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Here and Now I'm a photographer and these journals are a combination of transcripts from a contemporary diary, and writing on reflection. With each journal there are accompanying images, the focus of any of my trips.

Aftermath

UNITED KINGDOM | Monday, 21 July 2014 | Views [365]

Connecting with the Highlands of Scotland

 

Having been back home for a couple of days now, and finally managed to dry all my kit, I've had some time to reflect and get round to setting pen to paper, or rather fingers to keyboard.  

An old military maxim goes something like, "it is a bad plan indeed that cannot be changed", and so is true of any trip, particularly one with a photographic focus.  After an initial spurt of fine weather, my time was assailed with rain and wind, contrary to the ever reliable met office predictions.  My first reaction to this (well second I suppose after, shit I'm going to get really wet) was, great, the light at the end of a storm is amazing, plenty of scope for capturing breaking clouds over mountains and lochs, water racing of branches and foliage, refraction of light though the moisture in the air.  Sadly, non of this happened as it rained pretty constantly for two days and what breaks there were offered only flat and overcast light, good of course for a variety of shots but none, sadly, that I wanted to shoot.  In the end I opted to catch the train up to Fort William and watch what the weather did.  From there I would walk back south along the WHW to Ranoch and the more desolate areas of the highlands.  The forecast also showed a clear morning later in the week so I re-planned to camp at Lairigmor and then climb Mam na Gualain in the wee hours for dawn shots over Loch Leven and Ranoch to the south.  

Here's a transcript from my diary for the trip, offering contemporary thoughts and reactions to the events of the week.  

DAY 1

1430; achievement for the day - figured out how to attach my all-too-heavy camera bag to my main pack.  Will probably have a dead arm all too soon, but better that than a dead shoulder.  Bringing the 135mm is adds a good kilo + to my kit but it will prove its worth when I get higher up in the highlands.  

Its important that I keep the camera in the bag for a period and absorb where I am.  The shots need to reflect my interaction with the landscape and not just the landscape itself.  The gradual transition into the highlands should offer gradually more potential.  Hopefully I can grasp the portrayal of connection with the initial stages of the walk but, this will be more difficult as the first day or so will be the inevitable adjustment period.  

I'll add out of transcript here that I took several uninspiring photographs, left a map in a pub, and sprayed pure deet onto my face without thinking.  Adjustment day indeed.  This is what happens when you have too many soft days editing in a comfy chair with immediately accessible tea and coffee.  

2050; Dryman Campsite.  As expected the first 12 miles of this walk have been pretty similar to any 12 miles of country in the UK.  It is picturesque enough but has little unique character and makes little impact.  That said however there have been one or to moments where the light has cut across the hills in the distance which gives a sense of the forthcoming.  Everything at the moment feels quite anticipatory.  Tomorrow I aim for Rowchoish Bothy on the east bank of Loch Lomond at mile 30.  This should offer a good prospect of the Loch at dawn and dusk.  Being a hundred yards of so into the surrounding forrest is also a bonus.  Forecast is intermittent rain, so will wait for the light in the aftermath - always my favourite type of shooting condition.  

There is always a period of adjustment the first day out.  A day when personal admin is questionable and muscles ache more than they should.  There is a sense of removal, and an almost eerie becoming accustomed feeling.  I think its time to put the hip flask away and stop writing.  Dawn is at 0450.  Watch alarm set for 0430.  

DAY 2

1000; Balmaha, having coffee.  Conic Hill offered some great views over Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, as well as back towards Glasgow.  The light this morning is incredibly flat; overcast and with much glare.  Being the first hill climbed in full kit, it was a bitch.  Not high at all really and not particularly steep walking in the northerly direction, but still hard before breakfast.  The 135mm is already proving its worth.  With the light and sky being as it is, I'm focusing on highlighting characters in the landscape through wider apertures.  Forecast for later has changed to heavy rain, but only in periods.  Should offer some great light in the interim periods.  

1700; Taking shelter under a large rock, somewhere along the bank of Loch Lomond.  So much for intermittent rain.  Its nearly a full blown storm and hasn't stopped for hours.  Getting the camera out is impossible its so wet.  No further weather updates.  The main track has been diverted due to erosion so access to the bothy is not possible.  My aim is to continue on to Inversnaid and hope there is a room at the bed and breakfast.  Completely covered in waterproofs, Im just as wet underneath due to sweat as I am on the outside due to rain.  My watch reads 24 degrees C.  The way is through pretty dense forrest and even with the added shelter of the trees its still too wet for photographs.  A pity I can't get to the loch side from here, as the sheets of rain sweeping the water would be good to capture.  Though risking the camera is questionable.  Whilst my 1D is weather sealed, the 5dmkiii is not fully so and I don't think would stand up to this much water.  Better not risk it.  

DAY 3

0730; Inversnaid Inn.  Around 1900 yesterday there was a break in the rain for a couple of hours.  The sky remained overcast but balanced due to the later hour offering ok light for photographs of the surrounding area.  Despite being in a very tourist-orientated area, there is a bleakness here caused by the weather, a reminder perhaps that the landscape is much older than its current inhabitants.  The sky now is full of mixed clouds and has a small amount of glare.  Importantly is that is it not raining!  Todays section of the walk towards Crianlarich is quite flat in terms of general relief but very up and down on an immediate scale and very rocky.  The going is reportedly very slow, particularly in full kit.  It does however follow the bank of the loch for a good amount at the waters edge.  

1100; Beinglass Farm.  This part of the route feels very tourist laden, which of course is ridiculous to say, as the whole route is purely designed for such.  What I mean is that the pursuits here are gentle strolls, dog walking, boating, etc.  My general reaction to these parts (despite the rain) is of of relaxation.  

With the rain interfering with having the camera out, I’ve had plenty of time to ponder and a question I keep coming back to; what is it that makes a scene beautiful? And how can that be captured or at least portrayed in a single frame?  Taking a picture of say, a waterfall, there is a tangible character and focal point of the scene, the purpose, to depict the viewers interaction with the waterfall itself, either an awed sense of grander where action could be frozen, or a more mystical sense of wonder where the water is turned more silky through longer exposures.  To view a scene without necessarily a direct focal point is much more illusive to capture.  Putting across what you feel when you view it becomes more about questioning ones own reaction to the scene as it does deciding the composition.  Perhaps picking out characters in the landscape though wider apertures with a medium telephoto lens could help provide a narrative here, as inevitably, my reaction is quite personal and despite the vastness of the surroundings, often an intimate one.  

This train of thought permeated my shots from that point as I tried to find narrative points within the landscape to photograph.  How successful? I’m not sure, but it does provide a characterisation of a landscape that is perhaps too complex to photograph in a general sense.  

1800; Crianlarich - Pub.  Very slow going all day.  Rocky terrain and very up and down.  Covered only 14 miles and am behind schedule.  Forecast for the next two days is heavy rain.  Beginning to wonder if cutting the way short and heading straight to Fort William to use as a base and see what the weather does would be the best course of action.  Ranoch, in heavy and consistent rain will be a slog without anything much to show for it.  If the weather allows I could walk south from Fort William to Lairigmor and double back towards the end of the week.  I think in hindsight the best way to photograph this area would be in a series of circular 1-2 day shoots.  

2300; Fort William - Glen Nevis Campsite.  Rain.  A lot of it.  Forecast remains poor for tomorrow.  Aim to stick to the river and photograph the surrounding mountains from tree cover and hopefully will get the occasional break in the rain.  

Although there were some breaks in the rain allowing for misty shots of the surrounding mountains, the weather was pretty foul.  I retreated to the Ben Nevis Inn (one of my favourite places) for some Cullen Skink and planned some different options depending on the weather.  Honestly, I felt quite downhearted at this point as I hadn’t really managed to get any shots I had planned.  Without an intentional pun, the trip was becoming a wash out.  

 

DAY 4

Opt 1 - Ascend Stob Ban.  Distance = 9 miles.  Photographic potential - East over the Mamores.  Thursday PM - Friday AM.  

Opt 2 - Head back along the WHW to Lairigmor.  Distance 10 miles.  Photographic potential - Overlooking Loch Leven.  To the North West are the taller surrounding Mamores.  Mam na Gualain, hight - 750m, quite a steep ascent.

Opt 3 - Cow Hill overlooking Fort William and South East into Glen Nevis.  

 

In the end I opted for a combination of 2 and 3, choosing to stay that eve on Cow Hill as the weather was questionable still and walk to Lairigmor the following day, when the rain would hopefully become lighter and eventually stop.  My reservations about climbing Mam na Gualain was firstly due to the weight of kit I carried - I hadn’t envisaged any ascents.  Also because of this I had only my jungle sleeping bag, which might prove very inappropriate for a night at 750m!    Still, I thought it was worth at least the walk there if nothing else.  

The night on Cow Hill was one of the roughest Ive had at such a low high above sea level.  Tremendous wind and rain volume.  I woke around 0300 to an eerie silence, and opening the vestibule door showed a surprisingly light and serene view out to Fort William .  The light was somewhat unremarkable but it was worth the rough night to experience such tranquility.  With dawn came the armies of midges so my time up there was brief.  Packing up as quickly as possible a making headway towards Lairigmor, stopping for breakfast as a conveniently placed stack of logs in a clearing a few miles back along the way.  So far the rain had not reared its wet head.  

Arriving at Lairigmor to an overcast sky was a little dejecting but the walk had offered many instances of pines with water droplets, rolling mist, and distant mountains becoming ever less hazy.  Well worth the 10 mile effort in the morning.  Seeing the ascent of Mam na Gualain, I’m afraid to say I decided against it and instead headed back to Fort William with the addition of exploring some of the offshoot routes along the way.  Looking back, I curse myself for this decision as, contrary to the weather forecast, the evening and morning were spectacularly clear and rain free, with excellent light.  Proof I suppose that one should always take the chance!  Still, the banks of Loch Linnhe proved a treasure trove and was a great place to unwind.

One of the reasons I love trips like these, aside from the obvious photographic ones, is that it really gives you the space to let your mind wander, in a way that usually we never have time for.  The extract from my diary below is rather personal, and in all probability the product of to much whisky in the Ben Nevis Inn whilst planning my next moves, but non-the-less is a clear example of this openness and thoughtfulness that can occur when our minds are given space to explore sometimes.  

Ben Nevis Inn; planning.  The landscape around here certainly suits my personality more than that of the more southerly regions.  It feels wild, exposed, old and rugged.  Somehow uncultivated to the extent that other areas are.  People work with the landscape not bend it to their will.  I’m not sure why that appeals to me over other areas, but I certainly feel oddly at home here.  There is a timeless vastness that civilisation has only dented.  Though there are managed forests, a plethora of trails and paths, stone walls penning sheep and highland cattle, the place still manages to feel old.  The roads are the same as the have been for hundreds of years, all-be-it with the benefit of tarmac, the villages are still tiny and locally maintained.  Things feel practical, done for a purpose, and in that way have a sense of honesty which is missing from more urban areas around London. 

There is no attitude that we shouldn’t be inconvenienced by the weather or natural occurrences here, rather there is a respect for the environment and surroundings that seems to permeate into respect for each other.  In many places this is missing; self-interest boarders on self obsession and fosters an attitude of being oblivious to the surrounding world both natural and in human interaction.  

There are many people that visit here as part of a series of challenges, the three peaks, the 3000ers and the like, and I have to wonder whether they fully interact with the magnificent place or if the bagging of the peak is the extent of their relationship with it?  Eric Shipton famously preferred exploring mountains to ‘conquering them’.  There is I think something fundamentally flawed in the assumption that we can conquer a mountain, or nature at all for that matter.  

My final day in Fort William brought some glorious sunny weather, too sunny in fact for decent landscape shots.  I decided to get the mountain gondola (ski lift to anyone not British!) to the top of Aonach Mor and get some elevated shots of the Mamores.  Spending my last £10 in hard cash on a taxi to the base, I arrive to find it closed due to forecast high winds.  I think at this point I had one of those moments where you just have to sit down and remind yourself that the world doesn’t conspire against you!  Heading back into town I stopped off at the Nevis Distillery and remembered the track I had walked 10 years ago which leads up to Ben Nevis from the North West.  Dropping my big pack of there I literally ran along the path following Allt a’Mhuilinn all the way up to Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe.  Though the sun by this point made any serious mountain photography virtually impossible, I now felt quite invigorated and was still able to get one or two decent shots on my earlier principle of characters in landscapes.  I dropped back down into Glen Nevis, being buffeted by the now very strong winds, picked up my kit from the distillery and made myself a very questionable chile con carne on the stone shore of Loch Linnhe before catching the sleeper back down to London.  

Even after virtually everything not going to plan, I travelled back feeling strangely fulfilled.  Whether because of the adapting to circumstances and still having photos, or the insane run up a mountain, I’m not sure, but I felt as if the trip had been worthwhile, and even though I had not entirely captured what I had planned, I non-the-less photographed and honest interaction with my surrounding landscape.  Some photographs show the brooding moods of the weather, others my frustration and even a few show how there are rarely half measures in the highlands.  Its an all or nothing place where a respect for the landscape is both natural and essential.  A place of timeless vastness, carved out by ancient glaciers that watches our passing and will remain after our time is over. 

Tags: highlands, photography, scotland, trekking

 

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