The colours are not quite there yet, but Autumn is definitely here…
…and winter is coming
After 20 years, my love affair with Skye has, I think, now ended. It is not the island, and it is not the people, it is the crowds.
I arrived in pouring rain, which isn’t unusual for anything on the western most side of Scotland, and the next day, with it forecast to be in for the whole day, took a trip into Portree for supplies.
Skye has become a victim of its own success, attracting over 60,000 visitors for the August bank holiday weekend alone (according to a resident). The roads, mainly single track with passing places, just cannot cope. Even if the visitors knew how to drive on them…and too many don’t. Without the docking cruise ships, even with just the coaches, the line for the only ladies toilets stretched for over 60 people and part way around the town. When finally you could get a seat, as it were, the result was barely tolerable, and a long way from pleasant. But at least Portree has toilets…
The third day, my second full day on the island, and looking slightly at slightly more promising weather, I set off the most northerly point on Skye – Rubha Hunish on the Trotternish peninsula. After getting my boots nearly sucked off my feet in the boggy terrain following the lines of walkers to ever nook and cranny, I had wished for my wellies! I also wished it hadn’t rained for days beforehand, and quite a few less people.
The walk is an out and back, which means retracing your steps and trying to keep your boots about you when all about you are losing theirs…
…takes you past a cleared village, and on to meet a sheep sank at the “main” road.
Just along the road a bit further is the Skye Museum of Island Life – a collection of Blackhouses showing the islands way of life through the ages.
I was particularly moved by a series of letters from Johnnie dating back to WWI and on display in the final Blackhouse. There was one about him shipping out with his chums to France, and another thanking his sister for her parcel, which had reached him at the front. He said she could put in some tinned Salmon, or Sardines, next time if she felt inclined.
Sadly, Johnnie would never receive the second parcel as the third piece of paper on show is the notification from Kitchener’s war office. Johnnie had been Killed in Action just three days after writing his letter to his sister.
The next day, the weather forecast was terrible so I decided to explore nearby Camas Mor. Just a few minutes drive from the accommodation it was a lovely bay, small harbour, and was well served by a parking area with bins, two bench seat and tables, and a magnificent view. I would have been perfect it here had been a toilet, but as the residents of Skye will tell you, the Council is not inclined to providing (m)any facilities.
It proved to actually be the best weather day of the entire trip! Sadly, by the time I realised it wasn’t going to get better it was too late.
The day was not wasted, although the birds were nowhere to be seen, and the hoped for wildlife of seals, dolphins, and even whales, never appeared either: Just three Cormorants and a few assorted gulls to show for the hours of patient watching, plus some photos too, of course.
Driving back a slightly different route, following the grid pattern of small roads, took me past a derelict church which still had some sections of plaster and painted murals covering the remains of the walls.
The final day of the trip and I was desperate for a walk which wouldn’t be a quagmire, after the days of continual rain. I headed, along with a hundred or more other people (and I don’t exaggerate here) towards Dunvegan. Passing by the castle I hoped the beaches would be quieter and on arriving there was a space or two in the car park. By the time I had walked the 4 miles to the far end of the bay and back I was nearly boxed in by some bad parking to the front, a tree to the rear, and unable to open the passenger door for the inconsiderate parking of the neighbour. Almost every car in the place had a ’17’ plate and a sticker on the fuel filler cap reminding the driver what to fill it up with. According to the residents I spoke to, almost every car you see between 7am and 7pm is a hire car. Or a camper van…
My dog ran into the waves, got soaked right over, and came out grinning (Staffordshire Bull Terriers not only have the ability to ‘smile’ but also seem to have very good comic timing and a well judged sense of humour. My first one used to go and sit on the lino’ in the hall when he wanted to fart because it made it much louder…no kidding).
When I got my current squeeze, he was terrified of everything and that including the sea. Now, four years later, he can’t wait to get his paws wet. Watching his shear joy and exuberance of running into the waves made the whole trip, and even the bad weather worth it, but I am sure there were less people in Edinburgh during the Fringe than there was on the Isle of Skye last week.
Day 2 (Part 1)
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.
Rejoin me after breakfast by clicking here
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
To read about Day 2, click HERE
There was a heavy frost on the car and it took several minutes to clear the windows and get going. The forecast was for sunshine, with a 20% possibility of showers, but venturing into the Scottish Highlands that 20% could easily grow and the showers could be rain, sleet, hail or even snow. It is winter, after all.
Heading towards Inverness, the view across the Moray Firth was enough to get the heart racing. The northern hills were covered in a fresh blanket of snow and the sky was crystal clear with the odd wee cloud for interest. The low sun, still not fully risen, was bathing the trees in a weak but warm light. It would be a good trip. There was hardly a breath of wind, and no sign of rain at all.
Passing through Ullapool however, the first spots of rain hit the windows. It was snowing on the tops, that was easy to see, but would it hold off?
The first stop was Stac Pollaidh, which I first photographed in 2015. The light was getting worse, although the wind wasn’t too bad, but the spits and spots of rain were still present and the threat was still menacing. The light wasn’t great but the wonderful shape of our Polly and the dead tree and foreground rocks still made for a nice image. Balancing the exposure of the sky and the landscape was increasingly difficult as the contrast became exceptionally high and without a mix of graduated ND filters it would have been impossible.
The second destination was Ardvreck Castle, which I had also first photographed back in the Autumn of 2015. The spots of rain had now became much more frequent as we travelled towards it. Spots became light rain, then light rain became much heavier rain, as we headed northwards. Then heavy rain got a bit lumpy whilst approaching Inchnadamph, as the rain turned to sleet.
Arriving at the castle’s car park the rain/sleet intensified yet further, and it became impossible to even contemplate getting out the car, let alone taking any photos. The loch disappeared, then the car park disappeared, as the rain/sleet and now hail, hit the screen. It was so cold the screen had misted up in seconds after stopping the engine. The rain continued to pound the roof for a good half hour, my stomach rumbled, and heading off for lunch became a lot more likely than the prospect of photos.
Abandon the trip and return to find a nice cosy pub in Ullapool? It was tempting, but this is when the photographers dog’s inability to sit still (especially in exciting people places) saved the day. There would be no warm pub, but finding a shop and having a snack in the car. I could have murdered a cup of tea though.
Down hearted? Yes. But a thought occurred – let’s continue on to Lochinver, source lunch and a tea, ideally from the Spar (which actually wasn’t open), and perhaps wait it out? It might improve…
Lochinver: Where the motto is ‘Welcome to a small drinking town with a big fishing problem’ or at least that is what the t-shirts said, in the only shop that was open. The Spar, was closed, the hotel was serving food and the Caber’ was open but I wasn’t leaving the photographer’s dog in the car alone in the cold. So, crisps, Twix, and a couple of cold drinks later acquired from the odd newsagents, and we were sitting in the half empty car park, looking out on the hills surrounding the fishing port…
It might improve…
But, to be honest, it wasn’t looking good. The weather, back in Moray, was glorious of course. Twitter, Facebook, and their like can be terrible for informing you of exactly what you are missing. Over here, on the West Coast, in the highlands, that slim 20% chance of rain, was now a 100% reality.
Still, it might improve…
Lunch was boring, and there was a lack of tea. Bring flask? No, buy a camper van! Make hot drinks and hot lunches, and not have to pee behind bushes! Ok, I will give Lochinver another credit; having a nice, dry, and clean public convenience in a time when they are becoming rarer by the day.
In fact, the front that brought the rain also gave new fresh snow to the mountains, and a freshness to the semi-frozen lochs. The water enlivened the landscape, bringing a reflective quality that made the trees and heather almost shimmer. The sky cleared slowly, but the clouds it left gave it an interest that a sunny day would not have had. They clung to the tops of the mountains and competed with the sun.
A walk in the shadow of the Quinag, mainly to stretch the legs of the photographer and the photographer’s dog finished with the shot above. Majestic, the Quinag is often only seen ‘end-on’ from the shore of Loch Assynt….
…which was also producing the wonderful, but highly contrasted, view as shown above. I am a bit of a sucker for loch reflections, for breaking the rule of thirds to put the subject in the centre, and for trees on wee islands. This shot has it all. The contrast was the difficult bit, and meter readings varied wildly. In the end I shot one using the Centre Weighted, one using Spot, and one using Average. The histogram showed I needed still to tweak with the settings to keep the sky from going, whilst the shadows were off the other end. Sacrifice one or the other. Try both in camera, and choose on the big screen later.
Using the exposure compensation dial to move 1/3rd of a stop at a time, I dialled in the histogram at one end, shot the shot, then dialed in the other. Using a 0.6 soft grad brought in the sky a little bit I still worried about the highlights on the water almost as much.
This is why I love my Fuji XT-1, there is the latitude, if you use the histogram properly, to get back something from either end (or in this case, both ends!). The JPEG preview didn’t look anything like as good as the RAW file, which is why the histogram is so important.
Now, with two potentially great shots in the bag, the trip was already a success. This was in spite of having a fairly late start to the photography due to the weather. Now to return to Ardvreck Castle. Would we keep the light long enough?
Arriving at the western side of the loch it is possible to see the castle with a loch-side perspective. There is parking, and it’s important to ensure you are off the road, but don’t take spaces for granted. In winter it isn’t so much of a problem, but this is now part of the 500 route and so that situation isn’t going to get any better.
Due to the location it is possible, although not that easy, to get the castle, the house that replaced it (now also a ruin) and the wonderful snow capped mountains behind and in the same shot. It does make the castle rather small, but the wonderful light on the snow of the mountains of Glas Bheinn and Beinn Uidhe were worth the effort.
Driving along closer to the castle, and then parking in the same car park we had sat in a few hours earlier, I wasn’t convinced the light would do anything. It was heading towards dusk and the light goes very quickly in winter, especially as a mountain just to the south west of the castle really gets in the way of it. I thought, well you are here now and it’s a long drive, make the most of it. Get out the car, and go see, I thought.
This is what I rewarded with this:
I concentrated on the foreground interest initially incorporating the rocks of the indented shoreline. I watched the increasing cloud, and was still convinced I would loose the best light. Had I missed it? Did I spend to long on wandering about the other side of the Quinag?
Bursts of sunlight teased the far mountains behind me, but would they tease the castle or the slopes of the end of the Quinag?
I slowly wandered toward the castle, tentative as if approaching a wild beast, waiting, waiting on a moment of light. Just as I was marvelling at the reflections and getting the legs of the tripod adjusted to suit the change in terrain, the sun burst onto the slop of Quinag. Thankful for my Gitzo’s quick grasp leg locks, I was ready.
In fact I was spoiled as the light danced across the end face of Quinag, and the clouds frolicked creating reflections beautifully in the mirror-like stillness of the loch itself. What a reward for not abandoning the trip earlier. It lasted no more than five minutes but it was enough. Enough that using the 16-55/2.8 Fujifilm zoom that I could get the range of shots I needed with very little shifts of my own position.
What a reward for not judging possibilities solely by the light during the drive, and the poor light in the car park. I could have stayed in the car, shrugged, and given up. But I thought I would take a quick look, a look that turned into an hour, and made the final descent back into Ullapool one taken almost in full darkness.
A quick stop for a warm pee (thank you Tesco) and another snack, and it was time for the long drive home. It was now fully dark whilst driving the main road from Ullapool to Inverness, but the new-looking snow poles are great for showing the bends well in advance. The ice warning on the car changed from orange to red as the temperature dipped from the 4.0C to -2.0C as I climbed to old Aultguish Inn (Inn no more, sadly). Some lunatic decided my 50-60mph wasn’t enough and overtook me. Then another, but I was pretty convinced I would see them in a ditch somewhere further on. An ice warning and low temperature coupled with the road side ice warning signs flashing away still doesn’t deter some idiots.
Arriving in Inverness where the temperature rose, I caught the second of the overtakers back up on the Kessock bridge. It might have a little warmer, but it was still barely above freezing, and the temperature dipped again as I headed along the coast towards home.
It was a fabulous day rewarded with more great photos than I had hoped for, and proved once and for all, that you shouldn’t give up, and where possible, always wait a few more minutes, delay that ride home, and take a few chances.
If you enjoyed my tail, please feel free to comment, follow, share, P-interest me, or whatever. You can also purchase prints from this trip HERE