Conservation Volunteering; from Pastime to Pay Packet

Logo: The National Trust for Scotland

By Jackie Kemp, Seasonal Project Leader; Thistle Camps

In the Autumn of 2007, following several years of working away from home I returned to the Glasgow area to alter my work/life balance.

Drystane Dyking at Craigievar Castle, Aberdeenshire (J. Kemp)
Drystane Dyking at Craigievar Castle, Aberdeenshire (J. Kemp)

To help me reconnect with the landscape of my backyard and my youth, and also of building a new social circle to help me settle in back home, I decided to volunteer with the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) Conservation Volunteers (CV).

The CV group carry out work day and work weekend practical conservation tasks on NTS properties throughout Scotland. The NTS website promised a volunteering experience that would enable me to visit the beautiful gardens and stunning countryside of Scotland with the added bonus of learning new countryside skills such as footpath construction, woodland management and drystane dyking in the NTS properties and estates.

The opportunity to explore Scotland with like minded people sounded like it was just what I was looking for, so, when I attended my first meeting with the local CV group in January 2008, it was with a sense of “nothing ventured, nothing gained” and with no idea of how it would be a life changing experience for me.

Boardwalk replacement at Culzean Castle & Country  Park, Ayrshire (J. Kemp)
Boardwalk replacement at Culzean Castle & Country Park, Ayrshire (J. Kemp)

With transportation, accommodation and meals all provided free of charge, the organisation and support structure from the NTS Volunteering Department made it easy to volunteer with the CV group.  

From the outset, my volunteering workday projects with the CV group did exactly what it said on the NTS Volunteering tin. Working closely with NTS Rangers and Gardening staff at the various properties I learned about the safe use of the correct tools for a number of different tasks, such as bowsaws and loppers for clearance of Invasive Non Native Species like Rhododendron Ponticum. Working on jobs such as footpath maintenance required learning about drainage management and the use of pinch bars and mattocks.   The construction and maintenance of post and wire fences required me to learn the careful handling of wire materials as well as the safe use of specialist tools such as post drivers, mells, fencing pliers and strainers.

All of these tasks, tools and training were new to me, but was delivered to me in a friendly and patient learning environment by NTS staff that cared about what they were doing and why they were doing it. This was reinforced by the approach and attitude of the other volunteers in the CV group, resulting in a volunteering environment which I found to be extremely positive, friendly and engaging, the complete opposite from my day job.    

Footpath maintenance at Balmacara, Kyle of Lochalsh (J. Kemp)
Footpath maintenance at Balmacara, Kyle of Lochalsh (J. Kemp)

Embracing this new volunteering experience, I quickly became more active in the CV group and was supported by the NTS Volunteering department to develop as a group leader. The Volunteering department arranged and financed my certified training in

Emergency 1st Aid and the Minibus Driver Awareness Scheme (MiDAS) which further cemented my position as a volunteer leader. I was also encouraged to participate in the NTS Volunteer Leadership training which enabled me to lead Thistle Camps, which are weeklong residential volunteering holidays.

In the Autumn of 2010, only two and half years after starting my new volunteering hobby, it had become the impetus and launch pad for my decision to change my career path. I embarked on a fulltime BSc in Countryside Management with the aim of becoming a Countryside Ranger. This resulted in some challenges financially, however, my volunteering experience and training led me to summer seasonal employment with NTS as a Thistle Camp leader, being paid to do what I previously volunteered to do as a hobby.  

Whilst engaged in full time studying I continued to volunteer with the NTS CV group and Thistle Camps, gaining further experience and networking in the conservation and heritage sector. Other opportunities for training courses were supported and financed by the NTS. I completed a Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) accredited course in Volunteer Management and City & Guilds NPTC PA1 & PA6 Safe Use of Pesticides.

Hedge laying at Brodick Castle & Country Park, Isle of Arran (J. Kemp)
Hedge laying at Brodick Castle & Country Park, Isle of Arran (J. Kemp)

In 2013 I graduated with a BSc in Countryside Management and since then I have been fortunate enough to be employed by NTS as Seasonal Ranger and Thistle Camp leader.

I am now in my fifth year of employment with NTS. None of it would have been possible without the skills, knowledge, training and support I gained as a volunteer from the staff and other volunteers at NTS.   I also have made personal friends and met many others who have travelled a similar journey that started with volunteering.

Learning life skills, work skills, networking, personal development, meeting like minded people, exploring new places?

Volunteer for everything, for therein lies adventure. Do it, and make of it what you desire.    

For volunteering opportunities with NTS visit or telephone 0844 4932402 or write to Volunteering Office,  Hermiston Quay, 5 Cultins Road, Edinburgh, EH11 4DF  

First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in association with the National Trust on 24 August 2015