Cameron McNeish's exploration of the 77-mile trail in Sutherland, the roof of Scotland, is in part a challenge to the assumption contained in the subtitle of this DVD: that Sutherland consists of "empty lands." He demonstrates that this spectacular area is far from empty--though as the county with the lowest population density of the Highlands (and in numbers that fell almost 3% from 2005 to 2010), it's hardly teeming with human activity. No matter: McNeish's week-long journey from Mount Suilven to Ben Loyal covers enough awesome ground and puts him in enough contact with a diverse group of people--recreational and commercial fishermen, cavers, crofters, landowners, geologists, shepherds, oyster farmers, high-end chefs, and wildlife rangers--to make his journey as especially rich and satisfying experience for both him and the viewer.
At one point McNeish descends into a cave, part of an extensive network, in which bones are still being recovered and studied. At another, he visits Handa Island, off the west coast of Sutherland, where every summer nearly 100,000 seabirds breed among the colossal sea cliffs of Torridonian sandstone. He pauses to admire the elegant concrete box girder Kylesku Bridge that traverses the Loch a Chairn Bhain, and which blends pleasingly into the surrounding landscape. He pays a visit to the Lairg sheep market, one of the largest in Europe, and talks with a local shepherd and crofter, Jan MacKenzie. Preparing to retire for the night, McNeish pitches his tent and in the midst of a low-tech area unpacks his high-tech gear--without apology ("Any fool can be uncomfortable!").
Toward the end of his route, McNeish climbs to the top of Foinaven to admire what is, in his view, "the most magnificant viewpoint in the whole of Britain." Warming to one of his favorite subjects, he recounts the debate over whether Foinaven should qualify as a Munro, i.e., a Scottish mountain at least 3,000 feet high, or whether it's a mere Corbett (between 2,500 and 2,999 feet). The debate grew so intense that in 2007, the Ordnance Survey brought their GPS and other devices to the mountain for a new official measurement--which revealed that Foinaven fell short of Munro-status by just 12 feet. But as far as McNeish and others are concerned, Foinaven is still "the Queen of Sutherland" (just as the destination, Ben Loyal, is "the Queen of the Highlands").
Though the program itself is wonderful, the DVD must be downgraded a notch because of one annoying--and unaccountable--aspect: it lacks a chapter menu and chapter stops. This is also the case with McNeish's other Scottish Walks offered by Mountain Media--"The Hebridean Trail," "The West Highland Way, "Scotland Coast to Coast," and "The Skye Trail." ("Wild Walks," on the other hand, does have a chapter menu.) You can't get from one section of the program to another by selecting a chapter on the root menu or even by hitting the "skip" button (skip gets you to the next program); you have to scan either on fast forward or fast reverse. What were they thinking?
Larry B | Ventura, California | October 2018