Reach for the Skye
As my Scotland trip neared it's conclusion I decided that I wanted to spend those final days back on the beautiful Isle of Skye.
On my way I decided to visit Eilean Donan castle, a 13th century stronghold which was destroyed in 1719 after a failed Jacobite uprising. An early 20th century restoration project brought the castle back to it's former glory and it has operated as a tourist attraction since 1955.
I approached the castle as the sun was going down and the waited for the time when the declining brightness of the sky matched the brightness of the artificial lighting on the castle, allowing for an even exposure. I used a 6 minute exposure to give the sky a more dreamy appearance.
Accomodation was not that easy to find on Skye at very short notice during the off season, which gave me a good excuse to stay at the excellent Cuillin Hills hotel even though it was (deservedly) a bit more expensive than I would have normally wanted. The location of the hotel on the north-east of Portree was a good fit for my purpose as I wanted to focus on shooting the Trotternish peninsula on these few final days.
The Trotternish peninsula is the northernmost part of Skye and it's unique features were sculpted by massive landslides (the largest known to have happened in the UK) which occurred after the last ice age.
As you leave Portree and head along the coast of the peninsula one of the first attractions that you come to is the Bride's Veil waterfall, a small series of hillside cascades which offer a view with the Old Man of Storr in the background provided you are willing to jump across the stream.
Continuing the journey you come to the beautiful Loch Fada with it's single lonely island.
The Storr (the mountain in the left-centre of the picture above) is the highest point on the peninsula and the iconic rock pinnacle on its lower slopes is known as the Old Man of Storr. The Old Man is clearly visible as you approach Portree and is recognisable feature from many vantage points in the area.
To the north of the Storr there is a vantage point where you can view Mealt Falls cascading down Kilt Rock. The vantage point is somewhat limited when it comes to photographic compositions, this is one spectacle which might be better viewed from the sea or the air.
Before visiting Skye one of the places I was most looking forward to was the Quiraing, possibly the most dramatic of the areas sculpted by those ancient landslides. It is unfortunate that the weather turned instantly unpleasant on each occasion when I made the meandering ascent to this spectacular location. I still spent many hours walking here with my camera but when the light is really against you there is not always a huge amount you can do about it.
I hope, one day, to be at the Quiraing in some better light as it was a truly stunning place.
On the opposite side of the Trotternish peninsula you can find a zone known as the Fairy Glen due to it's interesting but relatively small features, almost like a miniature Quiraing.
My short visit to this place was a bit odd. Firstly I was a bit concerned about ending up trapped there - the narrow winding road passed over a cattle grid and there were signs saying that the cattle grid would be replaced, causing significant delays for traffic, and indicating that the work would happen on that day... this contributed a bit of a rush to proceedings as well as a "this could be a bad idea" feeling. One of the things I like most about being out in nature is the peace and quiet, but my visit to the Fairy Glen coincided with the visit of an extremely loud family and their similarly high volume canine companion. I could hear every word of their exchanges from at least 300 metres away and that added to my irritation.
My time there was more based about maintaining maximum distance from the loud people than it was about photography, and the impact of that was obvious when looking at the images later. This is another place I should revisit in different circumstances, but I did at least have a bit of fun processing the images.
During all my time on Skye I was very much hoping that at least one morning would give me suitable conditions to take best advantage of the 45 minute climb up to the Old Man of Storr. On one of the days, early in my trip and very early in the morning, I made my way towards the Storr, hoping that the cloudy twilight would give way to something interesting.
An hour before sunrise, as I was approaching Loch Fada, there were some beautiful pastel colours in the clouds and heavy snow on even slightly higher ground.
The climb up to the Old Man of Storr is not a particularly challenging one, but it is steep enough for long enough that you certainly notice that you are doing some exercise, the elevation gain is about 300m to the Old Man himself, perhaps closer to 400m to get to the higher vantage point that offers some of the best views.
The climb starts from the car park and goes through an area where a non-native forest has recently been felled in order for indigenous vegetation to be re-established in it's place.
The path makes it's way steadily upwards, sometimes over rather boggy ground and sometimes requiring more of a scramble over loose rocks.
The sun rose as I was still climbing, but the most interesting light was still to come as the cloud and fog which were gathering over the area continued to act as a giant diffuser for the golden light of rising sun over the next hour or so, an effect which varied in intensity from minute to minute.
The rocky pinnacle of the Old Man of Storr is 164 feet (50 metres) tall and stands proudly on the hillside. The area around it is surrounded by warning signs suggesting that one should not get too close due to the danger of rock falls. I usually pay attention to such signs but obviously not everyone takes the same approach. As I was loitering near such a sign a runner appeared around the base of the Old Man, coming towards me at a fair speed, dressed in shorts and a singlet (the temperature would soon be above zero after all), and rather irritated that some stupid photographer was standing on the narrow ledge which he had designated as his running track. He sprung off the path and proceeded through the boulder field without noticeably reducing his speed.
In order to get the best vantage point it was necessary to continue the climb up to a high plateau, slightly above the Old Man.
While making my way up to the higher ground there was a short period where the cloud intensified and the light was at it's most stunning and I was able to get the kind of shots I had been hoping for.
From the top of the plateau you can get a very good angle to see the individual rock towers, and the presence of other mortals helps to show the scale of the scene.
As you move closer to the towering rocks you can get a bit of a different view, but it is probably wise not to get too close.
Despite the early hour, and the snow, and the fact that it was very much out of season, I was not alone on this beautiful morning. A number of other photographers and a few tourists were also able to witness this beautiful spectacle. A visit to the Old Man of Storr in the summer would mean that you share the experience with many hundreds of other people, assuming that you could find a place to park your car in the first place.
Before bidding farewell to Skye I decided to make one more trip to the remote village and beach at Elgol. I always enjoy shooting at beaches and trying to make good seascapes, but it is also something that i am very much still learning.
Some of you may have noticed that I keep finding excuses to use very long exposures in my photography. At Elgol, as the weather deteriorated towards a dreary sunset, I became interested in the slipway beside the beach and decided that a 250 second exposure woudl calm the waves and the clouds to give me a peaceful and minimalist view.
My time in Skye was at an end and I had to start making my way back to Edinburgh airport to return to Finland. In a moment of nostalgia I decided to spend my last night on the other side of the country at the home of golf, the city of St. Andrews. I have played golf at St. Andrews dozens of times and visited on a few other occasions to observe professional tournaments, it is a place which is special to me, as it is to many other golfers across the world. At the same time my visit was tinged with a certain sadness as my back no longer lets me play golf on a reasonable level and I still feel that loss whenever I bump into reminders of my former hobby.
For the last hours before heading to the airport I left my cameras behind and took a long walk on the beach at St. Andrews, reflecting on the experiences I had enjoyed on what had been an excellent trip to my homeland.
Thanks for reading.
Until next time,
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,
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.
Thanks for reading my blog!
Earlier this year, as part of an extended visit to Scotland, I finally made my first visit to the Isle of Skye, one of the most spectacular parts of my home country. My travel schedule, on the road for 48 nights in a 70 day period, left me with quite a backlog of images to process and as a result it has been an unusually long time since I last posted in this blog.
My Scotland trip lasted for 28 nights and my initial plan was to start with a few days in Skye before travelling around the coast, stopping occasionally to check in with parents, brothers, sisters-in-law, nephews and nieces along the way.
The first part of my journey, driving from Edinburgh to Skye, was somewhat complicated by some food poisoning or other temporary debilitation which left me feeling like I had a truly horrendous hangover - this seemed rather unfair considering I had not touched a single drop of the various enchanting liquids that Scotland has to offer. I passed through glorious scenery in wintery conditions without having any energy available to stop and take photographs. Thankfully the ill-effects only lasted for 24 hours and I was free to explore the scenery after a good night's rest.
For the first couple of nights I stayed at the Skeabost Hotel which turned out to be an excellent choice, a stylish and comfortable place to stay with a traditional feel to it and beautiful surroundings. My only complaint about the hotel is that breakfast included such perfectly poached eggs that it was very tempting to prioritise eating breakfast over photographing sunrise... photographers beware when staying here!
On this first day i visited the area near Sligachan, a small settlement roughly in the centre of the island, where the local highlights include the Sligachan river, an old bridge and great views towards the Black Cuillin mountains.
This was one of the more beautiful days of the whole trip, sunrise itself was a muted affair as there was thick cloud or mist but as the morning progressed I witnessed a beautiful battle between the rising sun and the dwindling clouds.
Gradually the sun started to get the upper hand as the morning progressed, I have often found that the times when there is no decisive advantage for the clouds or the sun offer much better photography conditions than those times where it is just sunny or just cloudy.
Eventually the sun became the clear winner of this battle and there followed a period of very pleasant, but less photogenic, blue sky.
Moving west from Sligachan, I took a turning near to the Talisker whisky distillery and travelled along a long single track road to a remote rocky beach. The 60m high waterfall draining into the sea was one attraction but I was also somewhat fascinated by a more grizzly sight. A sheep had met it's end on the rocks of the beach (perhaps trapped in the rocks and claimed by the tide?) and this sad event had left the sheep as a woolly skeleton on the beach. Apologies to anyone who finds the picture disturbing.
The single track roads (i.e. two way roads only wide enough for one car) with occasional passing places are a feature of a lot of the less densely populated parts of Scotland, and Skye is no exception. To start with it can be a bit of an uncomfortable experience to encounter oncoming vehicles in the middle of the road, and I guess that nobody is that excited to have the opportunity for a long reverse, but you soon get used to it, even in an unfamiliar rental car. During my Scotland trip I estimate that I drove about 1000 kilometres on single track roads in the Skoda Superb (perhaps a bit overconfident naming... but I guess they would not sell the "Skoda Perfectly Decent" in such high numbers) that I rented from Sixt.
The journey to the spectacular lighthouse at Neist Point includes a long stretch of single track driving, with the added hazard of many hundreds of sheep wandering around. Usually sheep will get out of the way of a car eventually, but not until after you have slowed down to a crawl and gradually approached to within a few metres. All of this adds to the genuine local experience, and the journey is worth it.
This lighthouse, in it's iconic location, has to be one of the world's more memorable places to visit and it was great to be able to be there during the sunset and the early evening.
The following day's weather proved to be rather variable. Those readers who are familiar with Scotland will know that variable is about as good as you can hope for, especially in late January, and from a photography point of view variable works very well as the transitions between different conditions often provide the most interesting light.
I decided to explore a bit further south in Skye and took a turning onto (of course) another single track road after following the main road to Broadford. This took me to the picturesque Loch Cill Chriosd during the most pleasant period of weather.
This was another beautiful area and I walked here for some time along the banks of the Loch and in the adjacent hills.
I continued along this road, heading for another remote beach and hoping for some interesting sunset light. Along the way I passed through some beautiful scenery and had further experience of avoiding the sheep that wanted to share the road with me, but after some time I came across a different kind of obstacle - a small herd of Highland Cattle was staring at me with the afternoon sun at their backs.
These beautiful animals were a bit of a different proposition to the sheep which it had been more usual to encounter on the roads. A quick experiment showed that inching slowly towards them did not result in them retreating... just an increase in my anxiety about the possibility of having to explain numerous horn holes to the car rental company at the end of the trip. They had a very small calf in their number and it may have been that concern about protecting the little one was behind their reluctance to move. I pulled into a side road and decided to photograph these amazing animals instead of arguing further with them about rights of way.
This situation was resolved after some time as the herd gradually drifted across to one side of the road and allowed vehicles to carefully creep past, so I continued on my journey to the village and the beach at the end of the road... by which time the weather was taking a turn for the worse.
Once again I was able to witness a battle between the sun and the storm, but on this occasion the sun would definitely be on the losing side, managing only occasionally to burst through the storm clouds for a few moments before the darkness and rain took over for the night.
I think I will end this post on that note, there will be a bit more to come from Skye and from my Scotland trip in general in my next posts over the coming weeks. Thank you to all who have read this post, I hope that you have enjoyed it. As ever it is most welcome if you share my posts on social media.
Until next time,
An Edinburgh Interlude
As regular readers may remember, I have met up with my mother on a couple of my previous trips (Amsterdam and Riga). On this occasion it was time to spend a few days with my father at my parents flat in Edinburgh.
Scotland's capital is a wonderful city with impressive buildings around every corner, some sizeable hills to make the scenery more interesting, and the great benefit of many museums and galleries (most of which are free to enter).
Finnair operates a regular, but infrequent, direct service from Helsinki to Edinburgh and this time I was able to fit my schedule to that timetable. Avoiding a transfer makes a big difference to your travel and also makes a big difference to the chances of your luggage arriving on the same flight as you. When travelling direct with Finnair from Helsinki I think I have a 100% luggage arrival rate over many tens of flights... which tells that they are doing something right.
My flight arrived early in the morning and I had breakfast in the Marks and Spencer's cafe in Princes street to pass the time until my father arrived. Here I had an unexpected new experience... I have eaten hard boiled eggs before, but never a hard poached egg. Not recommended.
After meeting my father at the flat we made our way to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, an interesting and ever changing set of exhibits in a beautiful building... with excellent coffee and "good things" in the downstairs cafe.
From the gallery I continued with a couple of ideas in my head, I wanted to check out different angles for getting pictures of the castle and I also wanted to visit the Usher Hall to see if they would allow me to photograph their staircase.
It is quite often the case as a photographer that the things which catch your eye are not the things you are "supposed to be" interested in, and so it turned out out on this occasion as I spent quite some time ignoring the historic and fabulous Edinburgh castle in favour of taking pictures of a slightly grotty public car park.
Staircases have been on my mind quite a lot having found very nice ones in Prague, Riga, Budapest and Vienna and my Edinburgh research had pointed me towards the Usher Hall as a place where I might find a good one. I went there to enquire about whether I might spend some time with their staircase, given that it is not in a part of the building that is normally open to the public. The reception staff were extremely helpful and informed me when it would be best for me to visit for that purpose.
Walking back through the city I had to take shelter from some extremely heavy showers and these rather removed my enthusiasm for further photography, although I did make a scouting trip to the top of Calton Hill to get an idea of the views and angles from there.
The next day it was time to head north from the city to visit my nephews in Lundin Links, stopping on the way to look at the three iconic bridges spanning the firth of Forth.
The three bridges, the Forth Bridge (a railway bridge), the Forth Road Bridge and the Queensferry Crossing were each built in different centuries (opening in 1890, 1964 and 2017) and each represents a remarkable step forward.
The Forth Bridge is absolutely my favourite of the three and was a true marvel of engineering at the time of its construction. The invention, patenting and licensing of the Bessemer process for steel production in the second half of the 19th century made that material available in bulk cost-effectively for the first time. The Forth Bridge was the first major British construction made from steel, about 55,000 tonnes of it - including 6.5 million rivets.
There was also the small matter of over 18,000 cubic metres of granite (from Aberdeen of course) involved in the construction.
The end result of the huge construction effort which lasted most of the 1880's was a 3 hour reduction in the rail journey time from London Kings Cross to Aberdeen.
The Forth Road Bridge is not so visually fascinating to me, but for road travel through Scotland the impact must have been huge. Before it opened in 1964 the north-south vehicle traffic would either have to make a 50km+ detour to make use of the Kincardine Bridge or cross the Forth estuary by ferry. The possibility to have much faster and more direct access to Edinburgh from the north must have been a great economic benefit for the settlements along the Fife coastline. It was also something of a record breaking feat of construction, the largest suspension bridge outside of the US at the time.
The pillars of the newest bridge, the Queensferry Crossing, can be seen faintly through the mist in the picture above. On this occasion I did not pay it much attention apart from while being driven across it... perhaps I return to that as a subject in a future trip.
Back to the important stuff... my nephews, Hamish and Finlay. These two young men are at that very endearing stage where they have interest and energy to do a million different things, and they are close enough in age that they do many of those things together. It is always a lot of fun to spend time with them.
We also spent time with their parents, my brother and my sister-in-law, but when looking through my pictures I can see that my camera only had eyes for the boys.
The nearby beach provides a great playground (and occasional workplace) for the boys and I followed them on an afternoon visit there.
There were many different activities undertaken in a short space of time!
Throwing is important, but it should be done "at", not "to"... and naturally it works better when the ball is first soaked in a puddle.
A good deal of jumping from high places was also in order...
... it seemed to be fun!
Although to any watching responsible (?) adult the walls seemed pretty high!
This day was certainly a highlight.
The following day it was time to head east instead of north as we journeyed to North Berwick. On our way we visited the National Museum of Flight where the attractions include a Concorde.
One immediately obvious thing when entering the passenger area of a Concorde is how cramped it is, the long thin fuselage does not leave much room for seats. You may have paid £2,500 for your ticket and be drinking fine champagne with your roast beef but you should not expect much elbow room.
A Hawk jet from the Red Arrows was another interesting exhibit, as was the imposing Vulcan bomber, a long range heavy jet which would have carried the British nuclear deterrant in the days before it was felt that a submarine based system was preferable. The spitfire hanging from the ceiling in the wartime hangar inevitably provoked the warmest feelings.
The museum was definitely worth a visit and we passed a couple of hours there before heading on to North Berwick.
This is a fantastic golfing area where you can find the likes of Muirfield, Gullane and Luffness as well as North Berwick and many others... but on this occasion I was chasing a different kind of birdie - the Northern Gannet - a large sea bird which inhabits Bass Rock off the coast of North Berwick in huge numbers.
Bass Rock, with its distinctive Stevenson lighthouse (automated since 1988) is now uninhabited by humans but absolutely inhabited by birds. There are around 200,000 Northen Gannets on the rock in the breeding season, the largest Gannet colony in the world. I took a catamarran trip from the Scottish Sea Bird Centre to go and meet some of them.
The first destination on the boat trip was Craigleith, another rocky island a few miles from Bass Rock. There we were able to see various gulls but also common eiders, common guillemots, cormorants, shags, razorbills, grey seals and.... puffins.
It was really great just to see a puffin (my first time), but there were not that good chances to photograph them on this occasion. They are a lot smaller than I imagined and you would need to get quite close to them, but they were quite nervous (probably for good reason) whenever the boat came near. Shooting small birds from a boat on the open sea is no easy task so I am happy that I at least got a documentary picture of this encounter.
Normally when you go searching for a particular bird, there is at least a small question of whether you will even see any individuals of that species... but on this occasion I could say that finding a Northern Gannet was not that hard.
These remarkable looking birds, which can have a wingspan of up to 2 metres, were covering every available nesting spot on the whole island.
With the best spaces being closely guarded and very little ledge being fought over there was a good deal of "keeping an eye on the others" going on.
This was a really super boat trip and I highly recommend it for any bird watchers or bird photographers. If you want to get good photographs then I guess that the catamarran trip offers better possibilities than the RIB boat trip as there are more possibilities to move around on the boat and to shoot on the journeys as well as at the destinations.
Back in Edinburgh it was time to concentrate on interiors for a change, starting with a visit to the Usher Hall and their interesting staircase, a winding spiral with an illuminated column suspended in the middle. The light in the centre and the window at the top create quite a huge difference in illumiation between the lights and the shdows and I felt that the pictures worked the best when edited in a high contrast black and white style.
Thank you very much to the staff at the Usher Hall who were helpful and welcoming to a visiting photographer.
Leaving the staircase behind I went on a small tour of churches, stopping first at St John's church on Princes Street where they have a very interesting ceiling...
... pausing to pay my respects to a lone piper playing a rousing tune / making a hell of a noise (delete as appropriate) with the castle in the background...
... and eventually making it to St. Giles Cathedral in the Royal Mile, where I had arranged to meet my father.
St. Giles Cathedral has a really beautiful interior with high vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows and various interesting artifacts.
The ceiling of this fine old church was definitely the most interesting part for me to point my camera at... it had such a beautiful blue colour.
Alas, my time in Scotland was now coming to an end, there was just time to make one more climb up Calton Hill to see if I would be blessed with a beautiful sunset... but after all this is Scotland, sometimes you have to just be thankful that "a bit overcast" has not deteriorated into "you should probably build an ark".
I really enjoyed these few days in my home country, and especially enjoyed being able to spend time with my father. It was a memorable trip.
Until next time!
Home, sweet home
Hi everyone, and apologies for a period of inactivity in my blog. First I was travelling, then I was a bit unwell, then it was Christmas... and all of a sudden it has been four weeks since my last post. Now that I have made my excuses, perhaps I can tell about my trip to Scotland for 12 days in December. As some of you will realise, this trip took me to my country of origin. My intention this time was to split my days between exploring with my camera and catching up with friends and family - my parents, brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews all still live in Scotland and it was high time for a visit.
My journey to Inverness was somewhat more complicated than it should have been due to unfavourable weather conditions. Firstly my flight from Helsinki to Amsterdam had to divert to a small military airport in Groningen for refuelling, Amsterdam was reduced to a single operating runway by fog and wind and we did not have enough fuel to go round in circles waiting our turn. After a 2 hour wait in the plane on the tarmac in Groningen we finally made the short hop to Amsterdam. My second flight, from Amsterdam to Inverness, went without incident until we were above Inverness, at which point the captain informed us that the airport was currently closed due to heavy snow... so we went round in circles overhead for 90 minutes while they cleared the runways. This did however offer some great views of the snow-covered city.
The weather which disrupted my flights, would also disrupt many of my other plans. Living in Finland I am very used to freezing conditions and driving on snowy or icy roads, but I felt like it was wise to be a bit more cautious when driving an unfamiliar car on unfamiliar roads without the benefit of winter tyres. I had hoped to travel all around the north and west of Scotland, including the Isle of Skye, but instead I stayed within a couple of hours drive of my parents house near to Inverness for most of my trip. Luckily there was plenty of interesting things to point my camera at without travelling more widely.
I decided to visit the lighthouse at Tarbat Ness, an impressive 53m tall specimen built in 1830 by Robert Stevenson (the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson) as part of the response to a great storm in 1826 which had resulted in the loss of 16 vessels in the Moray Firth. The lighthouse still operates today, fully automated, and it's light can be seen for over 40 kilometres (on the rare clear days in this part of the world). The location is somewhat remote on the end of a peninsula, ideal lighthouse locations are not always the most convenient to journey to.
Tarbat Ness was also a good place to observe birds, I spotted chaffinches, robins, dunnocks, rock pipits and blue tits as well as being almost continually accompanied by the sound of wrens as a I explored the area. There were noticeably more birds than there are in Finland at this time of year.
Over the course of the following few days I spent some time walking with my camera near to Kilmuir, in search of bird species that I had not previously photographed. There were two particular prizes that I was seeking, the red kite (a bird of prey which is rather hard to find in Finland) and the red-legged partridge (a small game bird that can't be found in Finland at all). The red kite is historically a native bird in Scotland but had disappeared from these parts until a successful effort to reintroduce it at the end of the last century, relocating 93 birds from Sweden for the purpose. Thankfully, nowadays, it is possible to see these beautiful birds more regularly, I was able to see one or more of them at least every second day during my trip.
When it comes to the red-legged partridge, my hunt for that prize was not so straight-forward, every time I went out with my camera I would come back empty handed. After one such failed search I sat at the kitchen table having coffee, only for a red legged partridge to walk slowly past on the street outside, about 1 metre away... unfortunately my camera was not with me. Sometimes that's how things go.
My next lighthouse was at Chanonry Point, a narrow spit of land in-between the villages of Fortrose and Rosemarkie which is one of the best places in the world to observe dolphins from the shore. This lighthouse was also built by a Stevenson, this time Alan Stevenson (son of Robert, uncle of Robert Louis), and it was completed in 1846. It still operates, fully automated since 1984.
I was not lucky enough to see any dolphins while at Chanonry Point but there were many birds in the immediate area including oystercatchers, robins, dunnocks, sparrows and a goldcrest - but the most interesting species I saw was a stonechat, the 167th species I have photographed this year.
From Chanonry Point I continued round the coast to Rosemarkie where I spotted a flock of Brent Geese on the beach... species 168.
From Rosemarkie beach I followed a path through the forest to some fairy pools. The sign promised that it was 500m to my destination so after walking up a hill for 25 minutes I started to have some doubts about whether I was on the right path, but when turning the next corner they were right in front of me.
It was a bit curious that this area was almost free of snow while lower down in the valley there was a thick white blanket covering everything.
The lighthouse project continued as my father and I took a day trip, following the Moray coast east to the town of Lossiemouth where the impressive Covesea Skerries lighthouse can be found. Another Stevenson design (Alan once again), this lighthouse was built in 1846 as another part of the recommended response to the storm of 1826, it's light was finally extinguished in 2012 but the iconic structure remains.
From Lossiemouth we continued east to the town of Portknockie where the quartzite rock that makes up the local coastline has eroded into interesting shapes, the most famous of which is Bow Fiddle Rock, an interesting protrusion about 50 metres away from the coastal cliffs.
As we returned from our trip to Portknockie I was again taunted by the elusive red-legged partridge. This time there were a pair of them sitting on the neighbours doorstep. They were very close and not that concerned by our presence... but it was about 2 hours after sunset and way too dark to take bird photographs.
On the second weekend of my trip I headed south to Leven, near Edinburgh, to visit my nephews. It was a particular highlight to be able to watch the new Star Wars movie with them in St Andrews after visiting their favourite bookshop.
After returning to Kilmuir again the red-legged partridge was on my mind. Time was running short to get a photograph. Wondering around with my camera brought all kinds of birds into view, but not the one I was looking for... as compensation I was at least treated to a nice sunset.
Although I didn't find the partridge, I had a lucky encounter with another Kilmuir resident who gave me a tip about where I might see some partridges early the next morning, before my flight back to Finland. A dawn stakeout, hiding under some tall bushes, was finally rewarded (after 80 cold minutes) with the sight of a pair of nervous red-legged partridges. They were a bit smaller than I expected, about the size of a pigeon, and behaved in a similar way to pheasants, preferring to walk or run away from any perceived danger instead of using their wings and taking to the air. The bird was a bit distant and the sun was below the horizon so the picture is no masterpiece, but at least it gives an idea how these distinctive birds look, and also takes my 2017 photographed species count to 169.
Thanks to all who have shown an interest in my blog and my photographs during 2017, I wish you a happy new year and a great 2018.
Tollie Red Kites
Earlier this month I had the great pleasure to visit the RSPB's Red Kite centre at Tollie, near to Dingwall in Scotland, on a day trip with my mother.
The Red Kite (milvus milvus in Latin, isohaarahaukka in Finnish) is a medium-large bird of prey with a wing-span of up to 175cm and although they are historically native to Scotland they were hunted to extinction in these parts before being re-established as a breeding population at the end of last century with 93 birds from Sweden. These birds are only very occasionally seen in my home country of Finland (less than 100 times ever).
I have occasionally seen these beautiful birds near to my parents house in the Black Isle and was hoping to get a chance to get a bit closer by visiting Tollie.
The road to Tollie is something of an experience, especially in the heavy snow that we were treated to on the day we visited. The Red Kite centre can be found at the end of a single track farm road with occasional passing places, and some deep ditches that help you to maintain your concentration. On a normal day the road would be perfectly passable but I was glad to be in a 4x4 vehicle in the snowy conditions.
It is fair to say that the gentleman who was on duty at Tollie was a bit surprised to see visitors on such an unpromising day, but he made us most welcome. The centre itself is an unheated building with numerous information boards and large viewing windows, allowing you to observe the birds with shelter from the wind which helps a little in keeping warm, but if you are visiting in winter it is advisable to wrap up warmly.
The centre leaves food for the kites every day, the feeding times can be seen from their website, and there is a high probability to see at least one of them if you time your visit to coincide with the feeding schedule. We saw many kites, at one time I could see 9 individuals so there were at least that many in the area. Their calls could be heard almost constantly and there was almost always one or more circling above, occasionally swooping down to feed or to scare away the gulls that were trying to eat their dinner.
From photography point of view, there is an area to the side of the building where you can stand behind a wall and shoot through some holes in the wall or over the top of the wall at the boards circling above. The kites were not overly concerned by my presence as long as I stayed behind the wall so there was no need for extreme stealth, you could freely move around without impacting your shooting chances.
I estimate that the distance to the table where the food was placed would have been some 40-45 metres so a long telephoto lens would be an advantage. My travel kit includes a 100-400mm lens as the longest option, it was possible to shoot there with 400mm (on a full frame camera) but a longer focal length would have been an advantage in order to get the birds larger in the frame.
I found that the situation was much more suited to shooting hand-held than it would have been for use with a tripod, the birds spent 98% of their time circling above, covering a large area, and hardly any time actually feeding. At least for me using a tripod would have made it a lot harder to switch rapidly between shooting almost straight up and shooting almost horizontally.
The kites spent some of their time squabbling amongst themselves, perhaps not actually fighting but behaving in a threatening way towards each other, capturing these moments would probably give the best photographs, but the action is over in an instant so you would need to combine skill with luck in order to get a really good one.
This time I didn't manage to capture the perfect moment, but I was happy at least to get a number of pictures where more than one bird was in the frame. Perhaps on a future visit I can do better.
The red kite centre is maintained by the RSPB and at the time I visited it was free for visitors and photographers to enter, donations are however welcome from those who find it to be a valuable experience. I would hope that all visitors to Tollie would feel that a donation was appropriate, the work that they do and the visitor experience that they provide is certainly valuable.
I would highly recommend a visit to Tollie Red Kite centre to any nature lovers, photographers or other interested parties, it was wonderful to see these magnificent birds in action.
I would also like to thank the kind and knowledgeable member of staff at Tollie who made my mother and I so welcome on a snowy December afternoon.
PS - check out the Tollie facebook feed to see other pictures and regular updates from Tollie
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