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The BBC at 100: Auntie’s north legacy from Beechgrove to Hamish Macbeth

bbc at 100
Lights, camera, action: Kirsty Wilson and Carole Baxter aren't afraid to dive in at the deep end while filming for BBC Scotland's beloved Beechgrove Garden. Image: Kami Thomson

Over its 100 years, the BBC has spawned many a cultural institution in the north of Scotland, from legendary characters to iconic locations.

We take a look at the top five, starting with:

Beechgrove, Aberdeen

BBC Aberdeen was established in 1923 in Beechgrove House as the BBC’s second centre.

The rambling Victorian building was adapted down the years as technology evolved, to include a concert hall, radio studios, TV editing suites, a newsroom and production offices.

It wasn’t really fit for purpose however and was finally demolished in 2000, to make way for the current building.

BBC Aberdeen’s success wasn’t down to bricks and mortar, but to the enduring legends it created and the people behind them.

bbc at 100: Two men eating rubarb
George Barron offers Jim McColl a taste of the Beechgrove Garden spring rhubarb in 1982. Image: AJL

From the moment George Barron told viewers he was off to do a ‘wee jobbie in the potting shed’ in 1978, Beechgrove Garden was well on the way to becoming a national treasure.

More than four decades later, the couthy charm, decades of gardening experience and enthusiasm and commitment of such hardy perennial presenters as Jim McColl, Carole Baxter and George Anderson have become horticultural icons to hundreds of thousands of viewers.

A BBC camera man filming livestock at the Royal Highland Show
Landward producer Arthur Anderson decided to record a preview of the 1978 Royal Highland Show for the programme by bringing livestock to Beechgrove, having put sturdy fences in place to protect the garden. Image: AJL

Landward is an even longer-running programme from the Beechgrove studios, starting in 1976 with presenter Ross Muir and producer Arthur Anderson.

As Arthur relates in his memoir, Wheels Rolling at Eight, the series made its crew and presenters ambassadors for BBC Aberdeen worldwide as they found themselves up the creek without a paddle —almost — in Papua New Guinea; closely encountering a sheep’s nose and silver horns in Kabardino-Balkarskaya; dancing with horses on the Hungarian plains; chasing whales in Newfoundland; infamously playing snooker with a frozen goose; at home with the family linked to the plot to assassinate Hitler and receiving a hair tonic from the Chinese – by mouth.

The programme has evolved from its original farming focus to more of a country lifestyle series, currently presented by Dougie Vipond.

A man posing with violinists
“Reel Blend” marks closure of old BBC Beechgrove studios. Robbie Shepherd with 11 yr old Erin Smith, front, and members of the Aberdeen Strathspey and reel Society.

Doric tradition-bearer Robbie Shepherd presented Take the Floor for 35 years from the Beechgrove studios.

His couthy humanity, humour and knowledge of country dance music lightened many a Saturday evening for foot-tapping fans relaxing by their radios.

Explaining his broadcasting philosophy, Robbie said: “I like to think that I am broadcasting to a lady in the top tenement in Glasgow at the same time as I am chatting to a lady in a croft.”

BBC Burghead, Moray

It would be remiss not to mention BBC Burghead in Moray.

The venerable Burghead transmitters have broadcast the BBC’s radio stations to northern Scotland on Long Wave and Medium Wave since 1936.

Plockton, Highlands

The setting for the whimsical TV police drama Hamish Macbeth.

The series was loosely based on a series of mystery novels by M. C. Beaton (Marion Chesney).

bbc at 100: A filming location used in the Hamish Macbeth series
Tigh an Fhaing overlooking the pier at Plockton, a spot used in the Hamish Macbeth series. Image: DCT

Known as Lochdhu, a map of the fictional area shown in the episode “In Search of a Rose” places Lochdubh close to Toscaig, just to the north of Kyle of Lochalsh, with Lochdubh Island being part of the Crowlin Islands.

Robert Carlyle starred in the series which ran from 26 March 1995 to 4 May 1997.

BBC at 100: Hamish Macbeth portrayed by Robert Carlyle
Robert Carlyle as Hamish Macbeth in 1997.

His laid-back character, Hamish Macbeth, was determined to avoid promotion or transfer and kept the peace in a decidedly quirky manner.

Strange to think that Robert Carlyle took on the role which was to make his name in 1996 as Begbie in Trainspotting, in the midst of playing the gentle, quirky Hamish Macbeth.

Carlyle may have had top billing in Hamish Macbeth, but surely Wee Jock was the real star of the series.

An elderly woman and man posing with a West Highland terrier
Wee Jock at the Plockton Post Office with actor Ralph Riach who played John in the TV series, and postmistress Kate Harvard. Image: Ian Jolly

Wee Jock, aka Zippy the West Highland terrier, was a heart-throb and the ladies loved him.

A super-cool film star with his own web page, at ease in front of the cameras and eclipsing Scottish actor Robert Carlyle just by flashing his teeth.

When Wee Jock died, he was replaced by another dog named simply “Jock”.

Tobermory, Isle of Mull

It was only a matter of time before producers would be inspired by the colourful facades of Tobermory’s Main Street.

Where better than to set CBBC’s Balamory series? There were four series, created by Brian Jameson and shot between 2002 and 2005.

The harbour at Tobermory

The cast was a mixture of children and adults,  the young children of the local nursery and their teacher, Ms Hoolie.

The regular characters were joined by PC Plum, Archie the inventor, Spencer the Painter, Edie McCready the bus driver, Joise Jump the fitness instructor and Susie Sweet and Penny Pocket who run the local sweet shop.

BBC at 100: Suzie Sweet portrayed by Mary Riggans
Mary Riggans as Suzie Sweet in 2002. Image: BBC

There were lots of sweet stories and songs, mostly set against Tobermory’s 18th-century picture-perfect charm, although certain scenes were shot in Glasgow, and Archie (Miles Jupp) the inventor’s castle was in East Lothian.

Miles Jupp said later his role caused problems with his comedy career, with parents assuming his routines were age-appropriate and permitting their children to see them, while Julie Wilson Nimmo, who played Miss Hoolie, complained that she could not take her children to the local play area without being mobbed.

Miss Hoolie, portrayed by Julie Wilson Nimmo, crouching next to a weather wheel prop from Balamory
Julie Wilson Nimmo as Miss Hoolie in 2004.

But this year Andrew Agnew and Julie Wilson Nimmo made an appearance on ITV’s This Morning for Balamory’s 20th anniversary year and said they would love to work on a new series.

Ardverikie House, Highlands

The impressive baronial house, built by architect John Rhind in the 1870s, and used as the location for the fictional Glenbogle estate for the BBC TV series of Monarch Of The Glen.

Ardverikie House
Ardverikie House, Laggan the location of the series Monarch Of The Glen. Image: Sandy McCook

There were seven series and 64 episodes, airing between February 2000 and October 2005.

The first five series told the story of young restaurateur Archie MacDonald trying to restore his childhood home in the Scottish Highlands, and Alastair Mackenzie, Richard Briers, Susan Hampshire, and Dawn Steele, whilst the final two series of the show focused on new Laird Paul Bowman trying to modernise the estate, primarily starring Lloyd Owen, Tom Baker, Alexander Morton and Susan Hampshire.

BBC at 100: River City's Dawn Steele
Dawn Steele in her River City days in 2016. Image: Andrew Cawley

Dawn Steele (Sea of Souls, River City, Holby City) got her big break as Lexie in the series.

She was an immediate hit with viewers as Lexie, appearing in more than 50 episodes and six series.

The series also accounted for a noticeable uplift in tourism to Badenoch and Strathspey.

BBC at 100: Two men in front of Loch Laggan
Monarch Of The Glen starred Alastair Mackenzie, left, and Richard Briers on the banks of Loch Laggan at the start of filming for the third series. Image: Dundee Press Agency

In 2002, the series was spoofed in the popular BBC television sketch series French and Saunders for their Celebrity Christmas Puddings special and was named “Monarch of the Glum”.

Alastair Mackenzie himself appeared in his role of Archie.

Dawn French appeared as Lexie MacDonald, and Jennifer Saunders as Molly MacDonald.

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