Iain McGeachin: Walking Around Europe to Raise Awareness for Ataxia

When Iain McGeachin was diagnosed with spinocerebellar ataxia after 17 months of tests, doctors told him that eventually he would lose his ability to walk. But that news didn’t stop Iain from walking (and Couchsurfing) his way along a 500-mile stretch in Spain and completing walks in 10+ European cities to raise awareness for his incurable condition.


Iain with one of his many Couchsurfing hosts.

Couchsurfing became a fixture in Iain’s travels after he joined the community in 2013. At the time, he was planning a “round the world by train” trip, and a new friend tipped him off to Couchsurfing. Before long, Iain had wracked up stays in 30 different homes and one boat.

“I like to meet with all different kinds of people, since everyone has a very different view of life,” Iain says. “It’s fascinating for me to see the different ways that people live. During my travels I have been hosted by young single people, couples of varying ages, and families.”

Iain’s first Couchsurfing stay was with Alex in Switzerland’s Engadine Valley. Alex owns a home built in 1608, and he opens his doors to Couchsurfers on weekends when he’s not working. Alex and Iain spent time cooking and bonded over a shared love of music from the 70s.

One of Iain’s most memorable Couchsurfing experiences happened in Östersund, Sweden. During his travels in Sweden Iain met João, a Portuguese traveler who had settled down in Scandinavia. Normally João provided a room in his apartment for Couchsurfers, but the weather was set to be perfect during Iain’s stay, so the two of them arranged to spend time on João’s sailboat. João ended up having to work, but he handed Iain the keys to his sailboat within minutes of meeting him.

“I wondered if João would be worried about me taking off with his sailboat,” Iain says, “but the lake in front of his home was an inland lake, so he knew his boat would be close, and he said that he’d ‘sized me up’ while we were chatting and figured that his boat was in good hands.”

Iain has also formed great memories while staying with families. To date, he has Couchsurfed with seven families, and he takes opportunities to Couchsurf with families whenever he can.

“In a world where the media constantly tells us about “stranger danger”,  these parents prefer that their children grow up without an irrational fear of unknown people. They still teach their kids  the importance of being wary of strangers, but not to fear them from the start”, Iain says.

Ataxia is a rare disease, and it affects how Iain moves and functions.The condition is both incurable and progressive. Loss of coordination and balance are common symptoms, and some people who are affected by ataxia struggle to focus on more than one task at a time.

Immediately after receiving his diagnosis, Iain turned to Ataxia UK, an organization created to research ataxia and to assist those who have it. Iain says Ataxia UK was an invaluable resource, as his doctor wasn’t even aware about some of the effects of ataxia at the time.

“Ataxia UK provides the funding for the medical research which hopes to find a cure for one, or all, ataxias. And as the UK government/taxpayer does not fund this research, Ataxia UK relies on people like myself to raise this money for them,” Iain says.

In light of his diagnosis, Iain knew that he could take one of two paths: he could stay at home and Scotland and prepare himself for a less mobile life, or he could travel.

He chose to travel.

Iain’s travels quickly developed a theme built around raising awareness for Ataxia. Prior to leaving for his first big trip, he went to London to participate in an Ataxia UK walk, and decided to wear a kilt that he’d bought for a special occasion. From there his website, kiltedwalker.com, was born, and he began packing his kilt for all of his trips.

Iain’s travel plans evolved over the years, but now he walks in various destinations with an Ataxia UK t-shirt and his kilt, talking to as many people as he can while he sightsees and meets up with Couchsurfers. He shares photos of his travels on kiltedwalker.com and his social media pages. His biggest walk to-date was a 500-mile-long trip in Spain, and he plans to continue his walks throughout Europe and other continents.

“A cure for Ataxia may come too late for me personally…but I am not raising money for myself, and there is absolutely no reason why future generations should have to face the same ordeal,” Iain says.

You can learn more about Iain and his travel plans by visiting kiltedwalker.com.



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