Yassin at Glasgow’s Pollok Park in February. Image: Steven Jones
“I can happily say to you,there will be an otter in this river. If you give me 10 minutes, I can find you the scat of the otter.” It’s the morning after the final date on the Strictly Come Dancing live tour and – following some tearful farewells to his fellow dancers – we’ve taken reigning champion Hamza Yassin for a restorative walk in one of Glasgow’s dear green places. He’s ditched the sequins for his more usual, practical outdoor wear and, walking stick in hand, he’s climbing down the side of a narrow brook, poking at mossy roots and branches. In terms of wildness, Pollok Park may not compete with the natural history filmmaker’s home in the remote west coast of Scotland… but that’s not to say there aren’t surprises to be found.
Well within the promised 10 minutes, there’s triumph. Poo has been located, proof of otters secured. “There! There’s the bit of scat! It’s just a little tiny bit, but you can see they’ve been along this particular branch. They would want to spraint [otter dung] on a high bit for the scent to travel. From that one sniff a male will know everything about the female: if she’s in season, if she’s not, how old she is. And it’s all from a scent place like this.”
Pollok is a pretty park, but it’s better known for its Parkrun, the local Highland cows and The Burrell Collection museum than it is as a wildlife destination. I must’ve been here 100 times, but had no idea there were otters sharing the space. “It’s about knowing the right places and the right knowledge to find the bits of information that you need,” says Yassin. “So if I’m in a place like this, I’ll be looking for violent green colour like that, because otters will always spraint in the same spot. It’s kind of like marking their territory. And over years, you will get a mound that is a perfect V, full of scat. You can go to the bottom and carbon date it – and go, this is 200 years old.”
Hamza Yassin’s skill in tracking animals, and his ability to capture their behaviours on film, have led him to be one of the country’s most in-demand cameraman. He’s filmed polar bears in the Arctic and sparrow hawks hunting in the UK. Up next from him is Wild Isles, a programme that treats the wildlife of the British Isles with the same lavish production values more usually seen in globe-trotting, blue-chip series like Planet Earth. It may well turn out to be the last time we see Sir David Attenborough presenting from the field. Yassin contributed to a number of sequences, including filming white-tailed eagles swooping over windswept Scottish seas. “It’s a dream come true,” he grins.
The dream didn’t come easy. Yassin was eight when his family moved to the UK from Sudan. “I think I had four words of English,” he remembers, “please, thank you, pizza and chips.” In Sudan, the extended family – a clatter of uncles, aunts and cousins – lived together in a big house within sight of the Nile, had a pet monkey called Durbis, and were “surrounded by all the wildlife that you can get in an African savannah”. So, when he first arrived in England with just his mum, dad and brother, the place looked bleak to young Hamza.
“I realised I had such a privileged upbringing being in Africa, surrounded by the wildlife,” he says. “When you first come to the UK, you think it’s barren. It’s just green and loads of trees. At first sight, you don’t see anything. But all you’ve got to do is sit and be patient.” Yassin’s mum would take him to RSPB reserves, where his love of British wildlife grew and the goal of filming it took root.
Yassin was a teenager at school in Northampton when he was diagnosed as dyslexic. At that point, he realised the usual paths into his longed-for career wouldn’t be open to him. “Because I’m severely dyslexic, I couldn’t go to the BBC in Bristol and become a researcher or a runner, because I know I can’t read and write very well,” he says. “I can speak fine. But reading and writing is a nightmare. So I’ve got to do it a different way.”
So it was that, aged 21, after successfully completing a degree in zoology with conservation, Yassin packed up and left home to live in the Scottish Highlands. With no accommodation secured, and no money coming in, Yassin’s first Scottish home was his car. “For nine months, I was living as a homeless guy,” Yassin says. “I was voluntarily homeless, in the sense that I knew I couldn’t live in a city any more. And I knew I wanted to be a wildlife cameraman. Moving to the west coast of Scotland, within a 20-minute car journey, I’ve got the alps of Scotland, Jamaican looking beaches, honestly – crystal blue waters. You’ve got the dolphins, the orcas, the red deer. You’ve got so many stories around you that you can tell.”
The wildlife may have been stunning and the landscapes incredible, but a car is not a home. During that time Yassin would pretend to his mum he had a “lovely little cottage” to live in, covering his tracks by claiming she couldn’t phone him there because he didn’t have any reception. “I’ll call you,” he’d say.
When he’s told this story in the past, Yassin has always emphasised the happy ending, and his gratitude to the people of the Ardnamurchan peninsula, where he still lives. A local family – who he now refers to as his “Scottish mum and dad” – took him under their wing, getting him “out of the car and up on my feet”. They helped him get a caravan, where he lived without running water but in comparative luxury set against his car. Thanks to the success of his photography and guided tours, he worked up to the non-imaginary cottage he calls home today. It’s a beautiful story of community and the power of sheer ambition. But, he now admits, there were dark moments.
“When I was at my lowest, I’ve left home, I’ve got nowhere to go,” he says. “I’ve only got to pay for my car tax, my petrol and my food, that’s the only three things. I calculated that to be under 50 quid a month. So I started working as a gardener. I chopped logs for people. I helped clean houses. I was a house cleaner for a number of years.”
All the while, Yassin was fuelled by his passion for nature, betting everything on making it as a cameraman. “You got to do what you got to do to follow your dream,” he explains. “For me, it was like, well, it can’t go any worse than this. I hope my car works tomorrow morning when I try to start it. But I’m in it for the long run. All it can be from here is up. It has to be up. And with that mentality, you will go forward and make it. I mean, I’ve just done bloody Strictly. You know what I mean?”
Yassin’s rise on the back of Strictly has been vertiginous. He’s well aware that many people were nonplussed when he was originally announced. “I heard people say, the BBC are scraping the bottom of the barrel now. They’re getting one of their own cameramen to join in,” he says. In reality, many younger viewers already knew Yassin well as Ranger Hamza, the star of CBeebies nature programme Let’s Go for a Walk. It’s half term when we’re on our own walk around Pollok Park, and we’re stopped at regular intervals by young ramblers keen to get their photo taken with him.
“My grandson watches you every day,” says one women, passing with her dog. “Your programmes are superb.” Yassin beams as he helps her take a selfie of the pair of them. “That’s what it’s all about,” he grins, as she happily walks off waving. “If her grandson knows how much I love the natural world, consequently, as they grow up, hopefully I just lit a little spark in them to say, ‘Mum, instead of driving to school, can we walk to school today? It’s autumn. We’re gonna see how many leaves we can find that are different shapes.’ Jackpot.”
It’s a little trick Yassin likes to call “SF by stealth: scientific facts by stealth”. Instead of beating people over the head with the knowledge you want them to take in, it’s about finding a way to engage them that will be entertaining as well as informative. Amid the pasodoble and tango, Strictly is the best possible platform for such a sneak attack. “To take a Highlander from the west coast of Scotland, who is a natural history filmmaker, and put him on primetime television in front of 16 million people every Saturday… what more can you ask for? You cannot get a better advertisement for the natural world than being on Strictly and talking about mother nature and dedicating some of the dances towards the natural world,” he says.
“For me, looking after mother nature, that’s the important thing. And people now see that I deeply care about it, about her. And we should look after our planet. We all live in it together. We can also understand if we all do a little tiny bit, we will make this world a better place. There’s not many other shows on television that you can say your message in such a way that everybody enjoys. This is the power of what Strictly can do.”
Yassin may have agreed to Strictly to get a message out, but he was surprised to find out how much he loved the experience in its own right. Having never danced before he joined Strictly (beyond doing the Macarena at his brother’s wedding), he didn’t anticipate the impact dancing – and his dance partner Jowita Przystał – would have on him. “I never thought in a million years I’m gonna like dancing,” he laughs. “But I absolutely fell in love, head over heels with dancing. Because I knew how much passion Jowita had for it. It changed the way I see the world.” In return, Yassin shared some of his love of nature with his dance partner. The two of them plan to make a documentary together in the near future.
A bona fide celebrity, much to his bemusement, Yassin is in high demand right now. His gambles have paid off and he’s making his living doing what he loves. But there are still sacrifices to make. One of them is the difficulty in having a relationship, though at 33, he says he’s in no rush yet.
“It is hard,” he says. “The job is not conducive to really having a longterm relationship or family. But it can be done. You just have to prioritise. A few of the amazing camera operators before me are in amazing marriages with family. For me at the moment, in this particular time of life, I’m on the busy stage of it. I want to make a stance for the natural world. And if someone comes along, amazing. I’ll welcome them in.”
Wild Isles is on Sundays at 7pm on BBC One and available on iPlayer
This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.