To celebrate 2017 being Scotland’s year of History, Heritage and Archaeology,  Five Senses is offering 8 practical sessions and walks, teaching you how to safely navigate and explore ancient sites. 

Learn how to accurately use maps & compass and read the landscape to discover ancient sites, find hidden remains in a natural way, and enjoy walking in remote areas safely. Learn how to get out of trouble when lost and more importantly, how to not get lost!

Group navigating on hillside

Navigating to some hut circles

This all came about because I use the cup & ring marked stones and hut circles, marked on OS maps, as tricky features to navigate to. There is no cheating as they are often incredibly hard to spot – a proverbial needle in a haystack. But it is exciting when you discover them and by the process of arriving at them, you intimately know the landscape in which they are situated and can more easily imagine life back in the Bronze Age.

We have put together a series of 8 walks over the summer, so you can book onto all of them and use as a course in preparation for a Mountain Leader Assessment, come out for lovely walks and explore the locations from prehistory, or you can pick and choose and top up your map reading skills while enjoying good company in scenic, off the beaten track places.

Are you a bluffer or think you’re terrible at navigation?

When I started teaching mountain and micro-navigation decades ago, I discovered people tended to bluff their way on courses or have zero confidence in their ability. Either way, they were coming out of nationally accredited courses not really knowing how to navigate or trusting in their abilities. So, being something of a maverick, I set about turning navigation courses upside down.

I was determined to find out those who were pretending they knew what they were doing (deceiving themselves more than anyone else but sometimes as leaders of groups they were being irresponsible with others’ safety) and at the same time to boost the confidence of those convinced they had some genetic blind spot to map reading.

My solution? Do the night navigation first.

I’d read the format of courses and sat in on too many, with a boring introduction, waffle about grid references and map scales, such that people were confused and half-asleep and in no mood for learning. If they progressed well through more tedious compass fiddling and exercises they might get to ‘test’ themselves with a night navigation exercise.

Now I’ve walked behind people practicing pacing and walking on bearings for many years, and I know they ‘cheat’ themselves, primarily because they can see a target and adjust what they are doing to fit the scene, often subconsciously. It’s not their fault, it’s the course. What this does is give them poor quality feedback and makes it unclear how and how much they were out.

At this point it is important I say that navigation is an art form, that enhances the outdoor experience, not some rigid military maneouvre that kills conversation and makes a walk sterile.

Navigation is about reading the landscape and knowing how you are moving through it. It’s about moving from area to area, never becoming lost, and knowing when to generalise and when to tighten up and focus for precision.

Have you tried navigation courses before?

Right, so back to my early navigation courses, in Wales. As people arrived on a Friday evening, we’d chat and I was surprised how many had done navigation courses before.

Group around mapIn fact this was the common theme, people (mostly women) trying again to overcome what they felt was a disability in their minds, with yet another weekend course. I’m sure the social element and the walking were also big attractions. As they were previous attendees of navigation courses (yawn) they ‘knew’ the format.

So imagine their alarm and anxiety when I said we we’re starting with a night walk on open hillside. We spent an initial hour outside walking a fixed distance, to get their pacing identified, and we learnt how to follow a compass bearing. Then we had supper and when it was nearly dark, we set off.

As I knew that people will search out for any clues and divert towards a feature glimpsed in the dark (and with head torches, let’s be honest, the darkness is far from complete), I had to have features that met certain criteria.

They must:

  • a) be marked accurately on the map
  • b) exist in reality but
  • c) be almost impossible to spot until you are actually there.

The perfect target for this was hut circles.

Discovering hut circles and what they mean

These puzzling features are perfect and over time I realised they also told a story, and helped us interpret the landscape of when they were built. Through research I learnt these were homes, often in clusters, or villages. Some were sheep folds, others were summer sheilings and yet others were burnt mounds. Once I was hooked on finding these treasures I discovered cup & ring marked stones. Imagine the excitement of finding one of these stones on a barren hillside, amidst boulders and creeping heather. This was adventure, with a cosy pub fire at the end of it!

Why we’ve created these special archaeological navigation courses

The purpose and joy of these 8 navigation themed walks is learning how to explore safely, getting off the beaten track and venturing where few have been – and feeling and getting to know the landscape such that when you arrive you have a better sense of why they are here. Your imagination is fired up and you have oxygen and endorphins racing around your brain.

Another aspect of these walks that I have witnessed over the years is how nice and interesting the people are and thus how fascinating the conversations are. We go as a group to enjoy one another’s company, sharing experiences and knowledge, from birds to pottery to archaeological digs.

Each of the 8 walks are different, and when we revisit an area we will see different features, though some may ask to retrace a section to gain feedback. I’m flexible about the walk routes and will respond to people’s wishes and the weather. Ultimately it is about enjoying learning and knowing you can trust your navigation so you can explore the rich countryside all around.

As a thank you for reading and to encourage you to join us, be sure to use this discount code: ‘AHH17’ and get 35% off (from £95 to £65, with additional discount for booking all 8)!

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