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
lochs in the country.
And travellers, be they holy men or warriors,
have sought sanctuary here since the earliest times.
But then, in the 20th century,
when Europe was ravaged by war,
the sea lochs of the West Coast
provided a sheltered anchorage
to convoys of ships heading to the Arctic.
I'm on a loch-hopping journey across Scotland,
where it's been estimated there are more than 31,000 lochs.
They come in all shapes and sizes,
many scoured out by glaciers during the last ice age.
The great freshwater lochs of the central Highlands.
The long, fjord-like sea lochs along our coast.
And the innumerable lochans that stud the open moors or nestle
beneath high summits in dark mountain corries.
All are both beautiful and mysterious,
sustaining life and firing our imagination.
Distinctively Scottish, I want to explore just how these lochs
have shaped a people and defined a nation. This leg of my journey
starts in breathtaking Wester Ross, on the trail of fabled archers,
sunken wrecks and every politician's dream - the money tree.
For this Grand Tour,
I'm travelling to three lochs on Scotland's beautiful west coast.
The first is Loch Gairloch, just a 20-mile hop from the Isle of Skye.
After a stop-off at a newly-created kingdom,
I journey inland to Loch Ewe and the wondrous gardens on its shore,
before seeking an ancient cure for madness at the mystical waters
of Loch Maree.
Like many of the earliest travellers who came here, I arrive by sea.
In the Gaelic language, Gairloch means the short loch.
But when you're paddling your own canoe against a headwind
and the tide, it certainly doesn't feel that short!
Not to be confused with Gare Loch in Argyll,
Loch Gairloch is the name of the loch,
the village on its shore and the scattered communities round about.
I'm paddling to the natural harbour that sits to the south - Badachro.
Today there are more pleasure boats than fishing vessels here,
but in the days of old, this was a thriving port,
sending its catch far and wide -
a business they had the Vatican to thank.
Traditionally, the Roman Catholic Church required and expected
the devout to abstain from meat on a Friday.
Now, fortunately, the clerics never considered fish to be meat,
which is why Friday remains the most popular day of the week for
a fish dish - even for non-Catholics and an agnostic like me.
Scottish fish, and in particular cod, was in high demand,
and here in Gairloch it was caught, salted and sent all over the world.
Ian McWhinney's grandfather was one of those fishermen,
and today Ian fishes the same waters in a traditional wooden boat.
But much of what Ian catches these days, his grandfather would have
-What have we got here?
-That's a nice lobster.
Where's this lobster going to end up?
-Probably it'll be in Spain, this one.
I want to see for myself how Gairloch's fishing folk
are surviving in these more secular times,
and in the absence of the cod that once swam in the loch.
Today Ian depends on this - a traditional Scottish creel,
designed to make any crustacean feel right at home.
It's called a parlour pot. Kitchen... Anything going here
has something to eat, and then there's this bit here called the parlour.
Kind of but 'n' ben of the creel world.
In these temperate waters, warmed by the Gulf Stream,
lobsters can be found at about 40 metres.
But to hit the jackpot, Ian has to go even deeper.
-Is that your langoustine?
-So that's a nice langoustine.
-Right. He would bite you.
-Lovely finger and thumb just here.
Hold that and I'll show you what we'll do with these.
Hello, little langoustine. Has he come up from 100 feet below me?
150 feet, yeah.
That was a surprise, wasn't it, Mr Langoustine?
It certainly was.
-Pop him in here.
-Now, langoustines, or prawns, or scampi,
they're all exactly the same thing -
their proper name is Norwegian lobsters.
It's just if you give them a fancy French name like langoustines
you can charge twice as much for them, yeah.
-So on this boat, we catch prawns and sell langoustines.
But that's not all he catches.
-And what is that?
-This is a scorpion fish.
Its spines there - tipped with poison.
If you stand on them your whole leg will swell up to twice its
normal size. Very painful.
And definitely not edible.
The beauty of this traditional type of fishing is that it's selective
Anything that's too small gets thrown back, still alive.
Each creel has to be hauled up and baited with fresh fish.
Between 300 and 400 langoustines would be a good day's catch for Ian.
Well, I think we're doing very well.
Look at him. He's a beauty.
And he's learned that it pays to keep one eye on the weather and
the other on the football results.
For one week in the summer the price shot up because Spain had won the
World Cup, so everyone was eating shellfish.
So who'd have thought Spain winning the World Cup would benefit a little
-fisherman away on the west coast of Scotland?
-Shellfish fiesta time.
There you go. If the Germans win it they spend nothing on shellfish.
-Well, they eat sausages.
-Well, there you go.
Within 24 hours, most of our catch will be in the markets of Barcelona,
Beijing and beyond - still alive.
But some are destined for a dinner table even closer.
This tiny island on the edge of the loch
is where Ian and his family live.
When the tide is low, it becomes part of Badachro harbour -
hence the name Dry Island.
And I'm honoured with a special greeting.
So we've got a welcoming committee here?
This is Iona, my oldest daughter.
-And this is Isla, my youngest.
And these islanders are making their own bid for independence.
This is your passport.
A passport? Islonia.
It's a mixture of mine and Isla's name.
And then it's also got four letters of our brother's name, Finley.
Right, very appropriate.
And, look - we've got a crab and the Scottish flag.
The Kingdom of Islonia.
And who's the king?
-What, your dad?
So you are princesses, is that right?
-Thank you very much.
I feel very honoured.
And what better way to celebrate a declaration of independence
than with a royal seafood feast,
prepared by Islonia's young princesses, under the watchful gaze
of Queen Jess I?
Look at that!
And I don't think there's any way I'm going to get through a huge
mountain of shellfish all by myself.
-Are you going to come and join me?
-I'm going to try one of them.
I couldn't eat another thing.
Leaving the good citizens of Islonia, I get back on the loch.
I've heard about a small island that figures large in the folklore of
Gairloch, and I find it just a short distance of its southern shore.
Here we are. Fraoch-eilean or Heather Island.
Looks peaceful enough now,
but back in the 1490s it bore witness to an amazing and deadly
display of marksmanship. Back then,
Gairloch belonged to Clan Mackenzie who were engaged in a long-running
feud with the MacLeods from the nearby Isle of Skye.
Legend has it that a MacLeod war galley sailed into Gairloch
and anchored here, ready to attack.
They were spotted by two brothers named Macrae,
allies of the Mackenzies and famed for their skill with bow and arrow.
The archers hid behind a rock ledge,
which you can just make out on the mainland behind me,
and rained arrows down on the galley.
And when one of the MacLeod warriors climbed the mast to see where the
firing was coming from, he was brought down by a single arrow shot
fired from a distance of over 500 metres,
which is an incredible thought and quite a feat.
'To fully understand what a spectacular shot that was...'
Looks like an ideal spot to set up my target.
'..I'm conducting a little experiment.'
To put the legend to the test.
I've set up a target close to where the invading MacLeod met his fate.
And now I'm crossing the loch to the exact place on the shore where
the Macrae arrow was fired.
Here we are - Leac nan Saighead, the ledge of the arrows.
And here is an archer.
Andrew, pleasure to meet you.
I've enlisted the help of Andrew Greymuir who knows more than most about archery.
Andrew, it's very nice to see that you've dressed for the occasion.
Well, it's the formal dress for the Royal Company of Archers.
The Royal Company of Archers. So if anyone can hit that island
down there, you should.
It would certainly be another feather in his cap.
That's a good, what, 500 metres at least?
-What do you reckon our chances are of hitting that?
-I think enormous.
-Let's put that theory to the test.
-I think we should.
It was pathetic, really, wasn't it? It was miles short!
The distance we're attempting is 500 metres -
the furthest anyone has shot an arrow and hit a target.
It seems an almost impossible challenge.
Look at that!
-You hit a seagull.
-I hope not.
Andrew's arrow falls 150 metres shy of the island.
It makes that Macrae shot all the more impressive.
What kind of bows do you think they would have had?
They were yew bows.
They would have been much thicker and much longer.
-They must have been very strong.
-Just to pull the bow back?
Just to pull it back.
Bow design and materials may have evolved,
but the basic principle remains the same,
making this simple weapon devastatingly effective,
but only in the right hands.
The thumb should be out of the way, from those three fingers.
-I've got to let go, otherwise...
-..I'll skin my fingers.
The real skill is in compensating for wind speed
and judging trajectory.
As in life, it's all about aiming high.
It's going, it's going...
Take that, MacLeod!
It's a long way short!
Back in the 1500s, this was the shot of that archer's life.
The MacLeods fled, never to return...
..leaving the Mackenzies to reign supreme in Gairloch.
It's amazing to think we're standing on the exact same spot where it all
happened, where those two archers stood looking across at the island
and seeing that MacLeod climbing up, saying, "Well, we'll take him down."
It's just mind-blowingly difficult.
-Or a fluke.
-Or a fluke.
A legendary fluke.
Having run out of arrows,
I leave one sea loch and travel inland to the southern shore
of another, Loch Ewe.
My route passes through some very wild and rugged country -
a reminder, perhaps, that we're on the same latitude
as frozen Hudson Bay in Canada.
So the last thing in the world I would expect to find here is this.
Or even this.
On the edge of the loch lie 50 acres of what I can only describe
as a subtropical paradise.
This is Inverewe, the "impossible" garden.
You could be forgiven for thinking that you've stepped into
a rainforest or a savanna.
There's Chilean rhubarb and rhododendron from the Himalayas,
exotic species of olearia from New Zealand
grows beside Tasmanian eucalyptus.
It's an overwhelming feast for the eyes and the nose.
Inverewe was the brainchild of an extraordinary, visionary
but contradictory character, Osgood Mackenzie.
A direct descendant of the great Mackenzie chiefs who once dominated
this part of north-west Scotland,
Osgood lived to a great age and when he died in 1922 he left these
fabulous gardens and a memoir, A Hundred Years In The Highlands,
as his enduring legacy.
Osgood was an archetypal Highland gentleman,
but he was actually born in France in 1842.
When he was just a year old the family returned to their Scottish estates,
which included land around Loch Ewe.
Here Osgood grew up speaking Gaelic
and learning how to kill wild animals.
Shooting was a lifelong passion for Osgood.
He was gifted a gun for his ninth birthday,
and spent most of the next 70 years blasting at anything that moved,
from golden eagles to pine martens.
It seems his talent for nurturing plant life was equalled by his
pleasure in slaughtering wildlife.
In his memoir, Osgood writes,
"What a big pile it would make if all the black game I'd shot
"between 1855 and 1900 were gathered into one big heap.
"Now, alas, there are none. And why? Who can tell?"
It doesn't take a huge leap of imagination to work out the answer
to that question, now, does it?
Osgood the huntsman may seem very different to Osgood the gardener.
But Inverewe became an obsession.
He planted trees to provide shelter,
imported the finest soil and added a special ingredient found here
in plentiful supply -
And it did the trick -
Osgood loved to boast about how big his crinodendrons were.
By the time of his death in 1922 he had created an oasis of peace
here in the Scottish Highlands.
With a calm, Zen-like feeling I head north towards the narrow mouth of
Loch Ewe. Its natural deep water is sheltered by the hills that run down
to the shore and it provides a welcome respite to shipping passing
across the stormy Atlantic Ocean.
But there is a darker side to this picture-postcard place -
one of violence, death and heroism.
During the Second World War, this tranquil sea loch would play a vital
part in protecting merchant ships from the menace of German U-boats.
These wartime ruins once housed enormous guns to protect the
entrance to the loch, which was also mined and closed by an
anti-submarine boom stretched from headland to headland.
This amazing film shot secretly at the start of the war shows
the extent of the Loch Ewe defences.
The Nazis were determined to stop arms and vital supplies
from reaching the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk.
Protected by a fleet of warships,
the Arctic convoys were crucial to the Allied war effort.
They left from Liverpool, the Clyde and here at Loch Ewe.
By 1941 the whole area had become one vast militarised zone with
roadblocks and documentation checks so that only authorised personnel
could gain access.
These derelict structures are a tangible reminder of the importance
of Loch ewe to the Allied victory.
Making my way around the shore, I find myself suddenly transported
back in time.
An RAF Spitfire buzzes above while a Soviet tank
blasts into the distance.
Churchill rallies his troops while the Luftwaffe prepare for attack.
This bizarre version of the past
is all part of a World War II festival,
a chance to celebrate victory and remember the fallen.
For former seaman Geoff Shelton, this all brings back vivid memories.
Geoff, you were the escort for the merchant ships.
-We were the escort, yes.
-How old were you?
Were you ever scared?
I was scared that first night.
Swordfish came in and instead of landing on the ship it landed
alongside it, and it sank immediately,
taking the pilot with him.
And I watched this lad in the dinghy, "Help, help, help."
And slowly the hand came down and the voice got weaker.
We picked him up within 15 minutes and he was dead.
Frozen to death.
The convoy ships made 78 journeys at a cost of 3,000 lives.
And the people of Loch ewe have never forgotten their sacrifice
and in particular the loss of one of those ships.
It founded here in Black Bay.
73 years after it went down, the twisted wreckage of the lifeboats
from the William H Welch is still strewn on the shoreline.
It was four o'clock in the morning on the 26th of February, 1944.
The American troop ship was battling mountainous seas and violent winds,
blinded by squalls of heavy snow and hail, the captain was desperately
trying to find the entrance to Loch Ewe,
and shelter from the storm.
There were over 70 men on board that night when she struck a rocky skerry
just to the north-west of me here.
Then, as 50 foot waves crashed over the wheelhouse,
the ship broke in two
and men were thrown into the tumultuous seas and then dashed
against the cliffs.
62 lives were lost that night.
Many tides have ebbed and flowed since then but, remarkably,
after 73 years, the battered wreck of the William H Welch
still lies beneath these waters.
I've joined divers John Carpenter and Kenny Munro and local boatman
-You know where the wreck lies - how?
-Just through local knowledge.
We fish lobsters here a lot and you get rusty lobsters.
-They come out covered in rust, they have been
-under the metal plates.
-From the wreck itself?
Yes, and the crabs, aye.
-So that's how you knew the wreck was here?
-Cos you were lifting rusty lobsters?
What kind of depth of water is she lying in just now?
We're sitting in 12 to 13 metres of water so it is quite shallow.
Normally they get pretty well broken up, don't they, Kenny?
A wreck at 12 metres would usually smash to bits within
five or six years.
So this is where the bow section actually sank, so we are going to
dive on that, have a look around and see what we can see.
Because of the length of time it took the ship to go down
it's believed that most of the crew managed to get clear of the wreckage
only to be claimed by freezing temperatures
or thrown onto the rocks.
That is why this site is not classed as a war grave.
This is very much for the experienced diver,
so I am going to be snorkelling on the surface while the others plunge
to the depths of the loch.
Searching the seabed for fragments of wreckage is hampered
by thick seaweed.
But John spots something.
Some twisted metal hidden under the sand.
And then a remarkable discovery.
73 years after she met her fate, this is the William H Welch.
And, amazingly, much of the bow is intact.
So what was it like inside?
Quite dark. It was a wee bit eerie when you are inside.
Broken pieces of hull.
It's worthwhile getting cold for?
-Yeah, cos it's freezing.
It's hard to believe how anyone could have survived this.
But, astonishingly, 12 men did, and they owed their lives to the locals
who ran to the rescue.
One of them was a 12-year-old boy
who set off across the moorland in a howling gale.
His name is John-Murdo Mackenzie.
What was the scene they were confronted with?
-What did they see?
-All the wreckage
on the sea, on the shore and the oil, lifeboats, all kinds of things.
Those two lifeboats are still there.
They're still there. There were three lifeboats.
That's all that's left of them now.
-Were they used at all?
-No, they were never used.
They never got a chance to use them, they were washed off.
People that lost their lives, they were lying just
where the sea had left them.
-The dead bodies had been washed in here?
And what assistance did the local people manage to bring?
Blankets and everything they could lay their hands on.
Flasks of tea and candles and stuff to light a fire.
Really, to try and keep them warm?
-Because this was the middle of winter.
-That was the main thing.
-We've got some photographs here.
-Are these some of the survivors?
-They look so young, don't they?
So this is Russell Ross?
In 2005, Russell Ross returned to the spot where he very nearly died.
-Was this the first time he had come back?
-The first time, yes.
All those years and he had never told his wife or his family that he
was in a shipwreck in the Highlands until he came up here.
Really? It left such a scar.
Yes. And he said that a load came off his shoulders.
Before we leave, John-Murdo pays his tribute to the men this community
have never forgotten.
Leaving Loch Ewe,
I head to one of Scotland's most intriguing destinations.
This is the mysterious and sacred Loch Maree.
Its 28 square kilometres contain more than 60 islands.
It's also home to possibly one of the world's best-known landmarks.
In name, anyway.
These are the famous Victoria Falls
which I have to say are just a wee bit disappointing.
They hardly compare with the great African falls of the same name.
But at least Queen Victoria actually came here and saw them.
And as for the views of Loch Maree and the islands, well,
they are just breathtaking.
Not everyone came here to enjoy the scenery.
These are sacred waters,
and many pilgrims travelled here for Loch Maree's healing powers.
It's named after 7th-century Irish monk Saint Maol Rubha,
also known as Saint MaRuibhe, who was remarkably successful
in converting the local people to Christianity.
Historian Ceri Houlbrook has taken a special interest in the life of
the loch's patron saint and in particular the little wooded island
known as Eilean Maolruibhe.
It's said to be the eye of the loch.
Even though it is not technically at the very centre,
it does feel like it is, and you can understand
why Saint MaRuibhe chose to build his hermitage on that island.
-A special place.
-It is a special place. Definitely.
It's thought that Saint MaRuibhe's success in converting so many
was due to his tolerance towards certain pagan rituals,
including animal sacrifice and other strange customs.
People have been buried here for centuries and centuries.
On this island where he built his chapel there is a remarkable example
of one such practice.
And this is the famous money tree?
This is the famous money tree.
So what is the purpose of leaving money here and putting coins into
-Originally it was seen as a cure for mental illnesses,
what they called insanity.
The patient would be bound with rope and placed in a rowing boat and then
they would be rowed around the island three times,
-dunked into the loch three times.
-Really? It's a brutal treatment.
Yes. And there was originally a holy well here.
At the base of the tree the patient would be made to drink some water
from it, and then leave their offering to the saint
by placing a coin on the tree
or tying a rag, a strip of clothing to the tree itself.
What is the thought process behind that?
It was believed that whatever clothing you wore contained
-the illness you were suffering from.
-I see, so the patient's illness
-would be transferred onto the tree.
So that would leave the person cured
and the tree would take the brunt of the disease.
It certainly has taken the brunt of many diseases, hasn't it?
Because this one has withered away to nothing, it's just sticks now.
Yes, a lot of illness.
One of these coins belongs to Queen Victoria,
who made the pilgrimage in 1877.
Though I don't imagine that here in the shadow of the mighty Slioch,
she was tied up and dunked in the sacred waters.
But to take the plunge in this freezing loch, you'd have to be mad.
Luckily, I know a cure for that.
I can't think of a better way to end my grand tour from Gairloch
to Slioch than here in glorious Loch Maree.
My next adventure takes me to the wilds of Rannoch,
and another chilly swim, where I discover the power of water.
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.