This is one of those posts that I’ve had to start and restart writing several times.
There’s just too much to tell. It’s been a remarkable year in many ways. For better or worse, this has been the first full calendar year where I have put my creative passions squarely front and centre in my life. And I think it’s for the better.
At times it feels as if I’ve made little progress. But that’s only if you measure by the least important of statistics. By every meaningful measure of life that actually matters, it’s been a hell of a year. An incredible year. I’ve spent months doing very little – that’s true. But that’s no bad thing, let me tell you. In rest I’ve rebuilt my health to a degree that seemed unattainable 24 months ago.
With that health I’ve not only ‘gone back’ to places I used to go, and the person I used to be. I’ve moved forwards. I’ve achieved things I spent years dreaming of, even before chronic fatigue. I’ve reached new places, seen wonderful sights, and reaped the rewards in my soul.
Heck knows if I can keep that up. But every single person with whom I’ve shared my doubts has told me the same thing.
My relationship with landscape photography has changed in 2021. I think I love it even more than I used to. Because it drew me toward things I didn’t think I could do, and showed me I was wrong.
Without further ado, here are the twelve images that best represent the journey of this bizarre and remarkable year. And if there is a theme to these images then it is this: You Can Do More Than You Think
1. ‘Snowmists’, Loch Morlich
The year began with a renewed lockdown. At the start of this spell I still felt weighed down by fatigue, with brief depressive episodes about my prospects of recovery. But I was able to embrace the lockdown as a further opportunity for rest and recovery. I began to improve gradually, but was helped along enormously by the incredible winter weather we had in the Cairngorms. The temperatures were cold enough to freeze lochs solid, and the snow cover lasted for weeks on end, if not months. During our allowed exercise we were able to explore and enjoy some superb winter scenes. The photography opportunities motivated me to go further and longer each time, and made a material improvement to my fitness and energy at a time when we all felt helpless about events in the wider world. It gave us optimism to see that the world was still full of beauty.
2. ‘Grandfather II’, Glen Eanaich
One of the aspects of lockdown that I can say I genuinely enjoyed was the chance to spend more time with my wife Kirsty, as we explored our local landscapes together. With travel further afield still restricted we confined ourselves to what could be done on nordic ski. On one of the most enjoyable and beautiful days of all we ventured to the highest reaches of the woods on the slopes of the Cairngorms. It was a challenging adventure full of laughs and difficulties, which pushed me beyond my perceived physical limit. I felt that even though the world was going through a difficult time I was still the luckiest man on earth, enjoying such a beautiful place and experience together. By the time we reached home I felt I had achieved something I hadn’t thought possible, and that I might be able to do things I didn’t necessarily think I could.
3. ‘The Dark Forest’, Rothiemurchus
This image may seem like an odd choice. It’s dark. It’s sleety. It’s dreich. But I love it. In fact, I think it’s my favourite image of the whole year. It’s got everything I look for in a good landscape. A beautiful Scots Pine; layers of land fading off into the distance; dramatic weather; an ambiguous horizon. But much more valuable than any of that is the memory of being there. Way up at the top of the woods, in a location I had yearned for years to visit.
4. ‘Point 1141’, Cairngorm
Building directly on the gains and successes of the previous months, I finally ventured back to the Cairngorms after too long an absence. On a spring evening I climbed the ridge of Fiacaill a Choire Cas to catch the sun setting over the snowy northern coires from the cairn at Point 1141. My greatest delight of the evening though was not the stupendous view, but realising that for the first time in years I actually felt fit and strong again. For the first time in years the hills began to feel like a place I belonged.
5. ‘Ardlair’, Loch Maree
While the snows lingered on the Cairngorms spring was flourishing elsewhere in the Highlands. As lockdown eased I made my first trip ‘away’ for some time, to my other favourite place in Scotland – Loch Maree. This was the first chance I had to begin exploring some of the promising locations I had scoped out last year on previous visits. It was wonderful to spend a few days away solo; camping, canoeing and enjoying the growth in self and knowledge that comes with physical exploration of a new place.
6. ‘Standing Stone’ – Beinn Eighe
During a spell of hot, settled weather Kirsty and I took the opportunity to spend a night camped in one of Scotland’s most dramatic mountain coires – Coire Mhic Fhearchair – on the north side of Beinn Eighe. With a few nights under canvas already under our belt this year it seemed the perfect chance to indulge in a real adventure, while also fulfilling a long held dream to photograph the coire in the light of a summer sunset.
7. ‘Carn Etchachan’ – Cairngorms
Buoyed by the success of our trip to Beinn Eighe, I finally took a leap of faith to fulfill one of my longest held desires. To sleep out on the Cairngorm Plateau (for the first time in 10 years), and to watch the sun rise over the Cairngorms from above Loch Avon. On the summer solstice I packed my bag and walked in to Stag Rocks, there to spend the night alone on the mountain. This brief solo trip turned out to be all I could have hoped for and more. It fired me with enthusiasm for the mountains in a way I had not felt in years.
8. ‘Garbh Coire’ – Braeriach
Climbing Braeriach had been a long held goal of mine. The mountain’s remoteness and size had always made it a daunting prospect; but while living through fatigue the idea of climbing it was downright laughable. But in late summer, a couple of months after my night on Cairngorm, I found myself starting the long walk in. Despite a the enormous weight of a huge rucksack, and despite the lingering effects of a recent back injury, I found myself at the summit just as the sun set. The following morning I had the mountain to myself as the sun rose over the Garbh Coire. I finally was able to see this view with my own eyes. But even better was the knowledge that I was not merely going back to old, known places. I was even able to achieve things I had never done before, to go forward and make new goals. Crucially, it also changed my mentality in a big way. I embraced the possibility of failure. I was finally able to tell myself it was ok to fail, but that it was no longer a reason not to start.
9. ‘Light Web’ – Loch Avon
Of all the places I returned to or explored anew, this was the place I most wanted to experience for its sheer, unfathomable beauty. Swimming in waters clearer than glass, watching the sun ripple and shine among the sand and weeds of the deep. Feeling enervated by the purity of coldness while also a thrill of fear to peer into the depths. Without exaggeration, I can say this was the most singularly intense moment of living in an entire year. Of all my new memories from the Cairngorms, this one is the most precious to me. By far.
10. ‘Woodland Colour’ – Rothiemurchus
The arrival of autumn marked the start of the ‘months of wonder’ when the landscape reveals its most gorgeous colours. Of the many images I made during that time this was the one I loved best, returning to a location I had not visited for 5 years. But I will remember that moment especially for the alternating feelings of deep contentment and euphoria that peaked then, which had been building during the course of weeks spent chasing colour and light throughout the woods. A feeling best described as total freedom.
11. ‘The Tree of Orion’ – Rothiemurchus
As winter returned dark skies came with it, and during a crystal clear night a friend and I went out to photograph the night sky over the snowy mountains. I always find it both awe-inspiring and strangely comforting to look at the night sky. You can bathe in wonder at the infinite beauty of the stars, but also take comfort in the fact that your mistakes and worries are, in the grand scheme of things, insignificant. Life seems all the more special after such a night, and my commitment to following my passion is always renewed in light of it.
12. ‘Mountainrise’ – Abernethy
For five days the Highlands were blessed with the most extraordinary conditions of weather and light, with heavy frosts and thick mists shrouding the glens while mountaintops bathed in light. This was ‘The Great Inversion’; days of such awe inspiring beauty that it left me feeling overwhelmed by wonder and joy. It was a challenge to pick a single image to represent what was actually a huge experience, but this is the one. Bynack Mor looming above the mists at sunrise, above a sunlit scene of mist and frost. An extraordinary morning that simply made me happy to be in this world, and to be able to experience the best of it.
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