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Climb it again Sam

Another summit bagged (Photo: Richard Else)

IT was still dark as we left the car park, head torches shining pools of light onto the frozen ground in front of us. On the previous day the hills had been raked by blizzards and we were hoping for a period of calm in the weather.

My companion strode out alongside me, his 6feet 3inch stride making easy work of the snow-covered slopes. I couldn’t help speculating how at ease he was in these conditions, as though his acting alter-ego, Jamie Fraser of the award-winning series Outlander, had taken possession of him, a man completely at home in a wintry, highland setting.

Sam Heughan is a hillwalker and climber, a Munro-bagging enthusiast and a proud Scot. I had been surprised some months earlier when my Twitter account told me that Sam was now following me, for the Sam Heughan I was aware of was an international television star, an award-winning actor and, according to the females in my life, one of the sexiest men in the world. Why on earth was such a celebrity following an ageing mountain bum on Twitter?

All was revealed when I eventually met Sam and learned something of his hill-walking and mountaineering achievements and aspirations. Some time later he agreed to write the foreword to my autobiograpy, There’s Always the Hills, published last February. In it he suggested I might have been able to offer him some sound advice when he first discovered the hills for himself.

Sam’s first Munro was Ben Lomond and although he didn’t actually make it to the summit the experience had a profound effect on him.

“In reasonable hiking boots, several base layers and a technical winter jacket, I wasn't feeling cold, although my hands would turn bright red - then white - if I took them out of my gloves for too long.

“The closest Munro to Glasgow, Ben Lomond, is a popular climb in summer but can be hazardous in winter. Lost somewhere on the mountain’s Ptarmigan Ridge, its lower peak, I climbed too high before losing my balance and sliding downwards for twenty to thirty metres. Digging my raw and frozen fingers into the snow to break the descent I realised that, displaced only a few metres to the right, I could easily have slipped off the mountain. I had become one of ‘those’ people: foolish, dangerous.

“I learned very quickly to respect the mountains and I resolved to always be not only cautious but also prepared. Then I would enjoy their great heights all the more, and adventure even further into their lesser known world.”

And so here we were, climbing into that “lesser known world” of the Monadh Liath during the dark month of December, being filmed for a television special for BBC Scotland called Take a Hike. Our plan was to wander up Glen Banchor near Newtonmore in Badenoch, follow the length of Gleann Fionndrigh into a tight cleft in the hills, then climb the north slopes of a lovely wee hill called Creag Liath.

Creag Liath is neither a Munro or a Corbett but we were hoping for some good views across to the Cairngorms and west towards Laggan and Ben Nevis and we knew that we’d need to get an early start – December days are notoriously dark for successful filming, especially when days eases into night not long after 4pm.

It struck me I was walking was a man with the world at his feet, with a fan base of millions and star of the internationally successful long-running television series Outlander. Why wasn’t he enjoying the winter sun in California or the sunny ski slopes of St Moritz rather than walking out here at the crack of dawn, in sub-freezing temperatures climbing a snow-covered hill?

“I just love these places,” he admitted. “There’s a frigid beauty in the shape of these hills, the effect of light on the slopes, the colour and the sheer size of everything. And on hills like these you get a sense of your own insignificance in the greater scheme of things. These rocks have been here for millions of years – compare that with the mere flicker of time that we are on the planet.

“And I love the history and the stories related to these wild places. Every place and hill name has it’s own story: Schiehallion - fairy hill of the Caledonians: Castail Abhail - castle of the fork: Beinn Alligin - the jewelled mountain: Càrn Mòr Dearg - the big red cairn. These were the names that conjured up the history, and mythology, that drew me first to their wild peaks, challenging me to be brave enough, daring me to uncover their secrets. Even the rivers, burns, woods, towns and meeting places have a complex history, each hidden meaning bringing new insight to the story and character of the land. The list is endless!”

Sam close to the summit of Creag Liath in the Monadh Liath

Sam is more than familiar with this storied aspect of Scotland’s history. Born and raised in converted stables in the grounds of Castle Kenmure in Dumfries and Galloway he spent his early years enjoying a sense of freedom and exploration that is denied to many youngsters today, and from an early age he had a vivid imagination.

“I had a great time, exploring and relishing the freedom of the surrounding countryside pretending I was Robert the Bruce or one of King Arthur’s knights. I just loved running around with a wooden sword imagining I was someone else.”

My comment, “Just as you now do for a living?” brought a smile to his face. “I guess I’m very fortunate to live in a pretend world and get paid for it,” he admitted.

Like many great achievers such good fortune can only be interlinked with hard graft. In his teenage years Sam’s family moved to Edinburgh where he attended James Gillespie’s High School for a year before moving to the Edinburgh Rudolph Steiner School. There he was introduced to the youth ranks of the Royal Lyceum Theatre where, initially, he worked backstage but it wasn’t long before his acting potential was recognised and he quickly made his mark as a budding actor. After taking some time to work and travel he studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, nowadays known rather grandly as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

It’s temping to consider Sam as an overnight success, thanks to his role as Jamie Fraser in Sony’s phenomenally successful Outlander series, but his success followed a weighty acting apprenticeship that included roles in Doctors, Midsomer Murders and BBC Scotland’s own River City, where he played the part of Andrew Murray, not the tennis star but a Livingston FC football player. His part in David Greig's Outlying Islands in 2002 saw him nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award as most promising new performer.

In 2013 Sam became the first cast member officially announced for a new television series to be produced by Sony Pictures Television. Irish model and actress Catriona Balfe became his co-star, playing Claire Randall, a second world war nurse who stepped through some mysterious standing stones to find herself in the middle of the eighteenth century in the Scottish highlands.

The first series of Outlander was broadcast in the US, Canada and Australia in August 2014 and was later acquired by Amazon Prime where it premiered in March 2015. Apparently both BBC and STV were interested in broadcasting the series but an article in The Herald suggested that following a meeting hastily arranged between former PM David Cameron and Sony executives the broadcast delay in the UK may have been due to sensitivity about the September 2014 Scottish independence referendum. It seems the former prime minister feared another ‘Braveheart effect.’

The television programmes are an adaptation of a successful series of books called Outlander, written by American Diana Gabaldon. It’s a curious mix of fantasy, sci-fi and Scottish history and is largely set in the period just before and after Culloden. Sam plays the part of a minor highland chief and Jacobite by the name of Jamie Fraser, who marries a woman, a kind of time traveller called Clare Randall.

Yes, I know it all sounds pretty weird but it works, as the massive success of the books and the television series testify, but has it worked for Sam Heughan?

“Outlander has changed my life, “Sam told me at a recent charity event where we shared a table. “It is hard to get your head around it and I'm just going with the flow. It is a terrific job and I'm very lucky.

“One of the best things about it is that I’ve been able to rediscover my own country. It’s so magnificent to watch the sun come up when you’re standing on a moor with hundreds of highlanders dressed for battle. There’s definitely an interest in Scotland and what happened here. I think the rest of the world are fascinated by our history and it’s nice to be able to bring Scotland and our culture and music to the screen.”

The series has brought international fame for Sam, and he recently became country-clothing manufacturer Barbour’s first Global Ambassador in a two-year deal, but does such fame and recognition have a downside when he spends time at his home in Glasgow, or when he’s on the hill?

"The show has been well received but it is always odd when people recognise you in America or at airports and come up to you. It is very nice but quite strange,” he said.

"In Scotland we are very different, aren't we?" he says. "We do take it all with a pinch of salt. Glasgow is certainly a place where they will tell you if they don't think you are anything special. I can go to the pub or go out for a meal in Glasgow and most of the time people have no idea who I am, but I have to say so far people have been really delightful when they do recognise me."

Sam’s close friend and business partner, German-born and LA-based Alex Norouzi, told me recently that Sam was one of the most down-to-earth people he had ever met. “Fame hasn’t changed him or fazed him at all,” Alex told me. “I’ve worked with all kinds of celebrities over the years but Sam is the most level headed, decent celebrity actor I’ve ever met.”

Certainly, Sam appears to be using his celebrity status to good effect. In September of 2016 he took part in the Great North Run to raise funds for Bloodwise, a major blood cancer charity that he has supported since 2011. He has taken part in two marathons for charity and more recently he became president of Bloodwise Scotland.

In 2015, Sam founded his own charitable foundation, run by Alex Norouzi in Los Angeles. He calls it My Peak Challenge and to date it has raised more than half a million pounds for Bloodwise and its fight against blood cancer.

Adoring fans at the My Peak Challenge Gala Dinner in Glasgow

Last September Sam kindly invited me to say a few words at the very first My Peak Challenge Gala Dinner, which was held in the impressive surroundings of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. Five hundred Outlander fans, predominantly female, travelled from the US for the event to join My Peak Challenge participants, known as Peakers, from all over the UK.

The event was quite surreal with all these Outlander fans telling me how wonderful Scotland was, but it was also curiously uplifting with lots of passion, enthusiasm and commitment for the MPC charity, and for Sam of course!

MPC is designed to help others achieve personal health and fitness goals and Sam believes it has created a special community which has led to a real sense of camaraderie between people across the globe, supporting one another to achieve their personal goals, all while helping to raise vital funds for charity.

“It’s been brilliant to see this campaign evolve and I'm thrilled by the amount of money it's raised for the charity,” he said. “MPC has attracted all kinds of people from around the world, from an Olympic athlete in Australia to recreational runners and hikers in the UK and North America and even folk who have no background at all in active sport.”

MPC offers folk a fully integrated training, nutrition and support programme to help members accelerate toward their goals while overcoming any obstacles. Over the course of twelve months, MPC members develop a foundation for creating mind, body and lifestyle improvements, all while participating in a fitness program adaptable to any level of expertise (beginner, intermediate or advanced).

MPC is about reaching outside of your comfort zone, finding something that you don’t think you can do, setting a challenge, preparing for it and ultimately achieving it. Sam explained: “Most people interpret that as a physical challenge — walk a 5K, train for a triathlon, go hiking, climb a mountain — but many others set creative challenges: finish writing that book, take up painting again, go vegetarian for a month or more, learn to sew or knit or sing or play a new instrument or speak a new language.”

Sam in Glen Banchor near Newtonmore

No matter what the challenge, Sam and Alex believe that empowerment is born through achieving something you never thought you could.

“When you achieve something you previously thought impossible, the world opens up to you,” Sam told me. “Where you go from there is entirely up to you.”

So where does Sam Heughan go from here? He’s working on a fourth series of Outlander at the moment and he's already been signed up for Series 5 and 6. That will certainly keep him busy throughout all of this year and into the next.

And what’s his next mountain challenge to be? “Probably the one you take me up,” he replied with a grin. That’s a Peak Challenge I’ll happily accept.

First published in the Scots Magazine where I write a monthly column, Cameron's Country.

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