New Year – New Skye

I know, I know, you don’t have to remind me. Yes, I said I was done with the Isle of Skye. Too many tourists, too many photographers, too many images splashed about all over the internet. Done to death…or so I thought.

But sometimes you get an invitation you just cannot resist…

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I have never been one for following the crowd like sheep, although for some reason I frequently find them endearingly photogenic. It is very true that I had indeed had quite enough of Skye after my fifth visit of 2017; jostling with the tourists, and swearing loudly as they, in the main, continue to demonstrate that they have no idea how to drive on a single track road, or deal with the said sheep.

(Helpful tip – just drive at them, they move)

I had got this chance to see a part of Skye that, aside from one particular lighthouse, is not really part of the tourist trail. It is too far for the casual tourist, doesn’t attract the serious hillwalkers or climbers, and from initial inspection of an OS map doesn’t appear to hold anything that might attract the photographer either.

But, my invitation wasn’t to Blythe the photographer, or Blythe the writer, but to Blythe the soul within. Photography was just a bonus and so, from that point of view, I had no expectations or pre-planned desires. I was, an open book, waiting for something to fill the pages.

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Neist Point – and that particular lighthouse

The weather was what you’d expect from Skye in winter – it was cold, wet, snowing in the mountains, and just…well…fairly crap everywhere else.

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Although it did give us a rainbow or two, from the warmth of the cottage.

I first went out to Skye before the New Year, on one of those non-days that occur between the festivities of Christmas and the celebrations that greeted the start of 2018.

It was completely unexpected, but quite delightful, and although I only stayed the one night (having been partially rescued from the icy roads, and having abandoned, ie. safely parked in a bay) my car near the Sligachan Inn, the trip provided me with a view of Skye I had not seen before. It also provided me with delightful company, and the invitation to return for the Hogmanay.

The weather at home was a passable coldness, with light snow and nothing to worry about, the weather at the remote NW of Skye was equally even handed, but the weather in the middle of the two was ice and snow, and many degrees below freezing. I had planned to stay at the Cluanie Inn on that first night, but it was shut and I was faced with the (to be honest not very) difficult choice of a night away or a potentially hazardous journey after dark. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut instincts.

I was supposed to travel back again on the 31st but would I make it? The forecast was for more snow, more ice, more very low below freezing temperatures, and you only get one shot every 12 months to start a New Year. There was only one thing for it, to return on the 30th, a day early. I made it in before the snow came down in the heavy falls that beset the roads again, driving with the snow chasing my tail all the way from Drumnadrochit to the Skye Bridge.

Folk think when they reach the bridge they are best part there, but in truth Skye is a bigger island that many give credit for, and it can take the same time again to reach your final destination. From Broadford the weather sort of improved; from the cold ice and snow to a cold rain and hail. I took the Slig’ turning for Dunvegan and moved westwards to find, thankfully, much less snow and ice than had caught me out on the preceding Wednesday.

On reaching Dunvegan I was then back to that unloved single track for the last of the stretch through Glendale and onto the wee township of Milovaig (upper, lower and what is just Milovaig – although could be called middle). I still haven’t completely worked out which is which, or when exactly each one becomes the other. That’s Skye all over…lowers are physically higher than uppers, middles don’t seem to have “middle” names, and house numbers don’t even always run in the same direction! Not that anyone puts a number on their door to give you a clue anyway…

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The roads are broken and potholed on much of Skye and the damage done on my first trip, with a stone chip to my windscreen, had expanded under the heat of the car to a two foot crack across the bottom of my windscreen. Not to worry, its not in the line of sight and it can be replaced, at the end of winter, when the chance of repeating the process lessens a little. Be warned, there are stones flying on Skye right now…oh, and take your wellies, the burns are in spate and walking boots are useless.

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The wonder of winter on Skye is the ever changing light. You can watch unimaginable combinations of colours and see the light pick out contours you cannot normally see. Contours that unless you frequently walk the hills, the mountains, the glens, and the steep sea cliffs you might not appreciate even by looking at the map.

In winter the air clears, and as it bites into your flesh, you can see for miles; to the neighbouring island of Harris, with its mountains clad in fresh white coats of snow, and the lower hills of the long island chain of the Uists. From there, it is ocean until you reach the coast of the USA. The Atlantic, stretches across this part of the planet and brings you weather into the North and Western straths of Skye that creates a microclimate that can be radically different from the rest of the island. Although, I would add, that I did take thermals…

It can be much, much, windier, but it can also be quite a bit warmer than even ten miles to the east or the mainland of Western Scotland. It is also, frequently wetter, and wet was a constant companion on every day of the trip. But it also brought with in the light, the wonderful soft, pastels and deep infused colours.

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Walking down to the pier in the morning you could watch the sun rise and the light play across the landscape, ever changing the colours of the heather clad hills, the rocks of the cliffs, and the clouds dancing above. No two mornings, in fact no two moments, were ever the same. You couldn’t just the potential of a day from looking out the window, as it would change in a heart beat or just a few miles.

As the light constantly changed, it was a landscape photographers delight and nightmare in one gift. You have to watch and wait, but not too long or you will miss the moment, you have to prepare but no so long you get cold or soaked, you have to accept the cold, the wind, the rain, and the mud. But the rewards for doing so are worth the moments of discomfort (and the laundry).

Whatever you wear it will not be enough – the rain will find the way around the neck of that waterproof, the burns will come atop your boots, the wind will bite into your hands, nose, and without a decent your ears.

I stayed from the 30th until the morning of the 4th, experienced a wonderful New Year’s eve and took off out to photograph aspects of Skye on all of the first three days of 2018.

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A little bit of irony

I got to see some entertaining and amusing sights, spent the 2nd of January in a largely closed Portree with only a bookshop and the Co-op open for company.

I got to see the light poke it’s slender fingers through the sky to mock the ocean by Neist Point, and to return to the Fairy Glen (near Uig) and try, once again, to capture the wonders of the landscape with only a short day and a limited amount of light.

ST0RM__0BS0151Because of the high side to the glen the sun disappears right behind it a good hour before it goes from the rest of the sky. It plunges you into gloom before you can barely find your best spots. You have to be ready, for the moments of light will not last long, and the land is camouflaged in colour, one conical hill against another, so that although it is quite marvellous it is very hard to do it justice.

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It is very popular with visitors, at all times of the year, and you either wait for (sometimes) hours for them to all remove themselves from your shot, or just use them in your images to convey the sense of scale and go with the flow.

The Fairy Glen has been the stuff of legend for millennia, and whilst the workings within are more than likely those of man and woman, it is hard not to see why and how the place got its name.

Could I fall in love with Skye all over again? Maybe.

Maybe like any long term relationship there are moments where you question what you are doing together before you reach into your hearts and find the things that hold you together are stronger than the things that are pulling you apart.

2018 got off to a wonderful start, for many reasons. Long may the passions continue, the senses be stirred, and may my love affair with Skye be have been rekindled once again.

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Isle of Skye; the return

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:

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Fairy Glen, Uig, under tumultuous skies

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:

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My en-suite pod or ‘wigwam’ at Whitewave

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:

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Sunset Friday night – red sky at night

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:

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Patches appreciating the view

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.

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Standing in the right spot

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:

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The Needle

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.

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The mainland of Western Highland Scotland from Flodigarry, Skye

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.

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Blaven or Bla Bheinn to give it the Sunday name

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.

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Cuillin from Elgol

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:

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Nature study

And also to experiment with black and white on the older pier and surrounding buildings.

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Pier building at Elgol

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…

I used:

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)

I stayed with:

Whitewave

3 Days of Skye – Day 1

As I live in the Moray coast, any trip to the Isle of Skye results in a choice of routes through the Highlands, and with check-in at the hotel in Uig not anticipated until at least 4pm, I had spent a couple of days working out the most photographically productive route.

With snow on the tops, and a promise that there might be some lower down, it was a calculated risk to take the longest route possible through Torridon where I hoped to photograph mighty Liathach.

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Liathach, meaning ‘the Grey One’

The weather was almost perfect, clouds with plenty of movement, and breaks for the sun to come through and highlight areas of the landscape. Almost perfect; of course lots of movement actually means that it was also blowing a hoolie so much that you could be taking off your feet by the gusts and the windchill was well, well, below freezing.

Armed with the new Fujifilm XT-2 I was delighted to have the luxury of dual card slots, so I was shooting RAW files to Slot 1, and in-camera jpegs to Slot 2. This would provide a back-up and also access to immediate files en-route for posting to my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, hopefully from the hotel, without having to try and process raw files on an 11″ MacBook Air monitor. Whilst compact and handy, the screen is too small for proper editing.

Although I really liked the convenience of this idea, and of having the reassurance of a back-up image, the raw files still carry noticeably more detail and, to me, an improved dynamic range. I am impressed with the quality of the in-camera jpegs, but sometimes you don’t have the time to adjust all the settings, or want to review a decision later when you come to use the images, and raw will always give you the options to change things that would degrade the image if you did it with the jpeg. Shooting in jpeg is rather like shooting film, you get what you shot, which is no bad discipline and I am all for getting it right at the time, but then if digital gives you an advantage of being able to change your mind later…then why not use it? I might shoot in colour and then decide to print in B&W or vice-versa. I might want to tweak the white balance, and I might need to rescue areas that fell outside of the dynamic range of the in-camera processing. Get it as right as possible at the time of shooting, but allow yourself the latter options in processing, just as you did with film/darkroom processes.

The clouds popped on and off the top of the wind blasted snow topped mountain, every few moments, for me. Judging by the number of cars in the parking areas, there were some seriously hardy souls climbing today (probably on their hands and knees if the wind was anything to go by).

I had taken the Ullapool road (A835) from north of Inverness, turning just after Garve towards Achnasheen, then towards Kinlochewe, taking the turn for Shieldaig (A896). This route took me just shy of the village of Torridon itself.

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Torridon village nestles against the shores of Upper Loch Torridon

The wind kept up it’s ferociousness, which meant hanging my Lowepro Whistler BP350AW camera bag from the hook on the column of my Gitzo Mountaineer, and certainly not extending any more height than absolutely necessary.

Although the Gitzo extends to be taller than I am, I don’t like shooting even at my 5′ 4″ standing height anyway. The loss of the reflections on the water, again due to the wind, were the only disappointment.

I stopped at the Lochcarron Golf Club & Tea Room, known as the Tee-Off cafe, which was one of the few things open in my journey at this time of year. Not only was the lemon drizzle cake to die for, but the tea was served in a generous two cup pot, and the view was just spectacular. I whole heartedly recommend it!

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Five Sisters of Kintail – Winter Whites

Cresting the top of the A890 from Lochcarron to where it joins the main A87 heading for Kyle of Lochalsh and the Skye bridge, you are suddenly presented with the Five Sisters of Kintail, on this occasion in their wonderful winter whites.

After many different attempts to get the best final image, I have settled on the new Fujifilm ACROS setting to bring out the shape of the Sisters. Even this required me to burn in the Sisters whilst holding back the centre ground hill.

From the generous viewpoint it is a drop down and into the Kyle of Lochalsh. This is where you really feel like you’re almost there as Skye appears before you. Of course, Skye is a large island and so unless you’re staying in Broadford or Kyleakin then you’ll probably have another hour, at least, to go on your journey.

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Map courtesy of IsleofSkye.com

The, no longer quite so controversial, Skye bridge takes you from the Kyle of Lochalsh to the north of the township of Kyleakin. By now it was around 1pm and I wanted to photograph the Cuillin mountain range from Sligachan, before taking the road into Portree (Skye’s ‘capital’). The “Slig” as it is commonly abbreviated to, is a famous hotel situated aside the road which also has a campsite, both were closed. I have only been there once, when it was open, and the midges were so bad I didn’t get out the car! In winter, the midges are not a problem as it’s too cold, and frequently far too windy.

The sun was the problem on this occasion because, it was of course in the wrong place, and I was presented with a bright cloudless (and therefore boring) blue sky, masses of contrast, plus I would be shooting into directly into the sun. I noted a need to re-time my return journey, if possible, and carried on to Portree.

Stopping to visit the town centre and a stretch of the legs, I was surprised to see several buildings closed, but heartened to see refurbishments taking place. There was also a lot more ‘tourist’ orientated shops than I remembered. I found a newsagents to get a drink, and admired some very nice (£35) hand painted mugs in another shop as I wandered about. I admired them through the window only, it should be said. You’d nae want to use them at that price!

The main road from Portree to Uig is a delight compared to many islands (Arran, I am looking at you here). Reaching Uig, just as the school delivered out the double figure age kids, I had a little time to visit the Fairy Glen slightly inland of the port township. I don’t know if the Fairies have anything to do with it, but a lot of kids around the same age seem to live up in the glen because they were happily wandering about the paths making their ways home.

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Fairy Glen, Uig, Isle of Skye

I had been intrigued by the photos that I had seen of the landscape here, and I was not disappointed. The top peninsular, is Totternish, and if you have been around or just viewed pictures of the Totternish ridge then the Fairy Glen is very familiar, but on a considerably reduced scale. As the sun was going down behind the mountain, there wasn’t much time for wandering about and I didn’t get to visit the waterfall.

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Fairy Glen, Uig, Isle of Skye and the road through it

The sun was dipping fast, and the light was about to go. The temperature, which had been approaching double figures, was dropping like a stone with it. Back on with the hat, gloves, duvet jacket, and wishing for some thermal underwear again. I make a hasty retreat by the last of the light back to Uig (pronounced “oo’ig” by the way).

It was time to sample the delights of my hotel, and plan Day 2.

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Uig harbour from my hotel window.

To read about Day 2, click HERE