THERE’S a large stuffed-toy tiger peering up from behind Lesley Riddoch as she chats over a Zoom video call from her home in coastal Fife. It is, she explains, a gift for one of her stepdaughters, but also a jokey and cuddly representation of something from her work-life. Her latest documentary, Estonia: The Baltic Tiger, out last month, looks at the economic success of the Baltic country since it gained independence in 1991 – so tigers are a kind of theme of the moment.

“Actually I have two Baltic tigers here,” she said. “I got them for my stepdaughters who have both just got a flat and a house. One is in the Hague in the Netherlands, the other is in London. We haven’t seen each other because of lockdown and now I’m thinking in what situation will Jenny emerge from the Netherlands with a large enough case to put a fricking tiger in?”

Riddoch lives in a village about 100 yards, she says, from the Tay. The picture she paints of her life over the last year seems almost idyllic. She has acquired an electric bike and goes on regular jaunts. She recalls “the astonishment” of spring last year, and how she thought she had “never truly seen a spring before, witnessed it in every slow progress it makes.” The book that is on the top of her enormous “to read” pile is The Natural History Of The Garden by Michael Chinery.

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In fact, she says, the Covid-19 year has been one of her most productive. In spite of the challenges, she made two documentaries (Estonia: The Baltic Tiger and Declaration, The Letter Of Liberty). She completed a PhD on hutting in Norway and Scotland, and a book on that subject, Huts: A Place Beyond: How To End Our Exile From Nature, persuasive enough to make you crave a cabin of your own – or even rent a bothy as Riddoch once did – and support the hutting movement. And now, from Monday, she starts as a Herald columnist.

The Estonia documentary, she observes, would have been out many months ago if it weren’t for covid. “But strangely it seems very relevant now, particularly given that London School of Economics report that was quite gloomy about Scotland’s prospects. If the LSE had been looking at Estonia’s prospects in 1991, they would have been gloomy. Nobody factors in the things that can happen when people finally get to release their energy and ingenuity and get motivated.”


Riddoch’s settling down in coastal Fife has, she says, been the end result of a gradual flight from the city. “My mother grew up in Wick,” she says, “and my dad grew up in a road junction in Banffshire. They were basically country people. My life was Wolverhampton, which was where I was born, Belfast which was where I thought I was from until I was disabused of that one, and then Glasgow. It was dead centre urban all the time. But a bit of me just constantly hankered to not be there and over time I started to think: what am I doing here?”

Mostly the answer, she found, would be that she was there because of work. “I think I just watched myself progressively move further and further away from Glasgow which is the epicentre of all work as far as journalism and broadcasting is concerned.”

Trying to keep a broadcast career going rurally has shown to her how central belt orientated the media is. “This is really important because a lot of my sympathies and friendships lie even further north than me.”

Riddoch’s relative remoteness has not, however, held her back too much in terms of cultural impact. Her book Blossom – What Scotland Needs to Flourish, an impassioned examination of the possibilities self-government might bring, was one of the key texts published around the independence referendum. Nordic Horizons, which she set up in 2010, has made a mark on debate with its advocacy of Scandinavian models of governance. And she has made now four documentaries on the Nordic countries, Faroes, Iceland, Norway and Estonia, with filmmaker Charlie Stuart, all of which, support that.

One of the things that becomes apparent in our conversation is the way for her almost all roads lead back to Wick, her mother’s birthplace. The Nordic obsession is such a road. “My mother is from Wick in Caithness and she thought she was Norse – as all Caithnesians do. And with reason. Genetic tests show they have the highest Norse blood of any mainland bit of Britain. It’s not surprising really. They’re opposite Orkney and Shetland. They just are Norse really.”

She recalls that her mother was always really curious about Norway. A key moment in the development of that connection took place when she and her brother took their mum, whose maiden name was More, to Alesund in Norway, in the county of Møre and Romsdal. “We were expecting that we would be tripping over Møres everywhere. And of course we met none. But we had a brilliant time and that just opened my eyes because this place was like us and not like us. That stuck and then I just became more and more curious.”

Years later, in 2010, she was on a train heading to the SNP conference to report on it and sitting in a carriage listening to four people talking about Norway. “By this stage,” she recalls, “I knew a bit. And they were talking rubbish actually and then another guy in the compartment suddenly piped up and said, ‘You’re talking nonsense.’ So he and I started talking and set up Nordic Horizons as a result of that on the train. We thought this is crazy, these are our nearest neighbours and nobody knows anything about them.”


In the course of researching her hutting PhD, Riddoch ended up spending four months in Norway. Has she never felt the desire to go move there? “I think in the end it’s people that keep me in Scotland – the way people operate. The thing I miss in all the Nordics is the constant interaction with people you get in Scotland. Just stand anywhere in rural Scotland and someone will apropos of nothing start talking to you at a bus stop.”

She remarks on the way that people passing one another in the road, will give each other a tip of the hand. “For nothing. It’s just an acknowledgement of another person’s existence and you could speculate on what that’s all about, but I think the only reason that we have all managed to keep going, particularly in country areas, in the difficult circumstances of the past, has been cooperation and mutuality. I hope we never lose that.”

Wick also features in her stories about how she came to advocate for land reform and later independence. “When we went to Caithness every year our holiday jaunts would be to cleared villages. My mum was a very mild-mannered woman who didn’t have any particular radical politics at all, and the whole Caithnesian family would be like that, but they all had a strong line on land reform – because they had been through it. In Caithness it’s not possible to go anywhere there without hitting a story, a past, a memory, and the emptiness.”

She recalls how while working as a journalist for the BBC, she became “very seized by land reform in Scotland” and began to dig around the issue. One of her best friends was one of the Assynt crofters, and when she heard about their buy-out, she got involved by giving it attention on the BBC. After Assynt, she became hugely involved in the Eigg buy-out, of which she was a trustee.

That feeling towards independence had its germs as well in childhood. She had always been aware of the “different stories” of the countries that make up the United Kingdom. “When I was a precocious and doubtless irritating child in Belfast, I used to carefully correct history books that were making a confusion between Britain and England because I used to think it was inaccurate. So I got into defacing books. Having been dragged all over the place by that stage, born in England, brought up in Northern Ireland, parents from Scotland where we went every year on holiday, I was fully aware of the United Kingdom.”

Riddoch had her 60th birthday just before lockdown last year. “Everybody was there,” she recalls. “My ex-husband, my stepdaughters, their mother. We have a sort of what other people might consider strange but brilliant extended family, which is a tremendous thing. That’s all worked really well.”

She lives on her own, but she says she hasn’t felt alone during this pandemic. Her ex-husband Chris, still a good friend, lives nearby, and helped by shopping for her when she was shielding because of an autoimmune condition. “If I go out for a walk here I would easily speak to three people just walking round the place. Then I’ll probably go for a walk with Chris, every other day. It doesn’t feel like I’m on my own.”

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She has also experienced the revelation of getting an electric bike. “My god was that the best thing I ever bought? It’s been great realising how far you can go. Whatever you can think you can do. That’s youth. That’s youth personified – thinking and doing. If you think you want to go up that hill you do it. And that makes you feel youthful. You stop worrying. If you’re curious about a little side road that you would previously not go down because it’s a bit of a hill, you just go down it for the craic, see what it’s like and come back up again. It’s fantastic.”

That seems like Riddoch all over. Curious, and up for exploring any side road. Just for the craic.

Lesley Riddoch will write every Monday for The Herald