Land, Sea, Skye

Monty and Chris are on the road again, this time for our long awaited adventure to the Scotland wester isles. Follow our journey – Part One

Adventure 3, Part 1

“I must go down the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky.” Monty and I that is. Yes, we’re a year late but we’re finally off to Scotland and our chosen destinations are the islands of Harris, Lewis and Skye – big skies and big seas, as described in the poem by John Masefield. Harris, in particular, is a place I’ve wanted to go to for a long, long time and I’m excited to experience it.

This is a longer mission, approaching 2000 miles (3000 km) round trip from the south east of England to the north west of Scotland, so I’ve allowed two days travel at each end and 11 days on the islands. I’ve also split this into two parts as it was full of photo opportunities.

The end of September can be beautifully sunny in the UK but is also an unpredictable cusp between the seasons, so I’m prepared for all weathers. On the islands off the northern coast it can be especially changeable. Technically it’s autumn but with the Atlantic winds it could feel like summer or winter, and maybe all in one day. I’ll be mostly shooting landscapes, with an eye out for the sort of images which lend themselves to black and white or fine art prints. 

The air is fresh and crisp on the islands with much of the drama coming from rapidly changing light and passing storms – unsettled weather may not give the pristine beaches and turquoise waters of the calmer summer months but it brings plenty of drama and dancing light – perfect for patient photography. Although I have several images pre-visualised, I’m also going to have to be reactive, too, especially as I’ve never been to Harris and Lewis before. A big part of this process is working out where to be, and when, to give myself the best chances of capturing something dramatic as the light rapidly changes. 

As we set off, the weather forecast for the next week or two of unsettled with the tail end of the North American hurricane season passing through. But two things you quickly learn in this part of the world are that weather forecasts are rarely correct for longer than about 15 minutes and ‘unsettled’ means inter-changing good and poor light, which equals drama! Remember, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad photographers, so if you’re wondering what we do when it rains, well …we get wet!

Monty in the morning mist at Stratford racecourse

Before heading north to Scotland, Monty and I had two things to do. The first was to meet BeBe, the stunning new truck converted by Monty’s previous owner, photographer David Newton. You can follow his upcoming round-the-world adventure here on Eye for the Light. She was making her first public appearance at the Overland Show at Stratford racecourse, conveniently the day before the Photography Show at the NEC in Birmingham, only 40 minutes north of there. 

After this, with the work stuff and a little socialising out of the way, our photo mission could start. We hit the road straight from the Photography Show and broke the journey near Settle, where the majestic old arched railway viaduct spans the valley at Ribblehead. The moorland is wild and open here but the weather wasn’t kind and this impressive structure failed to show its elegance against the infinite grey sky. Sadly, I didn’t get any shots worth showing, but a grouse did pop its head out of the grass close by.

Pressing north we crossed the Scottish border within a couple of hours and pressed on past Glasgow and into wilder country. Our lunch time coffee stop was the west shore of Loch Lomond, gateway to the Trossachs and the Scottish Highlands and were, to my surprise, bathed in sunshine. Along the loch shore the road then climbs through the spectacular rolling mountain scenery eventually taking us to the glen which took my name – I think it was that way around – Glencoe. 

The weather was playing with me already. It was good until we crossed Rannoch Moor at the eastern end of this impressive glen but, as the peaks on either side loomed ahead, the sky got blacker and blacker. No striking light at the end of the day this time, but there was always tomorrow and, if that failed, the return journey would also bring me back through here. Not to disappoint, the next day was all too predictable – pouring with rain, set in for the day and grey, grey, grey.

Heading north takes us through Fort William, at the foot of Ben Nevis, then across to the coast at the Kyle of Lochalsh, gateway to the Isle of Skye. There’s no longer a ferry across to the Isle of Skye from the Kyle of Lochalsh, although there is still one from Malaig. Back in 1992 construction started on the bridge between the mainland and Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye. When it opened three years later it removed the need for the ferry service and now it’s a simple drive onto the island. 

Just south, on the road to Kyle of Lochalsh, is Eilean Donan castle. Eilean means island so literally the castle on Donan island. It’s well known and much photographed place, but not easy to photograph in the dull light I encountered. I opted for backlit in black and white with a menacing sky, in the absence of pleasing light and any colour of note. 

The next day, on Skye, the poor weather and high winds continued, but there were breaks in the grey, even if only briefly. The first mountain range encountered on Skye is the imposing Cuillins. I opted to explore the less photographed view around the back of them from the road to Elgol. The sun broke through just before I reached Loch Slapin, with the Cuillins forming the backdrop. I got lucky, and not for the first time on this trip, as the sunlight lasted less than 15 minutes. I knew there was a better shot to be had but it was unlikely that would happen today. This was to be the story of the next few days on Skye – less than inspiring weather punctuated by brief sunny interludes – but with patience a few interesting images, if not spectacular ones, emerged. For others, locations were logged for the return journey.

The Cuillins beyond Loch Slapin

Not being familiar with Skye, or Harris and Lewis for that matter, this adventure would involve a fair bit of exploratory driving to find the best spots, then patience waiting for the light but that, I guess it’s the nature of landscape photography. Too many photographers don’t have that patience to wait for the shots, especially when shooting digitally, but that is what gives those who do the edge, usually rewarding them with more interesting and striking images.

In two days on Skye I experienced lots of flat grey light. Occasionally, around the coast, it broke and shafts of sunlight danced on the sea and adjacent islands. I did lots of exploring and not much photography. My ferry from Uig, in the north west of Skye, to Harris was pre-booked but a big storm was moving in so I wasn’t surprised to get the text from the ferry company, Caledonian MacBrayne, to say it was to be delayed by 6 hours. We’d stayed on the east side the previous night on a stretch of sheltered coast near Staffin, below the Qirang mountain. Here the light was better, if not spectacular, and below the cliffs we could park up sheltered from the winds for the night. As I took the mountain pass over Qirang the next morning the clouds parted. Not for long but for long enough to open up a view of the mountain peaks which until this point had eluded despite two days of trying. It’s a landscape which has been much photographed – and which you may well recognise – but its fame is certainly justified and no less impressive in real life.

By the time the ferry sailed that evening at 8.15pm the storm was passing, the winds dropping and sea relatively calm. However, this late sailing at the end of September meant arrival at Tarbert in the dark. I took a guess at where to stay, but wild camping in a campervan is relatively easy on Harris as there are lots of designated layby where you just pay about £5 for the night, the money going to maintaining these for visitors. So, in the dark I drove about seven miles (11km) to Luskentyre, parked up at the end of the road and wondered what world would open up before me in the morning.

Apart from the melodic windsong, my world was silent until the morning’s birdsong woke me gently on a calmer morning. That first look out of Monty following an after-dark arrival is always one I look forward to. What will we find? On this occasion it was high dunes and a path down to the beach. I’ve got to take a proper look and do it now!

On the other side of those dunes was a huge, majestic beach, stretching ahead into the distance for the best part of a mile (1.5km), with views across the bay to Harris’s northwest coast, which I’d be exploring later, and to the nearby Isle of Taransay – scenery to make you draw a deep breath then feel all the stresses of life leave your body as you exhale. The thought of trying to capture this landscape in the coming week excited me. Suddenly it didn’t matter how successful I was going to be at doing this. I was here wrapped in this beautiful place, relishing the challenge, but buoyed by the sense of not having any pressure to succeed, unlike on a trip for a specific commission. One more deep breath of sea air and it was time for breakfast, coffee and then an reccie of the island.

South Harris is relatively small. There aren’t many roads across it but a loop takes you along or close to the west coast, right around the southern and eastern parts of the island. This would be my first exploration route. Even though it winds up and down and in and out around the coast, a leisurely couple of hours will bring you back to your start point. 

Luskentyre dunes

South Harris runs roughly south east to north west. The north west side, where I’d spent the night, is less winding and undulating, staying close to the sea for most of its length. On the other side it climbs then dives down to the shoreline repeatedly through scenery which is more mountainous and reminiscent of County Galway in Ireland. For big landscapes the former offers more scope, while for details and wildlife the latter is intriguing.

OK, so I’m here and already waiting for the light; it changes so quickly. Rainbows dance frequently, but often fleetingly, from the sea, across golden beaches and mountains. There is something magical about sunlight on almost charcoal black and gunmetal grey clouds as rain storms swirl around, whipped across the sky by the Atlantic winds, and the hills alternating between silhouette and detailed panoramas.

Fujifilm GFX 100s and a selection of lenses

It’s easy to get carried away with the poetry of this landscape, but I’m here to make some photographs so let’s turn to my weapon of choice. It’s a beast! Fujifilm’s top of the range latest model in the GFX series – the GFX100S. This camera generates 200Mb RAW files with remarkable ease. If I’m to avoid rapidly filling memory cards and hard drives then I need to take my time and not overshoot. This camera is perfect for the job in hand as it offers supreme image quality – both detail and tonal range – to combine with the discipline of taking my time, much like I would with a film camera. Considered compositions and fewer images are the order or the day or, rather, week.

One of the first things which strikes me on Harris is colour – the colours of the sea, or in the sea, plus the colours in the landscape. The colour palettes are incredibly beautiful. The second is the quality of the light – crisp, clean and sparkling. The beaches are golden white sand. The water, when the wind rests from rippling its surface, is turquoise, with wash-off from the peaty landscape tinting the shallows with russet and burnt umber streaks. The large landscapes are breathtaking but the abstracts it throws at the eye are equally intriguing. Already my mind is buzzing with potential images.

Light and colour

With the main route around the island recced, I needed to spend some time observing and learning the light so I parked up and watched for a while. The weather was mixed but moments in light kept popping up in front of me. I was interested to see whether there were patterns to what was unfolding or whether these were isolated moments, whether they were patterns I could plan how to capture or isolated moments I needed to react quickly to.

My shutter release finger was twitching, though, so the camera came out of the bag. I started with the breaking waves. The wind was whipping them up but it was not a storm-rough sea. The sea has its own patterns as waves break and interact with the outwash from the previous one. You can see the big waves building a way out to sea. Counting, every seventh wave was the biggest one. I was on the lookout for a hint of motion, light coming through the wave-break and the wind whipping the crests. Capturing these is not as easy as it sounds so trial an error was needed and I returned to this subject several times over the week.

I shoot a lot of landscapes with a telephoto lens rather than a wide angle. It’s less conventional and flattens perspective but longer focal lengths are great for isolating or abstracting elements within a landscape. Here on Harris I supplemented the telephoto with a wide angle. Without it I wouldn’t have been able to get those big sky shots which tend to have so much drama in a landscape offering sunshine, storms and rainbows.

Breaking waves with view across to Luskentyre

While I was in Harris I found out that photographer Margaret Soraya, who I’d interviewed with David Newton in our first Eye for the Light Newton & Coe podcast, was also on Harris so it was great opportunity to meet for a coffee and a chat about photography. Margaret is a frequent visitor to Harris so she gave me some great pointers as to where to find interesting shots and the best waves.

Landscapes on south east side of the island are harder to photograph. However, there are some great wildlife opportunities and the birdlife on both Harris and Lewis is fantastic. On the southernmost tip towards Rodel Point, I found a group of three buzzard almost stationary as they rode the wind on the headland not far from the road. When the sun emerged the seal colony could be easily viewed and photographed as they basked onshore in the sunshine at Finsbay. They were really nervous, though, and any sudden movement saw them scuttle into the water and disappear.

To be continued…. check out Land, Sea, Skye – Adventure 3, part 2


By Chris Coe

Chris is a professional photographer, and the founder of Travel Photographer of the Year. He has been working as a professional photographer since 1992, shooting both editorial and advertising photography, and has published over 50 books. He lectures on and teaches photography, mentors and is a competition judge.