Inspired by Robert Frost’s poem, in his 2-disk “Roads Less Travelled” (Vol. 1) Cameron McNeish explores the byways, rather than the highways, running up the west coast of Scotland. Striking a northerly route, from the islands of Luing and Seil, about 20 miles south of Oban, he crosses from the mainland to other islands, and back again, sometimes by bridge, sometimes by ferry, for roughly 175 miles until arriving at his destination of Ullapool. In previous videos, McNeish has documented his walks from east to west (“Scotland: Coast to Coast”), from north to south (“Scotland: End to End”), and seemingly, all points in-between. Some of the locales in the present video he has previously explored at greater length: in particular, the Isle of Skye (“The Skye Trail”) and the Torridon mountains (“Great Walks: Scotland”). In the present program McNeish meets new people and discovers new vistas in this “fantastic group of rugged islands that have some of the finest land and seascapes in all of Scotland.”
Near the outset of the journey, he meets Fiona Cruikshanks at the newly built Atlantic Island Visitor’s Center, who shows us the chandelier-like, giant multi-faceted lens from the Fladda lighthouse. Outside the two visit the remains of an old slate quarry, which, before the operation finally closed in the 1960s, was a “hell on earth” for the laborers employed there. A few miles away, by contrast, McNeish admires the unparalleled sailing waters off the island of Seil. “I’m in heaven!” he exclaims, arms outstretched; “this is as good as it gets!”
Further north, McNeish ponders a group of large standing stones, between one and two thousand years old, whose original purpose remains unknown. Later, armed with written instructions from a friend (walk twenty paces north, climb over the fence, walk thirty paces east, etc.), he finds the Seat of St. Brendan, unmarked on any map, and sits there awhile to rest. St. Brendan’s contemporaries, he tells us, travelled to Iceland, Greenland, even North America, and were there when Columbus arrived.
At Port Appin, McNeish meets geologist John Howe, who describes the formation of the 750 million-year old sandstone rocks in the area, metamorphosed into quartzite through the heating and compression of powerful tectonic shifts. These shifts are continuing, Howe explains, and will render the landscape one million years from now very different from what it is today. Further north into Argyll, McNeish finds some of the “roughest, rockiest terrain in Scotland . . . an area dominated by peninsulas, scattered islands, and narrow lochs.” Historically (17th and 18th centuries), this area was the scene of lifelong feuds between rival families, including supporters of the Jacobites, who believed that the Catholic James II and his descendants should be restored to the throne of England and Scotland.
At Glencoe, McNeish meets photographer and rock climber Dave Cuthbertson, who discusses his craft then takes a perfectly composed picture of our video guide standing atop a large boulder embedded in a steep cliff. But perhaps the highlight of this section is McNeish performing a duet (he plays the Irish bouzouki, a mandolin-like instrument) with legendary accordionist Fergie McDonald, who for decades performed with a highland band and helped popularize ceilidh dance music. His band’s musical style, McDonald explains, was not in keeping with the spirit of the royal Scottish country dance, which he regards as overly regimented.
For the most part, McNeish travels in “my pride and joy—my camper van” (though “I know that it’s only a tin box on wheels”) and at one point offers us a brief tour of this wondrous vehicle. But he also is equipped with a mountain bike, sturdy hiking boots and poles, a lightweight tent and other camping gear, and a packraft. The latter comes in handy when he meets Lizzie Benwell, who operates a kayak business in Arisaig. The two paddle among the seals in their respective craft, and he rhapsodizes about the “seascape of sparkling water, white sandy beaches, and hundreds of small islands, or skerries.”
Toward the end of the program, McNeish travels in considerably rougher waters, over the rapids, with the 25-year old Will Copestake, named “Adventurer of the Year” for kayaking all around the coast of Scotland and climbing numerous munros (mountains over 3,000 feet high) within a 12-month period. For reasons of safety, the young man never ventures out when the winds are more than 60 mph—or maybe 90 mph, depending upon conditions.
On the southern tip of Skye, he visits Heather McDemott, who makes distinctive jewelry, specializing in distressed metal designed to reflect the local landscape. McNeish also introduces us to Willie Fraser, a National Trust ranger and conservationist, and Nevin Hulme, a geography teacher who specializes in the cultural significance of place names. And we meet Chris Smith, former youth hostel manager and now a lord of the realm and Member of Parliament, who divides his time between London and the highlands of Torridon, and who as properly befits a politician, refuses to say which area he prefers.
On a somber note, toward the end of his journey McNeish visits a remote island where in 1941 the government conducted experiments in biological warfare with anthrax-filled bombs. Within three days, all the sheep on the island had died. Forgotten for decades, the island was not finally decontaminated until 1986.
McNeish concludes the program with his arrival at Ullapool (discovered originally by the Vikings), for many years the principal herring port on Scotland’s west coast. A victim of over-fishing, the herring industry is now almost extinct (McNeish’s fish-and-chip meal consisted of haddock (“and very nice haddock it is, too”) , and Ullapool now thrives as a cultural center and as a tourist gateway to the Western Isles and to the Northwest Highlands. But for longtime visitor to the area McNeish, Ullapool and other western ports will always be associated (he says, smiling) with “the smell of that mixture of diesel oil and fish.”
Larry Behrens | Ventura, California | November 2018