Storr in cloud
We have been here before. What a huge difference the weather can make to the landscape photographer's lot.
On my last visit to Skye there was such a storm that I could scarcely stand. I was in real fear of losing my camera - if not my life - photographing the Mealt Waterfall plunging over its 60m (197ft) basalt cliff.
The River Sligachan was thundering along with such force I could imagine the old stone road bridges being swept away. The Cuillin beyond were scarcely visible in the murk.
Fast forward to this last trip - and the bridges were basking quietly in the morning sunshine, as you can see from the comparison shots, while the mountains strutted their dramatic stuff in the background.
I had however just spent more than an hour looking at clouds. Don't get me wrong: I like clouds, and with another hat on they are splendid grist to my mill.
On this day, pouring over the top of a rocky escarpment in a fluid arc they were majestic. It is when they don't quite clear the object of your desire beyond that frustration begins to set in.
As I made another cup of tea on the campervan stove I had plenty of time to reflect on the fact that, as an adult with a camera, I have never seen the Old Man of Storr. I have to reach back more than four decades in my memory to my first glimpse of them. They loomed frighteningly out of the descending dark above the little boy in the back seat of the car.
Now, sipping my campervan tea, re-checking the camera settings, I watched the tourist minibuses disgorge their selfie-stick packs onto the path up the hillside.
Good luck to them. Sadly I was nursing - in a very real sense - an ankle agonisingly wrenched on the first day of my trip. It was fortunate that my transport had an automatic gearbox and that it was my left ankle I had damaged, otherwise I would have had to abandon the tour before it had really started and summon roadside assistance to get me home.
But there was no question of walking 50 yards let alone going up a hill. So I was essentially stuck with this vantage point. After more than an hour it was obvious that the weather was, if anything, getting worse.
Depth of field
I packed up and headed south to the Skye Bridge. As I drove, the sun burst through the overcast and I enjoyed one of the finest days of my trip, stopping to make some pictures along the way - including some featuring the quiet trickle of water beneath the stone bridges at Sligachan.
My overall objective on this tour of the North West was a little grassy outcrop topped with rocks much further up the coast.
My mission: to reprise some pictures I had made there before - in a storm force wind - when I did not quite nail the depth of field I needed.
What I had seen and photographed then, as I paused at a natural vantage point, was that the rocks in the foreground, ice-scoured by the look of them, echoed the shapes of the mountains beyond. Not uncannily so, but sufficiently well to make an interesting sinuous harmony of a composition.
Unfortunately through tiredness and the difficulty of doing anything in the Force 10 - and frankly, with hindsight, incompetence - I did not select sufficient aperture to have both foreground and background in sharp focus. To an extent this was not a bad thing, but the background was just too far out for my liking.
In practice, with the 200mm lens I had been using to get enough compression to make the composition work, the required depth of field might not have been attainable. But I theorised that I could in that case bracket the focussing and come away with the goods.
All that way ...
There was virtually no wind on this occasion. Unfortunately however, the long road there was taking me steadily back into the bank of clouds hanging narrowly along the coastal fringe. (See: Duvet weather)
By the time I arrived, the pretty pink little geological feature that was the object of my desire and the foreground subject of my picture was just a pile of dull grey stones not worth a second glance: which is interesting in itself, because it had been the sunlight splashing on them first time around that had given me the whole idea.
I remember reading in Colin Prior's Introduction to his book of stunning mountainscapes, High Light, A Vision of Wild Scotland (Constable, London, 2010), that he plans his pictures with military thoroughness. But he says that in spite of all the preparations, "I frequently return without having taken a single shot", and might have to revisit over two or three years to get the image he had envisaged.
And that is how it was for me, after flying from Essex to Glasgow then hiring the means to drive for hundreds more miles.
A wasted trip? Of course not. Along the way I saw and photographed Rannoch Moor looking more tranquil than I have ever seen it; Stob Dearg and its streams in brilliant sunshine; parts of Skye that had previously been under a tumult of foul weather; Bealach na Ba in glorious shafts of late afternoon sun; Skye again, still in cloud but, from a distant vista, its peaks like islands in the sky.
I met some lovely people: the good folk at the curious, community-owned little Glenelg-Skye Ferry that seemed unchanged since I had last used it some 40 years earlier, a thrilling ride through the swirling, 8-knot tide; the woman who stopped to admire a view with me and wished me well on my travels; the former actor now selling his award-winning ice creams from a retro-look silver caravan in Applecross; the hitchhiking artist who had been to see one of her paintings exhibited in public for the first time.
How weird is that?
I had the freedom of travelling by mobile home, essentially unconcerned at where I might wind up and thus able to make the very most of the shortening autumn days.
So to end where I began: I'll be back.
A footnote: I had the most eerie of experiences driving south again. On my way I passed Glen Affric. I contemplated a detour to visit, as it is one of the most beautiful places I know. But the light was going, I had been driving all day, and I was anxious to get to the camping ground I had earmarked on Loch Tay before nightfall.
So I drove past. I parked up in my allotted space alongside Loch Tay, got the dinner on, poured a glass of wine and sat down to check e-mails on my phone. Quite bizarrely, as I had been passing Glen Affric a man in Germany had been ordering a print of one of my views of it on my website.
When I got into conversation with him on e-mail, it turned out that he knew it because relatives of his had lived there, in one of those cottages, before they were modernised. Now, if you know Glen Affric, you will appreciate just how random this is. And if you don't know it, suffice to say there is only a handful of habitations there.
This coincidence is so spooky I have been telling the story ever since. As you can see!
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