Back in The Highlands


First off, let me start by wishing you a very Happy New Year! After the somewhat deep, self-reflecting and philosophical approach to my last post, I felt I'd lift the mood with this first post of the year and share my experiences shooting in Glencoe for a couple of days over the festive period.

Keen followers will recall that we visited the area 3 years ago to do a photoshoot with my new car in the mountains, which considering my abilities and camera at the time was fairly successful. Despite the success of that trip, I have been itching to return and spend more time with my camera in the Scottish Highlands. 

Abarth 595

When driving to Fife for the festive period at Claire's mums, I had no idea we would be venturing into the Highlands, and subsequently didn't pack quite as well as I could have. I knew we were going to be going somewhere after boxing day, but no idea of where this would be! With so many other things on my mind, the last thing I thought about was a wander in the Scottish wilderness.

My preparations surrounding the trip focused more towards the admin work I needed to complete, and of course, sorting out and wrapping Christmas gifts. I had earmarked some time over Christmas to do a complete refresh of my website and relaunch my Etsy Shop with the listings of my limited edition prints which all went ahead without any significant issues. If anyone has any thoughts and comments regarding the new look website I'd love to hear them!

Many days of being spoilt ensued, with lashings of good food, beer and of course, whiskey! Christmas day was soon upon us, and gifts were being exchanged; Claire held back with one of mine, a nondescript golden envelope presented after all the others, in a cloud of ambiguous mystery. I cautiously opened the fine shimmering sleeve to unveil a welcome pack for the Glencoe Wood reserve with a certificate declaring I am now the proud owner of a piece of land on said reserve!

It's only a square foot and is part of a conservation project so it has no value as such, I'm not going to be able to rock up and build myself a lodge to hide away in anytime soon, but it was amazing to think I now own a tiny piece of this beautiful country. Furthermore, Scottish Law states that any individual that owns land in Scotland is forever endowed with the title "Laird", Lord/Lady being the English equivalent. So yes, I am now a Lord, but don't worry, I do not expect any special treatment; a simple court bow will suffice.

Already beaming with excitement, there was yet more to come, Claire had made reservations at a hotel local to the reserve (an establishment we had stayed at on our previous visit overlooking Lock Linnhe) and a tour of the reserve including a visit of our plots! (She had snapped up the adjacent plot because of course, a Lord must have a Lady (and not wanting to be upstaged!)).

I now had more than just some boring admin to deal with, I now had just a couple of days to plan a shoot in Glencoe, and I was buzzing! Only trouble was, despite some glorious weather over Fife during Christmas, the weather on the West Coast looked utterly dreadful. Throw into this that I had failed to bring a) waterproofs for myself, and b) the rain covers for my aquaphobic camera.

I was raising these concerns when Claire's mum suggested that a photographer friend of hers could help in lending his camera covers, which thankfully and gratefully he did providing me with a little more confidence. Concerns over how I would protect myself from the Scottish weather would have to wait until we got there.

Slipping straight into research mode, I started to scour the area on Google to set up a shooting itinerary and refresh my memory of the lay of the land. The weather looked so bad that this was proving a difficult task, so I abandoned it and just hoped for the best. One thing I was sure of was revisiting Glen Etive, which some may recognize as a location for the Bond film Skyfall. I remembered this road very well from our last trip, and returning now with a much better camera and an arsenal of skills developed since then, I was keen to do it justice.

Friday and our departure to the Scottish Highlands was now upon us. Heading out on a beautiful sunny day, the sounds of Bill Bryson Reading his new book 'The Body' filling the car for the 3-hour journey. The drive was uneventful and passed relatively quickly thanks to the audiobook. The drive took us through Perth, across the top of Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park, picking up the A82 into Glencoe.

Once we hit the A82, my environment suddenly became very familiar. The terrain and surrounding scenery gradually grew more and more dramatic, almost intimidating as the distant mountains grew taller and taller. This sight did not intimidate me,  far from it; the sight of the Highlands was very welcoming and I was delighted to be back.

Abarth 595

What wasn't very welcoming was the weather. Passing the Green Welly Stop before climbing the road that would lead around Loch Tulla, the clouds grew heavier and heavier. As we climbed I instantly recognized the windings of this road and recalled the view from a lay by halfway up the climb out over the loch to the mountains beyond. With an hour to kill before our appointment at the reserve, we pulled in to take in the glorious view of the Loch and the surrounding mountains, only to be welcomed by the same wind and rain that had greeted us 3 years ago. Needless to say, the stop was brief.

Back on the road then and continuing along the A82 in the direction of Glencoe, it wasn't long before we passed the turning for Glen Etive off to the left. I gazed along with it, excitement and anticipation building, but this would have to wait as we had an appointment to keep. The road takes you past a roadside waterfall which even at this time of year was surrounded by gazing visitors, then turning a bend with a slight decline which brings the Three Sisters into view. My heart warmed immensely.

In predictable fashion, the tourist buses and crowds of visitors were here in force, something I had not expected for this time of year. None the less, this was a stop on our last venture where I had snapped pics of the car amongst the mountains, and just couldn't resist a stop here. Initially leaving my camera in the car to just soak up the view and insanely clean Highland air, it wasn't long before I succumbed and scrambled back to the car to grab my bag and crack off a few shots. I wasn't looking to go crazy and intended to return later in our visit to shoot them properly.

Back in the Abarth we headed onward for the reserve, entering the Lochside village with a name that could almost be a caricature of a Scottish place name, Ballachulish (bala-hue-lish), the location also of our hotel of the same name. A stop for fuel at the local's local garage where I made one of the most sensible decisions in my entire life. I bought a packable waterproof and now felt I was truly ready for the HIghlands. 

Just a short journey beyond Ballachulish, we arrive at Glencoe Wood.

Now called the 'Highland Titles Nature Reserve', which I do find a little unimaginative and commercial, the work they do here is actually quite incredible, and our purchasing of small plots is used as a contribution towards the conservation efforts they do here. We were greeted warmly on arrival (by our official titles of course), then whisked around the huge site in an open-sided buggy driven by an enthusiastic volunteer who pointed out areas of interest such as the Wildcat rehabilitation enclosure, Hedgehog hospital and preservation enclosure, amongst many other things for creatures great and small. 

We were then led to the exact coordinates of our 2 sq ft of land for a photo opportunity. Heading back to the welcome center there are a number of wide stunning vistas out at the neighboring mountains and lochs which are truly breathtaking and great photo opportunities, so we were told. On this occasion, all were obscured by clouds and mist.

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The lack of views and the soggy leg I had picked up by a combination of the relentless falling rain into the open-sided buggy were soon compensated for when I made the purchase of a bow tie in my new tartan which was commissioned especially for this land. Leaving the reserve behind feeling quite satisfied that the contributions to the site were being put to very good use, we headed hungrily to the hotel to check-in and get a spot of lunch. The weather now was actually not too bad, but with only an hour of sunlight left it was decided to settle in for the evening and relax in preparation for the next busy day. 

The hotel was just as I remembered. A little beaten and rough around the edges,  but still charming with a roaring fire in the generous lounge, resident cat and local gruff barman (by local I mean local to home, he's from Camden!). We quickly settled in by the cozy fire with a freshly poured beer and fired up my laptop to learn more about the reserve. I had saught to locate out plot using the new grid referencing site What 3 Words. Unfortunately, the coordinates provided by the site were impossible to decipher by any of the incredible amounts of grid referencing systems, so the closest I have been able to pinpoint is ///manual.finders.headboard. I had hoped for something more, well, Scottish, but that was not to be. 

A fine 3-course meal including Guinea Foul and Venison was washed down with a bottle of wine, then promptly to bed. With only one full day to reacquaint ourselves with the area, we were hoping to capitalize the following day. 

Dreich is a great Scottish word. It means wet, dull, gloomy, dismal, dreary or any combination thereof, and is a perfect description of our Saturday in Glencoe. After a hearty breakfast of tattie scones and haggis, we hit the road with waterproofs in hand with the rain light, but manageable.

Making an initial stop on the road out of Ballachulish, a straight length of tarmac punctuated with a mountain range at the end, I had just grabbed my tripod from the boot of the car when the light drizzle became a constant stream of moderate, and unrelenting wet. Not a pounding abusive downpour, just an uninterrupted shagpile carpet of water descending from a dark grey sky. And it remained this way for virtually the entire day. Brilliant. 

I had made yet another amazing decision back in the hotel prior to leaving, in grabbing a small handful fo claire makeup removal pads. I did note the day before that my camera and lens cleaning equipment I usually keep in my bag had also not made the journey from London, which was another deeply frustrating faux pas on my account. As it turns out, these pads were great for soaking up and removing water spots from my lens without smearing!

My enthusiasm was not dampened physically or metaphorically, and we headed in the direction of Glen Etive. Driving around this region is a doddle, the roads are pretty much either following the edge of a loch, or a range of mountains and the road signs are very clear and unambiguous. In good weather, the roads are a pleasure to drive, full of excitement for an energetic car like mine, but only in good weather, something we were not to be blessed with. 

Turning into Glen Etive, I couldn't help but feel an overwhelming sense of satisfaction. The drive down the rolling roads parallel to the roaring river fed by the mountains that form the glen is truly awe-inspiring and humbling. I took the decision to drive the full length to the loch before I start making stops and taking images so that I could plan more carefully how I would set my camera up in the wet, as each shot would be tricky to arrange whilst keeping everything dry. 

Despite passing a group of deer and stags close to the roadside, I kept to the plan and drove on feeling confident that I would make the most of these sites on the return drive back from Loch Etive. Continuing through vast planes of reddish-golden marshland, lush green pine forests, and lightly snow-dusted peaks, we arrived at the loch. The view beyond shrouded entirely in fog and not what I had hoped for.

I set myself up at the bay of the lock, and despite my best efforts using the rain covers and lens flares, it was near impossible to keep everything dry. Claire decided to make use of my brand new rain jacket on our first stop, taking it from its new pouch and putting the hood up, despite already wearing a weatherproof jacket with its own hood. now, in the downpour, I was trying to keep myself dry with it and was totally unaware that the hood was out and acting as a bowl collecting the falling rain. In a moment of wisdom, I whipped off my waterproof flat cap for use as a shelter for my lense to prevent droplets falling on the front lens element, promptly replacing my hat with the hood of my jacket. In an instant, all my attempts to keep myself dry were quite literally washed away as I tipped over the now half full hood straight over my head. 

Getting back in the car we drove back hoping there would be some temporary relief in the downpour just fleeting enough so as to get out and crack of some shots. There wasn't. 

We drove around the local area for a few hours hoping for an opportunity, but alas it was not to be. All the driving was making me weary and hungry, so we stopped at the local's local garage once again to grab a sandwich and then back to the comfort of our hotel room for a coffee, to dry off and warm up. For fear of sounding like a caravan enthusiast, I must say that the sandwiches from the garage were probably the best I have had anywhere in the world. For a cheap bite, the egg mayo and ham and coleslaw, respectively on white and brown bread were ridiculously good!

Only a few hours of daylight remained, and we refused to give up, so we headed back out again to see what we could do. Driving this time west of the hotel to pastures new, I hoped that some miracle would bestow us and turn our fortunes around. 

This little prayer must have been heard, as by some divine intervention the rain stopped just as we turned a corner to reveal a small castle perched on a tiny island out across a shallow bay. Almost as if on autopilot, I found a parking spot, grabbed my gear and headed down to the water, wading out as far as my wellies would permit (which wasn't very far as I had cropped them for a festival some 6 years prior!).

I worked the scene for around 30mins or so, but nothing particularly exciting materialized. The day had worn me down, and I was getting really tired. It's true what they say, the clean air has a strange effect on the body and come mid-afternoon it feels like you have been necking a Diphenhydramine loaded cough syrup (the non-non-drowsy kind). 

Ahead of the castle, we found an interesting road to nowhere spotted with grand estates with views of the surrounding mountains, but the views were difficult to photograph due to the enclosures of private land. There was a field with some Highland Cows in which despite the use of my 240mm lens and cropped sensor mode on my camera, were still too far to capture. Claire spotted a small harbor village not far from us which we ventured over to on our return to the hotel, which turned out to be something of nothing before we eventually headed back to the hotel feeling a little defeated. 

As we approached our lodgeings, already thinking of a nice pint and the roaring fire I declared that I would like to get up on the bridge adjacent to our hotel which passes over the loch. I wasn't sure how to drive up to it and started to drive under to find a way up when I spied a pedestrian stairway up which had not been there on a first visit all those years ago. I slammed on the brakes, parked up and grabbed my gear. It was blue hour, and I was determined to make something of the day. 

Before dinner, I eagerly inspected the weather predictions for the following day; the forecast for Sunday was cloudy, but dry, with a chance of rain around 3 pm. I proposed we perhaps got up and out early to make the most of it, (during winter in Scotland early is half 8, so not early at all by our usual experiences) before heading back to Claire's mums for one more night prior to traveling home to London. A modest dinner and an early night it was then. 

I slept terribly. I kept waking up worried that I would not be ready in time, which was ridiculous. Even on a normal day, I am awake by 7 am the latest, but still, I was up before 6 am. Rousing a dormant Claire for showers and breakfast, we were back out, the car packed and ready to see what the day had in store for us.  

Turning back into Glen Etive I was instantly invigorated from my somewhat lethargic condition. The clouds were heavy, but it was dry! 

This time it was only a night's sleep that separated my visit to the glen, but I was still just as excited to be back. This time I wasn't going to take any chances and stopped at every opportunity,  shooting all the way down to the loch to make the most of the dry weather. 

That is not to say there weren't challenges; the rain had been replaced by a howling wind coming up through the glen like a wind tunnel from the loch. I had hoped to be shielded by the mountains, but this was not the case. Climbing down upon the rocks, mere inches away from a sheer drop into the raging river below, I had to battle the strong winds and spray off of the river which proved an absolute nightmare. 

Shooting the landscape shots almost exclusively with my 16 - 35 mm you would think that I could get away with hand-holding the camera, but the light was so bad that even the modest of depth of fields was risky without being shot on a tripod. Wielding this in the wind and keeping it steady with extra support from my camera bag suspended beneath, plus my added force down on the base of the gimble was required to maintain extra stabilization and prevent camera blur.  

Compared with the previous day, I was not at all bothered by the wind, it was a nuisance, but one that could be managed. I was totally content and felt like a tittering teenager as I clambered across rocks, darted in and out of shallow waters and scrambled the hillsides in pursuit of unique interesting views to shoot. I was looking always at the lines and angles of the mountains, the curves of the road, falling mountain waters, and the river. Seeking interesting trees bare and abanded trees, or rock formations by the river that could make for an ideal subject to complete the scene. 

It was a complete surprise to find so many other visitors here this time, even the day before in the pouring rain. I cannot recall having to avoid so many vehicles along the single stretch of road as we did this time.  Fortunately, these visitors were not quite as adventurous as I and tended to stick to the road and out of the way of my landscape shots.

At a part where the road lowered to the river's edge, a spied a woman sporting a camera being very considered about her composition, crouched down facing a dramatic turn in the river. Without thinking a lunged myself over a small crook that fed into the main river and slung my tripod to the ground so that I could frame her in the shot and bring a human element to the landscape. 

I didn't want to disturb my fellow photographer, so I looked around for other possibilities in this location. Upon a bridge behind me was another guy setting up a tripod shooting back at the river, and having already collected a few harder to reach spots, I figured I'd keep out of their way and focus on something a little different. 

Switching to my 24 - 240 mm I figured I could get some tighter, detailed shots of my surroundings, something I had neglected on the way down in favor of wider scenes. My attention was again drawn to interesting shapes of the trees and lines in the environment around me. 

I turned away from the river and followed the line of a watercourse up to the road and beyond to the mountains behind. A car passed across the road which made for an interesting mid-ground interest, but the composition wasn't quite right. I held firm for a moment, looking either side for another vehicle when I saw the photographer I had captured by the waters edge heading back to the road. I placed my eye to the viewfinder and waited for the magic to happen. 

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Feeling most content at this halfway point with the shots I had taken I climbed back into the car to some bad news. The conditions yesterday had caught up with Claire, and she was now feeling most unwell, shivering in the passenger seat. She was not in a good way and left me with a bit of a predicament. I had just over half of the route to do but also needed to get Claire back to home comforts and get her back on the mend. 

Mindful of getting Claire home, I narrowed my focus and made my stops far more selective, limiting my shots to those that would add variation and context to the overall set. The clouds had not eased up even remotely, in fact, they were as low and dense as they had been when we first set out. I saw a wide range heavily shrouded with smooth lines casting down the mountainside. The cloud and mist provided negative space and the smooth featureless area contrasted nicely against the course mountainside.

It wasn't long until we were at the loch, which was now heaving with visitors. Despite the weather having cleared up considerably from the previous day, the view hadn't improved all that much and I would have benefited much more from a clearer day. This was disappointing, but at least we had reached the end of the road and could now begin our return.

A short way back was a location where we had encountered some wild Stags the day before, but I was unable to shoot them because of the weather. Now we approached an area of private land which had some grazing in plain sight, but some idiot had decided to jump the fence and chased them into the bushes, much to my frustration and annoyance.  

Moving onward ahead of the prat that had scared off the stags we looked up a lane to see one had separated from the group and was now out in the open, but still on private land. This felt like my last chance to capture a stag, so I parked up and slowly moved myself to the end of this path to frame the animal. There were a number of objects in the way of the Stag which, making a reasonable composition impossible. My presence, even at the around 20m or so, was still a little unnerving for the creature and caused it to head out of its location to an open field on the other side of the road. 

Having slowed a car down to allow the Stag to safely cross, I turned my direction to the other side of the road, which was much better for the image with a cleaner background with the contours of the mountains and river in the distance. With my lens fully extended and cropped sensor mode engaged for extra reach I felt I had captured the shot I needed.

Time was getting on now, and it was time to head back. It was a shame to rush the last couple of hours, but I couldn't be too disappointed with the shots I had managed to get in this briefest of windows. Heading back towards the A82 and back to Fife, I couldn't believe my eyes. This time 3 Stags were grazing quite literally beside the road, an opportunity I could not pass up. 

Slipping out of the car and slowly creeping into the wild grass I could not believe my luck. This would be the crowning moment of this 4-hour mini-adventure. 

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And with that, it was time to head back with my poorly patient. Pulling out onto the main road, the windscreen started spotting with rain, pretty much bang on time with the day's forecast. The trip was plagued with problems, but I feel we still made the most of it. I look forward to visiting again, perhaps when the weather is a little clearer and see another side of this truly beautiful place. 

Thanks for stopping by, I hope you enjoyed the journey as much as I did. Don't forget to drop by my Facebook page and drop a like to keep up to date with future blog posts!

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