Assynt - The Wild Highlands

For almost 8 years I have dreamed of seeing the wild beauty of Assynt in the north-west highlands of Scotland. So when the time came to plan some photography trips this summer there was only one place in my mind. I was going to be wild camping for a week – something I've never done before. I had to figure out where to camp, what to eat, how to power all my equipment and more. All of it made me nervous and doubt that I would be able to last the week. One thing was for sure - this would be my biggest adventure yet!

When I started the mammoth journey up north, I was excited to be heading on a photography trip with a promising forecast for once. After 7 and a half hours I turned off the main road to find a spot to pitch my tent. I found a suitable spot and had my little camp set up by 5 o’clock. It was then that I had my first encounter with a swarm of Sutherland midges – but more on that later.

As soon as I was settled and fed I went to locate a suitable place for photos in time for the sunset. I went to a small beach on Loch Lurgainn just 10 minutes from my camp, looking back up at Stac Pollaidh. It was perfect camping weather - sunny, warm and beautiful. But I was glad to see that some clouds gathering and conditions beginning to look pretty perfect for photos. Within minutes of finding a composition on the beach with the reeds in the foreground I found myself in the most vicious swarm of midges I’ve ever seen in my life. I considered myself to have experienced my fair share of midges on my travels, but I had yet to experience a Sutherland swarm. They started out by looking like the dust in sunbeams, but before long the cloud of beasties were thick and beginning to cause problems. They began crawling all over the front of my lens and filters and I could see them in my photos. I made the mistake of using my cloth to try and brush them off. All that did was smudge them all over my lens. I had to develop a technique of simultaneously blowing them off my camera while I made an exposure, whilst trying to avoid getting in the way of my own picture. I was now worried that they would be crawling inside my camera somehow… When they became unbearable I would run back and forth along the beach trying to avoid them, and once they caught up I would rush back to my camera, try to take a photo and retreat again. The midges were now all I could think about. I was annoyed at myself for not enjoying and appreciating what was turning out to be a truly amazing sunset. I hoped that I was doing enough to capture the best photo possible.

The initial photos I had been taking were not turning out as special as I’d hoped, but I knew from my research that this image would be at its best just after sunset. To my relief, that was exactly the case. Shortly after the sun had disappeared, the sky lit up deep red. When it got dark I ran back to the car – quickly – feeling satisfied that my suffering had not gone unrewarded. I spent the rest of the evening taking cover in the car whilst polishing dead midges off my filters… I hoped desperately that the images hadn't been ruined.

The next morning I drove 2 minutes along the road to the end of the loch where I was camping. I dozed in the car as I kept an eye on the sky in my mirror. The sky was a blank canvas of blue – the kind of sky you dream of waking up to on a camping trip, and the kind of sky I dread to see when I’m out for photos. As I feared, conditions were just too boring for photos. I went back to camp for a nap and some breakfast. I sat in the sunshine, admiring the view, picking midges out my tea.

I spent the afternoon climbing up Stac Pollaidh in the scorching heat to scout out a sunrise shot of Suilven before going out Achnahaird Baywhere I went back to for the for the sunset. As it had been throughout the day, the sky remained clear blue and the sunset ended up lacking some of the colour and atmosphere I had hoped for. I started worrying as I knew the forecast was the same for the rest of the week.

I went to bed that night a little unsatisfied with what I’ve managed to capture that day, desperate for a more fortunate morning - a sunrise up Stac Pollaidh.

At 3am I I started trudging up the hill, armed with just my head torch. I made it to the top by 4:40am in plenty of time to see sunrise. I was excited to see an orange glow beginning to form behind the shapes of Suilven and Cul Mor, but again disappointed to see a lack of cloud to give me a bit of interest in the sky. I already knew I would be back up again the next day.

I took a moment to rest and try to take in the scene before me. When I began to set up my camera I had to take special care over erecting my tripod as I knew I’d need to stitch together a panorama. When the sun rose over Cul Mor I spent an hour or so wandering around the summit taking photos of the amazing views and rock formations that made up the summit of Stac Pollaidh.

The rest of the day I spent going further north to find Stoer lighthouse before trying for another sunset at Achnahaird. Unfortunately, the sun was lost early on in the evening in cloud that hung off the coast and I didn't even take any photos at all. What made it worth while was that I was able to watch a small pod of dolphins in the distance. I turned in early for the night in preparation for another early morning hike up Stac Pollaidh.

Once again I donned my head torch and camera bag and hoped for a spectacular sunrise when I reached the top. This time a few small strips of cloud broke up in the north and things looked more promising. I spent another couple of hours on the summit and the shots turned out far better. But it still wasn’t the shot I’d dreamed of.

That day I slept till almost 12. I guess the early mornings, fresh air and exercise were taking their toll. After a pit stop in Ullapool to restock  some essential supplies I drove back up to Stoer. When I got there the sun in behind the cloud but I could see that it would emerge again before it set. I knew this one would be worth sticking around for!

The sun did eventually break out of the cloud for a brief while and lit up the cliffs reaching down to the sea. Even though there was some great light and I knew I was getting some good shots, I felt ready to come home. This week was always going to be an experiment and I didn't know how long I would last in a tent by myself.

A third morning up Stac Pollaidh proved to be the toughest yet. It took a lot longer to reach the top and once I got there I could see that the cloud which had been forecast was no where to be seen. The wind had really picked up and I was freezing standing around on the top of the mountain. I gave up early and walked back down. Even the walk down was exhausting.

It was now my last day and I was unsure where I wanted to shoot. The wind felt like gale force now and I though that Stoer and Achnahaird would look great with some huge crashing waves. In the meantime I went to find a waterfall that I’d read about in my research. Conditions were perfect for shooting waterfalls. It was overcast and dull enough to get a slow shutter speed to capture the movement of the water.

In the evening it rained and I decided to get an early night before the long journey home. It was a rough night. The wind was strong and I barely slept. My alarm was set to get my up for a last potential sunrise but it was still raining and blowing a gale - I made bravely elected to stay in bed. Fortunately the wind had died down and I was able to pack up the tent with relative ease.

I left my camping spot at half 9 that morning and arrived home at 4 o’clock that afternoon. I went for a shower.

It was an memorable week. I survived. I enjoyed it. I can’t honestly say I got all the shots I wanted, or that I was happy with every one I’d been able to take. By as my girlfriend wisely pointed out – this certainly won't be the last time I explore the wilds of the Highlands.

I met a man from Keswick on my first climb up Stac Pollaidh who managed to unwittingly sum up my summer perfectly. He said, “Keswick (where I visited at the beginning of my summer) is very ‘pretty pretty’ but this is a wild kind of beauty”

I think that perfectly describes the experiences I’ve had over the past few months, but I still haven’t decided which I prefer.

Into the Wild, Ardnamurchan

I’ve been longing for a trip back up the west coast of Scotland for a while now. So when the opportunity arose to get away for a few nights camping, it was too good to resist! My girlfriend and I set off on the very familiar A82; bound for the west coast.

Ardnamurchan is a wild and beautiful peninsula in Lochaber with remote and mainly untouched beaches. It’s a long and arduous drive along 40 miles of single track road to enjoy such tranquillity, but once you’re there you are sure to be rewarded.

As this was a spur of the moment trip I knew of only two shots I wanted to try and capture. The first of which was the view over Sanna Bay with it’s stunning white beaches and tropical blue waters reaching out to the Small Isles of Rum, Eigg and Muck.

I have to admit; the 160 miles and 6 hours it took us to get there had really taken it out of me. Lugging all the camping stuff along the beach, only to fail to get the barbecue lit didn’t help. But what really tipped me over the edge was that after all that, tired, hungry and sweaty; I made the mad dash up the hill to the spot I had found when we first arrived only to miss the sunset by about 30 seconds.

Needless to say, it was a low moment for me. Especially as I’ve always tried to work with the belief that preparation prevents poor performance. I sat there, moping, in the knowledge that the forecast had told me that night was to be my best chance to get a decent picture of the beach. I trudged back down the hill towards the beach, feeling sorry for myself, to find my girlfriend had managed to get the campfire going. I thought back to one of the lessons from my last BLOG and did my best to clear my mind and appreciate the moment and idyllic setting.

At 5 o’clock the next morning I woke up grateful for the calm - and for the most part - dry night in the tent. I planned to poke my head out of the tent to inspect the sky and assess whether or not it was worth dragging myself out of bed and back to the spot above Sanna; but the moment I opened my eyes I could see a glow through the window of the tent beginning to appear on the horizon. I instantly got dressed, gathered my things and headed out - I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. 

Above the bay I huddled into my jacket to stay warm and try to defend myself from the midges. I was contemplating the pros and cons of the wind picking up and keeping the midges at bay. Still haunted by my failings the night before, I was engrossed in my map, trying to identify all the places I could see; wondering if that really could be Knoydart in the distance.

Marching circles around my tripod, I felt like a sentry watching over the bay. It was a faint shaft of light over Rum that sprung me into action. It was only then that I noticed all midges on my lens!

The outline of Muck was picked out against the silhouette of Rum as light creeped its way towards me. Behind me, the village of Portuairk fast began to glow, coming to life in the light of day. I started to get excited as light reached the tips of the dunes on the beach. Beautiful fluffy clouds were being blown in from the sea. I knew that I was watching the beginning of something special. 

The light never quite found its way onto the beach, but as the colour faded and the sun was lost behind some clouds, I was able to saunter back down the hill, happy in the knowledge that I had been able to capture something ten times more special than I had missed the night before. 

Happily, as I knew the other shot I wanted to get was just a mile or so along the coast, we were able to spend all morning, and part of the afternoon, lazing around on the beach, enjoying the sun, the view, the colour of the sea, and yet, despite only being connected to the mainland by a windy single track road, we didn’t actually feel like we were in one of the most remote parts of the country.

The lighthouse at Ardnamurchan marks the most westerly point of the British Isles mainland. We spent the latter part of the afternoon exploring the lighthouse and befriending the resident goats. But once it was time to set up for the sunset, I found a spot on a group of rocks down by the water level, with waves swirling around to fill in the foreground to complete my picture. 

It was a beautiful afternoon; it was warm, the sky was blue, barely a cloud above me - sounds perfect. But I was already worried that it would end up being a flat colourless evening, lacking any drama or interest. I knew I was going to be in for a long wait – two and a half hour’s to be exact. I passed the time doing what I normally do when I’m waiting with my camera. I got my map out to try and identify the island I was staring at off the west coast. (It was coll)

I had a horrible feeling that the sun might disappear into the haze hanging over the horizon – the same thing that caught me out on the first night. Fortunately I could see that the cloud was breaking up so I decided to persevere in the hope that I might get a few colourful rays of sun right at the last minute.

When the sun sank into the hazy murk to the west I decided I had exhausted all the possibilities at my current position. The problem was that I was still shooting into the sun. None of the colour that I could see was being caught by my camera. The rocks in my foreground were a deep black, and from my angle I was unable to see the light catching the lighthouse.

I packed up my gear and set off further round the bay. It was hard going. The coast was made up completely of huge jaggy boulders. It took a long time to find the sort of composition I was looking for – an angle looking back towards the mainland to enable me to catch the colour of the sunset. By the time I found the shot I was looking for, I had to rush to get set up so as not to miss another sunset!

Just as I took my first exposure the sun reached a gap in the cloud. Light hit the rocks in my foreground and there was colour in the sky. I was able to take only half a dozen pictures before the sun completely disappeared.

After navigating the treacherous coastline of boulders and bogs back to the car, I arrived in a disgusting sweaty mess. It was definitely time to go back to the tent and go to sleep.

I was pleased with each of the pictures I’d taken so far, but I have no idea when I’ll next be able to go all the way to Ardnamurchan again. So on the last morning of our trip I went back to Sanna.

The cloud cover was heavier than the day before, but nevertheless I went up the hill and began the wait for the sunrise. The clouds were covering Rum and Eigg in the distance, but I was rewarded for my early morning efforts with some spectacular colour in the sky.

After a short snooze when I returned to the tent we got up and began packing away the tent. Thankfully we were able to pack everything into the car before the rain started. And when the rain started it was torrential. The whole of the journey home it poured. There’s at least something satisfying about ending a trip in the rain instead of leaving just when things are improving.