This will be my first review of a location. I aim to tell you more in depth stories of each individual adventure in separate posts, but for here, this will be my thoughts on the actual location as an overall whole. If you want to read the individual stories, and see the photos from there, check out the blogs, starting from the first one at Neist Point and Blackhill waterfall.
Well, lets kick off with my most memorable first properly organised and planned trip. The Isle of Skye in Scotland. Without a doubt, one of the most photographic, and photographed, locations in the UK that I have visited so far. It’s highly unlikely anyone could get an original shot any more, but it’s one of those places that every photographer will have (or should have!) on his or her list… simply to see some of these locations with their own eyes. And rightly so, because the whole island really is stunning.
For myself, I first had the opportunity to visit Scotland when my daughter needed to move out of her halls at the end of her first year in Uni. My choice was to tour a handful of key sights all over Scotland, or to stay local to a smaller area. I opted for the smaller area so I could hopefully get a more in depth view of a place, with the possible options of returning to a site a second or more times. I plumped for Skye because of the sheer number and variety of sights I could add to my ‘to do’ list within a small area. I hoped it would keep my busy! Decision made, I visited Skye, between 19th -24 June 2019, and drove everywhere in my camper van. Because of this, I cant comment on any places to stay, but can speak of my experiences of Skye from a tourer’s perspective.
If you come in a car, I hear Portree has some very comfortable places to stay, and some cracking restaurants. I tended to cook in the camper so haven’t experienced any of them, apart from ‘The Chippy’ in Portree Harbour, who served up a delicious fish and chip supper one night. If you are in a car and Tent, I did stay at a site in Sligachan. It wasn’t huge, but it was comfortable enough. There was electric hook up available, and a clean, and comfortable shower/toilet block, but very little else. The chap taking payments, was very friendly and informative, and I was pleased to see the showers were included in the pitch price, so I would give this site a thumbs up for my needs, but those seeking a full on campsite with a shop/clubhouse/children’s play area et all, will have to look elsewhere I am afraid… and I cant actually say I saw another site… although since I wasn’t actually looking for one, it has to be said that I would be surprised if there wasnt one somewhere!! There is nothing else at Sligachan but a hotel/pub/restaurant, which unfortunately for me, was hosting a wedding on the night I stayed, so the restaurant was closed… I therefore can’t comment on the quality of that either!
For the bulk of my stay, I had to stop in rather remote spots, purely because of the need to save money, and to facilitate getting to locations for really late night, and early morning photographs (meaning that getting to bed and up at… oh no… wait… NOT getting to bed for anything much more than an hour, because SOMEONE forgot to check what time the sun sets and rises in Scotland during the solstice week (Duh!!)) Thankfully these spots were fairly plentiful, tucked away, and non obtrusive. When not out with my camera, I kept myself to my van, and left nothing behind at any location of course. I would urge anyone considering doing this, to do the same. As soon as people begin leaving litter, or soil of any kind, there will be a stop to this, and therefore any freedom to roam that we may currently enjoy. For us photographers, the biggest enjoyment, and some of the best photography, will naturally involve getting to remote locations very late in the day, or as early and as easily as possible, so PLEASE remain respectful, so that this may continue.
I found Skye to be largely unspoiled. I don’t know how much longer it will stay that way, as even at this point, it was impossible to not notice just HOW MANY tourists were flocking to the area. I don’t think I have ever seen so many people visiting such a tiny area at one time, and this wasn’t peak season! This did impact photo opportunities at some points, but you have to take the rough with the smooth, and after all… I guess I was just another one wasn’t I? The saddest bit for me, was, that over my week, I think I heard a Scottish accent on no more than a handful of occasions. There were numerous tour buses every day, at every location I visited, dropping at least 30 -50 people off at a location, who tramped everywhere (some without any consideration for the environment, I was sad to notice) for half hour or so, and then moved on to the next spot, just as another bus pulled up. I hope this will be controlled soon, as I can see another 10 years passing, and the gorgeous locations that are the core starting places for photographers to visit, being little more than wide expanses of trodden brown footpath.
The most noticeable place where this is seen is at Old Man Stor. I came here briefly with the children in 2012, and we walked through a lovely forest footpath to the base of the Stor, where we then found a few thin, single file foot path trails up to the Stor itself. This year, I was really sad to see all the trees had be cut down and were being replaced by ‘native trees’, which I get, as the trees that were there, were not apparently natural ones for this area. But it looked baron, and my heart bled in the silence. It felt almost morgue like, for the lack of birds, and wildlife which had now gone, having lost so much of their protective cover. I know the plan is good, don’t get me wrong, but I am unlikely to see it looking as beautiful in my lifetime again, as trees take years to grow, and I wished more than anything that for the sake of the wildlife, they had done it in stages, so the animals could have stayed. Anyhow, that’s just a minor, personal gripe… I diverge… the tourist effect… The little narrow path up to the Stor had mostly gone, in favour of a huge brown worn path to the right, that led up to the photographers viewpoint. I can see where it started, but the numbers of people have clearly widened it immensely, to the point that as you get higher up, the route becomes completely unclear, as it’s all just a big brown trodden area. Where the path becomes less secure as it wears down further, and wet weather makes the muddy path slippery, people will naturally widen their route onto yet more of the grassy area, and the problem just gets worse. On the route lower down, the footpath that has been laid is already being ignored, with people cutting through, walking on the edges etc. This will only get worse I imagine as the numbers grow. My biggest fear for Skye, is that this will happen in other places too.
On the other side of the coin however, I was pleased to see that some locations are beginning to control crowds. Lealt falls is a good example here, with a purpose build viewing platform overlooking the falls, keeping people safer from the edge, preserving the landscape, but affording good views of the falls. Toilets are being planned for The Fairy Pools car parking area, and up at the Quiraing, it looks like a better car park might be being created too, just at the top and out of the main walking route and view that attracts everyone. I am reading online that there has been further funding (granted as of June 2019) for visitor access for Old Man of Stor and some for parking at Portree, including Motorhome day Parking (YAY!! – I couldn’t park anywhere so ended up pretty much avoiding the place entirely). (See Jan 2020 update below about these!) Its also really nice to see that (so far) Skye has staved off the usual trappings that come with hordes of tourists…big ugly hotels, fast food chains, shopping /tourist malls etc. This helps Skye maintain its charm, so I really hope that it can keep them away, or find a small, tucked away area, where they might hide it all, should it become an absolutely necessity. It should be noted however, that the lack of a number of familiar shopping facilities will mean that should you loose your lens cap?, or smash your very expensive filter on your third day?, you can forget finding replacements for the remainder of your trip…because even Amazon wont deliver here in anything less than 3 days, and the nearest city is several hours drive away!! (Hmmnn… unless someone opens a dedicated camera shop on the island….???)
On the whole, I found Skye to be an awesome place to travel around. The roads were fairly clear at this time of year for me, and even during (the few) busy periods, I found frequent passing places everywhere (with the very clear signs visible from a distance). These were an absolute boon that allowed for easy flow of traffic in the many areas that only allow for single lane roads. And by many, I mean nearly all. Well done to the road designers who thought that one through…there are many other places in the UK that could take a lesson on how you achieved that! My camper is Transit van sized, and it managed really easily… but as the season picked up I wouldn’t like to comment on how it all might work with the growing numbers of tourists, and the ever increasing sizes of motorhomes, that no doubt headed that way.
Weather wise, my week was essentially cloudy. It didn’t rain every day, but did most of them, and several days had a full spectrum of weather, bit of blue, plenty of cloud, a sprinkling of rain (and the occasional torrential downpour), so this actually makes Skye perfect for interesting shots rather than just the traditional postcard type ones. I am told this is normal for here, and that even a few miles can bring entirely different weather at times! I had several moody shots of mountains, and I know that there are often, still, calm days that afford beautiful reflection shots in Skye’s many Lochs. I wasn’t especially lucky this time, as it was fairly breezy every day, but these shots are visible everywhere online, so they aren’t lying. With this variable weather pattern, you will need to bring wet weather clothing, sturdy waterproof footwear, and some rain protection for your gear for the bad days. I had an old rain mac from a visit to Niagara many years ago… it did the trick, but I have since invested in other alternatives for my camera.
As for locations, every landscape photographer is completely spoiled for choice. Mountains, rolling hills, coast, rivers, waterfalls, towns, villages, abandoned cottages, historic houses, castles, harbours, bridges, lakes, ponds, wild and birdlife… well just about everything I can think of, is here, within this tiny speck of land… all within an hour or two’s drive, a gentle stroll or a good hearty hike. Nearly everything is free to enter (for now at least!) with exception to the private houses/castles (one I looked at was Dunvegan Castle, which I ended up not doing on this occasion), and all I visited were pretty near the road side or car park, either the actual view, or the start to the official hiking path. You really are are totally spoiled for choice, making it a pretty impressive place to start landscape photography, especially if you aren’t totally sure what your favourite type of shot might actually be. Here, just about every theme could be tried, and with quite a few experienced photographers around, you wouldn’t be alone long if you needed a bit of advice either. Oh, by the way… this last point shouldn’t lead you to think that ‘that shot’ is already over done because of the numbers of photographers here… ‘that shot’ changes every hour with the weather here… and YOUR shot, will be entirely different. It will have the light that was exclusive to the moment that YOU press your shutter, and it will have your memories, and your adventure in getting to that spot embedded within it. My advice would be to try not to plan a weather dependant shoot too much, but to remain open to whatever the conditions throw at you, and be fluid and adaptable around it. You will be less disappointed or frustrated if it’s left as a ‘surprise’ on the day, and it will help stop you restricting yourself on the amazing shots that ARE available to you.
My opinion ultimately is that Skye was pretty perfect for me. It enabled me to really improve my photography, offering views I was pretty familiar with, whilst giving opportunities and challenges that both stretched my existing skills, and encouraged me out of my comfort zone to try something new. Sometimes the weather, or the crowds, sometimes my own inabilities… the challenges are plentiful, but not insurmountable. I was able to be entirely alone in the moment, and yet I was able to mix and chat with individuals or groups of people around me. I am fairly confident that this stunning place would do much the same for any photographer, be they a day tripper just taking snaps. amateur photographers hoping to get themselves off the auto setting, or highly skilled pros looking to build their portfolios.
***** Highly Recommended!
Update: Jan 2020… the car park at the Quiraing is indeed in place, and a really good one too, if you are in a car. Its very unclear where my camper should park however… I assume its to park up in the bus spots, which I feel very loathed to do. I can’t get into the car park itself due to the height barrier… and the sign is hilariously confusing….
Note that permitted vehicles include Motorhomes, but clause (m) says that vehicles made to sleep in are not… I’d love to see a motorhome that wasn’t designed to sleep in!!! Either way, it left me unable to park in there, and very confused where I WAS supposed to park.
At the Stor there is definitely work going on, a large area too, I am assuming a visitor centre will be made there – either that or its a VERY big car park… hopefully the signage will be clearer when they finish!! Portree was unchanged so I await a better camper experience there.