Where is it?

The Flow Country in Caithness and Sutherland. About as far north as you can go on the Highland Railway Line is the UK’s largest peatland storing more carbon than all of our forests and woodlands combined. A landscape of bogs, dark peaty pools, streams and rivers. If all goes well it will become a future UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Why do you go there?

As a peatland scientist, I went there to carry out research. I return to wander and celebrate year-on-year the gradual recovery of the Flows to their natural state.

In researching my book Peat and Whisky, I uncovered stories of illicit distilling and whisky smuggling. In the past, Flow Country peat-flavoured whisky was made at Glenmorangie and Brora. It was once used to make Octomore, the peatiest whisky in the world.

How often do you go?

Whenever I am passing en route to the Orkney ferry or Thurso. A quick hike along the Dubh Lochan trail leads to a space-age viewing platform where you look out across the natural pool systems to the Ben Griams. In autumn, the colours are simply stunning.

How did you discover it?

I became aware of the Flow Country in the 1980s when commercial forestry companies arrived to drain the bogs, plough and plant.

Afforestation was stopped, the damage reversed and led by the RSPB, trees are now being removed and drains blocked. As a scientist I arrived to study the restored bogs as they recovered and once again began to lock up atmospheric carbon dioxide.

The Herald:  Scientist and author Mike Billett Scientist and author Mike Billett (Image: Mike Billett)

What’s your favourite memory?

Making gas flux measurements on a cold, late afternoon in early winter. As the sun set and the temperature dropped our instruments lost power and got slower. It was windless, planets appeared and then stars. Finally, having completed our task, we packed up and walked back to the sanctuary of our vehicle across a frosty, starlit landscape. Field science in dark December. Unforgettable … and cold.

Who do you take?

Fellow scientists or whoever is daft enough to follow me into the peatlands.

What do you take?

Sunscreen, insect repellent, hat, thermals, waterproofs, bog boots, lunch, notebook (delete as appropriate, but not the last three). And maybe even a hipflask … What do you leave behind?

As few footprints as possible. The Flow Country is a fragile landscape and scientists need instruments and feet on the ground.

It’s something we work hard to minimise; collecting data helps us understand these vital ecosystems.

Sum it up in five words.

Watery, windy, wild, wonderful ... vastness.

What other travel spot is on your wish list?

A return to Sulitjelma, a former Norwegian mining town just north of the Arctic Circle.

A place of high mountains, ice caps, fast-flowing glacial streams and biting insects. It was here that I studied rocks and made maps for my PhD thesis. I want to return to see how the landscape has recovered from its mining and smelting past, and see what ghosts still lurk in the shadows.

Peat and Whisky: The Unbreakable Bond by Mike Billett (Saraband, £12.99), is out now


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