last night at Invertrossachs.

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#scoutcamppartyselfie

The less said about the logistical nightmare the following morning with double-booked minibuses, absent drivers and one too many people to fit in a minibus the better. I have to thank Patick Tripp and Ben for their patience and efforts in loading the minibus without any complaints whatsoever that day because it wouldn’t have been possible without you. Somehow we all got to Edinburgh that evening and saw a few free Fringe shows, ate some deep-fried mars bars and rolled into bed at a plush campsite a short bus ride out of town that evening – the fourth place we stayed at on our trip around Scotland.

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Matthew had no idea he was already missing his phone and wallet. To be honest nor did we.

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The best bit about the #freefringe? Seats to sit on!

Knowing that we would next be sleeping in our own beds we woke up with renewed energy on Monday morning, looking forward to a day out in Edinburgh. Annie’s tent was taken down before she got out of it, Livia and Ellie had their tent down before any of us woke up, Megan made me a coffee and Dearbhla and Klara did their usual best to make sure their campsite looked like a grenade had gone off inside their kit bags. Despite the above we were back in the centre of Edinburgh by 10am and locking our bags in the public lockers at the bus station. I spent the first half of my day out in a Costa, but Annie was more enterprising and found a selection of free shows for the Explorers to enjoy. Some of them came to the first one (where Matthew got pickpocketed), everyone came to the second one (where I got thoroughly embarrassed on stage) and after a brief scare where the train tickets were all in jeopardy thanks to Patrick Ansbro we got on the train home with smiles from ear to ear, despite having gone camping in ‘only’ Scotland!

Marlon Marton-Bell

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