“It’s all about joy, and the detail within the big picture – the play of sunlight on the water, the wildlife going about its business, the smell of salty air.” Author David Flanagan lives in Kirkwall on the Orkney Islands and loves adventure sports including skateboarding and surfing, which he took up aged 40 and despite being scared of the ocean!
Hey David, tell everybody where are you based and what you do!
I live in Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkney Islands. Although I was born and raised in Edinburgh, I have family connections with the islands and have lived back here since 1994. I’m a journalist to trade – a former newspaper and TV reporter – but now I split my time between writing books (I’ve just finished my second children’s adventure story), features, undertaking PR work, creating website content for Orkney.com and providing location management services to TV and film crews visiting the islands.
How long has the outdoors been a part of your life?
I injured a knee pretty badly in a cycling accident when I was 11 – in a display of youthful bravado, I was riding my racer ‘no hands’ through rush-hour Corstorphine, wobbled, got clipped by a bus and flew headfirst into a surprised (then very angry) bus queue. As a result, I couldn’t do sports for a few years, but then went hillwalking with the Sea Scouts at 14 (minus a boat) and was hooked. I headed into the Pentlands most weekends as a young teenager, moving on to the Ochils and then to Corbetts and Munros. Aside from fixing my knee issue, the hills got me fit and, in turn, laid the foundation for a lifetime interest in exercise and adventure sports. I took up surfing at 40, despite being scared of the ocean, writing the book Board about the experience and I still skateboard too.
I’m 54 now and have no intention of slowing down, despite a few mishaps along the way – I broke a shoulder skateboarding in 2011 and then detached a retina in a surfing wipeout a couple of years back, which is easily the scariest thing I’ve experienced. I lost some vision in my right eye as a result and have a synthetic lens in there too now!
What’s been your favourite trip or adventure?
In 2013, I paddled out alone for a surf on a wild January day on Orkney’s Atlantic coast, in forecast conditions way beyond what I’d normally consider comfortable. Of course, I wouldn’t normally recommend that approach, but I’d overcome so much fear to realise my dream of becoming a surfer (albeit a pretty bad one), it was almost as if I needed to test myself in that moment. After I’d battled through the shorebreak and slogged out to the point, the planets aligned, and I caught and rode a sizeable wave all the way back to the shore. I shook uncontrollably for several minutes afterwards, and I cried a bit too! I think I also cried taking my son up his first Munro – Bynack More – years back.
How do you find a balance between being active and life’s other responsibilities i.e. work and family?
I’ve been self-employed for over 20 years, so I’m fairly used to random work schedules and fitting being active around the need to earn a living and raise a family. My mum has dementia and, for several years, we cared for her at home. When you’re engaged in caring for a loved one, your world becomes much smaller, but equally the brief times I managed to get outdoors to pursue my passions became more significant and memorable. You do what you can, when you can, whether that’s 100 push-ups at 5am, or a day in the hills once a year. Ultimately, family always comes first, and the outdoors aren’t going anywhere either. I’m fortunate now to have a nice balance between work commitments and leisure time, but always ensure I do something active every day.
Is there anyone who inspired your love of the outdoors?
Unquestionably, the late Tom Weir. I devoured his books as a teenager and loved watching Weir’s Way on TV. What appealed to me most was the fact that his writing and broadcasting wasn’t just about reaching the summit of a mountain – he explored lower-level landscapes too, connecting with the people he met along the way and talking about the history and wildlife of an area. I think in recent years it’s become fashionable to move fast through the outdoors and, whilst that’s fun and challenging, Tom Weir taught me the value of the big picture. There’s a real joy to be found in slowing down, absorbing everything around you and not becoming too fixated on ‘objectives’ when you’re outdoors. Some of my favourite trips have been the ones where I just wander around a landscape that’s new to me (with a map and compass, I should add) appreciating all the small details along the way, as well as the big-ticket elements, like summits or epic sunset views.
Do you find that being outside has a positive impact on your wellbeing and mental health?
The outdoors and exercise are vital for my mental health and I make sure I get outside every day, regardless of the weather (I have a collie so staying in isn’t an option anyway). I also train pretty much every day, frequently outdoors. I take a set of gymnastics rings and a skipping rope whenever I travel too. I had a bought of depression over 20 years ago, which ultimately all stemmed from losing my dad as a child and, at that point, I’d also cut way back on my outdoors activities. Returning to the gym, taking up surfing and getting back out into the hills with my son healed me, but I never take good mental health for granted.
What is it about surfing specifically that you love?Coming to it in middle age, I know I’ll never be any good at surfing and that simple acknowledgment takes the pressure right off. I have nothing to prove and nobody to impress. It’s all about joy, and the detail within the big picture – the play of sunlight on the water, the wildlife going about its business, the smell of salty air. Given my many fears and hang-ups relating to drowning, it took the best part of a decade for me to learn to turn my surfboard with any regularity, or effectiveness. I still frequently find myself flying straight towards the rocks of our boulder strewn point break, mesmerised by the light speed I’m apparently achieving, and overwhelmed by my place in this once forbidden realm.
When did you discover FINDRA?
I first became aware of FINDRA through the social media account of my friend, the hugely inspirational Jo Moseley, who is also a FINDRA ambassador. I liked the company philosophy and the gear turned out to be fantastic too – I’d had some disappointing experiences with some bigger outdoors brands, but FINDRA’s attention to detail is unsurpassed. I was then honoured to be asked to be part of the FINDRA Everyday Adventure panel at the 2019 Kendall Mountain Festival where I had the pleasure of meeting Alex and the team, reinforcing my connection to the brand. I must give a special mention to my favourite piece of outdoor gear, which is a FINDRA Leithen Merino Base Layer (in fetching French blue) that I wear for pretty much everything. I throw it on after surfing, instantly raising my body temperature, I wear it to our freezing cold gym in the winter, walk the dog in it, run in it and have worn it casually too. I’m also very fond of my orange lambswool Betty Beanie!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
We had a lot of seafarers in the family and, coming from a small island community, my mum was always saying to me ‘remember, the sea is the master’, effectively meaning you’re at the mercy of the environment no matter how skilled you think you are. As advice, it stuck in my head when I was learning to surf and that need to respect the outdoors – whether it’s the ocean or the mountains – remains vital to me. Prepare, be well equipped and go have fun doing your thing, but always do it with humility and respect for the wild places you enter.
What’s the key message you would like to highlight to our followers?
There’s a saying in surfing ‘you won’t know unless you go’ and it’s applicable to most outdoors activities. If you’re thinking about getting outdoors a bit more, or taking up a new activity, it’s easy to become daunted by all the gear or skills you think you might need, but everyone was a beginner at one time. Break it down into small steps – it might be just getting up off the sofa, oiling that old rusty bike in the garage, or jumping online and finding out about local groups doing the thing you’re interested in trying, or courses you can undertake. The pandemic lockdown also taught us that great outdoors experiences can often be had quite close to home, and you don’t always need top-end expensive gear either. It’s also worth saying here that not everyone wants to be part of a community or group for activities – it’s often overlooked or frowned on as an approach. For me, the outdoors is usually a place I go to be alone in the moment – I’ve been that way since I first started – so I read up on the skills I’d need, did the odd course here and there and followed my own path. I’ll still stop and chat if I meet you in the hills though!
You can follow David’s adventures on Instagram @daveflanagan67.
Ulysses by Tennyson
“The central theme of Ulysses is that there is a search for adventure, experience and meaning which makes life worth living. Tennyson used Ulysses as the old adventurer, unwilling to accept the settling of old age, longing for one more quest.”
It little profits that an idle king, By this still hearth, among these barren crags, Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole Unequal laws unto a savage race, That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me. I cannot rest from travel: I will drink Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades Vext the dim sea: I am become a name; For always roaming with a hungry heart Much have I seen and known; cities of men And manners, climates, councils, governments, Myself not least, but honour'd of them all; And drunk delight of battle with my peers, Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy. I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro' Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades For ever and forever when I move. How dull it is to pause, to make an end, To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use! As tho' to breathe were life! Life piled on life Were all too little, and of one to me Little remains: but every hour is saved From that eternal silence, something more, A bringer of new things; and vile it were For some three suns to store and hoard myself, And this gray spirit yearning in desire To follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus, To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,— Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil This labour, by slow prudence to make mild A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees Subdue them to the useful and the good. Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere Of common duties, decent not to fail In offices of tenderness, and pay Meet adoration to my household gods, When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail: There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners, Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me— That ever with a frolic welcome took The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old; Old age hath yet his honour and his toil; Death closes all: but something ere the end, Some work of noble note, may yet be done, Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods. The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks: The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends, 'T is not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths Of all the western stars, until I die. It may be that the gulfs will wash us down: It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho' We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.