As part of an effort to try and expand my portfolio and research new locations for future workshops, I recently visited the amazing Assynt in North-West Scotland. I have been to Assynt twice before but as always with Scottish weather, you can never quite do as much as you like per trip.
For those that don’t know much about Assynt, it is this amazing, fairly remote region with some of the best mountains (in my opinion) Scotland has to offer. Most of the mountains in the main region do not even reach Munro status (a mountain in Scotland over 3000ft), yet they rise from glens surrounded by lochs like sentinels. These land masses often look challenging and daunting to hike up but they allure you, begging you to get to their summit. However, once at the summit, you are often (weather dependant!) well rewarded with long stretching views over stunning lochs, often across to the other mountains.
Assynt has always been good to me. The first visit last year was at the end of winter, we had some fantastic and productive conditions with just the right amount of snow to boot. The second visit started a bit miserable with low cloud and no drama, just pure grey but by the end of the week I was rewarded with one of my favourite moments in the mountains. I made a second attempt at Sgurr an Fhidhleir and the low clag broke up as I arrived, revealing a magical scene of passing cloud, lochs and mountains. If you get a second, you can see the images from them two trips over in my Scotland Photography gallery.
So, before I really get into what is more like a trip report I just want to say a little bit about photography and the ‘effort’ it takes to get shots. I often see landscape photographer’s describe their hardships to get a shot. It might be “I had to get up at 5am”, it might be a description of how cold it was or the conditions they had to suffer. That’s the light end of the scale, then you have people who hike miles upon miles, camp night after night in search of that magical light.
I applaud all landscape photographer’s for their efforts and dedication, I often respect them for that extra mile they often go (literally). However, I don’t think a description in an image emphasising all this hard work and effort is always necessary. Maybe it’s a subconscious thing, maybe I do it too. However, I do firmly believe any image you take, no matter how hard it was to get should be a labour of love and it should never be an hardship. Being in the great outdoors, our free gym for our body and mind is a privilege. There should never be a bad moment. OK, so I remember many rainy days which are bad moments but you soon forget them when it all pans out.
Finally, an image should be able to sell itself. I think it’s perfectly fine to have a bit of a backstory, a bit of a story of why you loved the experience, but I don’t think we should dress an image up with all the hardships, as if those hardships will make the final image any better because of them.
So why am I writing this statement? Well, over the years it’s a trend in photographer’s I have noticed, especially the “I got up at this time” statement. On one of my images I posted from this trip, one of the things I got applauded for on social media was my dedication and effort. At no time though was it ever hard. An important thing to me is I enjoy both sides of getting this kind of photography. I enjoy walking, I enjoy the outdoors, I enjoy going up mountains and I enjoy camping. OK, I don’t enjoy getting up early but I don’t mind once I’m up. It’s always a pleasure and something I really realised on the last trip and that was even before I got to enjoy one of my most memorable moments in the mountains.
So, back to the recent trip to Assynt. I had set myself out an itinerary of mountains to tick off and get some new photos. I had invited my friend, James Pictures up, which on the one hand restricted flexibility in terms of when we could go (the weather the 3 days before we went was amazing) but taking someone really helps moral. Having company, especially if the weather is bad just helps to pass the time but it also forces you to do stuff rather than taking the easy option. Well, for me it does anyway.
We had driven for 10 hours from Matlock and we arrived under blue skies on the road to Stac Polliadh, a familiar view for me but a first James. We had made fairly good time and I had a choice to make. Tick off Sgorr Tuath on the first day or camp on familiar territory on the back of Stac Polliadh or maybe even low down? Well, I would only have it one way and we were to go up Sgorr Tuath.
Sgorr Tuath is the mountain you can see directly opposite the Stac Polliadh car park but the start of the walk is further back up the road, to allow you to get on the other side of lochs. Up there, there is a rock, finger like pinnacle first made photographically famous by Joe Cornish and a few others have repeated it since. However, while an icon, the amount of photographer’s that have actually made the trek is very few and with Sgorr Tuath not even reaching 600m you get the impression the hill-walker very rarely visits, with few route descriptions available online.
We found a sketchy-at-best parking space and checked our route on the map. A good day visibility wise and we could see exactly where we were to head. Dropping down off the bank it was immediately obvious the route wasn’t going to be straight forward. A tall kissing-gate stood in our way, warning us entry to the land was at our own risk. As if any mountain walk isn’t at your own risk! It was a very tight squeeze to fit through with the wild camping bags but we were soon on our way.
I had read the route was boggy and even after all the dry weather, it was clear it still wasn’t going to be easy for us. Multiple streams run off the mountains across pathless land and this often causes bogs. It was a case of route finding and trying to take the easiest way possible, not falling into the trap of following deer tracks that lead nowhere. I was wearing my gaiters, which I rarely do and was glad for them. I had also read about holes in the ground you had to watch out far, someone even suggested they were put there on purpose. Unfortunately, I didn’t see a well hidden one and went straight in, with it being so deep, water even got in over my gaiters, prompting an unwanted wet sock before even setting up camp! It could have been worse though and I fortunately didn’t injure myself.
The rest of the walk felt hard. It took us much longer to reach the summit than we had anticipated but we got there after 2 and a half hours and just at the start of golden hour. We ended up at the bealach (col) between the two summits and I was so impressed by the view, looking down to the lochs below, Stac Polliadh across the glen and to the West was the Summer Isles and sea. I hadn’t been up here before, so was unsure on compositions but had a quick look around and split away from James. I proceeded to find the pinnacle but the light wasn’t hitting it and so I went to find other compositions.
The rock up here is typical of the area, Torrodonian weathered sandstone. It’s some of the oldest rock in the world and I just love the shapes, often like circular plates stacked on top of each other. They have a red tint to them which often gets emphasised in golden hour. With a clear sky and the sun setting at sea, the light had the opportunity to become really red, lighting up the rock vividly as well as Stac Polliadh and Cul Mor in the distance.
It was a perfect evening for wild camping. Calm and clear. As always with personal trips though, I just kind of assume I’ll find somewhere to pitch. As long as it’s not a rocky summit like Scafell Pike, then there’s a good chance of something. I’ve never not been able to pitch using this gung-ho attitude and Sgorr Tuath was no different. At first, it was looking like a descent to the lochan below but we managed to find a small but usable pitch just big enough for two tents near the col where we had first walked.
The next morning we awoke early and my friend was out of his tent before me, he exclaimed I probably had another 30 minutes and I looked out to a clear and dark sky. I had probably another 10 minutes and got ready. When I got out, a dawn glow had started to intensify. I grabbed a shot from near camp using a similar composition I had tried the day before and then walked up to James who exclaimed I should have been out of bed earlier for the best of it. The cheek!
That morning glow would mean that the rising soon would head into a thick haze and take a little while to break through into anything meaningful. It was no problem though and stood at the summit, the sun eventually gave some lovely sidelight looking towards Stac Polliadh, Suilven and Cul Beag.
My final shot of the morning would be from that pinnacle I mentioned before. Have a search around and there really aren’t that many images of it but yet it just has to be shot when up there. It makes the hill distinctive from some of the other nearby hills. Looking at a map you can’t tell where the pinnacle is, so you can’t actually tell using TPE whether or not the sun will be in the right place. Unfortunately, I think I picked perhaps the worst time of year to visit as at both sunset and sunrise the hillside either side of the pinnacle would block the sun. I had to wait patiently for the sun to get high enough, rising above the summit and slowly swinging round before it would catch the top of the pinnacle. It wasn’t ideal but with some clouds in the sky and JUST being inside of golden hour, I wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity and pressed the shutter. It may always be there for another day but I was happy to get a shot of it now.
Standing here, I was looking over at Suilven in the distance. The distinctive mountain had eluded me so far but I really wanted to make an effort to get up it. It’s probably the remotest mountain in Assynt and looks impossible to climb from most angles. 6 miles one way and you’ve got to be sure you want to go, especially if the aim is to come back with a photo. I vividly remember standing there wondering if I could hack going up the same day, after a 3 mile walk back to the car over that treacherous ground. The last weather forecast suggested it would be forcing us to at least try.
We packed up and made our way down, a lot easier going down than it was up and we were soon back at the car, enjoying breakfast in the baking sun by the roadside. At that point I didn’t think it could get much better. We discussed the plans and James was a little reserved for Suilven. Sgorr Tuath had been more than I had suggested it would be and he had his doubts about making it. We agreed to drive to Lochinver though, get some signal and see how we felt.
Luckily with the longer days, we arrived at Lochniver with a little time to spare. We checked the forecast and it was set to stay fine for the rest of the day but the morning after it wasn’t looking promising, cloudy was order of the day. However, the days after that looked to proper turn for the worst and there would probably be no further chances. We discussed our options and agreed to camp up Suilven on that day.
We drove up to the parking in Glencansip and looked at Suilven. The mountains profile completely changed and looked so far away. We got our kit ready, clearing out any gear we didn’t need to lighten the cloud and set off. The first 4.5 miles of the walk was over a great path, clearly made for the local farmers with their quad bikes etc and we soon got along this stretch. The weather was lovely, maybe too hot at times maybe but refreshing at the same time. We had a few breaks along the way and I revelled in how lovely and remote it was. It’s so great to be able to visit places like this.
We turned off at the cairn to start heading up Suilven and the going was going to start getting hard. It was a case of route finding again and trying to avoid mud and bog. Fortunately, a lot of the mud had dried up but we still had our work cut out for us. We got over the first small hill and arrived at the lochs below Suilven. From here, it still looked completely impossible to ascend the mountain. It’s sheer profile looked like it wouldn’t let up and as I pointed out the route, James exclaimed I was mad and there must be an easier way. I assured him I wasn’t and there wasn’t.
Also unfortunately, James had struggled after turning off the main path with a knee injury from a few weeks before causing him hassle. He reluctantly said he was going to stay down at the lochs and I headed onwards by myself. With a bit of trepidation I made my way around the lochs to the foot of the ascent. I wasn’t sure what lay ahead, I felt bad for leaving but I had a goal I had come all this way for and so on I went. Once I got to the start of the ascent, it didn’t look as impossible as it had previously and I was confident I could tackle it. It turned out to be fairly simple, even though looking back down you do often wonder how easy it will be to get down with a heavy pack and before I knew it I was at the beallach (col) and on much better ground. Turning my head to the right, in the direction of the summit I could see a drystone wall which had been built from one side of the mountain to the other. Nuts!
I went up to the summit, dropped my bag and went looking for compositions. It was a fairly nice sunset and I grabbed some shots as I mentioned before, the next morning wasn’t set to be great. I set up my pitch a little below the summit next to a pool of water as well as a bit of shelter. There wasn’t a breath of wind and I had no way of telling which way to pitch the tent. That shelter would only protect me from a certain direction.
Unfortunately, as luck would have it I pitched completely the wrong way and the wind picked up later in the night, keeping me awake most of the night. Before trying to get to sleep though, I spoke to my girlfriend on the phone who said the forecast had improved slightly filling me with a little hope. There was also an Aurora alert and I took some shots of the tent with a faint glow of the Aurora in the distance. The best of it blocked by a bank of cloud. Turns out, had I stayed up a little longer I may have been lucky enough to get a really good display of it. Nevermind.
As I mentioned, I tried to get my head down after eating tea but the flapping of the tent would keep me awake most of the night. Normally, I probably would have reluctantly changed my pitch but like an idiot, I had forgot my head-torch which was still in the car. I already had made the decision to risk the night on the mountain rather than trying to descend to safety in the dark. I wasn’t too concerned because of the calm conditions.
The next morning, not quite sure if I had actually slept or not I poked my head out of the tent and I have never got up so quickly. The last thing I expected to see with the forecast and the wind was a cloud inversion but yet there it was, clouds swirling around below me. I couldn’t believe my luck. No amount of predictions and forecasts could have called this and I was out taking photos before you could know it.
One of the best things about this inversion was the cloud was whipping up over the top of the opposing summit of Suilven, Meall Meadhonach. For me this was perfect, having Suilven poking out of the cloud would have been great but not as unique as this, in my opinion. I took a few shots at the tent but quickly started to go back to the summit. I took this first shot before the sun came up, you can just see the tent below. You really don’t get much better places to pitch do you?
I spent ages taking many many shots. The wind was blowing directly at me and while not strong, caused havoc, whipping the clouds and dew straight into me. I quickly became drenched but more importantly, so did my camera and lens. It was a constant battle of clean, shoot, clean. Not that I minded too much, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I tried various compositions, with different lenses as the cloud changed form. Eventually the sun would rise over the mountain of Cansip and illuminated the cloud topping Meall Meadhonach and for me, just made the moment perfect. I shot this with a telephoto and prayed to god that the image was sharp. While the wind wasn’t strong, I was very paranoid of image shake with having such a big lens on. Thankfully I needn’t have worried.
I had a very hard time choosing that last image as you can imagine but it was probably my favourite image from the trip. With ever changing cloud form, each image seemed to have its own qualities. I chose it because I quite liked how you could see the rugged slopes of Suilven, yet enough cloud in the frame. The next image though was a close second favourite and one I’ll probably share in a couple of months on social media, so you’re seeing it here first.
This time the cloud is properly engulfing the mountain and all it’s surroundings, leaving a bit more mystery and also quite dreamy with how soft the cloud makes the image feel.
I felt like I could keep taking images but after being almost positive I got what I wanted I decided to just take 5-minutes and sit down, leave the camera and watch what I was experiencing. We often get so caught up behind the camera, we may only look through a viewfinder and not our own eyes. Sometimes, you can just head down with little memory of what you have saw and it was important to me that I was going to remember this moment and soak it up.
After I had, I was then rewarded with a fog bow and brocken spectre over the summit of Suilven. As if I hadn’t seen enough already! With the rising sun and temperature, the cloud started to rise and I could see it was time to head back to tent, where I cooked my breakfast before packing up.
I had the descent to deal with which was actually fine and then I had to wake James up and tell him what he had missed. He had moved his tent at sunrise as he too hadn’t slept for the wind and could see me on the summit, cursing me. We made our way back to the track in the cloud but as soon as we got to the track we were out of it and in the warm sunshine. Another lovely day.
We got back to Lochinver, watching the cloud hug Suilven all the way. We got lunch and then headed to Achiltbuie for a shower in the community hall (well needed!) before heading down to Achnahaird Beach to take the drone out. I had a vision of getting the white sands, dunes and clear blue sea in from an aerial shot but with strong winds, I didn’t actually fancy doing anything too fancy. Still, I quite liked the resulting image.
We then went to Ullapool for a well deserved pub treat, actual proper food before heading back to the beach to pitch for the night. Looking at the forecast we agreed that it was probably best to leave a couple of days early, having accomplished what I had intended to do within 6 days within 4 instead. Sure enough, the next morning it was cloudy in Assynt although the morning was bright and sunny in Achiltbuie where we enjoyed a breakfast before setting off. We were right to set off with low cloud and rain for the next couple of days.
So, that’s it. A whirlwind few days in Assynt where I got conditions many landscape photographer’s would only dream of and it was all by chance. I am very thankful I talked myself into doing Suilven the day I did rather than putting it off otherwise this would be a completely different blog. Remember, while it was hard work, it was never an hardship and I’m looking forward to the next adventure!