NICHOLAS Crane is not one to court controversy, but as someone who has spent over three decades passing on his knowledge of the world's most remote nooks and corners, he has reservations about the trend for celebrities hijacking travel documentaries.
"The increase in travelogue programmes on television is a great thing if they encourage people to get outdoors and explore with their own eyes," he says. "But a few too many seem to be extended holiday jaunts for the presenters. It's all very well entertaining, but they just don't convey enough information."
For the 54-year-old, travel is not simply a way of seeing the world, but a means of studying how man's influence has irrevocably altered its shape and form. Swathed in Gore-Tex and armed with his trusty – now famous – umbrella, he has brought to life Britain's landscape through acclaimed television series such as Great British Journeys, Coast, Map Man, and most recently, Britannia – The Great Elizabethan Journey, each episode revealing a trove of secrets hidden beneath apparently mundane geographical features. Simply put, Nicholas Crane is the man who made scree slopes exciting.
Crane is that rarified breed of television presenter: someone with a genuine, communicable enthusiasm for his subject. The BBC first sought him out after he wrote a biography of the Renaissance map maker Gerardus Mercator, the man who invented the atlas. When he appears on screen describing the merits of a bog or hummocky moorland, it is evident he has spent a lifetime in such environments, huddled up in a bivvy bag listening to nature's strange nocturnal song. "As Billy Connolly said, 'There's no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothing,'" Crane jokes.
In Scotland this week to deliver a series of talks for the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS), I suspect that not even the drab, wintry conditions will prevent Crane from escaping the lectern to scamper up a remote hillside. Some of his most cherished locations, from Clachtoll beach in the heart of Assynt, to the ridges of Druim Hain in Skye – which he describes as the "most gut-fluttering natural spectacle" in all the world – are here.
"I've been climbing mountains in Scotland since I was a teenager," Crane reflects. "Every time I visit the country, I find places I didn't know existed. It may sound like a clich, but one lifetime simply isn't enough to explore Scotland. It has an incredibly convoluted and disproportionately long coastline, and backcountry which is inaccessible."
It is not the kind of advertising VisitScotland might employ, but Crane believes we are too willing to eschew home for foreign climes in search of a holiday. In his RSGS talks, he recalls the journalism of HV Morton, a 1930s travel writer who puttered through Scotland in his motor car and informed the British people of the wonderful sights on their doorstep.
"Morton was writing during a time of depression, and trying to excite people about their own archipelago at a time when it was not possible to travel abroad. In a way, he kick-started the whole heritage trail. He encouraged people to spend time in their own country, and in our current economic crisis, coupled with the concern over the environment, it's an approach I think people should be taking."
The environment lies at the centre of Crane's work. The many spokes on his umbrella – explorer, geographer, historian, cartographer and journalist – have instilled in him a sense of perspective seldom found in your everyday travelogue. Having compared the world around him to the way others once saw it through old maps and journals, he has assumed something of a green streak.
"The important message I try to get across in my television work and books is that we are now a natural force ourselves," he explains.
"For a long time, we did not take more from the land that could not be replaced through natural regrowth, but the situation has changed. Man is changing the environment and the landscapes, and we need to appreciate the scale on which we are doing that."
"The general historical attitude was that our natural resources were inexhaustible. Daniel Defoe wrote about the idea of an endless supply of timber, for example, but we now know that such things are finite.
"Any part of the British Isles you travel to, you will find that the landscape has changed because of this. If you look at the books of William Camden, who wrote the first topographical survey of the islands of Britain, he described how wolf hunts were carried out in the Highlands of Scotland three times a year. Now, wolves are extinct in the wild."
Such a love of Britain and an appreciation of its fragility were not always so close to Crane's heart. His appetite for global adventure was whetted at a young age, when he took to his bike armed with old Ordnance Survey maps, and simply roamed the flat countryside of East Anglia ("I would go out thinking I was Scott heading off to the Antarctic") and by 19, his penchant for adventure had developed. He cycled from his Norfolk home all the way to Greece in a three-week journey and the following year, he set his sights even farther afield, and ventured to Africa. He subsequently travelled far and wide, writing about his trips to the likes of Tibet, the Gobi desert, and Afghanistan. In the late 1980s, however, he became aware of fledgling research warning about the gradual destruction of the ozone layer.
The dangers of carbon-dioxide emissions and global warming came later, each revelation shocking Crane and causing him to feel guilty for recommending far-flung locales to budding tourists. Since 1997, Crane has not flown for his work, travelling either by train, or more often, bike or foot. It may make for incredibly detailed, informed films, but makes severe physical demands.
"My crew and I all try and keep ourselves in prime condition," Crane says. "When you're filming for two days and a night just to get the one short sequence, it can be hard. My poor cameraman ends up saddled with monitors and rucksacks, loaded like a donkey. But there are never any moans. We're a productive team, and we love getting out and about."
Even now, Crane continues to use old maps to find his way around. Often, he will take an old map along on a journey, retracing the steps of people like William Roy – who made the first map of Scotland in the wake of the Battle of Culloden – and documenting the way the land has changed. What was once a peninsula on a Tudor map, for example, has now been replaced by a beach. There is, he insists, no better way of seeing and studying the world.
"New advances like Google Earth and traditional cartography can work together," he reasons. "Google Earth is a very useful tool, but only up to a certain scale. For instance, it can't look beneath the ground, where we can learn a great deal about climate change and environmental changes. Cartography allows us to do that. It gives us a window into old landscapes."
• Nicholas Crane's talk, Great British Journeys, takes place tomorrow at the George Square Lecture Theatre, University of Edinburgh. RSGC member tickets are available on 01738 455 050. Non-RSGC members should call 0131-650 2565.
IN the eyes of Nicholas Crane, Henry Vollam 'HV' Morton was among the first great travel writers of the 20th century, who "brought history alive" for a generation bereft of education or prospects.
His books about Scotland, In Search of Scotland and In Scotland Again, won him many admirers in the1930s, describing as they did parts of country unknown to the vast majority of Britons.
Scotland, wrote the Lancashire journalist, was a land of "mist, wind, rain, the cry of the curlew and the snow clouds above damp moorland", a nation "whose memory rings the withers of the far from home" and one which even a stranger "learns to love".
Visiting Aberdeen, he found himself impressed by a city of granite palaces, "inhabited by people as definite as their building material".
Although prone to outbursts of romantic fervour and prose overly rich in sentiment, Morton's studies of Scotland are shot through with character and a dry humour.
On arriving in Glencoe, for instance, he cannot help but reprint a sign hanging outside a tearoom. "The Village of Glencoe, Scene of the Famous Massacre," it reads, before adding: "Teas and Refreshments Served."
Morton also achieved renown for his pioneering reports from abroad; he was the only journalist present at the discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt.