We arrived at Loch Maree in darkness, pulling into our usual spot beside the shore in an inconspicuous layby. The engine gave way to quietness; the headlights to darkness. From that moment a deep contentment rose in me.
We were away at last. We were back at last. At home in a wild place.
I walked down to the shore in the darkness. Every time I come here I have to touch the water of the loch, to make physical contact. Beside the black rocks of a little bay I sank my hands under the waters, felt the sharp pain of their intense cold. In the darkness physical sensation was heightened, the senses alive to things all around that could be felt though not seen.
That is not to suggest it was pitch blackness, however; far from it. The familiar outline of Slioch was clear against the night sky, brilliantly backlit by a full moon that was just rising into the night sky. A sleek eyebrow of cloud lay above. For a brief moment, with my hands in the cold water and my eyes locked to the moon, I felt skewered by the gaze of the universe.
I shivered, though the air was not cold at all. The night felt warm – the first real warmth of spring. The equinox was just a few days away, the weather was fine, and we were back again at that most beloved place. I did not shiver with cold, but with passion.
We turned in for the night. What bliss to be deprived of the many ‘entertainments’ and distractions that keep us from sleep, night after night. What greater pleasure than to lie in the quiet dark as the moon wheeled over us, and the sun beneath. On this equinoctial night a near-perfect division of light and darkness. Sun following moon following sun following moon. The arc of the ecliptic was balanced as finely as a knife edge. A perfect symmetry at the dawn of the new season.
Slioch. Now there’s a mountain worth looking at. There are others in Scotland, of course, that equal it for grandeur. But none that I can think of which so completely dominate an area as Slioch does Loch Maree. The focal point of every view, it demands attention without insisting. It’s majesty is impossible to ignore. My eyes just can’t help but wander back to it. My gaze lingers there for hours at a time, doing nothing more than watching the light paint across its canvas stones.
But at this precise time of year Slioch seemed to warrant even greater attention, for it marked the place on the horizon where sun and moon would successively rise, and the antipodal point of their setting. The mountain-cradled waters of Loch Maree were like the centre of a gargantuan stone circle, with ancient and worn-down peaks marking the perimeter. Slioch was the headstone, marking the central axis upon which the world turned.
The sun returned twelve hours later, bringing a morning full of fresh light, breezy waters, and heart aching beauty. The sun topped Slioch exactly as predicted, shining like a beacon over the waters of Loch Maree.
We spent the morning in peaceful relaxation, with no hurry or purpose other than to enjoy this moment in time; this place in the universe. We wanted, if possible, to load our canoe and head in to the islands of the loch for the next night, where we have enjoyed so many trips in the past. But the wind rose through the morning, and in a short while the waters were showing white caps.
I love this place, in all its weathers. But I am a little bit frightened by it too. Like all truly wild places, respect for its power is not optional. Last time I paddled these waters, in the autumn, I was alone in a sea kayak. I set off to cross the loch, but turned back mid crossing amongst steep breaking waves and powerful winds. I made good decisions and paddled out safely, though I was left with an image in my head of tremendous waves bearing down on my small boat, alone in the waters and far from shore. By the time I was off the water the wind was gusting at least 60mph on the loch.
We were decidedly cautious. The sun may be warm, but the waters of the loch were still winter-cold. The open crossings are large, prone to surprisingly big swells and breaking waves. Kirsty and I could handle them in a canoe if we were alone, and unburdened with camping gear. But our boat would be heavy with both of us and kit, and that’s not even to mention Scout, who is not exactly a calm (or stable) presence in a canoe. A capsize far from the shore, in such cold water, could have a poor outcome.
So we waited, and explored the shoreline some more. I discovered a new spot that would yield an excellent image given the right conditions – knowledge to be tucked away for the future. By late afternoon the winds had abated. We returned to our parking spot and decided the risk was now at an acceptable level.
In short order we had loaded the boat, and with an unhelpful scream and jig of enthusiasm from Scout we set out. The afternoon sun was actually hot now, for the first time this year, but the loch still rolled with smooth waves and the occasional breaker. We made a swift and safe crossing, arriving dry and unscathed amid the beautiful islands of the loch. Steering for a beach I had kept in the back of my mind as a good camping spot, we quickly found ourselves a gorgeous spot, sheltered from the wind and blessed by the absence of midges.
There are many islands on Loch Maree, but this particular one I had only set foot on once before. Last year I explored its interior, but this was the first time I would be making a serious effort to use that knowledge. By the time we had made camp the sun was lowering, so we set off to see what we could find.
The pinewoods of the Loch Maree islands are a cornucopia for my style of photography, and in the warm evening light it was a wonderful place to be. However, I felt the burden of my own ignorance. That horrible feeling you get sometimes, as a photographer, that there is a superb photo somewhere nearby but you just can’t find it. Most of the shots I made felt somewhat formulaic and obvious. When I tried to find something different, the compositions felt forced and crowded.
I did find a few nice angles – one with great potential, even (below). But I was struggling to produce anything of the quality I aim for – something that really felt unique; an undeniable sense of moment and place. I had to remind myself that it took ten years to find that in the Cairngorms. By contrast, I’ve only spent a few weeks here at Loch Maree (cumulatively) , and only one previous visit to this specific spot.
Quality in landscape photography comes from knowledge and understanding of the landscape. It is only earned by investing yourself in the place. So, I tried to put aside my frustration and be patient. Just enjoy being there. Look, learn, appreciate. It’s a privilege to be in such a place, regardless of ‘results’.
There is a rare beauty among the forested islands. But it’s difficulty as a photography location is that it makes you work so very hard to capture it. You have to really commit to get there. And the place always keeps you guessing and working. The topography is complex, as are the woods themselves. To find simplicity in those surroundings is not easy. And the towering mountains around the loch throw long shadows, which often obscure the moments of sweetest light at dawn and sunset. So there are only brief windows of opportunity for each composition, when both weather and light align. An errant cloud can mean it is missed for another year.
Like a headless chicken I ran around in the diminishing light. Dashing from tree to tree as the sun dipped its rim below the horizon, I floundered in search of a composition that felt right. I kept spotting nuances of light, racing over to them and arriving just too late. The sun set and the light left the land around me. I thought it was over. Just as I was shrugging my shoulders and heading back to the tent, though, I found a shot. A derelict pine, no more than woody bones. It stood alone in a clearing, and was the perfect subject to juxtapose Slioch, bathing in the final light.
With at least something in the bag we headed back to camp to eat dinner and prepare for the night. The stars appeared one by one above our little bay beside the loch, with Orion prominent in the evening sky.
We spent a good long while boiling water for make hot water bottles – a sure way to see yourself through a long, cold night. It grew darker around us. Kirsty and Scout turned in as true night fell. I however, picked up my camera bag once again, ready to head out and meet the rising moon once more.
By the light of my headtorch I picked my way through the dense forest once more, up into the heart of the island. I intended to cross it, to go stand beside the opposite shore where I would be able to enjoy a clear view of the loch under moonlight.
That way, however, happened to lead past the same tree as I had only just photographed. Seeing it again in the dark I could not help but try another shot there. The moon was not yet risen, but I could again see its telltale glow behind the dark mass of Slioch, like a muted sunrise.
I set up my tripod and readied my camera for a long exposure. Then I removed my headtorch, moved to the side of the composition and illuminated the tree. The result was better than I could have hoped.
Elated, I made several similar versions, with minor differences to the lighting and focus. But I had nailed it first time, apparently. I was spellbound by the shot – the tree like a white lightning bolt, shooting from the darkness toward the orange glow of the moon. Finally, I felt like I had produced something special.
The moon gradually climbed into the night sky, but was quickly obscured by cloud. I decided not to wait it out, and retreated to the tent. I slept fitfully, woken now and then by the noise of wind rising among the pines. The thought grew in my mind about how we would paddle out again tomorrow, if it were too windy. I did my best to put it out of my head and worry about it in the morning.
When I rose in the morning my fears were realised. The wind was blowing strongly, whipping waves up on the loch once more and hissing through the branches of the pines. Yet the sky was totally clear, and the moon was just setting through a pink and rosy sky.
Kirsty assured me that everything would be fine. If necessary we could wait all day before paddling out. I reminded her we only had enough food for breakfast, so our situation was considerably more grim and urgent than that. But, with the sun due any minute I put the question of our return paddle on hold and went in search of more beauty.
I crossed the island once more, with a nod to the now familiar dead pine from the night before. The forest lay in shadow as the moon vanished again, but beyond Slioch was the powerful glow that heralded the sun’s imminent return. This finally felt familiar, for I’ve watched many sunrises around that loch. The sun does not leap over the horizon so much as sidle up to it, flooding powerful rays of light through the gaps between Slioch and its neighbours. I kept this in mind as I framed up a promising angle.
Near the very top of the island I had a superb vantage point on the waters all around us, and felt the strong wind full in my face. I could see whitecaps breaking across the wide expanse that separated us from the shore. Not a good place for a laden canoe. However I had an ‘escape’ route already planned, using some of the other islands as shelter and keeping close to shore. It lengthened the overall route back but eliminated all but the briefest open crossings. From my viewpoint now I could see this looked like a viable option, though we would have some hard work to do at points.
Back to photography, and the sun was beginning to peek over the rim of the loch. A huge shaft of light made Slioch glow, with the waters reflecting the pearly sky. The pines along the shore neatly framed the view. Some clouds may have made it more interesting, but I was well content nonetheless with this elegant display of shadow and light.
The sun appeared in full, and its glare on the water quickly grew dazzling. I went in search of other opportunities, determined to enjoy and learn as much as I could about this place on a fine morning.
As the light grew full and bright I knew I had now enjoyed the best of the morning. It was time to strike camp and ready the boat, hopefully to take advantage of any lull in the wind, which often happens around sunrise and sunset.
I returned to the beach to find Kirsty already with the tent down. We set about repacking all our gear. By the time we were ready the wind still seemed quite strong, but our plan was sound and the safest possible way back.
We said our goodbyes to the island and paddled out into the bay. As we rounded the headland into the wind we felt its full force. Paddling as hard as we could we made were just able to make headway, riding through the waves. Scout, balancing his paws on the gunwale, was helpful for once. His extra weight kept the bow slightly down, helping us maintain course directly into the wind.
For perhaps fifteen minutes we had hard work to do, rounding the island. The windward was the closest to shore, where a long headland jutted out into the loch and provided some shelter. Gradually the paddling grew easier, as we entered its shelter. Finally it became enjoyable as we powered through smooth waters amid sunshine and wooded islets.
Scout continued to be a hassle as we followed the long shoreline back to our start point. If only he would just sit still. But no amount of stern commands on our part would convince him to do so.
We had set off into the wind, but to get back we now had to follow the shore of a huge bay, which gradually turned westward. So we soon had the wind at our back rather than our bow.
That was for the best. The wind had picked up again, and the waves were now large and rolling, lifting stern and bow as they passed under us. No room for mistakes. A final tricky section, as we passed a tall cliff face with no possibility of egress, and then we were home and dry.
We made the shore, and finally looked back into the wind as we dragged the boat up. The loch was lashing with breakers and spray further out, and even beside the shore it was rough enough that we would never have dared set off into it from here. With a sigh of relief and smile of satisfaction we loaded the boat back on the van, with a genuine and satisfying adventure complete.