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 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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