October in the Highlands of Scotland

The Highlands of Scotland, in the month of October is a place filled with pure joy. Why? Because by that time, the all-devouring Midges have gone away and it is possible to pass the day without being bitten by thousands of ravenous, female gnats. The flip-side of this is that is will be colder, wetter and windier than during the high-summer period. But as landscape photographers; we don’t want wall-to-wall blue sky all day long and we certainly don’t want sunset at 11pm followed by sunrise at 4am – now do we?

This would be my first landscape photography trip to Scotland and I only had three days do it – sixteen hours of which would be taken up just getting there and back. The overall plan was to start at Rannoch Moor – 110km north of Glasgow; then on to Glencoe, another 40km, from Glencoe to Kyle of Lochalsh – 145km and finally across the bridge to the Isle of Skye. The return journey back to London would be 927km.

Map of route from London to the Isle of Skye, Scotland
Map of route from London to the Isle of Skye, Scotland

Friday 16th October – Rannoch Moor

I arrive at the western end of Rannoch Moor at 4am, time for a couple of hours sleep before I have to get busy. I park in a lay-by on the A82 that runs alongside the shore of Loch Tulla. I wake up two hours later in a near-hypothermic state and resort to running along the road to warm up while the heater in the car gets going (note to self: buy a sleeping bag). With just the faintest hint of light visible over the moor, I continue driving along the deserted A82 for another 10km until I arrive at a bridge and another lay-by. There is a car parked in the lay-by. Maybe the car was parked here by other photographers who know where they’re going, or maybe something else. I hope it’s the former.

With my back-pack and tripod, I leave the lay-by and make my way along a rough path across the moor, towards the shore of Loch Ba. The entire area is a boggy-marsh so water is a major feature (wellington boots essential). After about 200 metres, I come across the occupants of the other car in the lay-by; two men, one tripod and one camera between them. I say good morning to them and move further along the shore and into the reeds that form a fringe around the lake.

Dawn is almost upon us and I can see that there is very little cloud cover – there is every chance that I will be presented with a feature-less sky when the sun rises over the horizon. This is not quite what I was expecting from the Highlands of Scotland in October. As this situation becomes clear, I realise that the wonderful interplay between sun, sky and clouds that is such a powerful element in landscape photography, is probably not going to feature in any of the pictures that I will take this morning. Instead, I’m going to have to focus on other foregound elements and relegate the sky to the top quarter of the frame. It could be said that this is about making the best of what you find in front of you. After all, I’m not going to pack-up and head home just because I’ve got the wrong sort of sky.

As I wade at knee-height into the shallow water towards a clump of reeds, I noticed that my presence had created a ripple effect on the surface water. I play around with this for a few minutes, discovering what kind of movement produces the best looking ripples. I attempt to generate my chosen ripple-pattern just as the sun breaks over hills on the far shore of the loch. What little cloud that was present is gone within 10 minutes and at that point the unrestrained sun had risen over the hills. It was time to relocate and turn in another direction.

 

Sunrise at Loch Ba, Highlands, Scotland
Ripples and Reeds
Canon 1Ds. Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM at 26mm. 1.6 sec at f/11. ISO 100

After exploring the area between the lake and the road, I cross the road and move over to the other side of the loch where it becomes a narrow channel, over which the bridge carries the A82. It is easy to climb down the bank and wade out into that shallow water amid the rocks. The sun is now well over the horizon to my left and has has begun to illuminate the mountains in the distance. As the sky is a uniform, light-blue colour and there being no cloud to speak of, I restrict the sky so that it occupies no more than a quarter of the frame, the focus of the picture becomes the rocks and the water. I quite like that solitary tree in the top-centre of the picture.

October dawn on Rannoch Moor
October dawn on Rannoch Moor
Canon 1Ds. Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L USM. 1/5th sec at f/11. ISO 100

 

The morning on Rannoch Moor has produced two pictures that I’m reasonably happy with. The absence of any cloud means that they’re not exactly what I was expecting – just like the unexpected summer weather that will become a feature of this trip.

My next objective, is to reach the village of Dornie, 166km from Loch Ba, sometime in the afternoon. Dornie is the location of iconic, thirteenth century castle of Eilean Donan which sits of the shore of Loch Duich. The route will take me through: Glencoe, Fort William and Invergarry. I’m hoping that they may be one or two spots along the way that demand some attention so I will be driving in ‘scouting mode’.

Route map from Loch Ba to Dornie, Scotland
Route from Loch Ba to Dornie

About half way along the route from Loch Ba to Dornie, I find myself driving along the A87 with a long, narrow lake to my left. This turns out to be Loch Cluanie and it looks like it is well worth investigating. I park the car in a convenient lay-by and make my way down the slope to the shore of the loch.

The time is 11:42 and the sun is quite high in the sky, so the shadows cast by the rocks are quite harsh. As the sun is behind me and to my left, the one shadow that I must avoid is that of the tripod. Trying to air-brush the legs of a tripod from an image is rarely successful. Loch Cluanie lies on an east-west orientation and so would make a great spot for either a dawn or dusk picture, provided there was a little more cloud that there was here today.

Bright October morning at Loch Cluanie, Highlands, Scotland
Bright October morning at Loch Cluanie
Canon 1Ds, Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L, 1/160th sec at f/11, ISO 100

Just after 2pm I arrive in the village of Dornie. The temperature is a sweltering 24 degrees centigrade. This must be something of a record for this part of the world at this time of year. People are sitting outside of the pubs in t-shirts and shorts. I don’t have any t-shirts or shorts with me, just heavy-duty, autumn wear. But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying a nice lunch of; Gammon Steak, Chips and Peas in one of the pubs.

The castle of Eilean Donan is easily accessible from the village of Dornie – the bridge connects the main road to the castle. There is ample car parking – which is where I was standing when I took this picture.

A warm October afternoon at Eileann Doonan castle, Highlands, Scotland
A warm October afternoon at Eilenn Donan castle
Canon 1Ds. Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L at 40mm. 1/80th sec at f/11. ISO 100

The obvious focal-point here is the castle and the bridge. The tide was out and so exposed a vast field of brown kelp which I cropped out here to give some emphasis to the castle and the sky. There have been inumerable images of this icon captured over the years. On this occasion, I would have to be content with a more traditional, postcard style view.

As the afternoon wore on, the last of the white clouds vanished and I was yet again presented with three-hundred-and-sixty degrees of clear azure sky. By the time early-evening arrived and the sun dropped below the western horizon, I could see that there would not be an opportunity for a castle and sunset shot. Which meant that I could find an hotel and get some food, and most of all – some desperately needed sleep.

Saturday, 17 October – Isle of Skye

Given its location, Eilean Donan, is not a candidate for a sunrise shot and so I have no plans to even make an attempt. Which was just as well, because when I look out of the hotel window, yesterday’s blue sky had been replaced by a dark-grey one. From Dornie to the Skye Bridge is just 14km, so after a substantial Scottish, fried breakfast (with two rounds of black-pudding) I set out to cross over to the Isle of Skye.

My objective on Skye is the coastal village of Elgol, 36km from the Skye Bridge. Elgol is situated on the south-west coast of the Island and is a popular location for photographing the Cullin mountain range which lies on the other side of Loch Scravaig. Having studied some examples of images captured from the beach at Elgol, I have a fairly good idea what I’m looking for, so when I arrive at the beach I instantly realise my mistake – timing. The Isle of Skye lies under the flight-path from the UK and Europe to the mid-west and west coast of the United States. This means that from mid-morning until late afternoon, the sky is criss-cross by the vapour-trails left by high-flying jet aircraft.

The Cullin mountains seen from Elgol beach, Isle of Skye
The Cullin mountains seen from Elgol beach, Isle of Skye
Canon EOS 1Ds. Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L at 17mm. 1/50th sec at f/11. ISO 100
The Cullin mountains seen from Elgol beach, Isle of Skye
The Cullin mountains seen from Elgol beach, Isle of Skye
Canon EOS 1Ds. Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L at 17mm. 1/40th sec at f/11. ISO 100

So on this occasion, I come to the conclusion that there is not much for me here today. This is a great location but my timing was wrong. I can see that at dawn, with a high tide and waves breaking over the rocks, it would be possible to capture some great images. I have to begin my return journey to London tomorrow morning, so I decide to leave Skye and head back towards Glencoe and Rannoch Moor – where I started from on Friday morning.

I arrive back at Rannoch Moor in the early evening, just in time to see the sun going down over the south-west of the moor. Remember that solitary tree that caught my attention on Friday morning? Well here it is again from a different angle.

Autumn dusk at Rannoch Moor, Scotland
Autumn dusk at Rannoch Moor
Canon EOS 1Ds. Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L at 40mm. 1/30th sec at f/11. ISO 100

Sunday, 18 October – Glencoe

So far I’ve been complaining about the photographer’s blight – the wrong weather. Good weather can be as much the wrong weather as bad weather. Blue sky can be just as frustrating as grey sky. Well the weather gods seemed to sense my plight and on Sunday morning decided to lift the blue-sky-curse and present with me with something far more interesting.

On Saturday night I stayed in a victorian hotel in South Bellachulish, at the mouth of Loch Leven. This is a popular location from which to being the ascent by road into the village of Gelncoe and the mountains beyond. What I noticed from the moment I left the hotel and made my way towards Glencoe, was that although the sky was heavy and grey, there was a fair wind blowing and that the shape of the lower-lying cloud was constantly changing. By the time I reached the glen, the clouds appeared to have become layered in the sky, made up of many different shades of grey.

Heavy october clouds gather over the mountains at Glencoe
Canon EOS 1Ds. Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L at 32mm. 1/10th sec at f/11. ISO 100

As I continued through the glen, the other thing that I noticed was that the cloud seemed to be dropping in altitude, enveloping the surrounding hills, yet at ground level, the air was clear and free of mist.

A wet October afternoon in the valley of Glencoe, Highlands, Scotland
A wet October afternoon in the valley of Glencoe
Canon EOS 1Ds. Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L at 17mm. 1 sec at f/11. ISO 100
Long-haired cattle grazing in the valley of Glencoe, Highlands, Scotland
Long-haired cattle grazing in the valley of Glencoe
Canon EOS 1Ds. Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L at 27mm. 1/6th sec at f/11. ISO 100
Overcast, October afternoon on the empty road through Glencoe, Highlands, Scotland
Overcast, October afternoon on the empty road through Glencoe
Canon EOS 1Ds. Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L at 27mm. 2 sec at f/11. ISO 100

Inevitably, with cloud this heavy and low – it began to rain. It began to rain as I lining up this last shot which was a fair distance from the road and the car. I had climbed the slope with camera and tripod – but no rain protection.

Autumn rain falls on the mountains at Glencoe, HIghlands, Scotland
Autumn rain falls on the mountains at Glencoe
Canon EOS 1Ds. Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L at 17mm. 2.5 sec at f/11. ISO 100

Seconds after I took this final shot, what felt like a wall of rain hit me head-on. I needed no further encouragement and moved very quickly down the hill-slope and back to the car – wet, but content. It is 9am on a wet and cloudy Sunday morning in the highlands of Scotland and a long drive back to London lies ahead of me.

Epilogue

The weather is important to all sorts of people: farmers, fishermen, hill-walkers, pilots and of course photographers – particularly landscape photographers. In the UK, the subject of the weather is considered to be a national obsession. The subject of the weather and the weather forecast is used as a device to facilitate conversation between perfect-strangers in otherwise stressful, social situations such as; bus-stops, lifts and standing in long queues in the post office. Presenters of the weather forecast on TV and radio are regarded as celebrities and sometimes even national treasures – even when they get it wrong, as they often do.

For landscape photographers, a key component of any plan that aims to deliver worthwhile images; is the use of weather forecast information to enable us to make judgements about where and when we should locate ourselves in order to achieve a worthwhile result. In the case of this three-day trip to the highlands of Scotland, the weather forecast was as as good as I could have hoped for – changeable. Changeable or active weather, means that hopefully you won’t be stuck with just one state of weather, be that good or bad. Changeable gives you options, the potential for variety. When the forecast is for changeable weather, you can feel justified in just taking a chance.

I believe it’s important that when presented with adverse or non-optimal conditions – be they blue or grey sky, the landscape photographer attempts to make the most of what is in front of them. The only situation that I can imagine withdrawing from a location is when there is heavy, persistent rain. For everything else, I’m prepared to exploit the opportunities that the situation presents. This will often mean capturing images that will need a lot of post-processing – and shooting with this in mind. The final images at Glencoe are examples of this approach.

Another approach to fully exploiting potential opportunities is to fully exploit the zoom lens. By this I mean trying out the different focal lengths that the zoom offers in each scene. Some photographers when using a 16-35mm lens, will set the lens to 16mm and leave it there. Then they seek out scenes that work only at 16mm – this is wasteful. Of the nine images here taken with the 17-35mm lens, only four of them we taken at the 17mm focal length. When I decided that I wanted an ultra-wide because the scene demanded it – I reached for the 14mm prime and not the zoom.

I mentioned earlier that I had been in ‘scouting mode’ when driving from Rannoch Moor to Dornie. Scouting Mode – is when I am on the look-out for future photo opportunities. This could be later that day or maybe later that year, maybe even during a different season. My point is, that on a first visit to a new location, I am prepared to come back empty-handed, no pictures – nothing at all. Except that is, with more knowledge than I had before I went.   My plan for subsequent trips, will be based upon first-hand experience and not just Google Earth studies.

I’m very happy that I took the chance on the Scottish Highland that weekend in October 2009. No, I didn’t get any competition winners or big-sellers that but I did learn a lot: about the country, the terrain and the people (who are actually friendlier than the Irish). When I go back there next time, I will have knowledge and experience that I didn’t have before and that can only contribute to a better result – weather permitting.

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