Nick Crane Takes A Great Scottish Journey
Nick Crane is in wilderness heaven. Tramping across boggy moorland and harsh mountains in the Highlands, en route from Dundonnell to Loch Maree, the renowned geographer may be ankle-deep in mud and battling rain and wind but he can hardly conceal his boyish delight at his remote and stunningly beautiful surroundings.
In this article, published in The Herald, August 2007, Fiona Russell examines the man behind the BBC2 series Great Journeys.
“This is just fantastic,” opines Crane. “I love this feeling of being so far from urban life. It satisfies my cravings to find adventure and to explore new places.”
Crane may be treading a trail new to himself, but he is following in the footsteps of an eighteenth-century explorer and writer, Thomas Pennant.
“For Pennant, this 18-mile journey that I relish as thrilling and exciting in the 21st century then seemed more like utter madness,” explains Crane. “He described it as wild and very difficult despite travelling part way by horse and accompanied by locals familiar with the land. In the late 1700s he thought it a most frightening experience amid uncharted territory.”
Pennant is one of eight of Britain’s greatest but “somewhat uncelebrated” indigenous explorers about to be commemorated in a new BBC2 series, Great British Journeys. Travelling by foot, horse, bicycle, canoe and in a 1930s car, from the remotest parts of the Highlands to East Anglia, presenter Crane retraces the routes of pioneering travellers, each of whom published detailed records of their journeys, be they public chronicles or trailblazing travel guides for their time.
“My aim at the outset of these extraordinary journeys was to find out who it was that discovered Britain,” says Crane, a former presenter of Coast and Map Man. “I had been wondering for years about who these great travellers actually were, who it was that filled in the unmapped blanks on the British Isles.”
Crane chose the eight most significant travellers – which includes one woman, Celia Fiennes – from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries. “Each explorer had to have revealed Britain in a new way,” says Crane. “In some cases they were travelling to uncharted areas, such as Pennant’s tour of the Outer Hebridean islands and Highlands. Or they could be journeys that said something genuinely new, such as William Cobbett’s highly politicised writings, called Rural Rides, detailing a radical view of conditions in rustic southern England in the early 1800s.”
In his attempt to follow detailed accounts of the eight journeys, Crane finds himself at times questioning the accuracy of sources. In several cases explorers had omitted salient facts or romanticised a place. “Take HV Morton, one of the greatest travel writers ever, who managed to airbrush out the existence of a railway line from a view he describes in Dumfries and Galloway,” complains Crane.
Morton embarked on a long-distance excursion in 1933 from the south of Scotland to the north, subsequently producing the first travel guide for car owners.
“One can only imagine that the railway did not fit with his views of what he thought his middle-class readers should be told. He saw the train as transport for the masses, and a vehicle of disdain,” the presenter adds.
On several expeditions, too, Crane becomes lost or faces a detour because of a significant change in the landscape.
“It’s wonderful to jigsaw together the past and the modern day,” Crane says. “Thankfully these days we have aids, like detailed maps and electronic gadgets. Our cars go faster and our clothing is more resilient to changes in the weather. But when most of these travellers were embarking on their adventures, it would have been an entirely different proposition.”
Explorers of Scotland
Thomas Pennant (1726-1798)
A wealthy Welshman, Pennant had the money and leisure time for travelling but Crane still believes the explorer had a real passion for adventure.”Pennant could have gone anywhere but he chose to fill in blanks on the British map in areas of the Highlands and islands,” says Crane. “These were places considered wild and inhospitable but Pennant, a zoologist, was determined to make his name as an explorer.”
On his tour of Scotland in 1772, which later became a popular travel book, Pennant sailed between Hebridean islands including Islay, Jura, Canna and Skye. “But while he was struck by the beauty of these places he was horrified by the poverty of the people,” insists Crane. “Pennant finds to his dismay populations hit by famine and worn down by poverty following the Highland Clearances.”
Pennant wrote: “While each shore appeared pleasing to humanity, there were people starving.”
Returning to the mainland, the next part of his journey took Pennant north, but he abandoned his plans after what he described as “20 appalling miles” and turned back at Ledbeg. “This route is very difficult,” explains Crane. “It was high and boggy and inhospitable. Pennant also had horses and believed the further planned 50 miles to be impassable.”
Then came another near disaster when the boat he had chartered on Loch Broom – the “loch of 100 winds” – was almost wrecked. “It seems Pennant decided to abandon the boat and try his luck overland, travelling another wild route, the 18 difficult miles from Dundonnell to Loch Maree,” says Crane. “But it felt to me that he had something to prove to his readers. He seemed intent on redeeming his failures. This harsh trek in bad weather was indeed an extreme journey and Pennant was sure it would prove him a proper explorer. I have to agree that it did.”
HV Morton (1892-1979)
Morton had writing in the blood, having followed his father into newspapers. He became famous for his travel columns in the Daily Express and when he was given the chance to discover Scotland by car – a 1926 Bullnose Morris, to be precise – he couldn’t resist.
“Morton also had another reason for being keen on Scotland as his mother was originally from Invergordon and told her son romantic versions of many historical stories about the likes of Rob Roy and Flora MacDonald,” says Crane.
In 1929, Morton published the first mainstream travel book about touring Britain in a motor car, In Search of Scotland, followed by In Scotland Again four years later.
In retracing Morton’s route, Crane also drives an authentic Bullnose Morris with “a dodgy gear box, only three gears, a peculiar starting system and a top speed of about 38mph”. He starts in Beeswing, Dumfries and Galloway, and takes in Wigtown, Glentrool, Glasgow, Glencoe, Elgol, Inverness, Loch Loyne and the treacherous Larig Ghru before reaching Tongue in Sutherland.
“It was an incredible journey in its time and would have been extremely difficult. The roads would often have been single tracked and filled with pot holes,” says Crane.
In fact, Morton writes of “Scotland’s worst road, an old road, winding and very steep” on Rannoch Moor. When Crane finds this now-unused road he discovers it would have been fit only for soldiers and horses.
Another road, through Glen Loyne, that Morton described as “the roof of the Highlands”, is now beneath a reservoir, having been flooded for hydro-electric power in 1946.
For all Morton’s evangelising about the motor car, though, describing it as the transport of the future, he does end up spending a great deal of time on his feet, relishing the wild countryside of Scotland.
“Morton was a brilliant judge of his audience. He wants them to know that the car is a wonderful vehicle but he also talks of the need to get out of the car to truly explore,” says Crane. “That’s what I like about him.”
The other great explorers
Gerald of Wales (c1147-1223)
A chronicler and Welsh noble, Gerald of Wales undertook the first natural history tour of Wales on a seven-week expedition around its perimeter in 1188. He was on a mission to recruit Welshmen for the crusades.John Leland (c1506-1552)
Between 1533 and 1542 Leland, a librarian and topographer, was commissioned by Henry VIII to travel the land recording Tudor England. Crane retraces his 300-mile journey through the West Country, starting in Glastonbury.
Daniel Defoe (1660-1731)
Defoe was 61 when his Tour appeared. By this time he had travelled the country, firstly as a secret agent, then as a merchant and journalist. Crane recreates Defoe’s gallop across the lowlands of East Anglia, starting the trip in Dagenham. Crane says: “It is fair to say that Defoe’s journeys produce the first great guide book to Britain.”
Celia Fiennes (1662-1741)
Fiennes journeyed on horse from London to Blackstone Edge on the Scottish border in 1698, visiting most counties of England en route. Crane, who follows her trail also on horseback, says: “It was an unusual and amazing trip in those days for a woman.”
William Gilpin (1724-1804)
In 1771 Gilpin became the “father of the picturesque” when he wrote his Observations of the River Wye. Crane follows Gilpin’s route by canoe.
William Cobbett (1763-1835)
The great Radical loved the countryside and his Rural Rides, written between 1822 and 1826, celebrated rustic southern England. Crane aimed to find out if Cobbett’s tirade about conditions in the countryside was justified.
Original article by Fiona Russell for The Herald – published in August 2007.