BEN Fogle’s voice drifts down a slightly crackly line on an early September morning. He is on the road and calling from an unspecified location in rural Wales, yet the adventurer and TV presenter has Scotland on his mind. Or as he fondly describes it: “the most beautiful place on Earth”.
Fogle, 47, has travelled the globe – rowing across the Atlantic Ocean, ascending Mount Everest, trekking in the Arabian Desert, racing to the South Pole and tramping through the perilous jungles of Peru – but there is a certain island archipelago that keeps drawing him back.
“Ever since I first visited the Western Isles when I was about six and I went to Eigg, I have always had a sense of contentment in that part of Scotland,” he says. “I have a feeling of satisfaction, comfort and homeliness.”
That was part of the lure when, as a 26-year-old at the turn of the new millennium, London-born Fogle signed up for Castaway 2000, the seminal reality TV show that became a launchpad for his career in the public eye.
The BBC series saw a group of 36 men, women and children spend a year forging a new community on remote Taransay in the Outer Hebrides. Fogle was its breakout star. In the two decades since, he gone on to present myriad documentary programmes, largely focused on his love of the outdoors, nature and adventure.
A new four-part series, Scotland’s Sacred Islands with Ben Fogle, sees him embark upon a personal pilgrimage, criss-crossing the Hebrides and heading as far north as Shetland to explore themes of community and spirituality.
The opening episode, due to air next month, feels very much like watching a love letter to Scotland. The sweeping aerial shots of beaches, machair and rugged coastline alone are enough to make your heart soar.
This summary of the BBC Scotland show delights Fogle. “I love that description,” he says. “On the face of it, I have a bit of a complex because I sound as English as you can possibly get, but, actually, I have always felt a real sense of home in Scotland, particularly in the Western Isles.
“I do have Scottish heritage. My grandfather was from Glasgow before he emigrated to Canada. I still have family in Scotland. I have always felt a powerful draw to the Western Isles – it is a place I have been visiting ever since I was a child.”
The importance of his Scottish roots (or certainly a deep-rooted connection to the landscapes and people) is a topic Fogle touches upon throughout our interview. Yet, at the same time, he seems acutely aware that some may give short shrift to this heartfelt sentiment.
“That sometimes feels at odds with my posh southern accent and the fact that until recently I was living in central London,” he admits. “Part of me – I think it is my own projection – has felt like although I felt I belonged, that I didn’t belong. That I am not a kilt-wearing, independence-seeking Scot.
“But, actually, deep down, I probably am – I just haven’t necessarily had the opportunity to live that. I am perpetually on the move; I am sort of a modern-day nomad.
“I always feel this overwhelming sense of contentment as soon as I get to the Western Isles. I know that sounds like a broad term – ‘the Western Isles’ – but there is something about the isolation of islands on that beautiful west coast of Scotland that just connects with me.”
Fogle is warming to his theme. “During the pandemic there have been a lot of celebrity travelogues in the Western Isles,” he continues. “I really didn’t want just another celeb holiday. I wanted to do something that was a bit more profound and thoughtful.
“To be able to explore those islands from a spiritual perspective, I think, is something a bit different and hasn’t necessarily been done before. I hope it comes across how much I love all the islands, the people and the diversity in Scotland in general.”
Community and spirituality are the linchpins of the series – what do those words mean to him? There is a long pause and I fear the line has gone dead, but Fogle is merely pondering deeply. “For me, they mean everything,” he says. “Post-pandemic they are more relevant than ever before.
“The importance of community and looking out for your neighbours, friends and loved ones. Spirituality, more than ever, I think people have been forced to have something to focus on and to get them through those dark times.
“I am not religious in the classical or traditional sense of the word, but, for me, the flora, fauna, nature, islands and the ocean have a very powerful draw.”
Here, Fogle talks about the making Scotland’s Sacred Islands, sharing his reflections and memorable moments, as well as what viewers can expect over the coming weeks.
Viewing things with fresh eyes
“When I was on Taransay all those years ago, the notion of Sabbatarianism – the very strict adherence to the Sabbath – was something completely alien to all of us,” says Fogle.
“We were told to be respectful of it but none of us really understood what it was. Returning to Harris and Lewis, I now understand it transcends pure religious beliefs and becomes a part of the culture of a place.
“Not necessarily everyone agrees or adheres to it but there is a beauty in having a day where everyone can spend time with family and community.
“As someone who travels a lot, I have always been respectful of culture, heritage and tradition. What became apparent was that religion on many of the islands transcends the pure symbolism of the church and becomes a rich part of the culture of those places.”
The life-affirming power of nature
After safely negotiating a sizeable Atlantic swell and a hairy landing onto the craggy shores of Lunga, the largest of the Treshnish Isles off the south-west coast of Mull, Fogle spent a few hours exploring and seeking clues to the past.
The Treshnish Isles are uninhabited save for their huge colonies of seabirds, although archaeological evidence suggests they were settled as far back as early Viking times with the last inhabitants leaving in the 1850s.
Despite the remoteness and isolation, Fogle found it far from bleak. “This idea of deserted islands is fascinating,” he says. “They are deserted on the face of it by humans, but they are teeming with life.
“With Treshnish I was almost moved to tears. It was a Sunday. It was quiet. We were on our own. It was just after lockdown. Walking amongst the ruins on the island, I felt like I was touching history.”
The words of Scots-born conservationist John Muir popped into his head: “I’d rather be in the mountains thinking of God, than in church thinking about the mountains.”
It is a mantra that could arguably be applied to Fogle’s own tenets. “I don’t have a church per se,” he says. “My temple or church or mosque or synagogue is the outdoors. It is the wilderness.”
Visiting his daughter’s island namesake
The TV presenter and his wife Marina have two children: Ludo, 11, and Iona, 10. His latest series will show Fogle making his debut trip to the holy isle of Iona – a special moment.
I’m curious, though, why his daughter is named after a place he had never visited before? “We always thought it was a beautiful name,” he says. “We thought we were being unique until she ended up in a class with three other Ionas.
“I wanted to call her after one of the islands – the island chain and archipelago that meant so much to me. It is a bit strange I named her after an island that I had never visited but I think that made it even more powerful and profound to actually visit and see her namesake.
“It was a shame she wasn’t able to come, but we have already got a visit planned for next year when we will be able to go together.”
Island life doesn’t mean insular attitudes
Fogle reveals that he has long been put off the idea of moving to an island with his family by the fear that his children wouldn’t get an understanding of the wider world. Making this series saw him come away with an entirely new take.
“My own Western Isles experience – I am talking about Castaway here – wasn’t a true one because we were an artificial community,” he explains. “We were tasked with creating an insular community from scratch. We had no contact with the outside world.
“I never really got to know Harris and Lewis when we were living on Taransay because we were artificially isolated from the wider community. I never got to know our neighbours.
“Therefore, when I projected the idea of moving to an island with my own family, I imagined the Castaway experience that was quite insular and odd. But, going back this time, I was able to see the power of community which, for me, has always been so important.
“I want my children to grow up within a wider community, where there are different breadths of knowledge, love, understanding and experience, so they can grow up as fully-rounded individuals. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Western Isles.
“Whether I am likely to move to an island now with my family, who knows? But I certainly feel empowered that one day we might be able to move to a place that does have a feeling of home.”
Arriving by sea – in style
His five-week journey to film Scotland’s Sacred Islands saw Fogle utilise several modes of transport, including a ferry, a kayak, a sailboat and a coracle. Which did he enjoy most?
“Travelling to Iona by sailboat was pretty magical,” he says. “I love boats full stop. I made a very specific decision that I wanted to arrive on all of the islands by ferry.
“Some of the islands have access to airports now, but for me there is great symbolism in arriving by sea. Obviously arriving on a CalMac ferry isn’t quite the same as arriving by beautiful old sailboat or on a kayak, but it is still this waterborne journey.
“Something pointed out to me in Shetland is that today we consider travel by boat as a slow mode of transport, but hundreds of years ago when the early settlers were heading there, they were the superhighways and one of the easiest ways to get around Scotland.”
The joys of slow telly
“What I like about Sacred Islands is that the journey was slow and the television programme is slow,” says Fogle. “I use that in a positive sense. The whole slow movement has taken off: slow food, slow work, slow television, slow travel.
“I would like to think that this series is a part of that in how it was filmed and edited, and how you see the journey that I experienced. It is not a big jazz hands celebrity travelogue, or ‘look at me jumping into freezing cold water and squealing.’
“It is much slower and more thoughtful. I hope that viewers will slow down with it.”
Fogle’s new favourite island beach
“With apologies to everyone who loves Luskentyre on Harris, which had always been my previous favourite place on Earth, that has been replaced by West Beach on Berneray which is otherworldly in terms of its beauty,” he says.
“I don’t think I have ever been to a beach anywhere in the world that has captivated me quite like that.”
The secrets and spirituality of Scotland’s islands
Some believe that “thin places” exist where only a slender veil separates the material and spiritual worlds. One such spot is Iona, known as Scotland’s “cradle of Christianity”, with many people experiencing a feeling of being closer to God.
What conclusions did Fogle draw? “The ‘thin place’ thing is fascinating,” he says. “I am slightly obsessed with it. There is something very powerful in those islands. Whether it is born through the huge skies and power of nature, I don’t know.
“Different people will interpret that thinness and what it means to them in different ways. It is no surprise that for hundreds of years many of the Western Isles and right up to Shetland have had a powerful draw when it comes it religion.”
How the pandemic clipped his wings
In the days BC – before coronavirus – Fogle had big plans for the end of world. “The great irony was I always thought I had it sorted,” he says. “That if there was a pandemic or global crisis, I would hotfoot it to the Western Isles.
“I knew where we would go and how we would live, the bothy we would head to and what we would do to sustain ourselves and survive. I was the ultimate island prepper ready to go.
“But, of course, when reality struck, I found myself stuck at home with my family in Oxfordshire – fortunately we had just moved out of London. I found myself dreaming of the place that I had always thought we would escape to which was the Western Isles.
“I think everyone had a place we escaped to in our minds during lockdown. For me, it probably was Taransay. That was the landscape I saw. That is how I got through lockdown.
“I went on journeys in my head where I imagined what I would do as soon as freedom was handed back to us. As lockdown did ease, the first place I was able to go was the Western Isles, which is serendipitous.”
Seeking answers and stoking more questions
Fogle went looking for answers. What he found wasn’t clear cut. “Do I know where my spirituality and religion lie?” he says. “I think it probably provoked more questions than it answered. But that is a good thing.”
To that end, says Fogle, his island pilgrimage feels far from over. “I don’t think it is finished yet – there is room for another series. I haven’t come up with all of the answers. That is the beauty of it.
“I do have more questions to answer. There are many more islands to explore and many more fascinating people to meet. But I think you will be satisfied with the conclusion that I offer to viewers about what these places have meant to me and what I have taken away from them.”
The islands still on his bucket list
“I would love to explore Orkney,” he says. “There is plenty of the Western Isles I still don’t really know. Skye and the islands around there I have visited fleetingly but I have never really spent much time there.
“I am hoping this might be a yearly pilgrimage because, as I mention in the show, it was great for mental wellbeing. It was more than just a job. It was a form of post-lockdown therapy to meet people, understand more about where I am going and to contextualise life.
“I did find myself coming back and asking many questions about my choice of lifestyle and what I want for my own family.”
Scotland’s Sacred Islands with Ben Fogle begins on BBC Scotland on Tuesday, October 5 at 8pm and BBC One from Sunday, October 10 at 12pm
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