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Doug Allan: ‘Scotland is the best undiscovered secret in the world’



Earlier, around 150 of us had listened to the words of Sir David Attenborough on Mr Allan, who has accompanied him on many of his Blue Planet adventures.

“If you are going to get yourself into uncomfortable, difficult or even dangerous circumstances, try to ensure that your companion is a wildlife cameraman.

“Such people know how to repair car engines with bits and pieces collected from the surrounding wilderness, how to turn the most disgusting ingredients into something edible, how to laugh after being charged by a polar bear, how to wheedle their way past the most obstructive of customs officers, and how to deal with surly drunken soldiers carrying loaded rifles who clearly don’t like you — and with whom you don’t share a single intelligible word.

“Doug Allan is one of the most gifted of these exceptional people. It’s been my extraordinary luck to have worked with him many times in many places – some of them very hot – which he endures; most of them cripplingly cold, which he loves.

“He has an uncanny understanding of animals ranging from tiny birds to gigantic whales that tells him what the animal is about to do before it does it, and so enables him to move his camera to get a breath-taking perfectly composed shot. And he is a wonderful companion.”

So who is this Fifer with the build of those wingers Scotland once produced for the purpose of casting fear into English defenders’ hearts? He spent seven years in Antarctica as a research diver, scientist and photographer for the British Antarctic Survey, before changing direction to full-time filming in 1983.

The Herald:

Since then, he has become one of the world’s most respected cameramen and one of its most decorated. Eight Emmys and five BAFTAs bear witness to his stellar status in the wildlife photography community. His camerawork can be observed in series such as The Blue Planet; Frozen Planet; Ocean Giants, Expedition Iceberg and Forces of Nature.

At those times when he’s not filming Orcas and Great Whites he traverses Britain giving talks and lectures about his adventures with these creatures and about our shared responsibility for their habitats and their welfare. 

Born and raised in Dunfermline, his dad had been a freelance photographer. “The unpredictability of what he was doing was attractive to me,” says Mr Allan.

“This lifestyle and its unpredictability appealed to me. I’d have been tempted to work for the emergency services, not knowing each morning what lay ahead but having a sense of doing something special.

Read More: Chris Packham: ‘The amount of killing of birds in Scotland is unbelievable’

“At University I came across a quote by Mark Twain: ‘20 years from now you’ll be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do’, he’d said. It’s been my guiding principle ever since.”

He echoes the sentiments expressed here last week by Chris Packham about Scotland being a mecca for wildlife in the UK. “We don’t have the big charismatic beasts like lions and polar bears, though we used to,” he says. “You have to work harder to see the wildlife and the dramatic weather on top of the hills. But if you’re willing to meet those challenges then Scotland’s landscapes and wildlife are as magnificent as anywhere in the world. On my bucket list is to spend more time in UK and Ireland off the beaten tracks.

“There’s so much to see and enjoy in Scotland. We have more spectacular wildernesses than in any other part of the UK. Even better is that they are still relatively unspoilt and free of people.

The Herald:

“On my travels I’m often asked if Scotland could be independent. And yes, it absolutely could. We have tourism and whisky, surely one of the world’s most famous and loved exports. The renewables potential is massive. Scotland is the best undiscovered secret in the world, though sometimes part of me would like to keep it that way.”

Having spent so much time in close proximity to the animals he films, especially in a marine environment, he can also testify to the way that climate change has altered their behaviours and their habitats.

“In Antarctica and in the Arctic I began to notice that the weather was less stable, which makes it harder to predict big things, such as when the ice begins to break up which then dictates the plankton blooms. Stability has disappeared.

Read More: Rewilding. Not just green lairds and ‘pillaging capitalists running amok’

“You can’t go to the poles and not notice the differences. Large bits of land covered by the British Antarctic Survey simply no longer exist. It’s become the biggest challenge humanity is facing and it’s all-encompassing. The new patterns will soon become the standard: how it affects agriculture and fisheries.

“You can have all the Marine Protected Areas you want, but if we have more marine heatwaves and they persist for longer and affect shallower waters they will severely affect these places. If the Amazon dries out then no amount of conservation will change it.

“We must reducing carbon dioxide as soon as we can and as fast as we can and develop the technologies which will enable this. Certain sea level rises will happen no matter what we do. As it gets warmer it will expand. It’s not glaciers melting in Antarctica that’s the main problem; it’s thermal expansion of the oceans. A number of small nation states will inevitably disappear because the sea will get into their fresh water supplies.

“Some small countries are beginning to negotiating with African nations to purchase and occupy land when the time comes to translocate their people and their culture.

“We keep calling it an existential risk for humanity, but it isn’t really. Humans will survive what is coming, but what’s being threatened is the way we live. When you make dramatic changes in the way people live it leads to wars and refugees on the mass scale. We’ve been shielded by it to a large extent. But try saying that to the people of Brechin after the floods the other week or to the African nations who can’t grow their crops.”

He cites an interview he’d listened to recently with Roger Hallm, founder of Extinction Rebellion in which he’d stated baldly that some industrialists and political leaders should be up before The Hague on genocide charges. His point was that we know around one billion people will probably die because of climate change and that those who can do something about it are choosing to do nothing.

“We should be pulling back from oil,” says Doug Allan, “but at global climate conferences they wouldn’t even agree to phase it out, only to lessen it. And of course, it will be the poorest in society who will be disproportionately ravaged by what’s coming.”

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