Mark and Toni’s Learning Odyssey 2019: Week 6 – Highland Flings, Foraging, Family, Healthy Walking and Organic Small Holding.

Our next destination, Scotland awaits. We drop by Sainsbury’s, Woking, in hope of surprising my sister Melanie, we were in luck and the surprise was complete. It was great to see her. Ironically in the same aisle was Carol, a friend of our daughter, Naomi, from her college days in Woking, spooky? She grabbed us and ask to pass her best onto Naomi.
Melanie and Me
The arrival in Balmoral, at Toni’s parents was dramatic. Police guarded the entrance to their road, The Queen was in residence in a cottage very nearby and security looked tight. This, however, wasn’t the issue that confronted us initially but the disturbing news that Toni’s Sister’s Son, Jamie, had a serious car accident nearby as he returned from work. Fortunately he took the right evading action, to the detriment of his knee and upper lip, his car, but lived to tell the tale. We stayed with Mike and Pauline, Toni’s parents, they were very generous and accommodating.
The weather in and around Balmoral is a microclimate, we’re told to ignore the national weather forecast as those rules don’t apply there. They were right, the promised daily rain for a week never appeared until the last day.
“As dew upon the tender herb
diffusing fragrance round;
as showers that usher in the spring
that cheer the thirsty ground.”
Let us come to the Lord our God, John Morison 1749-98
The tiny church at the Parish of Braemar and Crathie near Ballater is dwarfed by the bigger Cathedrals of Winchester and Wells but the morning service, was big enough for me and her Majesty sitting yards away. The hymns came thick and fast, the sermon focused on forgiveness, community and wisdom. The best moment for me was the above verse of a hymn sung by the small but loft congregation. It’s author, John Morison was born in Aberdeenshire in 1749, and became a Parish Minister in Caithness. His hymn spoke volumes to me about our visit to Scotland, it’s wild nature and beauty. The words describe a connection between the seen world, it’s mystery, seasonality, climate and the importance of the earth.
Balmoral Church
Walking along the now disused Deeside Railway the hidden basket of nature reveals itself to those who are tuned into and aware of it’s seasonal secrets. The line once ran from Aberdeen to Banchory and then was extended further to Aboyne. Further extensions took the line onward to Ballater by 1866. 99 years later the last train left Ballater with the Queen in attendance. Time and technology awaits for no-one. It left mother nature to reclaim the unattended tracks and eventually a cycle and walking route was created and is beautifully maintained. Along the track we walk we find a plethora of nutritious wild foods from nuts, to berries and, of course, mushrooms. I’m not suggesting that this gig is for everyone, we all live busy lives and time to connect with each other in the hue and cry of everyday life is just as absent as our awareness to the what physically sustains us too.
Deeside Railway Track
A recent article published in the Guardian  states that Neuroscientist Shane O’Mara believes that plenty of regular walking unlocks the cognitive powers of the brain like nothing else. Shane cites a 2018 study that tracked participants’ activity levels and personality traits over 20 years, and found that those who moved the least showed malign personality changes, scoring lower in the positive traits: openness, extraversion and agreeableness.

Some people don’t think walking counts as proper exercise. “This is a terrible mistake,” he says. “What we need to be is much more generally active over the course of the day than we are.” And often, an hour at the gym doesn’t cut it. “What you see if you get people to wear activity monitors is that because they engage in an hour of really intense activity, they engage in much less activity afterwards.”

Toni cleaning Chanterelles
The World Health Organisation (WHO) present recommended level of exercise, to reduce risk in 5 common chronic diseases has been challenged in an analysis of 174 studies by US and Australian researchers. It determined that levels should be 5 to 7 times more than that recommended by WHO.
They recommend at least 600 metabolic (Met) equivalent minutes of physical activity equal to 150 minutes a week of brisk walking or 75 minutes of running. Analysis suggests health gains are achieved at between 3,000 and 4,000 of Met  minutes per week. They go on to state that these Met minutes can be incorporated into physical activities of daily routines like climbing stairs, vacuuming, gardening, walking, running or cycling.
This “observational” research can’t draw cause and effect conclusions however but the findings have public policy implications and the need for all to consider our exercise regimes to protect against five common and potentially life-limiting illnesses. Healthcare professionals, politicians and charities alike should encourage these physical behaviour changes.

A recent report by the Ramblers and Macmillian Cancer Support details the health benefits of the humble walk stating it could also lead to nearly 300,000 fewer cases of type 2 diabetes. In some cases walking can be more effective than running. Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, found that brisk walking reduces the risk of heart disease more effectively than running. They observed participants aged between 18 and 80 over a six-year period and found that walking reduced the risk of heart disease by 9.3%, while running reduced it by 4.5%.

Additionally 30 minutes of brisk walking over five days could help you sleep easy, according to research by Oregon State University. A study by the university showed that walking helped participants sleep better and feel more alert during the day.

The first rule of exercise is always engage your core muscles. This is particularly important in walking because you are upright the whole time and supporting your entire body weight. So tighten your stomach muscles. The best way to do this is to make sure you are not slouching when you walk. Spinal alignment is part of this core strength. You should stand up straight, trying not to lean too far forward or backward with your chin parallel to the ground.

Once you’ve mastered the 30 minutes of exercise per day, changing your walking route is a great way to keep motivated. Walk up hills for a great glute workout. Or if you are exercising in a gym, increase the incline for a similar effect. Walking uphill uses more energy than walking along flat surfaces.

Pipes and Drums of the Royal Scottish Regiment

Walking is a great way to connect with nature. Green Exercise, the Essex University research team that have been studying the benefits of walking in green spaces (PDF), found that it reduces stress levels, improves mood, enhances psychological wellbeing and improves attention and concentration.

Walking also helps the planet. By parking the car up and walking instead, you help to reduce air pollution. This is particularly important for short journeys. Taking the car for short journeys uses almost twice the CO2 per mile. So leaving the car keys at home, helps you and the environment. Recently the Woodland Trust suggested forest bathing – which doesn’t, despite its name, involve getting in water – should be among a range of non-medical therapies and activities recommended by GPs’ surgeries to boost patients’ boost wellbeing.

“Forest bathing is an opportunity for people to take time out, slow down and connect with nature. We think it could be part of the mix of activities for social prescription,” Stuart Dainton of the Woodland Trust. “Evidence about its benefits is building. So called “Social prescribing” is a growing movement in the NHS, can include volunteering, gardening, sports activities, cookery and befriending.

Gary Evans, who set up the Forest Bathing Institute in the UK last year, said: “People initially think they’ve been doing this all their lives: going for a walk in the woods. But it might be a brisk walk, or you might be worrying about where the dog has got to.

One UK study, carried out by King’s College London and published in January 2018, found that exposure to trees, the sky and birdsong in cities improved mental wellbeing. The benefits were still evident several hours after the exposure. “Even just 20 minutes can help, though 10 hours a month is even better,” said Dainton. “If you live in a city, you may not be able to get to a forest easily, but taking off your shoes in the park and feeling the grass will help you de-stress.” Healthcare professionals, politicians and charities alike should encourage these physical behaviour changes.


Foraging for me incorporates meaningful movement, attention to and focus on the seasons, the weather and the mental acuity and awareness in observing and identifying wild food. Mushrooms are fungi, biologically distinct from plant and animal derived foods and the nutrients they provide have a unique profile. Edible mushrooms, when exposed to UV light creates within itself vitamin D2. These fungi,  informally known as “white vegetables” are being researched for their immune function and anticancer effects but more research is being done to understand their additional unique nutritional properties currently unknown.

The Chanterelle is found singly, scattered in groups or clusters in woods. They are loaded with Iron, copper, vitamins D, B3 and 5. Raspberries, bilberries, strawberries, blueberry and red berries are loaded with antioxidants, high in soluble fibre, nutrient dense, rich in vitamin’s C and K1, copper , manganese and folate. Many more benefits abide with berry fruit but further more involved with foraging is the exercise, exposure to sunshine and fresh air, a sense of purpose and connection to the seasons and nature. It is obvious to state too that when gathering wild foods have an expert along for the ride or identify them yourself from written or online guides.

The Queen reviewing the Pipes and Drums
The theatre of the Aboyne Highland Games immediately grabbed our attention. We turned up with no idea of what to expect aside from the traditional highland game themes of hammer and caber tossing to highland dancing, pipes and drums and a lot of tartan. I was particularly interesting in the pipes and drums as a friend back in Blenheim recently asked me to join her pipe and drum outfit as a drummer. I was at first surprised by her offer, I might take her up on it. I was thrilled to hear the massed bands of the Aboyne and district associations but also, a few days later at Balmoral the Pipes and Drums of the Royal Highland Regiment too. Amazing experiences both. The rich culture in the Highlands goes back to the Clans, the tribal nature of governance way back when. The historic tartan clan colours, the heritage of individual Clans, pride and passion, the importance of competition, of play and community was very apparent. Community is something Toni and I are aware we lack, its our own fault I suppose, we’ve not afford enough time to its importance. This is something we need to address, to find our community, like-minded and gentle, kind and nurturing people and purposes. It’s a work in progress on our return.
The Arboyne Highland Games
We journeyed north to Forres, through Whiskey territory, to catch up on our past. We once lived in Elgin, Scotland, back in my RAF days, just two boys, Arran and Dale, and us as young and intrepid parents. In fact, our current journey, living in New Zealand, began back in 1993 when we first travelled to Australasia.
We stayed just outside of Elgin, at Wester Lawrenceton, on an organic farm come small holding for one night. Extreme weather, a huge dumping of rain, unheard of for decades had nearly washed away the drink way to the farm stay. The hosts, Pam and Nick, were both seasoned veterans of the small holding scene, being cheese makers way back when and moved from Devon to the Highlands of Scotland to move into the sustainable, organic and local food scene. Their organic small holding farms 5 acres, 300 chickens, 2 poly tunnels, a small green house, an orchard and goats. They supply the local area with a variety of vegetables and fruits. Pam was very helpful in guiding us, from her life experiences, to resource material for further research and study and Nick blessed us with his insight into the vagaries and joys of organic small holding.
Pam and Nick generously supplied our Haggis with fresh organic vegetables from the farm.
In particular Pam revealed a lesser known, but historically important organisation called the McCarrison Society. Their slogan, “health through nutrition, a birthright”, demonstrates their stated aspirations of assembling scientific knowledge on nutrition and health, to educate, disseminate as openly and as freely as possible, foster discussion through blogs and chat forum and create a free access library, education and videos for schools. They also want to encourage dialogue between the food industry, medical profession and government, especially in terms of bringing attention to the issues of food and the wider impact of things such as soil, human waste and ocean acidification. Many thanks to both Nick and Pam, two very connected people, trying their best to respect and utilise the soil, in a sustainable and holistic manner.
Poly Tunnel at Nick and Pam’s
The theme of sustainability and climate change as well as considering alternative routes to well-being will become surprising resonant in Week 7 when we travel onward to the Buckinghamshire and Rose and Mark Gallagher, Portland, Oregon, USA to be with Dan and Carola and then, finally, to Estes Park, Colorado to abide with Jack and Peggy.

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