Paul Murton tours Scotland's lochs. He embarks on a grand tour from Lairg on Loch Shin to Lochinver and finally, to the summit of Suilven.
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The beautiful scenery of the far north-west of Scotland was created
by some of the most powerful and destructive forces in nature.
The hills and lochs of this wilderness are part of an ancient landscape
that is said to have been formed millions of years ago
by a truly cosmic impact.
Lochs are Scotland's gifts 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 am on a loch-hopping journey across Scotland,
discovering how they shaped the character of the people who live
close to their shores. For this Grand Tour I am heading from loch
to rock bottom.
My journey starts in Sutherland and travels along the length of
Loch Shin to Loch Laxford.
I then get to grips with our rocky past in some of Scotland's deepest
before climbing a sugar-loaf mountain which is a sweet way to
end any Grand Tour.
This is the village of Lairg which lies at the southern end of Loch Shin,
and this is the Wee Hoose.
The story goes it was built in 1824 by a local poacher, Jock Broon.
The island that Jock's house stands on was given to him as a reward by a
local laird for teaching him how to distil whisky.
Having become a member of the landed gentry, even if only in a small way,
Jock felt that he needed a house to consolidate his new social status.
And that was the biggest that he could build
on his diminutive estate.
Sadly, Jock didn't enjoy the pleasures of land ownership for long.
He died after shooting himself in the foot.
At least, that's what locals tell you.
But whatever the truth, his Wee Hoose makes a fine talking point.
What makes Jock's Wee Hoose seem even smaller is the country round about.
This is a place of big skies and far horizons where the human scale
And to make you feel even smaller, the size of an ancient cosmological
event that happened here shrinks you to the point of nonexistence.
Aeons ago - geologists reckon at least 1.2 billion years ago -
a huge asteroid hurtled from deep space and collided with the Earth
with unimaginable force.
Incredibly, the impact was right here, just a few kilometres
from Lairg. It must have made one hell of a bang.
Evidence of a huge impact crater with a diameter of 40km has
been discovered from anomalies in gravity surveys.
The crater is the only one of its kind known in Britain.
The asteroid collided so long ago that during the 1.8 billion years
that have passed,
the crater was obliterated by later geological convulsions
which include a clash of long-vanished continents.
The hills around here have played a hugely important role in developing
our understanding of the forces that created the landscape,
and in particular how mountains were built.
It took some very clever scientific detective work to figure out how.
This is Loch Laxford,
which has given its name to a geological feature which scientists
believe is evidence for a continental collision.
In 1883, two Victorian geologists - Ben Peach and John Horne - ventured
north in an attempt to settle a fierce debate about how this
-landscape was formed.
-That is the black rock in front of us.
Katherine Goodenough is a rock doctor with the British Geological Survey.
She is taking me on a hike following in the footsteps of Peach and Horne.
They achieved world renown by unravelling the secrets of how these
mountains were created.
These are some of the oldest rocks in the UK -
something like almost 3 billion years old.
What you can see here is that we have got these black rocks and then
cutting through them you have these pink stripes.
And these are granite so they were actually formed by partial melting
-of the black rock.
-What is the relationship between this and the
process known as mountain building?
We know this black rock,
the stretches we can see in it were formed during continental collision.
When two continents collide they are like bulldozers -
they force up mountain ranges just as you see in the Himalaya.
And when that happens you have a mountain range on the surface and
deep down in the roots of the mountain you can get melting.
And so you can see these sheets of newer rock that were formed when
that melt has crystallised.
And they kind of squeezed through the older rock, did they, to form those layers?
Squeezed through the older rock, exactly.
The area around Loch Laxford is known today as the Laxford Shear Zone,
where rocks were squeezed like toothpaste deep beneath the earth.
This is part of the wreckage of a continental collision.
It is exactly that.
And the shear zone that you are talking about,
the collision zone as I would understand it, extends how far?
This collision zone extends out to the coast there but we can trace
similar structures out into Greenland.
Because of course once upon a time Greenland and Scotland were
connected as part of the same continent.
Peach and Horne's pioneering work put geologists on a road to discovery.
It would eventually lead to plate tectonic theory -
an understanding of how entire continents move and collide over
unimaginable periods of time.
They were the first to come here and realise that these rocks that we are
looking at were incredibly complex and preserved a whole range of different
geological events and they called this the fundamental complex.
The fundamental complex?
The fundamental complex. And of course they didn't have the clever
analytical techniques we have now but their observations were
absolutely superb and we still make use of those observations today.
The geology of this part of Sutherland has created a landscape
of rugged mountains and beautiful lochs.
Passing Loch More and Loch Stack, I return to Loch Shin.
At 25km long, this is the biggest body of freshwater
in Sutherland, famous for its salmon and trout.
I have a very early memory of seeing my first ever salmon on this loch.
It was just after dawn on the morning of my fifth birthday and I
was down here and the water was like glass,
when suddenly a huge salmon leapt up and then disappeared.
I was absolutely amazed - I had never seen anything like it.
And the memory has stayed with me ever since.
Returning to the scene of this vision 50 years later, I enlist the
help of top ghillie George Leligdowicz.
He has promised to help me catch a fish.
Not a salmon this time, but a trout
for which Loch Shin is rightly famous.
So, George, do you think this is a good day for fishing?
It certainly is. We have a good wave on the water and the other good
thing is we haven't got any midges.
-That is a very important consideration.
-It certainly is.
Fish have always managed to elude me but I am hoping for success with
George - I am going to be relying on his knowledge, guile and these.
An amazing collection of flies you've got here, George.
Yes. Just to give you an example, daddy-longlegs.
There is a vast array of garish designs with weird names like Hairy Mary
or Gold Bead Hare's Ear or - my personal favourite -
the Woolly Bugger.
These don't look like any insects I've seen...
-..flying around here.
Correct. Some flies I would say are tied to catch the angler
as well as the fish.
The true origins of the art of fly tying are lost in the mists of time
but it is said that the Chinese used kingfisher feathers to lure fish
3,000 years ago.
And according to legend a medieval nun called Juliana once used
a fly to land her catch.
The art of fly tying using distinct patterns was perfected in the
18th century, when fishing became a leisure pursuit.
During the age of Empire, bright feathers of tropical birds were used
to lure salmon from the peaty waters of Loch Shin.
But today, as we are fishing for trout, we are using a fly
that imitates a more native species.
That is called a phantom midge fly there.
-And do they work?
-They work very well, actually.
Ironically, it is Loch Shin's real midges that get the upper hand
by biting me before I even get the chance to cast my midge fly.
George has chosen a special spot on the far shore, where he says I am
almost guaranteed to hook a trout.
My best tally with one guest in a day was 55 trout.
We were literally getting a fish every third or fourth cast.
Having presented me with a challenge I can't hope to match,
George gets back to basics with some casting tips.
Can I just show you quickly? Watch.
You go, flick, flick.
See that? Flick, flick.
The more effort you put in...
The worse it is.
Yeah. So very, very, very little effort.
OK, very little effort.
So for all these years, I have just been trying too hard.
Maybe if we had a big, big juicy worm on the end...
But it seems my midge fly isn't delivering.
After an hour of fruitless casting I reckon the only thing I am likely to
catch in this weather is a cold.
Leaving the ever-hopeful George and Loch Shin's reluctant trout,
I head north-west and back to the coast to a pinch point
between two lochs.
This is Kylesku
at the junction of Loch Cairnbawn and Loch Gleann Dubh.
For centuries, travellers heading north or south had no choice but to
cross the kyle by boat - the famous Kylesku ferry.
And if they missed the last ferry at night, they faced a 100-mile detour.
The village of Kylesku existed because of the ferry,
but it is changed days now.
The last ferry stopped running in 1984,
replaced by this impressive and elegant bridge.
Beneath its shadow are the remains of one of the old ferries.
This is a rather sad sight.
After its last run, the ferry was hauled ashore and abandoned
to the elements. It looks like the elements are winning.
And up here is the old swing bridge where cars would have been trundled
aboard then carried across the kyle.
That's the old ramp. It would have been put ashore to allow cars to
drive on board and there is even the ghost of the name -
The Maid Of Kylesku, I think.
Nature is taking over.
Even got sea pinks growing from the old deck.
Leaving the old wreck, I head over the Kylesku bridge battling against
wind and rain in weather that has taken a decided turn for the worse.
I'm heading for a memorial overlooking Loch Cairnbawn -
a stone monument that commemorates the men who trained here during
World War II for a daring and deadly
raid on the German battle cruiser Tirpitz,
which was hiding in a Norwegian fjord.
The idea was to deploy a new and untested secret weapon, the X-Craft.
These were mini submarines crewed by up to four men -
the original X-Men of their day -
and their mission was to infiltrate heavily defended enemy harbours
and to wreak havoc.
Six X-Craft took part in the raid.
None survived, but their mission was a success -
the Tirpitz was seriously damaged and disabled,
only to be finished off by the RAF before she could sail again.
The bravery of the men who undertook this near-suicidal mission was
exceptional. The surviving crew members were awarded
the Victoria Cross
and this humble memorial commemorates their connection
with this little part of Scotland.
The road south from Kylesku threads its way below the flanks of
a complex mountain called Quinag,
which in Gaelic apparently translates as the "milking pail",
though why this might be, I have no idea.
The southern summit of Quinag overlooks one of the most beautiful
and serene lochs in Sutherland - Loch Assynt.
As if the view wasn't lovely enough, this beautiful stretch of water also
comes with a mythological creature of unsurpassed gorgeousness,
whose fate was sealed right here at Ardvreck Castle.
According to local legend, as they say,
this castle was built by Clan MacLeod with the help of the devil.
Naturally, there is always a price to pay for enlisting the services of
Beelzebub - in this case it was Eimhir,
the MacLeod chief's beautiful daughter.
The evil one wanted her to be his bride.
Now unsurprisingly, Eimhir was unhappy with this arrangement and in
despair she threw herself from the tallest tower of Ardvreck Castle.
But, strangely, her body was never discovered.
Instead it is said that she plunged into the deep waters of Loch Assynt
and swam down into a cave, where she transformed herself,
becoming the beautiful and elusive Mermaid of Assynt.
When the loch's waters rise above normal levels,
legend says it is because of Eimhir's tears of grief.
The tragic story of Eimhir and the devil also offers a mythological
explanation for the contorted landscape of Assynt.
The devil was in a hellish rage
because Eimhir had evaded his clutches
but he got his revenge by hurling hot rocks across the landscape.
Which isn't that far from the truth, when you think about the asteroid
which impacted Scotland 1.2 billion years ago.
And as for the caves that Eimhir chose to hide in, well,
there are lots of them,
including one that's partially filled with a secret loch deep
inside a mountain, which is where I am heading next.
Alan. A speleologist if I ever saw one.
Yes, indeed, fully kitted.
Alan Jeffreys and his team of cavers have spent many years exploring
Assynt's vast underground system of passages and tunnels which stretch
several kilometres beneath the mountains.
Alan wants to take me literally to rock bottom
to explore a fascinating underground world and a type of loch I have
never seen before.
The first bit is a bit low but you can stand up after that.
A bit low? It's very low!
Hence the overalls.
Just think of something you've lost under the bed.
Never to be seen again.
The cave system takes us into the heart of Cnoc Nan Uamh,
the Hill of the Caves,
where a fast-flowing torrent roars through the darkness.
After two hours of wriggling and squirming,
climbing and wading through water,
we have only managed to travel about 500 metres.
But it's far enough to reach an extraordinary sight.
This is amazing.
It's almost surreal being down here.
-Take a seat.
A ringside seat in a spectacular location.
-It is a natural cathedral.
-You are quite right.
-And it's all
worn out by the erosive power of water.
The erosive and acidic power of water.
Water picks up acid from the soil
and the peat on the surface and over
thousands - sometimes millions - of years, it dissolves the limestone.
That's an amazing sight.
A lake in front of us, a black lake.
And how deep is that lake?
It's about eight metres deep and it has been dived horizontally
for about 145 metres.
There has been no exit yet, it pinched down to nothing.
I can't think of anything worse than plunging eight metres into that
black water and then making my way through an unknown passage
to goodness knows what end in a cave under the ground.
Yes, we are all lunatics.
It's a common joke that climbers, that little worn-out phrase,
"Why do you climb mountains?"
"Because they are there."
But for us it is because it MIGHT be there.
We just don't know. Human beings are curious.
What is round the next corner?
BOTH: It could be this.
Indeed. Some of the best caves in Britain have been long, arduous,
tight crawls and then, suddenly, boom, you intersect something huge.
And that is what we're all about - finding new caves.
The first person in here...
..is the first person in the history of the Earth to set foot and set his
eyes on this. And it's a bit cheaper than going to the to moon
to do the same thing. But then in the primitive times,
people were afraid to come into caves because they thought there
were bogles or ghosts in them.
And you can see why, because the human imagination is such...
In fact, I think being a slightly superstitious person myself,
I need to make a little offering to whatever is down here, particularly
-in the dark depths.
You never know, it might be a mermaid.
Well, that would be a bonus.
Do you think she would appreciate that?
Not if she is sitting directly underneath.
It's a pretty poor offering, that.
I think maybe it gives us a good chance of getting out anyway.
Having made my offering to Eimhir, the Mermaid of Assynt,
it's time to return to the surface, following the river that emerges
from the cave and flows eventually into the sea,
and to a village that takes its name from the loch where it is situated.
This is Lochinver, on the loch called Loch Inver.
The village is the largest in this part of Sutherland,
and is an important fishing port.
Fish landed here makes its way to southern Europe,
but I'm not here for the seafood.
Much as I love fish, I am also very partial to pies, and Lochinver
has become famous for them.
A huge array of pies you've got here.
Yes. We have 15 savoury and six sweet.
Chestnut and mushroom.
Vegetable curry. Pork, apple and cider.
Have you got a favourite of your own?
My favourite is the pork apple cider.
-I think I might take one of those.
-One of them, yes, sir.
How many pies would you sell on a good day, do you reckon?
In the height of summer it would be between 400 and 500.
That is a lot of pies.
-It is a lot of pies.
-And are they made on the premises?
Yes, they are made fresh every day.
-Secret recipe, though.
Right, OK. Mum's the word.
-There you go.
-There we are, sir.
-Thank you very much.
-Enjoy your pie.
Leaving Lochinver, I am hiking to my final destination,
the mighty Suilven.
But as I reach the start of my climb, the weather closes in again.
Even the most experienced hill walker and climber can be caught out
by the unpredictable Scottish climate,
and it's easy to lose your bearings.
Fatigue and exposure to the elements can quickly affect your faculties.
Before you know it, you can find yourself in a desperate
Grid reference is November Charlie 147 25...
Thankfully, there are committed and experienced people who can be called
upon to come to the rescue.
On a hillside, Assynt Mountain Rescue team
are on a training exercise.
Many people owe their lives to their timely interventions.
A key member of the team is Molly,
and I am about to discover for myself
just how she and dogs like her have become indispensable saviours in the
most challenging conditions.
My role as a volunteer casualty
begins with a very enthusiastic greeting.
I've been saved!
We found a casualty, I can give you his location, grid reference, over.
Assynt, go ahead, ready to receive.
I will just get a quick assessment
of your breathing. How are you feeling with your breathing?
-Any pain in your chest or anything like that?
-No pain in my chest yet.
-I'm just worried if your hands are cold.
I'll tell you what I'll do, if you are breathing nice and easily,
that all feels nice...
The Assynt Mountain Rescue team has been saving lives for many years.
It depends on the skills of volunteers.
-So this is the team.
-These are our hearty volunteers, yes.
And, Charlie, this is your dog, Molly.
This is Molly the collie.
She is a Sarda Scotland search-and-rescue dog.
-How old is Molly?
-She is six and a half now.
Molly and her canine chum Assynt belong to an illustrious group
of Scottish search-and-rescue dogs.
The man who first saw the potential for dogs to find the lost and
injured in Scottish hills was the climbing legend Hamish MacInnes.
The techniques he developed are still used to train dogs like Molly
to find casualties, should someone like me need help.
So the dog will come in,
she will bark at you and then she will come back to me and take me
back in to you.
-Just like Lassie?
-Just like Lassie.
They're so intelligent, as well.
Usually the handler gets in the way.
It is the dog that is actually doing the work.
It knows it needs to go and seek something.
Absolutely. And it is driven by play, really.
For her, the whole reward is playing with you.
So this is all just a game.
She loves this, this is what she absolutely loves to do.
Having been restored to full mountain vigour
by the playful Molly,
I wait for the clouds to lift before continuing on my way,
heading for the summit of Suilven.
Suilven isn't a high mountain by Scottish standards,
being just 731 metres above sea level,
but it's certainly dramatic.
Viewed end-on, it has the classic sugar-loaf outline.
The lung-bustingly steep path I am taking leads to a breach
in Suilven's defences.
Geologists love this mountain
and to be fair they love the whole of Assynt.
But the landscape you can see below me with its low hills
and lochans is composed of an ancient rock called gneiss,
spelt with a "G".
And it was formed deep within the Earth millions of years ago.
In fact, the rock is thought to be part of a lost continent that is
at least 3,000 million years old.
And that makes you think, doesn't it?
The next significant geological event occurred
about 1,000 million years ago when rivers and lakes deposited
a thick layer of sand and mud and buried the old landscape.
The sand and mud then became the rock that now makes up Suilven.
During the ice ages, the sandstone was worn away by the action of
glaciers, except in a few places
where it was tough enough to survive.
Many of the curiously shaped and dramatic mountains of Assynt
are those nuggets of resistance,
and Suilven is definitely one of the toughest.
It's amazing to think of the aeons of time that it has taken to form
this extraordinary landscape,
and how insignificant and puny we are in this immensity.
And yet we all try to leave our mark on the world -
Now, this is a bizarre sight, it's almost surreal.
I don't know who was responsible but someone has built a great wall,
a giant dry-stane dyke on the final summit slopes of Suilven.
Now apparently it was built to mark a boundary,
a boundary of ownership.
Now that is a futile gesture, surely.
But it makes me think, in an age when wall building has become
popular again, I wonder who picked up the bill for this one.
For the first time in days,
Suilven's beautiful ridge is clear of cloud.
The summit dome is an unexpectedly smooth grassy area -
just the spot for a picnic,
a place to contemplate the view which takes in the hills and lochs
of Assynt in a grand sweep that reminds you of the enormity
of geological time.
With the world at my feet, I can't think of a better place
to end my Grand Tour from Lairg to Lochinver, and to enjoy a pie.
Join me for my final loch-hopping tour, when I will be heading
up the Trossachs from lake to loch.
1.2 billion years ago, the far north of Sutherland was struck by a meteorite. The wreckage of this cataclysmic event has been almost completely worn away by time, but the rocks in the landscape still bear some traces, which Paul unpicks as he embarks on a grand tour from Lairg on Loch Shin to Lochinver and, finally, to the summit of Suilven - the sugarloaf mountain.