Harris and Lewis

The Western Isles had attracted me for many years, drawn by wild landscapes, beautiful golden beaches and azure seas usually seen at latitudes much further south than they are. Like the far north west of the mainland they are a bit of a mission to get to from the north of England. I’m looking forward to the day hopefully not too far away if current research progress continues when cars can dive themselves, imagine going to sleep Friday evening in a camper van and waking up with it having driven you 300miles away! The extra freedom this will offer will be amazing.

Anyway I visited last year taking the ferry over for a few days cycling and exploring. I had a couple of locations I wanted to visit from a photography point of view, there are some spectacular images taken from the beaches on the western cost of Harris taken by others and I had hoped to capture something similar.

In the end none of my images particularly excited my as any of my best, I great sunset shot was always just out of reach particularly due to the not insignificant oversight of forgetting to take my camera stand and thus being somewhat limited in the exposures I could take.

Western Isles (1 of 5)

The Lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis looks out over the North Atlantic. The image is a 3 shot HDR composite

Western Isles (2 of 5)

Another view of the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse

Western Isles (3 of 5)

A beautiful beach at Port of Ness, a village on the north cost of Lewis is typical of the golden sand and light blue seas of the north west. It was actually raining quite heavily and difficult to keep the lens dry.

Western Isles (4 of 5)

Lewis is rich in prehistoric monuments from a long history of habitation. These stones are park of one of the smaller circles at Callanish and would photograph really well at sunset. Again this image is an HDR composite. 

Western Isles (5 of 5)

The beach at Horgabost campsite has stunning view across to the hills of North Harris


Beinn Mheadhoin and Loch Avon

First published on my Blogspot site 15th October 2015

The first few days of my trip north had been characterised by low cloud and drizzle, the weather suggested little prospect of a good day on the hills with the peaks of Cairngorms lost in a blanket of grey cloud smothering out the sun. Having brought my bike with me I had passed the time with a good ride through the woods of Rothiemurchus and and run between Loch Ericht and Loch Laggan via the remote Loch Pattack the bike making short work of the landcover tracks now carved deep into the hills.

Today was different a glimmer of hope to my drenched expectations as I was fast running out of dry cycling kit. The forecast was for a high pressure system to settle over the northern Cairngorms giving blue skies and an excellent opportunity for a long walk into one of the more remote Munros on my still very long to do list; Beinn Mheadhoin situated south of Loch Avon in the heart of the Cairngorms. 

cropped-cropped-img_97431.jpgA winter view of Beinn Mheadhoin (left) and Carn Etchachan (centre) taken from the top of Coire nan Lochan

A hill I had often seen from afar, its distinctive granite tors is easily visible from the top of the Northern Corries after a days climbing but from any further approach it is well guarded from casual suitors by the deep trough containing Loch Avon which to my knowledge must have a good claim as being the most remote large body of water in the UK.

The air was cold and crisp as I left the ski centre carpark but as the sun continued to rise its rays soon provided a warming glow as a worked my way through the clutter of ski detritus that is Coire Cas in summer as various bits of heavy plant dig and scrape their way about the hill in preparation for the coming season. Snow cannons sit forlornly beside a maze of picket fences and lift cables look incongruous agains the heather.

Looking down the gentle slopes of Coire Raibeirt towards Beinn Mheadhoin its tors clearly visible against the skyline.

Having joined the path up to imaginatively named point 1141 which is perched on the shoulder of Cairn Gorm I follow a faint path across the plateau which drops down the gentle slopes of Coire Raibeirt picking up a small stream of tumbling water as it goes. Beinn Mheadhoin dominates the view whilst Loch Avon itself remains hidden in a deep trough ahead only becoming visible at the last minute as the path drops very steeply downwards out of the hanging corie towards the deep blue water. The decent is very steep and strenuous efforts have been made to build stairs down for much of the route saving what would be a pretty horrific scramble over loose rock although the path does eventually end up in the stream bed, no doubt the decent is a nightmare if coated in verglas in winter!

Towards the bottom I cross the stream and pick up another rough path which leads after much bolder hopping to the head on Loch Avon. The remoteness is palpable, a wild place with steep hills and crags on three sides with just the narrow opening to the north west containing the loch itself. The Feith Buidhe cascades down from high on the slopes of Ben Macdui and is crossed on stepping stones where it enters the Loch.

I make a short detour to visit the famous howff of the Shelter Stone one of hundreds of huge boulders that erosion has prized off the encircling crags which now lies across its neighbours creating a sheltered bivvy cave famous in Cairngorm mountaineering history as the base for many climbers exploring routes on the faces above. The shelter is one of many dotted throughout the bolder field no doubt welcome places to rest for those who brave these parts in the depths of winter, if they can find them in amongst the deep drifts of snow. 

Loch Avon with the slope of Cairn Gorm behind.

 Loch Etchachan

From the head of the loch a path climbs steeply to the col between Carn Etchachan and Beinn Mheadhoin, nestled just beyond this is Loch Etchachan the highest large body of water in the UK at over 900m above sea level; it looks a lovely place to camp in good weather surrounded by such awesome scenery. Just before the outflow of the loch I turn up the hillside to the northwest and climb steeply onto the summit plateau of Beinn Mheadhoin. The landscape is flat and stony with very little vegetation, a testament to the difficult year round conditions plant life faces clinging to life in the poor soil. 

The expanse of the summit is dominated by a series of high granite tors their sides wrinkled like old leather and the largest and highest of which proves to be the summit.  Having scrambled onto the top to me they almost almost justify inclusion alongside the Inn Pin as a Munro needing some climbing skills (but not ropes), certainly there are a couple of moves which would not be out of place on a v. diff

The three summit tors, the highest point being the central tor.

The view from the top is quite spectacular, for 360 degrees hills stretch out around you with no sign of roads, houses or the clutter of modern life, its a place to stop and savour just being in a landscape absorbing it in to enrich your soul before heading for home. I spend about half an hour playing about with my camera taking bracketed exposures to try and compensate for the contrast in light conditions which makes exposing both the brilliant blue sky and green brown earth a really chained even with a couple of graduated filters. Finally having had my fill of the view leaving the summit I retrace my steps back down to Loch Avon as the shadows of the day begin to lengthen.

Naturally having decended steeply this morning its a tough climb back the way I came onto the Cairngorm plateau but the babble of water keeps you company and refreshed. Loch Avon is certainly somewhere I would like to return to, perhaps trying to approach from the west and the Fords of Avon by bike or to explore with a packraft, but those are adventures for another day.

The view from just shy of the summit back to Loch Etchachan and Loch Avon, the count back to Cairn Gorm is the steep gully about a third of the way in from the left.

Wind, Sand, and Stars

I’ve been reading “Wind, Sand and Stars” by Antioine de Saint-Exupery a pilot in the very early days of heavier than air flight. His prose is amazing, beautifully descriptive and thoughtful on the adventure of life. This paragraph particularly effected me, one should always be open to new ideas and changing oneself.

“Old bureaucrat, my companion here present, no man ever opened an escape route for you, and you are not to blame. You built peace for yourself by blocking up every chink of light, as termites do. You rolled yourself into a ball of bourgeois security, your routines, the stifling rituals of your provincial existence, you built your humble rampart against the winds and tides and stars. You have no wish to ponder great questions, you had enough trouble suppressing awareness of your human condition. You do not dwell on a wandering planet, you ask yourself no unanswerable questions. No man ever grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay that formed you has dried and hardened, and no man could now awaken in you the dormant musician, the poet or the astronomer who perhaps once dwelt within you.”

I love the vivid description in his prose, here’s a storm whilst flying over the ocean:

“Waterspouts stood in apparently motionless ranks like pillars of a temple. On their swollen capitals rested the dark and lowering arch of the storm, but blades of light sliced down through cracks in the arch, and between the pillars the full moon gleamed on the cold stone tiles of the sea. And Mermoz made his way through those empty ruins, banking for hours from one channel of light to another, circling round those giant pillars with the sea surely surging up inside them, following those flows of moonlight toward the exit from the temple.”

Highly recommended.