Am I being watched? A woman’s journey alone in the hills.

No matter how far we go, we can’t always escape the feeling of being watched and of being judged. For me self-judgement is a frequent walking companion.


Ben Mhor Assynt towers over me as I work quickly to ‘un-peg’, ‘un-pole’ and ‘un-tent’. I’d arrived last night in soft gloaming light, relishing this wild space, this wild isolation. Rain is promised so I make haste.

My tent near the Bone Caves, Inchnadamph, hiking alone

My tent near the Bone Caves, Inchnadamph

My thoughts are interrupted by catching sight of a figure on horizon. He’s  tall and lithe. A climber perhaps? He’s drawing closer, his face is wore weather worn and kindness. Maybe in his 50s? His eyes smile as he offers words. I in return offer words back. We walk on, he to the Ben and I, hike alone towards Inchnadamph. I’m more than half way through the Cape Wrath Trail.

They say the hardest part of a walk is finding the start. They’re right. I’ve mistakenly turned up the path to the Estate House, rather than keeping straight till the turning off at the small bridge over the burn. I stop, find my position on the map and I retrace my steps.

But as I do so I feel I’m being watched. I feel eyes burning into the back of my neck. Are they laughing at me? Sniggering at my foolish mistake? Do I see a flash of eyes watching me with concerned pity.


The last time I’d seen that look of concerned pity in another’s eyes had been on my summer mountain leadership course.

It was 7pm and darkness was falling on the plateau of the Cairngorms. The air felt bitterly cold as I merged from the relative warmth of my tent. I was already flustered as my headtorch light was low, having accidentally knocked the ‘on’ switched in my backpack.

As my Instructor rightly chastised me for not carrying spare batteries, I was transported from my adult self to 12-year-old me. A girl who had a very strong belief that she wasn’t enough.

From that moment the night navigation session went from bad to worse. I struggled with the cold but mostly I struggle with my own head, self-doubt and self-judgement – I performed terribly.

I hadn’t felt my heart beat so fast nor felt so panicky since my nervous teenage years. I caught a glimpse of Paul looking at me with what I read to be pity.

I responded with shame.

For the remaining two days of the course I shrunk from my course colleagues.

I felt like half of me was missing: my personality and my words. It was as if the truth I’d managed to keep hidden all these years was finally revealed – I was stupid and had no right to be there. It even affected the way I perceived my appearance – I felt hugely unattractive. Such a visceral memory.


I’m still here, on the hill above Inchnadamph. I’ve walked on for several  kilometres, climbing the steep heathery land, making my way to the Beallach.

My heart’s pounding healthily, I’m moving well. Maybe I’m alone and unwatched again.

I’m picking my way down the hillside and the fogs gathered in about me. Rain spit has turned into a deafening pour. My firm ground is now slippery mud. I’m cold and wet and am putting on my Gore-Tex jacket and trousers.

Checked my map, I know I’m again being followed by the gaze. Despite the fog I was being seen, judged and found wanting.

And as full grey clouds darken overhead, my thoughts darkened:

“I shouldn’t be here.

What was I thinking?

Who am I kidding?

This isn’t my place.

I don’t belong here.”


View from Glen Coul Bothy, hiking alone

View from Glen Coul Bothy

Sunlight floods through the clouds and it’s warmth penetrates beyond my skin, into my spirit.

It’s like someone has just pressed the ‘play’ button and the birds are singing in obedient response.

The sight of Glen Coul Bothy has made the last two hours of bracken and bog trodding worth my toil. She stands on a small hillock by the sea loch. Led by her insatiable pull, the sight of the fastened silver bolt on the glossy emerald green door fills me with joy. No one’s inside – I have this bothy all to myself. It’s late, just gone 7pm and its remote enough that no one’s likely to arrive.

I quickly get to work, making home.

Sweeping first the dusty sleeping platform in the bedroom, then the kitchen floor. As I lay kindling and start the fire, I’m grateful to the kind stranger who left ample supply of wood.

Making home and drying my kit in Glen Coul Bothy

Making home and drying my kit in Glen Coul Bothy

I hang my sodden trousers, jacket, tops, boots and backpack on the pulley above the fire place and sort out my kit. Kneeling on the floor I saw more wood down to size, intending to keep the blaze going until bed. In the fire’s warmth and woody/smoky smell I lose myself in thought and in reading extracts of the Bothy Book.

It’s 10pm before I have any interest in boiling water for my dinner. Food feels strangely unimportant tonight. I just want to savour this rich place and these precious moments.

Yet my veggie pasta packet dinner only adds to the blissful contentment that’s filling my belly, my chest, my whole being.

The fire‘s down to embers as I leave my kitchen den for the bedroom. It’s cold. A simple, sparse room with a curtainless window looming large.

I turn off my headtorch and coorie into myself, searching for warmth in my sleeping bag. As I look out into the sheer black-velvety darkness I know I’m completely alone.

No one is watching, no one is judging.

And as I drift into a deep, tired, peaceful sleep I’m no longer watching nor judging either.


Post script

I’m both in love with, and relatively new to, mountaineering. In this blog I’ve given voice to my feelings of watched and judged when I’m facing challenge in the outdoor environment.

I recently attended a summer mountain leadership course. With hindsight, I wasn’t experienced enough to gain all I could have from the course and this knocked my confidence. I’m a work in progress and am continuing to walk, to learn from others and to practice my navigation skills.

My self-judgement comes from my own old limiting beliefs – a combination of internalising cultural narratives and my own meaning making.  I sometimes catch myself projecting these onto an unseen watcher.  When my watcher is at its loudest, as it was on my course, I feel horrendous.

Paradoxically my watcher shows up on my journeys to wild places – the very places where I feel most ‘me’, most connected and most free.

My watcher may continue to hang around for a while longer on my outdoor journeys but as I learn to pay attention I realise it’s not because she is mean and bitchy but because she wants to keep me safe. When she next comes to watch over me, I’ll thank her and gently remind her that I’m okay.  I’ll continue to live and act in spite of my fear.

Can you related to any of this? Do you feel judged and watched? The feeling may show up for you out doors, or somewhere completely different like the gym or at work? Are you tired of watching and judging yourself?

I’m passionate about helping people finding freedom from self-limiting thoughts, life scripts and stuckness. I do this through one to one counselling and life coaching and also through running Women’s Treks for Wellbeing in the beauty of the Cairngorms. (Don’t worry we have a well-qualified Mountain Guide also!!)

You can find out more about my services here.

16 thoughts on “Am I being watched? A woman’s journey alone in the hills.

  1. Debra Battersby says:

    Oh Shona, I loved your post so much. So beautifully written.

    I am very grateful to you for being so honest and open in your sharing of this experience. I can absolutely relate to your theme of being watched, judged and found wanting. I’m so tired of the idea that we have a nasty inner critic living in us just waiting to stick the knife in every time we falter. I much prefer to see my inner critic as an inner protector who absolutely wants the best for me and who’ll go to sometimes quite extreme lengths (including sending miserable, panicky self-doubt laden thoughts through my brain) every time he senses any psychological risk. My little protector is watching me all the time but the more I reach out to him the more I see him as a (slightly over-anxious) companion who rather than judging me, is actually committed to taking great care of me.

    • Shona Macpherson says:

      Debra, how beautifully articulated. I also love the idea of inner protectors who are just a bit confused, over protective. Here’s to giving the dear things a break! xx

  2. Fiona says:

    Having also completed my ML training in the Cairngorms this year, this resonates with me so much and it’s so nice to hear that I’m not alone in having felt like that. Thank you!

    • Shona Macpherson says:

      Thanks so much for commenting Fiona. It’s also nice for me not to feel alone so I appreciate you commenting. I hope you are still encouraged to keep on with what’s right for you on the ML journey x

  3. Sue says:

    Beautiful blog Shona & brave of you to share so soon after such a challenging experience. Thank you.
    “With hindsight, I wasn’t experienced enough to gain all I could have from the course” I’m not sure that it’s possible to achieve that happy state… I certainly wasn’t there when I trained. With hindsight I can see my state was ‘blissful ignorance ‘.
    Glad to hear it’s done nothing to dull your love of our high & very special places. Onwards and upwards.
    Ps Bothies are female? Who knew?!

    • Shona Macpherson says:

      Sue, thanks so much for your comment! Good point re never being ready but I def could have been further along the path to ‘more ready!”. Ha ha, I always thing of buildings as female but maybe they are non binary 🙂

  4. Janet McClean says:

    Just watched a film called Edie (Sheila Handcock) about an elderly woman who finally finds joy and peace of mind climbing in the mountains and taking refuge in a bothy just like the picture you’ve posted above – heartwarming film and another nudge for me to sign up for a trek next year – inching closer to committing!

    • Shona Macpherson says:

      Hey Janet, ooh i saw that a few months ago. Sheila Handcock is amazing and such a heartwarming tale indeed. ooh yes please come!! x

  5. Lindsay says:

    So powerful, Shona. Brought this to mind:
    “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
    ― Brené Brown

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