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24 September 2014

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Northern Scotland - Cape Wrath to Orkney


Life on the Edge

map of this programme's journey

Living on the North coast of Scotland really is "living on the edge" of Britain – you are nearer to the Arctic Circle than you are to the south of England. This coast is home to some of the hardiest people you could find, generations who have had to innovate and improvise to earn a living.

Cape Wrath

Cape Wrath is one of the last untouched wilderness areas in Britain. Between the Kyle of Durness to the lighthouse on the tip of the Cape, where there was once a small community, there is now just rough terrain populated by deer and sea birds. The wild-sounding name actually means "turning point" in Norse as over 1,000 years ago this was a welcome stopping-off point on the busy Viking sea routes from Scandinavia, not a remote headland.

For most of the year this place is a haven of peace and tranquillity – but not always. Cape Wrath's other role in life is as one of the most important military training ranges in Europe. We visit the Cape at its busiest when air, land and sea forces from several countries work together on the military course "Neptune Warrior". All the elements that make it a hard place to survive - the remote location, the fierce nature of the weather and difficult terrain - are just what the armed forces need to test their men and their mettle.

Between the Kyle of Durness and lighthouse on the tip of Cape Wrath, the land is known as the Parph: 207km of moorland containing a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Protection Area for birds. 5km east of the lighthouse are the Clo Mor Cliffs, the highest sheer cliffs in Britain with a drop of 281m (921ft).
They support an immense seabird colony with tens of thousands of puffins, razorbills, fulmars, kittiwakes and guillemots.

The Cape can be accessed between May and September where a local ferry will take you across the Kyle of Durness and then a minibus can take you the 12 mile journey to the lighthouse.

Stornoway Coastguard, Isle of Lewis

StornowayThe Outer Hebrides, a scattering of over 13 islands lying off Scotland's North West coast, are the first part of Great Britain to be hit by storms blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean. Many of the 26,000 people who live on these islands stay in small, isolated communities. When the winter storms hit, it's the team from the Stornoway Coastguard Search and Rescue that provides protection against the elements. Their helicopter is only one of 4 based in Scotland. They cover 2,900 miles of coastline and their daily job can take them from evacuating fishing boats in towering waters to attending medical emergencies in remote villages.

In January 2005 the islands were hit by the largest storm in living memory. Winds reached 124 mph, the highest recorded to that time, and the storm raged for 16 hours. Nicholas Crane discovers the scale of the devastation that the storm reaped.

The Highland Clearances

walkersThe Highland Clearances still leave a deep scar in the memories of Highlanders.

In the 18th and 19th centuries Highland landowners decided that their land could be used more profitably for commercial sheep farming. In a systematic and often barbaric fashion the good grazing lands were cleared of people, who were sent to live on the far less hospitable north coast. The glen at Strathnaver was home to around 3,000 people in 1800; all were forcibly removed in the next 20 years, their homes burning behind them as they walked towards the sea carrying all their possessions.

200 locals who still live around the village of Bettyhill today joined Neil Oliver for a symbolic march to the coast and told us how the effects of the clearances still resonate in their lives today.

The local museum tells the story of the clearances, and the Strathnaver Trail takes in several clearances villages on its 16 site walk that explores local archaeology and geography.

Dounreay Nuclear Power Station

50 years ago a remote farming and fishing community on Scotland's north coast was chosen to be the site for the most advanced nuclear reactor in the world. Dr Alice Roberts visits the site of Dounreay to look at the past, present and most importantly the future of this historic plant.

Alice Roberts at DounreayIn the 1950s the location was chosen precisely because of its isolated position, perched right on the edge of the British Isles. This was to be the world's first electricity-producing fast breeder reactor and would pioneer the development of fast breeder technology. The community was keen for the employment and investment the station would bring, and the population subsequently boomed from 3,000 to 9,000. But as the years passed, the optimism of the post-cold-war era faded and was replaced with concerns about the plant's safety. The programme's aim of generating electricity that was too cheap to be metered was never attained.

Now the funding for the fast breeder reactor programme has been withdrawn and the massive decommissioning programme has begun. The site and the community that surrounds it now finds itself pioneering decommissioning of a nuclear research site. It will take 30 years and around £2.7 billion to make the Dounreay site safe again.

The Royal Oak: Scapa Flow, Orkney

In both World Wars the Orkney Islands have played a vital role as base to the Home fleet. The large natural harbour of Scapa Flow afforded the Royal Navy a sheltered port and clear access out into the Atlantic. At the end of World War I the German fleet surrendered at Scapa Flow and the entire fleet was scuttled there in 1919. In World War II Scapa Flow was again used as the headquarters for the Royal Navy. They knew they would have to be vigilant to keep their fleet safe from the German forces, who were determined to seek vengeance for their previous humiliation.

But they were not alert enough and the £2.5 million warship HMS Royal Oak was hit by a torpedo from the German U boat U-47 under the command of Lt Gunther Prien. The strike resulted in the loss of 833 lives. The site in Scapa Flow is now an official war grave and Neil Oliver meets survivors Kenneth Toop and Arthur Smith as they travel back to Orkney to take part in the memorial service 60 years on.

You can also still see a permanent legacy of the tragedy – The Churchill Barriers. Opened only four days after VE day, this five mile highway linked for the first time the Orkney mainland and the island of South Ronaldsy. It was hailed as one of the greatest civil engineering projects in the world - the defences and causeways were built of tonnes of quarried rock and concrete and ran where previously there had only been the rushing tide. The barriers were begun as defensive structures straight after the tragedy of the Royal Oak with the aim of making Scapa Flow impenetrable and secure once again. They now stand as a permanent reminders of the past.


Coast Series 1

Dover to Exmouth
The Frontline

Exmouth to Bristol
The Wild West

Bristol to Cardigan Bay
Times and Tides

Cardigan Bay to the Dee
The Travellers Coast

Liverpool to Solway Firth
Shifting Sands

The Northern Ireland Coast
The Troubled Coast

West Coast of Scotland and Western Isles
Islands and Inlets

Cape Wrath to Orkney
Life on the Edge

John O'Groats to Berwick
The Working Coast

Berwick to Robins Hood's Bay
The Pioneering Coast

Robins Hood's Bay to The Wash
The Inventive Coast

The Wash to Dover
The Vanishing Coast

Highlights Programme
What have we learned and where to now?

See Also

Meet your Coast experts:

Neil Oliver
Alice Roberts
Mark Horton
Miranda Krestovnikoff
Nicholas Crane
Hermione Cockburn
Dick Strawbridge


The Cultural Impact of the Highland Clearances
The Ending of World War One, and the Legacy of Peace
The First Battle of the Atlantic - WW1
The Battle of the Atlantic - WW2
The War at Sea - 1914-1918 Gallery
World War One Timeline
Battle of Atlantic - WW2 Animation
Coastal Habitats
Coastal Plants
The UK's Coastal Wildlife Hotspots
The Bizarre Basking Shark
Wild Spots In Ireland
Coastal Birds
Finding Coastal Wildlife
Kids Guide to the Seaside

On the rest of the web

Cape Wrath
Maritime and Coastguard Agency
Visit Hebrides
Strathnaver Museum
Strathnaver Trail
Orkney Heritage
Scapa Flow

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Discover Your Coast

Try a great online walk from this stretch of coastline


Tel: 0870 900 7788

for a free Open University “Discover Your Coast” pack - or visit

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The Working Coast - John O'Groats to Berwick on Tweed

Miranda heads to the Moray Firth, home to bottle nosed dolphins; Nick investigates the impact of the North Sea oil industry; whilst Neil meets a fishing family in Fraserburgh, facing a bleak future; and Alice reflects on the history of whaling in Dundee.


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