The Scottish Highlands Britain by Bike


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The Scottish Highlands

Clare Balding charts how incomers - a diverse group which includes Dr Johnson and an occupying English army - have changed our view of the Scottish Highlands.


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60 years ago, an extraordinary man called Harold Briercliffe

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wrote a series of books about his great passion - cycling.

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Largely forgotten, these overlooked gems were the culmination of a lifelong journey. His destination?

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The whole of Britain on two wheels.

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Over half a century later,

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and equipped with one of his reliable cycle touring guides, I'll be re-tracing his tracks...

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And riding his very own bicycle - a Dawes Super Galaxy.

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This was the ultimate touring machine of its day.

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I'll be taking it on one of Harold's classic journeys

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through the magnificent countryside he explored all those years ago.

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I'm going in search of Britain by bike.

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Welcome to Scotland. Today I'm in the Highlands.

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The western Highlands of Scotland.

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Truly a wilderness. Mountains clad in bracken and heather.

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Lonely glens. Lochs with castles standing proud on their shores.

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This is Kintail, a rugged, unspoilt area of the North West Highlands

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opposite the Isle of Skye.

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Cycling author Harold Briercliffe simply loved the Highlands.

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There are roughly 300 miles of mountains and lochs and glens and coastline.

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He described it as "the most vivid and rugged landscape in Britain".

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He also said that he best way to discover it was by bicycle, and who am I to argue?

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This beautiful landscape has a vivid and sometimes bloody history.

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It's seen rebellions and incursions, from warrior queens and invading armies,

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intruders of different kinds, and not all of them human.

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It's a place that outsiders are drawn to.

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Some to celebrate its wildness, others to try to overcome it.

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I'll be uncovering the evidence of their visits on my journey.

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Today's route is 23 miles long, starting near Glen Shiel

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on the shores of Loch Duich,

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heading over a mountain pass and north up the coast to Kylerhea,

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close to the Isle of Skye.

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Then it's back down to Glenelg and inland to Glen Beag

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before finally heading along the lonely path to Sandaig,

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the unlikely setting of for international best-seller.

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My journey starts here at the picture perfect location of the Ratagan Youth Hostel.

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We know Harold Briercliffe came here,

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not just because he wrote about it in his 1948 Touring Guide,

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but also because we've got hold of some of his old photographs taken from almost exactly this spot.

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Harold captured some wonderful views on his Scottish travels.

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He was a prolific photographer, taking pictures to illustrate his guidebooks

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and articles for cycling magazines.

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Here is one with the view from the hostel front, looking along the loch,

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of Harold's wife, Mamie, down at the lochside - with their trusted bikes, of course!

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And this magnificent view of the mountains

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on the north side of Glen Shiel, known as the Five Sisters of Kintail.

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Rochdale-born Harold was an intrepid cyclist

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so his routes aren't always easy -

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this one begins with a climb up the 1100ft Mam Ratagan pass.

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The gradient is mostly one in ten, steepening to one in seven,

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and close to the summit there is a great coil of two hairpin bends.

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This is pretty hard work

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and all you can see around are trees and trees

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and more trees.

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At the top I'm going to meet up with Chris Marsh

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from the Forestry Commission and talk to him about these trees

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and the plans for the forest in the Highlands in the future.

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The growth of trees planted by the Forestry Commission

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prevents a continuous panorama being presented

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during the ascent, but at clearings the picture of Loch Duich,

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backed by the Five Sisters, is striking indeed.

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This may look like natural woodland, but it is in fact an immigrant crop,

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planted in regimented rows, grown to be cut down,

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replanted and harvested all over again.

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Ratagan Forest was established by the Forestry Commission in 1923

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to meet the demands of the national timber industry.

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The dominance of the invading Sitka spruce has been a thorny issue ever since.

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When the Forestry Commission started in the early 20th century,

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they spent a lot of time looking at species from around the world

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and Sitka spruce was chosen because the environment from which it comes from,

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the west coast of America, is perfectly suited to the west coast of Scotland.

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It seems to me that a lot of people have a problem with the Sitka spruce

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because it's an invader, because it's come from so far away.

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Can you appreciate that strength of feeling?

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Yeah, I think the Sitka controversy

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is as much a visitor's perspective

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to see an alien tree planted in geometrical shapes on what's perceived to be a wilderness.

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But of course, these hills have been managed

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for centuries and look the way that they do because of that management.

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Many of these slopes would have been closed-in birch woodland with hazel scrub and holly and rowan.

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Those, over centuries, would have disappeared through this grazing pressure,

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muir burning, heather burning.

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So a lot of the native woodland ended up being confined just to gullies and ravines.

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And then the broad open slopes were the areas the foresters came and planted in the '20s.

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But it's not just the planting, it's the harvesting that most upsets people.

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I know this is a really difficult balance because you're undertaking a commercial enterprise,

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it's time to chop them down, they've all got to come down.

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But you must see, as anyone else sees, how incredibly ugly that can look.

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It's more than just a scar, it can look like a warzone.

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Trees were established here to establish a national timber resource and that can't be forgotten about.

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But certainly in an area like this

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the environmental importance

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of these habitats come up and up the agenda.

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So when the first phase of trees are being harvested, the second phase -

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we're using Scots pine instead of Sitka spruce - but the trees are also being planted

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in a more randomised structure at greater spacings.

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So we're starting to get more of those environmental associations

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which the first phase of densely planted Sitka spruce wasn't giving.

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It's perhaps unrealistic to think that one day this landscape

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will be covered in huge swathes of Caledonian Forest, and some people probably think that the Sitkas

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are native, after all they've now been here for 80 years,

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which is longer than some visitors to Scotland.

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Harold mentions in his books some very well known early visitors to this part of the Highlands.

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In 1773, Dr Johnson and his travelling companion James Boswell came on this very road.

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They struggled a bit, despite the fact that they had horses,

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both up the hill and down it.

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I can't say that I'm struggling downhill. I was going up, though!

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1st September 1773, going downhill on the other side was no easy task.

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As Mr Johnson was a great weight, the two guides agreed he should ride the horses alternately.

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As he rode upon it downhill, it did not go well and he grumbled.

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Hello!

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Johnson and Boswell came here not just to take in the wonderful views,

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but because they were on their way to Skye.

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For centuries, this crossing was the principal gateway from the mainland

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to the Hebrides - a short stretch of water known as the Kylerhea race.

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In the late 18th century, drovers bringing their cattle from the Hebrides over to market

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would wait for these waters to be calm and then drive the cattle across.

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They'd have to swim to the mainland.

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So far my journey has taken me from Ratagan along the Mam Ratagan pass, skirting the village of Glenelg

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and north to the Kylerhea race, and one of Harold's favourite locations.

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Immediately north of the ferry stands the youth hostel of Glenelg.

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Its situation at the road end, without another dwelling in sight on the mainland,

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is amongst the grandest of all the Scottish hostels.

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This used to be the Glenelg Youth Hostel. It's now a private residence.

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It does do B&Bs, but Harold would have been very sad that the youth hostel has been lost

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because he felt that places like this, and the Ratagan Youth Hostel,

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where we started, were crucial stepping stones to explore great outdoors

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for the adventurous explorer.

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And with every one that closes, it makes it that bit harder for walkers

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or cyclists or runners who are trying to get into the landscape.

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And doing so on a very small budget.

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In his book, Harold sings the praises of the Scottish Youth Hostelling Association,

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which had been set up in the 1930s to allow young people to travel and experience other cultures.

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Not simply a dry bed for a weary cyclist, in the late 1940s,

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the hostels were a symbol of freedom and hope -

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a world in which outsiders were not invaders, but welcome guests.

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The SYHA has done much to open up the Highlands to the cycling visitor.

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Thousands of wayfarers who might never have ventured into the Highlands

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have used the hostels and, for small outlay, have seen the finest mountain scenery in the British Isles.

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Following Harold's suggestion, I'm now retracing my tracks,

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heading south, back along the military road towards Glenelg

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and the Bernera Barracks.

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You feel so far away from any sort of major city or town.

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You feel a long way away from pollution.

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From noise pollution as well.

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It's so quiet!

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And it really does feel fresh.

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You can feel it on your skin, in your lungs...

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It's like an inner and outer body wash.

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Despite the peace and serenity of this coastal road,

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it has a chequered military past.

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More than 147,000 Scots were killed in the Great War

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and the casualties from the highland regiments were particularly high.

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I can see the ruin of the Barracks just over there.

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But the Bernera Barracks don't relate to a modern war,

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rather to a bloodsoaked conflict some 200 years earlier,

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just a few years after the Act of Union between Scotland and England.

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In the early 18th century, the barracks were an outpost

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of English-speaking authority in a Gaelic-speaking world.

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When Boswell, a Lowland Scot, brought Dr Johnson through here on their way to the inn at Glenelg,

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he gazed on the lit Barracks with longing.

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As we passed the barracks at Bernera, I would fain have put up there.

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At least I looked at them wishfully, as soldiers have always everything in the best order.

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Historian Jim Hunter is meeting me here to explain why Bernera Barracks

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were built to house an army of outsiders in hostile territory.

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Even with no roof on and no glass in the windows and massive great cracks

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down the walls, these are still very impressive buildings.

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When were the barracks first built?

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They were built in the early 1720s, not long after the Jacobite rebellion of 1715.

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The Jacobite movement aimed to restore the Catholic House of Stuart

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to the throne, but the Jacobite Highlanders

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were also fighting to defend the old clan system from the intrusion of a London-based government.

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It was from Highlands that they launched a number of rebellions, the most spectacular being in 1715.

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And the last one, in many ways the most successful one,

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being the one that started in 1745

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when a Highland army led by a Stuart Prince,

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famously known as Bonnie Prince Charlie,

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marched south out of the Highlands,

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conquered Scotland by capturing Edinburgh, and then towards the end of 1745,

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invaded England and got, by the beginning of December 1745,

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got as far south as Derby, about 120 miles from London.

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That really terrified the British establishment, the Government of the day.

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And it's around that sort of incursion,

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that rebellious activity in the Highlands, the notion of Highlands as reservoir of rebels

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and dangerous people of that kind, it's around all of that

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that you get the push to establish garrisons here,

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construct roads, generally subject the area to effective British control, British rule.

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Was it a success? Were the barracks a successful place to be stationed?

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I think militarily they weren't a success at all.

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They were built after one rebellion

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in order to prevent another one and manifestly they didn't

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because another rebellion followed 20, 30 years later.

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In fact, the roads which were intended to allow the British army to move rapidly into the Highlands

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were used very effectively by the Jacobite army to move very rapidly out of the Highlands.

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And to conquer Scotland in an astonishingly short space of time.

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From a military point of view, they weren't a success.

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We've seen in more recent conflicts how difficult it is

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for a military force to establish control over a wild mountainous area.

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Just as in Afghanistan in current times,

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in the Highlands 200, 300 years ago it was very difficult to do that.

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What changed this area from being that lawless, clan wilderness

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into being more sophisticated?

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It began to change radically in the later part of the 18th century,

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after the last Jacobite rebellion in 1745, 1746

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had been definitively crushed at the Battle of Culloden, about 100 miles east of here.

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The old society then began to fall apart.

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The former clan chiefs gradually evolved into landlords

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that began treating their land as a commercial asset.

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Sheep farming was introduced on a very large scale

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and part of what was associated with that

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was the removal of very large numbers of people who were being evicted

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to make way for the new sheep farms.

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The area was comprehensively depopulated.

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Once the old Highland culture was broken,

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there was little need for the army to remain here and the barracks were abandoned.

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The last people to use them were victims of the Highland Clearances, families seeking shelter

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after being forcibly evicted from their land to make way for sheep.

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Where are we with Highlands right now?

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If your equivalent is standing here in 100 years' time, how will he reflect on this period of history?

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I think it will be seen as a period of remarkable change.

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For many decades, for the better part of 200 years,

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the Highlands were an area where people were leaving,

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either for overseas or to cities in the south.

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But we have seen in the last 20, 30 years a reversal of that pattern.

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I would think and hope that if we were to be able to come here 100 years from now,

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we would see a place that was flourishing.

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The next stage of my journey

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takes me briefly south then east at a fork in the road.

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I'm heading into Glen Beag, a dead-end, which is slightly unusual for Harold.

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But what I find there makes it worth it.

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These amazing structures are known as brochs.

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The word comes from Old Norse and means "a fortification".

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Although in ruins, these erections are the two finest brochs on the mainland of Scotland.

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The lower broch has a wall 11ft thick and 30ft in height

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despite some 7ft in masonry having been taken when the Bernera Barracks were built.

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Hundreds of these dry stone towers were constructed during the Iron Age,

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but the people who built them and why they built them are shrouded in mystery.

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Playwright and local broch enthusiast Eddie Stiven tells me more.

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This is some structure!

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Who built it? What was it used for?

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They were built about 2,000 years ago, which would tend to mean it they were built

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by the people who were here before the Scots got here,

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who people generally refer to,

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and certainly the Romans referred to them, as the Picts.

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The painted people.

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They were partly Celtic, partly indigenous,

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they are a bit of a mystery.

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It is a bit of a mystery why they built these buildings here.

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I think way you get more information about the people

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at that time is the information in the legendary material that was written and handed on orally.

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A lot of that has been recorded both in Ireland and in the Highlands of Scotland.

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There are two main cycles,

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and they speak about warrior queens in this area.

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There is a cycle which is usually called the Ulster Cycle.

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And in that set of stories, the boy hero of Ulster, who is called Cu Chulainn,

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he came to Skye across the water for his training in arms

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from a wonderfully named warrior queen, Scathach.

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The shadowy one.

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And she taught him what I guess was early Celtic martial-arts training,

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according to the legends.

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And she, in turn, had an enmity with a warrior queen who lived on the mainland and, who knows,

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it may have been here.

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The stories of warrior queens led to much speculation about Pictish society,

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but one thing is clear - they must have been a skilful and determined people

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to build such advanced and puzzling structures.

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These walls are hollow, intramural galleries going all the way up.

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I believe there is an engineering reason for that

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because it keeps the structure lightweight.

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If it were to be built of solid stone, it would collapse under its own weight.

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The hollow walls contain stone staircases, and inside each broch

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there may have been several wooden floors or platforms.

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As you can see, there are ledges, or scarcements, they call them,

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which would have perhaps taken a floor here,

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and right up the top you can see another one, maybe an observation gallery floor

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that you could look over the top from.

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There are several hundred of these brochs scattered across Scotland

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in all sorts of locations, but that variety and number

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simply adds to the mystery of why they were built.

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Do you think this was a defensive structure?

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It may have been, it may have been in defence of attacks

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from other tribes living locally.

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So, there was no major outside threat

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that this society was defending against.

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But the most common theory these days is they were built for status.

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You know, "This is what I can build, this is my house," and show off a bit.

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When you consider that in the rest of the British Isles at that time

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outside of the classical buildings built by the Romans,

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everybody else was living in fairly simple rude huts,

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this is a pretty impressive structure for its age.

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Strongholds, dwellings, status symbols or simply shelter from the harsh winter weather,

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whatever these brochs were used for, the people who built them must have been a force to be reckoned with.

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No wonder the Romans didn't make it this far north.

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Though, if they had, their road-building skills would have been welcome.

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Because of the remoteness of the North West Highlands,

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it is as well to go prepared for mechanical and tyre trouble.

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A few spare spokes, plenty of repair material

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for covers and tubes, even spare cotters and brake blocks, are all advisable.

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It says much for the reliability of the modern lightweight bicycle

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that it stands up to the rough hammering of Highland roads.

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Harold mentions in his book that there are no smooth roads round here at all.

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He would love this.

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Cyclists' paradise, brand new tarmac.

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Retracing my tracks west down Glen Beag,

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I turn left again at the coast, heading southwards.

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Then it's on to high ground on the headland of Sandaig

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as the road sweeps past the edge of the cliffs

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to reveal some breathtaking views across the Sound of Sleat.

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The road is rough and in all the nine miles there are only two farms,

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the roadmender's house at Shantaig and the shoreside farm of Rarsaidh.

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What Harold would not have known about, because it was hidden from view,

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was a cottage down on the bay that would soon become one of the most famous places

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in this part of Scotland thanks to the arrival of two outsiders,

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the naturalist Gavin Maxwell and his otter who he brought from Iraq.

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Maxwell was the author of the highly influential book Ring of Bright Water,

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which made him and his otters unforgettable.

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Gavin Maxwell was a remarkable figure - one-time explorer, special agent and even shark hunter!

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He moved here to a house that was known in his books as Camusfearna.

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And helping to care for the otters that were his passion was a young Londoner

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who would later become a famous naturalist and television presenter.

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To hear more about their extraordinary lives here, I'm meeting up with Terry Nutkins,

0:23:570:24:01

who's agreed to show me where he and Gavin Maxwell and Edal the otter once lived.

0:24:010:24:07

-Right, Clare. So, here is your first view of Camusfearna.

-And that is where the house was, down there.

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Just to the right of that telegraph pole is where we lived and that is where Gavin Maxwell is buried.

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Maxwell chose this place for its remoteness and isolation - even now, it's still a tricky spot to get to.

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Who needs a bridge?!

0:24:290:24:32

This is it.

0:24:320:24:34

This is where the house stood that we lived in at Camusfearna.

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Of course, Gavin Maxwell, Gavin Maxwell's ashes are below this stone.

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This is where the house stood.

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Now, the stone's in this position quite literally because Gavin Maxwell's desk was here.

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And this is where he sat and wrote Ring of Bright Water and the trilogy and the life of the otters.

0:24:520:24:58

Absolutely. On this very spot.

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It was a masterpiece. It was beautifully written.

0:25:010:25:05

Um... It inspired people,

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especially people that lived in places like London and Manchester, to come and see wildlife.

0:25:100:25:15

And it was all there.

0:25:150:25:17

It's on our doorstep, really. It is only Scotland.

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It was quite an adventure for a young boy who was born

0:25:200:25:24

in the middle of London, in Marylebone, overlooking a railway station.

0:25:240:25:29

It was quite incredible to come from that concrete jungle into this wilderness.

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He may have left behind the noise, the people and the pollution, but also gone were the comforts of life.

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We didn't have electricity, we didn't have running water, as such.

0:25:410:25:45

We had paraffin lamps and Tilley lamps, and that is how we lived.

0:25:450:25:49

It was a very different lifestyle. I loved it.

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But, as Terry found out, adventure and danger go hand in hand.

0:25:520:25:58

Edal, the otter, bit these two fingers off.

0:25:580:26:01

She attacked me and it took me quite a while to get away from her,

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but when I did get away from her, I found my hands were like mincemeat,

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they had been torn to shreds.

0:26:080:26:10

Did that change your relationship with otters?

0:26:100:26:13

You don't keep an otter as a household pet.

0:26:130:26:16

That is one thing Gavin learned and we all learnt - they are not domestic dogs or domestic animals.

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And they are unpredictable, being wild animals.

0:26:200:26:24

Maxwell's remote existence with the otters had captured the public imagination,

0:26:240:26:30

but the popularity of the book shattered the dream.

0:26:300:26:33

Maxwell was suddenly famous, and even this place offered no escape.

0:26:330:26:38

He couldn't cope with it. He was not a strong man that way.

0:26:380:26:41

So, he could not deal with it, but he did not want anyone to know that. So he started drinking more.

0:26:410:26:46

He started smoking more.

0:26:460:26:47

And the pressures became more because we started spending more money.

0:26:470:26:52

And next thing, agent on the phone - "You have to write a sequel. We're broke."

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So, he wrote The Rocks Remain, the sequel to Ring of Bright Water, which was a disaster

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because it was written in a hurry.

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And it didn't have the same beauty,

0:27:050:27:08

the same anything, as Ring of Bright Water.

0:27:080:27:10

But that was the beginning of the end, really.

0:27:100:27:13

One night in 1968, Camusfearna burned to the ground.

0:27:140:27:19

Maxwell escaped, but Edal the otter died in the fire.

0:27:190:27:23

It was all very sad and Gavin... was devastated by it.

0:27:230:27:30

Because this is the place he loved, this was his Ring of Bright Water.

0:27:300:27:34

This was his haven.

0:27:340:27:37

Harold's route has taken me to the edge of the mainland,

0:27:440:27:47

the gateway to Skye along the military road that brought troops both in and out,

0:27:470:27:52

past the mysterious ruined brochs and down to the remote place

0:27:520:27:57

where one writer brought millions of people closer to nature

0:27:570:28:01

and encouraged them to experience the great outdoors.

0:28:010:28:04

Harold would have approved.

0:28:040:28:07

We have seen throughout this journey how outsiders have come in,

0:28:070:28:11

and whether it's 18th century invaders or Sitka spruces,

0:28:110:28:14

they found it hard to leave and they've changed the look of the landscape,

0:28:140:28:19

but they haven't changed its essential soul, its nature.

0:28:190:28:22

This is still a wild and remote part of Scotland.

0:28:220:28:26

Thoroughly worth the effort of getting here, hard to get to - and pretty hard to leave as well.

0:28:260:28:32

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:390:28:42

E-mail [email protected]

0:28:420:28:45

Clare Balding's two-wheeled odyssey to re-discover Britain by bicycle hits the Scottish Highlands, uncovering a series of vivid human stories connected to this stunning landscape.

Clare is following the wheeltracks of compulsive cyclist and author Harold Briercliffe, whose evocative guide books of the late 1940s painted a picture of by-passed Britain - a world of unspoiled villages, cycle touring clubs and sunny B-roads.

Carrying a set of Harold's Cycling Touring Guides for company and riding his very own bicycle, Clare goes in search of the world he described and charts how a series of incomers have changed our view of the Highlands - a diverse group which includes Dr Johnson, an English army of occupation, a North American spruce tree and author Gavin Maxwell, plus otter.

And for those wondering whatever happened to TV naturalist Terry Nutkins, the answer is revealed.