It’s my own fault for complaining I guess. I had called the sky on Skye “chocolate box blue” once too often, and bemoaned the lack of clouds, and therefore the lack of weather. Skye, or more so Mother Nature, would have her revenge and bring me not just a little weather, but all the weather, and all in one go.
The forecast was ‘changeable’, but it is April, and that’s to be expected. ‘April showers’, and all that. After sunshine and shorts in February the weather wasn’t playing by the rules anyway, not this year. I was ready for it all; I had midge repellent (it is Highland/Island Scotland after all), and I had sunscreen (mainly for wind burn usually), and I had waterproofs. I didn’t quite plan on thermals but hey, that’s Scotland for you!
Arriving after a long, and slightly boring, drive with mainly dull grey cloudy skies I was hopeful for something better later, or in the morning. Consulting the forecast, from the accommodation, was out of the question. There was no 3G let alone 4G and no wifi. So, I consulted the maps and picked a route that would me a nice 10mile stroll if nothing else. Tomorrow, I was heading to Macleod’s Maidens, from Orbost, on Duirinish peninsula I decided. It would be a new area for me, having so far not explored past Dunvegan and I was excited to see what the guidebook described as the best cliff top coastal walk on the whole island. However, before I could get to Duirinish there was some unfinished business with another area of Macleod land – the Cuillin, and specifically the Fairy Pools which sit under the Cuillin in Glen Brittle.
I had pondered this excursion before but not actually taken it, mainly because it is another one of those photographers honeypots that I detest. I did not fancy competing with ten or twenty other tripods for a space amongst hundreds of tourists, but I hoped the weather would maybe keep a few of them away. The clouds were breaking but it was still dull and threatening rain. Of course, the weather didn’t put them off, well, that’s not entirely true, as there was actually a single space left in the car park when I arrived. There was only a small wait for the stepping stones (2ft high, 2ft apart, raging torrent beneath in case you’re wondering…) and fewer photographers than I had seen elsewhere recently.
I was pleasantly surprised to get a few moments without people in them, and although the exposures were difficult they were not impossible, mainly thanks to the improved sensor in the Fujifilm XT-2 with, I am sure, a greater dynamic range than its predecessor the XT-1.
I still needed to use my Cokin Z-pro filters, combing the ND2L with the ND4M to give me a ND6 with a very soft graduated edge. This was needed to avoid changing the colours of the mountains which are naturally so much darker than the surrounding lower landscape and rocks, whilst still bringing in the (8-stop) lighter sky. I spot metered each area and decided this should work, with maybe a little additional pulling back in of the clouds in Lightroom later if needed. Using the single 8-stop filter would have been preferable, but the graduation of that specific one was wrong for the landscape and the position I required to have the camera to get the aspect I wanted.
I walked to the furthest of the photogenic pools first (#1), then tracked back to the one with the single but longer fall (#2). The clouds were moving very rapidly and the light was constantly changing, so I need to work fast whilst at the same time waiting patiently for the tourists in their bright coloured waterproofs to get out of my shots. Constantly a balance of speed and patience, I actually took very few images in total, and then I discarded more than 70% back in the office because people had popped into the edges of the frames or appeared from behind rocks.
The weather didn’t deter too many, and in fact two brave souls even took up swimming in and out of my shot in one of the lower pools, much to many photographers annoyance. I actually thought that alone, the gentlemen, would have made the photo – a big and well muscled iconically Scottish looking guy with celtic tattoos, ginger hair and beard, but sadly accompanied by his girlfriend (I assume) in her 1950s style bathing costume but very modern hairstyle, it wasn’t quite working it the same. Ne’er mind as they say around here.
Happy with my shots, and laughing slightly at the failed opportunity “modelled” shots, I retired to contemplate the morrow in my Whitewave pod. The sun was much slower to dip now as the Spring brought in longer evenings, spring flowers, and lambs gambolling in the fields. Tomorrow was another day and the sky on Skye was, for the first of this years visits, a lot more interesting.
The sky was still looking interesting in the morning, even more interesting in fact. It might rain later, it might not, I hoped perhaps for a little bit because the light could then become quite amazing.
The drive to Orbost is easy, with decent roads, consisting of two lanes rather than single track. At Orbost the guidebook lead me to a parking spot, and the nice friendly green sign informed me it was ‘5m’ (miles) to the Maidens which the guidebook again assured me was on a clear path. This was going to pleasant, or so I thought.
The initially wide hard packed path lasts until you get to the very steep path which takes you up onto what you initially think is the top of the cliff. At this point you imagine, at least for a little while, that will be the only ascent of the day. It isn’t. It also doesn’t take you to a ‘nicely cropped’ grassy top either (well, not until the last 200 yards some three hours later…).
What actually follows is wading of the many streams, combined with negotiating mile after mile, after mile, of mud. Mud up to your knees, or if you are Patches your boy bits, and slippery sloppy mud filled rivets of water running in all directions. Gloop, nothing but unrelenting miles of gloop.
The views, when you find a bit you can stand on without sinking for long enough to look at them, are indeed, rather splendid. But, the mud will make those five miles feel like ten, and you’ve got to repeat the experience to get back to the car again.
Now the forestry have cleared more of the hill side there are indeed rewarding vistas, and some additional and wonderfully unexpected delights.
Rebel’s Wood was first started during Joe Strummer‘s lifetime and was originally conceived as a way for him to become carbon neutral. In 2003, after his untimely death, 8000 saplings were planted in his memory. They are growing slowly, as trees tend to do, but the idea is sound and it might have the added bonus of drying out some of the water logged areas of the walk and eventually creating a habitat for things that don’t want mud, or grass and heather.
The path leads around the small summits under the shadow of Macleod’s Tables and through the remains of the old croft villages. If you sit and listen carefully you can hear the voices of the past issue from the broken walls and overgrown hearths.
After passing through the crofts above Brandarsaig Bay, where caves can be viewed at a distance, you come to the remains of the village of Idrigill which gives its name to the point from where the Maidens are viewed.
Finally, reaching the top of the point in one last uphill muddy battle, you are done with the gloop and although now probably also wind battered, you eventually reach the cliff top where you can see the impressive stacks of Macleod’s Maidens. Care is required as there is no fencing to stop you getting a final experience of the Atlantic.
There are several legends surrounding these sea stacks, which rise to over 200ft above sea level. The most often quoted is that they are named after the wife and daughters of the 4th Chief of the Clan Macleod who were shipwrecked on them. From this they became the hosts of the souls of the ‘mother’ and her two ‘daughters’.
The wind was now quickening more rapidly, and the clouds were rolling. I did not try to use a tripod, or to stay very long atop the cliff. Between the gusts and the stares of the rather well endowed Highland cattle (in the horn department it should be noted) I wasn’t inclined to dally here for long. There is an atmosphere of foreboding here, and with the weather turning for the worst I had little desire to stay.
Whilst retracing the path back the wind continued to gain in strength and the clouds thickened. Rain finally came in short but not insignificant bursts, and the temperature dropped continually throughout the returning walk. It was not a place to be caught out, and a couple of hours later, mud splattered and with very tired legs I was happy to get to my car and be heading back to my pod (and a pint).
The wind had battered the pod growing in strength throughout the night until at 5am I had to check I was still on Skye and not now on either the Isle of Harris or North Uist! it sure felt that we were heading that way. By 8am the rain had turned to sleet, and then by 9am to proper snow.
By the time I was packed twenty minutes later the snow was no longer falling but going sideways, in gale force winds. It was sticking to the road signs but little else, the winds wouldn’t let it. Heading back to Moray was a sad affair, even in this weather. Whilst some see this precipitation as making the landscape barren and bleak I feel the power of nature and waiting promise of what is to come. The thing I love most about Scotland is that it has proper weather, in all its forms.
And, when I go to Skye I feel like I am going home. Funnily enough, I have felt this every time I go there from the very first visit some twenty odd years ago, and I have felt this nowhere more so that at the remains of Idrigill. So much so that I felt compelled to thank the (g)hosts for their hospitality as I left them.
The drive back wasn’t quiet, but the breaks in the weather allowed the mountain’s heads to peep from the clouds every now and again. When they could be seen they were now they shimmering in a dusting of white. Three days again, but this time there had been sun, rain, sleet, snow, and even for a short time, a sea fog. Mother Nature had delivered her reply to my complaints about that stable wall to wall blue sky, and she had delighted me with her vengeance. Skye had been still as wonderful and majestic, in spite of all the mud, and I had two sets of photos that had eluded me so far. Skye is my spiritual home, and one day I hope to make her my living home also.