We’re coming to the end of this winter. One during which we had the coldest January since 2010. One of snow and of cold and clear weather and one that has been productive from a photographic perspective. See some of the images I’ve captured and find out a bit about the story behind them….
How Do You Cope with all the Snow?
We are fast approaching the start of Meteorological Spring (March, April and May) and also the end of my fifth winter since moving to the Peninsulas. There is a noticeable difference in the hours of daylight as the nights shorten and it will not be long before the landscape begins to spring back into life. I find myself thinking back on the winter months of December, January and February; and also a question I’m often asked by people visiting – “How do you cope with all the snow in winter?”
Why this question gets asked always intrigues me. It seems to always happen when standing on the decking outside my studio looking at Loch Sunart and all the hills that surround it. Could it be because this remote and rugged landscape looks foreboding? Could it be because we are well north of where most people live? Who knows? Well, whatever it is, my answer is always the same - “It’s never a problem here as we don’t get that much snow and when we do get it, it is usually only high up on the hills. In fact, if the snow does fall down here at sea level, it only lasts a day or two at the very most and I guess that being on a bit of land that sticks out into the sea on the west coast means that the Gulf Stream keeps the temperatures up”.
This is indeed true and it is complete contrast to the snowy winters I experienced when growing up on the east side of Scotland when, in the days without central heating, thick frost would form on the inside of the windows and we’d need to scrape a little hole in it to reveal what was outside. I do miss “proper” winters like that, but looking back over the last few months, it certainly feels as if we’ve had one this time. In fact, we’ve just had our coldest January since 2010, with the average temperature recording in Scotland being 0.6°C while my weather station here at Resipole recorded an average of 2.9°C. The strong northerly air flow that brought the low temperatures also brought substantial sunshine with it and plenty of cold, crisp and clear days on which I just had to get out with the camera.
First Snow and Winter Inspiration
Looking back through my images from the last few months reminded me that this “proper” winter weather was not just limited to January. Indeed, we saw our first snow at the end of November while having a staycation at Kingairloch Estate over on the east side of the Peninsulas. We woke up on a morning towards the end of our week away to see snow on the distant high peaks of Glencoe and the Mamores. This prompted a drive up the shore of Loch Linnhe to get a closer look.
The snow-capped mountains looked lovely under the clear blue sky and we just had to stop at Lochan Doire a' Bhraghaid to take in the view. From there you get a fantastic view of Ben Nevis because you can see it through a gap in the hills above Inversanda. While there, I took this shot of the snow-covered slopes of Ben Nevis, some 17 miles to the north and made a mental note to myself to come back at some point and capture it when it had the first light of a winter day on it.
Searching for Some Light
This first of the winter snow on the hills lasted for just over a week, but before it disappeared, I headed to West Ardnamurchan and up to a spot high on the slopes of Beinn Bhuidhe above Glenmore. It’s a great place to capture panoramic views of Loch Sunart or use a long lens to not only pick out elements of the high hills of Morvern on the other side of Loch Sunart, but also of Loch Teacuis, which cuts its way southwards into them.
Unfortunately, I always seem to time my visits to the slopes of Beinn Bhuidhe on days when the light does not want to do what I need it to do. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve left Resipole under promising looking skies only to arrive at my spot and find thick cloud and no light on the landscape. I thought that this time was going to be another like that because thick cloud greeted me on my arrival.
As I followed the path up to Beinn Bhuidhe, I kept looking at the cloud filled sky in the hope that it would clear a little and let through some light, but it didn’t. Undeterred, I set up at my chosen spot and sat for about an hour, sheltering as best I could from the biting easterly wind, while looking through the long-lens I’d fitted to the camera in search of some compositions that might work if the light did appear. I had almost given up hope, but in the few minutes before the sun was due to dip below the hills to the south-west, a small gap appeared to let a patch of light fall on the snow-capped peak of Beinn Iadain, one of the high peaks of Morvern. The resulting image shows the peak of Ben Iadain sporting a crown of golden light with the north facing slopes of Beinn Ghormaig, the Isle Carna and the Isle of Risga sitting in front of it.
An Afternoon of Serendipity
Thankfully, not all my shots are so hard won and occasionally good fortune smiles on me. In early December, a few weeks after my time on Beinn Bhuidhe, I had a batch of Christmas orders to take to the Post Office in Acharacle and while packing them all into the car, I could not help but notice some hints of colour appearing in the sky to the west. It looked promising, so I decided to take my camera gear with me just in case. I sure wasn’t disappointed with what unfolded.
As I drove down into the village, I could see the mist beginning to form in the air above Loch Shiel, so instead of going straight to the Post Office, I took the short detour down to the jetty in village to check out the conditions on the loch. As I stood on the jetty, I watched the pinks and purples of a winter sunset intensify while mist rolled down the loch and I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of calm, as well as whole load of good fortune about my decision to take my camera gear with me.
I was there for well over an hour, photographing scenes in different directions and under different light conditions before deciding that I really needed to get to the Post Office before it closed. Both jobs done. Parcels posted and a number of “keepers” captured including this panoramic image of the sunset colours at their peak.
A Plan Comes Together
Finding myself in January and in a new year, my mind was still set on capturing the shot of the first light of the day on the snow covered peak of Ben Nevis. The shot that I had thought of when I saw the first snow of this winter on the hills back in November.
With clouds usually covering its summit for nearly 80% of the winter months, photographing Ben Nevis sure turned out to be a bit of a wating game. There needed to be a clear morning during a spell of the weather cold enough to put snow on the Ben and freeze the surface of Lochan Doire a' Bhraghaid. Finally, at the start of the second week in January, the conditions seemed very promising and I headed up into the hills above Inversanda for sunrise in the hope that I’d get the shot I was looking for.
Setting up in the dark, I couldn’t see if Ben Nevis was clear of cloud, but the moon and stars above my head suggested that it could be. As I waited for the first light of what was a very cold January morning to appear, the mountain began to emerge from the darkness and it looked as if my luck was in. Eventually, the first light of the day shone on its south facing upper slopes and there was just enough cloud to enhance the pink of the sunrise which, even at a distance of 17 miles, was reflected back onto the frozen surface of the lochan. I love it when a plan comes together.
Time for a Plan B
The last week in January brought a few days of very heavy snowfall which, very unusually left a couple of inches of the white stuff all the way down to the seashore. Equally unusual were day and night-time temperatures so low that the snow at sea level did not disappear. As I watched successive tides wash fresh falls of snow from the loch shore, I thought that an image of snow lying on a sandy beach all the way down to the water would be worth capturing and that the beach at Ardtoe would be a great place to do it.
With this in mind, I awoke early on a morning after heavy overnight snow had been forecast. On opening the curtains to a freshly snow-covered landscape, I decided to head out to Ardtoe. With much anticipation, I left the house but as I drove closer and closer to my destination the clear skies became more and more obscured by mist. This is not unusual because the low ground around Loch Shiel often cradles mist on cold and still winter mornings. So undeterred, I continued my journey to the beach as experience suggested that it would be clear there. However, it was not to be and I was greeted by a snow-covered beach shrouded in thick mist. The more I waited for the mist to clear, the thicker and thicker it seemed to become, so I eventually decided to head home.
On the drive back through a beautiful snow-covered landscape, I thought that the conditions were too good to submit to failure and began racking my brains to figure out a place where a combination of misty conditions and fresh snow fall could work together. I eventually decided to take a small detour to the old bridge over the River Shiel at Blain to see what it was like there. When I arrived, I was not disappointed. The scene was stunning with all the trees covered in the freshly fallen snow and some beautiful light fighting its way through the mist behind the bridge. After an extremely productive half hour, I left with a few images, including this one of the bridge, with the river beneath it coloured by golden light fighting to break through the mist behind it. Thank heavens for a little local knowledge and for figuring out a Plan B.
A Winter I Will Remember
It’s been a winter just like the ones I remember from my childhood. I’ll remember it not only for its snow and its cold, clear days but also for it being a winter that has given me an extremely productive time for my photography. The images I’ve included in this blog are just a small sample of those that I’ve captured and if you’d like to see more, you can find the in the Recent Images Gallery on this website. I hope you enjoy them.
It's February and the winter constellations of Orion, Taurus, Auriga and Gemini continue to fill our night sky as they make their annual journey westward. During the first part of the night, you can see them in the south and, using Orion’s belt as a guide, you can easily find your way around them. Another good signpost or guide is the Winter Circle asterism, a giant hexagon linking the bright stars Capella, Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, Procyon, Pollux, and Castor.
This month, the sun sets around 5:20 pm and the stars and the constellations start to become visible from about 7:20 pm onwards. In addition, the night sky for this month is very similar to last month’s with Orion (the Hunter) Taurus (the Bull) and Auriga (the Charioteer) filling much of it. As darkness falls, the most obvious constellation you’ll see is Orion, which can easily be found by spotting the line of three bright stars (Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka) which make up Orion’s Belt. You’ll see it appear not long after dark if you look in the sky to the south along with the quadrilateral of other stars that surround it to make up Orion’s torso and legs. His shoulders are formed by Bellatrix to the right and the far brighter, blood-red Betelgeuse to the left. The slightly brighter, blue-white Rigel is Orion’s right foot, while the fainter Saiph is his left foot.
If you follow the line of Orion’s belt heading left and slightly down, you will find Sirius the brightest star in the constellation of Canis Major (the Greater Dog), the larger or Orion’s two hunting dogs which is depicted as chasing Lepus, the Hare – a faint constellation directly below Orion. Sirius is also the brightest star in the night sky and appears very low down at our northern latitude. This can cause it to twinkle quite strongly, especially on a clear frosty night.
Orion other dog, Canis Minor or the Lesser Dog, can be found directly to his left and its main star is Procyon, the 8th brightest star in the sky. Above Procyon are two stars, Castor and Pollux, which mark the heads of the Twins, Gemini. The bodies of the Twins are the two lines of stars which extend towards Orion.
Another thing you can see in the southern sky is the Winter Circle, a pattern of stars that is not a constellation. It’s made up of a lot of separate stars, in different constellations, so it’s what is called an asterism. It doesn’t form a perfect circle, but instead a hexagon that you can find if you start at Capella and move clockwise to Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, Procyon, Pollux, and Castor. In addition to the Winter Circle, Orion’s bright star Betelgeuse forms an equilateral triangle with the stars Sirius and Procyon. This what is called the Winter Triangle.
If you go back to Orion’s belt and look carefully about half way down between it and the two stars that mark the Hunter’s left and right feet, you should be able to see a bright patch. This is the Orion Nebula, one of the brightest nebulae, or clouds of gas from which stars are born in the sky. One of many in our Milky Way galaxy, it lies roughly 1,300 light-years from Earth and is some 30 to 40 light-years in diameter. Look at it with binoculars or a telescope and you should see swirls of gas, though the darker and clearer the sky you have, the better. In it, you should also be able to pick out The Trapezium Cluster, which is made up of four bright stars that are only a million or so years old, babies on the scale of star lifetimes.
Looking north, the thing to bear in mind is that the constellations you see do not change from month to month, it is only their orientation that changes. Look for the seven stars of the Plough, up in the north-east, and the W-shape of Cassiopeia, high up in the north-west at this time of year. The Plough is known as the Big Dipper in North America. Use its two right-hand stars to point towards the Pole Star, Polaris, which is always in the same position in the sky. Once you’ve found it, you can use it to get your bearings on any night, though all the other northern constellations wheel around it anticlockwise.
Polaris is a second-magnitude star, about the same as the stars in the Plough or Cassiopeia, so don’t expect anything particularly bright. It’s just by chance that this millennium it happens to be very close to the pole of the sky, but there is a slow movement of the sky over the centuries that shifts the position of the stars, and 1000 years ago it wasn’t as close as it is now.
As Capella is pretty much overhead you will also see it when you are looking north. It is the sixth-brightest star in the night sky, and the third-brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere after Arcturus and Vega. You’ll find Arcturus over in the North-East. It is the brightest star in the constellation of Boötes (the Herdsman), the fourth-brightest in the night sky, and the brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere. You’ll find Vega low down on the northern horizon. It is the brightest star on the constellation of Lyra (the Lyre), the fifth-brightest in the night sky, and the second-brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere.
The first quarter moon is on 19 February when it will by lying to the left of Mars, the right of Aldebaran and below the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) star cluster. The night before, on 18 February, it will by lying below and very close to Mars.
You’ll see this month’s full moon on 27 February. It is named the Snow Moon after the snowy weather typically found in North America in this month and some North American tribes named it the Hunger Moon due to the scarce food sources during mid-winter, while other names are Storm Moon and Chaste Moon, but the last name is more common for the March Full Moon.
Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury and Venus have all now disappeared from view, leaving the only one of the five bright planets, Mars, visible to us this month. It continues to move further and further away for us, becoming less bright as it does so, however it is still bright enough for us to make out its reddish glow.
If you have a telescope, you may be able to spot Neptune and Uranus, our two outermost planets, lying to the lower right of Mars. Neptune sets at around 7:30pm while the slightly brighter Uranus sinks below the horizon around midnight.
We are now in a quiet period for meteor showers, until the Lyrid meteor becomes active on 16 April. It will peak on the night of 21-22 April, the night after a first quarter Moon. This means that the moon will be quite bright, so the best time to try and spot the Lyrids will be in hour or two between moonset and dawn.
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.