Paul Murton takes a tour of Scotland's lochs. In this edition, he swims across Loch Ba high on Rannoch Moor and struggles against the elements while trainspotting.
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The lochan-studded expanse of Rannoch Moor -
an icon of the untamed.
A true wilderness, and once a place of thieves and wild men.
For generations the West Highlands were considered to be
a dangerous place, a country to be tamed.
First the military came, and then the engineers,
and they built roads and railways and harnessed the power of nature.
Lochs are Scotland's gift to the world,
and are the product of an element that we have
in spectacular abundance - water.
It's been estimated that there are more than 31,000 lochs in Scotland.
They come in all shapes and sizes,
from long fjord-like sea lochs,
great freshwater lochs of the Central Highlands,
to the innumerable lochans that stud the open moors.
In this series,
I'm on a loch-hopping journey across Scotland,
discovering how they've shaped the character of the people
who live close to their shores.
For this grand tour, I'm taking a walk on the wild side.
My journey starts on the beautiful banks of Loch Tulla,
crosses Rannoch Moor, and then by Loch Rannoch and Loch Tummel
I will go.
It reaches journey's end on a fairy mountain.
Loch Tulla lies on the southern edge of the great Rannoch Moor.
This wild country was first settled thousands of years ago.
To see the evidence of habitation for myself,
I'm being ferried out to a tiny island called Eilean Stalcair,
where some of the first people to lead settled lives
in this part of Scotland made their home.
It's known as a crannog -
that's an artificial island that was built
to keep the occupants safe from wild animals,
and from their human enemies' raiding and plundering.
Back in the Iron Age, over 2,000 years ago,
the crannog would have been a defensive home
to an extended family, living in a thatched timber house,
sitting on wooden stilts above the water.
Crannogs were once very common.
At least 600 have been identified by archaeologists in Scotland's lochs.
The earliest belonged to the Stone Age.
Others were used for hundreds of years.
This crannog was occupied up until the 14th century by Clan MacGregor,
who once dominated this whole area.
And when they lost it to the Campbells,
their bard wrote a lament recalling their happy days
on the shores of Loch Tulla,
and I can see why they were sad to leave it.
It's amazing to think that during the last ice age
the whole of Rannoch Moor was covered by a great ice cap.
As the glaciers melted,
they created the loch-studded landscape
we are familiar with today.
Most of the moor lies over 400 metres above sea level.
In winter, its many lochans are covered in ice,
which makes the prospect of taking a dunk in one of them, even in summer,
less than appealing.
I meet Calum Maclean on the banks of Loch Ba.
He's a devotee of wild swimming, a rather grand name
for something that people have been doing for years.
Calum blogs about his watery adventures,
which take him to some extreme locations,
including an icebound lochan high in the frozen Cairngorm Mountains.
Today, he invites me to take a plunge in water
that is thankfully ice-free.
Do you ever actually kind of measure temperatures, scientifically?
Oh, I never measure the temperature with an actual thermometer.
I think that's far too scientific for me.
I think I usually stick my toe in,
and depending on how much it hurts and how much I scream,
that's how cold the water is that day.
So are we going to be screaming, do you think?
I think when we get in, it's going to hurt.
That's usually what happens. It never gets any easier.
Is there a kind of gradation of wildness that you're looking for?
I mean, how does this compare, Loch Ba?
Where we are here, it's quite calm, you know,
we're not too far from the road.
But, yeah, I've been to some of the more extreme places, you might say.
The Gulf of Corryvreckan between Jura and Scarba,
that was a particularly fun one, where the current sweeps through.
It's one of the biggest whirlpools, I think, around.
Luckily, there was a slack tide, so we were OK.
Were you not scared?
I wasn't scared, no. I was excited more than scared.
So it's adrenaline rather than just pure fear?
That's right, yeah.
I'm ready for this. Are you ready for anything?
-How does it feel so far?
-It's fine - I'm wearing a wet suit.
VOICEOVER: The plan today is for Calum to swim the length of Loch Ba.
I'm going to try my best to keep up with him,
at least as far as the nearby island of Eilean Molach.
Perhaps I should have brought my rubber ring,
but at least my wet suit means I shouldn't die of hypothermia.
Well, it's really quite cold out here, I have to say, Calum.
Thank you so much for bringing me out for this wonderful experience.
But the views are amazing.
-It's like a kind of trout's-eye view.
It is. But, yeah, it's a fantastic way
to see this beautiful landscape around us.
And we are in the middle of Rannoch Moor.
Who would have thought it?
Exactly. Lots of people come here for walking, hiking.
How many people come here to swim?
Very few. I wonder why!
But my problem is that I've only ever really swam
a maximum of about ten lengths before,
and what we're proposing to do must be a good bit more than that -
about ten times more than that.
So I'm not sure I'll be able to make it all the way.
I think you might be right.
I reckon it's about half a kilometre or so.
Well, I'm getting a bit tired now.
Oh, look - I can stand up!
-Oh, ho, ho!
There's no need to panic at all.
I can literally walk to this island if I need to.
That's right, yeah. You invited me here for a swim,
but it's a bit more of a walk, I think.
We could just walk the whole way.
Why don't we stroll over this way, if you don't mind?
VOICEOVER: Unfortunately, our reception committee on shore
is a swarm of vicious midges.
Just wade the last few feet to the shore.
Well, Calum, I'm afraid I don't think I'm going to be able
to make it. I'm just a bit too peched.
So, if you don't mind, I think I'll just wait for a boat.
So good luck, my friend.
OK, well, I'll leave you with the midges, then, Paul.
Happy wild swimming!
There he goes. Good luck, Calum.
But these midges really are horrendous.
It's time to move on.
Fleeing the swarms of miniature bloodsucking beasties,
I leave Loch Ba and follow the old road west across the moor.
It was built by the great 18th-century engineer Thomas Telford,
and follows the route of an older military road,
built to suppress the lawless and rebellious clans
who'd made this wild stretch of country their home.
Nearing the high point on Telford's road,
I'm looking for a little-known monument to a remarkable man.
Much of the western half of Rannoch Moor
has been owned for many years by the Fleming family.
Now the most famous member of the family has to be Ian Fleming,
the author and creator of James Bond, 007.
But what a lot of people don't know
is that Ian had an older brother
who at one time was much the more famous of the two.
Long before Ian Fleming had put creative pen to paper,
Peter Fleming was already a successful travel writer
During the war he worked for British intelligence,
and drew on his experience to write a spy thriller.
The Sixth Column was described by critics
as the blueprint for his younger brother's Bond story, Casino Royale.
Despite the similarities,
Peter encouraged Ian's literary endeavours,
and even suggested the name Miss Moneypenny.
He loved the outdoors,
and was an enthusiastic sportsman with a passion for shooting.
But it was out here on the wilds of Rannoch Moor
that he suddenly and unexpectedly died of a heart attack.
And this cairn marks the exact spot where he fell -
a memorial to a remarkable life and an unsung literary hero.
Journeying into the heart of Rannoch Moor,
I encounter its biggest loch by far, Loch Laidon.
A faint path follows the shoreline,
and after a 14-mile hike I come across an unexpected sight -
a railway station, apparently in the middle of nowhere.
Rannoch station is one of the remotest in the country.
Despite this, trains from London stop here.
VOICEOVER: To find out about the line that crosses Rannoch Moor,
I'm meeting up with railway historian
and photographer Norman McNab.
Norman, why build a railway line
through such a desolate expanse of moorland?
Well, there was a need to open up the West Highlands.
There was a particular desire to get a connection
from Glasgow to Fort William,
and then onward from Fort William to the West Coast Sea,
to tap into the lucrative herring industry.
And you've got to remember that road across Rannoch Moor to the west
by Coire Ba was a very, very...
It was nothing much more than a rough track
as it was in the days of the stagecoach.
So getting to Fort William was very hard.
Over the course of eight years,
5,000 navvies toiled in horrendous conditions
to build the railway across the moor,
where deep peat banks forced the engineers
to float the line on rafts of brushwood and ash.
The first passenger services eventually began in 1894.
What's interesting to me,
to celebrate the opening of the line,
this wonderful book here, Mountain, Moor And Loch,
was produced when this line was opened,
presumably to encourage a wealthier sort of visitor.
And it's a beautifully illustrated book as well.
And the poetry of it all was bound to have enthused people.
"From the window of the railway carriage,
"it is the reverse of wearisome."
As true today as it was when it was written.
And of course, you can tell the character of a person, man or woman,
by their attitude to crossing Rannoch Moor.
They're either stimulated and excited by it, and wondrously so,
or they find it a boring place.
-How do you find it?
-Well, I find it a very stimulating place.
VOICEOVER: Norman wants to get a shot of the London sleeper train
crossing the famous Rannoch viaduct.
So we set off over the heather to get into position.
It's a great view of the viaduct.
Yep. This is absolutely ideal, Paul.
All we want is the light.
Now, what are you looking for when you come to choose a location
to take a photograph?
Well, I'm looking for a composition
which sets the train within the landscape.
So the train is just part of it.
It's primarily to give the impression
of the scenery and the location.
Particularly to bring over this aspect of the wild openness.
It's something unique to the West Highland Line
as it crosses over Rannoch Moor.
It is real drama with the lighting and the clear visibility.
It can be quite fantastic.
OK, after all the waiting, here comes the train.
-Check the lens cap's off, power's on.
This is very exciting.
-This is the moment, Paul.
-This is what we've been waiting for.
One, two, are you getting this?
-Do you wave at trains, Norman?
-Yes, you do.
They're waving back.
Yes, I'm not sure about that gesture, Norman.
Having got our shot of the train,
suitably invested with the drama of a desolate location,
I leave Norman and explore the loch-studded moor,
where I am fascinated to see ancient tree roots
protruding from the dark peat.
All across the moor, you come across roots like this
sticking out of the peat.
These are the remains of a once-great forest
that covered this desolate expanse thousands of years ago.
Many of the roots are pine trees,
early victims of climate change.
Just after the last ice age,
the climate is thought to have been warmer and drier than now,
encouraging the spread of forest cover.
But then things changed.
It got wetter and cooler, and moss thrived,
which developed into layers of peat.
This eventually suffocated the forests
but preserved the remains of the trees
which once grew here thousands of years ago.
My old railway guide, Mountain, Moor And Loch,
mentions the curious sight of so many old tree roots
in an otherwise treeless moor,
and goes on to explain that local folk
used to use this peat pine as candles.
They would dry it out, break it into little splinters,
and then light the splinters
which made excellent candles to spin wool by.
Not that the local folk had much choice
in the matter of their illumination,
because candles were far too expensive.
Reaching the road, I pick up a push bike and pedal west,
following the River Gaur as it makes its way down to Loch Rannoch,
which, in the days of the Jacobites, was an unruly place indeed.
This was a wild country without roads,
presided over by a warrior chief.
Alexander Struan Robinson is the only man known
to have taken part in all three Jacobite risings.
But Struan Robertson had gentler beginnings.
He was actually a divinity student at St Andrews University,
where he joined the first Jacobite rebellion in 1689.
In 1715, he was captured at the Battle of Sheriffmuir,
but then escaped to France.
And then, in 1745, at the age of 75,
the old warrior marched off to join Bonnie Prince Charlie,
whose defeat at Culloden cost him dear.
The estates of Struan Robertson were forfeited
and he lived out the rest of his days in a cottage
close to the great black wood of Rannoch.
Today, the black wood is one of the largest areas
of ancient Caledonian pine forest left in the country.
The Scots pine is the dominant tree species here.
In Latin, it's known as Pinus sylvestris,
but you have to be very careful how you pronounce it
if you want to avoid offence.
And I'm being as careful as I can.
Pee-nus or pie-nus sylvestris
as it's known, has recently been voted as Scotland's national tree.
And here in the black wood of Rannoch
are many fine old specimens,
including this one,
which must have been a mere sapling when Struan Robertson lived here.
Amazing to think of all that history it has seen.
Struan Robertson wouldn't recognise my next destination.
Nestling beneath the peak of Schiehallion is Kinloch Rannoch.
It's a quiet, respectable sort of place,
but when the old clan chief was alive,
this area was at the heart of a rebellious community.
When the Jacobites were finally defeated,
it became a refuge for desperate, hungry men on the run.
Because the people were starving,
the returning warriors had to resort to theft
to keep their families alive.
And soon, Rannoch acquired a reputation
of cattle rustling and lawlessness.
A captain of the army of occupation wrote,
"The people of this country
"are the greatest thieves in Scotland
"and were all in the late rebellion."
But within a few years, the village of Kinloch Rannoch was established.
Schools and churches were built
in an attempt to civilise the wild clansfolk,
and it seems to have worked.
There's not a rebellious Jacobite to be seen.
Leaving Kinloch Rannoch, I take the old military road,
following the southern shores of Loch Tummel.
After its warlike history, it now seems the epitome of peace.
And what could be more peaceful than sailing?
Loch Tummel has become a favourite location for lovers of watersports,
and dinghy sailing in particular.
Despite the gale that's blowing,
I threw caution to the wind and joined veteran sailor Jim
and his crew member Amanda,
dodging other boats as squalls race across the water.
Are we going to jibe or are we going to about?
Oh, no, we're going to go about in this weather.
Would you normally be coming out to the loch in this weather?
Not normally, no.
This is just for a bit of fun, really.
So, if you look upwind,
you can see dark patches are sitting on the water.
Some of them have more ripples than the others,
and that generally is when your squalls are coming in.
That's when your boat will start to keel over quickly.
-Or it could flatten you completely?
-Which we don't want.
When did you start sailing?
Good grief, really?
-It's done you well.
No disrespect, but you really are an old sea dog.
Well, I'd hardly say an old sea dog,
but we are all wrinkly anyhow.
It's a lifetime, you've spent a lifetime at the tiller.
As we tack backwards and forwards across the loch,
Jim tells me that we are sailing over land that was once farmed.
There are even the ruins of an ancient Clan Menzies hunting lodge
beneath our keel.
Everything was drowned in the 1950s when the lock was dammed.
Intrigued, I leave Jim's boat and sail 11km
to Loch Tummel's famous Queen's View,
to see for myself how the landscape has been altered
by this man-made flood.
Now, this really is a grand view
and one worthy of royal appreciation.
But you can tell from this old photograph postcard
that was taken in the 1940s
just how much it's been altered by rising water levels.
There's a whole area of land here that's been flooded.
The tiny island in the background
is, in the photograph, nothing more than a wooded hill
beside the River Tummel.
It's all drowned now,
but still rather beautiful.
Just around the corner from Queen's View is the Clunie Dam.
Built in 1951, it holds back the weight of Loch Tummel
and water from a vast catchment area,
all part of a hugely ambitious hydroelectric scheme.
This archive film from the 1950s
shows the dramatic scale of the engineering works
that were undertaken to harness the power of water
and to turn it into electricity for the Highlands and beyond.
An army of men toiled day and night, deep underground,
drilling and blasting their way through solid rock
to divert the flow of water into a network of dams.
This is the Clunie Memorial Arch.
It actually shares the same dimensions
as the tunnel that was built to carry water
from the loch to the power station,
and clearly shows the scale of the tunnel,
which, at the time, was the largest of its type built in Britain.
There are names inscribed here too,
to remind people of the human cost of the project.
There are seven massive structures
that make up the huge hydroelectric scheme.
At the nearby Pitlochry Dam, I meet up with Gonna O'Donnell,
one of the famous Tunnel Tigers
who collectively dug over 400 miles of tunnels in Scotland.
The first job you went and got in a tunnel was a spanner man.
That's the man that held the drill
for the driller that was drilling holes.
You held that drill,
but you couldn't wear gloves, nor had any earmuffs.
I was stone deaf, completely stone deaf.
The men in the tunnels were minors.
Some of them were platelayers.
That's the men that looks after the railway line.
They were platelayers. Then you have the powder monkey.
He was looking after the explosives.
Then you have the loco driver.
He was taking in and out what we called the muck.
That was the gravel and stones.
We called that muck.
It must have been very dangerous work.
Everything is dangerous when you don't know.
When I went in first, everybody looked after me.
Anybody that came in after me, I looked after him.
And if I saw a stone hanging above you when you were drilling,
if I saw a stone, maybe a stone, maybe a tonne weight,
or half a tonne weight, or 500 weight,
I would push you out of the road and point up.
I mean, it was a waste of time trying to talk.
Nobody could hear you.
Gonna lived on site in a camp high on the mountainside,
surrounded by hundreds of other men.
Many had come from Ireland, others from Eastern Europe,
having fled the Cold War to work on the hydro scheme.
When you come back to Scotland and you see these amazing dams,
what does that make you feel?
It makes me feel about 18 feet tall.
It makes me very proud
that I was a wee part, a small part of it.
I was a small part of it. But I was there.
VOICEOVER: In the archive room at the Pitlochry Dam,
I meet up with Brian Haslam.
Brian was a young engineering graduate
when he first worked on the dams.
I was excited.
I don't know why, but I had faith in my own ability.
The engineering side didn't bother me.
I felt quite confident.
But I hadn't got a clue.
When I first went in the tunnel, I didn't know,
I could have been on the moon for all I knew.
It's a great collective effort.
Cos we look at some of these pictures here,
you can see men working together,
really kind of complicated, difficult tasks,
using huge pieces of machinery.
That was just making the machinery.
-What's happening here?
-This is the Blondin.
It's a sort of aerial ropeway that carried the concrete across the dam,
named after the guy who walked over Niagara Falls.
So, you were flying concrete from one side of the glen to the other?
Yes. We were doing just that.
So what have we got here? We've got this precarious business?
Men about to disappear into the maw of hell?
This is just an example of the health and safety rules at the time.
What do you think is your almost abiding memory
of working on these tunnels?
Four years of happiness.
I get quite nostalgic about this.
I grew up when I came to the scheme.
I met the big wide world.
I met wonderful people.
I was doing a wonderful job, in a wonderful place.
I know being inside a tunnel doesn't sound like a wonderful place.
But the company was good?
Somebody once said to me it was like a family.
And you were, you looked after each other.
That was it.
That stuck with me.
Leaving a legacy of dams and tunnels,
which are still generating electricity
from the wild waters of Lanark,
I headed to my final destination -
the shapely peak of Schiehallion.
This mountain was once considered sacred
by the early people who lived in its shadow -
a magical place and the haunt of fairy folk.
But in the 18th century,
Schiehallion was tamed by science
in a brilliant experiment to determine the mass of the Earth.
To do this, you first needed to work out the mass of something smaller,
like a mountain.
In 1775, the Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne
and the mathematician Charles Hutton chose Schiehallion
for their experiment because of the mountain's regular, conical shape.
If you look at any OS map,
you can see quite clearly from the contour lines
just how uniform the mountain is.
They're placed at ten metres apart, these lines.
Now, interestingly, Charles Hutton, a mathematician,
actually invented contour lines to help him with his calculations,
to work out the volume of Schiehallion.
It's an amazing thought,
that the very first contour lines in the world
were drawn right here and have been used by map-makers
and hill walkers ever since.
The contour lines enabled Maskelyne to calculate the volume
and then the mass of Schiehallion.
And then, by scaling up, he was able to work out the mass of the Earth.
It took 17 long weeks to complete the experiment,
partly because the weather that summer was dreadful.
Despite this, the experiment was considered to be a great success
and came close to the modern figure for the mass of the Earth
of 5.9 x 10 to the power of 24 kg.
However, because the experiment had taken so long to complete,
it bankrupted the Royal Society which had funded the project.
But, as they say, there's no gain without a wee bit of pain!
Onwards and upwards!
Although Schiehallion had been tamed by science,
its reputation for wildness continued.
The scientists threw a party on the mountain
for the locals who'd helped them with the experiment.
It was quite a night.
The fiddler burned his fiddle
and then burned the bothy to the ground.
It's hard to be a rock and not to roll.
So, here we are - the summit of Schiehallion,
the fairy mountain of the ancient Caledonians.
And from here, you can see my route
all the way from the wilds of Rannoch Moor,
making this the perfect place for me to end my Grand Tour.
Join me for my next Grand Tour
when I travel into the secret heart of Knoydart
and search for Jacobite gold.
Paul begins his Grand Tour with a chilly swim across Loch Ba high on Rannoch Moor, struggles against the elements while trainspotting and meets some veteran Tunnel Tigers - men who tunnelled deep inside the Grampians, diverting water to hydroelectric schemes.