The 'Highland Scene' road trip
02/08/12The magnificent Scottish Highlands & Islands are a magnet for me. Every time I prepare for a UK photographic trip, they are always amongst the top choices of destinations. Whether it’s under blue or grey skies, their dramatic, imposing, remoteness inspires me. Wild mountains, gushing waterfalls, meandering rivers, lonely glens and rugged coastlines that boast the UK’s finest beaches, combine to create superb land and seascape locations. Whatever the weather conditions, the light here is always special, making for great atmospherics. A rush of excitement runs through me whenever these elements come together in the viewfinder.
However, for such a vast area, there are really only a handful of main roads to access it and this has always deterred me from going there in high summer. For Glen Coe turns into a coach park and the ferries into sardine tins. As a result, apart from pictures taken during a week I spent tucked-away on Sandwood Bay last July, my Portfolio lacked Highland images from this time of year. So, back in late June '12, I decided to rectify this by risking the swarms of midges and tourists and head there for a week.
Rather than fly, I chose to pack my Land Rover with bedding and camera gear and drive up. OK it’s a long way but this gave me the freedom to keep to the East coast, well away from the Central Highlands, past Inverness and cut across country via Bonar Bridge to head for the North West Highlands. I could also take all the gear I wanted and use rough 'off-road' passes to pull-up wherever I chose to stop. And with the 'witching hours' of dusk and dawn coming so late and so early at that latitude, I could make the most of the long days without being tied to accommodation or pitching a tent. Giving me freedom to roam wherever I wanted, when I wanted.
The drive up-country was simple enough. Leaving the outskirts of London at 5.00am, I passed Glasgow at 11.30 and drew up at my first location, at the foot of Ben Hope, at 4.30 that afternoon. The journey cross-country was simple enough and I’d hardly seeing another car after passing through Lairg.
The weather was beautiful. Bright sun bathed the mountainsides with a warm, gentle breeze ruffling the lochs. Yet the water levels were right down, leaving powder-white rings of dried algae around the foreshores. This meant two things. Firstly, the marginal ring would stand out to spoil any daylight shots. Secondly, the glens were dry. And low rivers and trickling waterfalls are not ideal for my photography.
Early evening on the first day bore this out. I spent an hour in chest waders among the slow, dark, eddying waters of the Strathmore River, trying to get some low-level, long exposure shots of the scenic, snaking tract of water. I had my EOS 1 DS MkIII on its tripod with my EF 16-35mm wide-angle lens and a Lee ‘Big Stopper’ filter. I ventured for a mile or so down-river but everywhere I looked, the low water exposed snags and overhanging branches draped with dried weed and ugly flotsam to spoil the beauty I wanted to capture. I gave up and moved on to a waterfall I’d spotted on the OS map and this provided the first shots I was happy with. Still, it wasn’t the gushing torrent I had hoped for when planning the trip. So I made the decision that the coming days would be spent along the North West coastline, concentrating on its sea lochs and estuaries. This would also mean focussing towards evening shoots, as I’d be restricted in getting any ‘open sky’ in the East to view the dawn.
With this decided, I packed the gear back in the car and drove on down the winding track a few miles to pull up on the shores of Loch Hope.
When planning a trip I have to be flexible and work with the conditions that greet me. However, I always try to pre-prepare my first day’s photography, as it’s easy to let precious shooting time slip by, searching for locations and features. I knew this area fairly well, so I headed here to start. I had scrutinised Ordinance Survey maps, checked the web and had a good look at Google Earth to pinpoint promising features. Taking into account what the terrain was like in relation to where the sun would set, where any ‘regimented’ pine plantations, buildings or power lines were and where I could access the best looking places.
As it turned out, after the glitch on the Strathmore, my planning worked well and it was a relief to find a good overnight location straight off with no messing. For no matter how good your preparations, you never know if there’s going to be any other negatives - like floating fish pens or foresting scars – to spoil an outlook.
So my first evening found me on the whispering shores of a deserted Loch Hope as the ‘witching hour’ approached. A cobalt blue sky was sparsely flecked with puffs of white cloud and the lowering sun glittering across the loch’s gently rippling surface. Distant mountains provided an impressive, silhouette backdrop. I had two cameras set up. The EOS 1 as before, alongside my EOS 5D MkII. This was fitted with the new Canon EF 8 – 15mm 1.4 fisheye lens that has been giving some good results since I eventually managed to get hold of it after having it on back order for over a year. I found out on Sandwood Bay, that the setting sun hangs in suspension for an age, giving a shooting opportunity easily long enough to work two cameras. So as a magnificent sunset played out in front of me, I changed filters, timed Bulb exposures and moved positions. This was interspersed with the occasional nip of single malt and squirts of 95% ‘deet’ to ward off the midges that swarmed as the sun dipped below the horizon. - As an aside, the dry conditions had kept the midge numbers down and they only became a nuisance for half an hour after sun-down and, for some reason, around 8.00 in the morning, when I had to wear a head net to keep them at bay while I washed and prepared breakfast.
The following morning I woke to the longest day of the year. Grey skies and mizzle were all that was left of the rain that had blown in to dampen-down the sunrise at around 3.30am. Luckily, as I hadn’t got to bed until 2.00am, I had decided to give a dawn session a miss; for this would have required skipping a sleep and moving on to an east-facing location. Instead I’d opted for a good night’s sleep. This would ensure the 750 mile drive was well out of my system leaving me fresh for the coming day.
I rose at 7.30 and the morning was spent taking in the marshlands, coastline and estuaries around Tongue. The cloud lifted and started to break to provide moody interest in the sky, while the low tide let me range far and wide across beaches and sand bars, with their pristine sands, rippled textures and shoreline interest - such as the skeletal ‘ribs’ of a wrecked fishing smack.
I was glad to get back to the car after what was a sweaty, tiring three hours, spent clambering around with a heavy backpack and cumbersome fishing umbrella - to protect from the frequent rain showers. - I try to look after my camera gear with attention that errs on being ‘anal’. So while I will take an expensive camera set-up onto slippery rocks being pounded by raging surf, I will get it there in the best-protected manner I can. I use a LowePro Dryzone 200 backpack on these occasions. It is a really well made piece of kit that gives total protection thanks to a water/sand-proof, padded, inner compartment sealed by the kind of huge zip you find on diver’s dry suits. I’ve had it lashed down on the bow of my kayak crossing Falmouth Bay with a blustery three-foot swell washing the deck, and not a drop got in. As for the fishing umbrella, not only does this protect from driving rain, it also provides a good windbreak. This is vital to stop long exposures being spoiled by gusts buffeting the camera and stops your gear getting ‘sand-blasted’ by whipped-up sand.
That afternoon (after filling-up with the most expensive diesel I’ve ever bought -£1.57 per litre - Spar shop Durness) I took a drive along the winding roads, heading for Storr. I’ve got the Tom-Tom app on my iPhone and I have to say it worked faultlessly. You key in your destination, where you want to travel by and any roads or places you want to avoid and it does the rest. Leaving you to watch the winding road, take in magnificent scenery and spot an occasional glimpse of the Red Deer that, at this time of year, remain skittish and elusive. I was in my element stopping for the photo opportunities that appeared around almost every sweeping bend of the staggeringly beautiful roads,
The weather had cleared and now an azure afternoon sky was marbled with sinuous, mares-tail clouds. For me, these kinds of skies transform a shot and if I can capture them in reflections, so much the better! I pulled-over by a small lochan and pulled on my chest waders to spend half an hour in the margins with my EOS 1 set-up and some soft grad neutral density filters. The waders are a real necessity on these forays as they allow you to easily get to otherwise unattainable spots. You just have to be careful and I always The results looked good as I backed-up all the photos taken so far to my MacBook while making a brew.
A short while later I was back in the car and travelling along a coast road that clung to the low, craggy cliffs. Every now and then it would dip down to skirt a picturesque bay that would invariably be deserted. I was coming to realise my fears about tourist hoards were, for the most part, unfounded and if you kept off the main roads, you avoided the caravans and motor-homes. You also get to see some of the best scenery. Almost to the point when you stop taking it all in. I say ‘almost’ because that afternoon, with my spirits on an incredible high, I was ‘drifting’ down the track approaching Storr light-house. The Isle of Harris and Lewis hung like a cloud bank across the silvery, sparkling Minch making me squint. On previous visits to Skye and Applecross, I had seen submarines heading out of Faslane, so I was scanning the sea on the off chance of any sign. Suddenly I jammed on my brakes and jumped out of the car.
I had seen something rise, arc, and slip back into the sea a half mile out. Now, standing on a grassy knoll and drawing a shading hand I saw it again. Four curving fins signalled a pod of Minke whales. They were way too far away to capture in any detail even if I did have my 400mm set-up readied, so I took out my binoculars and just watched with the hairs on my neck tingling, as they slipped majestically away to the horizon. It was a truly wonderful experience.
After that excitement I drove on to find a place to pull up for the night. I had spent a fair while watching the whales and time was getting on. So rather than go for a reconnoitre on foot, I took out the appropriate Ordinance Survey Explorer map and checked for coastline features. These maps are essential for me. Their intricate detail highlights topographical aspects that otherwise remain hidden from view. Even the smallest mountain stream can host a waterfall secreted away in a small gulley or dropping over a rocky ledge. So I picked a few spots and set-up my cameras. The usual EOS 1 rig and on my 5DS MkII I put on my 70-200mm zoom with a 2x converter, in case any more wildlife put in an appearance. I put on my walking boots, filled a flask, grabbed a folding chair and set off.
What an evening I had. The incredible vista looking across The Minch constantly evolved in my viewfinders as alternating banks of cloud and clear patches ran across the dipping sun. From a sparkling silver expanse of sea with hazy horizon and mottled sky, to the last rays illuminating the lighthouse and surrounding, flower-strewn rocks, I followed the sun around the headland as it described a lazy arc into night. It was well past midnight when I eventually packed up and went back to the car to rustle-up some supper.
The dawning was dull and overcast. Knowing the sun was rising behind the hills at my back, I had a much-needed lie-in before heading down the coast, hoping the featureless10/10 cloud cover would break up. That morning I managed to get some nice loch shots and vistas looking across Eradale, before rounding the headlands between Loch Torridon and Applecross. The weather forecast was right and once again the cloud cleared and by noon the sun was blazing in an incredibly beautiful sky. However, there were warnings on the radio of torrential rain causing severe flooding across Northern England and predictions that it was heading my way in the next few days gave me pause for thought. It looked like my time in Scotland might have to be cut short. So the pressure was on for me to get a set of shots that realised my ambitions and defined the reason for what was always going to be a 2000 mile trek. I was feeling a little bit of pressure. The coastline down to Applecross had proved a little disappointing so I stopped and checked my maps once more and then re-traced my tracks. For closer inspection revealed what turned out to be a delightful, bracken-lined inlet called Ob Chuag bay. I spent an hour amongst its rocks and crags before lying out on a patch of grass and ‘soaking up a few rays’ while I did another back-up.
From where I was, I could look across Loch Torridon to see a distant beach of reddish sand tucked away in the lee of a small headland. I checked the map and saw it was appropriately named Redpoint Bay and that there was a similar west-facing beach that looked a promising location for the coming evening. Getting there would pretty much mean retracing 40 miles around the sea loch but as it turned out, it was well worth the effort.
Redpoint was at the far end of an un-metalled road. I pulled into the small car park and made a brew before taking a walk down the path through the dunes to see what awaited me…
To find out, take a look at the ‘Highland Scene’ gallery in my Portfolio. I think the Redpoint images are some of my best shots to date and provided exactly what I had hoped to round off my trip with. For the clouds that mustered in the sunset shots were the leading edge of the weather front that had been predicted by the weather forecasters. The wind picked up and next morning I was hunkering under my brolly as I prepared breakfast, listening to the radio and looked out over rain-soaked dunes. I really don’t mind shooting in the rain but the Red flood alerts for flooding in the area with much more to come in the coming days, made up my mind and I packed up and headed for home in the knowledge I had accomplished what I’d set out to achieve.