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Roads Less Travelled – Sutherland, Caithness and Orkney

viewpointI’M beginning to feel a little like the Rev IM Jolly. The only time the Glesca clergyman and I are on the telly is at Christmas!

This year our two hour-long programmes feature a campervan journey between Dornoch Point in Sutherland and North Ronaldsay, the most remote island in the Orkney archipelago.

Last year we broke from our previous format of filming a long walk somewhere in Scotland. We’d walked the length of the Hebrides; we’d crossed Scotland from coast to coast a couple of time; created a new long distance walk in Sutherland; backpacked the length of Skye and even hiked the length of Scotland from Kirk Yetholm in the Borders to Cape Wrath.

I was running out of ideas and my ageing legs were beginning to complain about another long walk so we changed things a little.

For over 30 years I’ve been wandering around Scotland in a variety of campervans, vehicles that are perfect for my rather nomadic lifestyle, so we decided to use the van in a way that would allow me to take part in a number of different activities – bird-watching, mountain biking, cycling, packrafting and hill-walking.

We also wanted to travel on some of Scotland’s lesser-known byways instead of the more familiar highways so we took as our theme the words from the Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken;

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The new format appeared to work. Viewing figures went up and our masters at the BBC immediately commissioned another Roads Less Travelled for this year.

The Flow Country. Photo © Richard Else

I was keen to visit a part of the country I wasn’t very familiar with, so we opted for the far north-east of Scotland where I’d earmarked some potential highlights; coastal Sutherland, the Flow Country of Caithness and some of the Orkney islands.

The route we selected looked to be an interesting one with plenty of fascinating people to talk to but I was a little anxious that the shows might lack the visual appeal of the glorious mountain landscapes of the west highlands.

But there again, perhaps my concerns were being fuelled by my own personal preconceptions of landscape appreciation, fears that didn’t really come to a head until we were well into our filming schedule in Orkney.

We had landed on one of the islands – I think it was Sanday, when I suddenly became aware that the aspects of the Scottish landscape that I hold most dear – hills and mountains, tumbling rivers and cascading waterfalls, pinewoods and forests – were missing!

I thought I might have felt bereft but I wasn’t. Instead there was some strange emotion at work in me, a sentiment that I battled with for the rest of the filming. It was only later that I realised that I was battling with a mix of emotions, and landscape appreciation was only a part of it.

On and off camera I asked our various interviewees what it was about these northern places – the massive, silver beaches of Sutherland, the huge extent of the Flow Country peatlands, the flat, wind scoured northern islands of Orkney – that appealed to them?

In Caithness. Photo: © Richard Else

Through their various answers I became aware that in much the same way as hills and mountains thrill me, inspire me and refresh me, the folk I spoke to in Caithness and Orkney were sustained by the continual pulse of the seas, the enormity of those wide, open skies and the sheer magnificence of those raw, elemental powers that are at work here. These are forces that can make you cry out in sheer awe and wonder – exactly the same jaw-dropping awe and wonder that you experience when faced with a dramatic mountain view!

Indeed, there was a warning sign near the railway station at Altnabreac that said if you were heading off into the flat and bare emptiness of the Caithness Flow Country you should be fully prepared, “just as would going on a mountain expedition”.

But it wasn’t until we reached the far-flung island of North Ronaldsay that I began to fully appreciate that the emotions I had been struggling with were not only about elemental landscapes and how we appreciate them. There was a human element involved too.

Here on the most northerly of the Orkney islands, battered by the North Atlantic tides, scoured bare by the raking, ever present winds, the diminishing population of North Ronaldsay live on the very edge of what we might consider to be sustainability.

At the end of the nineteenth century there were 500 people living here. Today there are less than 60 residents, and only one child attends the primary school.

Many of the island’s houses are empty and in various stages of decay, the flagstone roofs sagging and on the verge of collapse, and the newer houses huddle together for protection from the harsh elements. It’s clear than people have struggled here to simply co-exist with a supremely challenging natural environment.

But through it all the islanders cling on to their familiar way of life with optimism and fortitude. There is now a twice-a-week ferry from Kirkwall and several air flights a day to the Orkney Mainland and the excellent North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory attracts ornithologists from all corners of the UK. It was established in 1987, primarily to study and record the migrant birds that pass through the area.

On North Ronaldsay. © Richard Else

And as I wandered round the island’s ragged coastline I became aware of another tugging emotion – an acute awareness of a wild environment that is less complex, less combative, less materialistic than the world that is familiar to most of us, a place of peace and safety far removed from the frustrations, social divides and anger that is so prevalent in many of our towns and cities today.

I wish I could have bottled that emotion and taken it home, to be taken every time the world appeared to be a dark and bleak place, a tangible spirit-of-place that is apparent in fewer and fewer places today.

Have a great Christmas and very best wishes for 2017. May the hills be good to you.

Roads Less Travelled – Sutherland, Caithness and Orkney, will be broadcast on BBC2 Scotland on the 27th and 28th of December at 6pm

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