Paul Murton is perhaps best known as the presenter of the BBC’s Grand Tours of Scotland and Grand Tours of the Scottish Islands TV programmes. An inveterate traveller since his teenage years, he brings a rare stock of experience and knowledge to his work on and off the screen, as can be seen in his latest book The Viking Isles which focuses on Orkney and Shetland.
For centuries these island groups were part of the Nordic world, and today this fascinating Scandanavian legacy can be found everywhere – in physical remains, place-names, local traditions and folklore, and much else besides. The Viking Isles captures Murton’s travels through observation, history, anecdote and encounters with the people who live there.
From a sing-along with the Shanty Yell Boys to fishing off Muckle Flugga, from sword dancing with the men of Papa Stour to a Norwegian pub crawl in Lerwick, Paul paints a vivid picture of these lands and their people, and explores their extraordinary rich heritage.
We recently caught up with him to find out more …
What is your earliest memory of becoming interested in Scotland's islands?
When I was a child, my parents often took us on camping holidays to the west coast. Guided by the principle of finding the remotest locations, my father would steer us down single track roads with grass growing in the middle of the broken tarmac. In the 1960s, visits to Loch Sween and Kilmory Bay became favourite places to pitch our family tent. I remember long summer evenings, surrounded by blue wood-smoke from the campfire, with the views across the Sound of Jura. As the sun set, the sea turned into burnished gold, filled with the dark silhouettes of many skerries and small islands. To my child’s mind, these looked magical, enticing places I’d love to explore, engendering my later love for the Hebrides.
Orkney and Shetland are often said to be more Scandinavian than Scottish. How true would you say this is from your experience?
Orkney and Shetland have distinctive characters of their own that set them apart from the mainland or from other Scottish islands. Although they are quite different from Norway, which for centuries had such an important hold and influence over the people and character of both archipelagos, Orkney and Shetland belong to the north. You can feel it in the air, in the quality of light and under the stars on moonless nights. On such moments, I’m reminded of sailing the west coast of Norway with my father, who lived for much of my teenage life in the Norwegian city of Bergen.
Calls have been growing in recent years for Scotland's islands to have more autonomy over their own affairs? What are your thoughts on this issue?
I think that devolved power is in principle a good thing – especially for island regions such as Orkney and Shetland. But for them to function well and efficiently, they need to have sufficient funding from both governments in Edinburgh and Westminster. Because my father was from Bergen in Norway, I have seen first hand the riches that can be delivered to island communities from the sovereign wealth fund established by the Norwegian government from North Sea oil revenue. The Shetland Islands Council did well to develop an income stream of its own from oil companies – but this hasn’t been enough to secure a sustainable future for all island communities, some of which, like Out Skerries and Papa Stour, continue to struggle.
Having published your book The Hebrides in 2017, The Viking Isles seems to complete your survey of Scotland's major island groups. Out of all the islands you have covered in your work, which would you most like to go back to and why?
I have visited over 120 Scottish islands, from North Rona, remoter even than St Kilda, to some lovely islands in Lowland lochs, like Inchmahome in the Lake of Menteith. I simply can’t have a favourite – but if I were forced to make a choice, there are a couple of beaches on the north west corner of the Isle of Mull I return to time and time again. These have a personal significance to my family, and my children. With crystal clear water, white sand and views towards Skye and the Small Isles, I can’t ever imagine not returning to these places.
What one piece of advice would you give to someone visiting Orkney and Shetland for the first time?
When visiting Orkney and Shetland, carry a stick when walking the moors – not just to keep you steady on rough ground, but to hold aloft to keep the bonxies (Great Skuas) from dive-bombing your head. Don’t let them grind you down!
What is it about Scotland's islands that continues to draw you back?
They speak directly to me – heart and soul.