A Year of Recovery
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.
Scotland’s 65th Christmas
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.
Once in a Blue Moon
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!!
My Mind Medicine
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.
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!
Hope of Autumn Colours
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.
Preserving A Lost Scene
For me, one of the magical things about photography is its ability to capture scenes and moments in the present for the viewers of the future, before they are lost forever, just like the scene in this photo I took in August 2019 of an old sailing boat high up on the rocks at Samalaman Bay near Glenuig.
I am so fortunate to be able to live where I do. This special corner of Scotland is a photographer’s paradise with its diverse landscape of mountains, moorland and woodland and an amazing coastline that is home to beautiful white sand beaches and dramatic rocky shorelines. It is a place that has something to offer the photographer in all seasons and in the summer months, the northern coastline of Moidart and Ardnamurchan is the place to go with the camera. In these months, the late evening sun sets in the northwest and brings beautiful sunsets to this part of the West Highland Peninsulas.
r a few years, an old sailing boat had sat perched high up on a huge, rounded rock on the southern edge of the bay, in a position such that it combined with the edges of the bay and the distant silhouette of the Small Isles to create the perfect composition. I visited the bay on a perfectly still August evening in 2019 when a high spring tide coincided with sunset. Even with almost 5 metres of tide, this old sailboat was high enough up on the rocks to remain steadfast in its position. After taking in the scene for a while, I set up my camera on its tripod, set the exposure time to 90 seconds, pressed the shutter button to capture and freeze 1½ minutes of the most magical west coast sunset to create the image at the top of this blog titled “On the Rocks I”.
When I now visit this spot in Samalaman Bay, it certainly feels that something is missing. That old boat sure was essential to the picture-perfect scene that I captured and although I was saddened at its departure, I seek great comfort in knowing that I did manage to capture it before it was gone forever. To me, this ability to capture the present for the viewers of the future is the power of photography and is summed up by this quote by Karl Lagerfeld:
“What I like about photographs is that they capture a moment that’s gone forever, impossible to reproduce.”
Shining in the Night
Once rare noctilucent, or “night-shining” clouds are becoming a more common feature of our summer night sky and the increased presence of these ghostly whispers of light shimmering high up in the Earth’s atmosphere is thought to be as a result of human-caused climate change. Although this is certainly cause for concern, the sight of them is quite mesmerising and if you are a night owl, it is a sight that is not too difficult to photograph.
In the 8 or so weeks either side of the Summer Solstice, which this year was on 21 June, the days are long and the nights are short. In fact, the sun gets to no more than 10-15 degrees below the horizon and this makes it a lean period for both aurora chasers and stargazers because astronomical, or full darkness does not occur at any point during the night. The resulting all-night twilight means that it is simply too light to see the “Merry Dancers” and all but the brightest stars.
However, all is not lost because what you can see are noctilucent, or “night-shining” clouds. They become visible in the north to north-west sky as darkness falls and just as the brightest stars become visible. They have the appearance of ghostly whispers of light shimmering in the all-night twilight and are usually set against a pearly-blue sky.
These night-shining clouds are the highest clouds in Earth's atmosphere. They form in the middle atmosphere, or mesosphere, roughly 80 kilometres (50 miles) above Earth's surface. They are thought to be made of ice crystals that form on fine dust particles from meteors and volcanic activity. These ice coated dust particles then reflect the light that the sun projects high up into the sky, when it is between 6 to 16 degrees below the horizon, to create an illuminated cloudy veil in the northern sky at latitudes between ±50° and ±70°.
They are first known to have been observed in 1885, two years after the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, but it remains unclear as to whether their appearance had anything to do with the volcanic eruption or whether their discovery was due to more people observing the spectacular sunsets caused by the volcanic debris in the atmosphere.
This does indeed give me cause for concern, but nevertheless, the sight of these shimmering and wispy clouds illuminating the upper reaches of our summer night sky is quite mesmerising. I was fortunate enough to both see and photograph them on a mid-July night at Castle Tioram when it barely got dark. They seemed to not only illuminate the sky but also the landscape around me. There is still time to see them so, if you are outside after midnight on a clear night, look north and you may be able to pick them out.
If you have a modern digital camera fitted with a wide-angle lens which you can mount on a tripod, you can try taking some photographs of them yourself. Put the camera on the manual setting, open up the aperture to at least f4, set your ISO 800 and take a few test shots at exposures of several seconds until you find the exposure time that works. You could even try photographing them with your smart phone if it has a “Night Mode” setting.
The Changing Small Isles
Views of the Small Isles of Muck, Eigg, Rùm and Canna are ever-changing as you make the journey from east to west along the coast of Moidart and north Ardnamurchan and past its spectacular cliffs, dramatic rocky shores and beautiful white sand beaches. While the dramatic peaks of Rùm’s Cuillin Mountain range are ever present, the distinctive profile of Eigg and its highest hill, An Sgurr, is a prominent feature at first, but it gradually disappears from view to be replaced by the more diminutive profile of Muck as you reach the journey’s end…….
Scotland has 40 National Scenic Areas which cover 13% of its land mass and they earn this designation because their outstanding scenery makes them the country’s finest Landscapes. One of these areas is Morar, Moidart and Ardnamurchan here on Scotland’s north-west coast. It is home to a coastline of spectacular cliffs, dramatic rocky shores and beautiful white sand beaches. Added to all of this are breath-taking views of the Small Isles of Muck, Eigg, Rùm and Canna, which sit a few miles west out in the Sound of Arisaig and just south of the Isle of Skye.
As you travel from Moidart in the east, to Ardnamurchan in the west, your perspective of the Small Isles changes significantly, with both them and features on them coming into view and disappearing again after only a few miles. This everchanging view makes photographing both them and this coastline an absolute joy and now that the evening sun is in the north-west, my plan for the coming weeks is to photograph to do just that. My aim is to capture this spectacular coastline while it is bathed in warm sunlight at the end of our long summer days. In the meantime, however, I thought I would describe this somewhat special journey and share some of the images that I already have.
On reaching Glenuig, you can turn off the main road, drive past the Glenuig Inn and continue westward for about a mile and a half to reach the road end. From there, a short walk takes you to Smirisary, an isolated and roadless crofting village that sits between a rocky foreshore and a steep hillside about two miles to the west of Glenuig. As you walk the final half mile to the village, your view of the sea is obstructed by a small hill, but as you get to the top of it, the view dramatically opens up to reveal islands that you feel you can almost touch (Image 3).
I like to visit Smirisary in mid to late summer. It is a great place to capture Muck, Eigg and Rùm sitting in flat calm seas while they are silhouetted against the colourful skies that are a feature of the sunsets there at that time of year. From there, you get a closer view of the distinctive shape of An Sgurr and the dramatic peaks of the Rùm and its Cuillin mountain range, which sits behind Eigg and simply adds to the magic you are witnessing (Image 4).
If you want to get a view of the Small Isles on this part of your journey, you need to head out to the small but beautiful sandy beach at Ardtoe where a short walk out to the headland on its western side brings the southern end of Eigg and An Sgurr back into view. From there, you also get a glimpse of Rùm because the high peaks of the Rùm Cuillin are just visible above the land that shelters the beach from the open sea (Image 1 and Image 7).
While at Ardtoe and if you don’t mind a walk over uneven and often boggy ground, you can make your way out to the end of Rubha Luinngeanach where you get a more open view of Eigg with Rùm behind it. It was at this spot where I witnessed what I think is the most spectacular sunset I have ever seen over the Small Isles (Image 8). I was out there on a rather cloudy July evening, so my hopes of getting a good image were not high. Suddenly the clouds beyond the skerry of Sgeir an Eidigh parted and allowed the most intense of crepuscular rays to shine down on the Isle of Eigg and silhouetted it against the golden backdrop that they had created. It is a moment that is forever etched on my memory.
On leaving Ardtoe to head back towards Acharacle, you’ll find that a slight diversion down the road towards Arivegaig rewards you with a fine view out through the entrance of Kentra Bay to Eigg, where An Sgurr sits directly behind the gap between the land and the sea (Image 9).
The road to Arivegaig is also a spot where you can catch a full moon setting behind the Rùm Cuillin on a clear winter morning (Image 10).
The next part of the journey west takes you along the side of Loch Sunart and it is a good few miles before you see the Small Isles again because the road now takes you along the southern coast of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula. It is not until you pass Camas nan Geall and follow the road north around the side of Ben Hiant to reach Doire Daraich before they come back into view again (Image 11).
Given how far west you have travelled to reach there, the perspective is now very different because Eigg now sits to the right of Rùm, while the drive down to Kilmory brings the Muck back into view as reach the phone box just before the village (Image 12).
It is from the hills above Portuairk from where I think you get the most dramatic view of Rùm and the magnificent peaks of its Cuillin mountain range. It is simply majestic, sitting there beyond Sanna Bay and the significantly more diminutive Isle of Muck (Image 15).
While there, it is well worth taking the walk from Portuairk to the beautiful white sand beach at Sanna because, as you climb over the hill that separates the two, another magnificent view of the Small Isles reveals itself (Image 16). It is from there that you can see all the Small Isles because the fourth and, up until now, elusive Isle of Canna reveals itself. If you stop there for a little whole and look north over the beach you can just make it out, sitting well out the west of the Isle of Rùm, which has Eigg to its east and Muck to its south.
Our journey from east to west along this beautiful Moidart and Ardnamurchan coastline ends at Ardnamurchan Point. It is as far west as you can go on the British Mainland and is home to the iconic Ardnamurchan Lighthouse which so many visitors head for when they visit the West Highland Peninsulas.
While you do get a clear view of the Small Isles from there, they do not readily sit in any photographic composition that features the lighthouse because the camera tends to point in a direction looking away from them or is at an angle where the islands are hidden by the lighthouse itself.
It takes a walk out on to the rocks of Dubh Rubha Mor at low tide before you can point the camera north, across the bay of Briaghlann, and capture both the lighthouse and the now familiar profile of Rùm and Muck behind it and it seems fitting that I end this journey with an image of the sun setting on this very scene (Image 17).
A Winter Like I Remember
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.
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.