A three week camper van expedition to the Scottish Highlands & Islands in search of landscape perfection – oh and a little steam!
A long planned trip to Scotland in spring lighting conditions when the mountain regions still have their winter feel about them but the days are longer and the weather often a little more comfortable. The plan was made even better when a good client of mine requested a 1-2-1 workshop session on Skye, which was agreed for mid April, fitting in nicely with our planned trip north. My wife, Jane, joins me on these long trips and in between enjoying the scenery caters for my needs very well – I could not wish for better companionship. We decided to visit the outer Hebridean islands of Lewis and Harris and then return across to Skye to meet David for the workshop before finishing off with some attempts on the annual Great Britain steam special as it made its way around Scotland.
My gear is a Canon 5D Mk11 together with Canon 24-105mm L lens and Sigma 17-35mm lens, used with a Lee filter kit and Manfrotto Carbon Fibre tripod to keep the weight down.
Elgol sunset, Isle of Skye. Canon EOS 5D Mk11 with Sigma 17-35mm lens. Lee ND6 and 0.9 ND Grad filters used. 30 secs @f25.
Using our camper van we set off on April 4th and through some pretty appalling weather conditions around the midlands but the forecast was indicating better conditions further north. It did indeed brighten up as we progressed north along the M6 and arrival in Keswick was to a very pleasant, if chilly, afternoon.
First photo location was Castle Rig Stone Circle with some satisfactory images of the circle with both Helvellyn and Blencathra as backdrops in very nice light. My Lee Polariser being employed on these shots to good effect as the sun was at 900 to the sun. We then headed down to the lakeside at Keswick for some shots of the boats on Derwentwater as the sun set over the nearby mountains. Nice warm evening light being experienced with snow on the background mountains.
Day 2 (Thurs)
Early alarm to check that the skies were still clear – perhaps a little too clear really. We moved from our overnight camp spot to walk out onto the wooden walkways at the western end of Derwentwater at Great Bay. A little disappointed at first by the low water levels in the lake causing large areas of uninteresting mud to fill the foreground of several compositions I looked at. I then settled for an area where I could get close to the water’s edge and this paid dividends with a nice image resulting using my Lee Polariser and 0.9 ND grad. I waited for the sun to finally appear over the nearby Ashness Fell and obtained a few more exposures before heading back to the van for breakfast and wash & brush up.
- Derwentwater at dawn before the sun rises over the nearby Ashness fell to illuminate the foreground. Canon EOS 5D Mk11 with Canon 24-105mm lens. Lee Polariser and ND Grad, Tripod and cable release. 0.4secs @ f13.
A quick visit to an outdoor outlet in Keswick and we set off for Scotland up the M6 & M74. Leaving the very pleasant sunny conditions seemed rather odd, knowing that the weather was not so good further north!
A break at Aviemore for a look around and a decent break in the long arduous journey. We later continued past Inverness and out to Glen Torridon for a second overnight stop.
No late images being possible this evening due to low cloud & drizzle and a very tired photographer!
Day 3 (Fri)
Alarm sounds at 06.00hrs – low cloud and raining so back to sleep! A later start saw us head out of Glen Torridon and around the Wester Ross coast visiting a number of locations on the way including Gruinard Bay, where some shots were attempted when short brighter spells started to appear. We paused again adjacent to the path to Loch a Bhraoin when another burst of sunlight appeared – a couple of images attempted here but not that successful with the sun making only brief appearances. We then arrived in Ullapool to sample fish & chips before heading off to Loch Lurgainn and views of Stac Pollaidh in wonderful evening light with some very pleasant images being made and a beautiful sunset.
Day 4 (Sat)
Ground Hog day! We awoke at our location beside Loch Lurgainn to the accompaniment of rain, wind and very low cloud so after the usual morning rituals & breakfast we headed off to Loch Assynt for something to do – but we could barely see it! We returned to Ullapool and booked onto a campsite for the weekend and enjoyed the rest of my 50th birthday in the town.
Day 5 (Sun)
Further heavy rain and drizzle saw to it that we stayed on our campsite most of the day until the weather looked like relenting a little in late afternoon, so we then headed out to the Inverpolly Forest area. A shot was attempted from Druim Bad a Ghaill towards Stac Pollaidh as the summit briefly flitted in and out of the low cloud cover – I must go back to this location and try again sometime. We then continued along the coastal route to Lochinver and out to Loch Druim Suardalaio for a view across the summit of Suliven which like the Stac ‘ kept briefly appearing from the low clouds. The image made here is I think a keeper, but as the light faded rather quicker than I had hoped this too is one for another time.
Monday was a travelling day as we were booked to cross to Stornoway for a 5 day visit to the Isles of Lewis & Harris. A very warm welcome to the islands was felt as locals gave us tips and advice for our visit. We decided to make our first overnight location New Tolsta – a truly stunning beach location with river outlet and nearby cliffs and views across to the mountains of Sutherland on the Scottish mainland. Sadly the light refused to play ball on this evening and no images were made, instead I opted to wait and see what the morning light brought on day 7.
Day 7 (Tues)
- New Tolsta dunes, Isle of Lewis. Canon EOS 5D Mk11 with Sigma 17-35mm lens, Lee 0.9 ND Grad. 0.6 secs @ f13.
Morning at New Tolsta brought cloudy conditions at first and I had to wait until after 8.30am for the sun to appear, however some quite pleasant images were made of the dunes and the long sandy beach. After this I returned towards the ‘ van but paused a while in the small tidal estuary and this arguably produced the best images of this location as the light became more dramatic with stormy shower clouds developing. After a much delayed departure from here we headed off to Stornoway for a while before heading south to Harris over the dramatic A859 road over the mountains with some stunning views across lochs towards the various peaks. We headed on towards Horgabost and made some images at Seilebost on the way and eventually settled at Sgarasta for the last of the day’s sun and our overnight camping spot above the beach. The images made here in the evening light were stunning – the light just kept coming back after I thought it had finished for the day. Truly breath taking.
Horgabost, Isle of Harris in rather stormy conditions at sunset. Canon EOS 5D Mk11 with Sigma 17-35mm lens. Lee ND0.9 grad, ND6 and Polariser in place. 2.5 secs @ f16.
Day 8 (Weds)
Overall a frustrating day with the light refusing to “play ball” when we required it too. We headed for the mountain region of North Harris beyond Tarbert. Some considerable time was spent waiting for the light and often without anything really worthwhile to show for it. In the afternoon we headed down to Reinigeadal and the so called “Golden Road” along the east coast of Harris to Rodel – a very difficult road to drive the camper along and with virtually no parking spaces along the entire route (!) so you can’t stop and enjoy the views, let alone set up a tripod and camera.
- Seilbost beach, Isle of Harris. Canon EOS 5D Mk11 with Sigam 17-35mm lens. Lee polariser and ND0.9 grad fitted. 1.3 secs @f16.
We arrived back in West Harris in time for the late light at Horgabost & Seilebost where I was at last rewarded with some good light and some great images were obtained, rounding the day off rather well.
Day 9 (Thurs)
Starting the day at sunrise, this is meant to be a working holiday after all, trying to get some shots across the Sound of Taransay towards the mountains, some reasonable images obtained but not what I really desired. We then headed across to Luskentyre and a walk along the beach there taking images from the dunes where the colours were simply stunning. However the bitter cold & strong north wind made our walk a little unpleasant on the way back to the camper. After lunch we headed for the community Co-Op shop at Leverburgh – a thriving enterprise and stocked with just about everything you can imagine! A great insight into the way of life on these islands.
The weather then clouded over through the afternoon as a bank of cloud passed to the west of the islands. This cleared around sunset, but a little too late to do anything really meaningful with, so we called it a day.
Day 10 (Fri)
Up at sunrise again to attempt a shot from Horgabost beach, with the low light streaking across the dune grasses. Due to some intermittent cloud this was only partially successful. After breakfast, we headed across once more to Luskentyre for some shots across the sound’ to the now snow-capped mountains from the Dunes. Later I worked on some shots across the inlet at Luskentyre with white sands and turquoise waters – a signature shot of this part of Harris.
- Luskentyre, Isle of Harris. Canon EOS 5D Mk11 with Sigma 17-35mm lens, Lee Polariser fitted. 1/15th sec @ f16.
The visit to Harris now all but over we headed over to Tarbet for the ferry across to Skye for week two. On arrival we headed for the Quiraing and after preliminary look at the shot for the morning we headed to a sheltered spot for the night just a mile or so away.
Day 11 (Sat)
Another early start and I was in position for the first light on the Quiraing. I could not have wished for better lighting as the sun rose and shone as expected directly onto the mountain sides with glorious light and shadows playing for me like a pictorial tune. A number of images were made over the next 30 minutes or so before cloud built up and covered the sun.
Much of the day was taken up with shopping for fresh food supplies, it has to be done sometime, and with arrival at our cottage for the following week which we were sharing with our 1-2-1 workshop client – David Lane.
The evening was forecast for good light so we headed off for the first workshop session at Elgol – a staggering 1hr 20 mins drive from the cottage. Skye is surprisingly big? At Elgol some excellent images were obtained as the sun set into some stormy clouds and with wintery hail showers crossing the nearby Cuillin mountains – the light show was simply fantastic.
Day 12 (Sun)
Up at 6am for the drive out to Sligachan for planned shots of the Cuillin Mountains from
- Neist Point, Isle of Skye. Canon EOS 5D Mk11 with Sigma 17-35mm lens, Lee ND0.9 Grad filter. 0.3 secs @ f13.
beside the river. On arrival a heavy wintery shower was approaching and we could see a light covering of snow on the mountains to give our shots a real wintery appearance. We walked along the river for a short distance and waited sometime for the light, with just short bursts of sun on the nearby mountains and the rocks in the river bed, some very satisfactory images being obtained again.
This was followed by a return to base for a late breakfast and wash and brush up before setting off on a recee’ for further locations near the Cuillins for another morning later in the week. For the evening we headed out to Neist Point and worked some images of the nearby cliffs in pleasant afternoon light before getting into position for the light to play on the north western side of the headland. Unfortunately the sun was covered by some large dark clouds and we had to wait for an hour and a half for the sun to reappear and play its magic – which lasted for no more than 5 minutes! At times like this that I applaud Jane’s resilience to stick with me when it’s often cold etc. whilst I wait patiently for something to happen.
Day 13 (Mon)
The weather forecast continued to offer hope for more good light so yet again up before sunrise, this time for the drive to the Quiraing where we saw wonderful light on the approach as the sun broke free from some cloud cover, unfortunately we had misjudged how long it would take to travel from our cottage to the location and we missed this show (note to self – get up even earlier!), however all was not lost as we could see that patience would bring rewards as the cloud moved and melted away to reveal some wonderful morning sunshine on the Trotternish ridge once more. Having ‘bagged’ these shots we headed back down the hill to the coast near Staffin for some quick shots of the coastal waterfall at Kilt Rock and then back for another late breakfast. In my view it really is essential on trips like this to go self-catering so that you have the full flexibility to be in position for the light and have breakfast when your work is done – few, if any, B&B’s would be this flexible.
- The Quiraing, Isle of Skye. Canon EOS 5D Mk11 with Canon 24-105mm lens and Lee Polariser fitted. 0.5secs @f13.
Heading out again we revisited Sligachan to work out some more locations for later in the week, whilst also managing to get some quite reasonable shots in the area despite the time of day. We finished the day as “tourists” (actually quite a sanity break) looking around the Glenbrittle and Carbost areas before heading back to base the clouds rolled in as forecast.
Day 14 (Tues)
We almost wanted the forecast to be right so that we could actually get up at a more respectable hour with less rush. It was indeed correct and the forecasted rain crossed the island, and indeed much of the UK, so a day to catch up with some image processing of RAW files etc. The weather cleared during the afternoon allowing us to venture out and pay a second visit to Elgol as the weather looked good for the evening and lead up to
- Elgol sunset, Isle of Skye. Canon EOS 5D Mk11 with Sigma 17-35mm lens. Lee ND6 and 0.9 ND Grad filters used. 30 secs @f25.
sunset. We were not disappointed and a magic lightshow was again played out in front of us at this simply magic location for sunsets. For over an hour after it first looked like we might only get a 10-15 minute break of good sunlight, the light show continued and the trusty 5D Mk11’s and Lee ND filters were used to great effect. Excellent stuff.
Day 15 (Weds)
Back top early rises – we headed off at 05.30hrs for a drive out to Sligachan to work the locations we had checked out earlier in the week. Planned shots with the waterfalls in the foreground and the snow covered peaks of Sgurr nan Gillean behind were wonderful to witness.
- Sligachan falls, Isle of Skye. Canon EOS 5D Mk11 Canon 24-105mm lens. Lee ND6 and ND0.9 grad filters employed. 4secs @f16
Several angles being worked as the sun rose over the mountains, there was also more water flowing on this morning due to the rain that fell overnight Monday/Tuesday. We rounded off the session with some shots across the small Loch nan Eilean of Sgurr nan Gillean, at first the water was disturbed by the thermals now becoming active, but surprisingly all became calm again while made our images.
Day 16 (Thurs)
Our plan for this day was to be up at 04.30hrs and to drive out to the start of the path up to the Old Man of Storr. With a lot of cloud around you do question yourself in these situations, but nonetheless we started the climb at 05.20hrs just day break arrived and made the 1 hour climb to the top of the adjacent ridge for sunrise. The skies started to clear nicely and we made our first images at 06.20hrs and some simply stunning light on the ‘Storr with the snow capped Cuillins in the distance. The effort required to get these shots was well rewarded and made it all very worthwhile. Once back down to the car we did a couple of locations around Loch Fada before heading back for a well earned late breakfast.
- Old Man of Stor, Isle of Skye. Canon EOS 5D Mk11 with Canon 24-105mm lens, Lee Polariser fitted. 0.3 secs @ f13
After our success through the week we simply couldn’t bring ourselves to take what on the face of it were “ordinary” and perhaps uninteresting shots around the eastern flank of the mountain area of the island on Friday – a quite strange situation really, only brought on by setting your sights far higher than many perhaps would. The result was a welcome day off and a chance to rest and also get ready for a departure from the island and starting the journey south – first stop Fort William for 3 days of steam photography with GBV with No. 61994.
The evening was spent having a meal at the very pleasant Spein Inn on the Waternish peninsular, the nice sunset seen from the inn being captured in a lucky moment on my mobile phone – a photographer never rests!
Day 19 (Sun)
It seemed rather strange turning my attention to steam photography after two weeks of solid landscapes!
However a trip out across Rannoch Moor doing some landscape shots around Buachaille Etive Mor and Lochan na h-Achlaise came first, although the mid morning light was not ideal. A clear spell around lunchtime did bring a few opportunities that didn’t go entirely to waste.
We went south of Crianlarich but found that locations for a decent shot of the train were few and far between and eventually settled for shot of the train approaching Crianlarich despite the angle of the light being far from ideal. The train eventually appeared very slowly and already running some 50 mins late after struggling with rail conditions and now short of steam from a badly clinkered fire, it came to a halt beside us twice before eventually arriving at the station. After this we moved to our intended location at County March summit beyond Tyndrum, but with the late running train it was clear that the sun would no longer be on this location when the train eventually appeared. The option was taken to move north to Bridge of Orchy, where the light would be more favourable, except that the weather had other ideas and so the day finished with no steam shots in the bag.
Day 20 (Mon)
The train was due to work out to Mallaig on this day, but we did not know which way round the loco would face. Initially we attempted to go into Fort William to view the train but some road works and hold ups prevented this so we headed out to Fasfern instead for our first shot. Glorious light presented itself with still waters in the adjacent Loch Eil to allow a reflection, as the train approached a large cloud covered the sun and the shot was spoilt. We then drove on to overtake the train at Glenfinnan and attempt a shot as the train climbed away from the station here. Again glorious back lighting greeted us as the train approached – working hard against the gradient, but another cloud covered the sun and much cursing now followed as we failed to get our second attempt.
We drove on to Polnish church, but sadly the light angle was right behind the train so we continued onward having to reject some known locations due to the time it would take to climb up to track level before the train arrived. We eventually arrived at Morar and had to settle for this despite the sun being wrong side. A very disappointing morning given the obvious potential when we set out – the frustrations of steam photography!
After a few shots around Glenancross beach looking out towards Eigg and Rum the rest of the day was taken up with being “tourists” just viewing this stunning area before heading back to base to start preparing for the long journey south.
We got up early (6am) on Tuesday to go out and cover the train leaving the area as it passed through the Monessie Gorge but the very dark heavy skies made me decide against this option. I stayed in the Fort William area a little while longer and then headed south along the A82 back to County March to wait for the train to appear, again running some 40 mins late. However the sun did put in a mooted appearance which has enabled some sort of shot to be achieved here. There being no shots worth doing south of Crianlarich we watched the train leave and then headed east over to Perthshire to research some locations between Perth and Stirling where steam age semaphore signals and signal boxes still reign. I settled for Greenloaning, where with permission I was able to access a good lineside spot (right side of the fence) for a shot of 46115 passing the signal box. Excellent early evening light was present for some time before the train was due but this had become heavy dark clouds by the crucial moment and so a record shot of the train, converted into black & white was achieved.
With a poor forecast for the remaining two days of our planned trip we decided to set off south earlier than originally planned. Unfortunately disaster was to strike, the gearbox on the camper van failed on the M74 a little to the south of Glasgow and we had to await rescue to subsequent re-lay home by the AA, arriving back in Somerset at 09.00hrs the following morning, very tired and hungry after a long night.
Despite the large repair bill the facing us, we reflected on what had been a very enjoyable and successful trip to the far north overall.