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.”
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.
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).
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.