Rob Scott-Branton is co-founder of Kids Gone Wild, a West Lothian based outdoor learning group started with his fiancée Lauren in 2018. I had planned to talk to Rob about the outdoors, his interest in it and how he saw it as being essential for children, both his own and the pupils he teaches. But as I am finding in this interview series, as we talked, the nature of our conversation changed. We talked about how some of Rob’s aims mirror my own. We used some big words; impact, connectivity, preservation. And more importantly, due to Rob’s openness, honesty and sheer likeability, I found out something I don’t even think Lauren was aware of. Read on…
“Childhood. It’s what I did when I was growing up. I’m teaching what I learned as a kid, only I’m teaching them how to do it the right way. I didn’t have anyone showing me.”
Rob replies to my question of where his love of the outdoors comes from.
“My childhood memories are mostly the summer holidays with my cousin and friends playing in the woods surrounding my house or my grans. We’d be out there all day, climbing trees, building dens. That’s my fondest memories so that has to be where it comes from, I’ve just always tried to hang on to that as much as I could. I remember going for walks with my parents around Eliburn when I was really little and we’d always go and jump over the bridge and that would be my stomping ground. West Lothian is great for woods especially for what I do now.”
“I got bored so quickly of PlayStation, X-Box, social media, even football which I played a little, didn’t capture my imagination after a few years. I just kept reverting back to what I liked, which was going into the woods, exploring and wandering through the unknown and discovering stuff. When I got a bit older I had friends in other areas and we’d go to woods a bit further afield. All these places, like Almondell, that I am taking the kids to now are the places I played in when I was growing up.”
My friend John has a theory. As an adult, your favourite stuff is the same as when you were a kid. You get back into the things you loved as a child. This explains his predilection for indie rock 7 inch singles. And my massive Iron Maiden tattoo. Moving on, I recall seeing a ridiculous YouTube video about Satan worshippers in a Mid Calder cave. This video tells how the caves were used for rituals, shows the ‘evidence’, and even names them The Baphomet Caves. Rob unknowingly enlightens me on this.
“I’ve explored some of the old shale mines in Breich. But we also used to go explore the caves in Mid Calder. As teenagers, we’d go and sit in there and wind each other up. It was pitch dark, and mostly blocked up so we used to take tea lights to be able to see. It made a nice glow. A few years ago we saw a video on YouTube. There were these people going in and they thought it was some kind of satanic ritual, but you can see on the video beer cans, fag ends and all our tea lights, that they thought dated back to the 18th century.”
Another fine internet documentary series. Though Rob isn’t into cave or mine exploration anymore. Having kids has made him realise he can’t be quite so reckless. None of the mine shafts around West Lothian are maintained and he does not recommend going near them without proper safety equipment. Although they are admittedly, really cool. That hasn’t stopped him from exploring the top side of the outdoors though.
“I love the area around Aberfoyle. My best friend was born there so I’ll go camping or hiking with him when we can. Craig Mohr has a nice little shelf on top of the cliff where we camp and that’s always been quite a special spot for me. I have a strong pull to both the Highlands and the Borders which probably comes from being a child of the central belt. I’ve had some really nice moments camping on my own with the dog, hanging out in the mountains and hills. West coast, Glencoe, those kinds of places. That’s always been really inspirational to me and really good for my soul.”
So far so normal. The childhood love thing I understand. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that someone wakes up one day and decides to start an outdoor learning business because they liked playing in the woods as a bairn. Or do they? I ask Rob about the origins of KGW, and just remember now that this is a business that won a Young Scot Award last year
“I’d always had customer service jobs, I worked in a phone shop, things like that. I hadn’t really stuck in at school and ended up just coasting. When Lauren found out she was pregnant I went to work for British Gas as I needed a steady job. I had been working in a restaurant, which I loved, but it was unsociable hours and I needed a 9 to 5 so I can come home and see the family. And it was all right initially. I enjoyed the training but I started to really hate the job. I took four weeks off when Calum was born, most of it unpaid, I just took whatever I could to see him. Then I had to go back and that was just killing me. Ten hour shifts, an hour commute each way, twelve hours out of the house, from 7 till 7. There was just no point, I was barely getting to see him.”
#dadlife, this I totally get.
“Lauren had a tough pregnancy. She could pick him up but not really walk about with him. I felt really guilty for being away and I ended up getting signed off for a few weeks with anxiety. I was back for a week or so and I remember just before I went to bed one Sunday night and I said to Lauren about how I was dreading tomorrow and how I was just miserable.”
“And she didn’t come to bed. She woke me up about five in the morning and told me to not go into work. I replied that I have to, I’ll get the sack if I don’t. But she was adamant, ‘don’t go in, let them sack you, I’ve got a business plan for you.’ And then she said to me ‘what do you want to do with your time?’”
This is the key question and hence this articles title, “What do you want to do with your time?” Not what do you want to do as job, or what do you want your career to be, or even how do you want to bring money into the house, because, let’s face it, as adults we all need to do that. But what do you want to do with your time? This is important, and shows the influence the right person can have on the direction of someone’s life.
Rob’s reply was straightforward; the one thing he wanted to do above all else was to take the kids, meaning his own here, into the woods and play. Lauren had known this would be his answer and throughout the night she had written the business plan that was to become Kids Gone Wild.
“She was like ‘there’s got to be a real demand for this, you see how many kids are inside on their computers screens all the time’. We just started looking into it and researching it more and it just seemed like such a good idea with a bit of a gap in the market.”
The more the plan grew the more Rob realised that this could shape his life in a way that he wanted whilst having the added bonus of saving his mental health. However as a fledgling business owner, both Rob and Lauren still had to put the hours in. Initially KGW offered one hour bushcraft sessions which tended to be after school or weekends, the same unsociable hours Rob was trying to avoid. Along with endless hours on social media for what seems like very little return. Another thing that I can relate to. Forced to learn all the things a new business has to do, HR, marketing, finance, along with the responsibility it brought was tough. Especially as it brought in no money, only just recently has Rob been able to draw a wage from his efforts.
“The scrapping around for customers was hard. I felt like I was on social media all the time just to get an extra booking to match our costs. But for me it was all about how I can shape my life. With KGW I can entertain and educate children in the outdoors, while still being there for my own. The reason for this at the start was lifestyle. I get to do something I love all day and then come home when my kids are finishing nursery and school. I can do the family side of life without having to say work till six, and I get my weekends. Routines are starting to build and that side of my life is working out really well now. That’s what inspires me, that’s what drives me.”
Rob admits that although his parents were supportive, it was a different message to Lauren’s.
“My parents always said ‘you can be whatever you want to be’ but that description to me only ever really said ‘you can work for whoever you want to work for’ or ‘you can find a job in whatever area you want to.’ Whereas Lauren’s attitude was ‘let’s just make it happen’. You want to do something, let’s just do it. What are your barriers and let’s look to take them down. This simplified it for me and made it possible. It got KGW off the ground and was really inspiring.”
I guess that having read this far you’re expecting this question, but Rob wasn’t. This genuinely came off the back of our conversation so his answer was not at all prepared. I ask him, would he have pursued KGW if Lauren hadn’t pushed him into it? His answer, is initially a vague, maybe eventually but an honest, probably not.
“I’d like to think that one day I’d have figured it out. If I hadn’t then I would’ve went a much different path in life with a much more depressing end for me. I would have been stuck, I felt so guilty. I always thought people with anxiety were just choosing to be unhappy, ‘if you are feeling rubbish all the time just be happy, think positive thoughts’, but then I was getting overwhelming panic feelings and all this weird stuff that I couldn’t control. I felt that I was just being a wimp about it and I needed to suck it up. This is what working life is, just deal with it.”
“But it was Lauren that said no, that’s anxiety. She encouraged me to speak to the doctor, who instantly signed me off work, but again that made me feel guiltier because it felt like I was just trying to get out of it. I said to my work that I was not looking to get signed off but that I felt like this every single morning when I sit I the car. It was obviously a trigger. The doctor’s advice was to concentrate on me and not to worry about it but then after a while, I had to go back. The exact same thing would happen. Lauren saved me, for sure.”
It’s perhaps helpful to realise here that Rob is still only 27. These events happened at least 3-4 years ago, a very young age to be feeling as burnt out and anxious as Rob was. Thankfully, it worked, and the business grew. A huge change happened however when Rob was hired by a school in Edinburgh to deliver a full week of outdoor lessons for the entire school. This shifted his perspective. He started thinking about the message he was delivering and how it was best delivered for maximum effect.
“That week was the scariest of my life. I had never done anything with a full class in a school up to that point, and they were all excited to be in the outdoor environment. I was out my comfort zone, not my depth, but I did it and managed some really good sessions. It was a turning point. 400 children that week got an outdoor message and it changed my whole outlook. I thought if I can do that every week with a different school, then it would be a far greater amount of kids that I would get interested in the outdoors.”
We then hit upon one of our key words, and one that we’ve touched upon several time within Last Wolf; preservation.
“Thinking of all the development that happens now, if everything is all houses, there is no woodland. If we can be inspired by the woods then people are naturally not going to want to tear them down. Maybe I can make an impact with someone whose going to be a developer in 30 years and they make a decision to not tear down some woodland and spend a little extra money on something else because of something I taught them. If I can do that, I’ll never know, but that’s what I’m aiming for. They will respect the outdoors and look after it, and that’s got to be the path. When I’m teaching I’m remembering teachers I had in primary and high school. A couple of lessons I had still sit with me. They don’t know about it, but if it’s happened to me it must have happened to everybody, something has got to be sticking.”
Fire is possibly the best example we can use to illustrate this. Boys light fires, everyone has done it. Where I grew up we tended to do it on the beach, which is safer than in urban woodland, but still can be dangerous. Stupid fires in stupid places is how Rob puts it. Kids are going to play with matches and lighters, burn cans of Lynx and build makeshift fires. If we can teach them how to do it safely it surely will have a marked difference on the local environment, as well as themselves.
“When we were kids because we didn’t know any better. Nobody actually educated me on what’s best and why. We’d leave fires burning out and wander away. If children are going to light fires, if they’re going to mess about with knives, lets show them how to do it properly, in a respectful way, in a safe way, and hopefully cover their tracks, especially the fire thing. There’s nothing I hate more than a scorch mark in a woodland, with the wheels of a bin sticking out.”
And this is why fire safety is such and important thing for our children to learn, as well as Rob’s favourite thing to teach. Most pupils have never used a fire steel before and they can go from something they have never seen before to lighting a fire within an hour. This is a forgotten skill that not many adults can do.
“They’re always so proud of themselves. The goal of the session is to get everyone lighting a fire; sometimes it doesn’t happen for all, but there is always this buzz, especially with bigger classes with pupils jumping around they are so pleased. Their awareness adds to the security of it, fire is dangerous, knives will cut, and therefore the first half of session is entirely about safety. Yes there is risk, it’s a scary subject, but they listen and then they master it. The hard bit for me is when they don’t do it and they get really upset, but I reassure them by saying that they only have an hour and we make sure they get it next time.”
And does this make you sleep better at night?
“100% I’m sleeping better at night. I’ve never had that moment of dread in the morning since KGW started. Sure its different stresses and I have moments of tiredness, but what I am doing today and the impact of what I am doing today is so worth it. How do you want to fall asleep at night? Do you want to be ‘uuurgh’, same again tomorrow? Or feel like you’ve made a difference today?”
Barry: Currently listening to: Skapanir by Danheim https://danheim.bandcamp.com/album/skapanir
Rob: Currently listening to: Gerry Cinnamon and Pop Punk Powerhouses playlist on Spotify.
All photos by Heather Louise Perry. @hloup_
More info on Kids Gone Wild can be found here. /https://kidsgonewild.co.uk/