The Black Cuillin of the Isle of Skye present some of Britain’s greatest challenges for both the mountaineer and the mountain photographer alike. The very location of this complex and precipitous group of summits, on the southern tip of the largest island in the inner Hebrides means that it is exposed to some of the most changeable and unpredictable weather patterns to be found anywhere in the British Isles. These mountains can be shrouded in mist for days at a time and then, suddenly, will appear in skies of outstanding clarity only to disappear again with equal rapidity.
Whilst any effort to photograph these very spectacular mountains in reasonable weather will always yield reward, I have always thought that the best viewpoints are from the north and south. Yes, I will concede that the summits enclosing the corries of Banachdich, Lagan and A’Ghrunnda do present a striking outline when seen from Glen Brittle to the west, and the sweeping elegance of Glen Sligachan and the rocky hollow of Harta Corrie offers an excellent foreground to any vantage point from the east. But neither, in my opnion can compare with the the views from the north, whose aspect benefits from the foreground of the tumbling waters of the Sligachan Burn, or from the south when the pinnacled summits are set above the deep blue waters of Loch Scavaig or Loch Coruisk.
The most popular and widely accepted view of The Cuillin from the south is that from Elgol, the tiny fishing village at the very tip of the Strathaird Peninsula. This composition has a lot in its favour and I have taken many images from there myself. However when I decided that it was time to revisit The Cuillins and obtain a new panoramic image, it was very clear to me that the view from Elgol had its limitations.
Those who are familiar with the topography of the Black Cuillin will be aware that the main ridge forms a giant horseshoe which encloses the beautiful Loch Coruisk. On its eastern flanks are the outliers of Bla Bheinn and Marsco which are separated from the main ridge by Glen Sligachan which stretches for some twelve miles from Sligachan in the north to Camasunary Bay on Loch Scavaig to the south. Whilst it is fair to say that the view from Elgol includes all these elements, such is the distance of the location of the viewpoint from the subject across the expanse of Loch Scavaig that any real sense of the depth of the landscape is lost in the final image. Any effort to counter this effect by capturing the image early or late in the day still simply does not work. The third demension – which provides the true scale and complexity of the area – is always missing however hard you work to try to include it.
And so I needed to look elsewhere – for something similar, but with that added dimension. My first consideration was to move closer to the Cuillin, by following the coastal path north from Elgol, and I checked out this possibility on a brief visit when I was working nearby on a shoot in Kintail. Sadly this idea floundered when I realised that Bla Bheinn disappeared from view and foreground options were considerably reduced leaving my composition with a wide uninteresting expanse of open sea loch compared with the lovely rocky shoreline at Elgol. What the experiment did reveal was that my new viewpoint would need to be more elevated and that I could rule out anything at sea level.
So it was back to the maps and research with the help of a friend who had some local knowledge. Ben Cleat, a tiny rise overlooking Elgol, was the first alternative viewpoint identified, but I was put off by the fact that access seemed rather complicated and the view to Bla Bheinn was partially obliterated by a neighbouring hill to the north. That hill is Beinn Leacach and the map suggested easy access to its summit from the Am Mam, a pass crossed by the main track from Kilmarie to Camasunary. I had used this path many times before, but as my interest had always been the view to the Cuillin I could not remember anything about the nature of the terrain between the pass and the summit of Beinn Leacach.
Such was my confidence that this was the viewpoint that I was looking for, and I could see no reason why the terrain on the 300 foot ascent from Am Mam footpath to the summit could not be easily overcome, that I decided to take the chance and go for a shoot at the next available opportunity. However, thanks to the fickle and unpredictable Skye weather I made two long worthless overnight journeys to Skye before, at my third attempt in the first week of May, a stable high pressure system sat over the Highlands of Scotland and finally offered what appeared to be the perfect conditions.
When I finally arrived on the summit I was very pleased to see that the viewpoint offered everything that I had anticipated. It was a beautiful balmy spring morning. The Cuillin rose majestically above the deep blue waters of Loch Scavaig which themselves lapped delicately onto the shores of Camasunary Bay. The two meadows above the bay where rich green in colour from the spring growth and the bothy and farm buildings stood out vividly in their isolated location.
In early May the sun rises well north of east in the Highlands but, although this lit up the Cuillin ridge to perfection from my viewpoint in the south, it also created long shadows particularly of Sgurr na Stri on Gars-bheinn and of Bla Bheinn into Glen Sligachan. I captured my first series of shots at 0540 GMT. The sun’s light cast a very pleasing warm glow across the scene and the resulting image, but sadly I felt that the shadows intruded too far into the image and I decided it was necessary to compromise colour for composition and take further shots later in the morning.
I waited another hour until the shadow on Gars-bheinn finally disappeared. There was still an issue with the shadow in Glen Sligachan, but further delay was unacceptable when the quality of the remainder of the image was taken into consideration. At 0655 GMT I shot the images that would eventually produce the print. The final composition is compiled from seven images panning from the Isle of Soay in the south-west to the peak of Bla Bheinn in the north-east.
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