Having travelled over most of the Scottish Highlands over the years it may come as no surprise that there are certain places that offer me, as a landscape photographer, a little more than others. The Outer Hebrides draw me to the vast, open, sandy beaches; Sutherland with its bleak wilderness back many happy memories. Wester Ross ranks up there with all of them but it does seem to ‘pip them at the post’ for sheer photographic opportunities.
Even when looking at a map you can see the potential without actually going there. The Torridon mountains, Coigach and the classic spire of Stac Pollaidh and the still waters of Loch Maree, Loch Carron and Loch Ewe. The coastline and bays all make for a stunning location to be in with a camera. But setting aside the landmarks and classic locations known to many who visit Wester Ross, there are thousands of small corners where you can explore, and you get a sense that nobody has been there before. There may be no footpath, no signs and nothing obviously suggesting it is owned by anyone. This is of course not the truth at all. All of Scotland is owned and, in some way, managed, but it is this feeling of true freedom and being alone that makes this place special. My intention was to spend time with myself and work in solitude and explore at will.
Of course, I have been to this location before, but I never feel I have exhausted a place and each location can look different from one season to the next, not to mention one hour to the next as the light changes. Over the next five days I would freely explore many locations and take time to wonder and photograph anything that captivated me. Each night I would retreat to the comfort of my guesthouse to look at the digital files and make an assessment of the locations and how I was representing them and what they meant to me.
It soon became apparent that on this particular trip I was mostly attracted to the coast and two locations drew me in again and again – Udrigle Bay and Mellon Udrigle. As the unusual names rightly suggest these two places are within a mile or so of each other, but they are totally different in what they offer. Udrigle Bay is accessed from a short but steep track from the roadside above and is a long rocky bay with long outcrops of sandstone upon which boulders are perched. Mellon Udrigle is a totally different place of almost white sand and sandstone outcrops that appear like Triassic creatures from the sea and sand.
The beauty of Scotland is not simply the places, but the weather you experience when you are there. I spent a lot of time at both these locations (an entire day at Mellon Udrigle) and both days delivered completely different conditions. The day I visited Udrigle the skies were heavy and there was a storm building up across Gruinard Bay and out to the open sea. As I arrived the tide was retreating and the rock outcrops were emerging from the windblown waves. The air temperature was low, and combined with the wind-chill, it became bitter. Even with my full winter kit on (with down jacket), I could feel the wind clawing through the gaps in the layers and biting at my skin.
As I worked, the sky darkened further and I found myself perched on the outcrops as the seawater crashed and swirled around me. This created a sense of edginess in me and a feeling of being at one with the elements. As the seawater crashed and retreated through the boulders it turned white and brighter than the dark stormy sky. My choice of long exposures seemed fitting to give a graphic image of motion and energy, and on several occasions, I had to get off the outcrops before the occasional large swell dragged me into the water.
My visit to Mellon Udrigle was a day of total contrast to my time at Udrigle. The skies the night before had been totally clear and star-filled. The morning greeted me with a steady sea breeze that was enough to keep the shallow seawater that was trapped on the sand between tides frozen for the entire day. The sun was low in the sky, which is a bonus of photographing at this time of year due to the soft colours and long shadows, and it offered a visual comfort of warmth due to its glow. I walked alone onto the bay at 9.30 and began making pictures. Within an hour I was totally transfixed and soaked up in my work. Everything presented images to me. Seaweed, sand patterns, ice patterns and the waves coming in across the bay and crashing onto the sands and swelling in a muscular fashion around the rocks dominating the beach.
I was there when the sun rose above the small hills in the morning, and I stood, still in awe as the last light of day died when the sun dropped below the horizon and I watched as the shadows diluted away. It was at this point I realised I had not stopped for any food or rest and I peered at my watch to see it was 4 pm and my time was up. Just before I left I was rewarded with a huge storm that arrived from the north. My feet were numb, my stomach empty and my head full of excitement because I knew that when I got back to Aultbea I could look at the day’s explorations again as the digital files appeared on my laptop.
The next day I made the long journey home to Lancashire with memories of standing in the seas and lochs of Wester Ross in my wellington boots and being able to forget it all for a while. I also found myself subconsciously seeking out the possible opportunities of when I could return. I know Wester Ross will be there when I am long gone, but in the meantime, I feel it is up there waiting for me and my camera.