Category Archives: St Kilda

St. Kilda – Part 2. A photographer’s Perspective

I’d actually been to St. Kilda on 3 separate occasions, prior to this trip. St. Kilda is renowned for it’s bad weather, but on each occasion I’d been, I’d landed on a bright, sunny, warm day so I didn’t feel that my images had captured to true essence of the place.

 

I’d been captivated by the look and feel of the island from the first time I went in 2010 and I wanted to experience that feeling of true isolation, but I also wanted the opportunity to create some images that I felt showed the real character of these islands on the edge of the known world. Day trips are fine for getting a taste of the island, but staying overnight would mean that I’d have an opportunity to produce some images in softer end of day light.

 

My old boss often used to say, “be careful what you wish for” and I must say this was in my mind when I was wishing for atmospheric conditions. Now, being a novice camper, having warm, dry conditions did make my camping experience that much more enjoyable, so I was reasonably glad I didn’t have the damp, misty, windy conditions that often prevail on the islands.

Once set up it was a fascinating experience to watch the boat I’d arrived on, leave. I was totally on my own in the campsite, so if my stove didn’t work, I’d have to survive on cold food. However, I needn’t have worried, the stove was fine and my Wayfarer packet meals were quite pleasant to eat. Which is more than I could say for my reserve de-hydrated meals which I’d have to eat to survive, rather than for pleasure if my ride home was delayed!

So camp set, meal eaten, it was time for a recce. One of the drawbacks to photographing St. Kilda is, if you want to shoot into the sun at sunrise or sunset, then you must climb a minimum of 900 feet. As it turned out the sky clouded over, so the sunset was a bit blank that first evening, meaning I got to bed a bit earlier than I might have done. I set my alarm for 3.15 and had a remarkably comfortable night’s sleep thanks to my Thermarest inflatable mattress. 3.15am dawned heavily overcast, so I reset the alarm for 5am, but woke to dull, damp, grey conditions, so I lie in was in order.

By the time I’d had my breakfast and a shower in the very warm, smart ablution block, the sky had cleared and it was time for more exploring. I climbed the 1300 feet to the radar station and found a good location the evening’s sunset shoot. The hoped for nice soft light materialised late in the afternoon allowing me a chance to get some nice images of the village, before setting off on the 1200 foot climb to shoot the sunsetting behind Soay. This proved a steep climb and not helped by the attentions of the Skuas (Bonkseys). Once in place the location proved great and the light promising, but once again it clouded over before sunset, so I arrived back nearer 11pm, rather than the midnight that it might have been.

I had planned to do an overnight time-lapse, but the cloud cover rendered this a non-starter. 3.15am the following morning soon came around and proved to be very overcast, so back to sleep again, before being awoken by glorious light streaming into the tent as the clouds broke around 5am. Needless to say I was up, dressed and out in flash. The light looked gorgeous in the bay, so I followed the light towards the Mistress Stone and spent a fantastic hour or so enjoying the “photographer’s” dappled light over Ruival.

I wandered back to camp for a quick breakfast before heading out to make the most of this lovely light in Glen Mor, then all too soon it was time to break camp and make my way to the boat. Packing up in the dry was a pleasure and I hate to think what it would have been like if it was raining! So, whilst nice weather definitely had it’s upsides, I still haven’t come away with any mood, misty images of Boreray or the sea stacks. Who knows, I might just have to go again to get those images. It’s taken me a long time to achieve my ambition to camp on St. Kilda, but it was worth all the trouble and heartache, as the experience lived up my expectations. One of the wonderful things about achieving your ambitions, is that it allows you to have some new ones! So, roll on the next adventure.

St. Kilda – Part 1, The Motivation

  

I’d been aware of the isles of St. Kilda for many years, but it was a television programme with Bill Oddie that brought it to the front of my mind, then whilst planning a visit to the Isle of Harris in 2010, we discovered that it was possible to go to St. Kilda for a day trip.

That first trip out to St. Kilda was a bit of an eye opener; think 700 hp minibus travelling over continuous humpback bridges at speed for three hours and you get the idea, so I felt pretty second hand by the time we got there. But that was all immediately forgotten as we sailed into Village Bay. I’m not big into history, but I was totally blown away with the look and feel of this place!

St. Kilda is renowned for its severe weather and I’d just landed on a day of clear blue skies and blistering heat, meaning my photos didn’t reflect the true character of the place, so I’d just have to go back again one day and do it properly. Once back home I saw another television program with Steve Backshall spending a night camping on St. Kilda and that really appealed to me, then by chance I discovered that it was possible to camp on the island. This had huge appeal, I really fancied experiencing the feeling of true remoteness and I’d get a chance to shoot the island under more favourable conditions. (ie. Not midday sunlight)

I did some investigation into getting to the island and how to book a stay, then immediately bought a tent and all the other gear I’d need. I hadn’t camped for something like thirty-five years, so this was going to be an experience! I’d got so soft, my idea of roughing it was not having on-suite facilities. I booked my boat ride with “Sea Harris” to coincide with another holiday on the Isle of Harris and set off full of excitement and anticipation. Once on Harris the weather closed in on us and the stormy weather meant I didn’t get my chance to camp on St. Kilda, but I was determined to get there one day, so had already started to plan alternative strategies.

This story of failure and frustration continued over the next few years, every time I got to Harris, the weather closed in and the trip was cancelled. I even got as far as the gang way in 2015 before it was finally called off. The big problem is one of being in the right place at the right time. Harris is two days travel from home and accommodation is at a premium, so if the trip gets cancelled or delayed, you are suddenly needing somewhere to stay and the delays can be lengthy, so without a benefactor offering me a cottage for a month in high season, my chances of getting to St. Kilda were looking very poor.

Fast forward to 2017; we booked a cottage for a stay on North Uist and although I hadn’t intended to have another try for St. Kilda, it was always there in the back of my mind festering away.  Quite by chance I discovered that “Go to St. Kilda” did pick-ups from Berneray on their way from Skye and Berneray was only twelve miles from where we were staying, so suddenly it was game on again!

As we travelled north “Go to St. Kilda’s” website said that the Sunday trip “Was in need of some weather improvement”, so the trip was in doubt once again, but we got a phone call from the owner Derek Gordon to say it was on. To say I was elated was an understatement!

After a stormy Saturday night, Sunday morning dawned calm and bright and we arrived in Berneray harbour just as the boat came into view. So, after all these years of trying, failing and heartache it was finally happening, I was going to get to stay on St. Kilda.

But why go to St. Kilda in the first place? I’m someone who spends a lot of his days in the countryside, but I don’t get to experience true remoteness and isolation; I wanted to experience what it would feel like to see the boat sail away and leave me all on my own. Also, I’d been blown away by the look and feel of the island from the moment I arrived there in 2010 and I didn’t feel I’d captured the true character of the “islands in the mist” after three visits in bright sunshine! Add in a desire to shoot something relatively unique and you start to get a picture for what was driving me to keep on pursuing this dream.

Project St. Kilda

The island of Dun off St. Kilda

Janet often tells me I can be very negative, but I can also be very tenacious when I set my mind to doing something I really want to do and my pet project of camping on St. Kilda is proving one such project that requires all my powers of determination and staying power. I first visited St. Kilda, 40 miles due west of the Outer Hebrides, on a day trip in 2010 and it left me blown away with the feel of the place, but it was a television program with Steve Backshall marooned for a night on the island of Boreray with a gorgeous sunset in the background that got my mind racing! This was just the place I was looking for, highly atmospheric and little visited, so I did some research about the island and the way of life and became totally hooked. My research also revealed that it was possible for limited numbers of people to camp on the island, so I started making plans for a trip in 2013.

People often ask me why I want to go to such a remote place and in reality my reasons are many and varied, but over the years it’s become a bit like a mountain, it’s there so it has to be climbed, or possibly like an itch that just has to be scratched, but put simply it’s just a place I really want to spend some time. I’ve got so many ideas of things I want to do there photographically, I’m determined to make it happen.

Attempt 1 – 2013

We booked a cottage on Harris as a base and I treated myself to a new tent and sleeping bag along with many other bits and pieces. I’ve done very little camping and most of that has been within walking distance of civilisation, so I was very aware that anything I didn’t take, I would have to manage without on the island. The other problem with St. Kilda is that you need to take a lot of spare food in case you get stranded by bad weather! I have heard of people going for a couple of nights and having to stay for up to 3 weeks. With my camping gear, food and camera gear, I ended up with 35kg on my back and feeling very fortunate it was only a couple of hundred yards walk from the jetty to the campsite.

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The weather forecast for North West Scotland the week before we left looked poor, but with the accommodation booked we were committed to going, arriving on Harris on the Saturday evening. A phone call from Seamus the boatman on the Sunday night confirmed my worst fears that the trip to St. Kilda was definitely off until at least the following Thursday as we had gales and intermittent rain coming our way. Fortunately Seamus rang on Wednesday night to say that we were on for Thursday, albeit only for a day trip. I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to get to stay overnight, but it was an awful lot better than nothing.

Attempt 2 – 2014

So after one failed attempt, I had to do a lot of thinking and try and figure how I could make another attempt. Then by sheer coincidence I met an ex-workmate and got talking and he said that he and another friend were going to try to get to St. Kilda via a boat from Uig on the Isle of Sky. I was due to be on Mull the week before, so that all fitted in well and meant a reasonably cheap trip. Once off Mull on the Saturday I saw Janet on to a train from Oban to home and I headed for Skye in dense fog.

With the boat not due to sail to St. Kilda until Monday, I had a couple of nights to kill on Skye, but that sounded great as it’s a place I’ve never stayed before. After a bit of exploring in the rain, I met up with my friends in the Uig pub and had a meal while we waited for a call from Dereck the boatman. He finally rang to say that the day trip was on, but it would be unlikely we would get back off the island for at least a week! As I had barely enough food and toilet paper to last a week, I had to reluctantly settle for a third day trip.

I have to say that the trip is amazing and one I would highly recommend to anyone with a strong stomach, but sailing from Uig rather than Leverborough adds an hour to each journey. While we were on the island, the weather changed for the worse and we ended up with a horrendous 5-1/4 hour trip back on the rolling and pitching SS Huey and even the cabin girl was sick!

Once back home and over the disappointment of another failure, I went back to the drawing board to plan my next moves…………………

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Options as of 2014

Option C was to volunteer to go sheep counting, but I reckon that I would go to sleep so that one was out!

Option D looked the best bet, volunteering to go on a work party with the National Trust. This would give me two full weeks on the island with alternative days off, so loads of chance to explore and take photos. I duly filled out the long and complex application form and sat back and waited to hear if I’d been accepted.

As January finally arrived, I got the bad news that they were oversubscribed and I’d only made the reserve list. It’s knock backs like this that made me even more determined to have another go so I started to plan for a 2015 attempt. My options were limited and after swapping a few emails with Seamus, I settled for a flying visit in May. The big problem is that whichever way I go, it’s still two days travelling to get to Leverbrough and the next problem I encountered was not only the cost of B & B accommodation on Harris, but the island was very busy in May and pretty solidly booked. I did manage to get accommodation booked, but I would run into problems if I had any slippage.

I arrived on Harris on the Sunday evening after two days of gales and occasional rain, then had a quick meal and waited for a call from Seamus. When the call finally came through it was the bad news I had been hoping not to hear, the trip was off due to a big swell out at sea. However, some other guests in the guesthouse had just had a call from Angus in the other boat and told that they were going, so clutching at straws I gave Angus and ring and he suggested I come along in the morning and see how the conditions looked before making a final decision. I sorted my kit before retiring to bed and read an interesting article by Chris Weston in Outdoor Photography magazine on positive visualisation of your goals in life to help make them happen. I slept soundly full of positivity about finally getting there and woke to a beautiful bright, crisp clear day. The gale force winds of the days before had abated and the sea looked calm as we all waited on the quay ready to board the boat. We then heard that Angus was ringing the warden on St. Kilda to get a weather report; 20 minutes later we got the disappointing news that the trip was off due to 5m swells out at sea and no chance of landing on St. Kilda. So very tantalisingly close this time, but I’ll get there one day!

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Options for the Future

I’m still determined to have yet another go, despite spending many, many hours thinking about my options, in reality they are very few.

A flying visit using B & B like on this trip is fraught with limitations and lacks the necessary flexibility to cope with delays, so I don’t think that is a viable option again.

Renting a cottage is a better if expensive option, but even having two weeks may not guarantee success.

Renting a camper van for two weeks would give the requisite flexibility, but is also expensive and would be very embarrassing if I got stuck on the island and couldn’t get it back at the end of the second week!

Right now applying to the National Trust again looks like the best option, though one or two other ideas are staring to percolate into my mind, so watch this space, I may get there yet……….

There again if someone would like to lend me a holiday cottage for a month in high season, I’d be happy to accept.

Project St. Kilda

Skye

My pet project to camp and photograph on St. Kilda is proving to be a much harder nut to crack than I imagined. My first attempt in September 2013 resulted in us sitting in a caravan on the Isle of Harris for 4 days waiting for gales and lashing rain to blow out. The weather finally cleared on the Thursday, but all I got was a day trip to the islands on an uncharacteristically bright sunny day, so it was back to the drawing board and time for plan B.

Soon after I got home, I got an email from an old friend saying he had found a boat going out of Uig on the Isle of Skye. This would mean a shorter and cheaper trip overall, so we duly booked for a trip in May 2014. This fitted in nicely for us as Janet and I were already due to be on Mull for a week, meaning I could go direct from Mull to Skye and have a couple of days photographing Skye.

We left Mull on the Saturday in glorious sunshine, but with the promise of worse to come. The weather was due to be wet on Saturday and Sunday (Which it was) and clear on Monday, which it did. I put Janet on a train to home from Oban, then headed north into the rain. I arrived on Skye mid-afternoon in heavy rain and cloud so thick I couldn’t see the old Man of Storr from the road as I passed. I pressed on to the Quiraing for a quick look, which is another truly amazing place, then headed for my digs and something to eat.

The alarm went off at 4 am the following morning and I rose to dull, drizzly morning, with a faint promise of the sky clearing on the horizon. Once up at the Quiraing car park, the drizzle had turned into persistent rain and only one other car load of photographers (From the Czech republic) had been daft enough to turn out on such a morning and at least they had the sense to be tucked up in sleeping bags. I waited until 5 am then set off along the track to find the famous Quiraing tree. The wind and rain was lashing down and streams of water were running down the track. Once in position, I used the umbrella to shield the camera from the elements, but it was a right pantomime trying to get an ND grad onto the camera without it getting wet. Once set up, I was able to lift the umbrella briefly and get the shots. With a few shots in the bag, I returned to the guest house for a couple of hours sleep before enjoying a hearty breakfast.

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After breakfast, I headed back down the island towards Storr and what an amazing place! As I continued the long climb, the pinnacles finally started to appear through the gloom. I had planned to climb on and get above the pinnacles, but with the rain blowing into my face, I had to descend and hide in the lee of some hills to get some shelter to keep the lens dry. My efforts to work with the umbrella causing much amusement with the climbers!

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Once back down I headed in search of lunch, only to run foul of Sunday closing on the island, so I headed over to the ferry terminal at Uig. I met up with a couple of non-photographer friends in Uig that evening and they dropped the bombshell that the weather was changing and a low was blowing in. A quick conversation with Dereck the boatman confirmed that Monday was due to be good, but Tuesday would be poor, with only a 50/50 chance of getting back off St. Kilda on Wednesday and very little chance after that until the following week. This left me with the choice of yet another day trip, or take the chance of being marooned on the island for at least a week! As I had commitments in Yorkshire at the weekend, I reluctantly chose the day trip.

St. Kilda

Monday morning dawned clear, bright and calm as we made the 4 hour trip out to St. Kilda. An hour clear of Harris you can see St. Kilda in the distance, but I doesn’t seem to get much bigger for the next couple hours, then suddenly you are there! The sea got quite choppy as we neared St. Kilda, so any shots of the islands shrouded in mist would have to wait until later. Once on the island the scene was as amazing as ever (This is now my 3rd day trip, so it starting to look quite familiar). As we walked up the main street the whole area was full of the cutest tiny Soay lambs, but as we were only due to be on the island for 3-1/2 hours I’d made the foolish decision to travel light and had taken my 70-200mm lens out of my bag at the last minute. This would have been really useful as the sheep are really wild and quite hard to get close to.

Ancient Soay sheep on the island of St. Kilda

The weather was reasonable, so I headed for Dun to re-visit my Dun island shot. Whilst over there the sheep kept unexpectedly running into me, so I managed to get some nice shots using the 24-120 lens. After a quick lunch, I headed back to the main street to shoot the village and the beach. A short, but heavy rain shower sent us all heading for cover and the first signs of the weather changing were very much in evidence, as the wind was getting up. Our trip round Boreray was now very much in doubt.

The island of Dun off St. Kilda

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After a quick tea and cake break on the pier, we all trooped back onto the boat for the sea stack tour. The tour round Boreray and the sea stacks is normally a highlight of the trip, but the wind had risen and the sea was already quite rough, making photographing almost impossible. After an hour of battling round the sea stacks, we headed off into the swell of the open sea for the 4 hour trip back to Uig.

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I have to say that the trip is amazing and one I would highly recommend to anyone with a strong stomach, but the prospect of the 5-1/4 hour trip on the rolling and pitching SS Huey is a pretty daunting one and even the cabin girl was sick! Now I’m back home and over the disappointment of another failure, so it’s back to the drawing board and time to put plan C in action…………………

 

Islands in the Mist / Sun

With the surge in interest in landscape photography in recent years, all us landscape photographers are in danger of following each other around the same iconic locations in the world, so the opportunity to find a location that is truly original is getting ever harder. With this in mind I spend most of my time doing my own thing photographing within 20 miles of my home, but a couple of recent trips to Norway have wetted my appetite for ever more wild and remote places.

Almost everyone has tried places like Glencoe and the Isle of Skye and locations such as Iceland and Norway are seeing a huge increase in popularity, so finding a place that is not familiar is getting ever harder. I’d been on a day trip to the island of St. Kilda (40 miles due west of the Outer Hebrides) in 2010 and was blown away with the feel of the place, but it was a recent television program with Steve Backshall marooned for a night on the island of Boreray with a gorgeous sunset in the background that got my mind racing! This was just the place I was looking for, highly atmospheric and little visited. I did some research about the island and the way of life and became hooked. My research also revealed that it was possible for limited numbers of people to camp on the island, so I started making plans.

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We duly booked a cottage on Harris as a base and I treated myself to a new tent and sleeping bag amongst many other bits and pieces. I’m used to camping within walking distance of civilisation, so I was very aware that anything I didn’t take, I would have to manage without. The other problem with St. Kilda is that you need to take a lot of spare food in case you get stranded by bad weather! The weather forecast for North West Scotland the week before we left looked poor and a phone call from Seamus the boatman on the Sunday night confirmed that the trip to St. Kilda was definitely off until Thursday as we had gales and intermittent rain. Fortunately Seamus rang on Wednesday night to say that we were on for Thursday, albeit only for a day trip. I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to get to stay overnight, but it was an awful lot better than nothing.

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For the trip out to the islands, imagine a 700hp mini bus travelling at speed over continuous hump back bridges for 2 ¾ hours and you get the picture! Once on the island I was blown away by the feeling of the place and keen to try and capture the look and soul of the place, but the clear blue skies and harsh sunlight were hardly what I had expected! I spent some time capturing the deserted village and the almost unique Soay sheep that have inhabited the islands for 1000’s of years and then decided to try and capture something of the landscape. The light was looking promising over the island of Dun, so I took the long steep hike in that direction. The relatively  harsh light dictated the use of a polariser and a 3 stop ND grad to kill the glare and made me yearn to able to stay for when the light cooled in the evening.

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My next stop was the “Mistress Stone” where the young men used to prove their manhood by standing on one leg on top of the rock, but this practice was eventually phased out when they started to run out of young men…….It was a very precarious place to be and I was very careful with both myself and my camera gear as neither of us wanted to end up in the sea hundreds of feet below!

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Once back at the boat at 4pm we were treated to a trip around the sea stacks where we marvelled at the 10’s of thousands of seabirds; a great challenge for any wildlife photographer!

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All in all a great trip, but now the challenge for me is to figure out how to achieve my goal to get myself out there to stay for a few nights on what is proving a logistically very difficult place to get to.

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