By Glenn Davis as told to Craig Davis, CraigslegzTravels.com
The photogenic vistas were expected, a prime reason for exploring Scotland. The recurring rainbows were a bonus that made the experience and the photographs particularly memorable.
Scotland is a landscape photographer’s delight, particularly the Isle of Skye, noted for its dramatic and varied terrain with its rough-hewn mountains, scenic lochs and chiseled coastline.
A day-long photo tour with guide/instructor Nick Hanson of Marcus McAdam Photography enabled me to focus on the most iconic scenes during an October 2018 family trip to Scotland with my wife, Lara. The chance to tap into the expertise of Hanson, the Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year in 2016, also enabled me to elevate my own photography skills.
Nick took me to prime places I would never have found on my own, some in hard-to-reach areas where I would have been reluctant to venture.
In a wide-ranging odyssey that stretched over a winding 60-mile span from the Quiraing region at the north end of the island to the remote town of Elgol in the south, our pursuit of the next perfect photo had us chasing rainbows throughout the day.
Scrambling for prime shots
Think landscape photography is a low-energy activity? Not on Scotland’s Isle of Skye.
Getting to the car park at the Quiraing on the one-track road in the dark was a white-knuckle venture in its own right. Dawn found us struggling to keep up with Hanson on the narrow footpath leading to our first stop of the morning.
At one point we had to gingerly grapple with a slippery rock face to bypass a stream that blocked the path.
“I bet you didn’t expect to have to do a little morning scramble,” Hanson said as he waited for us.
Turns out scrambling is a Scottish term meaning “a walk up steep terrain involving the use of one’s hands.”
While we would have preferred scrambling be confined to our eggs at breakfast, an older woman and her dog skirted the rocky barrier as if they do it every morning, which they probably do.
Tripping the light fantastic
The Quiraing is regarded as the premier photo spot on Skye, and the morning presented world-class opportunities as the sun crested the distant mountains and poured light onto the nearer slopes creating an array of shadows and highlights.
Hanson knew where to set up to get the best shots for the time of day to gain the most benefit from available light to capture the desired photo effects.
His message was about being patient, waiting for the light and anticipating and what it is going to do. That is, not just reacting to the moment but anticipating the changing conditions by watching the progress with the sun and its interaction with the clouds and contours of the land.
In Scotland, weather conditions are ever changing, and that is a photographer’s ally.
That morning, the clouds were on fast-forward, creating a kaleidoscope of moods to each scene. One moment the sky was clear, then dark, heavy clouds would roll in. Quickly they would depart, making way for the next wave.
Thus, you could take multiple photos from the same spot and get a different image each time, depending on the light.
Of rainbows and ‘coos’
On the drive back to Portree, Hanson kept scanning the countryside for photo ops and made several stops. Some of them featured rainbows.
Most notable was one arcing over the famed Old Man of Storr rock formation, the most iconic photo spot on Skye. Nick spotted it in the rear-view mirror, and his eyes widened.
“Oh, man, we’ve got to stop,” he said. “I always wanted a picture of a rainbow over Storr.”
Not only did we get photos of the rainbow framing the prominent pinnacle of rock that can be seen for miles atop the Trotternish ridge, we were able to achieve one of my objectives for the day.
I had seen photos of the Highland cows common to the area, distinctive for their thick, shaggy coat and long, thin, upturned horns. Known to the Scots as “Heilan coos,” they are said to be the only beef the Queen of England will eat.
When we stopped to photograph the rainbow over Storr, we also spotted one of the cows in a nearby field. I was surprised when Hanson climbed the barbed-wire fence and approached the cow, but followed him nonetheless.
Wary of those horns, I kept my distance but was able to get one of my best shots of the day of the cow with Storr in the background, storm clouds to the left and the rainbow framing it on the right.
Another pull-off for a rainbow paid off when it morphed into a double. Nick’s photo captured rain particles near the rainbow, which created an interesting banding effect of varying shades of blue.
Sunset at Elgol
Following a break for lunch, an arduous hour’s drive to the south end of the isle took us to the final act of a fulfilling but tiring day full of unforgettable scenes and images.
There isn’t much to Elgol, a tiny fishing village on the shore of Loch Scavaig, but it’s popular with serious landscape photographers, particularly at sunset. A half-dozen were already set up in prime spots when we arrived.
We hiked past the schoolhouse to the Honeycomb Rock cliff on the lake shore. The pitted pattern in the sandstone is the result of eons of weathering from the salt spray.
It’s a popular photo subject, but the reason for coming lies some distance beyond for the view of the sun setting behind the Cuillin mountains. Again, I had trouble keeping up with Hanson, who wasn’t bothered by passage over an expanse of wet, slippery rocks.
It was worth the perilous trek to get the final shots of the day with the whitewash and spray of the waves on the rocky shoreline highlighted by the setting sun.
Hanson gave me a neutral-density filter so I could use a long exposure to capture the silky smooth effect of the waves crashing the rocks.
Adventure in photography
Elgol is such an out of the way place, I wouldn’t have found it on my own. It underscored the benefit of having a guide.
Notably, the outing was designated as a workshop rather than a tour. It proved to be both an adventure and a learning experience in landscape photography.
Nick Hanson taught me to take time to look at the scene and think through the composition in the camera. Then to check the entire frame, especially the corners to make sure there aren’t any distracting elements — things like bright objects that may take the viewer’s eyes away from the subject.
Then to be patient in watching and anticipating the light, paying attention to the sun and clouds and anticipating how the scene will look as the light changes. There’s a mindset to waiting for the best light to capture the scene.
Marcus McAdam Photography also provided guidance in advance on choosing the lenses I used that day: a mid-range 24-105mm for about 70 percent of the photos I took, and a wide angle, 14mm for the rest.
We had previously visited Ireland, which is a beautiful country, but found Scotland more majestic, more intriguing to photograph because of the rugged terrain and mountains.
There are plenty of prime attractions without taking a guided tour or seeking obscure places like Elgol.
Eilean Donan Castle is one of the most photographed Scottish castles. It is right off the main road we took to the Isle of Skye, situated on a small tidal island, with the surrounding water offering intriguing possibilities for capturing moody reflections of the castle.
From our arrival at Inverness, we explored the Ness Islands — the forest trails were full of color in October.
Farther along Loch Ness, overlooking the water, the ruins of Urquhart Castle date to the 13th Century, though it sits on the site of a much older fortification. The crumbling structure presents plenty of intriguing angles and shadows for creative photos.
Don’t miss the scotch of Scotland
On the return to Inverness after visiting Edinburgh, we veered off to the Speyside region, known for the biggest concentration of distilleries in Scotland. There are about 50 of them on the Malt Whisky Trail near Elgin.
With only time to visit one, we chose the Macallan Distillery, which has been producing single malt whisky for nearly 200 years but just opened a new $186 million facility in early 2018. The unusual feature of the distillery is it is buried in a hillside and the roof is a series of rolling grass-covered peaks.
On the inside is a geodesic support purported to be one of the most complex timber structures in the world. It’s so large, St. Paul’s Cathedral could fit inside.
The visit to the new distillery served the dual purpose of indulging a taste for Scotch whisky and architectural photography.
Where to stay in Scotland
We stayed exclusively at Air BNBs — three in the countryside and one in downtown Edinburgh, and enjoyed every accommodation. The prices were more appealing than we’ve found elsewhere. The most expensive was $140 a night, and the others were in the $110-$120 range.
The Air BNBs in the country were either complete houses or a wing of a house, and we enjoyed the genuine Scottish experience of each. One was so far out of the way that the GPS couldn’t pinpoint it and we had to follow the proprietor’s written instructions, which were an experience in itself.
She described one turn off the main road as “soon-ish.” It turned out to be eight miles before we reached the landmark. We were happy to arrive at a beautiful, recently renovated house looking out at a large loch with mountains in the distance.
At Portree, our Air BNB had sheep in the pasture out back and also overlooked a loch and mountains. The day of the photo tour, when we returned for lunch, the mountain was framed by yet another rainbow.
About Glenn Davis
Glenn is a rocket scientist specializing in payload integration for United Launch Alliance at Cape Canaveral, Florida. His passion for photography is directed at capturing nature, rocketry and his always photogenic maltipoo pups Cubby and Rocket. View and purchase his photos at GlennDavisPhotography.com