BBC Scotland documentary on shy teens who learned about resilence and climate change

Bathgate Academy students embarked on a trip of a lifetime in the Arctic
Bathgate Academy students embarked on a trip of a lifetime in the Arctic
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In April this year Freak Productions sent a camera crew to southern Greenland to record an extraordinary expedition. The plan was to document a project to turn ten ordinary, shy, anxious Scottish teenagers, low on self-esteem and ambition, into role models to inspire their peers.

We were expecting to film the beautiful isolation of the frozen wilderness and the moments of personal achievement that would transform these children.

Bathgate Academy students embarked on a trip of a lifetime in the Arctic

Bathgate Academy students embarked on a trip of a lifetime in the Arctic

What we were not expecting was to capture the impact climate change is having on this fragile Arctic region. Within days of arriving in Greenland, the expedition was hit by a thaw so sudden that the safety of the team was thrown into jeopardy.

For the ten Bathgate Academy teenagers who had been training for a year to reach Greenland, it was a stark lesson on the parlous state of our planet. And for us as filmmakers it was an opportunity to take the story to a wider audience.

The series, Arctic Academy, begins tonight on BBC Scotland – just weeks after hundreds of thousands of people in Britain joined millions more across the world in a global climate strike to demand urgent action on the growing ecological catastrophe.

The urgency was underlined last month by a United Nations report warning the planet’s frozen regions are being devastated by climate change. Among the report’s findings was the fact that the amount of ice melt in Greenland doubled between 2007 and 2016.

Records show the thaw in Greenland came a month earlier than normal this year, the second earliest date on record.

For the expedition team, the impact was unmistakable. The sea ice which just days before had been a solid bridge linking the expedition area to their base at the south east Greenland town of Tasiilaq had begun to melt. By the time the team crossed it to get back to safety it was under several inches of water, and beginning to crack.

The landscape, navigable by ski and sledge when the snow and ice cover is thick, was turning to slush. Rocks usually buried beneath the ice had emerged in the thaw, blocking their route across the terrain. At times the snow was barely deep enough to pitch a tent.

“Five years ago you could guarantee it would be in the minus Celsius for the duration of the season,” said expedition leader Craig Mathieson. “While we were there it reached plus two.”

Most of the people of Tasiilaq are Inuit hunters. The snow and ice provides them with a vital bridge to their hunting grounds and a network of trade routes criss-crosses the landscape, traversed by skidoos and dog sled teams.

“This weather affects the whole community out here,” said Craig. “The guys can’t travel as far on their skidoos or use their dogs so that stops fishing and stops hunting and the community suffers.”

For Craig, who has been visiting the region for the last two decades, the change is clear.

“When I first came here 20 years ago the glaciers were much bigger and it was proper winter and proper summer. People could judge things more, when the fish would come, when the good hunting would be,” he said.

The early thaw raises the prospect that this fragile landscape is under threat and may soon be transformed forever.

“These kids here are probably the last generation to see the true Arctic,” said Craig. “It might not be here in 20, 30 years time. I can see it being like Scotland where it will just be cold and raining all the time and the ice will be gone.”

Jack Warrender, who shot much of the Greenland footage, was embedded with the team throughout the expedition. Having never visited Greenland before, the changes were initially less apparent to him.

“But as time went on I began to pick up on conversations between those who knew the place well about how this ancient landscape was changing,” he said.

“I was interested by the way Greenlandic people talked of water and ice. I think of ice as extreme and dangerous and water as safe and familiar but they took the very opposite view.

“Ice is the bridge between islands, the surface they move along, the platform they fish from, whereas water is unpredictable, dangerous and far harder to navigate.

“It is their great regret that with the turn of every season, water is superseding the ice.”

For Jack the expedition was a test of not only his technical skills but also his stamina. Like the teenagers on the team, he had to haul a sledge loaded with in excess of 45kg of kit, day after day, across the ice and snow as he filmed their progress.

“I had never filmed somewhere so cold or filmed outside for so long and I loved the straightforward challenge of this,” he said.

“As long as you didn’t complain, kept your head down and got on with each individual task, the end of the day soon came and you had managed better than you thought you might.

“But the thing that was hard, genuinely hard, was keeping my energy up. It was at the moments of extremes that I couldn’t not film. When everyone was cold, wet and tired at the end of the day and all you wanted to do was collapse into your own sleeping bag you had to keep filming and keep your enthusiasm for filming.”

Now back in Bathgate, the ten teenagers have been tasked with going out across Scotland to speak to pupils in other schools.

They are barely recognisable from the shy children I first met in December 2017 when we started filming them.

We followed the teenagers through months of training, from weekly fitness workouts to hours spent hauling tyres along the beaches of St Andrews to build their endurance.

We were with them during week-long sessions at Glenmore Lodge, Scotland’s national outdoor training centre in the Cairngorms, where they were put through their paces by some of the country’s most experienced expedition leaders.

We were filming them as they flew from Glasgow to Reykjavik and onto Greenland and their first glimpse of the frozen wilderness. And we were there when they returned to their families and began the slow process of absorbing all their experiences.

“I don’t think you can overstate the influence that the expedition has on these children’s lives,” said Jack.

“It is something they will never forget and will define their memories at a seminal age. It is too romantic to expect there to be any one moment when you see this penny drop, where the children realise the enormity of what they are doing, it is far more gradual and less defined.”

Robyn Thomson, 16, was one of the those on the expedition.

“I think it’s important to pass my story on to others to inspire them,” she said.

“Looking back over the last 18 months it’s been everything and more. I didn’t think it would ever have such an impact on me. I didn’t actually think it would change me so much.

“If you put your mind towards something you can do it. Nothing’s impossible if you actually put the work in.”

Arctic Academy begins tonight at 8pm on BBC Scotland.