Have you ever found yourself wandering in a place where you feel as if you are walking a fine line between this world and another? I ask because it is a feeling I often have when walking among the ancient oaks and between the moss-covered boulders of Ariundle Oakwood. I don’t know what it is about the place, but I feel that I am never too far away from the mystical realm inhabited by the faeries that gives the nearby village of Strontian or Sròn an t-Sìthein (nose of the fairy hill) its name. In my mind, it is one of the “thin places” that can be found here on the Peninsula.
The concept of “thin places” has been woven into the tapestry of Celtic folklore and spirituality for centuries, being used to describe places where the boundary between the physical world and a mystical, historical or spiritual world is believed to be exceptionally thin, thus facilitating a sense of connection between the two.
In thin places, you might feel a sense of awe and heightened awareness of being in the presence of something greater than yourself and, as such, they are often characterised by an otherworldly atmosphere, where the ordinary and the extraordinary intermingle. This is certainly something I can say about Ariundle Oakwood, a place where each ancient tree and each moss-covered boulder seems to harbour mystical beings waiting to be unveiled.
When you stand in a thin place you may instead find your imagination ignited by thoughts of what has been before you. This historical imagination can transport you to a different era, picturing scenes from the past as if they were unfolding right before your eyes. Camas nan Geall is a place where I get this feeling.
This “Bay of the Strangers” is a fascinating place because it contains evidence of human presence that covers a period of several millennia of human history. This ranges from a Neolithic chambered cairn to deserted clearance dwellings and includes a number of things in-between. The chambered cairn in the centre of the bay may seem quite innocuous, but when you stand next to it and consider that people buried their dead there some 5000-6000 years before, you cannot help but feel a sense of what has gone before.
Perhaps more poignant though, are the ruins of Torr na Mòine up on the slopes of Ben Hiant which was the settlement that was the home to the people of Camas Nan Geall before they were forcibly evicted in the 18th century so that the land could be used for a sheep farm. It’s hard to comprehend the hardship and trauma that these people suffered from being suddenly cleared from their ancestral lands by the landowner for primarily economic reasons.
Finally, the Old Parish Church in Kilchoan is a place where I feel that there is a thin veil between our physical world and the spiritual world. It is a hauntingly peaceful place that seems to compel you to tread carefully and with due deference to ground that has played host to a place of worship from some 700 years.
Giving Kilchoan its name, this Church of St Comghan must have been incredibly important to the local community as a place where they could come together not only to worship but to also seek fellowship and support. Indeed, a walk around the graveyard that surrounds the church to look at gravestones that date from as far back as the 14th century and as recent as the 1990’s, pays testament to just how long this “thin place” has provided spiritual succour to the community.
There are many other places on the Peninsula to which I have felt a sense of the mystical, historical or spiritual and this most likely stems from my photography encouraging me to slow down and take time to get a real sense of a place before I ever think of pressing the shutter button. However, you don’t need a camera to experience the profound ways in which certain locations can inspire feelings of connectivity to a different realm. You can just slow down, look, listen and feel when you next find yourself in a place that you sense you might be connected to.
I took the image below at the end of an August day when sitting above the old crofting settlement of Smirisary situated just to the west of Glenuig. It is a place that is blessed with a fantastic view of the Small Isles of Eigg and Rùm and a place that is perfect for watching the Sun go down at this time of the year. After the harsh light of Summer, I find that the light softens as we get into August and sunsets become longer and more dramatic. It is this that drew me to Smirisary on that evening, but as I sat there watching that “perfect sunset”, I had no idea that August was also the perfect month for “tying the knot”.
As well as being a month of beautiful sunsets, August has traditionally held a special place for those that work the land. As the crops ripened and fields were abundant with the fruits of their labour, communities would come together to celebrate and give thanks for the bountiful harvest by holding a harvest festival.
In Scotland, harvest festivals known as Lughnasadh or Lammas were celebrated around the first of August to mark the beginning of the harvest season.
Lammas has its roots in ancient Celtic and Pagan traditions and one of the key customs was the cutting of the first sheaf of grain, which was often made into a corn dolly, symbolizing the spirit of the harvest. This corn dolly was usually kept in the home until the following spring when it would be ploughed back into the fields to ensure a good harvest for the next year.
Traditionally, Lammas Day Fairs were held across the length and breadth of Scotland and were marked by bonfires, races, dancing and games. ‘Feeing Markets’, where the farm labourers would seek out new employment were often held at these events, but the big attraction was the “Marriage Market” at which people would be handfasted.
Handfasting has its roots in Celtic tradition and is the symbolic binding or betrothal of two people. Conducted by a priest, the ceremony itself typically involved a couple holding hands and having them bound together with cords, ribbons, or a ceremonial cloth while they made their vows and commitments to each other. Hence the phrase, “tying the knot”.
By “tying the knot”, the couple entered into a period of engagement, or trial marriage. This trial would typically last a year and during this time the couple were encouraged to cohabitate together (and consummate the relationship). After the year was over, they would return to the priest, declare their intent to be wed and be married soon thereafter. If they decided they were not a good match, the couple were allowed to dissolve their hand-fast and became free to choose another suitor and bride.
In modern times, handfasting has been adapted and incorporated into various wedding ceremonies as a meaningful and unique ritual. Couples who choose to include handfasting in their weddings often see it as a way to add personal and cultural significance to their union.
Reflecting on all of this, I find it fascinating that despite our modern-day year being predominantly based on the Gregorian calendar and Christian holidays, ancient Celtic traditions continue to influence and define significant events and ceremonies in the months of our calendar and our life.
In today’s world of smartphones and digital cameras, photography has become more accessible than ever before, and we see social media full of images of places and events that people have chosen to share. It is fantastic that people can capture these images with a simple click of a button, but this act of taking a picture is quite different from the art of making a picture. It’s something I’m very aware of when making images such as the one below, which shows one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen out at Ardtoe. This is because, in such moments, I’m not only trying to capture what my eyes saw, but also what my heart felt.
For me, taking a picture refers to the act of quickly capturing a moment, scene, or subject without much thought or consideration. It can be spontaneous, casual, and primarily focused on preserving memories or documenting an event. The emphasis is on the subject itself rather than the photographer's creative interpretation. In this sense, taking a picture is often associated with casual photography, such as snapshots, selfies, or everyday moments captured on the go.
On the other hand, making a picture is a deliberate and intentional process in which the photographer uses their technical and creative skills to transform a scene or subject into a visually compelling image. The focus shifts from simply recording what is in front of the camera to crafting an image that conveys a specific message and evokes certain emotions.
When taking a picture, you typically rely on the automatic settings of a camera or smartphone, allowing the device to make decisions about technical aspects such as exposure and focus. The priority is to capture the moment quickly and efficiently. In contrast, making a picture often involves a more involved manual approach, where you take control of the camera settings to achieve a desired aesthetic. In landscape photography, this typically involves selecting the right lens and focal length; adjusting the aperture, shutter speed and ISO; and reading the weather and light conditions to determine the best place and time to press the shutter button.
Taking the image above as an example, I planned and made repeated visits to a particular spot at Ardtoe at this time of the year because I knew that I would see the Sun setting behind the Isle of Eigg from there. The specific days on which I made these visits were determined by the weather conditions, with me looking for low cloud directly overhead and gaps in the clouds on the western horizon through which light from the setting Sun would shine.
I chose a lens with a long focal length, that would bring the distinctive silhouette of An Sgùrr on Eigg closer to the skerry of Sgeir an Eidigh. I set the aperture so that both would be in focus because they were key elements of the story. I set the ISO and shutter speed to let the correct amount of light into the camera when using a long exposure time to smooth out the sea so that it would not detract from these key elements.
Finally, I waited with great anticipation for the rays of light to break through the clouds and light up An Sgùrr to create the perfect moment to press the shutter button. It was only then that I was able to make the image that I had in my mind’s eye. A simple but distinctive image that conveyed the dramatic beauty of a mid-summer sunset that featured the unmistakeable profile of An Sgùrr on the Isle of Eigg.
So, although both picture taking and picture making have their place in photography, it’s the latter that I find the most satisfying. You have to be prepared for disappointments and failures along the way, but with planning, patience, and persistence, you will be rewarded with images that go beyond mere documentation to capture and evoke the emotions you felt at the precise moment you pressed the shutter button.
My seventh Spring of living here on the Peninsulas has come to an end and I find myself reflecting on something that never ceases to mesmerise me during late May and early June each year. It is the sight of the delicate blue coloured, bell-shaped flowers of the bluebell creating intense blankets of colour in the woodlands, on the hillsides and along the verges throughout the length and breadth of the Peninsula. However, are these really bluebells I am seeing in this incredible wildflower spectacle, or are they something else?
Well, it seems that these little plants that spend most of the year as bulbs underground in our woodlands and hillsides, are what botanists call ‘wood hyacinths’ or “Hyacinthoides con-scripta” and have been given the common name of “English Bluebell” because their flowers are indeed blue, and they are indeed shaped like a bell.
What about the Scottish Bluebell though? Well, do you remember Scottish Bluebell Matches and the delicate blue and bell-shaped flowers on the matchbox? These are completely different from the “blue bells” on the plants in our woodlands. They are in fact “Campanula rotundifolia”, a creeping, rooted perennial that flowers from July to September and more commonly known as the Harebell. It favours dry, grassy places, so you will find it in the dry land around our sandy beaches as opposed to in our damp, shady woodlands.
Many English Bluebell tales involve dark fairy magic with bluebell woods being portrayed as scary, forbidding places that should be avoided. For example, if you do enter a bluebell wood, you should never pick or step on a bluebell for fear of breaking a spell that a faerie has hung on one of the flowers. If you do break a faerie spell, they will get extremely upset, seek you out and enchant you in such a way that you would be drawn further into the woods to wander lost for evermore.
Folklore says that you also need to be careful with the Scottish Bluebell because its common name is rooted in magic. Some say that the name “Harebell” was given to the flower because witches would turn themselves into hares and hide among them. It may also be the reason why the names Witch's Thimbles and Witch Bells were used for the flowers.
So, there you have it. Hyacinths or Harebells? English Bluebells and Scottish Bluebells? Different plants linked by a common name and a whole lot of myth and legend, both of which you should not damage for fear of being visited by angry faeries, witches or indeed, the Aul’ Man himself.
May is probably the month of the year that I look forward to most because it is the month in which the landscape well and truly awakens from its winter slumber. The dawn chorus fills the early morning air with birdsong, spring flowers cover the ground with a multitude of bright colours and trees burst with new leaves to create beautiful and vibrant sights in our woodlands. So, on bright May mornings while walking at Sàilean nan Cuileag near Salen and Phemie’s Walk near Strontian, I was compelled to capture the scenes shown in the images below because the fresh, bright green colour of the grass on the ground and the leaves on the trees was such a beautiful and vibrant sight. This ‘spring green’ colour is such a potent sign of new life and renewal. So much so, that it’s little wonder that Beltane, an ancient Celtic festival celebrating joy, renewal, and community falls on the first day of May.
Beltane marks the beginning of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and is considered one of the four major seasonal Celtic festivals along with Samhain, Imbolc, and Lughnasadh. As well as joy and renewal, Beltane is often associated with fertility, abundance, and growth, and has been celebrated for centuries with feasting, dancing, and bonfires.
In ancient times, bonfires would be lit on hilltops to honour the sun and promote fertility. The bonfire would be the centrepiece of the Beltane celebrations, symbolising the return of the sun and the warmth of summer. It was also believed to have protective and purifying powers, and people would jump over the flames or pass through them as a form of ritual cleansing and purification. They would also drive their livestock between the fires, believing that the smoke and ashes would protect them from disease and bring fertility to the animals.
I grew up in a large council estate called Burnfoot. It was built between the 1950s and 1970s and, in the early part of these years, a group of local people decided to revive the Beltane traditions and create a festival that would celebrate community and bring the people of this new housing estate together. Central to the festival was the crowning of a local girl as the Burnfoot Queen who, like the May Queens of the past, was chosen for her character and community spirit, and was considered to be a role model for other young people living on the estate.
I remember the crowning ceremony to be a big occasion. It was attended by a large crowd of locals and visitors and once it had taken place, there would be procession through the estate, with the Burnfoot Queen at its head, on an elaborately decorated float. To the small boy that I was, the parade was a colourful and lively event, featuring floats and displays from local businesses and organisations. So much so, that it would bring together people of all ages and backgrounds to celebrate what was known as the Burnfoot Festival and ultimately the community of Burnfoot.
As far as I’m aware, this Festival still takes place and I find it fascinating how this event from my distant childhood memories was a revival of Beltane traditions that can be traced back to pre-Christian times in Scotland.
I wonder how often folk have driven past the Ardgour War Memorial and never paid it much attention. This was certainly the case for me, having passed it countless times on my way to and from the Corran Ferry, until one day when I found myself with some spare time at the marshalling area on the Ardgour side of the Corran Narrows. After deciding to go for a quick walk, I found myself up on a bank just south of the lighthouse, standing beside the War Memorial and looking southwards at an expansive view of Loch Linnhe. While standing there, I spotted something that I would later learn played a small part in a huge project that is thought to have been key in bringing World War I to an end.
The Ardgour War Memorial is typical of the many that you find scattered across the Highlands, consisting of a granite Celtic cross and plinth mounted on a base of what seems to be made of local stone. Whilst here, I took a moment to stand by it with my eye drawn to the wreath of red poppies that had been laid at the base of the cross and to the words inscribed on the plinth beneath it:
PARISH OF ARDGOUR
THE GREAT WAR 1914-18
DO'N GHINEALACH A RINN ÌOBAIRT SADH FHUILING
CRUADAL, S A SHEALBHAICH BUAIDH
TO THE GENERATION WHICH BORE THE SACRIFICES
AND BY SHARING IN THE HARDSHIPS, ACHIEVED VICTORY
I then noticed that the Memorial’s stone base was sitting on what appeared to be a metal ring with several bolts protruding from it. I didn’t give them much thought at the time, but a day or two later, I couldn’t help wondering what they had been used for, so decided to try and found out.
The mines were being used in the North Sea Mine Barrage, a large minefield laid easterly from the Orkney Islands, right across the top of the North Sea to Norway with the aim of preventing the U-Boats based in Germany from making their way out into the Atlantic to attack the convoys that were bringing supplies from the United States to the British Isles.
I took these words for the image title from the seventh stanza of the poem, “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon, which reads:
“As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.”
The poem is more commonly known for its third and fourth stanzas as they are often recited at Remembrance Day services as what is termed the "Ode of Remembrance", ending with the familiar words “We will remember them”.
Despite the words of these two stanzas being extremely thought provoking, I find the words of the seventh stanza incredibly moving because there is such strong sense of poignancy to them. I guess that’s why I used them as the title for this image.
The vernal (spring) equinox on 20 March heralds the arrival of spring and it is a great time of the year for observing one of the night sky’s most elusive phenomena: zodiacal light. This light will appear as a false dusk that is created by a triangular beam of light from the Sun being reflected off a fog of tiny interplanetary dust particles when it is beneath the horizon. It’s so difficult to see and many astronomers have never witnessed it, however, I was lucky enough to spot and photograph it at Castle Tioram on a dark moonless night on the first day of March last year. It should be visible on dark moonless nights over the next few weeks, so do keep an eye out for it.
Have you ever been outside at this time of the year, looking west and noticed what you think is lingering evening twilight, or the light of a nearby town shining up from the horizon? If so, you may well have seen zodiacal light in the sky and not realised.
It is a triangular beam of light that shines along the line of the Zodiac, an 8° wide band that straddles the ecliptic, the invisible path that the Sun traces as it moves around the sky. It is the region of the sky where we can find the Sun, Moon and planets and is only 8° wide because most of the planets have orbits that are only slightly inclined to that of the Earth. The exception is Pluto, whose inclination of 17° takes it out of the Zodiac during part of its orbit.
At this time of year, the Zodiac rises steeply from the horizon at dusk meaning zodiacal light does the same. People used to think that it originated somehow from phenomena in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, but today we understand it as sunlight reflecting off dust grains that circle the sun in the inner solar system, along the line of the Zodiac.
The grains of dust were once thought to be left over from the process that created our Earth and the other planets of our solar system around 4.5 billion years ago, but in recent years, there’s been discussion about them originating from dust storms on the planet Mars. They are thought to be about a millimetre and less in size, densest around the immediate vicinity of the Sun and extending outward beyond the orbit of Mars and, when sunlight shines on these dust grains, it creates the light we see.
The light is fainter than the Milky Way, so the darker the night sky, the better chances of seeing it. It is best to go to a location with little or no night pollution, on a night when the moon is out of the sky and look for it in the west in the hour or two after sunset. If you are lucky, you may spot it as a ghostly pyramid of light rising steeply from the horizon.
The best time to look for it in the coming month will be on the days either side of the equinox (20 March) as this coincides with a New Moon, meaning that there will be no moonlight to drown it out. With Venus and Jupiter, our night sky’s two brightest planets, being low down in the west after sunset, they’ll be visible close to or in the zodiacal light. Shortly after, on 23 and 24 March there will also be a thin crescent Moon sitting in the midst of the triangular beam of light as it shines upwards from beneath the western horizon.
If you don’t see it in the next few weeks, you can try again in the autumn, but instead of looking for it in the west at dusk, you need to look for it in the east at dawn. This is because the Zodiac elliptic rises steeply from the eastern horizon at dawn in the autumn instead of rising steeply from the western horizon after dusk in the spring.
The image below shows Ardnamurchan Lighthouse shortly after Storm Eunice had swept across the southern part of the UK leaving a £360m trail of disruption in its wake. Thankfully, the Peninsula missed the worst of the storm, experiencing only moderate gale force winds and not the hurricane force winds that swept across the south of the UK. However, considering that the names of the 6 deadliest storms from UK history are called the 1607 Bristol Channel Flood, the Great Storm of 1703, the Eyemouth Black Friday Storm of 1881, the Blizzard of 1891, the North Sea Flood of 1953, and the Great Storm of 1987, I was left wondering why one of the most powerful storms to hit the south coast of England was simply called Eunice. Well, a little bit of research found that there is a lot of power in such a simple and innocuous name
In 2015, the UK Met Office and its Irish counterpart Met Éireann launched the "Name Our Storms" campaign to raise public awareness of severe weather and to create a single naming system that could be used to aid the communication of approaching severe weather. The result was a list of names that could be used for the 2015/16 storm season, running from early September of 2015 to late August 2016, with further such lists for every year since then.
This campaign proved to be particularly effective at gaining attention on social media and reaching groups of people that had previously been difficult to engage with, meaning that in general, the public became better placed to keep themselves, their property, and businesses safe during major storm events. Such was its success, that the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) joined the initiative in 2019, recognising that it made a lot of sense to give common names to such extreme weather events.
So now, from around June each year, members of the public from all three participating countries are asked to suggest names for the coming storm season so that a list of selected names can be published on the first day of September. The list is made up of alternating male and female names for each letter of the alphabet, except for Q, U, X, Y and Z. The reason these letters are not used is that there are not many names that begin with them.
Going back to 2015, the first ever name was used to name Storm Abigail, a storm that brought strong winds and heavy rain to much of the UK on 12-13 November 2015, with the most severe weather impacting the northwest of Scotland where power cuts affected up to 20,000 homes and many schools were forced to close for the day.
Returning to this year, the first name for this current storm season was selected by KNMI. It is Antoni and along with Hendrika, Johanna and Loes, is named after an influential Dutch scientist. Met Éireann’s submissions include Cillian, Fleur, Íde, and Nelly and the Met Office’s names include Betty, Daisy, Glen, Khalid and Owain and show the breadth of names in use across the UK. In fact, Betty became the runaway winner of a public vote on Met Office Twitter, with over 12,000 votes cast to select it as the name for the letter B.
Storms are named once they have the potential to cause medium (Amber) or high (Red) impacts to the UK, Ireland or the Netherlands with the effects of wind, rain and snow all being considered when deciding if a name should be used and this season things appear to have been relatively benign because it is mid-February and Antoni is yet to be used to name a storm.
This contrasts with last season when the first storm, Storm Arwen brought destructive winds rain and snow to the UK in late November. It was named on 25 November 2021 and on 26 November 2021, the UK Met Office issued what they described as a "rare red weather warning" due to a deep pressure system moving southwards from the Atlantic Ocean. When the system made landfall in Aberdeenshire, it brought extreme wind and waves all the way down the coast from there to the Tees Estuary.
By the time the Storm Arwen had passed it had left more than a quarter of a million customers without electricity and three people dead. The damage it caused was compounded by sustained winds with gusts in excess of 90 mph that came unusually from the north-east and toppled around 16 million trees, the vast majority of which would have survived had the winds been from the prevailing south-west wind direction.
Storms Barra and Corrie followed in December and January and then, between 16 and 21 February 2022, the UK was successively hit by storms Dudley, Eunice, and Franklin. Of these, Eunice was the most severe with South Wales and the southwest of England being worst hit. On 17 and 18 February 2022, the Met Office issued to two rare red warnings for much of southern England, south Wales and London effectively telling about a third of the UK population to stay at home.
Eunice was one of the most powerful storms to impact the south coast of England since the Great Storm of 1987 and at its peak on 18 February, record gusts of 122 miles per hour were measured at the Needles on the Isle of Wight. By the time Eunice had passed, 4 people had sadly died as a result of it, over a million homes were left without power, a huge hole had been torn into the roof of London’s O2 Arena, a church spire in Wells, Somerset had been blown down, hundreds of train services and flights were cancelled, and many major roads were closed. The estimated bill for all the damage and disruption caused was £360 million.
However, the Met Office said that things could have been a lot worse had it not been for the storm naming system ensuring that better messaging had been in place than that for the Great Storm of 1987. This meant that people had been more aware of Storm Eunice approaching, better prepared for it arriving and had heeded the warnings not to travel. This certainly shows that we should never underestimate the power of a name and simple messaging.
I would never have thought that a seemingly innocuous slip on a wet rock at Ardtoe would have resulted in a debilitating injury requiring surgery, 4 months of immobilisation, 12 months of physiotherapy and a further 6-12 months of recovery time to get me back to a point where I can freely walk in and photograph the landscape here on the Peninsula. However, this was indeed the case, and I am thankful that I had my photography to use as the motivator to get active and aid my recovery. It also resulted in the creation of a collection of 72 images that portray the varying landscape and moods of the Peninsula throughout 2022. This blog contains 12 of these images, one for each month of the year, and I hope to share the remainder of them over the course of 2023.
On 6th July 2021, I slipped on some wet rocks at Ardtoe, dislocating my knee and tearing my patellar tendon in two. Following an operation to repair the damage, I found myself immobilised and in a knee brace until early November and unable to get out and do any photography.
While laid up in the brace, I set myself the target of getting back out with the camera by the start of 2022 and the objective of taking 5 or 6 images each month that captured the varying landscape and moods of the Peninsula throughout the year.
With limited mobility, especially at the start of the year, I had to think carefully about locations I could safely go that would provide me with opportunities to take the photographs that I had in mind. This was a bit of a challenge at first, but I found that this limitation helped me with my creativity.
By the end of the year, I had visited enough locations and taken enough photographs to enable me to create a collection of 72 images, or six for each month to reasonably portray the Peninsula over the course of 2022. Twelve of these images, one for each month, are presented in this blog and I plan to share the rest of them over the course of the coming year in a new section on this website titled “A Year on the Peninsula”.
As well as the collection of images, the project provided me with the motivation to get “out there” and get back into my photography and aid my recovery. When pulling these images together, I was certainly reminded of how far I have come since that day in January when I gingerly made my way down the jetty at Salen with the help of a crutch to take the first photograph in this collection. I still have a number of months left in my 18-24 month long recovery period and hopefully, as my ability to walk on uneven ground and also downhill improves, I’ll be able to range further afield and photograph locations that I have not been able to get to since that fateful day in July 2021.
It’s December, the first month of winter and despite the temperate oceanic climate we have here on the Peninsula, we have had some pretty cold weather and some snow falling down at low levels, but not quite as much as shown in the image below featuring snow covered trees around the Old Shiel Bridge. It is also just over a week until Christmas Day and peoples’ attention has now turned towards the festive celebrations and making preparation for gathering with friends and family. However, you may be surprised to know that such celebrations are a relatively recent occurrence, and that Christmas was banned in Scotland for almost 400 years
Celebrations at this time of the year all started back in the Neolithic period, or New Stone Age, when Celtic Pagans celebrated the Winter Solstice. It falls on, or around the 21st of December each year and marks the shortest day of the year and the celebrations were held to appease the gods to allow the sun to return and have the days get longer, warmer and brighter.
About 3000 years later, in the late 700s AD, the Vikings began raiding Scotland, eventually beginning to settle here from the 8th century onwards. In doing so, they brought their own way of celebrating the Winter Solstice, which they referred to as Jól and became known as Yule. Their Yule celebrations would last for around 12 days, during which they would light bonfires, tell stories, drink ale and make sacrifices to the gods to earn blessing on the crops that would be grown when the warmer days returned.
As Christianity arrived, Yule gradually became the Christian celebration that we now refer to as Christmas and Yule celebrations were held in all parts of Scotland where the Catholic Church held authority. Then, in 1560, Scotland split from the Catholic Church and formed the Presbyterian Church of Scotland (the Kirk) in what was known as the Scottish Reformation. With this, came a change in religious thought, and any activity that could be seen as extravagant, or as celebrating superstitious ideals, was heavily frowned upon. This included the celebration of Yule and finally, after years of increasing discord, the Scottish Parliament passed a law in 1640 that made celebrating the ‘Yule vacations’ illegal.
The ban remained in place until 1712, when it was officially repealed, but the powerful Kirk continued to frown upon any festive celebrations. In these times there was no public holiday on Christmas Day and punishments for singing Christmas carols, baking Yule bread and any other such things were extremely harsh. It was because of this that Hogmanay and New Year celebrations became so important in Scotland.
This situation continued for many years until a change in attitudes most likely caused by the commercialisation of Christmas, led to Christmas Day becoming a public holiday in 1958 and Boxing Day eventually becoming a public holiday in 1974. Some argue that this commercialisation was driven by the introduction of UK wide television broadcasting in the early 1950s and that that the pace of it increases year on year. It certainly does seem like we see Christmas decorations and sales promotions appearing earlier each year.
The way we celebrate Christmas has also changed. It has moved away from religiously oriented traditions that were deeply rooted in Christianity and Viking culture, becoming more of a secular event in recent years, where the focus seems to be less religious and more about spending time with friends and family.
However, whatever your views are on what Christmas should and shouldn’t be, the 25th of December 2022 will only be Scotland’s 65th Christmas holiday in 382 years, so I wish you all a Blythe Yule and hope that it brings happiness and joy to you and your family.
With its ever-changing weather, dramatic landscapes, beautiful lochs and ancient woodlands, the Peninsula often seems to be a magical and mystical place to me and like much of Scotland, legendary stories used to explain the unexplainable and to warn us away from dangerous places, have been carried down through the generations. Indeed, photographing the Peninsula often leads me to uncovering links between legends and its landscape, just as it did when I photographed Loch Sunart one November day.
The image above was captured from the upper slopes of Meall Mor, a small peak that sits on the western flank of Ben Resipole. I have been up there many times because it is only a short distance from my house and the modest climb is rewarded with stunning views westwards over Loch Sunart to the Isle of Carna and the hills of Morvern beyond.
While taking this photograph, I saw something that I hadn’t noticed before. A small promontory sitting in front of the silhouette of the Isle of Carna, which only caught my eye because it was lit up by rays of light that had broken through the clouds.
Curious as to what it was, I did a bit of research when I returned home to find out that this knoll was both the site of a small Iron Age fort called Dùn Ghallain (Fort of the Storm) and the setting of ‘The Swan of Salen’, a mythical tale that seeks to explain why no swans are found on Loch Sunart.
It tells of a Chieftain who fell in love with a maiden of low social status. The Chieftain’s mother disapproved of the match and turned the maiden into a swan. The Chieftain, not knowing this, killed the swan while out hunting and was heartbroken to see the swan’s body take the form of his love as it died. Inconsolable, he fell on his own sword, and the bodies of the two are said to lie beneath Dùn Ghallain to this day. It is said that this is why there are no swans on Loch Sunart, making it the perfect example of a tale to explain the unexplainable.
If you travel a few miles east from there, you can find a location whose name is linked to a legend that warns you away from danger. It is Lochan nan Dunaich, the ‘Little Loch of Sadness’, where young children were supposedly lured into its waters by a Kelpie and never seen again.
Kelpies are said to be water spirits that inhabit many of the rivers and lochs of Scotland. Although usually appearing in the form of a horse, they are capable of shape-shifting and can take human-form. When in horse form a kelpie will often stand near the edge of a river or loch waiting for its prey, which will often be young children. Kelpies have magically adhesive bodies, meaning that should a child choose to clap the supposed horse, they will become attached, allowing the Kelpie to drag its victim into the water and drown them.
It is also said that they can stretch the length of their backs to carry several children to their death at once. One tale involves a group of children, where all but one climbed onto the kelpie’s back while the last child stayed on the shore. This child petted the kelpie’s neck only to have their hand become attached to it. They freed themselves by cutting off the hand only to then watch their friends, who were stuck to the kelpie’s back, being dragged down into the depths of the water where they were devoured, and their entrails thrown to the water’s edge.
When you look at Lochan nan Dunaich, a deep and dark pool of water with fallen trees around its boggy edges, you can well understand the need to warn children away from straying too close to it and with such gruesome tales about Kelpies, you can well understand how the local legend would have been to this effect. So, if you find yourself there, tread carefully, very carefully indeed.
When you hear someone say, "Once in a blue moon …" you probably think that they are talking about something rare. In fact, this month’s image shows the blue moon of October 2020 sitting above the summit of Càrn na Nathrach in Ardgour, with the peaks of Druim Garbh, Sgùrr Dhomhnuill and Sgùrr na h-Ighinn to its left. So, what exactly is a blue moon and is it actually that rare?
Most people will have watched a white coloured moon traversing the night sky and some people may have even seen a yellow or red moon at moonrise or moonset. On the other hand, very few people will have seen a blue coloured moon because it is a very rare occurrence indeed.
This rare event, when the Moon can naturally appear blue, is caused by the presence of dust particles in the atmosphere which, if they are the right size, can scatter the red part of the light spectrum and leave the rest untouched to cause the moon to take on a blue tint.
Some of the events that have led to this include the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 and the eruptions of Mount St. Helens in 1980 and the El Chichón volcano in Mexico in 1983. In fact, the eruption of Krakatoa reportedly caused blue moons for nearly 2 years.
However, the bluish tint caused by these rare events doesn’t have anything to do with the phrase “once in a blue moon”. Instead, the words ‘blue moon’ are used to describe the second full moon in a calendar month. It is an event that is not that rare because there are 29.5 days between full moons, meaning that each year will have roughly 12.3 full moons. This gives us a 13th full moon once every 2.7 years, along with a month within which a second full moon, or blue moon occurs.
In fact, the last blue moon to occur was the one that is shown in the image above, which I photographed in October 2020. The next one is in August 2023 and the one after that will be in May 2026.
Considerably rarer than blue moons are double blue moons. This is when there are two blue moons in the same calendar year, and it is something that occurs about 3-5 times every hundred years of so. The last one was in 2018, the next is expected in 2037 and the one after that in 2067.
Rarer still is what is termed a super blood blue moon. This is when a blue moon occurs when the Moon comes within 90% of its closest distance to Earth to make it a supermoon, while at the same time fully slipping into the Earth’s shadow to create a total lunar eclipse. This last happened in January 2018, just over 150 years since all three phenomena last lined up in March 1866.
If you look at the frequency at which these three phenomena are expected to occur;
meaning that a super blood blue moon will occur 0.042% of the time, or once every 2,381 full moons. On average, that corresponds to once every 194 years!
So, the next time you think about using the phrase “once in a blue moon” for something that almost never happens, you might want to consider using “once in a super blood blue moon” as an alternative!!
I took the image below on a beautifully still late summer evening out a Dorlin, just as the sun was dropping behind Eilean Shona and as oystercatchers were returning to the mudflat on the opposite side of the River Shiel to roost. As they did so, their shrill calls, which are so evocative of the beautiful shores of western Scotland, filled the air. It is such a magical sound, and it is little wonder that the oystercatcher, and its call, features so much in the folklore of the West Highlands and Islands
Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, in his book “The Peat Fire Flame” describes how it was related in the Islands that, when Christ was being pursued from one Hebridean Isle to another, he was hidden at low tide by two oystercatchers, who covered Him with seaweed, and kept watch over Him until His enemies had passed. And that it is supposed that for this act of grace, the oystercatcher was chosen to be the gille or manservant of Saint Bridget, Christ's foster-mother. Hence the origin of gille-hridean, the oystercatcher's Gaelic name.
An alternative story is that Saint Bride (Bridget) was running away from a band of evil men who were trying to kill her and, after being chased to a beach where there was no place to hide, she prayed to God to thank him for her life and lay on the sand to accept her death. However, before the men reached the beach, oystercatchers, who were patrolling the shoreline, saw her, recognised that she was in danger and covered her with seaweed, hiding her and saving her life. She blessed the species and since that day the oystercatcher has been the brìdean (Brìd-eun ‘Bride’s bird) or gille-brìde ‘servant of Bride’.
These two very similar stories may well be pure myth, but there is much written about the bird in the folklore of the West Highlands and Islands. Indeed, they say in the Hebrides that the oystercatcher was originally completely black, and that, in recognition of the two oystercatchers saving Christ from His enemies, it was awarded white plumage on its breast causing it to look like a white cross when it is seen flying towards you.
However, the oystercatcher’s most distinguishing feature must be its call and, more often than not, you will hear its shrill, insistent peep, peep, peep long before catch sight of any birds. In Gaelic the cry of the oystercatcher is " Bi glic, hi glic ; bi glic, bi glic! ", meaning ' be wise,' ' be prudent,' ' take care.' One story has it that Saint Bride followed this call across the sea from Ireland in her coracle to finally be guided to the shores of South Uist with an oystercatcher on each wrist. She is also said to have been able to call them to her hand and, in rough weather, send them out to sailors to guide them to safety. This may be why the cry of an oystercatcher was commonly regarded by West Highland mariners and fishermen as a warning of an approaching storm.
Video: An Oystercatcher Sunset Chorus, Dorlin, Loch Moidart
After hearing their call, you may well spot oystercatchers swooping low over the sea, making a dazzling flight pattern, before eventually landing on exposed sand and mud flats, where they feed on shore-dwelling bivalves such as mussels and limpets, along with other invertebrates like ragworms. I just love watching these gregarious and noisy birds as they quickly run up and down the tideline in an almost comical fashion. To watch this flurry of activity and boundless energy helps you understand why one of the collective nouns for the oystercatcher is a “stew”. The two others I’m aware of are “Rockefeller” and “parcel”, but they just don’t seem to fit the bill as well.
We are now in August, the best month of the year for looking at and photographing the cloudy core of the Milky Way, the galaxy that is home to our Sun and 200 billion other stars. I find photographing this vast cloud of other stars and worlds an extremely humbling experience, especially when you consider that this single galaxy may contain 300 million potentially habitable planets and that there are a total of 170 billion other galaxies in the Universe as a whole. With mind-blowing numbers like these, we surely must consider the possibility of there being life beyond Earth.
At this time of the year, the sun sets at around 9:00 pm and the stars and the constellations become visible from about 10:00 pm onwards. So, if you spend some time outside around then and look south, you’ll see the core of the Milky Way beginning to appear in the lower part of the sky. Having risen above the horizon in the southeast at about 7:00 pm, this cloudy mass of dust and stars will have travelled upwards and westwards to become visible as twilight ends. At this point, it reaches its highest point in the night sky and begins to drop down towards the horizon while it continues westward. It will eventually set around midnight, giving a period of about two hours during which it can photographed in all its glory. I was pleased to be able to do this when I captured the image below on a beautifully still and clear night from the Ardtoe Jetty in Kentra Bay.
With each of these 170 billion galaxies containing an average of 200 billion stars, and with the current consensus among astronomers being that there should be at least as many planets as there are stars, it can be estimated that there are at least 34 sextillion (34,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) planets in the universe.
This is an incomprehensibly large number of planets, and it does make you wonder if there is indeed life out there beyond Earth. Indeed, to date, astronomers have found 55 planets that are orbiting the habitable zones of stars and by extrapolating this to the number of stars in the Milky Way they estimate that there could be 300 million such planets in our galaxy alone.
So, with this in mind, why don’t you go outside after dark on a clear August night and look south to see the cloudy core of the Milky Way, consider that someone may be looking back at you and remember this quote by Carl Sagan, the renowned astronomer and astrophysicist:
“The universe is a pretty big place. If it's just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”
Despite living on the Peninsula for several years now, it still often feels like it is a world away from the rest of the country and it is little wonder that summer brings a steady stream of visitors seeking to experience this beautiful, remote, and unspoilt corner of the Scottish Highlands. I often say to visitors that it has a bit of everything that Scotland has to offer, with rugged mountains, beautiful lochs and ancient woodlands, but it is its dramatic and stunning coastline that holds the biggest draw for me and features most in my photography
Take this month’s image, which was shot on a beautifully sunny day in July out at Sanna, looking north across the bay to the Small Isles beyond. On days such as this, with bright sunlight overhead, the sea takes on an intense range of blue hues ranging from light blues of the shallow water to the dark blues of the deeper water, all caused by the way light interacts with the seawater.
You see, daylight is made up of many different visible colours, ranging from reds and oranges to blues and violets, with the reds and oranges having the longest wavelengths and the blues and violets having the shortest. As water molecules are better at absorbing light with longer wavelengths, they absorb much of the red, orange, yellow and green light. The bluer colours, with shorter wavelengths, are less likely to be absorbed and so are reflected by the white sand on the seabed to give the sea its blue hues.
In shallow water, there are fewer water molecules to absorb the red, orange, yellow and green light, so more of it reaches the seabed to be reflected with the blues and violets and give either clear or slightly blue water. However, the deeper the water becomes, the more the reds, oranges, yellows and greens are absorbed and the deeper blue the colour of the water becomes, until you reach the point where no visible light can reach the seabed and the water becomes completely dark.
I find something quite captivating about the aquatic blue hues of the sea at places such as Sanna and I’m sure that this is reflected in my affinity for water and for photographing the sea and the coastline. In fact, it has been documented that our affinity for water is reflected in our near-universal attraction to the colour blue and that we associate this colour with qualities like calm, openness, depth and wisdom.
The link between the two has even been developed into something called “Blue Mind Science”, the study of aquatic environments’ health benefits that was first popularised by marine biologist Dr Wallace Nichols in his 2014 book, “Blue Mind”. Simply put, Blue Mind is a mildly meditative state that people fall into when they are near, in, under or on water and some of the physical and mental health benefits include:
So, if you’re seeing red, feeling angry, anxious, and stressed, then head to the coast for some “Blue Mindfulness”. I can highly recommend it.
It’s June and summer is finally upon us. This means milder weather and longer days, with the longest day of all taking place on 21 June, the day of the Summer Solstice. As the Sun sets so late and rises so early, it barely gets dark at this time of year. Indeed, this month’s image, which was taken shortly before 11:00 pm on a night close to the Summer Solstice, shows just how light it can be. I spent quite some time then, sitting on a small promontory facing west over Loch Sunart and watching the slimmest of crescent moons traverse the twilit sky as midnight approached. There sure is something magical about these light nights and it is little wonder that the summer solstice and midsummer have been celebrated for time immemorial
This year, the summer solstice occurs on 21 June at 10:13 am. It is the exact moment when the North Pole is at its maximum tilt towards the Sun, when the Sun reaches its highest position in the sky and when the Sun rises at its closest to north-east and sets at its closest to north-west.
Although the summer solstice is a precise moment in time, many people refer to it as the “Longest Day” because it is the day when the number of hours of daylight are at their maximum and the number of hours of night are at their minimum. For instance, on 21 June this year, our sunrise here on the Peninsula will be at 4:27:36 am and our sunset will be at 10:22:23 pm, giving us 17 hours, 54 minutes and 47 seconds of daylight.
While the summer solstice marks the astronomical start of our summer, it has traditionally been celebrated in Scotland as midsummer, the halfway point in the growing season and a time when people hoped for bountiful harvests. The celebrations began as a Celtic fire festival when bonfires would be used to bless crops and beasts. Animals would be walked around the fire in a sun-wise (clockwise) direction and torches would be lit from the main fire to then be carried around homes and fields, also in a sun-wise direction, to bless families and the crops.
Also, people used to gather herbs at this time, and either scatter them into the fire to complete the ritual, wear them along with flowers to ward off evil spirits, or place them under their pillows as good luck charms to manifest good dreams. Birch branches were sometimes hung above doors for protection. This was also believed to be the best time to collect honey from beehives, which is why the first full moon in June was called the “honey moon”. Unsurprisingly, this became the traditional month for weddings.
With the coming of Christianity, many pagan midsummer celebrations were moved to the feast of St John the Baptist on 24 June, with bonfires remaining central to them. People would light the bonfires on midsummer eve and then stay up until midnight to welcome in midsummer day. They continued to gather herbs and flowers to protect themselves from evil spirits and one of the most powerful plants was ‘chase-devil’, which is now called St John’s Wort. It was used in potions and woven into garlands because people believed that this would provide them with protection.
Finally, herbalists continue to use St John’s Wort in medicines to this day. It contains many chemicals that act on messengers in the brain that regulate mood and there is some strong scientific evidence that it is effective for mild to moderate depression.
We are now in May, the last month of Spring and the landscape has well and truly awakened from its winter slumber. The leaves have unfurled on the trees, the wildlife is thriving, and the colourful blooms have appeared. We’ve seen snowdrops in February, wood anemones in March, primroses in April and now it’s time for the carpets of bluebells to appear in the ancient woodlands across the Peninsula. This wildflower spectacle is a magical sight and one that leaves you with a feeling that these woodlands with carpets of blue are indeed enchanted.
In Celtic folklore, bluebells have a strong association with spirits and faeries. They are often called faerie flowers and their small bell-shaped flowers are believed summon the faeries when rung. This is not necessarily a good thing because faeries are believed to hang their spells on the bluebells to dry and disturbing them may unleash wild magic upon you, leaving you dazed by enchantment and unable to find your way out of the woods. It can be even more serious for children who pick bluebells because it is believed that they could be snatched away by the faerie folk, never to be seen again.
So, if you do visit a bluebell wood, just remember to stay on the path and to not pick or disturb any of the flowers. Besides risking the wrath of the faeries, another good reason to avoid disturbing them is that they are poisonous, and this might be the reason why there are so many old tales and legends warning people away from them.
However, these beautiful little flowers have also been valued for their useful properties and have been used over the centuries by herbalists to prevent nightmares and to treat leprosy, spider bites and tuberculosis. They contain at least 15 biologically active compounds that provide them with protection against insect and animal pests and in recent years, some of these compounds have been investigated as possible treatments for HIV infection and cancer.
Bluebells have practical uses as well. They produce an exceptionally sticky sap which was used by our Bronze Age ancestors to make a glue that they use for attaching flights of feathers to their arrows. This glue has also been used for several centuries by bookbinders to make and repair books, while in Tudor times, starch was extracted from crushed bluebell roots and used to stiffen the ruff collars that were very much the fashion back then.
Finally, some bluebell folklore gives a positive impression of this beautiful little flower. For example, some believe that by wearing a wreath made of the flowers, the wearer can be compelled to speak only truth while others believe that if you can turn one of the flowers inside out without tearing it, you will eventually win the one you love.
There’s something magical about watching the beginning of a new day, especially on mornings as perfect as the one when I took the photograph below from the hills above Acharacle while looking north-east over Loch Shiel to Ben Resipole and the distant peaks of Ardgour beyond. Although it is only a short climb, the view you get from up there is simply amazing and this makes it one of my most favourite places to do one of my most favourite things, which is to watch a sunrise.
I’m a morning person and naturally wake up early, but I do realise that not everyone is like this. Therefore, I thought that I’d give some reasons why I think it is good to at least once, get up early with the birds, head to a favourite place and watch a new day begin:
The image below was taken on a September night at the Loch Shiel jetty in Acharacle when I had a client with me for some night photography tuition. We had been photographing the Milky Way in the sky over Loch Sunart when the Aurora Alerts went off, so we decided to head over to the jetty as it has a clear view north. We had a great time photographing the Northern Lights both here and at other locations close by. Some of the images from that night hang in my Studio at Resipole and they often prompt people to ask; “Can you see the Northern Lights here and are they really that green?”. My answer is always yes, but we can only perceive the aurora as a greyish-blue light. I then go on to explain the reason why...
It’s all because our eyes contain two types of photoreceptors (cones and rods) and how they work in the dark compared to how they work in daylight.
Each retina has about 6 to 7 million cones and they provide the eye with the ability to distinguish colour. However, these cones only work effectively when it is light. On the other hand, there are about 120 million rods. These are far more effective at helping us to see in low light and near dark conditions, but they cannot distinguish colour.
So, as it gets dark and the cones stop working, our eyes move from enabling us to see in full colour to only seeing in black and white. This means that anything we look at in the dark, including the Northern Lights, will only be seen in black, white and shades of grey.
However, the sensors that you find in digital cameras do not suffer from this limitation and are extremely effective at picking up both light and colour in the dark. They can easily pick up the greens, reds, blues and purples that are present in the aurora, meaning that the colours you see in digitally taken images of the aurora are not a result of any photo editing but are, in fact, real.
The auroral colours are a result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth's atmosphere and charged particles released from the Sun's atmosphere. The colours present in the aurora depend on the type of gas particles the charged solar particles collide with. Green is the most common because most solar particles collide with our atmosphere at an altitude of around 60 to 150 miles, where there are high concentrations of oxygen and these collisions with oxygen produce a pale yellowish-green colour.
Blue and purple can also be present, but far less frequently than green because they only appear when solar activity is strong enough to cause particle collisions in our atmosphere at an altitude of 60 miles or less. At these heights, it is a reaction with nitrogen that causes the aurora to be tinged with purple or blue.
On rare occasions, red can be present in the aurora, but only when the Sun’s activity causes solar particles to react with oxygen at altitudes above 150 miles or so. At this height the oxygen is less concentrated and is “excited” at a higher frequency or wavelength than the denser oxygen lower down in the atmosphere and so produces a purely red aurora.
To give you an idea of the difference between what we can see and what the camera sees, I’ve prepared two versions of another image taken that night, but at Castle Tioram rather than Loch Shiel. These two versions are below, with the one on the left showing what the camera saw and the one on the right showing what I saw when I was taking the photograph.
Don’t despair though, as but there is a way you can experience the colours for yourself. Many modern phone cameras have a “Night Mode” setting that allows you to take bright, sharp and noise-free photos, even in the darkness of the night. So, the next time you hear of the aurora happening, head to a place with a clear view of the northern horizon, put you phone camera in “Night Mode” and use it to help you see the colours of the ‘Na Fir-chlis’.
You will find a few more images of the Northern Lights in the “Our Night Sky” photo gallery on this website and if you’d like to arrange some night photography tuition, please feel free to get in touch.
It’s mid-February and the end of this last month of winter is fast approaching. The evenings are getting lighter and my thoughts are turning to Spring and the sense of renewal, hope and happiness that it brings. The image below was taken out at Smirisary, an old crofting village about two miles to the west of Glenuig, on a Spring evening and shows a tree adorned with the fresh green growth that encapsulates these “Spring” feelings for me. It was a beautiful evening and I felt a true sense of calm contentment as I sat there listening to the call of a nearby cuckoo while waiting for the right moment to press the shutter button. I was left thinking that it is little wonder that the benefits of photography on mental wellbeing have been well studied and documented.
I spent much of my childhood outdoors exploring the rolling Scottish Borders countryside and have many fond memories of the adventures that this entailed. Back then, I’m sure I never gave much thought to the benefits of time outdoors and it wasn’t until I moved to Glasgow for work that I started to appreciate how differently I felt when I was in the countryside. Day trips for a walk in the hills became a welcome relief from both the pace of city centre living and the pressures of my work. A camera always accompanied me and, as the years passed, photography became a bigger and bigger part of the experience, acting as my “mind medicine”, encouraging me to slow down, look carefully and really appreciate my surroundings.
Studies by researchers at Lancaster University into the effects of photography on mental wellbeing back this up. They found that the act of finding a subject, trying different compositions and changing positions to alter the light requires such focus that it can be a meditative task, or an act of mindfulness that allows you to focus not on your outside concerns, but solely on the moment and the task at hand. I find this with landscape photography because it requires a great deal of patience to sit on a hillside, having framed a composition and wait for the right light and the perfect moment to press the shutter button. During this time, nothing else is on my mind and I feel completely detached from any stresses and pressures that life might hold.
Photography can also provide an artistic outlet, which many people may not have through any other means, and other studies have found that immersing yourself in a creative activity elevates mood while lowering both anxiety and stress hormone levels. Additionally, there are the general physical benefits of going for a walk with a camera, with the desire to capture images translating into the motivation to get outdoors at times when you would otherwise remain at home.
Finally, please do not think that landscape photography is limited to people with lots of expensive equipment. You will probably have a perfectly capable camera in your pocket because the quality of smartphone cameras nowadays allows almost anyone to capture some good images. So why don’t you get out into the beautiful landscape that surrounds us here on the Peninsula and try it out. With the sun still low enough in the sky to give us some lovely light, it is the perfect time of year to start. Get out there, take some pictures and feel all the better for it.
When I moved away from the bright city lights of Glasgow to the unspoilt West Highland Peninsulas, one of the first things that struck me most was just how dark and clear the night sky was. I found that I could simply step out of the door of my house by the side of Loch Sunart and find myself looking up at the Milky Way and well over 7000 stars scattered across the sky above me. As my time on the Peninsula has passed, my interest in night photography has become a passion that produces some of my most popular images and I often get asked by visitors to my Studio about just how difficult night photography is. Well, the simple answer is that “It’s easier than you think” so, in this blog, I thought I’d explain why I think that this is the case.
The reality is that you don’t need to buy lots of expensive equipment to capture your first images of the night sky. Any modern DSLR or mirrorless camera fitted with a wide-angle lens and mounted on a tripod will allow you to capture some lovely images of the night sky. So, if you have a full-frame sensor camera and a wide-angle lens with a focal length of about 30mm or less, you will be able to make a start at photographing the stars. Alternatively, if you have a 1.5x cropped sensor camera, a lens with a focal length of about 20mm or less will work fine. Ideally, these lenses should be able to open up to a wide aperture of f2.8 but if yours don’t, just give them a try at their widest setting and see how you get on. If you’re not happy with the results, you can always rent a lens for a little while to see if it is something you’re keen to get into, before deciding to buy a lens specifically for your night photography.
The actual process of setting up your camera is not too difficult and in many ways, I think that it is far easier than setting it for daytime photography as there is basically only one setting to use. All you have to do is start no later than 45 minutes or so after sunset, while it is still getting dark, put your camera in manual mode, set it to capture RAW image files and then do the following:
You are now all set up but please be patient and wait for it to get sufficiently dark for the stars to show in your photo. This will usually be about 1½ hours after sunset. Once you think it is dark enough, select your camera’s 2 second timer and use it to avoid you pressing the shutter button during the camera exposure and causing any movement that might blur the image. Simply press the shutter button with the two second timer switched on, wait for the exposure to complete and then check the photo you have just taken. If you find it is under or over exposed, adjust your ISO accordingly, but avoid an ISO that is so high that it makes your photo’s noisy and grainy.
When you have got a shot you are happy with, feel free to change the tripod location and camera position to capture a different composition, but avoid changing your aperture of focal length (dials previously taped to prevent accidental movement) as this will put your camera out of focus. Also, because It will most likely be completely dark by now, you might be best to use a torch to light your field of view while framing the new composition.
Most people will be aware that the moon and the sun are primarily responsible for the rising and falling of the ocean tides, with the difference in height between high and low tides varying through the month as the Moon waxes and wanes from new to full and back to new again. They’ll also be aware that spring tides are not those that occur in Spring, but instead are the highest (and lowest) tides that occur two times a month, a few days after each full Moon and each new Moon. However, fewer people will be aware of king tides and supermoons and how they may worsen the impact of storms that we often experience at this time of the year
This image above was taken a couple of days after the full moon of January 2018 and shows Eilean Tioram still cut off from the mainland despite the time being a few hours since the last high tide. In fact, the high tide on that day, at over 5 metres high, was good quarter of a metre higher than what is typical for a spring tide on Loch Moidart and because this extra-high tide was only a few days after a supermoon, it was what some people call a king tide.
So, what is a supermoon and why does it create an extra-large spring tide, or king tide?
Well, the Moon doesn’t orbit around the Earth in a perfect circle. Instead, it has an elliptical orbit, where its centre-to-centre distance from the Earth varies throughout the month, with its closest point to Earth on this ellipse in any given month being called the perigee. When any full Moon or new Moon comes within 90% of the perigee, or within 224,791 miles (or less) of our planet, it is called a supermoon. On these occasions a full Moon will look bigger and brighter than normal and both a full and new Moon will exert a greater gravitational pull on the Earth than normal. This greater gravitational pull means that, just as a full moon gives us spring tides, a supermoon will give us extra-high spring tides, or king tides.
Most of the time these king tides don’t cause too much of a problem, but shortly before this photo was taken in 2018, the supermoon of January 1-2 was closely aligned with the perigee and created especially high king tides. On the day after, Storm Eleanor hit the UK with winds of up to 100 mph (160 km/h). These high winds, combined with the extra-high tides, caused coastal flooding, hampered travel, led to loss of life and injury and left tens of thousands of homes across the UK without power.
Should we expect this to happen again? Well perhaps not for the remainder of this year and the whole of next year because the predicted heights of the king tides during the UK’s storm season months (typically October to February) is lower than that of January 2018. However, in 2023 and 2024, the predicted height of the king tides are at or above those of January 2018 which, if combined with the high winds of a named storm, could lead to coastal flooding of the same level as that experienced during Storm Eleanor.
As we move away from the Autumn Equinox and towards the Winter Solstice it seems to me that, along with the days getting shorter and colder, the evening skies are getting brighter and bolder. We often get brooding skies, with the oranges, pinks and reds from the setting sun breaking up the greys, blues and purples of clearing storm clouds to produce dramatic scenes such as one I witnessed at Castle Tioram on a late-November afternoon and shown the image below. This makes me beg the question: Are late autumn and winter sunsets better than those we get at other times of the year? Well, it turns out that scientific studies have confirmed this to be the case and they have discovered the reasons why
Scientific researchers have found that the peak sunset season is from November through to February and that this is down to a combination three things. These are the type and quantity of the cloud cover, cooler air temperatures and how the Earth is tilted towards the sun at this time of the year.
Contrary to what you might think, we need clouds for a good sunset and they have to be the right kind of clouds. If they are too low down on the horizon, they will block out the Sun’s rays and prevent a sunset. Instead, we need mid to high level clouds that will refract the sunlight and give us those beautiful sunset colours. This happens more in autumn and winter because the weather patterns we get then tend to bring mid and high-level altocumulus, altostratus and cirrus clouds.
The cooler temperatures mean that the air is less humid and that there is less water vapour to capture dust particles that are in the air and create the haze which is often a feature of the summer months. When present, this haze scatters sunlight and reduces its intensity. So, in autumn and winter, the lower humidity means that the air is clearer and we see the colours produced by the setting sun in all their intensity.
Finally, as we approach the winter solstice, the North Pole gets tilted further away from the sun, lengthening the time taken for the sun to set. This, in turn, means that the sunset colours last longer than at the equinoxes, for example, when the sun sinks very quickly towards the horizon at a 90-degree angle. The result is that we have more time to enjoy the sunset colours and the sunset colours have more time to make an impact on us.
Despite all of these variables, predicting sunsets doesn’t have to be hard. All you need to do is keep an eye out for the following key indicators:
Mid to high-level clouds (2km and above)
Cloud coverage - 30 to 70 percent
Humidity - low but not too low
Prior rainfall - no less than 2 to 6 hours before
Wind speed - low or non-existent
There are many online forecasts for these weather conditions and the one I refer to most is windy.com. So why don’t you have a go at predicting a sunset and head west at what you think might be a good time. You never know, you may be well rewarded for your efforts!
We are now in well in to October, the second month of meteorological autumn. It is when the number of visitors to the Peninsula reduces, the days become shorter, the nights become cooler, and the sun gets lower in the sky. This brings a quietness to the area and a quality of light that cannot be found at any other time of the year which, when combined with the autumn colours, makes what is a photographer’s paradise even more perfect than it already was.
By the middle of the month most of the numerous wooded areas around the Peninsula are normally at or near their “autumn peak”, having swapped canopies of green for tapestries of vibrant reds, golds and ambers. The image above was taken around this time in 2019, which was a particularly good year for the autumn colours, and it shows the trees around the Old Shiel Bridge at Blain in their full autumn splendour.
The Old Bridge was built by Thomas Telford in 1804. It spans a narrow chasm through which the waters of the River Shiel pass and seem to come to the boil before they expand in the House Pool, slow down and then run both still and deep. This single span bridge provides an interesting subject that can be photographed from many different angles. This, combined with how the smooth waters of the House Pool and the river downstream of it reflect the autumn colours, make it the perfect place to capture the splendour of the trees at this time of the year.
I’ve visited the bridge a few times over the last week or so to find that the arrival of the autumn colours is not quite as advanced as it normally is. Indeed, I can’t help feeling it is a week or two behind and although there are now hints of golds in the landscape, I find my myself wondering if their late arrival means that there will be a poorer show this year.
So, what makes for a good show of autumn colours? Well, the answer lies in the fact that leaf colour comes from pigments, which are natural substances produced by the leaf cells to help them obtain food. There are three pigments: chlorophyll (green), carotenes (yellow) and anthocyanins (reds and pinks). It is the mix of them, as influenced by the weather, that determines depth of colour we get each year:
In addition to this, a warm dry 'Indian summer' is needed so that the leaves work for longer and therefore stay full of these pigments until the reducing hours of daylight and lower night temperatures trigger the colour change. So, if we’re to have another great show of autumn colours this year, let’s hope for some settled weather over the next couple of weeks, followed by some cold nights and dry, bright sunny days.
Depending on your point of view, Autumn either starts on 1 September (meteorological autumn) or on the 23 September (astronomical autumn). The latter is when the Autumnal Equinox takes place and is when day and night are of equal length and when the Sun rises due east and sets due west. Although this means that the dark nights return, it does mark the beginning of the beautiful sunsets over Loch Sunart that we get here at Resipole during the autumn and winter months and also increased chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis.
Most people know that the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west, but they may not realise that this is quite a generalisation. In fact, the Sun only rises due east and only sets due west on two days of the year; the days of the Spring Equinox and the Autumnal Equinox which, for 2021, are March 20 and September 22. To illustrate this, Figures 1 and 2 show the location of the rising and setting sun at the Spring Equinox and Autumnal Equinox, respectively.
Once it has risen due east and set due west at the Autumnal Equinox (Figure 2), the Sun rises and sets a tiny bit further south each day until the Winter Solstice, the day on which it rises as far to the southeast as it ever does and sets as far to the southwest as it ever does (See Figure 4). It then changes direction and begins moving north each day, eventually rising due east and setting due west on the Spring Equinox (Figure 1) before continuing northwards until the Summer Solstice, when it rises as far to the northeast as it ever does and sets as far to the northwest as it ever does (Figure 3).
Once it has risen due east and set due west at the Autumnal Equinox (Figure 2), the Sun rises and sets a tiny bit further south each day until the Winter Solstice, the day on which it rises as far to the southeast as it ever does and sets as far to the southwest as it ever does (See Figure 4). It then changes direction and begins moving north each day, eventually rising due east and setting due west on the Spring Equinox (Figure 1) before continuing northwards until the Summer Solstice, when it rises as far to the northeast as it ever does and sets as far to the northwest as it ever does (Figure 3).
Image 1, at the top of this blog, was taken at Resipole during sunset on the day after the Autumnal Equinox of 2019, with the camera facing southwest down Loch Sunart towards the Isle of Carna and the hills of Morvern. If you look closely, you can see a patch of intense colour behind the wooded hillside on the right-hand side of the image. This was the spot where the sun was setting due west and for me, such a sight is one of the most welcome of the year because it marks the return of spectacular sunsets to this part of the Loch.
With the passing of the autumn months and the movement of the setting sun towards the south, these sunsets become more and more intense. They are something that I’ll never tire of photographing even though I have taken countless photos of them from this spot. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen the same mix of colours twice. Each sunset is different because of the varying position of the sun and the infinite range of possible cloud formations that reflect the light from the sun and produce the kaleidoscope of colours.
The Autumnal Equinox also paves the way for increased chances to see aurora borealis displays. According to NASA, the equinoxes are prime time for Northern Lights, because the geomagnetic activity that causes them is more likely to take place in the spring and autumn than in the summer or winter. In addition, we tend to have more clear nights in spring and autumn so this, combined with more geomagnetic activity, may be the reason why I tend to have captured most of my Northern Light images in September/October and March/April.
Image 2 above was taken 4 days after the Autumnal Equinox of 2019, when I had a client out with me for some night photography tuition. We had spent the first part of the night preparing for and taking photographs of the Milky Way rising above Loch Sunart and while we were doing this a very high Aurora Alert came through on my phone. We quickly packed up our camera gear and headed up to Acharacle and set it up again on the jetty there is on Loch Shiel. It is a perfect spot to look for and photograph the Aurora Borealis because it faces directly towards northern horizon that has only a few distant and low-lying hills on it, meaning that the view north is clear of any obstructions. We had a very productive time there and also at another couple of locations nearby and came away with some great shots of the “Merry Dancers”.
Finally, although the equinox referred to as a day by many people, it is actually the exact moment in time when the tilt of the Earth’s axis and Earth’s orbit around the sun combine in such a way that the axis is inclined neither away from nor toward the sun. For 2021, the Autumnal Equinox will be at 8:21 pm on Wednesday 22 September and the Spring Equinox was at 9:37 am on Saturday 20 March.
Hi, I’m Steven Marshall, a Scottish landscape photographer based at Rockpool House in the heart of the beautiful West Highland Peninsulas of Sunart, Morvern, Moidart, Ardgour and Ardnamurchan. Get in touch for photography tuition, tours and print sales.