In February of this year, we made a long-anticipated phototour to the Scottish Highlands, a sparsely populated mountainous region which encompasses the northwest of the country and the Hebridean Islands, a diverse and enchanted archipelago that include Skye and Lewis and Harris. Overall, we could not have been more pleased with the conditions for photography, beginning with Arctic conditions that dumped considerable snow on the high ground, and several magnificently coloured dawns which will long remain seared into our memories. Our visit also coincided with Storm Erik and some other Atlantic low pressure systems, but these in no way diminished the grandeur and elemental nature of the landscapes Scotland has to offer.
We took our Land Rover Defender, Olaf, across on the ferry from Belfast to Cairnryan, arriving after dusk. The journey along the A82 that crosses the wilderness of Rannoch Moor with its windswept bogs and lakes was akin to crossing the Arctic, with heavy snow showers reducing visibility to just a few metres; the eyes of numerous deer picked out in the headlights of our Land Rover added an otherworldly touch! The mercury plunged to -10°C as we camped out overnight, and hovered round freezing inside Olaf, which pulled the life out of our camera batteries. Unfortunately, the next morning we discovered that we had left our camera chargers at home. In the words of the great Scottish poet, Robert Burns, 'The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, Gang aft a-gley...' so we had to make an unintended detour to Oban on the Firth of Lorn to buy a couple!
En route to Skye, our main destination, we passed Buachaille Etive Mòr (the shepherd or herdsman of Etive), one of the most photographed locations in the Scottish Highlands affectionately known as The Buachaille. The name actually refers to the massif which includes a ridge and several summits, but it is the pyramidal Stob Dearg which dominates the scene at the head of Glen Etive as seen from the A82 when travelling towards Glencoe. This quintessentially Scottish scene appears in thousands of guidebooks, and on biscuit tins and postcards, making it the country’s most-loved mountain.
There are myriad points at which to capture this iconic peak. We took an image in Glencoe on the north side of the mountain, with the diminutive Lagangarbh Hut in the foreground. The wee white-washed cottage surrounded by a stand of wind-blasted conifers on a bank above the River Coupall looked dwarfed by the mountain and lost in the enormity of the white wilderness. Fortunately we were treated to some fleeting light between snow storms when the sinking sun broke through the churning flint-grey clouds.
We also located Blackrock Cottage, an old crofters’ cottage which lies at the foot of Meall a’ Bhuiridh at the entrance to Glencoe, and now serves as accommodation for female climbers. With snow blanketing the moorland sweeping up the valley towards The Buachaille, the cottage looked as if it was in the middle of nowhere, but it’s actually right alongside the road that leads up to the Glencoe Mountain Resort, which is popular for skiing. We particularly wanted to emphasise the blood-red doors, the inviting warmth of which scream sanctuary from the surrounding cold, white wilderness.
Just outside Fort William we visited the Wreck of the MV Dayspring also known as the 'Corpach Wreck', which was beached in a storm during 2011. We parked in the car park near Corpach Railway Station, then crossed the Caledonian Canal onto the beach to a point where a small stream flows down to Loch Eil. Here we were facing roughly south east towards Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain. This site works well at low tide which accentuates the beached fishing vessel. Zooming in slightly made the brooding hulk of snow-covered Ben Nevis, partially wreathed in mist, appear to loom ominously over the stranded boat, and keeping the cameras low to the ground obscured the buildings of Fort William off to the left of the frame. Between showers we were treated to some great side light which illuminated this highly photogenic wreck.
The thirteenth century Eileen Donan Castle, not far from the Kyle of Lochalsh, gateway to Skye, is the former stronghold of the Clan Mackenzie. Restored in the early twentieth century, it featured in the Hollywood blockbuster Highlander (1986), and is probably one of the most photographed scenes in Scotland. It didn't disappoint! We timed our visit to coincide with the blue hour and were treated to some excellent light on the horizon as the inky-blue water in the loch rose stealthily at our feet. Its mysterious mirror-flat surface caught the dying embers of the sun and the magnificent amber reflection of the illuminated castle.
The Skye’s the Limit
Skye has become the latest playground de jour for social media users, due in no small part to the success of the US TV drama blockbuster, Outlander, a tartan-noir drama featuring the Highlands and, in particular, Skye. And with its epic scenery, dramatic weather and magical light, it’s also become increasingly popular with photographers.
Desolate, wind-blasted moors of heather dotted with sheep sweep down to moody silver lochs. Gnarled peninsulas with fearsome basalt sea cliffs defiantly jut out into the restless Atlantic Ocean, and great saw-toothed mountains, geological lairds of the island, lift their sublime craggy heads to greet oft cloudy skies. The volcanically derived landscape feels as vast and barren as Iceland’s, and its terrain is blanketed in a florescent emerald-green reminiscent of the Faroe Islands. It gets very similar weather too, sitting in the firing line of some of the worst low pressure systems to sweep in off the Atlantic. Indeed, local people call their island Eilean a’Cheo, ‘Isle of Mist’, and the Vikings named it Sky-a ‘cloud island’.
Skye’s most dramatic geological feature is undoubtedly the Trotternish Ridge escarpment, formed during a series of landslips, which runs for some 30 kilometres (nearly 19 miles) - almost the full length of the Trotternish peninsula. It contains Skye's most famous landmark - the Old Man of Storr - a 160-foot basalt pinnacle sitting amid The Storr, a name derived from the Old Norse word stórr, meaning big, tall or great. This otherworldly group of gnarly outcrops that include and surround the Old Man featured in the opening scenes of Ridley Scott’s blockbuster movie, Prometheus (2012), and nowadays seem to be on every Instagrammer’s bucket list. Unsurprisingly, it's also a favourite location for landscape photographers, particularly at dawn.
With a favourable weather forecast after some recent heavy snow, we set our alarms for 6.00 am at the hostel we were staying at in Portree. It was pitch black with a smattering of watery stars as we set out half an hour later. The mountain road glistened white with millions of ice crystals in Olaf’s headlights, but this diamond-dazzling show belied the treacherous conditions, forcing us to crawl along the slippery undulating single track road in low gear.
The deep-freezer cold of pre-dawn was something of a shock as we clambered out of our warm vehicle at the car park just off the A855 to the north of Loch Leathan, to begin the steep 2km 350 metre climb up to the Pixabay viewpoint above The Storr. This is usually a climb of around 30-40 minutes, but it was likely to be nearer an hour on account of the Arctic conditions. The zigzag track was like a glass bottle, with snow compacted into ice by the passage of countless feet, making ice-grips essential. Clouds of my breath sparkling with icy particles were momentarily trapped in the beam cast by my head torch as I breathed deeply, feeling the weight of my camera equipment.
Just past an area of clear-felled conifer plantation, we passed through a gate onto open moorland where we got the first of many dramatic views of the famous Storr cliffs, in front of which the towering spires of The Storr drifted in and out of a band of slowly swirling mist glowing faintly in the feeble pre-dawn light. Resisting the temptation to stop and set up our tripods, we pushed on through snow which was now shin deep in places, grateful for the growing light as we wove our way over and around numerous boulders and ledges of rock trying to follow the pathway buried below. We somehow managed to stray from it and made life hard for ourselves by having to clamber up a 45-degree angled slope to the saddle below the Pixabal viewpoint, which required something of a herculean effort!
At the saddle the wind was absolutely ferocious and roaring like a jet engine, forcing us to hunker low over our tripods. I could scarcely feel my fingers, my face was completely numb in the Arctic conditions, and it was impossible to speak. But the light was simply extraordinary. On the eastern horizon to the left of The Storr and the Trotternish Escarpment towering over it, the pyrotechnics of dawn began their spectacular light show, with streaks of vermillion, scarlet and pink shooting across the sky behind the smoky-grey silhouettes of a line of snow-capped mountains across the Sound of Raasay. The snow-frosted igneous shards of The Storr and the snow and waters of the sound began to glow a gorgeous shade of rose-pink in the pre-dawn light. As the sun broke the horizon, it turned the sky above the distant mountains a deep saffron-yellow. A wide-angle lens just about allowed us to capture the The Storr and the rising sun, which at this time of the year appears well to its left.
As the sun climbed higher in the sky we clambered up the icy slope to the Pixabel viewpoint. By now the sun had been swallowed by cloud, but that did not in any way diminish the majesty of the scene.
The towering pinnacles of The Storr passing in and out of churning luminescent mist resembled a monochrome etching, allowing for some interesting zoomed-in compositions. For photographers, it doesn’t get much better than this!
On the descent we followed the track round the back of The Storr close to where the scenes for Prometheus were shot. I felt very small indeed passing beneath the eerie towering basalt pinnacles eroded into fantastical shapes by the elements. The terrain is so similar to Iceland’s that I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that there is a local legend which states that the Old Man of Storr was a giant who resided on the Trotternish Ridge. Duped into cavorting and drinking with a group of giantesses who were plotting to steal his gold, he inadvertently broke the Sabbath. God smote him so hard that he was instantly buried in the ground, leaving just a certain part of his anatomy —the ‘Old Man’ — poking upwards. We loved this spot so much that we returned there again for a dawn shot a few days later. Much of the snow had by then melted, revealing wiry, olive-green grass. From the saddle, we zoomed in more on The Storr and we were treated to yet another amazing dawn which coloured the sky with pastel hues and bathed the landscape in soft, warm light.
On overcast days devoid of good light, finding alternatives to open landscapes really pays dividends. Waterfalls are ideal, as the contrast levels between the water and surrounding landscape can be too high in bright light. Not far from the Old Man of Storr is the Bride’s Veil Waterfall. From a lay-by alongside the A855 above Loch Leathan, a very muddy track leads up the right side of the falls. We clambered up to the very top, then walked up-valley a little to a point where we could safely cross the river which was quite swollen after the rainfall from Storm Erik. We were then able to position ourselves looking towards The Trotternish Escarpment.
Various lenses and careful positioning give plenty of scope for images here. Using a long lens and a slow shutter speed blurs the water creating a gentle sense of movement. Standing further away from the falls on slightly higher ground and using a zoom lens compresses the scene making the Trotternish Escarpment and The Storr riding the horizon look much closer. Standing close to the falls and using a wide angle lens allows the focus to be on the water which flows through the frame diagonally from top to bottom.
We were able to capture a couple of compositions before the arrival of two minibuses of tourists, many brandishing mobile phones on selfie sticks. With almost 40 people traipsing about trying to get the perfect Instagram shot of themselves in the Highlands scenery, our photoshoot was brought to a premature end!
The Quiraing sounds like something lifted straight from the pages of a high fantasy novel, so it's no surprise to learn that it has appeared on the silver screen in Justin Kurzel's visceral and visually breath-taking film, Macbeth (2015). But the name is actually somewhat disappointingly prosaic, taken from the Old Norse Kví Rand, meaning ‘Round Fold’. It boasts a spectacular series of moss and grass-covered basalt rock pinnacles and spires, formed during a series of landslips on the eastern face of Meall na Suiramach, the northernmost summit of the Trotternish. Indeed, the Quiraing is still moving and is a landscape that wouldn’t look at all out of place in Iceland.
We decided to go for a dawn shoot which is the best time to photograph this location which is cast into shadows later in the day. But the morning did not appear to hold much promise weather wise, and as we arrived in the empty carpark at the highest point of the minor road linking Staffin and Uig, it lashed with rain. The angry grey cloud quickly vented its fury, and as soon as the rain stopped we headed out along a footpath leading towards Flodigarry to locate a famous lone tree much-loved by photographers. A couple of hundred metres along this muddy track which was made somewhat treacherous with patches of black ice, we spotted the gnarled, skeletal branches of a small wind-blasted rowan growing precariously out of a moss-covered bank at the top of a gully to our right. The melting snow had made the terrain tricky; the gully was full of water and the passage of countless feet had churned up the ground, turning it into a quagmire of thick, sticky mud.
Some ominous looking battleship-grey cloud overhead seemed to be threatening rain again, ruling out any possibility of a dawn shot, but we optimistically set up our cameras near the top of the gully. Below us lay a vast expanse of burnt-sienna and olive-green bog studded with two spoonfuls of gleaming mercury - Loch Leum na Luirginn and Loch Cleat - beyond which rose the pyramid-shaped Cleat and the snow-frosted peak of Bioda Buidhe, glowering in the feeble half-light of dawn.
We waited, expectantly, for the sunrise. And waited. Some fifteen minutes after the sun had supposedly risen, and just as we were about to call it a day and pack up our equipment, the leaden clouds began to part and gorgeous shades of violet and rose-pink bled across the sky like spilt inks. We released the shutters on our cameras almost continuously for several minutes! Fortune favours the patient, as is so often the case with photography. We didn’t get the 'all guns blazing down the barrel' kind of sunrise, but we were more than satisfied with our gentle, muted, and somewhat melancholy captures.
A couple of days later we returned to the Quiraing planning to walk along the track towards Flodigarry to The Table area, but the weather curtailed our plans. When the mists, monsoon-like rains and Atlantic gales roll in, the Trotternish is transformed. Storm Erik had just swept into the Western Isles, bringing higher temperatures, gale force winds and torrential rain which melted most of the snow. Cowering in the lee of an earthen bank, I watched huge curtains of rain pulsating across the landscape from an ugly grey lid of cloud sitting obstinately above the Trotternish Ridge. Large waterfalls draining the saturated moorland atop the escarpment had formed, and their efforts to cascade over the basalt cliffs were thwarted by the relentless fury of the wind, causing them to be blown upwards and backwards in seething clouds of spray.
In a small cemetery sited forlornly out in the bogland below, a grim huddle of people clad in black raincoats struggled to keep umbrellas aloft as they committed one of their own to the waterlogged ground. A more miserable day for a funeral could scarcely be imagined. Soaked through and giving up on being able to do any useful photography, we jumped in Olaf and returned to Portree. As we passed by the small cemetery, two gravediggers clad in oilskins were shovelling soil into the recent inhumation in the teeming rain. It was a pitiful sight I’ll not forget in a hurry. Life can still be tough in the Western Isles.
Near the village of Carbost, the River Brittle, fed by a number of tributaries including Allt Coir' a' Mhadaidh, begins its journey in a glacial corrie (Coire na Creiche) sited dramatically below the Black Cuillin Mountains. From here it flows towards Loch Brittle in a series of stunning waterfalls and crystal-clear rock pools known as the Fairy Pools. The vivid tropical-blue water in the pools attracts wild swimmers, but even in the summer it's deceptively cold and not for the faint-hearted! Unsurprisingly, the pools and waterfalls framed by the brooding Black Cuillins are irresistable subject matter for landscape photographers.
This location is just under 9km from Carbost on the single track road that leads to Glenbrittle, and is served by a large gravel car park on the opposite side of the road to where a trackway winds its way gently up over the exposed, wind-blasted moorland of Coire na Creiche towards the base of the Black Cuillin. It's best to wear wellies or even waders not just for crossing some of the streams which, despite the presence of stepping stones, are tricky to negotiate when in spate, but also because you can then stand and move about in the river to capture dramatic, dynamic shots. It takes about 20 minutes to arrive at the first and largest waterfall marking the start of the pools, but we decided to walk to the top waterfall first, which takes about 40 minutes, and work our way back down-stream.
This location is good at any time of the day, and in almost any weather, so we arrived in the late afternoon hoping to avoid the bus loads of tourists who have 'discovered' this area. It was a good call, because by the time we reached the highest waterfall we had the spot solely to ourselves. We clambered down the bank and waded out to a point just past the centre of the river. With our Rollei tripod fully extended and using a wide angle lens, we were able to get quite close to this semicircular waterfall with the river feeding it just visible, while a polarising filter captured the close-up detail of the silky-smooth water flowing down over the volcanic rocks. Through the rumbling mist in the background loomed the snow-frosted triangular hulk of Sgurr an Fheadain with Waterpipe Gully gouged out of its towering grey cliffs like a giant scratch. Bingo! Some shots to truly remember.
Standing shin deep in the river meant that it didn't take long for our feet to turn numb with the cold, so satisfied with our shots, we moved off down the river to a falls dubbed 'the washing machine'. Our wellies came in useful again as we positioned ourselves on a small rocky shelf in the centre of the river in front of the falls which is formed by two small channels of the the Allt Coir' a' Mhadaidh being squeezed down through a narrow cleft in the rock. Due to the recent heavy rains and snowmelt, the river was quite swollen and the falls full of water. Directly behind loomed an icy Sgurr an Fheadain, and a small stone-choked channel entering the frame diagionally from the left created an interesting leading line. Use of a polarising filter helped to bring out the detail of the cobbles in this channel, and its deep turquioise colour.
The light was by now beginning to fade as the sky turned an ominous shade of grey. There are literally umpteen photo locations along this river, and as a photographer you are really only limited by your own imagination as regards to suitable compositions. This site needs lots of time and we didn't have it, as it wasn't long before the low line of angry grey cloud heralding the arrival of Storm Erik that had clamped down over the Cuillins emitted a high-velocity burst of buckshot-rain. Cowering under our umbrella we hastened back up the track to our Land Rover.
Elgol, a small settlement at the very end of the single-track B8083, provides breath-taking views across Loch Scavaig to the mouth of the Cuillin Mountains. Popular with photographers, it’s a location that works well at both dawn and dusk. There is a car park above the quay which is still a working fishing port.
From here there are a couple of options. The first, and most popular, is to cross the pebbly beach below the Primary School, past a rocky cliff outcrop called Honeycomb Rock. Beyond and to the right of it are a series of slabby jointed rocks sloping off into the sea with excellent views across the loch to the Cuillins. Endless compositions with strong leading lines and good wave motion are possible here, but the site is at its best when the tide is not fully in and more of the rocks are revealed.
The second option involves climbing up onto the hillside above the quay and striking out along the cliffs in a southerly direction. After about 10 minutes you arrive at the top of a small gully. With care you can scramble down this on a pathway of sorts onto a boulder-strewn beach. We tried both locations on separate days, and found the latter to be more to our liking.
On our first visit we camped out overnight above the shore of Loch Slapin near Torrin. Even from here, Elgol seemed quite a distance on narrow, icy mountain roads. The dawn promised to be a fine one and we were eager to get there. But en route a collection of startled eyes suddenly appeared in Olaf’s headlights and the scarily-horned hulks of Highland cattle emerged out of the predawn gloom. They were in no hurry whatsoever to move and sauntered up the road in front of us which threatened to seriously delay our arrival.
When we finally got to Elgol, the rose pink streamers of dawn were already aloft in the heavens and we had to rush like mad to find a suitable spot past Honeycomb Rock. The air was crystal-clear in the sub-zero temperature, and directly ahead of us the snow-crested Cuillins were fanned out in a great semicircle. The tide was almost fully out and sucking greedily round the slippery stone slabs and rocks at our feet and, as the sun rose, the russet-coloured lower slopes of the mountains positively glowed as if on fire. It was an unforgettable sight of a magnificent mountain range.
After Storm Erik had passed over, we returned to Elgol hoping to capture a sunset shot. This time we climbed down the gully which was wet and slippery after the recent heavy rain. However, we were denied the presence of some good strong light striking the side of the mountains, as the sun had set into a bank of grey cloud on the western horizon, heralding the arrival of yet another low pressure weather front. But the blue hour was magnificent. Standing as close to the water’s edge as we dared and right above the surf pounding the rocky shore, we focussed in on the iconic pyramidal peak of Sgurr na Stri for a long exposure shot.
Talisker Beach, Skye’s most attractive, is situated on the West Coast of Skye near the village of Carbost where the famous single malt Talisker whisky is distilled. There is limited parking in an extended lay-by at the very end of a public single track road just over 7km from Carbost. The beach is accessed via a 1.5km track which passes a private house surrounded by woods and then crosses open farmland.
It has many features that make it an ideal spot for photography: a prominent sea stack sited below some towering grass-covered cliffs in a scene that would not look out of place in Iceland; a large waterfall plunging 'Faroese-style' for many metres over basalt cliffs (and which we figured would be impressive after the recent heavy rainfall); the River Talisker flowing across the grey volcanic sand; and hundreds of ovoid boulders which look like giant sea serpents' eggs. As with any beach, there are opportunities for capturing the washback of waves coming ashore. Our sunset visit coincided with a low tide (it had just turned and was coming in) so the sand and boulders were still exposed.
As we passed out of the shelter of the woodland and onto the open farmland, the wind instantly picked up, filling the air with a fearful and incessant banshee wail as it gusted through a nearby wire fence and metal gate. This was the tail end of Storm Erik which had battered the Western Isles for the last 36 hours.
By the time we arrived at the beach we knew it was going to be challenging photographing here, particularly capturing any long exposure shots. The tide was way out and white-topped breakers were struggling to chase each other towards the beach in the fierce onshore wind. As the waves approached the shore, they collapsed in foaming fury sending great lines of spray streaking across the sand. Cappuccino-coloured foam fringed the shoreline obscuring the ovoid boulders, and clumps of it were being lifted from the sand and blown far inland. The waterfall on the right of the beach fed by the Allt Mheididh which was in spate, was indeed thundering down over the cliffs in great columns of spray.
Although the light was good, in the gusting gale force wind it was near impossible to stand up, let alone keep our tripods steady, and the high velocity waves throwing up huge volumes of spray made it difficult to keep the camera lenses and filters dry. More than once we got a wellie full of water, reminding us of similar conditions we have experienced when photographing the beaches around Vík in southern Iceland. We resorted to hand held shots of the sunset and counted ourselves fortunate to capture a sun star exploding round the sea stack lying just offshore.
Neist Point Lighthouse sits on the very tip of the Duirinish Peninsula, the most westerly point on the Isle of Skye, and is one of the most famous lighthouses in Scotland. Its tower is 62 feet high, stands 142 feet above sea-level, and was built in 1909. It was fully automated in 1990 and its beam can be seen from up to 24 miles away.
Its dramatic location on a headland amid enormous sea cliffs which are constantly pounded by Atlantic breakers and inhabited by hundreds of wailing seabirds is highly reminiscent of the Faroe Islands. It's no surprise to discover that it was the setting for a number of scenes in the 1996 film, Breaking The Waves, and the 2012 movie, 47 Ronin.
A car park is located at the very end of the single track road near Glendale. This location works best at sunset, when the setting sun is far off to the right, but casts some great side light onto the towering cliffs of the headland. The classic view of the lighthouse is from the top of some cliffs facing it which are just a few hundred metres north from the car park, rather than from the track leading to it which is reached via a set of very steep concrete steps. However, alternative compositions, where the towering cliffs in the foreground actually break the horizon rather than being set against the sea, are possible from a broad grassy ledge to the right of the steps below the main cliffs.
We started out along the cliff top track, worn to a fine silty-mud by the passage of countless feet, with a gale force wind in our faces. At first the lighthouse wasn't visible, but it soon crept into view from behind a great prow of rock thrusting skyward. We picked a spot which enabled us to frame the lighthouse beyond this prow with the trackway out to it offering a strong leading line.
It soon became apparent that sunset was not to be, as battleship-grey clouds filled the sky and were busy disgorging great curtains of rain not far out to sea, and these were heading our way! The cliff tops are very exposed and offered virtually no shelter from the wind or the spray that was being blown up from the pounding surf below us. It was hard to keep the filters dry and the ferocious gusts of wind made it tricky to keep the tripod still. Nonetheless, we captured some moody blue hour shots which summon up the elemental end-of-the-world feel of this location, and those battleship-grey clouds somehow managed to miss us!!
Sligachan is situated at the junction of the roads from Portree, Dunvegan and Broadford, so it’s a location you’re bound to pass at some point. We did, repeatedly, but the weather was foul on all but one of those occasions. The hotel was built at this road junction in about 1830 as this area has long been a popular base for climbers and hill walkers looking to explore the Cuillins, Scotland’s premier mountain range. It also attracts tourists who relish one of Scotland’s quintessential views: the Red and Black Cuillin with Glen Sligachan between them, and in the foreground, the quaint and picturesque stone bridge over the River Sligachan built by Thomas Telford in the very early nineteenth century. No longer is use, this bridge is a highly photogenic spot.
If you’re not using the hotel (it now includes the Cuillin Brewery which produces a very respectable craft ale aptly named Old Bridge, brewed with water flowing down the Sligachan from the Cuillin Mountains), there is a small car park on the opposite side of the river.
There is an interesting legend with an Irish connection associated with this place. It is said that the rugged landscape of Skye was created during a titanic clash of two warriors: Scáthach of Skye and Cúchulainn of Ireland. He sailed from Ireland intending to confront Scáthach who was a woman, believing that no female should be a greater warrior than him. During the battle, Scáthachs daughter became so distressed that she ran to the River Sligachan where her weeping attracted the attention of fairies who told her that if she washed her face in the water, she would find a solution to ending the battle. Having done what they instructed, she had an epiphany and rushed home gathering nuts and herbs en route which she threw into the family hearth. The smoke from them cooking drifted up the valley, and when Scáthach and Cúchulainn smelt it, they realised how famished they were and stopped fighting. The truce was sealed when Cúchulainn was invited to eat under Scáthach’s roof.
Legend has it that if you dip your face in the river water by the Sligachan Bridge, you will be granted eternal beauty. We didn’t try this, not because we have no need of such a thing, far from it, but because the weather was far too foul!! After almost giving up, we managed to grab a quick shot of the old stone bridge during a temporary lull in the gale force winds and rain. Fortunately there was still snow dusting the peaks of Beinn Dearg Mhor, Beinn Dearg Mheadhonach and Marsco, which were positively glowering under leaden skies. We'd like to have been able to explore up-valley to seek out dramatic compositions of the river framed by the Cuillins, but Storm Erik really rained on our parade!!
Go West! The Outer Hebridean Isle of Lewis and Harris
The next stage of our Highlands and Islands odyssey was a visit to the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis and Harris, which was voted the finest island in Europe and among the top five in the world by Trip Advisor five years ago. Indeed, it is renowned for its stunning white sandy beaches, turquoise water, desolate windwept moors and jagged mountains, all of which can be magnificently moody and melacholy when glimpsed through veils of mist and rain. Occupying a location in busy sea lanes and rich fishing fields, Lewis and Harris has attracted the influence of Picts, Celts and Vikings, all of whom have left their mark on the island’s landscape and culture. It was in the capital, Stornoway, that I heard my first conversation in the haunting cadence of Scots Gaelic, an ancient tongue that somehow seemed to perfectly compliment the harsh, yet heartbreakingly beautiful landscapes and seascapes of this island.
However, the arrival of Storm Erik really upended our plans. The Little Minch has a pretty fearsome reputation among mariners, so unsurprisingly Storm Erik’s arrival meant that the CalMac ferry service from Uig to Tarbert was cancelled precisely when we had planned to travel. Fickle and unpredictable weather characterises the North Atlantic in winter and this kind of event is not unusual in the Hebrides, so it’s wise to build some wriggle room into your travel plans. We eventually managed to get away three days after we had originally planned.
Enjoying dinner washed down with Skye Black beer in the ferry's dining room, I got my first view of the Outer Hebrides cloaked in bruise-coloured clouds tinged pink in the setting sun. A thrill of anticipation ran through me. The weather forecast was looking pretty good for a dawn shoot the next morning, but with conditions due to deteriorate again later that day. On arrival, we headed for a suitable camping spot not far from the village of Callanish. Our aim was to capture some sunrise shots at one of the finest stone circles in the world.
The Callanish Stones, erected in the late-Neolithic era, were a focal point for some kind of ritual activity in the Bronze Age and form part of a much larger sacral landscape. In sub-zero temperatures we drove to the site just as the first hint of a magnificent dawn coloured the eastern horizon.
We parked at the Visitor Centre (there is additional parking much closer to the stones) and made our way over the frosted ground of a low ridge above the waters of Loch Roag towards the circle. The Callanish Stones are constructed of extremely ancient local Lewisian gneiss. The main stone complex contains around 50 stones in a cross-shaped setting. The impressive inner circle comprises 13 stones, the tallest of which is almost 5m high, and a small chambered cairn.
We joined a couple of other local photographers who were excitedly anticipating a superb dawn. One later remarked that it was the best he'd ever experienced at Callanish. Indeed, the cloud-streaked sky in the eastern horizon was erupting into the most vivid colours I’d ever seen - deep-mauve, cerise-pink, saffron-yellow and flame-orange - which formed an incredible technicolour backdrop to the silhouetted stones. As the light intensified, a 0.6 grad filter was vital to help to bring out the richness of the colour and tone down any glare.
As I stood stunned into revered silence, a spine-tingling yelping sound filled the air as a Golden eagle suddenly began to circle in lazy 8’s high over the stones. From ancient times the eagle has symbolised man's connection to the divine, a conveyor of the power and messages of the spirit world. No one knows precisely what symbolism our ancestors attached to this monument, nor what function it served, but we can let our imaginations run riot. Maybe the eagle was trying to speak to me of this across the chasm of time, but its presence certainly heightened the sense of this place being ancient and sacral. I'm not ashamed to say that I broke out in goose-bumps!
When the sun finally erupted over the horizon sending great shafts of light across the silvered ground, we abandoned our tripods to move about rapidly, grabbing hand held shots of sun stars exploding round the stones. We could scarcely believe our good fortune. Callanish had delivered beyond our wildest dreams.
After this, the weather rapidly turned inclement yet again as forecast. With another bad storm making its way north, and so as to avoid getting stranded on Lewis and Harris, we decided to cut short our visit to get a ferry back to Uig on Skye.
But not before we visited the Northton Salt Marsh, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, where the tide comes in twice a day. Salt flats have always held a fascination for me, as they mark the slightly eerie boundary between the sea and land, and the marine and terrestrial worlds. Here the fin-shaped Ceapabhal Hill (368m) rises behind an intricate maze of little channels separated by grassy banks which create incredible patterns. Endless compositions are possible here, but in order to fully explore the site it’s best to wear waders, as the water was virtually over the top of my wellies and I found myself constantly sinking into the silty mud in the channels!
It was overcast and pregnant with rain, just the conditions for the moody, melancholy long-exposure shot we were after. We chose a composition with a curving channel forming a strong leading line towards Ceapabhal Hill.
The following day the torrential rain of the morning eventually gave way to sunshine and clear blue skies. But it was still incredibly windy. We wanted to capture some totally unique seascape scenes for which Lewis and Harris are famous, but although the light was excellent, the gale force wind and the little time left to us precluded much in the way of beach photography.
By hunkering down in the lee of a small knoll just below a layby on the A859 at Seilebost, we managed to get just enough shelter to capture a long-exposure shot of Luskentyre Beach.
The last roll of the dice for us before we caught the ferry to Skye to begin our onward journey back to Cairnryan, was a stop at the dunes above Traigh Lar Beach where the flaxen-hued marram grass glowing in the strong winter sunlight caught our eye. With the milky-surf pounding the shore, and the marram grasses being whipped to a frenzy in the gale force wind, it was a miracle that we managed to get a long exposure shot here at all. It took two of us forming a human shield around a tripod to keep it steady enough!
Although our plans on Lewis and Harris had been curtailed and disrupted by bad weather, we had no overall cause for complaint after being treated to some truly extraordinary and memorable photography conditions during our Scottish Highlands and Islands odyssey. And of course, we now have the perfect excuse to return to the Hebrides! If you want to experience the beauty and majesty of Skye, why not join us on a future winter phototour? Details are on our website.