Wild Scotland

For this year’s Oxford ArtWeeks I'm planning to concentrate on some of the areas of remote Scotland that I've been spending time in recently.

Strath Halladale

 Strath Halladale, Sutherland

One area of northern Scotland I don’t  know well enough is the mainland north of Inverness.  I've got family connections to Tain and have stopped off there a few times, but even further north from there is the enigmatic wildness of the Flow Country in Caithness and Sutherland.  This is unique country.  I first saw it about 25 years ago from the train line that crosses it, in places far from where the roads go.  There are a few single track roads that intersect with the railway and even a station or two.   The Flow Country is about 1500 square miles of blanket bog, some pretty badly damaged by forestry projects in the 1970s, but now slowly being repaired.  I've been back to the Flow Country, driving up through the wonderful emptiness of Strath Halladale and spending time at the RSPB Reserve at Forsinard.


Eshaness, Shetland

Northmavine is almost an extra Shetland Island.  It’s actually part of the Shetland mainland, but connected by a very narrow neck of land called Mavis Grind.  Fishermen used to drag boats across this neck rather than face the long sail around the north end of the island.  If the fisherman had decided to venture round by sea they would have gone past the cliffs at Eshaness.  When you venture to the little lighthouse on top of the cliffs at Eshaness and look west you won’t see anything.  The next bit of land is the southeast corner of Greenland about 1400 miles away. The coast north from the Eshaness lighthouse is one of the most dramatic coastlines in the Shetland Islands, once you pass the skerries and geos along the headland you reach the deep almost-fjord at Ronas Voe, at one time home to the Shetland whaling industry.

Lairig Ghru

Rothiemurchus Forest, Cairngorm National Park

The poetic sounding Lairig Ghru is one of main passes though the Cairngorm Mountains.  Historically it was the route that people walked and drove livestock along between the Spey and Dee valleys.  It’s been many years since anyone tried to drive cattle through, but the walk between Aviemore (on Speyside) and Braemar (on Royal Deeside) is a popular, if challenging, walk in the summer months.  One of my current projects is exploring how this walk changes through the seasons.  This image is taken in January, when deep snow makes walking to the top of the Lairig Ghru very challenging indeed, and marks the point at the top edge of the Rothiemurchus forest where I decided to turn round and drop back to Speyside.  

St Kilda

Village Bay, Hirta, St Kilda

If we don’t count Rockall, St Kilda is the western-most edge of the United Kingdom.  Administratively St Kilda is part of the Outer Hebrides, but it’s been a while since the council in Stornoway needed to provide much in the way of services.  The islands, St Kilda is actually an archipelago, were last properly inhabited in 1930.  For about 1000 years there had been a small subsistence population on the islands, latterly as part of the Macleod estates of Skye but in 1930, driven by a shrinking population and an increasing sense of isolation, the population petitioned to be evacuated to the Scottish mainland.   In August 1930 two ships moored in Village Bay on Hirta.  The Dunara Castle took most of the islands livestock away for auction and the HMS Harebell, a fishery boat, evacuated the islanders to their new homes at Morvern on the west coast of Scotland.  The islands eventually passed into the ownership of the National Trust for Scotland.  The islands remained unpopulated until 1955, when the Ministry of Defence leased part of Hirta  to establish a monitoring station to track of missiles being fired from the ranges on Benbecula.  Today the islands are still owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and there is still a little radar station staffed by the defence contractors QinetiQ rather than the military.   In 1930 one of the challenges for the islanders was their sense of isolation from the rest of Scotland, nowadays there are routine helicopter flights to St Kilda, and regular tourist boats making their way across the 40 miles of exposed water from Uist and Harris.


Gaada Stack, Foula

Not many islands can claim a role as a double in a major motion picture.  Foula can. In 1937 Michael Powell was making a film about the evacuation of St Kilda. Having unsuccessfully sought permission to film there he looked for another island to play the role of St Kilda.  Foula, off the west coast of Shetland, stepped up.  Powell did modify the script a bit so that the geography matched, but didn’t need to do too much.  Both islands have a high rugged western line of cliffs facing out into the north Atlantic and both have a more gentle eastern side.  However, Powell couldn’t resist the temptation to include Foula's most famous landmark in his film.  The Gaada Stack, a three-legged sea stack, appears right at the start of the film.  Like St Kilda, Foula has maintained a pretty independent attitude.  The difference is that this attitude still persists today.  Foula is still occupied by ordinary, rather than military, people.  It’s also still privately owned.  The island was bought by the Holbourn family at the start of the 20th Century, and it’s still owned by the family, who still live and work on the island. Perhaps the difference between the fortunes of Foula and St Kilda is one of distance.  Although Foula is regularly cut off from the rest of Shetland, it is usually still visible.

Sumburgh Head

Fresh Snow at Sumburgh Head, Shetland

Although Shetland is at the same latitude as southern Greenland it doesn't get much snow. The Gulf Stream usually succeeds in keeping the temperatures above freezing, albeit with the caveat that it can get a bit windy.  Occasionally, though, the winds come from the north, the temperature falls and just sometimes the island gets a dramatic fall of snow.  The snow doesn't often stay around for long, and has a nasty of habit of going from a lovely pristine white to a rather mucky slush quite quickly.  This week the snow fell overnight through until about 10:00 am, then the clouds pulled back, the wind stayed and the sun came out.  This gave me the chance to get around the southern part of Shetland while the snow was still fresh.  Sumburgh Head is one of the two southern tips of Shetland.  The headland is about 100 metres high, and adorned by a Stevenson lighthouse built in the early 19th Century.

If you want to see more of my pictures from Wild Scotland - come and visit me during Oxford Artweeks.

I'm based in Headington in Oxford, and I'm open for Artweeks from 9th - 17th May 2015.  For more information see the Artweeks website.

1 comment:

Colin Chambers said...

Just a beautiful collection of images that really make me want to explore Scotland.