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,
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,
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