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Issue 10 - Go jump off a cliff

Scotland Magazine Issue 10
September 2003


This article is 15 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Go jump off a cliff


Standing on the edge of a 60-foot cliff, a group of daring Scots are preparing to face their fears. Dressed in full-length black wetsuits, they resemble something out of a James Bond movie.

In fact, today’s activity looks a lot like a stunt from an action movie. Canyoning and cliff jumping are extreme sports that anyone (with enough nerve) can experience in the stunning gorges around Scotland.

Not the place you would imagine for such radical activity?

On the contrary, Soldier’s Leap, a site on the River Garry in Perthshire, is named in memory of Donald MacBean.

Legend says that in the 1689 Battle of Killiecrankie, MacBean escaped the pursuing Jacobites by taking a 19-foot leap across the gorge. Today, we’re in the Struan Gorge and there aren’t any bloodthirsty Highlanders in pursuit of our team but nevertheless, these men plan to leap all the same.

According to Steve Thomas, activities manager of Freespirits, it’s the ‘fear factor’ that drives people to try this sport.

“It has its own unique enjoyment,” he says.

In pursuit of a heart-thumping adrenaline rush, 15 individuals are now in the hands of instructor, Ross. He introduces himself in a raspy Connerylike voice:

“Call me Ross. Ross Dangerous,” he says, then explains the plan of attack for the day. The group will first be lowered to the bottom of the gorge,where they will canyon over rocks and waterfalls , then move down stream for a spot of cliff-jumping.

Ross lingers over various safety elements and the participants are all ears. Clearly the thought of plummeting to a sticky end on the rocks below has made them more attentive than the average air passenger before takeoff.

Meanwhile, Steve is tying a sturdy coil of rope into knots around a tree trunk. This deceptively simple-looking device will lower each participant down the sheer cliff-face into the gorge below.

“Who’s first?” he ventures. Surprisingly, there is no hesitation as Mike steps up. He looks confident. Not a speck of fear in his eyes, just the anticipation of an exciting day ahead. Steve straps him in and explains:

“I’m going to lower you down. All you have to do is take a step back and let go of the tree.” “Nice knowing you lads,” Mike calls and his head disappears over the edge. Steve gently moves the rope through his hands and peers over the cliff-face.

“That’s it. Nicely done. Just walk down the wall like Spiderman.” Steve turns back to the waiting crowd.

“Anyone scared of heights?” The group emits a trickle of nervous laughter.

One by one, the men step up and prepare to be lowered, each with varying degrees of grace. One chap is a tangle of hands and feet and as Steve tries to sort out his form, the pupil blames “his wee legs” for the problem.

It’s amusing to listen to what Steve calls “on the edge conversation”. It’s a way of dealing with the jitters. By the time the eighth person is lowered down, the others have been waiting for about 15 minutes.

The banter continues until the last man dangles his way down the rock face. Steve informs me that the banter will get more ridiculous later at the cliff-jumping site.

“They will say anything to delay going over the edge. In all honesty the most commonly asked questions are ‘which way do I jump?’ and ‘when do I stop?’”

Below, Ross has set up for the canyoning event. He has laid a sheet of black plastic over a rock flume to create nature’s very own slippery slide.

The water has flown so fast for so many years over the rock, it’s as smooth as glass.

A rope is used for leverage and each person climbs it before launching themselves down the slide, and into the pool below. A waterfall runs into the pool and creates a jacuzzi-like effect adding to the fun of the experience.

The group are having a ball, spinning and sliding in all directions. Having started on their rears, they gain more confidence and begin to slide on their stomachs, splashing face first into the water.

Any nerves experienced during the rope lower are now drowned in the River Garry. The inner child in each of these strapping Scotsmen has come out to play.

Today’s group is all male, but Steve says that canyoning and cliff-jumping attracts all sorts. “We work with a broad spectrum of people – people who want to get away from their jobs and come to do something completely different, and you can’t get much different than throwing yourself off a cliff!

“We’ve seen tourists from everywhere, corporate groups, the armed forces, hen nights, and we also work with underprivileged children.”

Ross, in addition to being ‘dangerous’, is also a qualified youth worker, and he gets great satisfaction from taking youth groups cliff-jumping. The unique nature of the activity and the magnificent surroundings make the experience one that most of these city kids will never forget.

“These kids have had a hard upbringing and they have their problems,” says Ross. “They’re all quite noisy at the start, gung-ho and full of bravado, but when you get them up to the top jump, they’re nae the hard man outside the chip shop anymore,” he laughs.

“We had one guy and you wouldn’t have given him much chance in life, home-made tattoos all over the place.

“At the end of the day he said to me, ‘ when I’m older I’m gonna bring me wee bairns back here ‘cos this place is just beautiful’.

“It makes you think, when you see a big tough guy using words like beautiful and talking about bringing his children here one day. It’s quite encouraging.”

The tough guy was not wrong. The place is beautiful. Birds chirp in the distance and cascading water flows over rocks.

The river is flanked on both sides by sheer grey cliffs, crawling with moss and leading up to lush forest trees dangling their branches dangerously close to the edge as if leaning over to watch the antics below.

Now Ross leads the group further downstream to the cliff-jumping site. He points out the 48-foot cliff-jump.

“That’s The Big One.”

I observe a few eyes bulge in consideration of this fact. Reassuringly, the group isn’t expected to begin here.

“We start at a height of about three to four feet so that we can demonstrate the starting position, what position to fly in and, what position to land in,” says Steve.

“Gradually, we will take people higher and higher. We always impress upon people that if they get to a height they’re not happy with, there’s no pressure. It’s supposed to be fun!”

Ross recalls a day when one jumper was a little indecisive about whether he was going to take the plunge.

“This guy put his hand on the tree to give himself a launch off. I could see his knees were trembling and I asked if he was OK. Gave him some comfort and encouragement.

“He was ready to push off and says, ‘I was nearly going there.’ He did it again, and then on the third time, he sort of leapt out, and as he did so, he changed his mind.

“So he turned his hand back and grabbed the other side of the tree but too late, he’d lost his balance, was at the point of no return.”

Ross does a little jig with his black, spindly wet-suited legs to demonstrate movement. “He actually ended up running down the cliff like this, so fast down the cliff-face that he made the cleanest entry into the water!”

Needless to say, this is not the recommended approach to cliff-jumping. Today’s group have practised the smaller jumps and have graduated to ‘The Big One’. The first man steps to the edge.

He hesitates for a moment before leaping silently from the rock face. I watch in awe as he soars through the air making a clean splash
into the river below. He submerges under the surface before shooting up out of the water, gasping with excitement.

The crowd above cheers, and within seconds, a look of euphoria crosses the jumper’s face. His hand shoots in the air and he lets out a cry of satisfaction. Chuffed with his achievement?

Absolutely. Today he is a free spirit.

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