First of two Adventure Show specials in which Cameron McNeish undertakes a 150-mile journey through some of the least visited parts of Scotland.
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I'm about to embark on a brand-new journey.
A journey rich in history from the very earliest times.
I want to combine elemental seascapes and coastlines
with some of the most remote
and least-visited mountain summits in the country.
And all of it under these great domed skies,
some of the widest and most open skies you'll find
anywhere on the planet.
This really is a journey of discovery.
I'll be travelling through a landscape
that resonates with our culture and history.
This is where you can unearth the forces
that shape the people we are today.
For the past four decades and more,
I've been exploring this wonderful land of ours
and in that time I've realised
there is always somewhere new to visit and something new to learn.
So I hope you'll join me as I once again start out
on foot, on bike and with my beloved campervan
along more of our roads less travelled.
Over the years I've spent an inordinate amount of time
exploring the glorious landscapes of the Western Highlands and islands.
But this time I thought I'd come east
and I'm starting this journey of discovery in Sutherland,
just north of Dornoch Point.
And what a fantastic start to a walk this is.
OK, I know there's no steep-sided jaggy-topped mountains,
but there's a wonderful sense of spaciousness,
as though you could just walk on and on for ever.
It's like the call of the open road.
And it's a curious thing,
but over the years I've come to love being in landscapes like this
almost as much as I love being in amongst the high mountains.
I'll be using a variety of modes of transport on this journey
as I explore some of the hidden corners of northern Scotland,
those places well away from the normal tourist trails.
And this is one of them.
This is Dornoch airstrip,
the smallest airstrip in Scotland.
So I don't really expect too many international flights
to be landing here.
Having said that, in the 1930s,
this place was a hive of activity, and during the Second World War,
as you can well imagine, it was well used.
The Civil Aviation Act has some really weird rules.
It says no kite flying, and I get that, that's fine.
But down here it says,
"You must obtain permission before dropping objects
"such as teddy bears, sweets, etc."
I mean, what sort of eejit would bring a teddy bear to an airstrip?
Well, me, I guess.
But I promise you, young Archibald will not be coming with me
for the whole of my journey.
This year I really am on roads less travelled.
My route follows Sutherland's east coast
before entering the wild open spaces
and remote Flow Country of Caithness.
From there, I'm crossing the water
to the Orkney Islands.
And what an expedition that will be.
South Ronaldsay, Rousay and Sandy,
before finishing my journey
at the furthest tip of this archipelago on North Ronaldsay.
This should be another fantastic trip
and I hope you'll be with me every step of the way.
Normally I like to get going immediately,
try and get a few miles under my belt right away,
but today I'm going to linger for just a wee while
because there's a place along the road here
with some really interesting things I just want to check out.
I'm spending a few hours in Dornoch.
This town is famous for its cathedral and golf course,
but the Dornoch we see today is very different
from how the town used to look.
Once, many people lived in rudimentary dwellings
and their lives were based on the land.
All that came to an end
when the Countess of Sutherland began a programme of radical change.
Local historian Anne Coombs remembers events of 200 years ago.
This is Little Town.
It came into being
at the time of the Duchess Countess of Sutherland,
who cleared the centre of Dornoch of its turf, its feel houses -
a name for a turf house with a turf wall and turf roof.
And these people were cleared from the centre of Dornoch
and given these stone houses out on the outskirts.
You would consider it probably quite a good thing to move people
from turf houses to solid stone-built houses.
Yes. I think these days, we would be quite grateful,
but they're changing their whole way of life,
their whole sense of belonging is being transferred
and they were kind of expected to suddenly become...fishermen.
But, of course, Dornoch hasn't got a harbour
and never will have a harbour.
It's just not the right kind of coastline for it.
So this potential fishing village never happened.
But then we've got these lovely,
typical, Dornoch honey-coloured stone houses.
You know, I've only ever sort of travelled through Dornoch.
You know, I've visited it in passing and don't really know it very well,
but there's a lovely feel of it not being modern.
Yes, it would have been planned in the medieval period
because you've got the burgage plots going out that way.
What are burgage plots?
It's a way of dividing up the land.
You would have a house at the public end
facing into the high street
and then behind it an area of land.
I think it's 26 feet and 9 inches,
the width is something bizarre,
it's a very definite amount.
Isn't there something in the churchyard used for measuring?
Is that that connected with that?
Yes, because if you were a borough, you could have markets,
and of course, here, it was an ecclesiastical borough
and so the church could take a little bit of,
shall we say, tax from anybody who had a store in the market.
So where is this measuring stone?
It's just over here.
Oh, right, OK.
The Plaiden Ell.
So how would this work? How would you measure things with this?
Well, you've got these two metal stobs here
and that would give you the measurement
between here and here.
So that is an ell.
The ell had the church as its guarantee.
If you made a deal within the sight of this, of the church,
then it was binding.
It just added to the guarantee, I think.
And, of course, the notorious side of this town
is you burnt the last witch in Scotland.
Yes, I'm afraid we did.
Poor Janet Horne. She came from further north, near Helmsdale.
She had been a lady's maid in her youth
and so probably had a few airs and graces
that just annoyed the neighbours and she was accused of witchcraft.
She had a daughter who had a club foot
and she was supposed to cast spells on the animals
and that sort of thing, and eventually she was brought
to the ecclesiastical court that still ran in those days,
the very early 1700s, and they convicted her,
took her down to the shore,
covered her in tar and feathers and then burnt her.
By the time this happened, she probably was an old woman
and slightly suffering from what we would call dementia.
We've improved since then, vastly.
We welcome everybody.
And that's a message for all of us,
as I've got one more place I must visit
before getting some miles under my belt.
This wooden building behind me here
is another part of Dornoch's history.
It's the old Dornoch railway station.
In 1902, the Dornoch Light Railway was created
and it linked the town of Dornoch and the village of Embo
with the main Inverness to Wick railway line.
Just as people used that link to go south,
that railway line brought people from the south to Dornoch
and lots of people came here to enjoy the golf,
to use the nice new hotels that had been built around the golf courses,
to enjoy the beach.
And, really, that railway line put Dornoch
very firmly on the tourist map.
I'm following the old railway,
and today, it's a lovely footpath.
And it's a path that falls within my philosophy of roads less travelled.
And that's a philosophy borrowed from the American poet Robert Frost
who once wrote, "Two paths diverged in a wood and I,
"I took the path less travelled by."
I really like that.
I'm approaching the former fishing village of Embo
and it's a wee village forever associated with
the old music hall song Granny's Heilan' Hame.
# In the shadow of Ben Bhraggie
# By Golspie's lordly stane
# How I wish that I could see
# My granny's heilan' hame. #
I know, I know, it's all kind of sugary sweet,
but it was written by an Embo lad who had to leave this area
to go and find work in the south.
His name was Sandy McFarlane.
And I think Granny's Heilan' Hame is a kind of metaphor
for that place of longing,
that place you've had to leave behind.
It's a song of the emigrant.
That's been a really pleasant three-mile stroll
along the old railway line from Dornoch.
The railway line itself closed in 1960
when car ownership became much more widespread
and the railway line itself became less and less profitable.
But in its heyday, it was a vital link for Embo.
A lot of the womenfolk here were herring gutters
and they used the railway line to get down
to the big herring ports of England where they could earn enough money
to send back for their often struggling families.
In 1988, this village declared itself
independent from the rest of the UK for one day,
for charity purposes.
They also introduced their own currency.
You got two cuddies to a pound.
But the only place you could spend these cuddies was in the local pub,
where you got a dram of the local malt whisky for a cuddie.
So 50 pence for a dram of whisky, declaring itself independent...
I think Embo is my kind of village.
On this journey I want to visit some of those places that,
for various reasons, I have ignored in the past
and the campervan is an ideal way
of exploring Scotland's roads less travelled.
At the moment I'm heading north to a rather special place.
It's a place that's normally teeming with wildlife.
I've just arrived on the shores of Loch Fleet,
which is the most northerly estuary on the east coast of Scotland,
and it's really a great big tidal basin surrounded by salt marsh,
sand dunes and pine woods.
So, as you can imagine, it's a wonderful place for wildlife,
particularly birds - waders and migrants.
And also common seals.
We quite often get common seals at low tide
coming up and sunning themselves on the sandbanks.
That's just amazing.
It's like seal city out there.
I love seals.
I just love the folklore of seals, the stories of the selkies,
the seal people who cast their sealskin
and come ashore and take lovers,
and take them back out to the deep.
I've just driven 10 miles round Loch Fleet to the northern shore,
a journey that, 200 years ago, would only have taken a few minutes,
because there used to be a ferry running across here.
But you can see the fast tide race,
and that tide race caused quite a number of accidents.
And it was decided to take the road right round Loch Fleet,
crossing a causeway at the far western end.
And that's resulted in this tiny little hamlet here,
appropriately called Little Ferry, becoming a haven of tranquillity.
It's peaceful, it's quiet.
It's a beautiful place where ornithologists come
to enjoy the wildfowl.
It's hard to imagine that 200 years ago,
this would have been a busy, bustling,
thriving little ferry port.
This very road that I'm walking on
would have been full of horses and carts and cows and sheep and dogs,
all kinds of travellers.
There was a ferryman's house here.
There was a pilot's house, there was a custom house.
There were three stores for fish, there was an ice house,
there was a shop and there was an inn.
And it seems that today, nature has reclaimed Little Ferry.
Peace has returned.
As I've wandered up this eastern coastline from Dornoch,
one mountain dominates the skyline - Ben Bhraggie.
So I can't resist climbing it.
And I've got good company, too -
Rob Gibson was an MSP until he retired earlier this year
after representing this area for more than a decade.
It's a part of Scotland he's passionate about.
He started his career as a geography teacher at nearby Alness,
so he's an ideal person to tell me more about this landscape,
including the Big Burn gorge, where our walk starts.
It's been gouged out by the great rivers
that were created at the end of the ice age.
It's an amazing walk because you can traverse
from one side to the other on bridges that have been built
and the falls are spectacular.
And I think that, because of the trees
and the overhanging vegetation,
it's got that feeling of being hidden.
I started this particular journey just south of Dornoch
and I haven't travelled very far yet,
just really as far as Golspie,
but already I have an impression that this part of Scotland
is perhaps more affluent than, say, the west.
Would that be a fair assumption?
Not entirely. The west is certainly made up of small communities
where there is crofting, and when crofting was created,
it held some population, they're scattered.
These small villages and towns on the east coast
were also the product of the Clearances,
because people from near to here were shovelled off the land
and into villages,
but the purpose of these villages now is more commuter,
so there's got to be a very different way
of thinking about this place to bring back life to here
as much as it is to the west.
Now, you were brought up in Glasgow.
What brought you to this part of the north-east Highlands?
Well, I looked at the top of Craigpark towards the Campsies.
And I looked across towards the other hills and I thought,
"I want to be up in those places."
And I wanted to work in the Highlands, in particular,
because the Highlands and Islands Development Board
had just been taking off
with the idea of repopulating this area.
New lights shining in the glen,
as had been said about Assynt much, much later.
And I believe that's what drew me to come here in the first place.
Oh, it's warm. It's lovely.
It's quite interesting - like me, you're a hill walker,
and many of our ilk don't really want to see
anybody else on the hills, we want to keep them,
as we think, pristine.
But your stance has always been getting people in the glens.
Yes, well, I always remember walking near the Cobbler
when I was a school kid and I saw these ruins there, of houses,
and I wanted to know why they were ruined.
And the fact of walking in the hills was something which allowed me
to see the country and to see what had been made of it
because, like Frank Fraser Darling says,
it's a wet desert and it's been a man-made wet desert.
And the fact that the environment has been degraded
has meant that the humans who used to live in it
couldn't live in it as it is now.
What do you think Frank Fraser Darling
meant by that term "wet desert"?
Well, I think he meant that it is a temperate,
nearly subarctic area with a lot of rain.
But he saw that in land that had previously been grazed,
people were not using it in a balanced way
and he saw the huge shooting estates and the great sheep farms
of the previous era as something that had degraded that.
Indeed, Patrick Sellar,
the great developer of parts of central Sutherland,
saw, after 20 years, the degradation of the land
that he'd relied on to make a profit.
The land that had been tilled in the glens by people for 5,000 years
had been destroyed as a landscape in 30.
We've come on today's walk
both to reach the summit of Ben Bhraggie
and to get a close-up view of the Duke of Sutherland's statue.
The Duke of Sutherland was responsible for clearing families
from vast areas of the surrounding countryside.
Some people have campaigned for the removal of this monument.
So how does Rob feel about such a controversial landmark
dominating the village of Golspie?
Unfortunate, I think,
but local people think it's part of their landscape.
"It gives a look to the place," somebody said.
For me, I recognise that many people see it as a symbol of oppression
and I think that the more we actually teach
about these things in our schools,
it will remind people exactly how that oppression took place
and why it should never be allowed to happen again.
I've been a part of movements
that thought it should be removed in the past,
but we are where we are, and I think that with the fact that it's there,
and with the knowledge that we're much more confident now
to deal with issues surrounding land,
that it becomes something that you can then put in its place,
put it in its historic context and say,
"These times were bad, but they're never coming back."
Well, Rob, I guess the way it's blowing today,
we might not have to worry about toppling the statue.
Well, I guess that might well be the case,
but in 1838, when they were building it,
the scaffolding was blown down,
and some of these blocks are three tonnes in weight,
so we're dealing with something that would be quite difficult to move.
Despite the statue here,
we're actually at the top of Ben Bhraggie.
What's the sort of feeling you get
when you get to the top of any summit?
Well, it's a great view and it's super to be able to manage
up to hills like this with the surroundings in which we are.
This part of the world is so good to be in.
Do you think you'll ever tire of views like this?
Never. I think the answer is that
when you get to a hill like this and you look at the history
and the potential round about,
you think, "This is the place to be."
After only a couple of days, I think I'm getting acclimatised
to this north-east corner of Scotland.
OK, there might not be giant mountains
to look at and admire,
but there are mile upon miles of golden beaches,
some of the best beaches I've seen anywhere.
And there are some pretty good campsites too.
My preference would normally be to camp wild,
but when you've got a good campsite, nice hot showers,
well, you grab that opportunity just when you can.
Any good walk can be enhanced
by having somewhere comfortable to spend the night afterwards.
See you tomorrow.
While I love to drive around the Highlands and Islands
in my campervan, it really is only a means to an end
and what I really enjoy is getting out of the van, leaving it behind
and going for a long walk or cycle run.
And this is a really good example of that.
It's a fantastic stretch of coastline
between the former fishing village of Golspie
and the lovely little seaside town of Brora,
formerly a thriving centre of industry.
And make sure you close the gate behind you!
Have a look at that.
You won't see many of those in your average coastal walk.
This is Dunrobin Castle,
the family home of the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland.
Many people would claim
this is the grandest house in the North of Scotland,
but I think in this context,
the word "house" is a bit of a major understatement.
It certainly looks like something out of a Disney fairy-tale.
It's very, very grand and it brings lots of tourists
into this part of Scotland by the busload.
But I'm not altogether sure of what I think of it, personally.
For me, it's a sort of statement of wealth and privilege.
Anyway, that's Dunrobin.
I'm not DONE ROVING, and I'd better watch the clock
because I've still got a few miles to go.
I've spent most of my life climbing mountains
and it's only in recent times that I've began to appreciate the joys,
the delights, of coastal walking.
And I've wandered along this coast between Golspie and Brora,
just trying to get it clear in my head what those joys actually are.
I think there's a number of things, but I can think of two immediately.
One is the smell and the scent of the coast.
You've got this lovely salt tang from the water
and the nice smells of the seaweed.
But on another level, which I think is probably more fundamental,
is the continuous music of the sea
and it's in different layers.
On one level, you've got this marvellous sound of birds,
this joyous outpouring of the skylark
mixed with the raucous call of the gulls
or the piercing shrieks of the oystercatchers,
or that lovely cooing melody, that chorus of the eider ducks.
And all that is underpinned by this pulsing rhythm of the sea itself.
It's almost like a bass booming of the surf as it breaks on the shore,
and I really don't think there's any need for a set of earplugs
and a personal music player.
I've arrived in Brora.
This looks like a really sleepy little village,
but at one time, it was the major industrial site in Sutherland.
It had one of the first coal mines in Scotland
and it had a great big quarry,
the rock from which built Dunrobin Castle,
London Bridge and Liverpool Cathedral,
but it also had a brick works, a distillery and a woollen mill.
Indeed, it was because of the woollen industry
that Brora became the first town
in the north of Scotland to get electricity,
and for a while, it was known throughout the Highlands
as Electric City - how cool is that?
One of the big advantages of being in the east coast of Scotland
is the public transport system.
I can enjoy my walk and then get back to my campervan in Golspie
by simply jumping on a bus or catching a train.
I can't always take the roads less travelled
and for a few miles, I'm on the A9.
This is a road I know well. I've often driven this way
and I cycled along it
on my Land's End to John O'Groats bike ride.
But in the past, I've always had to keep to a tight schedule.
This time, I don't.
I've passed through Helmsdale numerous times over the years,
but I've never actually stopped and lingered here
for any length of time, so I want to rectify that,
because Helmsdale is not only
an attractive little seaside village,
but it also has some strong historical links.
Unlike many of the harbours on Scotland's coastline,
this is still a real place of work.
At one time, it was one of the principal herring ports
on the whole of Scotland's coastline,
and even today, you'll get fishing boats
tied up alongside the leisure craft.
Here in the pier, there's plenty of creels, fish crates,
all sorts of things which suggest
that Helmsdale still has a strong connection with the sea.
There's one place in particular I'm quite keen to visit.
It started life about 30 years ago as a small heritage centre,
but in that time, it's transformed itself
into an award-winning social and cultural hub,
an integral part of this small but vibrant northern community.
What makes the Timespan Museum highly unusual is
its work isn't rooted within the four walls of the building,
but has spread out to encompass the surrounding area.
Its director is Anna Vermehren.
Originally from Germany,
she's lived in Scotland for the last 15 years.
She's become a passionate advocate for this part of the country
and why it deserves to be better known.
It's brilliant living here. The stunning views over the sea
to the Moray coast and to Aberdeenshire,
but also the hills behind,
it's just magical.
Look at the view. You can see Morven from here
and the escarpments and Maiden Pap.
It's really just the border to Caithness.
We've come a couple of miles north-west of Helmsdale
into the Strath of Kildonan.
Recently the museum coordinated a community-led project
to excavate the former township of Caen.
Once, over 1,500 people lived in this glen,
but along with the other settlements,
this village was cleared in the early part of the 19th century.
Today, these remains are all that are left.
We're looking at a longhouse right in front of us
and you can see how long it actually is.
This is the longhouse which we excavated in 2013.
This part was where the people lived,
a hearth here pretty much in the middle,
which we were quite astonished about,
because usually you would have a hearth further, at the end,
and then here at the end is cobbled flooring,
which means that probably,
the animals were down here at this end.
These houses were probably not as old as other longhouses
that you can find in the Strath.
Longhouses really came from the Vikings,
the design of the longhouse, and were then adapted over time.
But these ones here were probably built
not long before the Clearances.
It must have been a life that was pretty busy.
Yes, probably pretty busy, but you also would have had
long, dark winters and time around the fire.
I mean, we know of very vivid
musical and storytelling traditions of that time.
So, yes, I do think that people had time too.
Sitting in the long, dark nights,
singing some songs, drinking whisky.
Yeah, maybe a slightly romanticised idea of what it was like.
Probably the most prominent and interesting item that we found
was a still, and we like to believe it was an illicit still,
which was found in the barn just over there.
OK, what else can we see?
We can see a corn-drying kiln.
It was a very special place for a township
because it was warm and people gathered here
with the fire underneath and a layer of probably bracken
and other things to put the corn on top to dry it out for the winter
so that it would keep.
There are also numerous stories
of young people going into the corn-drying kiln,
having a bit of private time there.
How important was the settlement?
We know it went back over a long, long period of time,
but how important was this particular place?
I think, overall, these places generally are really important
because you can see how people must have lived here
and it's something that you don't see elsewhere.
So Sutherland, and especially the Strath of Kildonan,
gives you this opportunity
to see the footings of the houses in the landscape,
while elsewhere, the evidence of people living in the land
has actually gone through agricultural practices
and taking these footings out of the ground.
Are you aware of anything similar that happened in the rest of Europe?
Looking at the landscape in Germany, where I'm from, north of Hamburg,
near Kiel, the industrialisation really disrupted
the agricultural system there in the early 1900s,
where big farms were getting bigger and bigger
through more industrial production,
and people had to leave the land
and move into different sectors and move into the cities.
And I think it's a really important thing to preserve,
to have for future generations,
to come and actually see this evidence of people living here.
Although I'm still in Sutherland, psychologically,
this feels a long way from the start of my journey at Dornoch.
Now I'm moving into wilder terrain,
and shortly I'll be entering
the vast, open landscapes of Caithness.
This will be a journey of discovery for me,
all the way up to the north coast at Gills Bay.
But before all that,
there's one thing I really must try my hand at.
You never know, this could change my fortunes forever.
In 1868, a man by the name of Robert Nelson Gilchrist
came back to Scotland
after spending six years in Australia as a gold prospector.
When he arrived home, he thought he'd try his hand
in the Helmsdale River
and, lo and behold, found a rather large nugget of gold.
The story soon spread, local newspapers carried it,
as did the London Illustrated News.
And as a result, over 600 hopeful prospectors landed here at Kildonan.
The event soon became known as the Kildonan Gold Rush.
With all these people arriving on a fairly remote part of Sutherland,
it wasn't long before a village appeared.
There were huts, there were tents, there was even a saloon bar,
and the whole area became known as the Baile an Or,
or "the township of gold".
But the boom didn't last long.
Not very many of the men made it rich
and, gradually, the prospectors vanished off on other adventures.
Today, the ubiquitous bracken has largely staked its claim
on what was once this village of gold.
You will have heard of fool's gold - well, I'm the fool who's tempted
into searching for gold in the burn here.
I've got my gold panning kit with me.
I've got the pan, I've got a little pair of tweezers,
just in case I see something goldish
sparkling in the stuff that I bring up,
and I've got a magnifying glass.
And you can tell I'm not hopeful of finding something very big.
So let's give it a go, shall we?
Now, I hope you realise that if I strike gold,
that will be the end of the programme.
Your screen will just go blank.
I think I've struck lucky.
Only kidding. I've still got a lot of travelling to do.
Leaving the riches of the river behind me,
I've come further up the Strath to the remote moors above Forsinard.
This landscape hasn't the obvious beauty of the coast
or the rugged mountains further west,
but don't let that deceive you.
People who live and work here are passionate about it,
and with good reason.
I love these vast open spaces. Up here, you can see
great distances and it's brilliant when you're walking around here.
You feel as if you're in a really remote place.
Paul Turner spent five years as an IT trainer in Glasgow
before following his dreams of a career in conservation.
He now works for the RSPB
as they restore this part of the Flow Country
to its natural state.
The term Flow Country comes from the Norse word "floes",
which kind of means a wet place,
and you can see from the landscape it is a very wet place.
It's an area of undulating hills.
If you look at it on a map, it looks quite flat,
but the reality of it is there's lots of little hills and hillocks.
After the start of last Ice Age, a lot of it was sheared away
and then the climate was such that it kind of promoted sphagnum growth
and that sphagnum didn't really rot away,
but started to form peat, and so it becomes this carpet,
if you like, of blanket bog.
That's what makes it unique, is that sort of blanket bog.
I'm looking around here and it just seems a place of vast distances.
Can you give me an idea of the scale of this Flow Country?
The Forsinard reserve is 25 miles, roughly, from one end to the other.
If you were to lie that in the central belt of Scotland,
you're roughly stretching from the East End of Glasgow
to the west end of Edinburgh.
But the Flow Country itself is obviously much larger than that.
So it is, as you say, a vast landscape.
People of my generation will remember
there was a time when lots of celebrities were investing
in forests here in the Flow Country.
-Now, what was all that about?
Yeah, in the 1970s and '80s predominantly,
the government was offering tax incentives
for people that had large incomes to offset some of that
and basically it involved planting lots of non-native conifer trees
in the Flow Country which, for a lot of people,
was seen as a kind of vast wasteland that didn't really do very much,
it was very unproductive.
You can't really grow crops here,
you can't grow grass for grazing sheep and cattle particularly well,
there's no real place for industry in this kind of landscape,
so it was kind of seen as making at least something out of it.
So what created the mind-set change
that actually stopped this forestation
and then going on to the very opposite -
taking the trees out?
We now know that the peatlands are a great big store for carbon.
There's more carbon stored in the peat underneath these areas
than there is in all of the standing forestry in the UK,
so it's an incredibly important area,
both for combating climate change
and also for protecting the very special wildlife
that we find in this habitat.
What sort of timescales are we talking about here, Paul?
Because you know, in politics, for example,
we tend to work in five-year cycles.
You're right. Quite often, projects these days
are funded three years, five years, ten years.
The sphagnum and the peat growth that we have here in development
is around about a millimetre per year,
so to restore the damage that has been done,
we're looking at 50, 60 years plus, maybe over 100 years for some of it.
This is long-term conservation on a landscape scale.
I mean, you're working here in a vast, empty landscape.
Do you ever get lonely?
Vast, I would agree with.
Empty, wouldn't say so.
If you take time to look very closely at the landscape,
it's made up of lots of little things.
A lot of people will feel at home in cities
and come here and feel really alien and lost.
For me, it's the opposite way around.
Going to really busy, noisy, bustling cities,
I just feel out of my depth these days.
For me, this is home.
This landscape doesn't respect man-made boundaries.
I was in eastern Sutherland and have now entered Caithness.
But I'm still in the heart of the vast Flow Country.
I've left the campervan behind and jumped on a train to Altnabreac,
said to be the most remote railway station in Britain.
And, do you know what? I wouldn't argue with that.
It's got the feel of Rannoch station in the middle of the Rannoch Moor.
But you could take Rannoch Moor
and drop it into this Caithness Flow Country
and it would be swallowed up,
swallowed up by sheer emptiness.
And that's an idea that really appeals to me.
But make no mistake - empty or not,
this is an area that is justifiably proud of itself.
And how about that sign on the old school?
I think Washington DC should be honoured
to be twinned with Altnabreac DC.
The Caithness Flow Country is of international importance.
But very few of us get the opportunity to travel
through the very heart of it, and that's what I want to do today.
But a wee word of warning -
at Altnabreac railway station, there's a sign that says,
"You are now entering open and very remote countryside.
"Treat it as though you were climbing a mountain."
Anyone who is tempted to think of this landscape
as dull and monotonous is quite simply wrong,
and there's no better way to explore it than on two wheels.
This is a wonderful bike ride, one you can take at your own pace,
and you can stop and admire the superb view in every direction
and there's not a soul in sight.
But this wasn't always the case.
Once, there was an annual Highland Games
put on by the people who lived here.
Nearly all of those inhabitants have long gone.
But I'm about to meet someone
whose family has lived in these parts since the 17th century.
Lord John Thurso is the 14th laird,
a man whose varied career has included being a hotelier
and a Westminster MP.
Now he's chair of Visit Scotland.
He remembers growing up here in a different age.
If we start, say with Altnabreac, the station there, which really was
the heart of the community up here in many ways.
My father had turned Lochdubh into a hotel when I was six or seven,
and all the messages came up from Thurso -
the butcher meat, the papers, everything else.
So meeting the train every day was great fun
and the station master was Mr McMillan and if you were lucky,
if the workmen were there, you'd get a ride on the hurley
and all sorts of things like that.
But of course, later on,
it was the place we went off to boarding school from,
so not quite such nice memories cos that was the end of summer
and that was us off back to prison, as it were,
for the forthcoming few weeks.
-Do you live here permanently now?
I live in Thurso, in the family home there.
It's rather fun, I actually sleep in the bedroom that I was born in.
That's home. And then up here,
we came up here every summer at the beginning of August,
and my parents would stay until the beginning of November.
This is where, I guess, my father always felt his soul was.
And he's... Forgive me just a moment.
Daddy was a quite wonderful person and he's buried up here
and I... Every now and then, it just still catches me,
but his soul was up here and that's something he handed on to me
and it's something I've learned to love
and I've brought my children up here and they love it as well.
You're obviously deeply rooted here.
Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
This is my bit of Scotland.
This is the Scotland that I adore.
Do you have a reverence for this landscape?
Oh, total. The working life I've had, both in hotels
and then at Westminster, it's relatively high stress.
And you cannot be stressed if you are out there on the hill, you know,
you've spent three hours stalking in
to get the beast that needs to come off the ground.
Even when there's movement and wind and noise, there's a stillness.
And it's fabulous countryside to get to know in that way.
The other interesting thing is everybody thinks, oh, it's so huge,
you'd get lost in it,
and John Buchan's great mistake when he wrote The 39 Steps,
the number of times I've been up there with somebody and,
"Who's that down on the road?" And the spyglass comes out.
"Ah, that's the postie."
Or "I don't know that car. I wonder where they're going.
"Keep an eye on it." You can't move round here
without somebody somewhere with a glass.
So, all fugitives, please recognise that the Flow Country of Scotland
is not the place to come to.
So be warned - you're never alone,
even in this remote corner of Scotland.
I develop a strong relationship with the places I explore,
be it on foot or, like today, by bike.
But I'm just a traveller.
John also has the responsibilities that go with owning the land.
What I've learnt in my life is to go gently, to manage gently.
Man is very much a part of this landscape
and you shouldn't go cracking around with machinery
and you should take care and take time.
And the older I get and the more I get in tune with nature,
the more that appeals to me.
For me, the Flow Country of Caithness
is solitude and friendliness.
It's a space, but it's not intimidating.
It's wonderfully cool, but so warm.
It's just a joyous, glorious, world-class ecology.
It's a privilege to live here.
So I'm going to pause here for a moment or two
and let this landscape speak to me
in a way that it's spoken to the Thurso family for generations.
As someone who's predominantly a mountain person,
I've been rather surprised how much I've really enjoyed
travelling through the flat lands of the Caithness Flow Country.
I think it's maybe something to do with enjoying extremes.
I'm just about to head north now to hear a remarkable story
about some people who left this part of Scotland
to another land of extremes.
It's a story that I think will greatly surprise you.
Travelling through this northern part of the Scottish mainland,
it's clear that this land once supported far more people.
Today, we can enjoy walking through quiet countryside,
that once was a hive of activity.
So what happened to those that left?
That's the question Ian Leith, who lives nearby in Wick,
set out to answer.
He spent years uncovering the story of those local families
who were determined to seek out a new and hopefully better life
half a world away.
When you think about the conditions that existed
on many of the small crofts
in Caithness - large families, cramped conditions,
the oldest would probably inherit the croft,
and the other members of the family had to find their way in the world.
This was a period too
when the fishing industry had probably reached its peak,
so unemployment was a bit of a challenge.
So they found an opportunity through one man initially
that went out to Patagonia to follow and make their lives
in Patagonia as sheep farmers.
-Who was that man?
-His name was John Hamilton
and he was the son of a tailor, a clothier in Wick,
and he initially went out in 1880 to the Falkland Islands.
Wanted to buy some land in the Falklands,
but there was none available.
So he took the opportunity to do a short hop across
from the Falklands to Patagonia,
where the Argentine government, at that point in time,
were really encouraging and hoping
that people would begin to settle that area and start sheep farming.
And Hamilton, I think, saw the opportunity
and proved in later life to become quite an entrepreneur.
So was it a case of Hamilton getting in touch with friends,
relatives in Scotland, and saying,
"Come over here, there's a good opportunity for you."
Yes, Hamilton placed adverts in the local newspaper,
the John O'Groat Journal.
We found adverts in the 1890s advertising for local lads,
sheep farmers, to go across to farm on his estancias in Patagonia.
And it really kind of snowballed, I think, from that.
You know, when I was a youngster growing up,
there was certain place names that had this exotic sound to them
and I was never very sure whether they were real places or fictional.
Places like Kathmandu, Timbuktu. You know, people refer to Timbuktu,
but I never knew there was a real place.
Patagonia falls into that same category, doesn't it?
I think for a long time Patagonia was seen as something
that actually didn't exist.
The early explorers had gone out there and named it Patagonia,
but really it was all about giants
and not being able to survive in this strange place.
So I think it had a certain mystique in that respect
and I think that still exists.
That must have been a phenomenal journey in those days,
to go all the way from Caithness to the very tip of South America.
Well, they had to travel initially to Liverpool
and from there they would sail to Punta Arenas in southern Chile.
-How long would that take?
-It took seven weeks, initially.
When we were out in Patagonia, I had the good fortune to meet Bobby Bain,
who is the oldest of the second generation now.
And I asked him what did these guys do on these boats for seven weeks
and he said, "Well, the Bains liked to do wrestling."
Ian's research has led to a book - Caithness To Patagonia -
which documents the experience of many of those pioneers.
One of them was Angus MacPherson
who was closely connected to this village of Halkirk.
His story is particularly interesting from the fact that
when he went across there in 1899, I think it was,
he started to keep diaries of his feelings, more than anything.
And some of the entries were really quite harrowing.
He was in a desperate situation, he was lonely,
there was nobody else around him,
and just this waiting for the ship to come
and the hope that it might bring a letter,
might bring a newspaper from home.
I think the loneliness was the thing that came across mostly
from Angus's diaries and this urgent desire to be somewhere else.
This was not where he wanted to be.
Now, he was born and brought up in Caithness.
He was used to the flatness of Caithness,
but in Patagonia that flatness must have been
-on a completely different scale.
As somebody said, you can fit Caithness three times
into one of the estancias in Patagonia.
Did he travel on from there?
Yes, indeed, he did.
He wished that he could be somewhere else,
and Canada, he mentioned, was one of the places.
And eventually he did go to Canada.
He sold up in Patagonia and moved to Canada and established himself there
on a ranch in the Calgary area and then sold that and he built a house
here in Halkirk with the proceeds of that.
And, having spent a wee while here, he then decided to travel again
and, of course, where did he go?
He went back to Patagonia!
-Complete the circle!
And became a very successful and well-respected sheep farmer.
So we must be at the outer edges of Halkirk?
There's not much more after this.
-Ah, this is it.
Angus MacPherson built this house and when he had gone to Patagonia,
worked in the area called Esperanza.
It's a nice notion that there is this physical link
between this part of Caithness and Patagonia.
And you've produced this lovely book. Will you sign it for me?
-Of course I will. I'd be delighted.
Ian, it's been a pleasure to talk to you
and hear about this amazing story.
I had no idea there was such a close connection between this part
of north-east Scotland and the very, very south of South America.
Ian's tale is a fascinating one.
But sometimes it's too easy to assume that the whole history
of the Highlands was one of people leaving these shores,
or being forced to leave these shores.
And while people most certainly left Caithness to go elsewhere,
it's a place of contradictions.
Here at Castleton, only a few miles east of Thurso,
lie the remains of what was once a major and thriving industry.
It all began in the 19th century when a local landowner,
James Trail of Rattar, opened up a series of quarries on his land.
The next 20 years saw the mass extraction of Caithness flagstones.
A harbour was built here at Castleton
and these flagstones were exported to all corners of the Earth.
The industry reached its height in the early 20th century
and indeed 1902 was probably the best year ever,
when over 35,000 tonnes of flagstones were produced.
And they were worth somewhere in the region of
quarter of a million pounds - a huge amount of money in those days.
But by the end of the first decade of the 20th century,
cheap, concrete paving stones flooded the market.
The flagstone industry went into decline
and there was mass redundancy.
You'll find the legacy of the Caithness flagstone industry
all over the place. Indeed, here in Caithness,
you'll find the flagstones used as fencing, as paving stones,
as the facings on bridges, and here in the harbour.
And if you look carefully,
you'll find some in the Strand and in Euston Station in London.
I'm coming close to the end of the first leg of my journey
here in the far north-east of Scotland.
And in the spirit of roads less travelled,
I don't want to stop at the popular Dunnet Head,
which is the most northerly point on our mainland,
or the equally popular John O'Groats.
Instead, I'm following a very faint path,
no more than a sheep trod actually,
that's going to take me to a place that's very seldom visited,
a place that I think is pretty special.
This is St John's Point and I really like it because you get the feeling
that you could be miles and miles from anywhere.
And yet, there's lots of little knolls around
that suggest the existence of perhaps the ancient fort
that's hinted at in the Ordnance Survey map.
There was once a wee church here, which gave this place its name.
And just over the hill there,
there's a natural haven with a pier
that would have been used probably by lots of seafaring people.
But what I like most about this is this quite tangible spirit of place.
Like so many of the locations on this journey,
they're places that are today empty,
but which once resonated to the sounds of animals and people.
This is the Pentland Firth,
home to some of the fastest tide races in the world.
Some of the tides here have been recorded over 30km an hour.
And one of the biggest dangers here starts right down below me.
These almost submerged rocks lead right out into the channel,
and look at the turmoil they're creating.
They're known as the Merry Men of May.
And beyond them, beckoning me, lies Orkney,
and that's where I'm going next.
So I hope you'll join me for the second part of my journey
along Scotland's roads less travelled.
Scotland's best known outdoors man, Cameron McNeish, undertakes a 150-mile journey through some of the least visited parts of our country from the southern end of Sutherland to the northern tip of the Orkney islands.
Travelling on foot, by bike and with his beloved camper van, Cameron begins his journey in the cathedral town of Dornoch before heading up the eastern coast and into the remote flow country of Caithness.