I’m at something of a crossroads in life – after 5 years living and working in Edinburgh, mostly in offices, I realised that what I really loved was being outside and spending time with people. And that perhaps I could do that day to day. Although – I looked at my CV with bewilderment – I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to get there.
I left the city. I learnt to drive. I booked a residential volunteering week with the RSPB and, at the beginning of September, I saw on Facebook a post, shared by a friend – Xchange Scotland were looking for a team leader for a conservation project, get in touch to find out more. I sent an email.
Less than a fortnight later, I was sitting in a circle with a group of 6 international volunteers – aged 18 to 29, from Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic and Italy (x3) – explaining the rules of human bingo. A week after this, we were eating fish and chips after a walk on Troon beach at sunset, after stewarding an ultramarathon all day. And one week later, we were saying the first farewells – after a fortnight of spending every moment together, we were off to our different corners of Europe, via bus, rail or air.
How to characterise that fortnight? Fun, fascinating, challenging, busy, muddy, musical. I was Mama Duck, looking out for the practical and emotional needs of six volunteer ‘ducklings’. I was supposed to know the answers – even when completely baffled, barely awake, and totally uncaffeinated. Our dodgy shower occasionally stopping midstream, I would hear the beep and wait for the plaintive cry: ‘Ceriiiiiiiis!’ By the Monday of the second week, my eyes would barely stay open – so, while my ducklings went to the pub, I enjoyed a couple of hours of delicious peace and was asleep by half past 9. Any potential team leaders out there? Schedule a break for yourself. You’ll do an even better job.
Oh, but it was fun though. Late nights playing cards, charades and the post-it game. We cooked delicious meals with some unusual fusion dishes; had long conversations about life, the universe and, well, everything; learnt languages and songs; got the giggles at inside jokes which were incomprehensible to outsiders. We went bowling (I had a steep learning curve). We got soaked to the skin on a trip to the seaside, horizontal rain battering humans and umbrellas into submission. We tried out Morris dancing and sang 300 year old rude songs. I taught the volunteers the Scots words dreich and drookit and mingin (amongst others) and they threw them into conversation with vast enthusiasm. We went to Dunure, Troon, Edinburgh and the Isle of Arran and explored castles, cliffs and caves.
Dean Castle’s staff and volunteers were a lovely, welcoming, hilarious bunch who took the whole bundle of us under their wing. Jess (volunteer coordinator) became Auntie Duck, providing help, humour and guidance; Howie kept us buoyed up with energy and sing songs; Neal brought a dry, surreal sense of humour and innumerable nature facts to the table (did you know bats’ knees bend backwards?). We helped build a boardwalk, dig out a site for a bat bothy, scythe long grass, plant trees, weed, mend fences, build bat boxes and sundry other tasks. We sang as we worked – or at least, I sang and after a while the others would join in. I learnt the Italian lyrics to Bella Ciao.
It feels strange that it is over now – such an intense two weeks with a group, then back to our ordinary or extraordinary lives. I learnt about my strengths and weaknesses, made mistakes and worked out how to fix them, saw others make mistakes and worked out how to help them. Being a team leader on this project was an amazing experience – I hope the first of many.