Category Archives: Uist

North Uist From Richard’s Perspective

If you were to say to me “You were thinking of going to photograph the Outer Hebrides, but didn’t know where to start”. Then I’d say, “begin on the Isle of Harris, it’s wall to wall photo locations”. However, I’ve been to Harris three times now and whilst I’ve returned with lots of nice images, I don’t feel as though I’ve captured the true character of the place, there’s something missing and I’m not proud of any of my images.

Last year we felt we needed a change, so we decided to go to North Uist. Our primary driver was to see the machair, but that’s another story, as they say. Uist may be physically very close to Harris, but it’s a different world. It’s a very traditional island, that’s very much un-developed for tourism and still has it’s crofting way of life. It’s also a very sparse landscape and it’s this minimal look that first caught our attention.

Last year we rented a cottage near Balranald nature reserve last year and whilst it was very nice, the location was much more suited to bird photographers, rather than landscape. Add in a hefty dose of very wet, grey weather and we only came back with a couple images between us. However, all was not lost, we both felt we’d seen the photographic potential in the island, we both really felt we “got it”. We’d also spotted a fabulous location complete with a cottage sitting overlooking it, so it was game on for 2017.

The cottage at Gearraidh Iain was expensive, but the location overlooking Traigh Vallay was perfect for us. We marvelled at the colours in the water and the ever-changing shapes as the tide came in. We were in photographic heaven, the location offered so much photographic potential, but as the tide came in, everything happened so quickly it was hard to know what to shoot.

As we drove home after a very enjoyable week, we both felt that the time was right to explore another island, but now we’ve had time to reflect, we both feel we’ve only just scratched the surface of Traigh Vallay, so who knows, we may just back again one day soon!

 

North Uist from Janet’s perspective….

Our home for the week overlooking Vallay Strand

Every year we like to visit the Hebrides for our annual holiday. It’s a place to be refreshed, renewed and feel at peace.

We’ve been visiting the Isle of Mull for many years and in recent years we have also expanded our travels to other islands such as Eigg, Harris and recently North Uist.

Mull is like a second home to us, a familiar place where the pace of life slows and we can immerse ourselves in our passion for wildlife and the outdoors. We both love the island and I’m sure if we had been younger we would have moved there permanently.

Last year we discovered the Isle of North Uist, we’d visited Harris a number of times and expected North Uist to be similar but it was completely different in character and it captured our hearts in the same way that Mull had all those years ago.

Primarily a crofting community it is slowly opening itself up to visitors. A haven for wildlife and famous for its wildflower meadows (machair), it suited us down to the ground.

Last year we booked a week at the end of June in the hope of coinciding our visit with the machair being at its best. Unfortunately for us it had been a cold spring and the machair was barely ready to flower. Though it gave us an opportunity to explore the island and get to know the place a bit better and we decided to go back this year. It’s always a bit hit and miss booking cottages and while we had a lovely cottage near Balranald nature reserve last year, the view wasn’t great, so we did a bit of scouting around and found a fabulous cottage overlooking three square miles of tidal bay at Malacleit.

Getting to North Uist is a bit of a trek for us, it’s just far enough away at 450 miles to warrant an overnight stay at both ends of the holiday. Fort William on the way there and Ballachulish on the way back. We catch the ferry from Uig on the Isle of Skye and cross the turbulent waters of the Minch which takes about two hours. We have only been across the Minch once in calm waters and were really happy to see whales and dolphins from the ferry as well as countless seabirds.

We’d travelled from Fort William in a storm and it continued as we crossed on the ferry in into the first night on Uist. Really heavy rain stopped us going out to explore, so a night in with a glass of wine was called for. The weather was due to improve for the rest of the week so our spirits were high.

Sunday morning dawned clear, bright and calm. Traditionally Sunday is a day when the car stays parked and we explore our immediate vicinity and stretch our legs after all that travelling, but Richard had booked the boat to St. Kilda to camp out there for a few days. A quick trip to Berneray to drop him off then I was free to do some exploring and getting to know the area. 

The cottage proved to be in the perfect location overlooking Vallay Strand. The tidal bay empties to leave a large expanse of beach twice a day. The colours of the ebbing and flowing tides are a wonder to behold, it ranged from slate grey to brilliant vibrant turquoise. The sand is a creamy white and as the tide ebbs and flows the reveal ever changing shapes and layers of colour.

The main reason we went in July was to see the wild flower meadows that the island is so famous for and we weren’t disappointed. A walk through the accessible meadows (most are behind fences to keep the sheep out) is a joy for the senses, the heady scent of the flowers transports you to an era when meadows were the norm across most of the country. Bees, butterflies and insects abound as well as insect eating birds. An ecosystem at its best, long may it last. A worry about the viability of it all is that the islands rely on EU subsidies to keep this way of life going. What will happen when we leave the EU is anyone’s guess. I truly hope this unique way of life is not lost.

As well as the meadows, North Uist is all about wide open spaces, big vistas and turbulent weather. There are hardly any trees on the island to stop the westerly gales scouring the land in the winter time. The storms must be a sight to behold. The folk as well as the sheep and the wildlife must be incredibly hardy.

The people are some of the friendliest you are likely to meet. At the very least you get a wave, and they love to talk. I got talking to a lady who was telling me that living in paradise does have some downsides, the weather was top of the list! The other was the work involved for the peat fires, cutting, stacking, drying the peat is back breaking work.

All in all, a fantastic week, the wild flowers and wildlife were glorious, the weather was decent and the place worked it’s magic as always.

Would I go again? You bet I would.

Could I live there? No, it’s very remote and the weather in winter would drive me bonkers.

If you haven’t yet been to the Hebrides I can highly recommend North Uist, a truly fabulous, unique place.

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.

In Search of the Machair

It’s the same with us at the start of each year. “Where shall we go this year?” “Where can we go that’s different?” We’d been to Harris a few times and fancied a change, though we normally don’t go to Scotland in the summer to avoid the dreaded midges, but we fancied trying North Uist in summer to see the machair. We found a cottage to rent and set off with a little trepidation in our minds. Despite our love of simple images, this was going to be a very sparse landscape and it was going to test our abilities to do it justice.

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Machair at Balranald

We travelled north over a couple of days and arrived on North Uist in glorious sunshine, but it wasn’t to last. Our cottage was on the edge of the Balranald nature reserve, a place renown for it’s machair, but on exploring that evening, it proved that we had arrived a little too early for the machair to be at it’s height. The swathes of buttercups were beautiful, but the poor weather in June meant the clovers and orchids were yet to reach their peak.

Sunset at Traigh nam Faoghailean

Sunset at Traigh nam Faoghailean

More bad weather meant we were confined to a bit of recceing the south of the island over the next couple of days, but no sign of machair in the south, then on the Wednesday we ventured north and bingo, loads of machair at Malacleit and Traigh Ear. Not only machair, but sparse bays that were just crying out to be shot as minimal monochrome images. Suddenly we were in our element and inspired, but time was running out and the weather was limiting our opportunities, before we had to leave the island on Friday to travel to Harris prior to leaving for home.800-1-12080-R

However, we’ve found a cottage overlooking a bay that holds huge potential for us to do our thing and large areas of machair close by, so we don’t think it won’t be too long before we head back to North Uist once again.

Gearraidh Iain cottage at Ceann a Bhaigh

Gearraidh Iain cottage at Ceann a Bhaigh

 

Connecting with the landscape

I’m very conscious that I’ve ignored the blog for far too long again, but I had hoped I’d be writing an extended piece about my experiences on St. Kilda at this point, in fact I’ve even started two articles, but the weather has beaten me one again.

Loch Alsh from a viewpoint near Kyle town

Loch Alsh from a viewpoint near Kyle town

I had also planned to write a piece about shooting the machair on Uist, but something remarkable happened while we were there.

Black house at Carinish

Black house at Carinish

I’ve read several articles by much respected photographers like Bruce Percy and David Ward about “connecting” with the landscape and I’ve always been aware of this, but despite the weather we experienced on Uist, we’re both surprised just how much we connected with this unique landscape. We went with quite a lot of pre-conceptions about what we would shoot and how we would do it, but we’ve come away with some totally different feelings. Despite our love for simple, almost minimal images, we felt we were up against it with the sparse landscape of Uist, but as it turned out, we really connected with this empty landscape. We both feel we could do so much more with it photographically now we’ve been and seen and had time to absorb it. Some islands we’ve visited such as Arran, we just didn’t “get”, but Uist works for us, so even though the weather wasn’t kind to us this trip, we really fancy going back and trying some of these ideas we both have swimming around in our heads.

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