Tackling the wilderness

Students and disabled soldiers have taken part in a gruelling expedition to raise awareness of a charity with real horsepower, as Jean McLeish reports

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They could have chosen to do water sports in Costa Brava, brushed up their French in Normandy or taken a course in photography. But 14 intrepid students from Aberdeenshire opted instead to canoe and cycle across some of Scotland's wildest terrain on a week-long expedition - with two soldiers who lost their legs while serving their country.

Seven boys and seven girls from Banchory Academy battled blizzard conditions and unseasonal snow during the 180-mile "Across Scotland" journey from Mallaig to Aberdeen - a trip designed to raise awareness of the plight of soldiers who suffer life-changing injuries, and raise funds for a charity that helps them, HorseBack UK.

It's the fifth year the school has run this adventure, with students camping and sleeping in bothies across Scotland. They vary the route each year, canoeing down lochs and rivers, hiking and cycling across mountainous terrain.

This year, students and three teachers travelled with two ex-paratroopers, Scott Meenagh and Paul Burns, who used hand cycles instead of mountain bikes. The men completed the canoeing and cycling sectors of the journey with back-up from the charity.

Scott, 23, who is still a serving soldier but is on placement with HorseBack UK, describes the schoolchildren as "incredible". Scott lost both his legs in an explosion in Afghanistan two years ago, has had 23 operations, and now uses prosthetic limbs. Yet he insists he was lucky.

"I lost a close friend of mine in that incident," he reveals. "He was killed dragging me out. He saved my life - and gave his. So I have got to get on with it. On this trip my morale has been kept high with the way the kids have been. They worked so well as a team. It has been superb."

Paul Burns, 51, a former paratrooper on the trip, had not been long out of school himself when he was injured 34 years ago this August while serving in Northern Ireland.

After they were taken by boat on the 18km trip from Mallaig along Loch Nevis, the students walked for almost eight hours in funnelling winds to the end of Loch Arkaig.

Next day, the soldiers paddled the length of the loch with them, before using their hand cycles to travel the 80km from Glen Roy to Aviemore.

On the fifth day, the teenagers walked through the Lairig Ghru in driving hail and snow, before the whole team began the final push on bikes to Aboyne, and canoed the final stretch down the River Dee to Aberdeen.

"The youngsters have been amazing, but the two soldiers have been an inspiration," says teacher and experienced mountaineer Niall Ritchie, who took some older students on a trip to Alaska last summer.

The teenagers who made the trip describe it as a life-changing experience. Olivia Churchfield, 15, says: "It's amazing how even after what happened to these soldiers they still want to explore places and do things."

Sarah Buchan, 14, adds: "Whenever we were feeling `I can't make it up this hill' - you'd see the hand bikes and the guys making it up and they have no legs. And you are like `that's amazing' so it really inspires you to do it yourself."

And they were challenged by the landscape itself. Cian Mcbeath, 14, says a highlight was discovering the source of the River Dee. "Coming up over the Lairig Ghru we saw the Pools of Dee which is the source of the River Dee. There was snow sticking to our backpacks and everything. I was tired. But it was so much fun."

The students' tenacity also earned the soldiers' respect. Scott Meenagh says he wished something similar had been available to him when he was at school.

"Not only do students get to learn new skills and deal with situations, but they are out of their comfort zone and they have to learn to gel as a team," he says.

Depute rector of Banchory Academy Colin Nicoll says: "The original aim of giving the children an adventure is priority one and having the HorseBack guys gives the journey a different dimension. It's encouraged the young people to look at these guys in a different way."

Despite some horrendous weather conditions, there were still some relaxed moments. Locals, for example, gave food and support along the way.

"At one point we got a nice gift of half a dozen trout and they were done over the bonfire outside the bothy at Glen Roy," Mr Ritchie says. "Lovely."

* Paul Burns has since died suddenly. The staff and students and TESS would like to express sympathy to his family


The charity was founded four years ago by former Royal Marine Jock Hutchison and his wife Emma and has already helped more than 300 injured ex-servicemen and women start new lives.

The former soldiers learn horsemanship with the charity to renew their self-confidence and their leadership skills.

Injured soldiers are coached by ex-soldiers and learn more about jobs they might do in the countryside. But their involvement with schools is an important element of the charity's work.

Mr Hutchison says: "Working with the kids is great because it's a reminder to our guys that they can still inspire people. They also pass on the message that even if you have been badly hurt there can still be a future.

"By bringing the two parties together you are de-stigmatising the injury. You are also allowing others to see that these wounded people still have great potential."

This year, Banchory Academy's Across Scotland journey raised more than pound;15,000 for the charity.

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