Ice in the Sun: Navigating through a Highland Winter

When I scroll through my portfolio, the thing that strikes me most is colour. I love colour. Not just colour, but also light, shadows, water, clouds and the seasons. As a photographer, I try to combine these passions with landscapes that inspire me; most of which are to be found in the Highlands and Islands. I’m also drawn to the finer details within these landscapes, such as a simple snail, a shell, a collection of pebbles or an outcrop of lichen on a stone wall; things that most people miss whilst lost in conversation or walking the dog.

Ice in the Sun, Ardullie, Cromarty Firth
Sea Ice at Sunrise, Ardullie, Cromarty Firth

I’m pleased to say that my Black Isle Project is becoming something of an obsession. I have a very clear vision but it certainly doesn’t involve photographing muddy puddles or horizontal rain – the 2015/16 winter status quo. Landscape photography in the Highlands this season has been frustrating. I want snow underfoot and sunshine overhead on a day when I am free to indulge in photography. By and large, it isn’t happening.

I’m sitting here casting my mind back over the years, trying to recall another winter like this one. It’s little wonder that I can’t. December 2015 was the wettest calendar month ever recorded in the UK since records began in 1910. It was also the warmest December ever recorded with temperatures more typical of April or May. In some parts of the country, temperatures were so mild that the winter solstice was actually warmer than the cool, damp summer solstice experienced in June! December was followed by a record-breaking January; another damp month which apparently dropped five times more rain on the Highlands than the historical average. It would seem that the extreme weather events indicative of climate change are unfolding before our eyes. A couple of weeks ago I was out at dawn photographing sea ice on the shores of the Cromarty Firth, wearing more layers than the Michelin man. The following weekend, I was stripped down to jeans and t-shirt in the car because it was so warm. I’m counting myself lucky though. My grumblings about the weather are minuscule compared with those of the thousands of people affected by flooding these past few months.

The winter solstice – the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere – has been celebrated since Roman times. The annual Roman festival, Saturnalia, was characterised by feasting, generosity to the poor and the exchange of gifts. Pagan traditions and the celebration of the birth of Christ have become intertwined and nowadays, in the West, we celebrate Christmas a few days after the solstice with a confusing but vibrant mix of nativity, flying snowmen and reindeer, and copious amounts of presents, food and booze (unless you’ve turned tee-total, like me). It would seem that the need to inject some much needed excitement into an otherwise largely drab time of year is a fundamental human urge.

One of many books on my Christmas wish list this winter was ‘The Natural Navigator’ by Tristan Gooley. I’m pleased to say that Santa kindly obliged! This fascinating book teaches the reader how to find their way in the outdoors using only nature’s clues, including puddles, tree branches, mosses and lichens, in favour of maps and GPS units. I’m only a quarter of my way through the book but already it’s opened my eyes. I’m not about to dispense with my collection of Ordnance Survey maps or remove my compass from my camera bag, but I’m certainly paying more attention than ever before to the finer details in the landscapes around me.

Autumn Colours, Udale, Black Isle
Autumn Colours, Udale, Black Isle

Last weekend, I visited one of my favourite deciduous woodlands on the Black Isle; one of many hidden gems on this peninsula. I was last there in colourful autumn and it wasn’t quite so photogenic this time. A dusting of patchy snow lay melting on the ground and the tree branches were bare with a grey sky above them. In an attempt to grow my portfolio, my latest photography motto is not to return home empty-handed – a bit of a challenge on a blustery, dull January day! The quagmire at the entrance to the woods had almost swallowed my welly boots and so I opted to return via a different route. I deviated from the faint path and squeezed through a barbed wire fence at the edge of the wood. I emerged in a field of barley stubble and admired the view of familiar landmarks from a new vantage point. I made a mental note of an image I want to capture in a different season then followed the boundary between field and wood.

I made a beeline for a dry stone wall or, as we Scots prefer to call it, a ‘dry stane dyke’. That pesky barbed wire fence runs alongside it within the wood, ruining any potential for the kind of photograph I wanted to capture. However, the dyke was free of obstructions on the side facing the field. As soon as I laid eyes on the vibrant colours of the sandstone, yellow and white lichen, and green moss, I knew I would return home with a slightly fuller memory card.

Lichens and Mosses, Udale, Black Isle
Lichens and Mosses, Udale, Black Isle

Capturing this image was a pleasure. I was completely alone with my camera and free to lose myself in my thoughts. Who built this wall? When was it built? When did someone last stand here and admire the stonework? Has anyone ever photographed this before? Will anyone ever photograph it again? Maybe my loner tendencies are too well-developed but, for me, a real turn-off is arriving at a location and finding another photographer already there with their tripod set up. This is normally my cue to keep walking or driving. Worse still is when someone arrives after me and sets up their kit a few feet away from mine, queuing up to shoot the same image. I want to capture originals, not duplicates, and there’s something so moving about being the sole witness to a beautiful moment in time. More and more I’m turning my back on the scenes that have been photographed a thousand times over in favour of seeking out my own locations.

As a geographer with an intimate knowledge of Scotland, I feel like I have an in-built compass. Most of the time I navigate from memory or instinct. Nevertheless, with thoughts of Tristan Gooley’s book in mind during my morning woodland adventure, another question popped into my head: ‘In which direction is this dyke facing?’  Due to being familiar with my surroundings, I didn’t need to use my newly polished natural navigation skills on this occasion. However, despite only being on page sixty-something of the book at the time, I felt prepared to give it a go. As time goes on and I continue to explore the Black Isle and capture these intimate shots, I will pay closer attention to the local species of lichen and moss and look for any common themes in terms of direction, moisture, texture and gradient.

It’s only early February and so I’m still holding out hope for some snow underfoot and sunshine overhead. After all, the big landscapes still inspire me the most. In the meantime, while the winter storms queue up one behind another out in the Atlantic and the puddles on the Black Isle get even bigger, I’ll look to the landscape elements for clues to understanding the world around me and for photographic inspiration in the hope of injecting some colour into the winter. I hope you’ve enjoyed my entry in this week’s WordPress photographic challenge, the theme of which is ‘vibrant’.

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32 thoughts

    1. Thanks so much, Su. It’s brilliant to get feedback on the text and not just the photographs! I didn’t read many books last year so am trying to put this right in 2016. I figure the more I read, the more ideas I’ll have and this might inspire some posts along the way! I’m looking forward to shutting down the laptop in a moment and reading a few more pages of ‘The Natural Navigator’! I have another Tristan Gooley book lined up for afterwards – ‘The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs’ – and am looking forward to reading this too! I hope you treat yourself on Amazon!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, very frustrating! Capturing more detailed shots and making plans for the better weather (and blogging!) is keeping me occupied in the meantime. I look forward to seeing your photographs once you’ve had a fall of snow!

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    1. Thank you, Dan. I seem to have a wee story to go with every photograph and it’s a pleasure to be able to share some of them! The book is a good read and I’m finding useful and interesting nuggets of information in each chapter. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. “I’m also drawn to the finer details within these landscapes, such as a simple snail, a shell, a collection of pebbles or an outcrop of lichen on a stone wall; things that most people miss whilst lost in conversation or walking the dog” – this expresses my feelings exactly. I like being a solitary walker too: conversation is for the cafe or the deck. I really enjoyed your photographer’s credo; your departure from the beaten track and your subtle version of vibrant. I look forward to hearing more about what you learn from your Christmas book. That first photo is stunning.

    I nearly gave up photography forever when I got caught in a crocodile of sight see-ers at Plitvička, all stopping simultaneously for the same shot. Fortunately I’d already had three hours of solitude and I could be amused by crowd.

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    1. Thanks Meg. It’s lovely to meet someone with the same mindset! I enjoy the company of others but I nearly always have a more fulfilling experience in the outdoors when walking alone. As for photography, I generally only use my DSLR and tripod when alone. I’m prepared to hang around for an hour or two waiting for the light to change or the wind to drop, all the while soaking up my surroundings, but this isn’t a good way to make friends!

      Photographing sea ice for the first time was an absolute joy, although I was frozen to the bone by the end! It’s been a couple of days since I last read the book, but I’ll treat myself to an early night this evening and read a few more pages in bed. 🙂

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  2. I love your photographs!
    And yes, you are right…many people do not notice some of the little things. And sometimes even the big things!
    You definitely have the eye and talent for photography.
    Keep sending pictures. I love looking at them!!!
    Gorgeous county. 🙂

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    1. Thanks very much! It’s the combination of the little things and the big things that I love about the experience of being in the outdoors. I’m just back from a walk with views right along the Cromarty Firth but the highlight was looking at daffodils and watching a Skylark overhead through my binoculars. 🙂

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  3. Your photography is amazing. I’ve just had a look at your website. Would you recommend the Photography Institute?
    I love the honest, chatty and informative way you write about your walks in your beloved scotland. I miss living in Scotland so much and your blog is a joy to read and look at. Thank you. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your kind words! I’m delighted you’re enjoying my blog and recalling memories of Scotland.
      I certainly learned a lot from the Photography Institute and have no qualms in recommending the diploma course. Let me know if you decide to go for it!

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