In the opening shot of the renowned adventurer’s latest docuseries, Scotland’s Sacred Islands With Ben Fogle, the camera pans over emerald hills lolling down to pristine sands lapped by azure seas. It’s an oft-overlooked fact just how astounding Scotland’s beaches are, particularly those found on her northernmost islands. Sure, they tend to be rather chilly, even in the height of summer, but you can often have them all to yourself. About as far from the Bondi crowds as it’s possible to be.
Ruggedly handsome broadcaster Fogle has felt a strong affinity with this awe-inspiring part of the world since he memorably appeared on the BBC reality TV show Castaway. Joining a group of 36 who spent the first year of this century on the Outer Hebridean island of Taransay, they built a community from scratch. A tough test of endurance, it forged his career and left a shard of Scotland’s wildest edges lodged deep in his heart.
Two decades later, Fogle’s latest four-part show sees him set sail on a voyage around the Inner and Outer Hebrides and on to subarctic archipelago Shetland, the last gasp of the country before you get to Norway. On a pilgrimage of sorts, he follows the trail of Christianity making its way to the Scottish mainland via these windswept outcrops, as monks convinced pagans and warriors of a new world view. And while Sacred Islands offers fascinating insights into this quest, it is as respectful of secular and other spiritual views as it is of religion.
On these distant shores, it’s easy to feel incredibly small, and yet at once part of something much grander. Fogle named his daughter after the lush island of Iona, and he makes an emotional video call to her from this spot perched off the southwest edge of Mull. Described as the ‘Cradle of Christianity’, it’s here that Irish missionary St Columba landed in 563 and founded a monastery that became a centre of learning and art. It’s said that the luminously illustrated gospel, The Book of Kells – which now resides in Trinity College’s library in Dublin – was penned here.
Fogle tries his hand at the tiny, nutshell-like rowboats fashioned from willow and hide that once carried those hardy monks across the Irish Sea. But the show is far from dusty learning. It sings with a lived humanity that traces the evolution of these islands that are far from frozen in time.
Fogle meets with a crofter, Rhoda, on Tiree, the spot that claims the most sunshine in Britain thanks to its location on the Gulf Stream. She also works remotely in tech while tending a flock of sheep, including the scene-stealing Vader. “He’s more sofa than sheep, that one,” she says, and Fogle remarks that Vader’s luxurious coat is exactly what you need on the Scottish islands. Warmest doesn’t necessarily mean warm when it comes to this low-lying isle.
It’s on Tiree that Fogle first hears of the Celtic idea of the island being a thin place: some see that as meaning closer to god, others as a stronger connection to a more pagan understanding of the spiritual world. As he dubs it, it’s “like a portal to another world”.
On the more densely populated Coll (if 200 counts as dense), a two-mile stretch across the water from Tiree, Fogle sits down with trans woman Julie. He suggests many folks would think of the islands as inherently conservative places that wouldn’t be so welcoming. While she acknowledges that her transition was more challenging at first, as her truth emerged, the locals embraced and nurtured her journey. This is, after all, a place that hosts Project Trust, a group that invites 17–18-year-olds from all over the UK and beyond here to train for volunteer work internationally. It’s a scheme that benefits local youths just as much, as they bond with temporary house guests. Sometimes the smallest of places have the biggest hearts and most open minds.
Taking in competing bird colonies squawking on the surf-lashed rock stacks of the Treshnish Isles, dolphins and seals dancing, and the church organ-like volcanic eruption of Staffa, coined by poet John Keats as the Cathedral of the Sea, the first episode packs a lot in a mesmeric hour. Religious or not, you may well find yourself moved as Fogle quotes naturalist John Muir: “I’d rather be in the mountains thinking about god than in a church thinking about mountains.”
And when he finds himself surprised by the tears in his eyes while preparing to bunk down in a tiny cabin on Iona, this Glaswegian writer was not. I’ve known those tears in the remotest stretches of Scotland, which are undoubtedly thin places, closely connected to nature’s majesty. Any heart that doesn’t wash itself in tears there is surely no longer beating.
Four-part series Scotland’s Sacred Islands With Ben Fogle premieres on SBS, Wednesday 17 November at 7.30pm. Each episode will be available at SBS On Demand after going to air. Start with episode one:
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