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Scotland's Highland Coast PHOTOGRAPHING SCOTLAND'S ATLANTIC COASTLINE

A colleague from New Zealand once remarked to me - of Scotland’s landscape – that it wasn’t quite as dramatic as that of his homeland. “Beautiful nonetheless”, he continued; but as a young man in my twenties it was easy to be instinctively defensive. In hindsight, though, he’s right on both counts. While While Scotland does have some notable land and seascapes, there is an unmistakable air of calm and serenity to much of the landscape, quite opposed to a land of towering mountains and perilous ascents. However, when I reflect on the sense of fulfillment to be gained from the Scottish landscape, I generally think of one particular coastal stretch: the Atlantic coast between Arisaig and Mallaig, and on the ocean towards the Knoydart and Skye.

The Arisaig to Mallaig stretch of coastline is characterized by a series of pristine white sandy beaches, crystal clear blue water and some spectacular views of the Isles of Eigg and Rum. Tranquil and picturesque, if you are searching for peaceful solitude then this is where you will find it. After skirting Loch Eil and sweeping up along through the craggy hills between Loch Eilt and Loch Ailort, the landscape quickly opens up into a refreshing seascape. For those that live for the moment when the seaside reveals itself on the horizon, this stretch will certainly evoke that sense of excitement.

My first experience was of this part of Scotland was in the small fishing village of Mallaig, which is also the terminus of the branch line railway from Fort William. Most tourists, as we did, arrive there by train. The ‘Jacobite’ is a steam train which runs from Fort William on a daily basis, doing its best to mimic the ‘Hogwarts Express’, and offering the chance to journey through some of the majestic landscapes used to film the Harry Potter movies; including Sir Robert McAlpine’s famous concrete viaduct which curves around the valley at Glenfinnan. Passengers descend upon the village at lunchtime and have two hours to spend there before hustling back aboard for the return journey south.

The throng of tourists quickly fill up the local restaurants, so if you feel you don’t want to fritter away the time waiting to be seated, then you may want to settle for fish & chips and eat by the harbour. The harbour itself is home to the usual array of small fishing boats and the support craft, and also serves as a port for the ‘Lord of the Isles’, which is the ferry that serves Armadale on Skye. However, activity in the harbour is not necessarily consistent with that of a bustling fishing port, and its easy to imagine that the heyday of this port is likely behind it.

Travelling back south on the train provides a great opportunity to see the glistening coastline between Morar and Arisaig. The bay sweeps back and forth from the railway line, fleeting at times, but offers fantastic views of a seemingly pristine and tranquil coastline, peppered with tiny islands and other rocky out croppings. Looking out to the horizon, the distinctive headlands on the Islands of Eigg and Rum provide a perfect backdrop. It was these views that convinced me that we had to return to Morar and Mallaig take a better look, and perhaps photograph this coastal landscape under some more dramatic light.

One of the more captivating qualities of Mallaig Harbour is that it can look spectacular under most weather conditions, and on the west coast of Scotland that it just as well, as the Atlantic coast will offer many stormy incursions on the coastline. Our most recent trip to Mallaig coincided with a low pressure front which stalled off the west coast, creating almost windless conditions, despite some very broody looking skies. From a photography perspective, such opportunities are rare and not to be taken for granted.

My preferred approach was to walk the half mile or so around the harbor towards the north. From this vantage point there are endless opportunities to photograph lone craft at anchor in the harbor. Setting the aperture at f/4.5 provided enough of a pop for the boats as a central focal point, while maintaining some detail on the background. In this particular instance, the background represented a sensational opportunity to juxtapose a stormy mountainous horizon against the serene windless conditions in the harbor, enjoying a band of sunlight not in evidence in the background. Another advantage was that this allowed the colour to really become a feature of the image, with the ripples of glorious blue set against the primary colours of the boat’s hulls. Potential subjects in the harbour were endless, and the conditions meant that I could shoot hand held, taking as many shots as I pleased without having to reconfigure a tripod every few minutes. It can actually be quite advantageous to be shoot so indiscriminately, it provides some “muscle memory” in composing each shot, instinctively setting the boats along the intersection of lower third gridline of each image.

The water and reflections are a key part of photography within Mallaig harbour, though. They can be used to your advantage to add a quirky nature to most scenes, even those that may seem non standard in composition. In this case, such examples were the rusting hulls of the fishing fleet, again with brilliant browns, reds, and blues that become amplified by the very accommodating reflections in the ever so still Atlantic waters. In such instances, it is actually perfectly fine to throw composition to the wind. The small details in these images reveal a life of hard work, like the lines on a heavily wrinkled face; you can easily get a sense of the hardships, toil, and storm induced brutality that may have been endured on the west coast; something that may indeed have to be imagined on a bright sunny afternoon in a tourist filled town.

The water and reflections are a key part of photography within Mallaig harbour, though. They can be used to your advantage to add a quirky nature to most scenes, even those that may seem non standard in composition. In this case, such examples were the rusting hulls of the fishing fleet, again with brilliant browns, reds, and blues that become amplified by the very accommodating reflections in the ever so still Atlantic waters. In such instances, it is actually perfectly fine to throw composition to the wind. The small details in these images reveal a life of hard work, like the lines on a heavily wrinkled face; you can easily get a sense of the hardships, toil, and storm induced brutality that may have been endured on the west coast; something that may indeed have to be imagined on a bright sunny afternoon in a tourist filled town.

It was these two islands that was actually the real reason for our return (by car) some years after our first trip by train. Having arrived on the ferry from Armadale, we set off south from Mallaig to the nearby hamlet of Camusdarach. Why, you might ask? The Camusdarach beach was the filming location for the cult Scottish film ‘Local Hero’. Filmed in the 1980’s, it told the story of a Houston oilman who arrived in the fictional Scottish fishing village of Ferness to negotiate the sale of the bay for an oil terminal. While the village scenes were filmed closer to Fraserborough, the beach scenes were filmed in Camusdarach. This was the set for ‘Ben’s Beach’, the home of the eponymous beachcomber, played by Fulton Mackay, a much revered Scottish comedic actor. This was the set for some truly beautiful scenes, complemented by some very moody views of Eigg and Rum, set to a perfectly composed soundtrack by Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler. Having walked through the sodden dunes to reach this beach, it was easily to imagine Peter Reigart’s character wistful yearnings for Scotland. Indeed, as I myself am now resident in Houston, there’s a connection to this beach that goes beyond the physical landscape. It tends to represent a part of my own identity.

Photographing the beach tends to require a commitment to wide angle photography, in order to take in the sweeping beauty of the coastline. A key part of any photograph here is to incorporate the isles of Eigg and Rum, even if at least to serve as a frame for the image, but most importantly to convey that they frame the essence of the landscape, not just physically. A common irritation associated with such landscape images is that wide angle photography can result in perspective distortion; which will create the illusion that appears to compress the height of the islands within the image; appearing much smaller on the horizon than they do to the naked eye. To some extent, this can be overcome by using a prime lens (with no zoom function), and, or, some trickery on post-processing. On location, though, some ways to avoid this are to shot from an elevated perspective – on top of the nearby dunes being an example. However, I found that this can be at the unpleasant expense of losing the foreground. One of my favourite shots made full use of the ripples in the sand, carved out by the action of repetitive waves during the high tides. The gentle curve of the beach gullies finding their way to the water’s edge provided a perfect set of lead lines, drawing the eye nicely to the islands on the horizon. As previously indicated, incorporating the water as a central player in these photographs is key to fully capturing the essence of Scotland.

Enjoyment of the water, as opposed to just photographing it cannot be recommended highly enough. For those less inspired by a simple movie, the white sandy beaches just a little further south towards Arisaig are just breathtaking. The beach at Silversands arcs beautifully around the bay with some spectacular views of Eigg. The water is the crystal clear turquois blue that you come to expect from the Caribbean, and strangely just as inviting. Unfortunately, the colour of the water is more a function of the reflectivity of the sands, and not the climate. This means that water was particularly cold, even in the summer. Undeterred, though, I waded along the shoreline with my jeans rolled up above my knees, enjoying every refreshing minute of it. The kids, on the other hand, were not so easily convinced that it was a good idea. As a Scotsman living in America, connecting with the water is key recharging the patriot batteries. Wading through the icy cold, but brilliant blue water is a moment that I often reflect upon in the 100% humidity of south east Texas. Photographs which convey this are of huge importance when reminiscing about my homeland.

Created By
Ray Devlin
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raydevlinphotography.com