Two current trends that are popular with young people around the world are practicing mindfulness and spending time connecting with nature. Like a visionary, a Scottish writer from the 1930s named Alastair Borthwick focused his life’s work around these two themes.
This makes Borthwick’s writing an ideal discovery for Millennials and Gen Xers. Simultaneously it also gives insight into the enduring concepts of grounding ourselves in the natural beauty around us and freeing our mind to recharge and escape the daily pressures of life.
Borthwick’s words are perfect for any person at any age, however. He captures the essence of outdoor adventuring in an unpretentious and humorous way that makes it accessible to everyone. It’s exciting for fans of the writer to see new people discovering his work while on the path to living a more purpose-driven life.
If you’re reading this and you’re a millennial, relax. This isn’t going to be yet another article online bashing you. In fact, it’s an invitation to explore something you’re probably going to love. First, it makes sense to mention many of the trends you’re obsessed with and how they relate to Borthwick’s world-view.
Green, Mindful Millennials
Older generations historically look at those coming up behind them as strange animals they can’t relate to. This often translates into a negative view of younger people which is rarely fair. The Millennials have it bad in this regard, painted as entitled and out of touch when the reality is that they are flexible thinkers who know their own worth.
This generation isn’t happy with the status quo and isn’t afraid to chase their joy rather than toe the company line. As they discover and assert themselves, they also discover historical practices that people have relied on for centuries and pursue them with gusto.
Millennials aren’t just glued to their phones, they’re actively learning how to put them down and experience all aspects of life in a mindful way. It’s a movement taking place in young people’s lives across the country and even the world.
If you’re a regular internet user, you’ve probably heard about the houseplant and urban gardening boom among the millennial generation. It’s not just about getting the perfect Instagram snap. It’s actually about grounding one’s self in the digital age.
Furthermore, plants have the ability to do a small part in fighting the greenhouse gas crisis and let people grow their own food without feeding into irresponsible industries. They purify the air in our homes and give us something to take care of.
That care is often mindful. It requires focus and attention and asks us to slow down and nurture life. Being present in the moment is what mindfulness is all about, and nature, pets, and plants all remind us to slow down and savor what’s happening now.
One of the recurring themes among new plant lovers is the desire to create a ‘jungle’ in their living spaces. This is a clear nod to a greater desire to return to nature, which is something Alastair Borthwick was all for.
Alastair Borthwick Was a Sign of the Times
Alastair Borthwick didn’t emerge in a vacuum, so before talking about the man himself, it pays to understand the world he lived in.
He was born in 1913, during a period of great change in Europe and Scotland, specifically. Although war was on the horizon, its first gentle rumblings were only emerging and were easy for most people to ignore. The tensions that emerged between Germany and France weren’t taken seriously until they were heavy with a sense of inevitability.
While this trouble brewed, Europe enjoyed a peaceful period of economic prosperity generally seen as a new standard of stability. Monarchs were marrying, joining families across country lines, and societies in different countries were becoming more similar than ever before. They enjoyed many of the same fashion trends, music and art and royals traveled across the continent to experience them.
A Growing Middle-Class Experiences the Good Life
Meanwhile, the middle class was growing, in part thanks to a political climate that favored rights for the worker and an explosion of literacy. In Scottland, industrialization had improved conditions in several ways. Goods were more available, technology produced advancements in communication and many moved from the countries into the cities while trade flourished.
Literacy rapidly expanded thanks to the diligent efforts of lowland parish schools. While this was a good thing, creating a more aware, educated population, it also created some problems.
Five universities opened their doors to cater to this new, literate class, but the country’s population of less than 1 million couldn’t sustain the needs of the students after graduation. Eventually, they would leave in droves for England, North America, and the Baltic.
Nonetheless, all of this resulted in an opportunity for a transformation of identity. The way people viewed the world and themselves in it was changing.
These changes affected the moral and physical health of European citizens. Although prosperity was enjoyed, the population worried about crime and unrest while the consumption of all of the new goods available had a financial and environmental impact.
During this time, Scotland was adjusting to an economy rooted more in working in industry, tourism, and recreation than farming. Although the country experienced a ‘brain drain’ between 1904 to 1913, where 13% of the entire population left for America taking their education and skills along with them, followed by another 400,000 in the following decade, life mostly changed for the better.
The country was wealthy, an emerging leader of modern industry, thanks to a population boom around the same time. People started businesses, mined coal, built ships and trains, and enjoyed homes warmed with coal from the successful rise of that industry. In fact, it became one of the leading centers for engineering in the early 1900s, thanks to the development of the hot iron smelting method.
Toward the conclusion of the 19th century, steel production largely replaced iron production, and by 1914, there were 1,000,000 coal miners in Scotland. These two industries were responsible for employing a large part of the population.
Economic Depression Strikes in the 1920s
In spite of a shipbuilding boom occurring along with the First World War, the country was in depression by 1922. Skilled craftsmen were suddenly out of work with few alternatives other than to learn a whole new trade.
The social climate quickly shifted and problems like failing national health, insufficient housing, and mass unemployment threatened the prosperity the Scottish people had recently enjoyed. By the 1920s, a feeling of despair was palpable among the working class.
Change Creates A Cauldron
In some ways, life at the time Alastair Borthwick was born and grew up wasn’t unlike ours today. Changes happened quickly, and technological advancement created a variety of challenges. Some industries boomed and then declined, leaving people without work and seemingly without options.
People craved meaningful distraction and had ample free time as a result of rampant unemployment. They had recently tasted a middle-class lifestyle and were troubled by the prospect of being plunged back into poverty.
Their minds were restless and their souls were calling for something more.
Wandervogel Offers Escape
Around 1896, a movement was born in Germany that would reach across the European continent long before the tendrils of war did. It offered real relief to young people searching for meaning and companionship. That movement was called wandervogel.
In an article about the wandervogel movement, Vice wrote, that the involved youth, “rejected the onset of the materialist, consumerist, mass-production society in favor of researching folklore and tramping around the countryside.”
The term means rambling, hiking, or a wandering bird and its ideals were to shirk societal restrictions and return to nature and freedom.
It began in German youth groups but they later splintered, spreading the concept even further as more organizations rose from their demise. All of these groups were independent but ascribed to the tenants of finding meaning, peace, and freedom in nature’s theater.
Although some of the young people swept up by the movement would later adopt other tenants like extreme sexual freedom, crime, and torturing the nazis, the spirit of the original idea of wandervogel was to return to simplicity, put on a pack, and start experiencing nature directly.
The youth hostel network in Europe owes its origins to this movement and the groups of young people seeking lodging during the early 1900s.
Borthwick was eventually inspired by the spirit of this movement and he transformed it in a way that was accessible to ordinary Scottish citizens.
Who is Alastair Borthwick and What Was He About?
Now that we know about the times, let’s take a closer look at the man. Alastair Borthwick was born in Scotland in 1913 and lived until 2003, placing him right in the midst of exciting and tumultuous times in Europe. Lived in Rutherglen, Lanarkshire, and Troon, Ayrshire as a child, but like so many, his move to Glasgow opened the door to many possibilities, particularly his illustrious writing career. He worked first as a writer and later as a media broadcaster who developed and shared a passionate love for nature, particularly hiking and climbing.
During his life, Alastair Borthwick became an integral figure in the adventure movement and produced two books considered iconic in their respective subjects. The first, Always A Little Further, told the tales of his induction into outdoor adventure and the characters he met along the way. This included the ways in which he learned about himself. His second book, Battalion, was about his experience in the Second World War.
Borthwick’s societal contributions include making outdoor adventure a tangible past time for the middle and working class, whereas before, it was considered mainly a leisure pursuit for the wealthy.
Alastair Borthwick’s Unconventional Success Story
When young Borthwick arrived in Glasgow, he left school before graduating and applied for a job opening at the nearby Evening Times. He got the job and performed his work so earnestly he was invited to write for the small Glasgow Weekly Herald as well. Because this paper had a small staff, he was able to stretch his wings in the journalism trade and work on many projects and columns. Even young Borthwick took every available opportunity to embrace his passions.
His time working at these publications not only sharpened his writing skills (eventually leading to his first book), but also exposed him to the outdoor adventure community. He met people who loved to hike the countryside and began writing for The Herald’s open-air section, a column featuring content about hiking.
Hiking would lead to rock climbing, something Borthwick humorously details in Always A Little Further, to the delight of the reader. That was Borthwick’s great charm – he had an ability to use his gift for writing to infect others with a curiosity and passion for outdoor adventure. Anyone who read about his adventures couldn’t help wanting to be a part of his group of friends who found themselves pitted against challenges in the natural world.
This opened a world to the unemployed population, the middle class, and the young people in Scottland that cost nothing to appreciate. Borthwick and his companions stayed overnight wherever they could- in hostels, on the sides of trails, and with friends, they met in their travels. They spent their days scrounging for food, enjoying the hospitality of other adventurers, and fending for themselves. It was true self-sufficiency and self-discovery, all there for anyone to read in the papers.
While Alastair Borthwick wrote about his time outdoors in a charming and enticing way, he also spoke philosophically about the way it improved his physical and mental health. Scottland’s beautiful moors, hills, and trails exercised the body and mind. These vital benefits coincided with technical and manufacturing advancements that made life a little simpler and freed up time for what previous generations saw as trivial pursuits.
Borthwick’s writings clearly spelled out the value of slowing down, shutting out the bustle of work, worry and menial tasks while pitting one’s self against the elements. This spoke to his countrymen and sounded like a siren song. Long before today’s new age movement or the western world’s fascination with eastern ideals, Borthwick was talking about mindfulness.
But to my mind it finds its chief justification as an antidote for modern city life, where we live on wheels and use our bodies merely as receptacles for our brains. (On the crag) one cannot sweat and worry simultaneously. The mountain resolves itself into a series of simple problems unconfused by other issues. Abstractions are foreign to it; its problems are solid rock, to be wrestled with physically; and in the sheer exuberance of thinking through his fingers and toes as his primeval fathers did before him the climbers’ worries vanish, sweated from his system, leaving his brain free to appreciate beauty, which is never petty and never troubled anyone who understood it. – Alastair Borthwick
More About Always A Little Further
Although well known at the time of publication too, this book has become prized as an iconic series of stories that bring the outdoors to life for individuals from all sections of society. To this day, Borthwick is regarded as among the most crucial figures in the outdoor adventure movement since he was among the first to develop a career of documenting the amazing experiences he’d in nature.
Borthwick’s friend, poet T.S. Eliot, encouraged him to publish this unusual memoir and helped him organize the content. The stories wove an idyllic image of the friendship and fun one found in the pursuit of a healthier lifestyle. Every character Borthwick met was given the same treatment, a lively, vivid description of unusual individuals who shared a common love and found themselves on the trails and mountainsides of their beautiful country. It was unbelievably enticing.
While telling his stories, Borthwick featured the countryside itself as an almost relatable character. It was also enticing, welcoming, challenging and could push ordinary people past what they believed was possible. People who read his work were inspired to lace up their shoes and pack their bags to set off for their own adventures.
Borthwick is recognized as a writer and a humorist that had a sharp sense of the most exciting bits of a situation. He recounted these to the audience of his in a way that inspired them to find the same for themselves.
The War And Battalion
Later in his life, Borthwick eventually served in World War II. Not every adventure was gratifying, and in spite of his successful military career, he would later describe the experience as difficult on many levels.
As an infantry soldier in the 51st Highland Division’s 5th Seaforth Highlanders, Borthwick attained Captain rank acting as a battalion intelligence officer. Fellow servicemen described him as a loyal and competent soldier who followed orders and showed commitment to his fellow soldiers.
With his battalion, Borthwick pushed the German Army out of northern Africa and through Italy. At the battle of El Alamein, they traveled more than 3,000 miles across North Africa to Europe, with enemy contact along the way.
Borthwick’s most notable war story is of the night his battalion snuck behind enemy lines in Holland. They successfully advanced through hundreds of opposing soldiers and successfully completed the mission. Borthwick, however, didn’t gloat about his war glory and instead called the experience one of the loneliest times in his life.
He wrote about his time as a soldier in a book appropriately called Battalion, which is also considered a classic.
After the war, he returned to public service as a broadcaster and enjoyed the impact his work had on the country that he loved. Surely, the mental, physical and emotional fortitude he developed on the trails was with him during his most trying times.
Alastair Borthwick’s Mindful Example
It’s easy to take inspiration from the life of such an unusual and accomplished man, but Alastair Borthwick also teaches us about mindfulness. He was always sure to reference the benefit of a mind-body connection in his work, and that’s one of the driving forces behind his love for outdoor adventuring.
To him, nature was a meditation and when he pit himself against the often unforgiving landscape, he freed his mind. When he succeeded, his spirit soared. When he failed, he was humbled. Overall the experience helped him remain a flexible thinker and one of the greatest writers in the outdoor movement.