Joe Strummer, lead singer of the Clash, once said ‘I am a terrible Scotsman’. But the terrible Scotsman created a legacy on a remote corner of the Isle of Skye which continues to this day.
This is Joe Strummer’s wood, or Rebel’s Wood.
In one of the quieter parts of the Isle of Skye, and there are still a few bits the majority of tourists pass by, there is an area of woodland that is slowly re-generating and becoming a home to otters, White Tailed Sea Eagles, Red Deer, and foxes.
Hidden, away from the shores of Loch Bracadale under the majesty of McLeod’s Tables, near Orbost, lies a slowly developing forest of Birch, Alder, Rowan, Willow, and Oak. Trees that should cover, and once did cover, much of not only Skye or of Scotland, but much of the uplands of the UK.
Paths, some made by deer, some by people, and all following ancient ways, cross this landscape, passing copses of trees planted in Joe’s memory, and tended by enthusiastic locals and dedicated members of the Joe Strummer Foundation. The crags above are home now to birds ranging from the smallest passerine to the Scotlands largest Eagle.
To reach this woodland you pass through the sadly much more common commercial woodland landscape of a conifer plantation, but by gaining height you will receive a reward of some of the most stunning views in all of Skye. The whole of the Cuillin spreads across in front of you, across the loch, and clouds thunder endlessly on the western skies.
Boggy in places, the walk takes you through a man-made landscape which appears timeless but is anything but. People crofted here until the clearances, and somewhat oddly, it is now perhaps one of the best locations on the whole island for a 4G mobile signal! Something quite alien to the inhabitants of this settlement, who would have travelled mainly by foot, for days to get out messages or receive news.
People still come here, some shelter overnight on longer hikes with the ruins of croft cottages and farmsteads, and you can almost hear the sounds of our ancestors on the wind.
I rested a while inside the walls of one croft whilst having lunch, and I thanked my hosts for their hospitality as I left. The feeling of people having lived here lingers strongly, be that a collective memory, a cultural knowledge and acceptance, ghosts and souls that linger, or just my vivid imagination, I never imagined not thanking them for visiting on their homes and being given shelter.
It is only a few years since the tree planting began, and it will take time for the effects to reach deep into the landscape, much more time than it takes man to destroy it, but we do know that changes do not have to be forever.
Although Joe is no longer with us, his legacy lives on here and will continue to do so, entwining with the souls of those who came before and touching the souls of those who come after. Perhaps his question of ‘should I stay or should I go’ has finally been answered.
The forecast was for sunny spells, not sunny spells and showers. Arriving at Cummingston (marked Car Park on the map above) it was properly raining, but ten minutes sat in the car watching it bouncing off the bonnet and it had stopped. Twenty minutes into the walk towards Burghead and the sun was trying to come out.
This was to be a funny walk in some ways, because instead of going out and back, we were going from the middle to one end, then back to the middle, then off to the other end. The reason for this? Well, this was where I knew the car parking, toilets, and access to the old disused railway line actually was. So, that was where we started. The accidental benefit if this is that we also knew there was a toilet there which would provide another opportunity thus mid-way, and the walk could also then be cut short if the weather deteriorated. Thankfully, it didn’t.
I had been to this spot before, for a quick recce of the route, but the weather wasn’t conducive to the shots I wanted at the time, so I planned to return and combine a bird walk, with a dog walk, with a photo walk. I would be experimenting with the Nikon P900 as a documentary camera at the same time. As much as I would like a proper long lens for my Fuji XT-2, I simply don’t want to pay £1,500 for a lens that I also don’t really want to have to carry. I think I am getting to point where I have realised that I take far more photos, and far better photos, if I am not bogged down with loads of stuff. The Nikon P900 takes you from the 35mm equivalent of 24mm to whopping 2000mm, in one camera. It also features GPS to record your shots (hence the map up above, and also enables you to capture birds and wildlife, as well as landscapes and scenes, all in one camera. Or so it promises on the advertising…
I had bought it for birding, but I wanted to see if it could do more than that and if I would still be happy with the result.
As this was also a bird walk, I had taken my binoculars with me and within moments of getting onto the main path, with a view of the shore, I had spotted the first ID confusion bird of the day.
A long way out it would have been impossible to get a clear photograph of it without the P900, and so I was happy with this somewhat uninteresting shot as a means of later identifying the eclipse male eider duck. I couldn’t see as much detail with my excellent Minox 8x binoculars as I could later see, at home, on my screen with the images from the camera. The bird would have remained unidentified without this shot, and so already I had found a reason to be pleased I took the P900.
I had started to envision using this camera for documentary photography for my Detritus project, so I wanted to see how well it would cope at the wider end. I was very happy with the camera for bird photography, but would it, with its tiny sensor, still give me the details I require for a more ambitious project? I have had images from it accepted to stock agencies, but there is little room for additional cropping, which means you have to really concentrate on getting the composition right in-camera, because you can’t really change it and still maintain a large enough file, with sufficient data, later on.
The Fuji XT-2 gives me files in the 15MP+ range to the 6MP+ range of the P900, as a rough guideline. Agencies need a minimum of 5MP, so there isn’t a lot to play with from the Nikon. This means making firm decisions at the time of shooting, like we did with film to an extent, and I actually like having to work like this. It makes you really take care and consideration when shooting if the room for error is so very small.
My Detritus project, so far shot exclusively on the Fuji XT-2, is about the impact of man’s waste on the natural environment of Scotland and the detrimental effect it has on the scenery and as a threat to the tourism industry. I will be travelling around some of the most scenic and best loved locations and showing them, warts and all, rather than polishing them up to the ideal images we know and love of Scotland. This project will require a lot of travel and a lot of walking to remote locations, and thus if I can find a way to reduce what I need to carry to a bare minimum whilst ensuring that I won’t then regret it or be limited on arrival at a location by this, there will be a lot of incentives and benefits to carrying just the Nikon.
Another part of this walk today was to capture some images of the birds found around the Moray Coast, and for that the Nikon P900 would be perfect. It enables you to get very close shots of the birds without disturbing them, and impacting on their behaviour. I am very interested in birds responses to their environment rather than just portraits, and being able to observe without impacting on that is very important for accurate documentary photography. Birds are easily disturbed and this effects their behaviour, so being able to photograph them without this is very important to the birds but also to me.
The coastline around Moray is spectacular in many places, allowing you to enjoy the geology, geography, and still often feel like you are alone, even on a busy summer weekend. The weather was still clearing and the view across the whole of the Firth to the far north coast breathtaking. But it wasn’t long before we came across some more detritus of us humans and our working of the north sea.
I was very pleased to be able to document this at the same time as being able to get the wildlife shots, whilst still carrying only one light weight camera. In practice and operating it was living up to my hopes, although I do hate that the buttons and dials move far too easily, especially compared to the Fuji, which are stiffer and lockable. This is only a problem if you don’t double check before you fire off the shutter – and sometimes, when birds and wildlife are involved you don’t have time to check and so it can be annoying.
We had set off from the car park in the direction of Burghead and just as we got to St. Aethan’s (or Aidan’s) Well, I was delighted to spot two Stonechat. This one was obliging for a couple of shots only.
It is claimed that the water from the well has healing powers, but whatever it has or hasn’t got going for it, Patches wasn’t touching it.
Having declined a drink from the bowl provided at the well, he was more than happy to have some good old tap water from the Sigg bottle along with me instead.
As we approached Burghead I was very happy to find this Linnet on the rocks. It would appear they have developed a way of opening the small limpets that cling to the rocks, or otherwise they are getting something in the rocks that makes it worth the effort.
I like to photograph bird behaviour, even if I don’t fully understand at the time what the bird might be doing. Although I much prefer to shoot stills than moving images, I do like my subjects to have motion and to be engaged in doing something.
As we came into Burghead the rocks change and the famous carbuncle homes into view…
It provides a lot of work, of course, but it isn’t half ugly to look at. Coming at it from any angle you can’t fail to spot it, but from this angle it dominated the whole of the village. Reaching the edge of the village it was time to turn around and walk back past Cummingston and head for Hopeman.
I was pleased again to see another three Linnets as these were first I had seen this year and in my first in this area.
I was delighted to be able to photograph the small gatherings of wading birds on the shore from the path, again without disturbing them, and delighted to find Redshanks, Turnstones, and even a Knot amongst the larger Oystercatchers.
Having successfully documented the detritus, and the wider scene, it felt natural to also be able to capture images of the wildlife and the birds in particular. The sun was shining through the clouds now and picking out the plumage of the birds made for some lovely images, especially with the surf breaking in the background thus confirming the location whilst enabling a relative close-up of the birds.
We went down into Hopeman and found our way through the houses to the harbour, where a small but interesting gallery has the added advantage of serving tea, coffee, ice creams, biscuits, and cans of cold pop. Hopeman also has easily accessible and very nice toilets, at the harbour, which enabled us to refuel and refresh before heading back to Cummingston again, and the picking up the car.
The path follows the old railway and so it’s easy and accessible for all abilities, although some sections are small short gravelled rather than tarmac, and getting up and down to the car parks can be a bit interesting at some points. The route is part of the Moray Coastal Trail which runs all the way to Inverness, and is a designated cycle route as well as a path for walking and recreation. There are facilities at various points along its length and it also goes past or through some campsite for those wishing to tackle its full length. More details can be found here.
The side of the path host a number of interesting plants and an abundance of insects. The bees were making light work of these flowers, which is good to see given how much trouble bees are in, nationally and globally.
As we reached Cummingston of the third and final time, I took a route off from the main path to examine the caves and sea stacks, which attract climbers as much as they do the wildlife.
Again, it wasn’t hard to find more detritus from man’s long love affair with the sea. I do not wish to think about the trouble that this rope could cause to our wildlife, and tails of entangled whales, seals, and even dolphins are sadly becoming more and more common around the globe.
The walk was extremely pleasant an undertaking, and whilst it is not long in distance there is plenty to see all the way along the route. With birdwatching, dog walking, photography, and just general exercise and interest all combined, and the tea stop of course, we were out for much of the day. I would certainly take the route again, and with Patches snoring gently in my office, I am also now delighted with the results form the Nikon and look forward to using it again for more than just birding.
I admit it, I have a slight obsession with the Isle of Skye. But, once you’ve experienced the joys and variety of this island then you would understand.
Having enjoyed the last three day trip, but been foiled by a lack of nerves on the Quiriang, in the dark, and foiled by having too good weather, I decided to return for another three day trip. Where, I was spoiled, and yet again largely foiled, but yet more unseasonably good weather!
Having received the Cokin Z-Pro filters on the Thursday I was keen get out and try them, especially after the test shots from my last blog post. These were just what I needed to make the most of the Skye landscape.
Friday dawned cold, dull, grey, and very windy, again and I headed out to repeat the route of the previous trip and get some of the shots that I felt that I had missed previously.
I got a decent enough shot of Beinn Eighe, this time around, although I still wasn’t happy with it to publish it. I think the majestic mountains of the Torridon area of the Scottish Highlands could become my new muse, if I ever tire of Skye.
Hoping the dull day would give better lighting to the Fairy Glen, near Uig, I wasn’t too dismayed by the weather and hoped for the best. I think the more even light, coupled with arriving a wee bit earlier so I had longer to explore, certainly gave a more accurate rendition of the landscape and better results:
Having spent the day travelling I was delighted to reach the accommodation for the next two nights at Whitewave, just four miles to the north of Uig on the Trotternish peninsular to the northern most end of Skye.
Settling into the pod, with a salad and a pint of Skye Red, to watch one of Skye’s highlights, the sunset, was a beautiful end to the day.
The colours reflected beautifully in the patio doors of the deluxe en-suite pod:
Finally, as the sun set, the light fooling the camera’s exposure meter, where I gave it a stop less to deepen those colours and stop the sun from blowing it’s highlights. Tomorrow was going to be a good day. You know what they say about a red sky at night being tomorrow’s delight:
The morning broke early, far too early for me to get up onto the ridge for the sunrise this time. The difference a few weeks can make to the time of sunrise in Scotland is not to be underestimated. In summer, this far north, we have light well beyond bedtime (that is after 11pm) whilst in winter we see very little (11am-3pm being and optimistic “best” of it). Of course, it is worst still for our more northern friends on Shetland, for whom it barely, if at all, gets light in the winter, or conversely, dark in the summer.
For me, I am back to being a sunset photographer by the end of march. I am not a morning person. But next morning the sun was up, and Patches was enjoying the view from the pod:
The plan for Saturday was to avoid the crowds, and the scary path, by heading into the Quiriang from the Flodigarry path.
It was impossible to get a decent mobile signal, and there was no wifi, which is a dream in some respects, but a nightmare in others. Whilst I was happy to be largely out of contact with the outside world, I missed being able to get a weather report for the day.
The weather can change on Skye in moments, and you can have every season in one day, although this morning was sunny and wall to wall blue I hoped it wouldn’t be another ‘chocolate box’ day.
There was nothing for it anyway, that is the joy of being a landscape photographer, making the most of what you get.
And so, we headed off…
It always seems slightly criminal to complain about the weather being too good, but for a photographer, a blue cloudless sky can spell disaster. If nothing else, we would have a good walk and view it as a recce for the future. The route from Flodigarry appears on the map to be quite easy, but it is in fact a hard uphill slog, especially into a strong relentless head wind, that goes on for miles and incorporates two stiles, one of which is clearly now so eroded at the base to the extent that anyone under six foot will find it ‘interesting’.
The vertiginous drops of the easier, more level, route I had wished to avoid are not avoided at all, and by adding erosion, water courses, and mud, lots of mud, I think the route chosen may have actually been the more difficult of the two. The uncoordinated mountain goat aspect of my persona came to the fore, and I cannot say I was graceful on much of the expedition, least of all that stile, but thankfully at least using the quiet path meant that I didn’t have an audience.
I had hoped this route would afford different perspectives on the Quiriang, but as it turns out you join the same path as the popular route before reaching the most interesting bits. Combined with the blue, blue, sky, it was a case of make the best of what you have.
Sometimes it is literally a case of finding the right spot, and as the sun was still not completely overhead and the shadows still impenetrably deep in places, finding that spot was quite easy. With plenty of thank you, excuse me, smiles and waves, you navigate the single track walkway without passing places in the same way as you navigate many of Skye’s roads; with patient and polite Britishness.
With not a cloud in the sky in any direction, and therefore no hope of an interesting back drop, I decided to concentrate on the formations rather than their larger situation and went in close wth a slight telephoto to capture the majestic details:
I also wanted to shoot from below to emphasise the size of the formations and that they do tower above you on the paths below. The Needle is more traditionally photographed from it’s back side towards Staffin, but this shot taken from the path, actually shows what the majority if visitors see.
Having crossed paths with at least five nationalities, it was time for a quick lunch and then returning to the car the way we had come. I had scratched the itch from last time, reaffirmed my assumption that I was close but not close enough for the sunrise last time, and we had enjoyed a good walk.
We reached the dreaded stile, just as five chaps, backpacking the length of the ridge, came to it from the other direction. The only other people seen on the entire Flodigarry route would provide the audience from my descent of the 3.5ft precipice from the leg of the stile into the mud below. With some self depreciating humour I bested the said stile with as much panache as I could muster, my knees thanking me later, for both the long down hill, the rough path, the muddy slides, and patches of deep sucking gunk.
Talking of Patches of deep sucking gunk, he was in his element, knee then almost groin deep in the stuff, and loving every minute of it. My car will smell lovely, I thought.
Returning this way does deliver a fabulous view to the mountains of the Western Highlands on the mainland, with their snow dusted peaks glistening in the distance.
Having reached the car and driving down through Staffin on to Portree to get something for dinner, the smells emanating from Patches in the back of the car was not as bad as I had imagined.
The ‘two pot’ master camper’s casserole was on the menu for evening (one pot tinned beef stew with added tinned carrots, one pot boiled tinned potatoes), accompanied, perhaps by now unsurprisingly, with Skye Red beer. You can’t be driving though Uig past the brewery without some, surely.
It was a good walk, and a good sleepy dog, tired legs, and some decent shots in the bag, in spite of the ridiculously good March weather.
Sunday came by too quickly and it was time to leave for home. As you will know if you follow me, this wasn’t going to be the direct route home and I wanted to explore one last bit of Skye before I went.
The road to Elgol takes you past the wonder of Bla Bheinn, or Blaven, an outlier of the Black Cuillin of Skye. Composed of black gabbo it towers behind Loch Slapin and can been clearly seen from Torrin and Kilbride. The wee house gives you an idea of it’s scale, please forgive the unobliging sheep’s bottom, she was obviously camera shy.
After many a wave and an excuse me, you finally arrive at the end of the single track road (yes, another one) and to discover the full horseshoe of the Cuillin spread before you, across Loch Scavaig.
Arguably the best place to view the almost entire range, with most of it’s twelve Munros (aside from Blaven) available to be seen in one single image.
The filters I had even wanting to try were deployed, whilst attempting to keep the reality of the view as the eye saw it. It was a clear enough day not to require a polariser, something I don’t yet have in the 100mm size, and just a 2-stop soft grad was all that was needed to create the shot above.
Elgol is still a very active crofting and fishing village, with creel pots lined up at the pier, a cafe (not open Sundays), a church, and the most beautiful cottages. I could live here, if I had a 4×4 to ensure I could get back out of there again.
As well as the landscape, which created my favourite shot of the trip, there is also the opportunity to get some nature studies:
And also to experiment with black and white on the older pier and surrounding buildings.
This one is ideally suited to the new Acros Fuji film replication setting.
It was great to return to my favourite island of Skye again, especially before the midges are about, and also to find a new place to stay. It is one which I will certainly use again. I was pleased with the results from using the Cokin Z-Pro filters, although I will have to invest in a polariser at some point. My Gitzo Mountaineer provided excellent stability once again, although spiked feet are still on the wish list to provide even more stability on softer soils and sand.
Elgol provides a bed of slippery sea weed and care must be taken when crossing the beach to get your shot. The slippery sea weed is also rotting, and therefore smelly, and Patches delighted in laying in it, and then stinking out the back of my car all the way home for emphasise.
I was sad to leave Skye after just three days but it does leave me wanting to go back, perhaps the weather won’t be quite too nice next time…
Fujifilm XT-2 body with Fuji 16-55/2.8 lens
Cokin Z-pro series filters and holder with 77mm adapter ring
Gitzo Mountaineer carbon fibre tripod with Manfrotto magnesium head
Lowepro BP350AW Whistler camera rucksack
Lexar 16GB and 32GB x1000 speed memory cards (16GB for in-camera Jpegs and 32GB for raw)
The sky on Skye is wonderful this morning, which is typical when it’s time to go home. Of course, there is no need to go straight home, or even via a remotely direct route, as part of the fun of any adventure is the travelling.
So, this morning, after more kippers, I am off to Dunvegan Castle, or I would be, if it wasn’t shut for winter. Scotland, which is very reliant on tourism, is still stuck in the age when winter was winter and nobody came. In the Skye Brewing Company, yesterday, they were commenting they hadn’t ever seen a February so busy, and they are not alone. Closed castles, closed hostels, closed pubs, closed hotels, and lots of tourists. The things that are open are reaping the rewards! Welcome to the 21st Century Scotland!
For me, I have spent two days wishing for a dramatic light, and today I am getting it. Of course, I am heading in the wrong direction and constantly shooting into the sun, but then that is the nature of having to stick to moving in certain ways, on certain days.
I love the new ACROS setting that is available with the Fujifilm XT-2, the X-Pro 2, and the soon to be available XT-20. It is a shame it cannot be retrospectively applied to XT-1 shots though.
Moving further down the road, I wanted to get a sort of Canadian feel to a shot and include some trees, something that is actually quite scarce on Skye.
The light was coming in shafts that appeared to set the landscape on fire, and the building bulk of the clouds was creating thick shafts of light with definite edges. The effect was stunning and as brutally hard to capture as it was threatening. Clouds building ominously over the top of the mountains were also making me happy not to be up there. People who think we have small mountains in Scotland which are easily tamed should remember this is still the training ground for the Royal Marines, saw the birth of the Commando units of WWII, and still breaks many international mountaineers even to this day.
The Caiplach Forest shot required a lot of in-camera, or on-camera, filtration using ND grads and a polariser. The sun was just to the left of the shot meaning flare was a huge issue, and I must have been quite entertaining to watch as I wafted my map book between camera and sun to prevent lens flare. Without the filters I could have used the lens hood, but then I would have lost the drama of the sky and mountains. The shafts of light were really ‘thick’ and whilst I wanted to loose some of the general haze, I was desperate to keep the shafts visible to add to the drama. The light on the grasses and heather was so stunning that even just stood watching it around my feet made me feel like any moment my boots would catch fire.
It was really difficult to capture what I wanted in the second-by-second changing light, to stand in the wind, keep everything steady, and to time it just so that the big cloud sat in the right place over the Cuillin.
With all this drama surrounding me, I was tempted to stay for another night on Skye, perhaps moving to the Broadford, or Sleat, areas. Sadly, budget constraints, balanced with the forecaster promise of just waking up to wet, dull, and more wet and dull, wasn’t appealing.
As the weather closed in, it was time to go. I was to head not directly for home, or as directly as I can going via Inverness, but to go down and then across via Spean Bridge, then into the Cairngorms, to Aviemore, and then finally to home on the Moray coast.
So, although this blog series is called 3 Days of Skye, there is quite a bit of not Skye today too (but it’s all related).
Passing by three sets of locked toilets, and wondering if the second dose of kippers wasn’t agreeing with me, I finally found myself at the Kyle of Lochalsh and happy to pay my 20p to pee.
As I sat and drank some water, in the warm sunshine, without need of a jacket, I could watch the weather on Skye take a rapid turn for the worse. I sat at the pier-side and looked back to the changes on Skye then took a brief walk in the warm sun.
I had left the hotel by 9am, but it was still lunchtime before I was off of Skye. I knew I had a good 2/3rd of the journey home still to do, and with stops I anticipated getting home well into the evening. Time to get going.
Of course, if you are heading from the Kyle either to Inverness or to Fort William, you have to pass the monster of Eilean Donan Castle. It is probably the most photographed castle in Scotland, and quite possibly also one of the most photographed castles in the world. It owes it’s modern day fame to the 1986 film Highlander, and possibly a little bit to an earlier James Bond.
Ancestral home of the MacRae’s, not the MacLeods (see yesterdays entry), the Chief of the MacRae’s still resides (at least for some of the time) within its walls. It also provides wonderful tours, and has an excellent gift shop, like most respectable castles in Scotland, well, at least those with intact walls of roofs of course.
Normally, I seem to time this very badly and get to the castle when the tide is almost right out, and the infestation of midges at it’s very worse. The castle stands on Loch Duich, and this is a tidal sea loch. Luckily for me, today at last I had timed it well, and although the reflection could have been better if the wind had dropped, it was nice not to dance about being bitten to death. I swear the highland midge is the originator of the highland fling and it hasn’t anything to do with music…
As I reflected on the number of times I have stood in this, and similar, spots and the events in my life surrounding the times I have passed this castle, and the people I have been there with, the light burst through the clouds to catch the stonework which improved this image and created a warmth to the granite.
Travelling on, initially signed for Inverness and Fort William, I was to take the A87 turn to Invergarry, and then on to Spean Bridge where between there and Fort William, I would then take the turn signed towards the Cairngorms National Park.
The last photo of the day was taken in strange place not far from a lay-by on the A87. The OS map shows the word Cairn, indicating a burial or memorial cairn, but it seems that this little spot, and it’s spectacular view, has become something more significant than that. Whilst carefully picking my way from 10″ cairn to 10″ cairn, edging towards the point I took my shot, I counted over 20 memorials. I stopped to read the plaques where they existed. I am stood carefully by one to a chap called Mike at the time of taking the photo.
There were the little cairns with no markers, some with little slate plaques, two with iron crosses (made of iron, not in the unfortunate Germanic sense), and one clearly Jewish memorial. It was quite moving. Obviously, these people must be either lovers of the mountains and thus their loved ones have held this spot dear, their friends and families have found something here that speaks to them.
I hope it continues, in the same, carefully un-arranged, not becoming a clinical, official, or uniform manner. I hope their souls gather to admire the view and trade tales, and so, at the end of their tales, it is also the end of mine.
I hope you have enjoyed my wee trip through the Highlands to Skye. I have made many trips like this over the years, and it will always remain one of my favourite places, in spite of the tourist take-over, and the weather, and the midges.
If you enjoyed this, please share it, and if you didn’t, then how the hell did you get through three other sections to part four?
Enjoy the mountains, leave nothing by footprint, and take only photos away with you.
I shot this with a Fujifilm XT-2, Fuji 16-55/2.8 XF lens, using a Gitzo Mountaineer Series 3 tripod with Manfrotto Magnesium head, SRB and Cokin P series filters (which are too small and soon to replaced), and I carried my gear in a Lowepro Whistler BP350AW.
I was powered by Lucozade and Chocolate Mini-Rolls, mostly plus copious amounts of tea. All photography and copy is the exclusive right of Blythe Storm, Copyright 2017, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, contact me for details. I AM NOT SPONSORED, although I am open to offers, bought all my own gear, and paid for all my accommodation and refreshments.
Map of Skye reproduced with permission, and much thanks, to isleofskye.com – a great source of information about the island.
If you have joined us at the end of the trip you can find the links to the previous entries below:
Breakfast or Sunrise…Breakfast or Sunrise…Breakfast or Sunrise…?
That was the decision that faced me late on Monday night, as I set my alarm, in the Uig Hotel on the Isle of Skye. The photographer’s app’ on my phone wasn’t helping. It was clearly showing that the Quiraing would be a spectacular place to greet the morning sunrise, at 8am. Breakfast in the hotel was from 7.45-9.15 (I think).
To get into position I would have to get up around 6.00am, grab a quick tea and shower, and leave by 7am. Or that would appear to have to be the plan, but it would mean missing breakfast…and also…I am not a morning person.
After a nice beer battered fish-n-chips (a very good, if rather expensive, beer battered fish and less than 10 chips in a fancy basket thing) and just one pint of Skye Red, I went to bed. It was only 9.30pm, but if I was going to try for the sunrise, then bed it had to be. Since my surgery, I have to get up a least twice during the night, which is why I wasn’t using a hostel with a shared room, or camping. I am not sociable at night.
As it happened, I must have been a bit excited, or anxious, because not only did I get up just after midnight, and my usual 3.30am, but I then woke up (proper wide awake) at 5.15am. I didn’t get up at 5.15am of course, but at least I was awake. Nice bed, warm, cosy, oh look, tea…
Finally, outside, just before 6.45am, it was cold, very cold, and a bit windy, again. I know you’re thinking, it is February, it is Scotland, just get on with it.
The road was ‘interesting’ in that it went up into the ridge near the Quiraing, and then down a series of hairpin bends into Staffin. As I approached the entrance to this road, from the longer round the top to Staffin main road, there was a big warning sign –
‘ROAD MAY BE IMPASSIBLE IN WINTER CONDITIONS – CONSIDER AN ALTERNATIVE ROUTE’.
That did not bode well.
I thought, briefly, of not trying it, then I thought…let’s see what it’s like, I can try and turn around if I don’t like it. The gullies beside the road were frozen, but there wasn’t any snow. The tarmac was missing in places and the pot holes were enough to simultaneously have you wondering about your wheels, your suspension, and your spine. You couldn’t see them in the dark, but you most definitely felt them!
As the sun started to rise and the world started to light up a bit, you’ll realise that you couldn’t avoid them anyway. The road was what one might generously call narrow, with some small passing places, a common theme in Scotland to anywhere remotely interesting. After Arran, nothing seems quite so bad anymore though, and on I went at a relatively sedate 35-40mph, slower in places I admit. I am glad the warning of ‘winter conditions’ did not come to pass and make me have a desire to turn around, I wouldn’t have had a cat in hell’s chance of doing so.
A lunatic in a Subaru came the other way, at rally speeds, and scared the crap out of me. But I made it to the parking bay at the very top, just as the sky went a beautiful purple. I was alone up there, the only car. I hadn’t had to let anyone pass me, and I had only seen the one car coming the other way. Perhaps a bonus of February?
The hotel was busy, and people were commenting on the ‘Outlander’ effect. I suppose it’s like a new ‘Highlander’ effect, which is still effecting some of our castles 30+ years later (my god, I feel old).
Was I too late? I checked the OS map. Damn. The sun was rising rapidly now and moment by moment the landscape was revealing itself, and so was the path. OMG the path! It was 12″ wide at best, clinging to the side of the steep slope, many, many metres in the air.
And you have to leap the small gullies and their waterfalls! OMG. I was so NOT ready for this. Courage…
I looked around me. I was not going to get to The Needle in time. This was where I had wanted to be for the sunrise, but I should have got out of bed at 5.15 after all! I would just have had to have used my head-torch. The torch was actually in the car for the very purpose, although I don’t know if the path would be less scary in the dark or more so…
Either way, I decided I wasn’t going to get there in time. Play it safe, get some decent shots, find somewhere, here, the sun is rising, and rapidly. My brain was in overdrive. I was running about the hillside like a goat (an uncoordinated goat admittedly).
I found my spot. I set myself up, working quickly. Facing the distant mountains of Wester Ross, across the Sound of Raasay and the Inner Sound beyond that. Here she comes…
In seconds I was bathed in warm glowing light. The rocks lit up and the shapes of the ridge revealed themselves all around me.
The light and the colours changed every few seconds, the details slowly revealed, and the shadows lengthening. It was stunning. I had forgotten how quickly this all happens, like I say, I am not a morning person…I tend to shoot sunsets.
I turned around to face the mighty Quiraing…
The scary path, now even more revealed, showed me that there was no way I would have got to The Needle in time. I had made the right decision. I know now why people camp out overnight on the ridge to get those sunrise shots, at the Prison, the Needle, and around the Table.
Although I hadn’t got the shots I had intended, I was happy with the shots that I had. If I had proceeded, aside from probably needing a change of underwear because I am a big scaredy cat, I could well have missed getting anything decent at all! This is where years of experience in photography, and understanding the need to get the best shot in the circumstances, comes into play. Landscape photography is a game of light, of calculated risks, and sometime very quick decisions.
I had made a decision, with only moments in which to do so, and I had made the right one. I should point out that, when it comes to my life in general, this isn’t normally the case. I am generally indecisive, inclined to dither, and very good at cocking it up because I choose badly.
Would I make that decision again? No, actually I would have made a slightly different one. I would have made a decision a good couple of hours earlier, and got out of my cosy bed rather than sitting drinking tea!
The wonderful light didn’t last long. Soon, the great sunny, wall to wall, blue sky that had been forecast had now arrived, and it was time to head down. It was just around 8.20 ‘ish.
I passed another five tripods perched at various points between me and the car park. Obviously five people who were worse at planning, or getting out of bed, than me. Five bodies loitered about fairly near to them, some wandered around looking for different angles. But for me, the light was gone, and I was heading back to the hotel. It was 8.40…and I started to wonder…could I make breakfast?
Now I could see the bends, and was able watch for other cars coming up at me (as I went down back towards Uig). I could go a little bit quicker, in some places. Not much quicker, I was trying to avoid the flipping pot holes, the extent of which I could now also see…
I got to the hotel at 9.00. I stuck my head in the restaurant, and was assured I could make breakfast. I ran up to the room and put the nearly dead camera battery on to charge, for later. Loch Fyne Kippers awaited, and they were fine indeed.
It’s bloody expensive. There is no getting around the fact that this is the most expensive camera bag (or any bag) that I have ever bought. So, it had better live up to expectations and they are going to be high. But then, when you think of the value of the equipment you’re placing in it, it does make sense to have something that you actually trust to do the job.
Here is what Lowepro have to say about their creation:
Empty it weighs 3kg. This is important, because most camera rucksacks weigh in around 1.6-2.3kg. So there is something about the extra weight that instills both confidence and fear. It is very, very, well made and this instills confidence, but then you have to actually carry it, with the added weight of your actual equipment. From unpacking it the attention to detail and build quality is obvious, straight away. To be honest, I have not had a lot of faith in Lowepro camera bags, to date, as they always seemed rather soft and well, floppy, for my liking. The Whistler doesn’t. It is in a different league. I think Lowepro starting improving quality with the Protactic range but this is a big step up again.
The Whistler BP350AW and BP450AW both come with a host of straps, two of them both removable and bright orange. These can be moved to any of the suitable fixing points around the bag. This is very useful. At the moment they are acting as compression straps for the items in the big front section but they could also be used to affix any number of items to the front (or sides) of the bag.
I quite like the fact they are bright orange as it breaks up the grey, but I can understand they may not be everyones cup of tea. The good news there is of course that you can replace them with other suitable attachments or straps if you choose. The other news is that if you are using this bag for its intending backcountry use, they are not likely to be bright orange for very long…
There are Mollie style loops all over the bag to attach things to, including on the brilliant hip belt.
One side of the hip belt features a pocket (which is actually a useful size) and the other side features some Mollie attachment loops. If you don’t know what Mollie attachments are, ask someone in the Armed Forces or take a look at the Lowepro Protactic range which is covered in the stuff.
The main reason for buying this bag was having a decent all season rucksack with a PROPER HIP-BELT. It’s in capitals because I cannot emphasise this requirement enough. It was a huge deciding factor in my choice of bag, and in this bag in particular. Everyone who goes more than a couple of miles into rough terrain, with any amount of weight, will tell you the value of a decent rucksack and most especially the value a decent hip belt. A hip belt takes the weight OFF your shoulders and puts in through your hips to your legs. Your legs are the powerhouse (try seeing, next time you go to the gym, the difference between what you can push with your legs compared to your arms).
Why therefore is it that probably around 85-90% of camera rucksacks don’t have hip belts? It is beyond me. Lowepro is the sister company of Lowe Alpine – both children of Greg Lowe. Greg Lowe, and his companies, have designed outdoor and backcountry equipment for explorers/climbers/hikers/skiers/etc for decades – almost all of Lowe Alpine’s sacks, even their day sacks from around 30l, have decent hip-belts. So, why on earth do most camera bags (which regularly have a considerably greater weight, for size, in them) come without this most basic and essential feature? Sure, make them removable if you wish to meet the requirements of urban use where a waist belt might be inconvenient, but for the sake of shoulders, backs, and necks, everywhere, give us the flipping option!
Not only does the Whistler come with a decent hip belt, it also has good straps and a nice back system.
The shoulder straps have some fixed, and some elasticated, web straps for putting accessories onto, behind, through, or whatever. They are not over padded, but they are comfortable. This is something a company like LoweWhatever should get right.
They should also allow for the fact that over 50% of the population has BOOBS. Yes, over because if you think about it, you can include MOOBS in this too. Shoulder straps, and sternum straps especially, have to allow for these and they regularly don’t. This is something this model, at least for my frame (and not hard to miss boobs) have got right.
The back system has firm padding with gaps to allow air circulation, which will be beneficial in warmer climes or on that singular day of Scottish summer we usually have.
I have an ActivZone back system on my much smaller Protactic BP250AW, also from Lowepro, and which would be my go to bag for urban use. It does not have a hip belt. It has a waist strap which just makes you look fat (as it cuts into the stomach being 1/2″ thin) and take no weight off your shoulders what-so-ever.
It does do a reasonable job of keeping you cool though.
The back of the Whistler also folds in two, so you don’t have to open the whole rucksack up, if you plan the contents so that the most used items go in the top half (like your main camera body and lenses, batteries, etc). This is a matter of logical planning which will probably develop over time, according to use, and also according to the type of shoot and location you are going to.
The back piece also has three slots for memory cards and a zipped compartment. The zipped compartment doesn’t have a great volume as it would dig into the main compartment, but you could sometime fairly flat in there. I have my Xrite colour chart and grey card in mine. Please can Lowepro look at Tamrac’s memory card slots though. Tamrac put in a red ribbon or tag on theirs, which you then pop out of the pocket to show instantly which cards are used and those without it showing therefore are those which aren’t used. It’s such a simple idea, and makes a whole heap of difference in use. I am actually going to sew ribbon to mine myself, because knowing instantly which ones are empty can make the difference between missing the shot and not.
The main compartment, which comes out as a single unit by the way, has great dividers including the marvellous pouch ones that Lowepro (fairly) recently introduced. These are brilliant for batteries as they keep them slightly insulated and they also don’t fall out and end up clattering around in the main compartment. They are also great for things like stepping rings, or filter holder adapter rings, which otherwise end up lost in a pocket somewhere.
In the Whistler they are actually big enough to put something like a small Go-Pro in, if you wanted.
Here is mine loaded up. As you can see I have plenty of space for the system to grow. One thing time, and ill purchases, has taught me is that more room is better, as otherwise you’ll upgrade in a few months time and loose money on your purchase.
This is also one reason I went for the 350 over the 450 size. I don’t have that much kit, and what I have being mirrorless, it doesn’t need the depth of the 450. The other reason is simple – I am 5ft 4″. The 450 would simply be too tall, and have too long a back length. Camera bags are, largely, designed for 6ft blokes. You cannot escape this fact and any woman will tell you. When I put on the Whistler wearing summer clothes (t-shirt, jeans) and tighten the hip belt I have around 18″ of strap on each side. This is a very common problem. Manfrotto sacks are worse, with them I have a whole 2ft of unused strap and it dangles below my knees! Some (Tamrac and Crumpler I am looking at you…) require a 32″ waist minimum otherwise you can’t actually get them tight enough to be useable at all. I have a waist pack from Crumpler which proves this point superbly. I can pull it as tight as it will go, jiggle, and it will go over my hips and hit the deck. Thanks Crumpler, great design…not!
Hidden at the bottom of the camera block, and rolled up in the photo above, is the thin front cover for the removable camera block.
Useful for when the block is removed, obviously, it also acts as a second barrier in use if not rolled away and this can be interpreted two ways – it is a barrier and something else to undo, therefore a pain in the arse that slows down your access, or a benefit in bad weather.
Up to you to decide which, but I have rolled mine away, for now. Should I want to remove the camera block and use the rucksack as a straight forward backpack (which it would be very good as, but rather heavy) then I will probably use it.
I do like the orange accents, not just because its compliments whilst contrasting with the grey (being girly) but also because it is useful in bad light. This was always a selling point of Kata bags, which Manfrotto ignored when they took them over.
So, coming around to the other requirement I have for my backpacks; space to put what they lovingly call ‘personal items’. Now, in most bags this means your wallet and phone, possibly your car keys. Even camera bags designed for the ‘outdoors’ don’t expect you to want to eat or drink during the trip. This is very annoying, very impractical, and a complaint you will hear from photographers everywhere. Usually something along the lines of; “where the f*** do I put my lunch?”
For those if us expecting to be in the hills for 8-12 hours, and sometimes longer, this is actually darned important stuff. We also might want to carry spare clothes, waterproofs, spare socks, and even toilet paper, nappy bags, and a small shovel (and if you have to ask what that is for then remember I just said we were out for more than 12 hours and would be eating during that period…)
The Whistler is brilliant for this. There is a huge space for all kinds of stuff and it even has the option to be two sizes due to the expansion panel – superb idea!
In summer I actually need more room, as I will carry my jacket and possibly a fleece or thin insulating jacket. In winter I need less room but tend to carry more foodstuffs. The back of this compartment is also waterproof so you can put wet gear in it, and it has a drain hole in the bottom for the really wet stuff (or leaking water bladders). This will keep your camera safe from spills, and any excess water from your coat or waterproof cover when it stops raining and the sun comes out. I live in Scotland, I am ever the optimist.
The material itself is very robust, way more than their usual materials, and seems to be coated with a waterproof and almost rubbery top coat. This would lead me to believe the bag will perform well in wet conditions, although with zips always being the weak point, there is also a waterproof cover supplied to encase the whole bag. Of course, you can’t use that if you have anything strapped to the outside such as your tripod/skies/snowboard/climbing stuff.
This is a problem I have yet to see a way around and I am sure that Lowepro, and others, are still figuring that one out.
There are two mesh pockets, this one (as shown) in the big personal stuff section, and another in the small personal stuff section (more of that in a minute). The waterproof cover arrived in the small one but I put in it this one as it made more sense to me. Waterproof cover in the section that is drainable and waterproof from the camera section of the bag, not the section that would drip it over the camera section and everything else like my phone/keys/wallet. But that might be me.
The small personal section is actually big enough to get snacks in, as well as your personal items as listed above. It sits on the top of the bag and has two key clips (one inside the mesh pocket and one out). I didn’t photograph it but it is larger than I thought it would be.
On one side of the bag is an expanding pocket that doesn’t expand that much, and within it are two small envelope pockets. These look quite good until you realise there is no way to do them up. A little bit of velcro, like the pouch dividers have, would be great here. Otherwise, if you leave the zip open and tilt the bag, even slightly, backwards, everything in them falls out. I am using it for a notebook and pen, and the larger expanding pocket for maps. I wouldn’t put anything else in there really. It is the only flaw to the design I can see so far.
On the other side is one of the best of most stable set of loops, straps, and fastening points I have seen on a camera rucksack ever. Period. I can put two legs of my tripod in the bottom fixed loop and then use the strap at the top to hold it firmly in place. This is by far the very best tripod attachment I have had on ANY camera bag. I have a biggish tripod and this is the only time it hasn’t wobbled about. I actually returned a Manfrotto Bumblebee, which I otherwise thought was quite good, because of this instability. I don’t need help falling over on slippery ground.
I just hope it doesn’t stretch, but if it does then the extra strap at the bottom can be employed to tighten things up, and I have option of adding a third strap to the middle.
Initially, first impression, I am very impressed indeed. My bank manager probably isn’t though. I am still suffering from pangs of guilt for having spent the money.
I took it out for a first trial walk today, to see if it was as comfortable in the field (or in this case on the North East Scotland coastal cliffs), as it was walking around the house fully loaded. So far, and I didn’t go that far, I believe it is.
My trip to photograph Bow Fiddle Rock today was in cloudy, +3°C at best, and blowing a good 35mph+ North Westerly condition. I was 90ft above the sea on the cliffs, frequently on muddy and slippery ground but I felt secure, stable, and comfortable. I felt like the 3kg of bag wasn’t there, and the kit itself was more manageable than usual. Having the weight correctly balanced, and transferred to the hips, was just bliss (compared to having it pulling you backwards and weighted on your collar bones).
The tripod was essential for the long exposure, and yet it was secure and comfortable when on the pack. When I was carrying it by hand I slipped over on my arse, landed on my side, and sprained my wrist but that is probably just me anyway.
I got some great shots in spite of the difficult conditions. My kit felt cosseted and looked after, and I have no doubt I could cope with a lot worse weather without issue.
Downsides? Well, there is the price. There also isn’t a way to use the waterproof cover with anything on the attachments points, such as a tripod, but I don’t know how you would possible get around this anyway.
The orange won’t stay orange for long, or at least not as bright or without some stains.
Other than that, we will see. I intend to update this review in due course when it has some miles under its hip belt, so we will see. At the moment, I would argue it was worth the (lots of) money.
Oh, you would look a right plonker using this in town though…but then that isn’t what it is for.