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He's the travel writer whose globetrotting adventures have won him legions of fans... but few of them have any idea that Tim Ecott grew up in Northern Ireland

The Queen’s University graduate tells Linda Stewart how his new book took him to the Faroe Islands and why they reminded him of the Mournes

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Travel writer Tim Ecott

Travel writer Tim Ecott

Some of the landscape of the Faroe Islands, where there are more sheep than people

Some of the landscape of the Faroe Islands, where there are more sheep than people

The NI travel writer who etc

The NI travel writer who etc

Travel writer Tim Ecott

Travel writer Tim Ecott has been all over the world, from the Seychelles to the Faroe Islands and from Mozambique to Maine - which could be one reason why nobody in Northern Ireland ever recognises the accent.

But no, he says - despite being born and reared here - he never had the accent, and continues to find it “mildly irritating” that people here don’t accept him as Irish.

“As you can tell, I don’t sound Irish and I never have - it’s not a case of losing the accent or disguising it,” he says.

“My father was English and my mother had lived abroad a lot, so they didn’t have Irish accents particularly.

“Even though I was born there and christened there and went to school there and went to Queen’s University, it’s always, you know, even at Queen’s, people in the shops would say ‘Are you here on your holidays?’. Sometimes I would just say yes because I couldn’t be bothered to explain.”

A journalist and broadcaster whose work has taken him all over the world, Tim has slowed the pace right down for his latest written work, The Land of Maybe, an in-depth love letter to the Faroe Islands and its people, documenting the 18 remote North Atlantic islands through a calendar year.

He follows the arrival of the migratory birds, the overwintering of the sheep and the changing demands of the natural environment, where people still hunt seabirds and herd pilot whales to supply their dietary needs. Tim admits he did see some similarities between those remote Viking Isles and the landscape where he was brought up.

“I was offered a travel writing assignment there about 11 or 12 years ago. I just took the opportunity and went there and fell in love with it pretty quickly,” he says.

“I think actually it reminded me of the Mountains of Mourne - I felt very at home there straight away. It was a very different and foreign place in many ways but there are a lot of cultural, historical and geological connections with Ireland. It’s a very close-knit society and there’s a lot of music, there’s a lot of writing, there’s a lot of poetry.

“People are very family oriented - the church is still very strong - and there are lots of similarities with the Ireland in which I grew up, certainly the Ireland of my grandparents, and I think I responded to that on some level.

“I also loved the remoteness of it and the harshness of the weather and the fact that it was underpopulated - you could get up in the mountains and be away from people quite easily. But at the same time, I found the people there were the friendliest, most hospitable people I’ve ever met anywhere in my travels all over the world.”

Born in Newtownards, Tim now lives in a village near Oxford with his wife Jessica, who did the line drawings for this book, and has a son and daughter of university age. He grew up in Ballyholme, attending Bangor Grammar School. “My father was in the Army and moved around a lot - that is why I don’t have the accent,” he says.

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Tim's mum Pamela

Tim's mum Pamela

Tim's mum Pamela

While his dad Stuart was English, his mum Pamela had roots in Northern Ireland - her dad came from a farming family in Lurgan and fought in the First World War with his five brothers before staying on in the Army.

“My mother was actually born in Egypt, when my grandmother was on my way out to join my grandfather in India. But they returned to Newcastle after India and that’s where my grandparents spent the rest of their life.”

In previous memoirs, Tim has documented how his dad’s role in the Army meant stints of living in Wales, Germany and Malaysia, but he left the Army once the family returned to Northern Ireland from overseas.

“He was convinced that education in Northern Ireland was superior, and he loved living there more than England - slightly to my mother’s frustration who was always dreaming of escaping the weather which she hated, having spent her childhood in India,” Tim says.

As a child, Tim wanted to be a vet, admitting he was obsessed with animals.

“My mother bred Siamese cats and we always had dogs and cats and whatever else, and I kept fish. Because we had so many cats and dogs I was always the one who had to go to the vet and I would take the stitches out and I was obsessed with looking after the animals,” he says.

“From the age of about six all I wanted to be was a vet and then the reality of not doing very well in my Physics O-Level hit home and that was the end of my veterinary ambitions.”

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Tim as a toddler on Newcastle beach in Northern Ireland

Tim as a toddler on Newcastle beach in Northern Ireland

Tim as a toddler on Newcastle beach in Northern Ireland

Instead he went to Queen’s in 1982 to read English Literature, but soon fell in love with anthropology and switched courses.

“I’m sure being exposed to so much talk of foreign places etc drove my interest in anthropology,” he muses.

“If we’re talking about the Northern Irish side of my life, the Queen’s time is probably the most interesting and the happiest.

“I loved every minute of being there and was sorry when it came to an end. Queen’s was a little bubble or oasis of peace. I was very, very active in the Queen’s University boat club - so many dark and grizzly winter days were spent down on the Lagan. I carried on rowing even when I worked at the BBC and I eventually was a member of London Rowing Club.”

In his last year at school, Tim’s parents, brother and sister had emigrated to South Africa, so he was there in the holidays and returned to Belfast in term time.

“I would usually go in the summer and work in Johannesburg to save up money for the coming academic year,” he says.

“Part of the final exam was to produce a 10,000 word dissertation and I was lucky enough to be able to use my summers in South Africa to be able to do the field work.”

In Tim’s case, however, his field work didn’t focus on a tribal or ethnic study - but a German restaurant, putting his summer job as a wine waiter to good use.

“I wrote my thesis on power structures in a German restaurant in South Africa. So it was a kind of study of how somebody may on paper look like he’s the boss, but maybe somebody lower down the food chain has more influence than you would expect because of their personal relationship,” he says.”

“It’s about collecting very detailed information about how the people worked together and the things they said off the record and behind each others backs and how that played out and what went on in the actual day-to-day running of the restaurant.

“I think a lot of my friends at Queen’s thought I was swanning off to Africa to lie beside the swimming pool while servants brought me iced tea, but in fact I worked.”

After Queen’s he did a postgraduate anthropology at Cambridge, then went into the film industry, before applying for a job at the BBC. While he didn’t get the job, his CV went across to BBC World Service and he was offered a job in the Africa service.

“I worked for a live current affairs and news programme that ran four times a day, something like the Today Programme but Africa. So we covered the whole of sub Saharan Africa and part of our job was to be familiar with the politics and conflicts all over the continent, but we would also make regular duty trips to do in-depth reporting,” he says.

“I also had a two-year stint working for the African service in Johannesburg, and actually my time there coincided with Fergal Keane so we did some jobs together. I also did another two years in the Indian Ocean based in Seychelles.

“I was based in Johannesburg the year that Mandela was released and therefore the run-up to the democratic elections - that was a very interesting time to be in South Africa because all kinds of things were changing and all kinds of contacts with the outside world were being renewed.

“I did a lot of interesting stories, everything I think from covering Crystal Palace coming to play in Soweto to Neil Simon coming and doing a concert with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I interviewed Christian Barnard about his life and his pioneering work as a heart surgeon and I became quite friendly with the King of Lesotho - so lots of interesting stuff really.”

During his time in the Seychelles, Tim learned to scuba dive, which stood him in good stead when he left the BBC and went freelance as a travel writer.

“Because I was a very experienced diver, I got a lot of great assignments, everywhere from Tahiti to Mozambique to Maine to Fiji, you name it I’ve been there, done it.”

The new book focuses on nature and the landscape in the Faroes Islands, as well as how history and climate have shaped the culture.

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Some of the landscape of the Faroe Islands, where there are more sheep than people

Some of the landscape of the Faroe Islands, where there are more sheep than people

Some of the landscape of the Faroe Islands, where there are more sheep than people

“There are more sheep than people there and everybody owns some sheep, so I’ve learned a lot about sheep and shepherding and I’ve done a lot of rounding up of sheep, weighing of sheep, shearing of sheep, counting of sheep, slaughtering of sheep and butchering a sheep and eating bits of sheep that I never knew existed,” Tim says.

“I’ve also been out catching seabirds and I’ve also witnessed pilot whale hunting. The book is about how we make decisions, which animals we think it’s okay to kill and eat and how we make judgments about other cultures - and it’s about sustainability.

“If a species is not endangered, is it better to kill and eat that animal locally, rather than buy imported meat which has been kept on a farm and wrapped in plastic and shipped in in a container or flown in? Is that morally better than catching things that are on your doorstep and killing them with a knife - I’m not sure it is.”

But he admits experiencing an internal battle over the pilot whale hunting.

“It’s a complex issue, and I think people are very quick to react on an emotional level. Because of my marine science background and my years spent diving, and some of my happiest and most spiritual encounters in my life have been with marine mammals, so the very idea of witnessing pilot whales being killed at first hand was something I wasn’t sure I wanted to see,” he says.

“I didn’t know how I would cope with it, so a big part of the journey in the book, if you like, is how I deal with that.”

Tim says that globalisation has been affecting the islands ever since the Irish monks arrived in the 4th century, but the islanders have their own language and a strong social cohesion.

“About 40% of the total population now live in the capital, and the remote villages on the smaller islands are becoming depopulated, certainly in the winter,” he says.

“But a lot of Faroese people have returned to the islands - for many years there was a net outflow of people but in the last five or 10 years, people have been returning to the islands because they want their children to grow up with Faroese culture - they want that strength of community, they want that family, that safety.

“It’s a very safe place - crime is still almost unheard of, people don’t lock their cars.

“They could go on holiday for two weeks to Spain and don’t lock that house while they’re away.”

The Land of Maybe: A Faroe Islands Year by Tim Ecott is published by Short Books on March 12, £14.99 hardback

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