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Religious Studies academics consult on Ben Fogle’s new Scottish Islands series

Ben Fogle sits at the top of the Quiraing on Skye with rock formations and the coast behind him in the distance

Professors Marion Bowman and John Wolffe acted as academic consultants for the second series of OU/BBC co-production Scotland’s Sacred Islands with Ben Fogle.

The series sees presenter Ben Fogle travelling to some of Scotland’s most beautiful islands,  exploring how faith and belief took root there and how they continue to thrive in island communities today.

Professor of Religious History John Wolffe, one of the academic consultants for the series, noted that “Through its focus on fascinating and scenic islands, this series explores changing forms of religious expression and spirituality in the contemporary world and raises important questions about the nature of communities and their relationship to the environment. It has been a rewarding privilege to be involved.”

Beginning with the Isles of the Clyde - Arran and Holy Isle - in the first episode, Ben learns how they’re a haven for diverse faiths and beliefs. Holy Isle is renowned as the home of a 6th century hermit monk, today it’s home to a Buddhist Peace Centre. Arran’s community was so devout that prefab churches - Tin Kirks - were manufactured from corrugated iron on the mainland and shipped across. Community spirit remains strong – Ben learns to make Jewish Challah bread, and performs at the Arran Folk Festival.

He visits the Isles of the Sound, Islay and Jura, in the second episode, tracing the route of 6th century Christian monks. Islay is famed for its whisky, with more distilleries than churches, but its links to Christianity are ancient, being a crossroads between Ireland and Scotland for early Celtic monks. Jura is known as the ‘wilderness isle’, thought to have been where St Columba lived as hermit. Jura is also where George Orwell wrote his dark masterpiece 1984. Ben traces the route of Irish Monks to land on a little-known, ‘heavenly’ island called Eileach an Naoimh, ‘The Isle of The Saints’ where he finds an incredible 6th Century monk’s cell, understood to be the oldest Christian building in Britain.

He investigates Norse Christian heritage of Orkney and ideas of 21st century pilgrimage in the third episode. Orkney has seen a diverse range of faiths for over 5000 years, from the ceremonial stone Ring of Brodgar, to embracing Christianity in the late 10th century. Orkney has its own distinct Norse Christian Saint, Magnus, and the Saint’s legacy has inspired a modern pilgrimage route across Orkney’s mainland. On the Island of Lamb Holm, Ben visits the Italian Chapel built by Italian prisoners during WW2, before meeting up with Theo Ogbhemhe - originally from Nigeria, he came to Orkney to teach and now considers the island chain his spiritual home.

In the final episode, Ben discovers spiritual power and faith on the stunning Isle of Skye. He visits St Columba’s Isle where the Irish missionary is said to have preached in the 6th century and baptised the island’s pagan people, and joins a group of urban Scottish teenagers attending the Columba 1400 Leadership Academy as they head out on an expedition. Ben takes a trip to the tiny Isle of Rona, where 150 crofters lived in the 1800s, but which now has only two permanent residents. With no church on the island, they used a cave which Ben makes an arduous journey to reach, realising that this is the perfect place to end his personal pilgrimage across Scotland’s Sacred Isles.

Professor of Vernacular Religion Marion Bowman, explains that “As a Scottish Religious Studies scholar, my research areas are Vernacular Religion - which focuses on religion as it is lived in everyday life - diverse forms of contemporary spirituality, and new non-traditional forms of pilgrimage in Scotland. Working on Scotland's Sacred Islands has been right up my street! It’s been a pleasure to be involved in bringing to a wider audience some insights into possibly unfamiliar places, spiritual practices, cultural traditions and worldviews.

I hope that people will find the beauty and diversity of the islands visited, the insights into traditional forms of religiosity, new spiritual and personal quests and the many means of community-building and meaning-making featured, both fascinating and thought-provoking.”   

Watch an exclusive interview with Ben via OU Connect, and learn more about the work of academic consultants for the series Professor John Wolffe and Professor Marion Bowman.

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