Shadow of the Mountain

I recently attended a concert by my favourite singer songwriter, Dougie MacLean, at the Strathpeffer Pavilion. A third of the way into the set, Dougie kicked off with a new song, ‘Shadow of the Mountain’. One of the many things I love about live performances is the anecdotes between songs; stories that bring the music to life. I follow the same approach in my photography talks, recounting anecdotes to help the viewer engage with the images on a deeper level.

The best stories link together more than one idea and the audience erupted with laughter as Dougie relayed the tale of a tense performance in Anchorage in the shadow of a volcano threatening to detonate. My face creased into a knowing smile when Dougie went on to reflect on how life has a tendency to go ‘pear-shaped’ just at the moment when you think your problems are lying dormant.

Sunset over Rum, Bay of Laig, Isle of Eigg
Sunset over Rum, Bay of Laig, Isle of Eigg

An underlying theme of many of my older blog posts was the stress I endured when living and working in Edinburgh, and the subsequent turmoil I experienced during my first year on the Black Isle, attempting to turn a neglected house into a home, deal with my inner demons and re-engage with my creative side. That chapter of my life is over, but I now fear a recurring theme is going to emerge in many future posts; that of my dad’s brain cancer diagnosis earlier this year and the resulting fall-out from this, which has rained down on my family like fiery debris from a volcano.

“A new day and everything’s changed
All my plans and the things I had arranged
The smell of danger in the cold night air
Something’s happening, you can feel it everywhere
We’re in the shadow of the mountain, don’t you know
The shadow of the mountain, everywhere we go
We’re in the shadow of the mountain, yes that’s true
The shadow of the mountain and there’s nothing we can do”

(‘Shadow of the Mountain’ by Dougie MacLean)

Slioch, Wester Ross
Slioch, Wester Ross

Mountains are synonymous with the Scottish landscape and feature as backdrops in many of my photographs. Years ago, a fellow photographer encouraged me to venture into the mountains with my DSLR camera. I shoot most of my photographs at dusk and dawn in order to capture the best light and I find myself increasingly inclined to capture original images; scenes that haven’t been taken a thousand times over. I couldn’t figure out a way to shoot from two or three thousand feet at dusk or dawn. I’m already at my physical limit lugging my camera equipment around, without throwing camping gear into the equation.

Besides, the Scottish mountains have been photographed comprehensively at all times of the day and year, and I felt that I needed to follow my inner path and find my own project to pursue. That turned out to be the Black Isle, the Highland peninsula on which I’ve lived with my husband since 2013. ‘Highland’ is a misnomer in the case of the Black Isle. It’s very flat, rising to only 839 feet (256 metres). However, it is overlooked by a Munro (a Scottish mountain over 3,000 feet / 914 metres), namely Ben Wyvis, which helps to add a touch of drama to the photographs.

Ben Wyvis Mist Inversion, Black Isle
Ben Wyvis Mist Inversion, Black Isle

Despite not actively pursuing landscape photography within the Scottish mountains, I am, more and more, finding myself on their summits. If you’ve followed my blog for a couple of years or more, you might have guessed that my ascent of Goatfell, Arran’s highest peak, on my thirtieth birthday, was the catalyst for this. My thirties seemed to loom large on the horizon during the final years of my twenties and I felt that I needed to do something particularly memorable on that big birthday. I turned to my Bucket List, my topsy-turvy list of things I want to achieve during my lifetime, and, on the first day of a new decade, my husband and I climbed to the site of my earliest memory, formed as a three-year-old in 1989.

‘Munro bagging’ is a popular past-time for outdoor enthusiasts in Scotland; climbing all 282 mountains over 3,000 feet north of the border. I have huge respect for anyone who takes on such a challenge and has the tenacity to see it through but, I have to say, Munro-bagging has never particularly appealed to me.

I want to climb the Scottish mountains that inspire me the most; not a list that somebody else drew up. At 2,866 feet (874 metres), Goatfell is not a Munro, but is classed as a Corbett; a Scottish mountain between 2,500 and 3,000 feet in height (762-914 metres). The experience of re-visiting its summit in 2015 and gazing out over island views on the west coast of Scotland encouraged me to write my own list of mountains to conquer; my ‘Mountain Bucket List’! A sheet of paper sits on my desk with a list of around 20 Scottish mountains to be climbed, ranging from Slioch in Wester Ross to Beinn Eighe in Torridon, and Buchaille Etive Mor, the gatekeeper to Glen Coe, to name but a few. I don’t even care how high they are. I just want to climb them because they’ve been part of the backdrop to my life.

July 1995 Buchaille Etive Mor, Glen Coe Edited Re-Sized 1050
Buchaille Etive Mor, Glen Coe, July 1995

With this in mind, I gladly joined one of my friends, Lindsey, on the ascent of her final Corbett, Ben Vrackie, in July 2016. Ben Vrackie dominates the Perthshire town of Pitlochry where I’ve spent many happy day trips and weekends, and I even worked there for a few months during my years as a student. A couple of months later, continuing the mountain birthday theme, my husband and I climbed Ben Wyvis, our nearest mountain neighbour, on my thirty-first.

More recently, I’ve been out on the hills on my own, starting with my soggy ascent of Raasay’s Dun Caan with a compact camera in February for the sheer fun of it. Lately I’ve had a few long slogs up A’Mharconaidh at Drumochter, Carn Dearg at Glenroy, and Meall Fuar-mhonaidh overlooking Loch Ness for commercial photography work, laden with camera gear. All of these walks have been undertaken in the middle of the day, as far from dusk and dawn as you can get, and so creative landscape photography has never been the aim of the game. However, there’s nothing wrong with capturing a few ‘record shots’ and ‘selfies’ for the family album!

“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone”
– Pablo Picasso

There are a couple of mountains in Perthshire that I wanted to climb with my dad but we never got around to it. Time constraints always got in the way. However, we have had, and will continue to have, countless other adventures in the great outdoors together. Living with my dad’s prognosis in the years ahead is the biggest mountain I can envisage ever having to climb; one with an almighty shadow. Life is unpredictable and fragile. Live every day to the full. Look for the sunshine. Achieve your dreams and make time for your loved ones. Anything else can wait until tomorrow.

“It’s been the same since the day that we arrived
So many dangers it’s amazing we’ve survived
But you’ve got to keep laughing, got to take a chance
And keep on singing on this journey that we dance.”

(‘Shadow of the Mountain’ by Dougie MacLean)


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15 thoughts

  1. Karen, a lovely piece of writing and some nicely done landscape images as well. I’m with you on the Munro question. I’d rather spend my time getting cool images than in hiking. Of course there are some images that I want even if it takes most of a day to get there. Keep up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Tim! I’m more into getting around the Scottish islands but have never seen it as ‘tick box exercise’. I always like to spend a good amount of time in each new place that I visit and make time to return to the islands that I connect with the most. I’ll be sure to check out your work too!

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  2. That’s a beautiful sunset picture – it almost looks to be on fire! I think you are right to target just a few favourite peaks. I’m sure that’s more rewarding than picking off all of the Munros (or Corbetts). It’s all about quality, not quantity. 🙂

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    1. Thanks Mike. That was one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever witnessed! I couldn’t agree more. Some of the small mountains I’ve climbed, such as An Sgurr on Eigg, have been the most rewarding in terms of the views. 🙂

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  3. A wonderful post. Every post of yours is something to savour. I love the “Shadow of the mountain” lyrics and I too like the anecdotes between songs: they reveal a lot about the singer’s personality that doesn’t necessarily emerge from the singing. That shot of the sunset is superbly volcanic. Your comment about finding your own project, and on your doorstep, reminded me of Nan Shepherd and her love affair with the Cairngorms – nothing narrow and parochial about that! I share your views on Munro-bagging, and i’m Intrigued by the language of Munro and Corbett. I’m a fan of mountains, but I’m beyond climbing them: my recent means of entry is incongruously a seaplane!

    It’s a lovely photo of you and your dad and a timely reminder of our fragility and the need to make the most of every minute.

    Thank you again for a deeply enjoyable post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Meg! I always love reading your insightful comments. I have Nan Shepherd’s books (including ‘The Living Mountain’) waiting for me in my bookcase; I’m just waiting for the right moment to start reading them! I hope to immerse myself in the Black Isle in the same way and, someday, I would love to write a book.

      There are a couple of interesting stories behind the names. Sir Hugh Munro compiled the first list of Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet in 1891 but sadly didn’t manage to climb all of the mountains on his list before his death in 1919. John Rooke Corbett compiled the list of Scottish mountains between 2,500 and 3,000 feet in the 1920s but the list was only published after his death in 1949 when his sister passed it to the Scottish Mountaineering Club.

      On a lighter note, a seaplane sounds like great fun! I may have to add this to my Bucket List. 🙂

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