Black Dots - Western Highlands, Northern Highlands, Raasay & Skye
The penultimate trip for Black Dots saw me base myself in Fort William, first exploring the deep glens and coastal hideaways of Lochaber, to the islands of Raasay and Skye, culminating in an exploration of northern Sutherland. With the midges gone and rutting season in full swing, I set off for two weeks to lose myself in a Scottish autumn.
Leaving the town of Fort William behind, I drove North East towards Loch Lochy before heading West along the shores of Loch Arkaig - a seemingly endless road with countless blind summits, twists and turns. The walk to Glenpean bothy is straight forward, following forest tracks and passing a number of hunters-hideouts and apparent "boar traps" used by the Glen Dessary estate. Occasional breaks in the trees reveal the spectacular southern slopes of Glen Pean as it climbs up to the summits of Sgurr Thuilm & Beinn Gharbh, and as I emerged from the western edge of the forest, the bothy came into view. I spent the remainder of my afternoon wandering the ground surrounding the bothy with my viewfinder to try and find some potential locations to photograph from the following morning. I was later joined by a father and son, visiting Glen Pean to scatter the ashes of a friend who used to be the maintenance organiser of the bothy. It was touching to be brought into such an intimate, personal moment in these peoples lives, and after sharing a dram and loading up the fire we settled in for the night.
I woke early and fought my way across the twigs and branches of the felled wood to a vantage point I'd scouted the evening before. Mist and cloud gathered around the tops, and the sound of bellowing Stags echoed around the walls of the glen. Making the first frames of a trip is always exciting, I don't feel like I've properly "arrived" until I press down on the shutter for the first time. With the first shots in the bag, I hastily packed up my kit and headed back towards town to greet Andy as he joined me for the next week.
Peanmeanach bothy takes its name from the deserted village which it belongs to, on the South-Western shores of the Ardnish Peninsula. Parking the car in a layby on the Mallaig road, we followed what appears to be the only marked track over the peninsula which leads directly to the bothy. After an initial steep climb through woodland, the trees subsided and we were presented with an incredible view overlooking the blue waters of the Sound of Arisaig with the Western Isles of Rum, Eigg and Muck in the distance.
The track twisted and turned, before dropping back down into woodland once more where we entered a large grassland which completes the approach to Peanmeanach. The afternoon sun was creeping closer to the horizon, colouring the grasses and the surrounding hills with vivid hues of red and yellow. The handful of buildings that comprise ‘the village’ form an orderly line, running parallel with the shore and with the exception of the bothy (which served as the schoolhouse), only a few dry stone walls remain. Soon after arriving, we headed down to the shoreline where large nettle & fern covered stacks provided excellent elevation from which to set up the 5x4.
We settled in for the night, sharing the bothy with one other – Sandy – who had arrived the day before by canoe. Peanmeanach has two rooms downstairs, both with fires, and a large loft with ample space to sleep several people comfortably. As always, we’d lugged in coal and kindling and their was plenty of driftwood scattered on the beach to keep a roaring fire going well into the night. As darkness fell, the local deer from the surrounding hills made their way to the flat ground around the bothy to graze, and hundreds of eyes would stare back at our headtorches whenever we ventured outside.
The next day, I left the warmth of my sleeping bag before the sun rose and headed down to the water. Sandy’s canoe had been left just off the beach and provided me with the perfect foreground. After all, over-land ventures are not the only way to enjoy the bothy experience. With the fire lit, smoke billowed out into the cold morning air as I fired off two more frames to the soundtrack of the waves gently lapping the pebbles. I spent the remainder of the morning chatting with Sandy, with the conversation culminating in a brief portrait session before hotfooting it back across the Peninsula to catch the two ferries across to Raasay for out next bothy night.
To reach the Isle of Raasay, we had to first catch the ferry from Mallaig to Armadale on the Isle of Skye, then drive through Skye to Sconser where you can then catch the connecting ferry over to Raasay. It sounds long, but is a far better option than having to drive to Sconser from Fort William. In driving rain and howling wind, we rolled off the ferry and made our way North, following the only main road on the island. To say this is a scenic drive would be an understatement, turn upon turn we were bowled over by the rugged beauty and sweeping views that Raasay had to offer. Fleeting glimpses of the mainland to the east are echoed by sights of the Isle of Skye & the Quirang to the west. It feels as though Raasay has managed to avoid the endless hoards of tourists that flock to Skye year upon year, and in doing so has managed to retain much of it’s natural charm.
At Arnish, the road draws to a halt and anywhere north of here was on foot. The first stretch of the hike to the bothy is through woodland, with tracks leading down to hidden coves that house secluded fisherman’s cottages. Under the watchful eyes of a Stag, we trudged across the boggy moorland through gorges and crags until the bothy eventually came into sight.
Taigh Thormoid Dhuibh (or Raasay Bothy for those who struggle with reading that!) is a long building with a distinguishable green roof, situated in an area surrounded by large rounded boulders which shelter it from the winds that whip around the narrow headland. With very little firewood in the vicinity, we set about scouring the coastline foraging what we could and spent the night in front of the fire, sitting on make-shift deck chairs and nursing the customary Jail Ale.
We woke early the following morning and set up on the exposed high ground just south of the bothy. I wanted to try and capture the stark beauty of this location, with the stormy skies looming over the rugged outcrops. The brown remains of the heather coated the rocks around me, and flocks of sheep gathered in sheltered spots in the distance. With Andy and myself protecting the camera from the wind and rain, I struggled to fire off a few sheets of film before retreating to the relative warmth of the bothy – quietly hoping that I’d managed to time my shots between gusts. Hebridian weather hampered progress as we battled wind and rain on our hike back to the car. The shelter of the birch woods was a welcome relief, and with literally seconds to spare we boarded the ferry and made our way back to the Youth Hostel in Fort William to dry off.
Black Dots relies heavily on the use of portraiture to help communicate the story of bothy culture. Frustratingly, this is also one of the more difficult elements of the work as I never know if I’m going to meet anyone and if I do, whether they’re willing to be photographed. With this in mind, I decided to head towards the Isle of Skye and spend the weekend at a popular bothy I’ve visited a couple of times in the past. With it’s location just up the coast from Elgol, the footfall at Camasunary is probably higher than most of the bothies in the network, so chances of bagging some portraits were high, too! Arriving in the evening, I was glad to enter the bothy and find four others busying themselves in the seating area; two brothers, Giles & Hugo and another pair of travellers, Adam & Nika. Camasunary has two large rooms, one with long benches and a food prep area and another with large bunk-style sleeping platforms. We all congregated in the communal area, sharing food and regaling each other with stories from our respective travels.
With all four of my fellow bothy companions more than happy to be photographed I spent the next day excitedly rushing around the bothy. I always have to be mindful that the sitter probably didn't allow for a photoshoot in their trip and are usually eager to get going on their hike. For that reason I generally don't spend as much time shooting them as I would usually prefer. I waved everyone off as they set out in different directions, and hung about at the bothy with a friend who had hiked out to meet me for his first ever bothy experience. He had managed to somehow lug out a huge Tupperware of homemade soup, two baguettes, a tub of flora and a bottle of Shiraz. A good night was had, and the cameras remained packed away. Sometimes it's nice to sit back and enjoy your surroundings without the pressure of making work.
Achnanclach & Strabeg
For the final few days of the trip, I headed to Sutherland in the northern reaches of the Scottish Mainland to first spend the night at Achnanclach bothy near Loch Loyal and then onto a final night at Strabeg, just south of Loch Eriboll. Achnanclach is only a short wander from the road, and although possibly not the most photogenic bothy I've visited, it does come complete with two single beds as well as a sleeping platform, a working fire and a Leonard Coen songbook...
My night at Strabeg was spent in the company of John, a hilarious and friendly character who has spent a lifetime bagging Munros and hiking the wilds of Scotland. Once again I found myself gorging on someone else's food, but he seemed happy to allow me to help him finish off the huge chunk of cheddar and chorizo he had carried in. Sharing a bottle of unbranded single-malt, we took it in turns to saw a huge tree trunk he'd dragged in from the bog outside. This collaboration carried on long into the night, and John entertained me with stories of his travels around the world whilst making sure my cup was always at least half full of whisky.
In the morning, the embers from the nights fire were still smouldering, coughing small plumes of woodsmoke into the air as I set the camera up on a small hill beside Strabeg. A small herd of deer picked their way through the ferns and fish were swimming in the burn which snakes its way around the bothy. The clicking of my shutter startled the deer, and they dashed out of sight. Walking back inside, John was sat at a small wooden table in front of the window focussing on his crossword. It's not often that I can get portraits inside bothies as they're generally very dark, so window light is my closest ally. A few quick shots later, we shook hands and I watched as John crossed the burn and picked his way across the boggy fields back towards the Loch.
I followed a little later on, reaching the car as a storm rolled in over Sutherland. A thirteen hour drive lay ahead of me, but after having just spent the better part of a fortnight trekking through some beautiful landscapes, discovering remote bothies and sharing whisky with inspiring people, I can't really grumble.