One week of photography in the wild backcountry of the Scottish highlands. In this "episode," I’d like to share with you the story about a recent trek into Glen Feshie in the Scottish Cairngorms National Park. It’s the behind-the-scenes tale of my successful image titled “Catch the Spirit.”
Unloading your equipment from the car is always the fun part of these trips. We have been on the ferry between the Netherlands and the UK for the better part of yesterday and driving from Newcastle Upon Tyne to Feshiebridge today. The fresh mountain air of March smells fantastic and my two friends and I are looking forward to spend some time here. We have been planning to hike up to the Cairngorm Plateau, which is about three days of solid hill walking away if you take the route through the photogenic Glen Feshie. The journey starts with heather moorland, alternated by small pockets of woodland that are rich with wildlife such as red squirrels, pine martens, and red deer. The river valley twist and turns until we reach the first goal of our trip.
It's here where the narrow, winding cleft in the National Park, opens up into a spacious glen where three valleys meet. Colorful rocks and lonely trees dominate this landscape and the feeling is altogether different. It’s not far from one of the many mountain bothies that are dotted around the Scottish backcountry and we’d love to make camp there for the first night of our stay. Mountain bothies are primitive dwellings that provide shelter for weary travelers. This particular one isn’t that primitive, but it doesn’t matter. The bothy is closed for maintenance, so we count our blessings that we brought tents. A centuries-old pine tree, not too far from the bothy, is our shelter for the night. The ground is relatively flat under this giant and the river Feshie is close enough to provide us with ample supplies of tasty water. The evening falls and we spend the night in calm winds under a full moon.The morning comes and it’s absolutely frigid outside. The sun rises much later here in the mountains, but we have to make the best of our time to be able to reach the next leg of the journey before nightfall. Looking at the map, we see that our route leads us along the slope of the mountains to the east. It’s about two more days until we reach the Cairngorm Plateau from here, so we better move along.
The Impasse Before Fangorn
With our entire camp now securely packed on our backs, we turn left; hugging the slope for about a mile to reach an impasse. The footpath ahead was destroyed in a recent flood, so we stop for minute to see if and how we can continue to upper Glen Feshie. We peer into a deep ravine. and all the there's nothing but scree. As we check the map and orient ourselves by compass, we look for the safest way to get across. Step by step and one by one, we take about half an hour to reach the spot the footpath once connected. Here, we find ourselves at the precipice of a black, ominous-looking woodland, stretching from tree line to the river. An image of Fangorn forest comes to mind as we set foot into a very old place. And it doesn't look all that friendly or inviting from the outside.
The rain doesn't come as a surprise when we look at our surroundings in this lush and ancient Caledonian woodland. Moss covered pines waymark our route up to the tree line, but it's here that we stop for a minute to do some explorative photography of these evergreen sentinels.
This is exactly how I personally approach photography while on a trip like this. My camera gear is in the lower compartment of my backpack; not readily accessible, but locked behind a single zipper without having to pull out any other gear. Since I’m a landscape photographer, this less than ideal approach suits me well enough. I don’t have to be ready on a moment’s whim to capture wildlife or a facial expression of my subjects.
However, the light is always changing. Especially here in the temperate rainforest. Momentary showers are alternated by streaks of sunlight and these fleeting conditions create a perfect backdrop for some these fantastic trees here. The guys are resting and staying with the packs, which gives me the opportunity to climb over the hill with just my camera mounted to the tripod. The landscape almost feels out of place; it’s just so verdant – even at the end of winter, most of the trees carry green and ferns are everywhere on the forest floor. This is due to the fact that microclimates occur here in the Highlands. This particular woodland is situated on the windward side of a mountain. The mountain pushes air up and as rising air cools at altitude, water vapor condenses and rain becomes inevitable.
It’s incredibly difficult not to get lost in this thick and wet woodland; not in the least because I now have some time on my own to explore. I don’t have to go far to find interesting subjects though. Trees with bizarre shapes tell the story of how tough life in this windswept forest actually is. There are Scots pine everywhere, but this fantastic-looking birch seems even more out of place. I lower the tripod and wait for 15 minutes for the rain to clear. I don’t want to be gone for an eternity, because I haven’t told the guys how long I will be gone. Suddenly, a shaft of sunlight shines through the pines in the distance. It illuminates the moss in the foreground and I click away. A couple of times, because I’m at minimum focus distance. Even at f/22, I wouldn't get both the foreground and the background in sharp focus. As per usual workflow in these situations, I opt for focus stacking to capture the scene; rotating the focus ring a notch at every interval.
Not too long after I’ve picked up the tripod at that dancing tree and rejoined my friends, the rain joins us as well. We’re already well on the way out of the forest, but beyond the tree line, we certainly have a couple of miles ahead of us before reaching next camp.
One word of advice when going on a trip here, is to plan head and then plan some more. The uneven ground makes it very tough to find a good place to sleep and it’s soggy just about everywhere where the ground is even. Hammock camping is the best option in the valleys and it can certainly be done in the woodlands, but it’s of no use above the tree line.
I will take you to the Cairngorm mountain plateau in the next episode of this series, where we find unexpected weather and plenty of photo opportunities. We’ll also spend words on how to dress and what additional clothes to bring on a week long photography trip in the backcountry.