Assynt & Coigach

I was talking to a friend the other day and I mentioned that I was about to set off to the north west of Scotland on a photography trip. They seemed a little surprised given the weather forecast was for rain and wind. "That's how landscape photographers like it" I boasted, "It's about the low angle of the light and the stormy clouds give drama to the image." All true but the weather can be a fickle beast and photographers are at its mercy. It's all about the light. We don't want blazing sun and blue skies, but nor do we want grey boring overcast flat light unless it's accompanied by mist and fog. Landscape photographers get very excited by fog forecasts, especially if accompanied by morning sun. Too much weather can also be a problem; trying to capture sharp images in high winds and rain can often be a frustrating and fruitless experience.

So a trip in autumn guarantees that the sun will be low in the sky for longer and at a more sleep friendly time. And that's about the only thing of which you can be sure. The rest is down to the weather gods. My trip was to the Assynt and Coigach region in the north west of Scotland, a place of stunning scenery and "interesting" weather.

The area I was staying circled in red

Assynt and Coigach has a unique geography unlike anywhere else in the UK. It has just two Munros (mountains over 3,000ft). Conival and Ben More Assynt reside close together in the East, but it was to the western part that I was heading. The mountains maybe smaller here, but they make up for it in their dramatic setting by rising steeply from the surrounding "cnoc and lochan" scenery. Many of the most distinctive peaks such as Suilven were formed during the last Ice Age, when they were left exposed above the ice sheet leaving islands of eroded Torridonian sandstone.

I've been to this area before on walking trips and holidays, but I'd never been there just to take photographs. I used to try and do the photography thing while on walking holidays; it never worked out well. Friends soon grow bored (and cold) waiting for you to finish taking "another bloody photo" and lugging camera, lenses and a tripod up hills is a good way of guaranteeing you're last to arrive at the top just as everyone else is setting off after having had lunch. So indulging an entire solo trip just for photographic purposes solves that problem but does add a little pressure to deliver some decent images. You can't just laugh off a week's worth of rubbish photos by saying "well at least I had a nice walk".

I wasn't doing this trip entirely alone. A good friend and fellow landscape photographer Andy MacDougall was going to be in the area. In fact it was his idea to go to Assynt in the first place and I just tagged along. Landscape photography is normally a solitary pastime but we tried buddying up back in February on a trip to Glencoe. That went well, we got on ok (we got to chat about our favourite subject for hours) and we didn't come back with two sets of identical photos; it's surprising how two people looking at the same scene can convert that into an image in very different ways. Anyhow Covid 19 was going to radically change how we teamed up on this trip as we were not allowed to share the same vehicle under the covid rules. So the rough plan was for us to do our own thing, but try to arrange to cross paths now and again. There was also the additional safety point; this is a remote area with patchy mobile coverage. Falling over whilst off the normal paths could end badly, but at least one of us would be in the area to raise the alarm if one of us failed to turn up at an agreed spot.

Andy had booked a self catering pod for his stay whilst I was taking the motorhome and staying on the campsite at Achmelvich. I should point out that I did not purchase the motorhome solely for photographic purposes. We got it three years ago and it was a joint decision with my wife with the intended aim of more trips at short notice and not being tied to booking accommodation weeks in advance. However, I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to use it as my photo operations mobile base.

Motorhomes have been selling like crazy over the summer as folks see them as a way of getting away and staying within lockdown rules. This is true, but if you're thinking of getting or renting one let me point out some of the challenges. When it rains you will hear every rain drop landing on your roof. Even the lightest of showers will sound like a swarm of hornets trying to get in, so don't forget your ear plugs if you want to get to sleep. And if it's windy then hopefully the random rocking motion will lull you into sleep rather than inducing nausea. Whilst they are roomy, it's still a confined space - try living in your hall cupboard under the stairs for a week to see if you think you could cope. There's also quite a lot to learn; from 12v electrics to how to correctly dispose of your poop. Funny how they never mention that last bit in the adverts. Don't always expect a great welcome wherever you go. After lockdown the country was overrun with white boxes on wheels and so you can understand local frustration at being delayed by inconsiderate drivers, illegal dumping of waste and those that go fully independent and choose not to make any contribution to the local economy.

Motorhomes can also be tricky to park, so getting about once you've arrived in your selected photo location can be difficult. My motorhome has room to carry a bicycle which is why I've been working out how to do photography by bike. The vast majority of sensible landscape photographers get to the photo shoot location by car (or VW sized campervan) and that's great, but I've frequently been driving along and wanted to stop for a great photo shot I'll have spotted and been unable to find anywhere to park safely. Not a problem on a bike; just pull over. The downside of going anywhere by bike is that it's slow and so you've probably missed the sunset anyway because you were too late. There's also the matter of fitness. Cycling is great on the flat but not so much fun in areas where landscape photographers tend to gravitate i.e. mountains. Even if you did make it to that perfect photo location in time, you'll probably arrive drenched in sweat which will then chill you down as you stand about waiting for the sunset. So how do you get around all those downsides ? You go electric.

Or to be precise you go pedelec which means a bicycle that provides motorised assistance to your cycling effort. So you still have to put some effort in, but it's like being Superman but without the draggy cape thing and embarrassing underwear. Unfortunately the law requires that the motor cuts out at about 16 mph so you're still slower than a car but considerably quicker than a normal bike considering you can go at 16 mph uphill whilst you're carrying a load of gear. I could go on and on about the technology but I'll save that for another day; this is supposed to be about a photo trip.

This wasn't my first photo outing with the bike as I'd used it for the Perseids shot in August and the milky way in September. But that was with specific planned shoot locations. This trip was more about using the bike as a means of transport for exploring the area. I was probably thinking more Lake District when I came up with the eBike & motorhome idea, so Assynt & Coigach with its wilder weather and long distances was going to be a challenge.

I decided to break the journey north with a stop somewhere with lots of trees that I hoped would be in in full autumn colour. I used the Forestry Commission Stay a Night scheme which allows motorhomes to park overnight in a limited selection of their car parks. I went for Balnain near Drumnadrochit and had the place nearly to myself apart from one small van and a guy in a 4x4 with search lights who drove past late in the evening probably searching for rabbits to dispatch. I arrived about an hour before sunset - I say sunset - it was more a gradual seeping gloom followed by rain. But heavy rain is often followed by misty conditions early morning so I was not dispirited. I did about an hour of reccying potential morning shots and discovering just how wet the ground was when I filled both boots to the brim with chilled water. Not to worry as I had brought plenty of socks. Back in the van I settled in for a quiet night and watched something I'd downloaded on iPlayer to the background sound of hornets attacking my roof.

Looking back at the photos I took the following morning, I clearly wasn't yet in the zone. It can take a while to get your eye back into spotting decent images and I was taking all sorts of rubbish that morning. Apart from one shot which turned out not too shabby which would have required a long walk as it was impossible to park nearby. I probably wouldn't have bothered but for the bike. It's always good to get one decent shot under your belt early on, takes the pressure off so you know that you won't return empty handed.

Lochletter bridge

I went to America once and there was a hurricane hitting the east coast of America. The TV news talked about nothing else for days. It was very boring. Whilst we don't technically get hurricanes in the UK (not even the Michael Fish one was a hurricane) we do get hurricane wind speeds. When I say "we" I mean the north west of Scotland, especially parts of the Western Isles where it can get windy enough to break telephone poles. When I arrived at Achmelvich campsite the wind was gusting up to a breezy 40 mph which contrasted sharply with the millpond conditions I'd experienced at Balnain. Clearly those wizzy arrows on the weather forecast weren't just made up. But hurricanes kick in at 74 mph so this was just normal weather. I parked the van pointing into the wind in the vain hope that it might minimise the rocking I was going to get that night, plugged in the power cable and filled the water tank with enough for a lot of tea drinking. I might have to ride out this storm and I wasn't going to risk not having enough cups of tea to see me through.

The following day dawned brightly.... actually I lie, I have no idea if it dawned brightly as I was tucked up in bed trying to catch up on sleep after a disturbing nightmare involving hornets. I eventually got my act together just after 9 and set off by bike to explore the road south of Lochinver. I'd already planned a few shots ahead and wanted to reccy them, but I was struggling with the bright light. It was too bright as the early sun was low enough to be in frame. I needed to be further south looking north with side lighting which is exactly where Andy was as he'd been up early and was having fun looking for glacial erratics. Meanwhile I was experiencing one of the downsides of bike photography; specifically where do you leave your bike when you need to wander further off road for a particular shot. Whilst the likelihood of theft in this area is very low, losing the bike would be a major downer and it's impossible to lock the bike to an immovable object as per the definition of an immovable object in my bike insurance policy. So the answer is to conceal the bike some distance away from the road and lock it. Not an easy task to push a heavy bike through heather or over boggy ground as I was soon to discover and ended up filling my boots with water for the second time on this trip.

Cul Mor from Boat Bay

I eventually met up with Andy (long chat ensued) on the road near Boat Bay. We agreed to meet at Loch Druim for sunset but then proceeded to keep overtaking each other along the road as we each kept stopping for "just another shot".

One of the tiny islands by the side of the Wee Mad road south of Lochinver

Eventually I made it to Loch Druim, but was surprised that Andy wasn't there. There was no wind and the Loch was a mirror but there was no good light, although the prospect of some rain coming in from the west was encouraging for dramatic shots. I messaged Andy a quick photo, turns out he was getting breakfast (and I suspect a quick nap after his early start) .... and he joined me later. The sunset light never came but we did get some dark rain clouds over Canisp. I gave up and cycled back to the campsite where I discovered a small piece of heaven in an onsite fish 'n' chip shop. No cooking required tonight!

Loch Druim and Canisp in cloud and Suilven looming dark above us

The next day started soggy. I wanted to explore towards the Kirkaig falls and so decided to take the van to the nearby car park and walk in. I found a great shot of Suilven just as a heavy shower arrived. But it was soon clearing quickly and I wanted to catch Suilven whilst still shrouded in cloud. This shot is focus stacked which means taking several photos with the lens focused at different points in the photo. This is often necessary where you have close foreground and distant background. You then blend the multiple files in post-processing and end up with a tack sharp image from near to far.

Suilven after rain

I headed back to the van after a brief encounter with a herd of deer; the stag had spotted me long before I saw him.

That was a morning gone already and my photo buddy was equally delayed. We agreed to meet at Stoer lighthouse for sunset. Back on two wheels I was making full use of the e-assistance to power up the hills and combat the considerable head winds out near Stoer head. Andy arrived a little later and then we headed up the hill for a good shot of the lighthouse. Now I don't mind admitting that I wasn't fully committed to this shot. It was extremely windy, I could see lots of rain coming, it was going to be very dark soon and I was over 16 miles from my nice warm van and I was on a bike. eBike or not I was going to be cycling into a headwind again (yes I had a headwind in both directions) with lashings of cold rain, so I didn't want to delay and decided to leave Andy to it - he got a great shot, mine was rubbish. I shall never forget the next 40 mins of cycling, let's just say I wasn't hanging about. I managed to stay mostly dry and actually started to enjoy the experience after a while. The bike performed flawlessly and I soon flew past the fish 'n' chip shop (it was a struggle).

Back at the van putting gear away as the rain clouds clear

The next day I biked out to Glencanisp lodge and beyond to see if the route was bikeable but with no particular shot planned. The answer was 'no'. Once beyond the lodge the path gets muddier and rockier. There were tracks left by mountain bikers, but the tyres on my bike weren't up to it and the extra weight of the eBike and camera gear just made for an unpleasant ride. I only fell off once and luckily landed on soft but prickly ground. The camera and tripod also survived, but I knew I was out of my depth for bike handling skill and headed back.

I met Andy on the way back to the campsite. He was going in the opposite direction back to his pod for a change of clothing after also falling over but without the luck to land in something that wasn't wet and muddy. We agreed to meet up at Clachtoll at high tide which when combined with the strong winds we hoped should produce some exciting crashing waves over split rock.

Strong winds and rain showers at Clachtoll

We did indeed get big waves but timing the shot proved difficult and despite hundreds of shots I don't have anything worth sharing. Just keeping the camera steady was a challenge even with the camera down low and on a tripod. It was wickedly windy and the sea spray in the air was beginning to coat the front lens element. The shot above was taken along the coast a bit, out of the full might of the wind. I retreated to the van, glad that I had decided to drive this time as it gave me a break from the wind onslaught. Chance for a cuppa too. Normally me and Andy would have shared a cuppa and raided the biscuit tin, but the Covid rules put paid to that and instead Andy reviewed his shots, which is another way of saying that he had a nap. It turns out Andy had earned his nap as he'd produced a stunner.

We had also agreed a rendezvous for sunset so I headed off and reccy'd the spot and Andy joined me a few mins later. Nice view but no spectacular sunset although we did get a moon rise.

Suilven and with the moon rising over Cul Mor

Andy was heading home the next day whilst I had decided to stay on for another couple of days as the forecast was looking better. One of the advantages of the van is that you don't always have to book a campsite and so I wanted to make best use of the good forecast and get up early the next day to climb Stac Pollaidh. I parked up about 20 mins away from the start of the walk in an area that specifically permits overnight parking and as the rain set in again I settled down for an early night. My slumber was interrupted by someone at about 11:45pm sounding their car horn as they drove past. As I said before, not everyone is keen to welcome motorhomes to the area. I turned over and went back to sleep.

The alarm went off at about 5:30 am but I didn't rush. One of the advantages of hearing every raindrop hitting the roof of my van meant that I knew without opening an eyelid that the predicted clear skies were not happening. However, rain showers can clear quickly so I did get up and I was on my way trying not to disturb the one other van and someone sleeping in their car; I probably failed on that last bit.

At the Stac Pollaidh car park there was already a white VW campervan that had parked overnight. The rain was still deciding whether to stop so I had breakfast before setting out at the first signs of early light. I made the saddle of the hill after about 45 mins, but the sunrise wasn't as good as I had hoped.

Suilven and Cul Mor from Stac Pollaidh

However, the forecast for tomorrow was much better. Today had been a good practise run to work out how long the climb would take. I descended the long and very muddy alternative way lingering a while for a silhouette shot of one of the islands in Loch Lurgainn before moving onto Polbain and parking up for a bit of cycle exploring for the rest of the day.

Loch Lurgainn

Having identified a possible good view across to Stac Pollaidh, I had a long wait, the cloud was low but the beginnings of tomorrow's clear spell was beginning to arrive. I managed to get a few shots with the clouds still clinging to the hills.

A long wait for Stac Pollaidh hiding in the cloud
The lone wind turbine above Achiltibuie

My route back to the van was heartened by a smile and a wave from a local as I cycled past; as I was pulling a trailer I think they were feeling sorry for me. I didn't point out I was hardly having to put in any effort as I still had over 50% battery left and wasn't planning on using the bike again on this trip, so it was 'Sport' mode all the way back.

After hanging up my wet kit (it had started raining 10 mins from the van), I drove back to the Stac Pollaidh car park for my overnight stop. Arriving at dusk I had the place to myself before being joined by yet another VW campervan. Mr Honker passed by again at about 11 pm but he didn't stop me getting up in time for a 6 am departure.

Stac Pollaidh from half way up - it was early - very early

At the saddle for 6:45 for what I can only describe as a wonderful experience. I had the hill entirely to myself, no wind and the roaring of stags in the distance was the icing on the cake. Sunrise was amazing, but I had a small window of time to capture my shots as the low lying mist boiled up around me and obscured my view for a while.

My viewpoint as the mist rolled by

The mist provided a screen for a rainbow to form beside me although I couldn't get it into any decent composition.

Rainbow on Stac Pollaidh

The cloud soon cleared and I was shooting again, but with the sun swinging to the south and behind the hill, I was still in shade and the passing cloud had cooled things down considerably. A few sips of a hot drink helped, but I was still getting colder and eventually decided I'd had the best of the light and should head down. Finally catching some sun I soon warmed up and then started meeting the day's walkers coming up the hill. It's a popular hill and so was busy and the first few I met were going to get a great view although I reckon I'd had the best viewpoint in the world that morning.

What a difference a day makes

Back at the car park it was nearly full, so I moved onto to a quieter parking spot nearer to the main A road to allow someone else access to the hill that day. The weather was deteriorating quickly but I was done now and after backing up my images I settled down to a very leisurely and satisfying breakfast overlooking Loch Lurgainn.

I'd spent a week in this small beautiful part of Scotland, totally absorbed in photographing the landscape and the basics of eating and sleeping. I was really tired and had loved the experience but was ready to head home. Many thanks to Andy for the great company and his boundless enthusiasm for getting out there.

Tim Hodges - www.irisone.co.uk