Organisers of the Fort William Mountain Festival have announced that Stephanie McKenna (22) from Fort William, an inspirational campaigner who works tirelessly to empower members of the Lochaber community to engage with nature, the environment and outdoor activities, is the ninth recipient of The Scottish Youth Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture, sponsored by UHI West Highland.
The festival’s youth ambassador award, established in 2015, celebrates adventurous young people, the landscapes they choose to explore and the outdoor pursuits in which they excel.
The young winner needs to have shown resilience and determination to succeed within their chosen area of expertise, shown results through their own efforts and ideas, given back to their community, whilst being thought of as an example of excellence by others.
Steph McKenna currently works part time, both as the Young Start Coordinator for Lochaber Hope, a person-centred organisation in Fort William providing support to those in the region to cope with a wide range of sensitive and personal issues, and as Marketing and Sales Assistant for Off Beat Bikes.
Steph also volunteers at Lochaber Hope, working on a number of their programmes and projects.
She is a Lochaber Hope mentor, working with people in the community when they need some extra support.
She instigated and coordinated the creation of a garden of hope as a nature-based resource where participants are able to adopt a raised bed.
She has volunteered at New Connections wellbeing walks, whilst also being at the heart of a Christmas Panto, planning, designing and directing the production in 2019.
As a seasonal Nevis Ranger for the John Muir Trust in summer 2022, Steph McKenna demonstrated her commitment and boundless motivation towards protecting the environment.
For six months she assisted in delivering the Junior Ranger programme which involved engaging with 12 young people from Lochaber High School and educating them in environmental conservation, including path maintenance and wildlife identification.
She regularly patrolled on the hills of Glen Nevis, chatting to locals and visitors, and making sure they were both informed and happy.
Whether lone working while collecting litter on an exposed mountain or working with a volunteer group digging in a peatbog, Steph lead by example making those around her feel welcome, safe and supported.
In her short stint as a Ranger, Steph worked many additional days and hours beyond the job description in order to increase her knowledge and understanding of the true challenges facing the local environment.
Steph is a founder and volunteer committee member of the Fort William Foxes, a community of like-minded women in the region who enjoy mountain biking and who strive to promote diversity within the sport, encouraging women to take up biking in a safe and social environment where they can feel comfortable and secure.
Her involvement in mountain biking also sees her regularly attending volunteer trail maintenance days with the Lochaber Trail Association.
As a volunteer at Lochaber Yacht Club Stephanie has also put time in to running the safety boat.
Steph grew up in Fort William where she attended Lochaber High School.
She graduated recently from UHI Inverness with a first-class honours degree in Psychology.
Her final-year dissertation on the psychological impact of wild swimming – ‘An Interpretation of wild swimming in the Scottish Highlands.
The relationship between flow, the therapeutic landscape and wellbeing’ – won The Jonathan Sime Award from the University of Surrey.
This is an annual prize for the best UK undergraduate dissertation in people-environment studies.
Stephanie is the first winner from a Scottish university, a feat that demonstrates her huge commitment to the outdoors and its therapeutic potential.
On hearing she had won The Scottish Youth Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture, Stephanie McKenna said:
“I am so excited and grateful to be the 2023 recipient of the Youth Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture.
“I’m so proud to be joining such an incredible group of young people.
“It means so much to be given the opportunity to share my enthusiasm and love for Lochaber at the Fort William Mountain Festival.
“Thank you to everyone who nominated me.
“We live in such an extraordinary place with its beauty and ability to support the health of our community.
“Covid has shown us all the importance of nature as a refuge and healer, supporting us through hard times.
“We are part of our ecosystems and when we care for the land we live in it will care for us in return.
“I’m excited to continue to connect people with nature through the fantastic Lochaber Hope, Fort William Foxes and wherever else the wind takes me!
“I’d really like to thank Ali, Nathan and the Nevis Landscape Partnership for all they’ve taught me over the summer and thank the John Muir Trust Junior Rangers for being incredible people.”
Lydia Rohmer, Principal and Chief Executive, UHI West Highland, said:
“We are once again delighted to be sponsoring The Scottish Youth Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture.
“And, of course, we are even more pleased to be presenting this to a recent UHI graduate!
“Stephanie McKenna’s academic achievements are outstanding – but naturally we at the School of Adventure Studies are particularly enthused by the links she has made through her research into the therapeutic landscape and wellbeing.
“Especially at a time when so many of us turn to the outdoors and the outstanding natural beauty of the Outdoor Capital of the UK in Lochaber to enhance all aspects of our lives, but particularly our mental and physical health.
“Her activities in her local community supporting people to access and engage with a wide range of outdoor activities most clearly shows that she is invested in practicing what her studies have taught her.
“We send our congratulations to her for all she has contributed so far and hope that she will continue to be a source of inspiration to others in the future.”