Columnist and former BBC broadcaster Lesley Riddoch is also an adventurous cyclist with strong opinions on urban Scotsâ€™ isolation from nature, as she reveals here
You’ve earned a reputation for hard-hitting political commentary. Tell us about your other side.
Well, I have always absolutely hated being cooped up inside. Growing up in Belfast, I was a bit of a tomboy, good at football and nicknamed “boy’s knees” by my dad. I’ve always loved bikes and long hikes, though recent injuries have made walking tough. I have four bikes â€“ my favourite has always been a Claude Butler touring bike I used cycling up the Western Isles in 2006. I have two great hybrid bikes as well, and a wee collapsible bike.
You’ve cycled the length of the Western Isles three times, is that right?
My first time was solo in 1994 â€“ I had a bit of time on my hands before starting as Assistant Editor of the Scotsman, and wanted to do something different. I did it again in 2005 with my husband Chris. It sounds like a really big journey, but if you have enough time and get your act together, it’s not herculean. For that first trip I had wildly overestimated the amount of stuff I needed, and ended up posting back three parcels!My third time, in 2006, was documented in a BBC radio series On the Bike. I’d originally suggested a series revisiting Johnson and Boswell’s Tour of the Hebrides of 1773. The BBC decided that sounded a bit dull, would you believe, so I offered to cycle the length of the Western Isles, from Barra to the Butt of Lewis… and they agreed in an instant. I’m not saying the bike was a gimmick though â€“ you really do meet people, notice more and absorb more by not driving, on islands especially.
What was your most memorable experience on that trip?
Well, cycling along with then Transport Minister Tavish Scott was rather memorable and nerve-racking. I’d challenged him to chum me for a day to prove the government backed cycling. And blow me, he agreed. When we got to the Old Tom Morris course near Askernish, I realised why Tavish had really come â€“ he had even brought his golf shoes in a wee day bag. During three holes played against a local man, Tavish was interrupted by golf balls being lost in knee-high, flower-filled machair and cows grazing on the green… it was eccentric, rule-free fun!
Apart from being an astute observer of Scottish politics, you’ve taken a personal interest in community land rights. Tell us about your campaigning.
I’ve never felt good about reporting on a dodgy situation and then walking away. A good friend of mine was one of the Assynt crofters, so I got involved with them. By the time the situation on the island of Eigg came to a head, I was Assistant Editor of the Scotsman â€“ useful for making sure the long haul to a community buyout stayed in the headlines. I was happy to be an active trustee for seven years until ‘D-day’ in 1997. Having now moved to Fife, I am no longer that involved, but the island still feels like a home from home. Playing a tiny part in encouraging the Eiggachs has been one of the best things I’ve ever done.
Most recently, you’ve been writing about the lack of huts in Scotland. Why?
For seven glorious years, I rented a bothy in Glenbuchat, Strathdon. Most people thought I was crazy, spending days at a time without running water and electricity. It was only after visiting Norway that I realised I would have been normal there. Since then I’ve always wondered why so few Scots have huts, cabins, bolt-holes, mountain retreats. It bothers me that, in this country, second homes are often seen as elitist â€“ many think second home owners rob others of the chance to own their first. But simple huts are not the problem.
Looking at it differently, you realise that, in a relatively empty landscape, we’re fighting over scraps of land. Councils and planning laws discourage hutters, and for centuries landowners have resisted cabins and huts in the Scottish landscape. The perception is that Scotland’s beauty relies on its emptiness â€“ I’d like to challenge that.
And you’re doing a PhD on this issue?
Supervised by the universities of Strathclyde and Oslo, I’m comparing the cabin traditions of Norway and Scotland â€“ they have one and we don’t. It sounds a bit obscure, but I think it cuts to the heart of a lot of our problems as a country. The Norwegians and everyone else at our latitude can escape from their working city lives to reconnect with nature, family and themselves. The Scots’ escape is chemical â€“ drink. Is it a coincidence that Scots have the lowest rate of hut ownership in Europe and the highest rates of problem drinking? I don’t think so. My thesis is that radically different patterns of land use have produced a nation of â€˜rootless’ Scots with nearly no experience of nature, and a nation of â€˜rooted’ Norwegians with nearly no desire to spend spare time in cities.
You’re also pretty passionate about renewable energy?
With my film-maker husband Chris, I’ve been involved in Europe’s biggest marine energy project, Equimar â€“ a new area of work for me, though I have always been conscious of the potential for tidal power. When I was young, we went on holiday to Caithness every year, and bumping around in a small boat to Orkney, the massive power of the Pentland Firth tides made a huge impression on me. Even as a child the penny dropped â€“ all these huge forces are making life hell for us, but they could be harnessed.
What was your most recent adventure in Scotland?
At the end of April, Chris and I visited Colonsay in amazing weather. We cycled around, exploring gorgeous white sand beaches â€“ our favourite was Balnahard, right at the top of the island. A bit of a slog getting there, but what a beach! We call Colonsay our best kept secret… leave the car at home, just take the bike. We’ve produced a â€˜rap’ â€“ a wee slide show with commentary â€“ and we plan to explore more of the inner isles we’ve not been to, and do the same.
Lesley Riddoch is supporting Reforesting Scotland’s Thousand Huts campaign. www.thousandhuts.org
Lesley’s book Riddoch on the Outer Hebrides (Luath Press, 2007) is available at Â£12.99 from Amazon