West Side Story
Despite having grown up in Scotland, I had never really spent any time in the west of the country. On my recent trip to my home country I tried to make up for lost time, visiting some of the beautiful places in the area between Stirling and the Skye bridge. Waterfalls, mountains, castles, wildlife... this part of Scotland has a huge amount to offer.
My first stop was at the Loup of Fintry, a series of waterfalls on the River Endrick, set in some lovely rolling countryside.
Waterfalls were a strong feature of my Scotland trip and are always interesting photographic subjects, any scene with a combination of moving and stationary elements provides additional possibilities as you can decide whether to freeze the motion with a short shutter speed or blur the motion with a longer exposure. As ever at these popular (and heavily photographed) destinations it is my hope to find a more original composition, often the best chance for that lies with a more intimate scene.
I continued my journey, staying the night near to Aberfoyle. This area would have been full of interest for me under normal conditions but the weather was at it's most uncooperative and any more expansive views were obscured. I decided to change my activities to fit the conditions and spent my time hunting for moody scenes on the edge of a forest.
I have found that having a solid plan for what to photograph can be a great benefit, but only when accompanied by a willingness to totally disregard that plan when prompted to by the conditions or the light. It is easy to spend a great deal of time and effort chasing something that isn't really possible just because you get too set on a pre-conceived idea.
Leaving Aberfoyle behind, but bringing the dismal weather with me, I decided to head towards Glencoe for a few days. On the way I sought out some waterfalls - overcast and miserable weather is highly suitable for waterfall photography. My favourite of these was the Falls of Falloch.
My base in the Glencoe area was the nicely situated Isles of Glencoe hotel in Ballachulish, on the shore of Loch Leven. This location was perfect for exploring the surrounding territory and also offered some photographic opportunities without needing to get into my rental car.
During this section of my trip the days took on a certain similar rhythm as the weather was variable at best and miserable at worst. Go out, explore, get wet, try to get things dry, sleep, repeat. I tried to take advantage of the occasional moments where there was a break in the gloom and otherwise alter my ideas such that I was embracing the conditions rather than fighting against them.
When I visited the shore of Loch Laich the conditions were exceptionally miserable, but perhaps this was appropriate when visiting the Castle of Aarrgh from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (also known as Castle Stalker in real life).
The gloomy conditions were still prevalent by the time I made my way to Kilchurn Castle, a ruined 15th century structure on the banks of Loch Awe.
When the water level is low it is possible to see this castle from up close but I found that the most attractive views were to be found from the other side of the Loch. As I was exploring these possibilities I noticed that the sun had found a small window in the fast moving clouds and a golden beam of light was making it's way along the hillside in the background. I was hoping that the light would fleetingly illuminate the castle itself but I had to make do with it painting the hills behind in gold.
The lovely Glen Etive can be found just up the road from Glencoe. There is a very popular photography spot near Glen Etive where a small waterfall provides the foreground with the iconic triangular peak of Buachaille Etive Mor dominating the horizon. This was one of those spots where, for me at least, the experience of visiting this spot was more depressing than inspiring - the procession of photographers and tourists all heading to the same spot had created a huge mud bath where the path used to be and the activity was clearly detrimental to the area. I still captured some images there, but without the good feeling that I often get from new places.
Over the past months I have been somewhat in conflict about my activities. I very much enjoy visiting new places, being out in nature, and trying to capture my own interpretations of the places that I find inspiring. I try to conduct myself sympathetically towards the places I visit and not leave any detrimental traces behind. On the other hand I hate to see beautiful locations getting spoiled by careless human activity and on occasion there are places like this where the sheer scale of traffic is very damaging even if all the visitors behave responsibly, just the act of going to such a place has a negative impact.
Photographers are not the only animals that can be found roaming in Glen Etive, a number of beautiful native red deer can be seen, if you are lucky, wandering around on the hillsides.
As I continued up the glen, on a single-track road with passing places (of course), yet more storm clouds and the setting sun were locked in an apocalyptic struggle.
Back in Ballachulish it was finally possible to get some reasonable morning weather as the early cloud gradually gave way to a brighter and more promising day.
The mixture of clouds and sun can provide some of the most attractive conditions, I wish there had been a bit more of this kind of weather during my trip - but Scotland in any season is always likely to mean you will have at least some unfavourable conditions to deal with.
The terrain of Scotland has fostered quite a tradition of climbing. There are no particularly high peaks (Ben Nevis is the highest at 1345m / 4413ft) but there are 282 separate summits of 3000ft or higher. These 3000ft peaks are known as Munros, after Sir Hugh Munro who produced the first list of 3000ft peaks in 1891. The Ladies Scottish Climbing Club was formed in 1908 by a group of lady climbers whose gender prevented them from joining the Scottish Mountaineering Club.
Although Ben Nevis is the highest peak in Scotland, it is not the most spectacular looking when viewed from Fort William (the nearest major town) as the peak appears to be part of a wide and gently sloping dome rather than making a vertical reach for the sky such as you might see in more spectacular ranges. The mountain provides a stern challenge for climbers despite the benign appearance from a distance, each year it requires a few dozen rescues to be performed and claims a handful of lives.
As I made my way from Fort William back towards the Isle of Skye I passed through some beautiful scenery.
A heavy snowfall coated the landscape in a white blanket and gave a very pure look to the scenery, conditions for driving were quite manageable on the main roads but it would have been easy for an unwary motorist to get stuck when entering lay-by's or side roads.
As I drove through the beautiful Glen Shiel all trace of colour left the sky as the white clouds dominated, the fresh covering of snow made for a completely monochrome scene.
I spent the night in the cosy Kintail View bed and breakfast in Ratagan, a small village on the shores of Loch Duich. My thought was to photograph the mountains opposite (the "Five Sisters of Kintail") the next morning, reflected in the loch... but as is so often the case the shot that I was planning for just wasn't on the cards. The wind was rippling the surface of the loch and ruining the reflections while a heavy snowstorm was blotting out the rising sun. After enjoying a cooked breakfast (featuring a duck egg instead of a hen's egg) I walked up the rather steep old military road towards Glenelg, hoping to find a good vantage point. At this point the snow became increasingly heavy and visibility was reduced to a minimum, providing a different kind of opportunity.
As I made my way back down to the village the sun started to fight it's way through the snowstorm which made for some very beautiful light, allowing me to capture one of my favourite images from this trip.
That's it for this time, thanks to all who have read this far and to any who like or share this post on social media, I appreciate the support.
Until next time,
The migration begins
Here in Finland the winter finally starts to be over, the snow is pretty much gone and the air is alive with birdsong as our feathered friends start to think about their mating season. I took a short trip with my friend Mika Grönroos to the small Finnish island of Utö, which is often a fantastic destination for bird photography as it is the first opportunity for migrating birds to land after crossing the Baltic Sea from Central Europe.
On this occasion the wind, coming from the North, was not in our favour as it discouraged potential new arrivals from starting their migration into the wind. When we arrived the island was fairly full of birds and the wind was strong enough to keep them there... but by the next morning the wind was lighter, still discouraging the long journey over the sea but not strong enough to prevent birds leaving Utö for the Finnish mainland. This meant that the island gradually emptied during our visit.
On these trips the hope would be to see some of the less commonly seen species and also to have a chance to capture some birds in particularly nice surroundings, this is usually a target rich environment so there should be at least a few good opportunities, even if they only last for a few milliseconds.
On this occasion the most numerous residents of the island were starlings and chaffinches, not the most unusual of creatures... but there were also a decent number of dunnocks which are a bit harder to spot in normal circumstances.
A couple of dunnocks were always hanging around near a jetty, we knew this as whenever we walked past (which happened about 12 times a day... its a very small island) we were able to see them darting away before we could take their picture. It happened so often that it really seemed that they were toying with us.
There were also a good number of robins on the island. Robins are always nice birds to photograph and they have an agreeable habit of regularly perching on things (fences, tree stumps, posts, etc) which helps your chances.
The skies above the island were somewhat empty compared to previous trips, but there were some occasional interesting sights, such as this raven which flew over with the bloody remains of it's recent meal still in evidence.
There were very few waders staying on the island (although many were seen passing by) but there were some ringed plovers to be found.
One of the nice things about photographing birds in the spring is that the birds are at their most colourful at this time, anxious to impress prospective mates.
We spent quite a long time trying to get decent shots of a wren, a small and elusive bird which doesn't seem to stay still out in the open for too many nanoseconds at a time.
When walking through the eastern meadow the sound of sky larks could often be heard, sky larks are surely one of the more joyful and enthusiastic of singers, taking to the air to broadcast their message.
We enjoyed some very pleasant weather for the first part of the trip, it wasn't exactly warm but the sky was clear and there were beautiful colours at sunrise and sunset times.
We received an excellent hint from local bird authority Jorma Tenovuo that we might be able to find a black redstart near to our accomodation at the western end of the island, and his advice was very good indeed. We were able to find this beautiful bird within about 20 seconds of getting to the general area.
My final picture from this trip perhaps fittingly shows a dunnock, the bird we spent the most time photographing.
Althought this was just a short trip, it was refreshing to take a break from landscape photography and it was a pleasure to be back in Utö once again. Thanks a lot to Mika for another good trip!
Until next time,
North by North-East
The great majority of my early life was spend in the north and north east of Scotland, but in those days I would have had a golf club, rather than a camera, in my hand whenever possible. As part of my recent Scotland trip I explored some of the places that I had zoomed past on the way to various golf courses 20 or 30 years ago.
Almost all of my time on the golf course was spend on links land, the sandy, wind shaped and undulating terrain which is found near to the coast in a few special parts of the world. The links land is no use for farming but is perfect for the cultivation of the fescues and bent grasses which provide perfect conditions for playing golf as well as being very beautiful.
One of my favourite moments on my Scotland trip happened when I drove to a remote beach, surrounded by pristine links land with beautiful dune formations, in order to photograph a remarkable lighthouse. This beautiful area is designated as an SSSI (site of special scientific interest) and the area may not cope with heavy traffic so I will not share too many details about the location, suffice it to say that I used to play in a golf tournament called the Buchan Firkin not a million miles away from this location.
The lighthouse is an unusual one in that it is situated 50-100m offshore and it provided an interesting sight for that reason. The January day on which I visited this place was one of those glorious intervals in the otherwise miserable Scottish conditions, such days seem to occur at random (and all too infrequently) through out the year with no particular regard for whether it is summer or winter, the Scottish climate rarely conforms to any reasonable expectations.
The deserted beach was thankfully free, on this afternoon at least, of the man-made debris and detritus that starts to be a horrible feature of many coastlines (human recklessness and stupidity coming home to roost), in fact it was so spotless that it was a real challenge to find any foreground elements for my lighthouse photographs. The cloudless blue skies were not an ideal recipe for photography but walking alone on this untouched beach was a heavenly way to spend a couple of hours.
The North East of Scotland is home to many fishing villages, a remarkable amount of golf courses per capita and some interesting coastline features. The village of Portknockie, with a population of 1269 according to the 2011 census, does not have it's own golf course - you would need to travel 3.4 kilometres to Cullen Golf Club or 4.5 kilometres to Strathlene Golf Club - but it does have the iconic sight of Bow Fiddle Rock lurking just offshore.
Bow Fiddle Rock is a natural sea arch which has been scuplted by the erosion of a layer of quartzite which was folded when the ancient continents of Laurentia and Avalonia collided (those were the days...). Nowadays it is a perfect nesting site for sea birds, the white dots on the sloping surfaces of the rock in the picture below are Herring Gulls.
Following the coast and heading into the north of Scotland, the Black Isle can be found. This peninsula is home to 12,000 people (two of whom are parents of mine) and is surrounded on three sides by the waters of the Moray, Beauly and Cromarty Firths. A short hike through the forest from the small Black Isle town of Rosemarkie brings you to the Rosemarkie Fairy Glen, where there is a small but attractive waterfall in leafy surroundings.
Across the Cromarty Firth, near to Dingwall, I visited the RSPB facility at Tollie which is one of the many Red Kite feeding centres which were founded to help the re-establishment of this beautiful raptor in the British Isles after it was hunted to extinction. The red kite population is now thriving and you will be sure to see many of these lovely birds if you visit Tollie at the daily feeding time. During my visit I was also lucky enough to see one of my favourite small birds as a small flock of long-tailed tits were visiting the nearby bird feeders.
There were a number of Red Kites in attendance also, although they had some heavy competition for the available food as a squabble of gulls had a different opinion about who should be eating at the Red Kite dinner table.
On a snowy morning I decided to climb up to see the Fyrish monument, erected on top of a hill near to the town of Alness by order of Sir Hector Munro in the 18th century.
I often find lighthouses to be interesting subjects and the 53 metre tall 1830 Robert Stevenson design perched on the cliffs at Tarbat Ness is a great example.
As I continued north through the countryside I was struck by how many birds of prey could be seen patrolling the skies or perching in the trees. The majority of these sightings were common buzzards, such as this one which I spotted while heading towards Dornoch.
Dornoch is another lovely little seaside town, with a beautiful beach and a magnificent golf course which has been consistently ranked in the top 10 in the world (especially after the big american golf magazines realised that there might be some golf courses outside the US). I took a walk along the beach as the afternoon sun was battling incoming clouds as it began approaching the horizon.
Continuing north from Dornoch you can find one of Scotland's many castles in a sea front estate near to the town of Golspie. Dunrobin Castle is a modest 189 room residence set in magnificent and painstakingly maintained gardens. A visit in spring would no doubt be even more spectacular.
Eventually, if you drive north for long enough up the east coast of Scotland, you will come to the well known little town of John O'Groats. This settlement, with a population of 300, is not the northernmost town in the UK as many might think, it's fame comes from a slightly more curious source, being one of a pair of towns (with Land's End in Cornwall) which are the two furthest apart towns on the UK mainland - being 1349km distant from each other. I doubt there are many other towns with a population of 300 or less which are so widely known within the UK as John O'Groats.
If you travel a couple of kilometres even further north and east from John O'Groats then you find yet another lighthouse and some spectacular sea stacks at Duncansby Head. I highly recommend a short extension to Duncansby Head for anyone who has bothered to travel the 1349km from Land's End or the 5198km from New York for a John O'Groats visit.
This concludes my report of this up (the east coast of Scotland) and down (memory lane) journey, but my next couple of posts will continue the Scottish theme. This extended trip allowed me to visit a lot of new locations (77 in total) so there is still plenty to come.
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