Shelter from the Storm Grand Tours of Scotland's Lochs


Shelter from the Storm

Paul Murton takes a tour of Scotland's lochs. In this edition, he travels from Loch Gairloch to Loch Maree and meets the king and queen of Islonia.


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The far north-west of Scotland boasts some of the most spectacular

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lochs in the country.

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And travellers, be they holy men or warriors,

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have sought sanctuary here since the earliest times.

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But then, in the 20th century,

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when Europe was ravaged by war,

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the sea lochs of the West Coast

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provided a sheltered anchorage

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to convoys of ships heading to the Arctic.

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I'm on a loch-hopping journey across Scotland,

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where it's been estimated there are more than 31,000 lochs.

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They come in all shapes and sizes,

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many scoured out by glaciers during the last ice age.

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The great freshwater lochs of the central Highlands.

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The long, fjord-like sea lochs along our coast.

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And the innumerable lochans that stud the open moors or nestle

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beneath high summits in dark mountain corries.

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All are both beautiful and mysterious,

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sustaining life and firing our imagination.

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Distinctively Scottish, I want to explore just how these lochs

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have shaped a people and defined a nation. This leg of my journey

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starts in breathtaking Wester Ross, on the trail of fabled archers,

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sunken wrecks and every politician's dream - the money tree.

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For this Grand Tour,

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I'm travelling to three lochs on Scotland's beautiful west coast.

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The first is Loch Gairloch, just a 20-mile hop from the Isle of Skye.

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After a stop-off at a newly-created kingdom,

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I journey inland to Loch Ewe and the wondrous gardens on its shore,

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before seeking an ancient cure for madness at the mystical waters

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of Loch Maree.

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Like many of the earliest travellers who came here, I arrive by sea.

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In the Gaelic language, Gairloch means the short loch.

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But when you're paddling your own canoe against a headwind

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and the tide, it certainly doesn't feel that short!

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HE PUFFS

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Exhausted!

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Not to be confused with Gare Loch in Argyll,

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Loch Gairloch is the name of the loch,

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the village on its shore and the scattered communities round about.

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I'm paddling to the natural harbour that sits to the south - Badachro.

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Today there are more pleasure boats than fishing vessels here,

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but in the days of old, this was a thriving port,

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sending its catch far and wide -

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a business they had the Vatican to thank.

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Traditionally, the Roman Catholic Church required and expected

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the devout to abstain from meat on a Friday.

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Now, fortunately, the clerics never considered fish to be meat,

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which is why Friday remains the most popular day of the week for

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a fish dish - even for non-Catholics and an agnostic like me.

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Scottish fish, and in particular cod, was in high demand,

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and here in Gairloch it was caught, salted and sent all over the world.

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Ian McWhinney's grandfather was one of those fishermen,

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and today Ian fishes the same waters in a traditional wooden boat.

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But much of what Ian catches these days, his grandfather would have

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-thrown back.

-What have we got here?

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-Tell us.

-That's a nice lobster.

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Where's this lobster going to end up?

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-Probably it'll be in Spain, this one.

-Spain!

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I want to see for myself how Gairloch's fishing folk

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are surviving in these more secular times,

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and in the absence of the cod that once swam in the loch.

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Today Ian depends on this - a traditional Scottish creel,

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designed to make any crustacean feel right at home.

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It's called a parlour pot. Kitchen... Anything going here

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has something to eat, and then there's this bit here called the parlour.

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Kind of but 'n' ben of the creel world.

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In these temperate waters, warmed by the Gulf Stream,

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lobsters can be found at about 40 metres.

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But to hit the jackpot, Ian has to go even deeper.

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-Is that your langoustine?

-So that's a nice langoustine.

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-Right. He would bite you.

-Lovely finger and thumb just here.

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Hold that and I'll show you what we'll do with these.

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Hello, little langoustine. Has he come up from 100 feet below me?

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150 feet, yeah.

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That was a surprise, wasn't it, Mr Langoustine?

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It certainly was.

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-Pop him in here.

-Now, langoustines, or prawns, or scampi,

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they're all exactly the same thing -

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their proper name is Norwegian lobsters.

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It's just if you give them a fancy French name like langoustines

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you can charge twice as much for them, yeah.

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-Right.

-So on this boat, we catch prawns and sell langoustines.

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But that's not all he catches.

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-And what is that?

-This is a scorpion fish.

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Its spines there - tipped with poison.

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If you stand on them your whole leg will swell up to twice its

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normal size. Very painful.

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And definitely not edible.

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The beauty of this traditional type of fishing is that it's selective

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and sustainable.

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Anything that's too small gets thrown back, still alive.

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Each creel has to be hauled up and baited with fresh fish.

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Between 300 and 400 langoustines would be a good day's catch for Ian.

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Well, I think we're doing very well.

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Look at him. He's a beauty.

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And he's learned that it pays to keep one eye on the weather and

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the other on the football results.

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For one week in the summer the price shot up because Spain had won the

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World Cup, so everyone was eating shellfish.

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So who'd have thought Spain winning the World Cup would benefit a little

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-fisherman away on the west coast of Scotland?

-Shellfish fiesta time.

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There you go. If the Germans win it they spend nothing on shellfish.

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-Well, they eat sausages.

-Well, there you go.

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Within 24 hours, most of our catch will be in the markets of Barcelona,

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Beijing and beyond - still alive.

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But some are destined for a dinner table even closer.

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This tiny island on the edge of the loch

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is where Ian and his family live.

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When the tide is low, it becomes part of Badachro harbour -

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hence the name Dry Island.

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And I'm honoured with a special greeting.

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So we've got a welcoming committee here?

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This is Iona, my oldest daughter.

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-Hi, Iona.

-And this is Isla, my youngest.

-Hello, Isla.

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And these islanders are making their own bid for independence.

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This is your passport.

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A passport? Islonia.

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It's a mixture of mine and Isla's name.

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And then it's also got four letters of our brother's name, Finley.

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Right, very appropriate.

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And, look - we've got a crab and the Scottish flag.

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The Kingdom of Islonia.

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And who's the king?

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-What, your dad?

-Yeah.

-Yeah.

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So you are princesses, is that right?

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-Yes.

-Thank you very much.

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I feel very honoured.

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And what better way to celebrate a declaration of independence

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than with a royal seafood feast,

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prepared by Islonia's young princesses, under the watchful gaze

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of Queen Jess I?

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Look at that!

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Beautifully presented.

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And I don't think there's any way I'm going to get through a huge

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mountain of shellfish all by myself.

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-Are you going to come and join me?

-I'm going to try one of them.

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I couldn't eat another thing.

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Leaving the good citizens of Islonia, I get back on the loch.

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I've heard about a small island that figures large in the folklore of

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Gairloch, and I find it just a short distance of its southern shore.

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Here we are. Fraoch-eilean or Heather Island.

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Looks peaceful enough now,

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but back in the 1490s it bore witness to an amazing and deadly

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display of marksmanship. Back then,

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Gairloch belonged to Clan Mackenzie who were engaged in a long-running

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feud with the MacLeods from the nearby Isle of Skye.

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Legend has it that a MacLeod war galley sailed into Gairloch

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and anchored here, ready to attack.

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They were spotted by two brothers named Macrae,

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allies of the Mackenzies and famed for their skill with bow and arrow.

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The archers hid behind a rock ledge,

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which you can just make out on the mainland behind me,

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and rained arrows down on the galley.

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And when one of the MacLeod warriors climbed the mast to see where the

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firing was coming from, he was brought down by a single arrow shot

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fired from a distance of over 500 metres,

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which is an incredible thought and quite a feat.

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'To fully understand what a spectacular shot that was...'

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Looks like an ideal spot to set up my target.

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'..I'm conducting a little experiment.'

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To put the legend to the test.

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I've set up a target close to where the invading MacLeod met his fate.

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And now I'm crossing the loch to the exact place on the shore where

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the Macrae arrow was fired.

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Here we are - Leac nan Saighead, the ledge of the arrows.

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And here is an archer.

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Andrew, pleasure to meet you.

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I've enlisted the help of Andrew Greymuir who knows more than most about archery.

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Andrew, it's very nice to see that you've dressed for the occasion.

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Well, it's the formal dress for the Royal Company of Archers.

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The Royal Company of Archers. So if anyone can hit that island

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down there, you should.

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It would certainly be another feather in his cap.

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That's a good, what, 500 metres at least?

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-What do you reckon our chances are of hitting that?

-I think enormous.

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THEY CHUCKLE

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-Let's put that theory to the test.

-I think we should.

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Whoa!

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It was pathetic, really, wasn't it? It was miles short!

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The distance we're attempting is 500 metres -

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the furthest anyone has shot an arrow and hit a target.

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Oh!

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It seems an almost impossible challenge.

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Look at that!

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-You hit a seagull.

-I hope not.

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Andrew's arrow falls 150 metres shy of the island.

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It makes that Macrae shot all the more impressive.

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What kind of bows do you think they would have had?

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They were yew bows.

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They would have been much thicker and much longer.

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-They must have been very strong.

-Just to pull the bow back?

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Just to pull it back.

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Bow design and materials may have evolved,

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but the basic principle remains the same,

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making this simple weapon devastatingly effective,

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but only in the right hands.

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The thumb should be out of the way, from those three fingers.

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-I've got to let go, otherwise...

-Yeah.

-..I'll skin my fingers.

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The real skill is in compensating for wind speed

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and judging trajectory.

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As in life, it's all about aiming high.

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It's going, it's going...

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Take that, MacLeod!

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150 metres.

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It's a long way short!

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Back in the 1500s, this was the shot of that archer's life.

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The MacLeods fled, never to return...

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..leaving the Mackenzies to reign supreme in Gairloch.

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It's amazing to think we're standing on the exact same spot where it all

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happened, where those two archers stood looking across at the island

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and seeing that MacLeod climbing up, saying, "Well, we'll take him down."

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It's just mind-blowingly difficult.

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-Or a fluke.

-Or a fluke.

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A legendary fluke.

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Having run out of arrows,

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I leave one sea loch and travel inland to the southern shore

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of another, Loch Ewe.

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My route passes through some very wild and rugged country -

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a reminder, perhaps, that we're on the same latitude

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as frozen Hudson Bay in Canada.

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So the last thing in the world I would expect to find here is this.

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Or this.

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Or even this.

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On the edge of the loch lie 50 acres of what I can only describe

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as a subtropical paradise.

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This is Inverewe, the "impossible" garden.

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You could be forgiven for thinking that you've stepped into

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a rainforest or a savanna.

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There's Chilean rhubarb and rhododendron from the Himalayas,

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exotic species of olearia from New Zealand

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grows beside Tasmanian eucalyptus.

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It's an overwhelming feast for the eyes and the nose.

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Inverewe was the brainchild of an extraordinary, visionary

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but contradictory character, Osgood Mackenzie.

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A direct descendant of the great Mackenzie chiefs who once dominated

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this part of north-west Scotland,

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Osgood lived to a great age and when he died in 1922 he left these

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fabulous gardens and a memoir, A Hundred Years In The Highlands,

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as his enduring legacy.

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Osgood was an archetypal Highland gentleman,

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but he was actually born in France in 1842.

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When he was just a year old the family returned to their Scottish estates,

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which included land around Loch Ewe.

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Here Osgood grew up speaking Gaelic

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and learning how to kill wild animals.

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GUNSHOTS

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Shooting was a lifelong passion for Osgood.

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He was gifted a gun for his ninth birthday,

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and spent most of the next 70 years blasting at anything that moved,

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from golden eagles to pine martens.

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It seems his talent for nurturing plant life was equalled by his

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pleasure in slaughtering wildlife.

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In his memoir, Osgood writes,

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"What a big pile it would make if all the black game I'd shot

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"between 1855 and 1900 were gathered into one big heap.

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"Now, alas, there are none. And why? Who can tell?"

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Really, Osgood?

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It doesn't take a huge leap of imagination to work out the answer

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to that question, now, does it?

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Osgood the huntsman may seem very different to Osgood the gardener.

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But Inverewe became an obsession.

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He planted trees to provide shelter,

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imported the finest soil and added a special ingredient found here

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in plentiful supply -

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seaweed.

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And it did the trick -

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Osgood loved to boast about how big his crinodendrons were.

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By the time of his death in 1922 he had created an oasis of peace

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here in the Scottish Highlands.

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With a calm, Zen-like feeling I head north towards the narrow mouth of

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Loch Ewe. Its natural deep water is sheltered by the hills that run down

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to the shore and it provides a welcome respite to shipping passing

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across the stormy Atlantic Ocean.

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But there is a darker side to this picture-postcard place -

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one of violence, death and heroism.

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During the Second World War, this tranquil sea loch would play a vital

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part in protecting merchant ships from the menace of German U-boats.

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These wartime ruins once housed enormous guns to protect the

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entrance to the loch, which was also mined and closed by an

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anti-submarine boom stretched from headland to headland.

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This amazing film shot secretly at the start of the war shows

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the extent of the Loch Ewe defences.

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The Nazis were determined to stop arms and vital supplies

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from reaching the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk.

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Protected by a fleet of warships,

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the Arctic convoys were crucial to the Allied war effort.

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They left from Liverpool, the Clyde and here at Loch Ewe.

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By 1941 the whole area had become one vast militarised zone with

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roadblocks and documentation checks so that only authorised personnel

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could gain access.

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These derelict structures are a tangible reminder of the importance

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of Loch ewe to the Allied victory.

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Making my way around the shore, I find myself suddenly transported

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back in time.

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An RAF Spitfire buzzes above while a Soviet tank

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blasts into the distance.

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Churchill rallies his troops while the Luftwaffe prepare for attack.

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This bizarre version of the past

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is all part of a World War II festival,

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a chance to celebrate victory and remember the fallen.

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For former seaman Geoff Shelton, this all brings back vivid memories.

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Geoff, you were the escort for the merchant ships.

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-We were the escort, yes.

-How old were you?

-18.

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Were you ever scared?

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I was scared that first night.

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Swordfish came in and instead of landing on the ship it landed

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alongside it, and it sank immediately,

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taking the pilot with him.

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And I watched this lad in the dinghy, "Help, help, help."

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And slowly the hand came down and the voice got weaker.

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We picked him up within 15 minutes and he was dead.

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Frozen to death.

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The convoy ships made 78 journeys at a cost of 3,000 lives.

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And the people of Loch ewe have never forgotten their sacrifice

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and in particular the loss of one of those ships.

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It founded here in Black Bay.

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73 years after it went down, the twisted wreckage of the lifeboats

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from the William H Welch is still strewn on the shoreline.

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It was four o'clock in the morning on the 26th of February, 1944.

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The American troop ship was battling mountainous seas and violent winds,

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blinded by squalls of heavy snow and hail, the captain was desperately

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trying to find the entrance to Loch Ewe,

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and shelter from the storm.

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There were over 70 men on board that night when she struck a rocky skerry

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just to the north-west of me here.

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Then, as 50 foot waves crashed over the wheelhouse,

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the ship broke in two

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and men were thrown into the tumultuous seas and then dashed

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against the cliffs.

0:19:540:19:56

62 lives were lost that night.

0:19:560:19:58

Many tides have ebbed and flowed since then but, remarkably,

0:20:010:20:06

after 73 years, the battered wreck of the William H Welch

0:20:060:20:10

still lies beneath these waters.

0:20:100:20:13

I've joined divers John Carpenter and Kenny Munro and local boatman

0:20:130:20:19

Roderick MacIver.

0:20:190:20:21

-You know where the wreck lies - how?

-Just through local knowledge.

0:20:210:20:24

We fish lobsters here a lot and you get rusty lobsters.

0:20:240:20:27

-Rusty lobsters?

-They come out covered in rust, they have been

0:20:270:20:29

-under the metal plates.

-Really?

-Yes.

-From the wreck itself?

0:20:290:20:32

Yes, and the crabs, aye.

0:20:320:20:34

-So that's how you knew the wreck was here?

-Yeah.

0:20:340:20:36

-Cos you were lifting rusty lobsters?

-Yes.

0:20:360:20:39

What kind of depth of water is she lying in just now?

0:20:390:20:41

We're sitting in 12 to 13 metres of water so it is quite shallow.

0:20:410:20:44

Normally they get pretty well broken up, don't they, Kenny?

0:20:440:20:47

A wreck at 12 metres would usually smash to bits within

0:20:470:20:50

five or six years.

0:20:500:20:52

So this is where the bow section actually sank, so we are going to

0:20:520:20:55

dive on that, have a look around and see what we can see.

0:20:550:20:58

Because of the length of time it took the ship to go down

0:20:580:21:01

it's believed that most of the crew managed to get clear of the wreckage

0:21:010:21:05

only to be claimed by freezing temperatures

0:21:050:21:07

or thrown onto the rocks.

0:21:070:21:09

That is why this site is not classed as a war grave.

0:21:090:21:13

This is very much for the experienced diver,

0:21:140:21:18

so I am going to be snorkelling on the surface while the others plunge

0:21:180:21:22

to the depths of the loch.

0:21:220:21:24

Searching the seabed for fragments of wreckage is hampered

0:21:290:21:32

by thick seaweed.

0:21:320:21:34

But John spots something.

0:21:380:21:40

Some twisted metal hidden under the sand.

0:21:420:21:45

And then a remarkable discovery.

0:21:500:21:54

73 years after she met her fate, this is the William H Welch.

0:21:540:22:00

And, amazingly, much of the bow is intact.

0:22:020:22:06

So what was it like inside?

0:22:110:22:12

Quite dark. It was a wee bit eerie when you are inside.

0:22:140:22:18

Broken pieces of hull.

0:22:190:22:21

It's worthwhile getting cold for?

0:22:210:22:23

-Very worthwhile.

-Yeah, cos it's freezing.

0:22:230:22:26

It's hard to believe how anyone could have survived this.

0:22:260:22:30

But, astonishingly, 12 men did, and they owed their lives to the locals

0:22:300:22:35

who ran to the rescue.

0:22:350:22:37

One of them was a 12-year-old boy

0:22:370:22:40

who set off across the moorland in a howling gale.

0:22:400:22:43

His name is John-Murdo Mackenzie.

0:22:430:22:47

What was the scene they were confronted with?

0:22:470:22:48

-What did they see?

-All the wreckage

0:22:480:22:51

on the sea, on the shore and the oil, lifeboats, all kinds of things.

0:22:510:22:58

Those two lifeboats are still there.

0:22:580:23:00

They're still there. There were three lifeboats.

0:23:000:23:03

That's all that's left of them now.

0:23:030:23:06

-Were they used at all?

-No, they were never used.

0:23:060:23:09

They never got a chance to use them, they were washed off.

0:23:090:23:13

People that lost their lives, they were lying just

0:23:130:23:16

where the sea had left them.

0:23:160:23:18

-The dead bodies had been washed in here?

-That's right.

0:23:180:23:21

And what assistance did the local people manage to bring?

0:23:210:23:23

Blankets and everything they could lay their hands on.

0:23:230:23:27

Flasks of tea and candles and stuff to light a fire.

0:23:270:23:32

Really, to try and keep them warm?

0:23:320:23:34

-Yes.

-Because this was the middle of winter.

0:23:340:23:36

-That was the main thing.

-We've got some photographs here.

0:23:360:23:39

-Are these some of the survivors?

-Yes.

-They look so young, don't they?

0:23:390:23:42

So this is Russell Ross?

0:23:440:23:45

In 2005, Russell Ross returned to the spot where he very nearly died.

0:23:450:23:51

-Was this the first time he had come back?

-The first time, yes.

0:23:510:23:55

All those years and he had never told his wife or his family that he

0:23:550:24:00

was in a shipwreck in the Highlands until he came up here.

0:24:000:24:03

Really? It left such a scar.

0:24:030:24:05

Yes. And he said that a load came off his shoulders.

0:24:050:24:09

Before we leave, John-Murdo pays his tribute to the men this community

0:24:110:24:15

have never forgotten.

0:24:150:24:17

Leaving Loch Ewe,

0:24:230:24:24

I head to one of Scotland's most intriguing destinations.

0:24:240:24:28

This is the mysterious and sacred Loch Maree.

0:24:330:24:37

Its 28 square kilometres contain more than 60 islands.

0:24:390:24:44

It's also home to possibly one of the world's best-known landmarks.

0:24:440:24:49

In name, anyway.

0:24:490:24:50

These are the famous Victoria Falls

0:24:530:24:55

which I have to say are just a wee bit disappointing.

0:24:550:24:59

They hardly compare with the great African falls of the same name.

0:24:590:25:04

But at least Queen Victoria actually came here and saw them.

0:25:040:25:08

And as for the views of Loch Maree and the islands, well,

0:25:080:25:11

they are just breathtaking.

0:25:110:25:13

Not everyone came here to enjoy the scenery.

0:25:150:25:19

These are sacred waters,

0:25:190:25:21

and many pilgrims travelled here for Loch Maree's healing powers.

0:25:210:25:25

It's named after 7th-century Irish monk Saint Maol Rubha,

0:25:270:25:31

also known as Saint MaRuibhe, who was remarkably successful

0:25:310:25:35

in converting the local people to Christianity.

0:25:350:25:38

Historian Ceri Houlbrook has taken a special interest in the life of

0:25:410:25:46

the loch's patron saint and in particular the little wooded island

0:25:460:25:50

known as Eilean Maolruibhe.

0:25:500:25:52

It's said to be the eye of the loch.

0:25:520:25:55

Even though it is not technically at the very centre,

0:25:550:25:57

it does feel like it is, and you can understand

0:25:570:26:00

why Saint MaRuibhe chose to build his hermitage on that island.

0:26:000:26:04

-A special place.

-It is a special place. Definitely.

0:26:040:26:06

It's thought that Saint MaRuibhe's success in converting so many

0:26:110:26:15

was due to his tolerance towards certain pagan rituals,

0:26:150:26:19

including animal sacrifice and other strange customs.

0:26:190:26:24

People have been buried here for centuries and centuries.

0:26:240:26:26

Yes.

0:26:260:26:28

On this island where he built his chapel there is a remarkable example

0:26:280:26:33

of one such practice.

0:26:330:26:35

And this is the famous money tree?

0:26:380:26:41

This is the famous money tree.

0:26:410:26:42

So what is the purpose of leaving money here and putting coins into

0:26:420:26:46

-the bark?

-Originally it was seen as a cure for mental illnesses,

0:26:460:26:51

what they called insanity.

0:26:510:26:53

The patient would be bound with rope and placed in a rowing boat and then

0:26:530:26:57

they would be rowed around the island three times,

0:26:570:27:00

-dunked into the loch three times.

-Really? It's a brutal treatment.

0:27:000:27:05

Yes. And there was originally a holy well here.

0:27:050:27:08

At the base of the tree the patient would be made to drink some water

0:27:080:27:12

from it, and then leave their offering to the saint

0:27:120:27:15

by placing a coin on the tree

0:27:150:27:18

or tying a rag, a strip of clothing to the tree itself.

0:27:180:27:22

What is the thought process behind that?

0:27:220:27:24

It was believed that whatever clothing you wore contained

0:27:240:27:27

-the illness you were suffering from.

-I see, so the patient's illness

0:27:270:27:31

-would be transferred onto the tree.

-Yes.

0:27:310:27:33

So that would leave the person cured

0:27:330:27:36

and the tree would take the brunt of the disease.

0:27:360:27:39

It certainly has taken the brunt of many diseases, hasn't it?

0:27:390:27:41

Because this one has withered away to nothing, it's just sticks now.

0:27:410:27:45

Yes, a lot of illness.

0:27:450:27:47

One of these coins belongs to Queen Victoria,

0:27:480:27:51

who made the pilgrimage in 1877.

0:27:510:27:54

Though I don't imagine that here in the shadow of the mighty Slioch,

0:27:550:27:59

she was tied up and dunked in the sacred waters.

0:27:590:28:03

But to take the plunge in this freezing loch, you'd have to be mad.

0:28:030:28:08

Luckily, I know a cure for that.

0:28:100:28:12

It's lovely!

0:28:120:28:14

I can't think of a better way to end my grand tour from Gairloch

0:28:160:28:21

to Slioch than here in glorious Loch Maree.

0:28:210:28:25

My next adventure takes me to the wilds of Rannoch,

0:28:290:28:33

and another chilly swim, where I discover the power of water.

0:28:330:28:37

Paul travels from Loch Gairloch to Loch Maree, a grand tour that includes meeting the king and queen of Islonia, matching a medieval feat of archery, diving on a wartime wreck in Loch Ewe and finding himself short-changed at the money tree on an island in Loch Maree.


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