A Trip to Sutherland

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There was a heavy frost on the car and it took several minutes to clear the windows and get going. The forecast was for sunshine, with a 20% possibility of showers, but venturing into the Scottish Highlands that 20% could easily grow and the showers could be rain, sleet, hail or even snow. It is winter, after all.

Heading towards Inverness, the view across the Moray Firth was enough to get the heart racing. The northern hills were covered in a fresh blanket of snow and the sky was crystal clear with the odd wee cloud for interest. The low sun, still not fully risen, was bathing the trees in a weak but warm light. It would be a good trip. There was hardly a breath of wind, and no sign of rain at all.

Passing through Ullapool however, the first spots of rain hit the windows. It was snowing on the tops, that was easy to see, but would it hold off?

The first stop was Stac Pollaidh, which I first photographed in 2015. The light was getting worse, although the wind wasn’t too bad, but the spits and spots of rain were still present and the threat was still menacing. The light wasn’t great but the wonderful shape of our Polly and the dead tree and foreground rocks still made for a nice image. Balancing the exposure of the sky and the landscape was increasingly difficult as the contrast became exceptionally high and without a mix of graduated ND filters it would have been impossible.

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The second destination was Ardvreck Castle, which I had also first photographed back in the Autumn of 2015. The spots of rain had now became much more frequent as we travelled towards it. Spots became light rain, then light rain became much heavier rain, as we headed northwards. Then heavy rain got a bit lumpy whilst approaching Inchnadamph, as the rain turned to sleet.

Arriving at the castle’s car park the rain/sleet intensified yet further, and it became impossible to even contemplate getting out the car, let alone taking any photos. The loch disappeared, then the car park disappeared, as the rain/sleet and now hail, hit the screen. It was so cold the screen had misted up in seconds after stopping the engine. The rain continued to pound the roof for a good half hour, my stomach rumbled, and heading off for lunch became a lot more likely than the prospect of photos.

Abandon the trip and return to find a nice cosy pub in Ullapool? It was tempting, but this is when the photographers dog’s inability to sit still (especially in exciting people places) saved the day. There would be no warm pub, but finding a shop and having a snack in the car. I could have murdered a cup of tea though.

Down hearted? Yes. But a thought occurred  – let’s continue on to Lochinver, source lunch and a tea, ideally from the Spar (which actually wasn’t open), and perhaps wait it out? It might improve…

Lochinver: Where the motto is ‘Welcome to a small drinking town with a big fishing problem’ or at least that is what the t-shirts said, in the only shop that was open. The Spar, was closed, the hotel was serving food and the Caber’ was open but I wasn’t leaving the photographer’s dog in the car alone in the cold. So, crisps, Twix, and a couple of cold drinks later acquired from the odd newsagents, and we were sitting in the half empty car park, looking out on the hills surrounding the fishing port…

It might improve…

But, to be honest, it wasn’t looking good. The weather, back in Moray, was glorious of course. Twitter, Facebook, and their like can be terrible for informing you of exactly what you are missing. Over here, on the West Coast, in the highlands, that slim 20% chance of rain, was now a 100% reality.

Still, it might improve…

Lunch was boring, and there was a lack of tea. Bring flask? No, buy a camper van! Make hot drinks and hot lunches, and not have to pee behind bushes! Ok, I will give Lochinver another credit; having a nice, dry, and clean public convenience in a time when they are becoming rarer by the day.

 

In fact, the front that brought the rain also gave new fresh snow to the mountains, and a freshness to the semi-frozen lochs. The water enlivened the landscape, bringing a reflective quality that made the trees and heather almost shimmer. The sky cleared slowly, but the clouds it left gave it an interest that a sunny day would not have had. They clung to the tops of the mountains and competed with the sun.

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A walk in the shadow of the Quinag, mainly to stretch the legs of the photographer and the photographer’s dog finished with the shot above. Majestic, the Quinag is often only seen ‘end-on’ from the shore of Loch Assynt….

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…which was also producing the wonderful, but highly contrasted, view as shown above. I am a bit of a sucker for loch reflections, for breaking the rule of thirds to put the subject in the centre, and for trees on wee islands. This shot has it all. The contrast was the difficult bit, and meter readings varied wildly. In the end I shot one using the Centre Weighted, one using Spot, and one using Average. The histogram showed I needed still to tweak with the settings to keep the sky from going, whilst the shadows were off the other end. Sacrifice one or the other. Try both in camera, and choose on the big screen later.

Using the exposure compensation dial to move 1/3rd of a stop at a time, I dialled in the histogram at one end, shot the shot, then dialed in the other. Using a 0.6 soft grad brought in the sky a little bit I still worried about the highlights on the water almost as much.

This is why I love my Fuji XT-1, there is the latitude, if you use the histogram properly, to get back something from either end (or in this case, both ends!). The JPEG preview didn’t look anything like as good as the RAW file, which is why the histogram is so important.

Now, with two potentially great shots in the bag, the trip was already a success. This was in spite of having a fairly late start to the photography due to the weather. Now to return to Ardvreck Castle. Would we keep the light long enough?

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Arriving at the western side of the loch it is possible to see the castle with a loch-side perspective. There is parking, and it’s important to ensure you are off the road, but don’t take spaces for granted. In winter it isn’t so much of a problem, but this is now part of the 500 route and so that situation isn’t going to get any better.

Due to the location it is possible, although not that easy, to get the castle, the house that replaced it (now also a ruin) and the wonderful snow capped mountains behind and in the same shot. It does make the castle rather small, but the wonderful light on the snow of the mountains of Glas Bheinn and Beinn Uidhe were worth the effort.

Driving along closer to the castle, and then parking in the same car park we had sat in a few hours earlier, I wasn’t convinced the light would do anything. It was heading towards dusk and the light goes very quickly in winter, especially as a mountain just to the south west of the castle really gets in the way of it. I thought, well you are here now and it’s a long drive, make the most of it. Get out the car, and go see, I thought.

This is what I rewarded with this:

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I concentrated on the foreground interest initially incorporating the rocks of the indented shoreline. I watched the increasing cloud, and was still convinced I would loose the best light. Had I missed it? Did I spend to long on wandering about the other side of the Quinag?

Bursts of sunlight teased the far mountains behind me, but would they tease the castle or the slopes of the end of the Quinag?

I slowly wandered toward the castle, tentative as if approaching a wild beast, waiting, waiting on a moment of light. Just as I was marvelling at the reflections and getting the legs of the tripod adjusted to suit the change in terrain, the sun burst onto the slop of Quinag. Thankful for my Gitzo’s quick grasp leg locks, I was ready.

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In fact I was spoiled as the light danced across the end face of Quinag, and the clouds frolicked creating reflections beautifully in the mirror-like stillness of the loch itself. What a reward for not abandoning the trip earlier. It lasted no more than five minutes but it was enough. Enough that using the 16-55/2.8 Fujifilm zoom that I could get the range of shots I needed with very little shifts of my own position.

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What a reward for not judging possibilities solely by the light during the drive, and the poor light in the car park. I could have stayed in the car, shrugged, and given up. But I thought I would take a quick look, a look that turned into an hour, and made the final descent back into Ullapool one taken almost in full darkness.

A quick stop for a warm pee (thank you Tesco) and another snack, and it was time for the long drive home. It was now fully dark whilst driving the main road from Ullapool to Inverness, but the new-looking snow poles are great for showing the bends well in advance. The ice warning on the car changed from orange to red as the temperature dipped from the 4.0C to -2.0C as I climbed to old Aultguish Inn (Inn no more, sadly). Some lunatic decided my 50-60mph wasn’t enough and overtook me. Then another, but I was pretty convinced I would see them in a ditch somewhere further on. An ice warning and low temperature coupled with the road side ice warning signs flashing away still doesn’t deter some idiots.

Arriving in Inverness where the temperature rose, I caught the second of the overtakers back up on the Kessock bridge. It might have a little warmer, but it was still barely above freezing, and the temperature dipped again as I headed along the coast towards home.

It was a fabulous day rewarded with more great photos than I had hoped for, and proved once and for all, that you shouldn’t give up, and where possible, always wait a few more minutes, delay that ride home, and take a few chances.

 

If you enjoyed my tail, please feel free to comment, follow, share, P-interest me, or whatever. You can also purchase prints from this trip HERE

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