This week we introduce our newest FINDRA Ambassador Duncan McCallum, who lives and works in the Highlands of Scotland. Duncan is a climber, writer, photographer, TV Presenter and founder of the Ledge Charity.
Early in 2020 we launched a campaign to find new male brand ambassadors and we were inundated with applications. Selecting only 3 was difficult and just as we were about to introduce them, COVID-19 arrived and our plans were put on hold. Following the introduction of Danny O’Callaghan last week, we are delighted to welcome Duncan to the FINDRA family.
Hi Duncan and welcome onboard! Let’s start by introducing yourself and telling us know who you are and what you do?
Hi. My Name’s Duncan McCallum and after years of living away from the highlands, I’ve found myself back living near Dingwall where I was born.
When I left at the age of 17, I swore I would never come back as the town was too small the attitudes too parochial and I suppose it is a natural teenage thing to reject where you were brought up. I hated school, and as a dyslexic kid ended up leaving the north with nothing academically to speak of no plan and no mapped future path. 40 years and at least 4 or 5 careers later, I find myself back in the Highlands looking at Ben Wyvis from by home office window (Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads springs to mind, “how did I get here?”).
Dyslexia I suppose has ultimately been a gift as it means I’ve found myself always leaning towards the creative. Happenstance often led me through life and after taking an interest in photography when climbing, someone mentioned I had a visual talent that led to studying art and then photography. The combination of being able to look after myself in difficult environments and work with cameras then lead to 15 years of travel, expeditions and wild experiences working for C4 and the BBC making films and TV documentaries travelling from Borneo to Spitzbergen, Mali to Chile.
These experiences included crossing the Darien Gap by foot, being arrested at gunpoint in Panama by secret police, picking up fossils in Ethiopia’s Rift Valley, watching Lions hunt Zebra by hunters lamp in South Africa and helping David Attenborough carry boxes of equipment in the Columbian jungle. All this led eventually to me working as a cameraman with the now BBC Adventure show team.
The most memorable trip for the Edge/Face series I was working with involved a trip to the Canadian NW territories to climb Mt Proboscis in the Cirque of the Unclimbables. Rockfall, electric storms, huge walls, terrifying abseils and one huge 24 hours push, saw us climb, film and descend safely one of North America’s most remote and difficult peaks to summit.
Throughout this time I used my freelance film life as a way to fund my rock-climbing “career” and in between bouts of TV work, worked as a professional sponsored rock climber testing and writing about gear, and developing plans for a National Scottish Climbing centre, which eventually became the EICA Ratho, the largest indoor climbing centre in the world.
Then in 2004 I flipped from behind the camera to standing in front of one.
For the last 16 years I have been lucky enough to still work as a specialist presenter for the long running BBC Adventure Show – interspersed with consultancy work, adventure sports journalism, writing and a long stint in the French alps getting involved in a proper ‘Grand Designs’ chalet project, plus helping developers build credible adventure sports facilities.
I am now back to develop what I suppose (if we pull it off) will be a fine project and the confluence of all of these life experiences. I am heading up the development of a large new Climbing Gym and adventure sports training centre called The Ledge. The Ledge will be run as a charity with all is profit/surplus going to help those at risk or with limited opportunities to develop life skills and confidence through connections with climbing and outdoors sports. A £4.5m project which has now been 4 years in the making – and as I write in July 2020, on the verge of breaking ground. Time to give something back, I think.
How long has the outdoors been a part of your life?
I started hill walking at 11 and climbing at 13. I did my first new rock route aged 14 and new winter climb aged 15. So well over 40 years. Work and leisure are intrinsically linked to the outdoors, so it has been my life.
What’s been your favourite trip or adventure?
Mt Probsicious (mentioned earlier) was probably one of the stand out work trips along with making and filming the first descent of Lowes Gully on Mt Kinabalu in Borneo. But in recent years Splitboard Touring in Hakuba Japan and off-road motorcycle trips in Iceland have been exceptional memories as non-work trips. But I can get the same pleasure from going bouldering locally or trad climbing on the west coast, so I am easily pleased and don’t need to travel half way around the world for adventures (and in these days of Covid-19 is a blessing).
How do you make find a balance between being active and life’s other responsibilities – i.e. work and family?
My work life and outdoors sports life are so intertwined that it is almost impossible to separate the two. But there is no doubt that there always has been a tension between wanting to spend time training/climbing/travelling and with relationships and children. To deny that would be a huge mistake. I think it has taken a very long time to embrace that tension and forgive myself and others for not being able to deal with that drive or need to have the freedom to do what I wanted when I wanted – or that the weather allowed. It is partly that tension that keeps the fire and desire alive, but these days I understand that harmony comes from flexibility in all things.
Is there anyone who inspired your love of the outdoors?
I think I have to go back to my Dingwall roots with this one and mention Steve Clouston a gym teacher from Dingwall Academy who first took us hillwalking, kayaking and climbing. Imagine these days taking 10, 12-14-year olds out in all weathers without the red tape of H&S risk assessments dragging the process down and making it impossible to just stuff everyone in a Transit van and head off. Remarkable freedom and his enthusiasm and love for sharing the hills was the start. I will be forever grateful.
Since then, Kenny Spence (climber), John Falkiner (Skier and Mountain Guide) are standouts, but I feed off the energy of everyone I climb, board or ride with. I think as I get older it is so important to still be open to others energy, otherwise the temptation of the fire and couch could overwhelm and suffocate.
Do you find that being outside has a positive impact on your wellbeing and mental health?
I think my default is to be quite self-contained or insular and without an outdoors project I fear I may never extend myself beyond the confines of a house. I think it is in my nature as a climber to want to preserve energy on a climb, so you have enough in the tank left to grab the chain or belay, or on a long snowboard tour have enough left for something unexpected. I fear this sometimes holds me back, so I think I need a project at the limit of my abilities and strength to truly feel alive. To be at the finger opening limit then must be what I subconsciously seek. This can only be positive; to keep extending is a great benefit mentally.
What is it about rock climbing specifically that you love?
Climbing is complex and constantly challenging. We live in essentially a horizontal world, and every time I step from the horizontal onto the vertical it is a jolt. Climbing is an innate childlike instinct, which as we grow we lose. It requires one to overcome so many things, the desire for self-preservation, the natural fear of heights and exposure, all there to keep us safe and then perform somehow ignoring these pressures. That is climbing.
Do enough of it and your brain adapts to the point where you can concentrate on understanding the micro details of rock, friction, humidity, the texture of the crystals or the glacial polish. Tie this together with the endeavour of a difficult project, one which sees you lying in bed visualising individual moves, imagining the pressure through the rock shoes on your toes or the sharp pain of a small hold; chess and dance, on the ancient building blacks of the landscape, a constant fascination for over 40 years.
In almost direct contrast to that, however, is my love of splitboard touring, huge landscapes – refreshing cold, wild and open. It is a good counter balance to the rabbit hole of timed “deadhangs” and micro textures.
What else inspires or reinforces your love of the outdoors and climbing?
I am constantly inspired by older athletes who still push hard at their limits. When I was 28 I climbed with a 50 year old who was operating at a very high standard. Now I am over 50, I climb and ski with 70 year olds who still want to push, although I do not see myself as an older climber, I see the whitening beard in the mirror and see that I am. Let’s hope I am as inspiring to the 20 years olds as the 70 years olds are to me. I suppose if you were to label me as anything in the outdoors world if would be as a rock climber.
I love the fact that you are holding the landscape when climbing. The smells of herbs on the Limestone cliffs of France and Spain, the red dust paths of the Greek mountains and the fresh west coast winds of the Highlands. I am happiest in these places; in the tile floored European mountain bars at the end of a hot rock day on huddled up in the van on a blustery Scottish autumn evening, fingers hot from a day on the rock and feet sore from hours in rock shoes. These have been a constant narrative for many years. They punctuate my existence and enrich my life.
When did you discover FINDRA?
I first came across FINDRA at The Kendal Film Festival in 2016, I immediately loved the quality and feel of the classic base layers.
What does being a brand ambassador for FINDRA mean to you?
For years I’ve worked with outdoor brands trying to help them improve products and doing various promo jobs to support them. It is a joy finally to be working with a credible Scottish brand who make quality products that have a unique style and presence. I am very pleased to now be part of the team and help in FINDRA’s amazing journey.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
“You won’t know unless you go” – i.e. take a risk on a wet or windy day, be patient, and it will be what it will be. Enjoy the journey not the goal.
In this interview, what do you feel is the key motivational or inspirational message you would like to highlight to our readers?
There is so much I would like to say, never give up, don’t stop trying or exploring, take the risk, but it’s all a bit clichéd and trite. So much of the mainstream outdoors messaging is, but the key things I feel we should be doing, is sharing our passions and building open and inclusive communities all linked by the outdoors.
Finally don’t stop doing what you love, you may not miss it immediately but in time, your life will be poorer for not being in the hills.
Thanks Duncan and once again, welcome on board!
George the Poet
Currently I am listening to George the Poet: www.georgethepoet.com
I live in a place in this country where I am almost completely isolated from any “real” urban issues of gangs, violence, racism and drugs. George’s work is one very small way that I can begin to learn and keep in contact with some of the burning issues in our wider culture.
The outdoors sports industry is incredibly “white” and this is a massive issue and failure. Even in London the lack of diversity in something as simple as the membership of climbing walls is pitifully monocultural; less than 5% of wall members are BAME, when the London population is 40% BAME.
To address this lack of diversity should be the next great project for the British outdoors industry. The Ledge Climbing Gym, our new project in Inverness where the population is less than 1% BAME is looking to work with inner city groups both in Scotland, England and with our future partner Memphis Rox in the USA. The aim being to widen the reach and appeal of climbing in the Highlands and use climbing as a tool to teach, enhance and deliver life skills learning.
Lawren Stewart Harris CC (October 23, 1885 – January 29, 1970) was a Canadian painter, and is best known as a member of the Group of Seven who pioneered a distinctly Canadian painting style in the early twentieth century.
During the 1920s, Harris’ works became more abstract and simplified, especially his stark landscapes of the Canadian north and Arctic. He also stopped signing and dating his works so that people would judge his works on their own merit and not by the artist or when they were painted. In 1969, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada.
The reason I like Lawren Harris is his ability to distil complex landscape forms into simple striking forms. It is this ability to make the complex simple and look into the essence of a scene, I think, reflects how I would like to approach life.
Mountain Forms, painted by Harris in 1926 sold for a record $8.3m USD at Heffel Fine Art Auction House in 2016 making it the most expensive work by a Canadian artist ever sold at auction.
I have very wide and diverse music taste, but I love the layered complexity of Arcade Fire and the club beats of Róisín Murphy, the classic waves and wisps of Kind of Blue the Miles Davis classic. Currently Duncan Chisholm, a neighbour and fiddle player, has been re-connecting me with great live traditional fiddle tunes.
Finding one piece of music or song to pick for my remote island is tough. Do I flip for “Since I’ve been Loving You” by Led Zeppelin, which is one of the best modern blues songs; turn it up and you can hear the bass drum pedal squeak. Or “I Go Shout Plenty” and “Expensive Shit” by Fela Kuti. Its Afro beat and drumming by Tony Allen is a fantastic training motivator.
My music taste is dictated by mood, or can create mood. So I am going to pick a band and song that I saw played live in the Barrowlands in 2019 – “Shiverman” by Fat Freddy’s Drop. Fat Freddy’s are a collective from New Zealand who play a mashed version of reggae and dance, irresistible sweaty energy music – bounce when the brass section kicks in!
Fat Freddy’s Drop – Shiverman