Griff Rhys Jones travels the wild rivers of Scotland. He heads east, upstream from Kinlochleven, then follows the course of the water downstream to Perth.
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We are a watery nation.
Rivers shape our landscape and they made our history.
But today they seem like forgotten highways into the back garden of Britain.
So, where will they take me as I set off into white water?
I'll take a crash course in kayaking skills...
Drift into some of the most beautiful landscape in the world...
This is a great river for canoeing.
And plunge up to my neck to feel the force for myself.
I'm getting acquainted with the wild rivers of Scotland.
Furious, powerful water charges through the Scottish highlands.
And a river is never more powerful than when it's vertical, which is why I'm starting here
at Kinlochleven, in the west of Scotland.
I'm going to go down the side of a waterfall over there.
It's called the Grey Mare's Tail,
falls about 80 metres.
It was called that by Edward VII, I think,
who saw it and said it reminded him of his favourite horse.
Though I don't think Edward VII actually saw it from this angle, exactly.
If you can hear a slight wobble in my voice it's because I'm terrified out of my mind.
I do not like the feel of this.
It's very, very slippery.
'It isn't just angle and altitude that makes this abseil difficult, it's my harness...
'It seems to want to cut me in half.'
This is really hurting.
I think exploring Scotland's rivers is going to be a serious undertaking.
HE GROANS LOUDLY
that's charging past me here...
weighs...just under a ton for every cubic metre.
That means it can do a hell of a lot of damage.
'I can barely keep my footing as the torrent tries to sweep me away. Its strength is astonishing.
'The force battering me has been doing the same to the landscape
'for thousands of years, fuelled by rainfall and snow melt.
'This is just the beginning of a 100-mile trek across Scotland.'
Let's have a look at where we're going.
I've started at Kinlochleven, and from here I'm climbing uphill
into the mountains, to a high, western edge
nearly 1,200 feet above sea level.
There, the water divides
and I'll be heading down a much longer, gentle slope east,
exploring rivers that join the longest in Scotland, the Tay, to end in Perth.
The waterfall I came down flows into the Leven, a surprisingly sedate river by comparison.
But, in fact, it used to be a much more powerful force.
Somehow it has almost been stopped in its tracks.
-There's a road to drive up?
-There is a road.
I've arranged to meet Avril Watt, who knows all about who was responsible
for challenging the power of nature.
We're driving up, following the course of the river,
although we're quickly hundreds of feet above it.
The Leven was once a sizeable stream that charged down the mountains to the west coast.
Its energy attracted the attention of engineers, who'd worked out
how to convert water power into electricity
as long ago as the 1880s.
Huge amounts of electricity were needed to make aluminium,
a new metal which would revolutionise industry.
So high in the mountains, the river's power was harnessed by
the Blackwater Dam creating an eight-mile long reservoir.
The most fascinating thing, if you look at this dam and the size of it,
that was made with pick, shovel, hammer...and men.
Blood and sweat,
that's what that was made of.
Completed in 1907, this was the biggest dam in Europe, nearly a kilometre long and 26 metres high.
It was an unprecedented feat of engineering.
And, apart from the odd crane, the thousand workers had almost no machinery to help them make it.
Now they were called navvies
and we think of navvies as being generally Irish but they came from all over, didn't they?
Exactly, a lot of these men were academics and well-read and business men.
And through no fault of their own, possibly, they went down in life
and this was the only way they could get money.
After building a dam by hand, I should think these guys needed a drink.
But the only place to get a drink was in Glencoe, a four-mile hike over the mountain.
Contrary to public opinion, alcohol and the cold do not mix.
So when the men came back, absolutely stotting,
they would stumble, fall in the snow and they would die from hypothermia.
But the next lot that came behind them, found them. They would rifle their pockets,
take their jackets and their boots - if they were better than theirs - because that's how they lived.
Well, it sounds a bit like one of those Wild West films, doesn't it?
That's exactly what it was like, exactly.
Up here was like the Wild West.
Only a few hundred metres from the dam is the graveyard of some of the men who built it.
It's not every body that was found because they died of hypothermia because they were drunk.
There's only 19 graves here, compared with thousands of men that worked on the dam.
And these gravestones, they're actually made of concrete.
Yes, the same as the dam.
It makes the dam itself seem like another giant gravestone.
The only evidence of the workers' sacrifice that's left.
Kinlochleven's aluminium factory has closed, no longer needing the energy the navvies harnessed.
It's almost as if the river has been robbed of that power.
The water is all coming into this reservoir from the east...
and that's the way we're going to go.
Blackwater Reservoir stretches towards the highest point of my trip, on Rannoch Moor.
It's a vast and desolate place.
Fifty square miles of peat, heather and bog.
If you want to get across it, it helps to have one of these.
Now the water from this little loch drains back the way I've come,
west, into the reservoir and the dam.
100 metres beyond it,
this peaty bog doesn't look as if it's flowing anywhere but...
in fact, this is where it starts a journey,
sneaking off, oozing off, into the mist over there.
A 'watershed' sounds like a dramatic thing, beyond which there might be sex and bad language.
But here it simply means the moor has begun to gently slope east.
And I'm going to go with it...
And I suppose, nice, because it will be downhill from here...
Except I don't think it's going to be a smooth descent...
Oh! Ah, ah!
The boggy water of Rannoch will eventually find its way to the sea more than 80 miles away.
In between, many more rivers will join it,
flowing through a succession of lochs before reaching the Tay.
My first downstream experience will be on the River Gaur.
It looks so wonderful.
We're in a very, very remote bit of Perthshire, right at the top corner.
We're not very far from where the four counties meet -
Perthshire, Inverness-shire, Argyllshire, and the other one.
I've forgotten what the other one is.
We'll be coming to the Bridge of Gaur where, finally, I'll be able to get
my Canadian Canoes onto the river and do a bit of paddling.
These are beloved canoes, these ones.
They've been with me for a good ten years now.
Someone was selling them second-hand.
The whole kaboosh.
Trailer, two canoes, paddles, the lot.
Now a sensible person would've thought, at that stage,
why would anybody want to sell an entire hobby?
But I've rather enjoyed owning them.
Although I can't say I've mastered every mystery of this ancient form of transportation.
They believe canoes were first used some 10,000 years ago.
Dave Latham hasn't been around that long, but he knows a lot about them.
Effectively, this is no longer known as a Canadian canoe though is it, is that right?
I don't think it's ever been known as a Canadian canoe anywhere but the UK.
What made a canoe so useful?
It's very light, it can be made with the materials that they had around about them.
It could go upstream, downstream.
It could be carried very, very straightforwardly through portage trails, around rapids.
Can you portage this on your own? Can you lift it up?
And away we go. GRIFF LAUGHS
Let's have a go, let me have a go.
Watch this, Cadbury, it's as simple as...
Over, get underneath it.
Don't drop it, don't let it roll.
I got it this far. Ah two, ah three.
It's a long way forward, my yoke.
Ah well, it should be in the middle or it won't work.
It's going over my shoulder now.
Now I know why somebody wanted to sell me their hobby.
They'd probably slipped a disc!
I prefer moving about on the river, though I notice that Dave has his own paddling technique.
You paddle pretty much continuously on one side, do you?
Until that side gets tired, yes, and then I'll swap over.
But you paddle and then steer?
I like to get the speed effect of having a paddle on both sides.
I can get the speed on the one side without hardly any drag just by gently rolling my top hand over...
-Thumb down, though.
Yeah. Out and down.
-A couple of thousand strokes and you'll have it cracked!
The River Gaur flows into Loch Rannoch, which stretches nine miles east.
I'm still 50 miles from Perth, and with night falling
there's the perfect place to rest for me and my dog, Cadbury.
-Good evening. I think I've got a room here, Rhys-Jones.
Rhys-Jones. Yes, certainly.
-It's all right if I have the dog?
-The dog is fine.
To be honest, I was rather hoping you'd say that he wasn't allowed
so that I could put him somewhere else!
-Here we go, another sleepless night.
Yes, I know. Yes, hotel room.
He always gets in a complete state about a new hotel. I've got absolutely no explanation for it.
He's spent the entire day sitting around in a sort of stupor
and as soon as we get to the hotel he just can't wait.
Just cannot wait. He's like a sort of canine hotel inspector.
Has he started whining?
No. Not yet, but he will do.
I've stuck him in the little ante room and in a little bit he'll start whining.
He whines and pants and generally creates for about three, four hours
and I finally relent and let him in here and at three in the morning he wakes up and licks me all over.
This is real trial, human endeavour,
having to share a room with a large chocolate Labrador.
-That's it. Yep...
After a few scant hours of slobber-free sleep, it's time to get back on the water.
Flowing out of Loch Rannoch to the east is the River Tummel.
I'm hoping to paddle down to where the next loch begins.
Here in Scotland, thanks to campaigners,
as long as a river is navigable I am, apparently, allowed to canoe along it,
whether the landowner wants me to or not.
To test this out, Cadbury and I are to be joined by Mary Conacher, a kind of canoeing freedom fighter.
-How are you?
-How do you do, nice to see you.
Now we're going on this next bit of the river...and you're fantastically well equipped here.
That's the way you'll have to be. Look at the speed it's going.
-I know. I'd better...
-I think you'd better get dressed, yes.
-I'd better get ready to canoe!
What's the appeal for you then?
Oh, it's absolutely beautiful.
Most canoeists love the countryside.
Mary, we're quite at liberty to canoe this river, are we?
Yes, you can.
This is our canoeists' pathway, as it were, whereas other people
have walking areas and cycling areas, we have the water.
So we have the right to go just like everybody else.
But that's certainly not true in most of England and Wales.
You are just not allowed to put your boat in.
No. We have responsible access to the countryside, basically.
Rights of access are all very well, but the River Tummel has no respect for Scots law.
It's powerful enough to impose restraining orders of its own on canoeists.
I don't like the look of that down there.
Downstream, dozens of huge trees are lying in our way.
They've been ripped from their roots when the swollen river eroded the bank.
It's literally a log-jam,
and changes the gentle social paddle into something more challenging...
It's the sort of a sense of nervousness that comes over me with THREE units.
And one of them, the dog in particular, it's slightly like a loose cannon.
-A crash helmet might come in handy as well.
Indeed! There's no knowing what hard objects may lie under the water.
Steering the correct course is going to be critical.
Right, so we're going right now.
Yes, going right.
Wait a minute, whoops!
OK, we're through!
-We're through! Yes!
So if you can get past the obstacles, Scotland's 10,000 rivers are open to all...
unlike a staggering 96% of rivers in England and Wales.
Thanks to Scottish rights of way and Mary's skilful steering, I'm free to paddle on.
This landscape has been changed by the power of rivers for thousands of years.
Before trees and plants grew on the slopes and soaked up moisture,
even more water poured into rivers and lochs from these mountains.
I'm heading north to make a brief detour from the Tummel to see the
best example of the effect a wild river can have on the landscape.
These are the noble Bruar Waters, and when Rabbie Burns came here in the 18th century,
he found the whole place actually was an open moorland and rather disappointing,
so he wrote a poem to the landowner and he said, "Would then my noble master please,
"to grant my highest wishes
"to plant my banks with towering trees and bonny spreading bushes."
Which is exactly what they did.
Not these bushes or trees because it's all been replanted since then - change happens.
But I'm here to examine a change...
which is slightly more complicated to alter...
and has taken slightly longer.
When Ice Age glaciers melted around 12,000 years ago, the water cut into the rock and earth.
Rivers added detail to a sculpture that had taken billions of years to form.
Geologist Duncan Hay has offered to be my guide.
We're going to examine some geology,
at fairly close quarters here.
Duncan's idea of a geology field trip is to risk his life canyoning -
an adrenalin sport that guarantees an intimate relationship...
with a canyon.
He assures me this is the only way to read the physical textbook
that the erosive power of the river has created.
There's a fantastic bowl here.
The water has come round and it's forming this eddy,
that you see in here but we also have these little undulations into the rock,
and so it's not just the water,
-but it's these little pebbles that we can see actually in the bowl here.
That's amazing! Look, here...
in the actual bowl are beautiful pebbles.
Beautifully rounded pebbles...
and so these pebbles will come in, carried in by the water.
As the water eddies round, these pebbles grind away at the rock underneath,
rounding the rock underneath there and rounding the pebbles.
It's a fairly extended process but the mountains are gradually being worn down by the climate.
The water finds it way into the minute cracks and faults between the different types of rock.
In winter, this freezes and cracks bits off.
You can see this fantastic arch within the waterfall here.
Oh, look at that!
What the water has done is again exploited a weakness within the actual rock.
And so what we could maybe think about is in the future that,
as the water continually undermines this arch,
is that once the material supporting these bedded rocks is removed
then this arch will ultimately fail also.
Erosion is greatest when the river gets really furious, when it's in spate.
At those moments, the power of the water can be so strong
that it can even destroy the very things that live in it.
Downstream, the Bruar Water flows into the River Garry.
I've come here just as salmon are ready to spawn.
But when they do, millions of eggs can be washed away by spates caused by heavy rain and snowmelt.
The men of the Tay and District Salmon Fisheries Board
are on a rescue mission to save the eggs before they're laid.
Their methods are, frankly, shocking.
You don't actually stun them with the electricity?
Not this way, no, we actually draw them into a net using these electro-fishing techniques.
But there's enough electricity going through the water for me to keep the dog out of the way, is there?
Yes, I would keep the dog out of the road, yes.
The appropriately named Lee Fisher and his colleagues are electro-fishing.
They're going to tickle the salmon by running an electric current through the water,
which makes the fish swim up and into the path of a net.
OK, so you'll put this right the way across.
As far as the net will stretch from that bank to here.
And then you switch it on?
Then Craig will turn the generator on and we'll get the power going through it
and we'll start walking down the water gently with the net dragging off the bottom.
ENGINE STARTS Fishing!
The salmon that reach the highest tributaries have swum upstream
over 70 miles from the sea and 1,200 feet above sea level.
That makes them the fittest and strongest of all salmon, and especially prized by anglers.
Saving them from the destructive power of the river is vital for ecology -
A young cock fish here, has come in the net, the electricity has drawn him in.
We'll release him out of the net.
Now he's going to be transferred up to the tank
to be taken down to the hatchery so that we can get his nice milt.
How do you know that he's ready to do his spawning?
It's just the time of year?
Look at his tartan coat, look at his nice pink flesh.
That's him turning into his mating colours so that he can attract the females.
Normally, Mrs Salmon would lay her eggs in a gravelly hollow,
and Mr Salmon would cover them with his milt to fertilise them.
They have to hope a strong current doesn't interfere with their family planning.
But these fish are lucky.
Lee is going to make sure that their eggs are fertilised in the safety of his hatchery.
That's a nice female, eh?
Do you want to give that one to David or Murray over there?
-Is that a good morning's work?
-For the couple of pools we've covered, yes, fantastic.
We've got them in the mobile tank here, and they'll be driven back?
To our hatchery of which they're going into holding tanks ready to bring the spawning on.
-And then you become Dr Lee...
-..and start your obstetrics, do you?
I do, yes, yes.
I'm a father to millions.
Luckily, there's no fish equivalent of the Child Support Agency.
At the hatchery, it's time for a biology lesson.
No sniggering at the back, please.
I'm going to run my hands down her belly.
I'm not really putting any pressure on that at all...
As you can see, it's just naturally coming out.
That's her really ready to go.
-We've got nice dry eggs here.
-I'm going to transfer them to a dry bowl
and Davie's going to get the cock fish, and I'll take the milt and fertilise the eggs in this bowl.
OK, just press it a wee bit harder. There you go, keep going, harder.
There you go, that'll do it!
And just gently go like that with the eggs for me. Enough water to just cover the eggs.
A wee bit more, a wee bit more...
So this is the moment of fertilisation.
That's exactly it, yes.
What the eggs are doing now is they're getting bigger
and the hole at the top of the egg is opening up and sucking the sperm into the egg.
Once it swells right up, it closes the hole over and that's the egg fertilised.
This process is carried out on 11 rivers in the area.
Each batch of eggs is carefully marked to ensure that the DNA,
including the salmon's homing device, is kept intact.
That means each fish will return to the river of its birth.
These are the fully finished article.
They're like marbles at this stage now, they've been fertilised.
When they come out of the fish the eggs are quite soft.
Now they've been in water they're absolutely bomb proof,
-they're little tiny bullets, they're so strong and so tough.
-For their own protection.
For their own protection in the natural environment, sitting under stones and moving gravel beds.
So what do we think are in here, 1,000 maybe?
No, there's about 5,000 in there.
But the rule of thumb for the hatchery is just about the three million egg mark in this hatchery.
The eggs are put back into the rivers in the Spring, when the worst of the winter weather has past.
If only a few survive the herons and the otters and the other fish,
it'll still help to overcome the damage the wild river can cause.
The Garry joins the River Tummel on its race southeast.
I'm returning to that river at my next stop, Pitlochry.
Here, hydroelectricity has left a considerable mark.
Faskally Dam was built in the 1940s in defiance of Pitlochry's residents
who weren't pleased about the idea of an enormous lump of concrete blocking their river.
When they built it the locals were outraged, they refused to allow accommodation for the engineers
because they thought it was going to ruin the tourist industry
but, in fact, it created this absolutely staggeringly beautiful man-made loch.
Now, half a million people visit the dam every year and presumably enjoy
the scenery around the loch that's been created here.
Many of Scotland's rivers are exploited for their energy.
These vast power stations, mostly built in the 1950s and 60s,
produce 85% of Britain's hydroelectricity - enough energy for almost 1.5 million homes.
But years before we became obsessed with renewable energy in our age,
the potential of river-power was being explored on a much smaller scale.
Southwest of Pitlochry is the valley of Glen Lyon.
Some say it's the most beautiful in Scotland.
Its beauty is partly to do with its inaccessibility.
There's one road in, and the same road out.
The Glen and the River Lyon may be remote, but the area isn't lacking in ingenuity.
-Welcome. Welcome, Griff. How nice to see you.
Well, it's nice to be here on this...
-It is dreich, yes.
Aye, it's dreich, aye.
Alistair Riddell's forebears bought Glen Lyon house in the 19th century.
Alistair spent his childhood here on the estate
which once included much of the land in the glen and the village of Fortingall.
Your family had come here and
used this as a home and a shooting estate and a farm.
When did the idea come about?
They said, "Let's have some of our own electric power here". When did that start to happen?
There was no power here up until about the mid-30s. There were no grid systems.
It was all done on the back of wood, coal, paraffin lamps - just amazing.
In 1935, Alistair's grandfather built a power system on the burn next to the house.
Upstream, water was diverted and carried through an underground pipe to a turbine,
which generated electricity for the house and the village.
But keeping the whole shebang running when Alistair was a boy wasn't a straightforward operation.
I remember, during a particularly bad storm, a blizzard, us little boys, were summoned out of bed.
We went up in an old Land Rover about three or four kilometres
and then we couldn't get through the snowdrifts.
We then walked for about another kilometre through the spindrift.
And we went there and cleaned the ice off the bars
to allow the water to flow so that the village had heat!
The system has changed little since then and still requires
some elbow grease to remove debris from the water filter.
And that should wash out over the face of the dam.
-Yeah, yeah, there it goes.
The principle of hydropower remains as simple as it was in 1935.
So now, just in case we thought we could pass a rushing stream without actually plunging into it,
we now have a system which I hope will win any doubters over because
this is going to demonstrate how electricity is generated.
We have a turning wooden spoon arrangement.
Now just on the front here we have a little magnet, as it goes around,
the principle is that by putting a little coil of copper wire in front of it, like this,
this will produce an electric current.
But, of course, we want to rotate the magnet and in order to do that
we're going to stick our paddle wheel, our wooden spoons into the water,
Oh, yes, fantastic!
-Are we getting a rise in the numbers?
-Yes! We are indeed.
And that is the generation of hydro-electric power.
Who knows what these figures mean!
No, exactly. I don't!
You don't have to be an electrician to see the potential.
Seven new mini-hydro schemes are being developed in Glen Lyon alone.
Alistair believes that river power isn't just part of the remote glen's past, but its future as well.
I think we've demonstrated our point.
-Yes, I think we have.
-Captain! We did it, well done! Good.
The Lyon flows into the longest river in Scotland,
and the one that will take me all the way to Perth, the River Tay.
But before I venture down it,
I'm pausing at Loch Tay.
There were settlements here long before the coming of hydropower.
A crannog is an artificial island.
On them, people who lived over 5,000 years ago built settlements.
This one has been re-created by archaeologists.
They didn't actually use this place for the Lord Of The Rings, but they should have.
It's getting a little "dreich",
and I'm in need of shelter.
The remains of 18 crannogs have been discovered on Loch Tay alone, There are thousands of others,
they were built on most of Scotland's 30,000 lochs.
For such ancient dwellings, they were rather well-made.
They've got this fantastic roof, enormous great roof,
built of alder poles and covered, here with reed, but originally with bracken.
A lovely bracken floor, no damp course, obviously, so a little bit damp,
and bracken thrust into these wattles
on all sides which form the walls.
Large, extended families would have lived in the crannog, but even with
all those bodies, their main source of heat needed to be a fire.
I've got all the bits and pieces here to warm myself up.
Here's my bow, here's my, sort of, fire stick here
and I'm going to put my fire stick into a little groovy patch here,
and I'm going to groove it around.
Obviously, as we all know, this makes friction
and friction will generate heat,
and heat will make fire.
GROANING AND STRAINING
HE GROANS LOUDLY
Let's have a look...
No, nothing at all...
PANTING: Obviously by the time...
Iron Age man had done this, he was feeling pretty hot anyway.
Shall we get Gavin in to show us how to do it?
It takes seconds for Gavin to show me why he's the resident fire-starter at the visitor centre.
But a burning ember is just the start.
I've got to gently manoeuvre my ember...
into the punk.
There was a lot of passive smoking in the Iron Age, I can say that.
There we go...
Then we have to sort of, tip it out, this very flame into this,
into the flames there,
and let it drag itself up.
Handy for fishing, good for look-outs, blissful escape from midges?
In fact, archaeologists aren't sure why ancient people put their crannogs out on the lochs.
Perhaps they just built them because they could, like we build our houses on marinas.
They rather fancied the idea of having a house on the water.
Good boy, good boy.
Well, I've come down the river now about ten miles from Loch Tay to Grandtully.
And I'm very glad that I'm not in my canoe because the river has become a bit of a challenge.
This stretch of wild water forms the Grandtully Rapids on the River Tay.
It's where aspiring athletes train for the canoe slalom.
All three of Britain's representatives in the sport at the 2008 Olympics
were Scots, and they all developed their skills at this mad place.
Now it's the turn of the next generation, including Struan and Amber, to master those slalom gates.
The idea is to go through them without touching them or missing them.
Slalom is really discipline and technique, it's not just brute force,
you need a lot of technique to get through it.
So when you turn a corner, what do you do?
Well, if you want to turn to the right, you lift up your left knee and bring it around.
Left knee... And that means you tip into the water...
-Into the way you're turning...
-You lean into the wave, into the way you're turning.
But you get to feel the water. So as you're going in, you want to get on
the edge because you feel a bit of a wobble if you don't.
But today the river, it's been raining quite a lot and it's pretty fast at the moment.
-Yes, it's quite pushy.
-Is that about the worst it gets here?
No, recently, it's been really high.
No, it's been like, I don't know...
See that rock over there?
It's been about a couple of feet over that, it's been really high, very pushy.
What keeps you going?
And there's always the aim that you can get to the Olympics and you can win Olympic gold.
Grandtully, the rapids itself, has been a slalom training site for years and years now.
'Steve MacDonald is the instructor for the Scottish Canoe Association.'
What makes this river at this point so good for your sport?
The geography of the River Tay, it's coming out of Loch Tay which has got a huge catchment area.
I mean, it's almost 16 miles long.
So a massive amount of water floods into Loch Tay and then that's feeding the river.
And that's why this works so well because you've got
that volume consistently coming from such a big catchment area.
The water level varies all the time but it's always quite, I mean, I call this pretty rough.
It's always in a rough state, definitely.
Sometimes, it's a little lower and a bit more technical, other times it's a bit bigger and a bit more bouncy,
but all the time we can get good challenge for the athletes we're coaching on the rapids.
So you think you can take ME down this, do you?
Well, I'm very happy to take you down.
It would be entirely up to yourself, are you up for it?
-Gently round. Paddling on.
Just keep that paddling going, this is what it'll be like, it's like riding a horse...
'Watching from the bank is one thing. The rapids seem even bigger and faster when I'm in the water.
'I have a feeling I'm going to get wet.'
Over the wave and keep paddling, keep paddling.
-OK, whoa! Gah!
-Good man, well done.
'I'm not sure how much more challenging experiences I need.'
All the way to shore, Griff.
Well, it was all over in a flash.
It all happened so quickly!
I felt a little bit like I was on the log flume at the fair.
I think I need to find a bit of river that's a little less tumultuous.
But first, I need to face the right way.
Sometimes, I can drive for hours trying to find a place to turn the thing around.
I should be able to do it here.
They're long you see, they're 16 feet long on a trailer.
And then it goes around, but there's not enough space to get around!
There was a stone there.
It seriously doesn't matter how manoeuvrable the thing is on water,
it's trying to make it do what it's supposed to do
on land that's complicated with the trailer, but all I have to do...
Oh, God, no! I...
Let's think about this.
I have to go...
There we are, that's just perfect, just absolutely first class.
What was that, a 25-point turn?
The Tay is much more gentle downstream of the slalom rapids.
It appears less agitated and, in a way, it is.
This stretch of the river is carefully managed.
Its wildness is also big business.
This is prime salmon fishing country.
If I want to come here with five friends to fish for a week, it would cost me five grand.
This stretch of river is valued at about two-three million quid.
That's a very sophisticated economy
for what is, essentially, a totally primordial business, hunting fish.
It was the Victorians who turned Highland hunting and gathering into a city gentleman's sport.
And for those partaking, vast lodges were built like Kinnaird House,
a family retreat which now takes in even the dampest paying guests.
It's very, very, pleasant indeed.
In fact, it has the ambience of staying not so much in a hotel as in a, sort of,
country estate, really.
Staying in the sort of place that people used to come
on holiday in the Highlands before they invented the rambler.
I have a bit of a quandary here because, as a rambler,
I have, of course, brought clothing for every possible eventuality.
I've got Gore-Tex shells, I've got wetsuits, I've got dry suits, I've got waterproof boots,
but I haven't got a sage green suit and a tie for walking around in a hotel like this.
I just have to hope that Kinnaird's owner, Mrs Constance Cluett-Ward, won't disapprove.
She first came here in the '60s as a guest of her future husband.
I was very newly away from New York City, Park Avenue,
if I may tell you. I felt, "Dear God, what do you do in Scotland?
"What do you wear?" You know, what?
So I went to an extremely good dress shop on Kings Road, where they knew me well.
I was then a size eight, I'm delighted to tell you.
And they fixed me up with some perfectly lovely clothes.
Did you tell them you were going to Scotland?
-You did, you said "I'm going to Scotland for..."
-"I'm going to Scotland."
But they must have thought I meant Balmoral, God knows, though they dress like bums over there.
I got here and discovered that
no matter who they were, they dressed like bums.
And so everybody jumped up in the morning and basically,
-they engaged in country pursuits of one kind or another.
Their favourite country pursuit was fishing.
If their catch wouldn't fit in the oven, they'd stick it on the wall.
It is a good collection of big fish caught right here or very nearby,
by members of the Ward family.
And your father-in-law one day caught the biggest fish he'd ever caught in his life.
Well, yes, he did, it's up there.
He and his ghillie put the fish on the front steps
and he went in to his study and took huge puffs out of his best cigar.
And a little while later, one of the Ward cousins, Lettice, aged 18,
had caught a fish slightly larger,
and they laid it down and they said of Sir John's fish, "Ooh, nice little tiddler!"
By now, the 120 mile-long Tay is carrying water from several wild
Highland rivers to the lowlands and my final destination, Perth.
The volume of the river is swelled by rain and snowmelt from an area of almost 3,000 square miles.
At Perth, the quantity of water in the Tay is the equivalent of the Thames and the Severn put together.
During a flood in 1993, a flow of 2,268 cubic metres per second was recorded.
At that rate it would take less than half an hour to give every person on the planet a pint of water.
Flooding here is nothing new.
This is the great Perth Bridge built in 1771 to replace another bridge
which had been completely washed away about 150 years before.
The Tay is subject to terrible floods and three years later, this bridge underwent a major test.
The arches here, blocked up with ice and the water backed up
but it stood up to the problem and it's been here ever since.
But they've commemorated on the side of the bridge here
some of the great floods since about 1800.
2006, it got up to here.
That wasn't the highest...
1847, that's a pretty high one...
but the worst one came in 1814.
To try to control the Tay, £26 million worth of flood defences have been built.
But away from the floodgates, the Tay remains uncontrollable.
When it bursts its banks,
the massive volume of water transforms the landscape.
In 2006, floodwater here
reached over a mile beyond the river's usual course.
For the Hutton family, the Tay's power was devastating.
So Roy, how high did the water come?
This is probably the mark in here, just below the windows outside, so that would be about it.
Take me through the night.
Well, it had been raining for two days solid and I'd been down having a look at the Tay
and it was getting nearer and nearer, it was maybe a foot,
two feet below the top of the bank.
And that's when we knew,
"Oh, it's coming."
And you don't have an upstairs here you have an attic, so it wasn't a question of "Let's all go upstairs."
Oh, no, no.
-You just had to go.
-There's not much you can take in a couple of cars.
We tried to put stuff up on top of tables to protect it, but the water
coming in just toppled the tables over and it was gone anyway.
For the last three years, Roy, his wife Val and their two children
have been living in caravans, unable to move back to their ruined home.
We'd been married about 20 years at that time and lost everything.
So it was like 20 years of your life just never existed.
And it's stupid things like pictures the kids made you at school,
you can't replace them any more, it's done, happened.
-Why have you stayed?
-It's my home.
-I'm doing what I'm told.
No, we love it here, beautiful area, as you can see.
And what is your plan now?
House - roof off, and build up and make downstairs just storage and live upstairs.
I don't care how many folk turn around and say to me, "Don't you think you should move?"
Or, "I wouldn't be living there."
Well, it's my home, I'm living there.
Even as climate change threatens more frequent and more devastating floods,
Roy and Val seem to accept that if you live near a wild river,
you have to be prepared to accept what it can do.
My instinct would be to stay clear of it, knowing what a danger it can be.
But some people are definitely attracted to the river,
rather than stay out of its way, they actually want to throw themselves into it.
I'm meeting Frank Chalmers, he belongs to a club who like to get very close to the power of nature.
It's called wild swimming.
It's you against the elements. It's you.
There's a pair of trunks, goggles and a hat against the wind and the waves, and sometimes, they win.
But it's great fun.
-Are there things coming down the river like logs and things like that?
-There might be.
That was a question I was asking expecting the answer, "No, there are none..."
The club is in training for a cross-channel relay race.
Today, they're practising their relay change-overs.
Eight swimmers, including me, are each going to swim a leg of a mile-long stretch of the Tay.
We're going to get into the water in succession from some boats.
Joining me in mine is Beth McDonough.
So you have done this sort of swimming in this sort of water before.
-Is it cold?
-Yes, in November it's cold.
The water is just eight degrees.
At this temperature, I could be unconscious after 30 minutes and dead in an hour.
I really don't want this to begin, but Frank looks like he can't wait.
Frank's in the water and he's off already.
What advice would you give me?
Accept that first bit, your heart's going to race, but thereafter you're going to feel a lot better.
That's it...accept that first bit.
-Don't struggle too much.
-Go with it.
Well, Frank is now through the rapids, he did a couple of strokes
of breaststroke, now he's carrying on, crawl all the way.
I thought each leg was a good deal shorter than this.
Frank got the toughest leg.
-Did he? OK.
-We'll remember that when we're in.
Frank has gone a sort of bright pink colour.
Apparently, that's the signal to change swimmers.
It's Beth's turn to go pink, and I'm after her.
-Thank you. Hoo!
Frank, here we are, mate.
Go on then. Up, oh!
-Just went for my throat.
-I slipped right at the beginning.
-Oh, no. Is it cold?
-Well, there are three ways you can tell it's cold.
One is it's like somebody has gone over your body with a blow torch,
the second is even the enamel on your teeth hurts,
and the third is...
if you see a penis at the bottom of the boat it might be mine.
-It feels like it's fallen off.
Wait a minute. Where's Beth now?
It's not very warming, but...
Pain is temporary, success is permanent.
And what got you into it yourself?
-Well, when I was a kid I got into it and I've just loved doing it ever since.
-I was brought up in Epping.
I had a swimming pool, but a heated swimming pool in Harlow, which we used to visit. I liked it heated.
All too soon, Beth is coming to the end of her stint.
There's something just not right about voluntarily leaving
a rescue boat to get into water so cold it could cause cardiac arrest.
What I do is I just slip myself in here, slide...
Ah, ah, ah!
I tell you what, I still can't breathe.
-How far am I going?
Next stop Dundee, 22 miles.
Come on, Griff, that's fantastic, that's fantastic.
I thought going downstream would be effortless, but the incoming tide
is trying to cancel out the current.
At least, I think that's what's happening.
Am I going the right way?
I was assured I'd only be in for three or four minutes.
I've been in for ten, and it feels like ten hours.
At last, swimmer number four.
Where have you been?!
That was fantastic, that was amazing!
I have to say....
that was truly horrible.
That really was utterly, utterly horrible.
I want my hands back!
That's your body shaking to get the heat back. It's a good thing.
Yes, I expect it is(!)
I hope they make you an honorary member.
Yes, have two of my toes in memory...
to hang up in the clubhouse.
Ten minutes in the Tay and only four days to thaw out.
My swim ends my 100-mile encounter with some of the country's wildest rivers.
We might be tempted to think we can rise to their challenge or harness them or treat them as a playground.
But whatever we do, this water remains reassuringly its own master,
moulding the landscape and going its own way.
At least until it finally escapes a few miles beyond Perth.
For the next 20 miles,
we're in an estuary and what has been an extraordinarily, powerful force
will find itself absorbed into the huge anonymity of the sea.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Griff Rhys Jones sets out on an adventure to explore how rivers have influenced, nurtured and powered our lives throughout history. From the raging torrents of Scotland to the reflective flatlands of East Anglia, Griff barges, canoes, swims and sails his way along a hidden network which has been the lifeblood of Britain.
Griff starts his journey with the wild rivers of Scotland. He travels east, upstream from Kinlochleven, into one of the most remote areas of the country, then follows the fast and furious course of the water downstream to Perth. He milks fish for their eggs, goes canyoning, and canoes a fast-flowing river that fallen pine trees have turned into an obstacle course.