I am just back from an inspiring week in the Outer Hebrides on the Isles of Harris and Lewis with the very talented lead Photographers Doug (Singalong) Chinnery and David (Best Worst Joke Teller) Ward. I thought I would write a blog/pictorial diary of one of my best weeks, in photography terms.
This was an opportunity that only became available to me a few weeks before. When someone had to withdraw from the trip it left a place available which, after frantically consulting with work and my very understanding, beautiful wife to see if it was possible, I jumped at and quickly made plans on how to get there.
Never one to miss an opportunity I checked ferry times from Uig, Skye and realised I could squeeze in a sunset at Elgol, Skye before driving and sleeping at Uig then getting the 5.30am ferry to Tarbert, Harris, our base for the week.
The ferry crossing was unseasonably calm and it came into Tarbert just as the sun arose above the horizon to light up the rolling mountains enclosing the very small town and port. I had a few hours before the rest of the workshop arrived down from their flights to Stornoway, Lewis. So I went off to try and get some early shooting done. I had browsed over maps of the area but nothing too in-depth so this ended up being very much aimless. I did stop for the occasional side of the road shot of the views or details around the many small Lochans that litter the east coast but eventually gave up and headed for the hotel to freshen up before everyone else arrived.
The troops all arrived on time and we made our introductions before quickly heading off to start the exploration of these wonderful Isles. The two minbuses split the group into two groups of 7 each with it's own expert leading the way. Their knowledge not only of everything photography but of the secrets of Harris and Lewis was to prove invaluable. Immediately we went south and west to a beautiful little sandy beach lined with huge smooth granite rocks which would allow the rising tide to envelope in almost slow motion. I was dressed for northwestern Scottish weather but we were basking in warm autumn sunshine which in some ways was not ideal but pleasant all the same. The occasional cloud would dot the blue skies to remind us it was not a tropical island we were on.
This was a great little ice breaker where we wandered around looking for detail in the sands under the still small pools of water while looking over some of the most beautiful coloured water you will ever sea. David and Doug were offering their expertise to everyone while getting to know each of us at the same time. It was my first time meeting David but I had been on a previous workshop with Doug earlier in the year in the Cairngorms. Both are fountains of knowledge and will help you in any way they can and never make you feel stupid or incompetent no matter the level of question, which is exactly how it should be.
From here we moved just around the corner to the well known Traigh Sheileboist or just Seilebost as its better known. Another stunning beach looking out towards Taransay and sharing its sands with the humungous Luskentyre. This was to be our first sunset, and what a beautiful sight it was. Personally I think the long two days and lack of sleep etc had caught up with me and I kind of lost my way with capturing the image I would have hoped for but I just sat back for a while and watched the sky and colour change as the sun got lower and lower before dropping down behind the horizon to end a spectacular first day on Harris.
The second day threw up more traditional weather in the morning with driving fine rain moving quickly across the island. This allowed us to have a bit of a lie in and have a civilised breakfast before heading out. With the wet weather in mind David lead us to St. Clements Church at the very south of Harris near Rodel. We could shelter here while shooting the interior until the rain moved through.
The rain had started to lift leaving fast moving low cloud rolling across the surrounding hills and mountains which allowed me to get a glimpse of what would be expected as the traditional view from the local cottage windows.
From here we went around the corner to Rodel Hotel which overlooked the old harbour and would be our stop for lunch. It appear deserted until we entered only to be followed by many more customers who must have had this place earmarked for a food stop. A lovely meal was had and we were glad to find that the sun was now trying to pierce the fast moving clouds as they lifted and allowed some wonderful light to sparkle across the water and land in fascinating patches. We took this opportunity to spend half an hour exploring the harbour and the new light before moving on.
As we gathered in the car park to move on I got chatting to David. It was here that I was to see first hand what it is that makes him stand out from the crowded world of photography. All be it a small thing but to see him 'snapping' with his iPhone in amongst some wet Montbretia and producing an image with such detail and colour that he's best (but not only) known for was inspirational to say the least. Needless to say I scurried in with my D810 and Zeiss 25mm to try and emulate what he had so callously captured on his iPhone 4, to no avail I may add.
Back in the vans we headed north east to Lingura Bay where we were introduced to our first deserted crofts, 2 of many that litter the countryside of these islands. We were to visit a few on this tour but an individual blog post might be the best way to tell their story better. So we walked the path that would have been walked for years by the inhabitants of these now skeletal homes. Lined with wild moorland shrubs, streams and Lochans it seemed an arduous task that must have been undertaken each day by the crofters in the traditional changeable weather that would have been thrown at them. The first croft was literally a shell, with the roof and furnishing gone for what seemed like years.
The second was less derelict and was strangely found to have some of the home comforts that would have eased the hardship of life here. It was doing its best to crumble into nature, along with the few sheep carcass that littered the interior.
After walking back up to the vans we continued north along the east coast where we stopped at the top of the picturesque bay of Ob Leasaid which lay at the foot of Manais Township. I stayed around the top of the hill overlooking the bay which had several more derelict crofts and houses. From this vantage is was possible to experience how changeable the weather can be on the Outer Hebrides. for instance, looking northeast it was a beautiful Autumnal day with sun, cloud and rainbows.
Turning 180 degrees, looking south west it was a different story, with piles of rain falling over the mountains creating a landscape of layers.
The rain from the west eventually won the fight and put paid to any chance of a sunset, so we finished up and headed north to Tarbert and our Hotel, while watching the light dance along The Little Minch sea and northern Skye.
The middle of the trip had arrived and I was excited about what it would bring. Luskentyre was to be the start of it for sunrise and before breakfast. Facing west, this was not a conventional option for a sunrise spot, more commonly known for its sunsets. But with the chance of wonderful light illuminating the distant clouds in warm tones with strong reflections in the snaking incoming tide it was worth the effort.
Back to the Hotel for breakfast then off north to our first adventure in Lewis. We made the drive through the dividing North Harris Mountains which separate the two Isles and into Lewis which initially opens up into expanding moorland. With fine weather and glorious views south across the moors to the Mountains we had an impromptu stop to capture some of it even when it is littered with empty crofts and farm buildings.
Moving east towards the coast and after a brief coffee and cake stop, we travelled through some stunning glacial Glens and rugged mountains before arriving at Aird Feinis. A wild area of coastline, lined with Stacks and high cliffs to explore the views across the Atlantic Ocean. Unseasonal calm winds meant we were free to use tripods and LE and safety wasn't so much of an issue as we traversed the mighty heights of the sea cliffs.
This was a spectacular location that allowed us to go our separate was to find our desired image from whichever vantage point we preferred. I had pictured in my head, crashing seas, rolling clouds and changing light before arriving on the Isles but these conditions threw up their own beauty and surprisingly to me it was a manmade feature that caught my eye.
The fresh air had worked up an appetite but before dinner we had one brief stop at Traigh Uige, another of the many stunningly beautiful sandy beaches of these Isles. The tide was low and so we were free to explore the vast expanse of the white sands and all its wonderful details.
Personally I could have spent all day at this location with all its intricate details, shapes and views of the surrounding landscape.
Dinner beckoned and so it was at a delightfully renovated old school house we stopped to eat. Bellies full it was quickly onto Callandish Standing Stones for sunset. The weather had closed in and we were welcomed by drizzle. Under advice from our ever knowledgeable leaders, they suggested to get in position just in case any light appeared. An as if by professional magic, we were privileged to about 30 seconds of glorious orange/pink light on the stones before the sun finally dropped down behind the horizon.
So all of a sudden we are on the penultimate day. Rain welcomed us, and it was the driving kind that is never pleasing to stand or walk in. However, after breakfast it seemed to lift a little and David decided to take us to Kyles Stockinish, a small harbour on the east coast of South Harris. it was time to concentrate on detail as this place was filled with interesting patterns and shapes amongst the fishing boats and equipment.
I used this time to experiment with ME after being inspired by a few members of the tour, in particular Nicki Gwynn-Jones FRPS whose work I had caught a glimpse of on her camera and became intrigued by her techniques and results. This hut was about the only bit of colour in the grey overcast light and landscape, and Nicki in particular was drawn to it and I will be keen to see her interpretation of it within its environment.
The drizzle had returned and it was time to move on with another derelict croft just outside the village of Geocrab earmarked for the next stop. After a quick check to see if it was safe and appropriate to explore, off we went in shifts in the now pouring rain to scurry around the ramshackle croft house.
I think I've mentioned before, these empty dwellings deserve their own blog post with their intriguing stories. I can't help but feel it will be a sad story if ever we do find out why the apparent hasty departure of their inhabitants was so necessary.
Next up was a pit stop on our way to Leverburgh for lunch. Loch Na Moracha was where we would next alight from our vans. With the rain now stopped but damp still air it was a fight with the renowned Midge that became our main concern. With Skin So Soft and eventually Midge nets on we had some time to shoot some extraordinary Loch reeds that were far from typical of the landscape of these parts.
Off to Leverburgh for lunch now and the restaurant next to the ferry port dished up amazing BBQ ribs and a Guinness. Since it stayed dry we took the opportunity to spend half an hour shooting some of the finer parts of this small port town that serves Berneray.
I had spotted another empty house in the town from the window of the restaurant so I quickly scurried up to take a little look around. More modern and certainly bigger than anything else we had been in before, it was in this place I really got a bad, perhaps more sad feeling about the now fled inhabitants.
On my way back to the vans I had a brief chat with a local man who shed a little light all be it worrying light, on life in this area. Briefly he spoke of cancer, Chernobyl, deformed sheep and rain. You may guess the story but for this man it was no story it was very much the personal fight he was facing. Slightly deflated I wished him all the goodwill and hope I could with my powerless words and met up with the rest of the group.
Our first stop in the afternoon was the marshlands at the foot of Traigh Scarasta, which sits just north of Leverburgh on the west coast.
With light getting progressively better we moved along the road about a mile to go down to the wet sands of Traigh Scarasta, where reflections of the lifting cloud created an endless horizon.
Here the vans split up with one wanting to move on and the other happy to stay around Scarasta for a while more. With my van heading off I went along since I had a wish to find some height and capture some sea/cloudscapes with hope of some patchy light coming through. So onwards and a return to our first beach of Traigh Lar. There was a small climb to a little cairn on the far side of the beach that I had noticed on our first visit. I decided to go for it and take a chance there would be some interesting light to be captured across the sea and mountains that hug the west coast. The cloud was thinning and rays of light were beginning to appear as I reached the very humble peak.
As I turned around to view the panorama that surrounded me, I looked north across Sheileboist, Luskentyre and West Loch Tarbert to the mountains of North Harris. There was the landscape I had envisaged before coming to the Isles, wild mountains shrouded in fast moving cloud and beautiful low light piercing the landscape.
The form of the clouds were exquisite and I was mesmerised, although I had to keep an eye on the time as we were planning on a move around the corner to Sheileboist for sunset. This day was just getting better by the minute. One last shot before I came back down to earth.
After regrouping and moving round to Sheileboist we were happy to see the light show would continue while it lit up the cloud enveloping the surrounding mountains. We all took up our positions, some went to the beach where there was foreground detail in the sand and winding streams while others took to the dunes and views across West Loch Tarbert. I along with Doug, settled on a very small hill that took in the dunes and the background delight of the North Harris mountains being side lit by the falling sun.
To be honest, just watching the ever changing light was a wonderful event in itself. I was conscious not to spoil the moment by spending it looking at my camera LCD or viewfinder. A fresh westerly breeze was blowing, the air was crystal clear, the light danced and the very last bit of light passed across us bringing the last touch of warmth before eventually dropping low behind thin horizon cloud. It was a fitting end to an amazing multi stop day and equally apt as it was our last sunset together on Harris.
And suddenly it was our last day and sunrise at Luskentyre was the last stop. Clear blue skies brought a crisp feel to the morning.
Time was up and it would be hard to leave this place although the memories and images would last forever and I hope to return again with my family one day to share the experience with them.
Technically this was not the end of my personal trip though. My ferry was not until 4pm and the majority of the group left for Stornaway at 10am after breakfast. So there was still time to visit a new place on the Isle. Two of the group had the same idea so we went on a mini convoy along the high coastal road that runs on the north side of West Loch Tarbert to a beautiful beach and pier called Huisinis.
We started our journey back to Tarbert for the ferry and lunch but not without one more stop. It was a place we had noticed on our way to Huisinis. Amhuinnsuidhe is a castle/stately home which the main road passes through. It sits on a stunning bay looking south towards South Harris, and we had noticed some rolling waterfalls to the side of it and had to get out and grab a few shots.
Onto the ferry for Skye now, with Karen and Georgie for company the journey flew in. Before we knew it we were speeding off the boat still in convoy to try and make sunset at Neist Point Lighthouse on the far west coast of Skye. We managed to get there about 30 minutes before sunset and manoeuvred our way to a decent vantage point but the harsh light was fading and very uncharacteristically there was little wind, waves or clouds to add some atmosphere. We took in the view and got some shots of this spectacular landmark.
It was here we said our goodbyes as Karen and Georgie were heading straight down to Glasgow airport whereas I had one more stop to make. It was back across Skye to Portree then north again to the Quirang mountains. I arrived around 10pm and got the sleeping bag out and crashed until 5.30am to get set up for sunrise, expected around 7am. Being my first time here I was unsure of the location but Doug had given me valuable advice of where to shoot from. I expected a lot of photographers to be here as it was a Saturday but I was pleasantly surprised when in total only 4 of us littered the hillside for sunrise. A thin line on thick cloud hugged the eastern horizon putting doubt of any light getting through. It tried its best but could only delay the sun for 30 minutes or so meaning we had missed out on any pink/orange light but still had the privilege of some warm yellow light falling over the Jurassic Landscape.
So that was that my photography adventure was at an end. A huge variety of locations and weather shared with a lovely group of talented photographers. All that remained was a quick look at the road home to see my 3 beautiful girls I had missed on this trip.
Many thanks to Doug Chinnery and David Ward for their advice, knowledge and company. Look through their work to be amazed at what can be achieved with a camera. If you are ever thinking of going on a similar workshop I can not recommend these guys highly enough, on their own or if you are as lucky as me, together, they will blow your mind with advice and knowledge.
Thank you also to my fellow photographers who made the whole trip a pleasure.