Black Dots - Northern Highlands, May/June 2016
The Northern Highlands is home to some of the most iconic bothies in the MBA network. From the coastal hideaways of Kearvaig and Strathchailleach on Cape Wrath to the popular Shenavall on the fringes of The Great Wilderness; these impressive northern territories have been on my radar from the very early research days of Black Dots. One of the beauties of our ever-growing bothy network is the wide variety of landscapes that can be experienced through bothying. Locations range from isolated mountain glens to white sandy beaches and dense woodland. This diversity is a core theme within my work, and plays a pivotal role in the ‘selection process’ when deciding which bothies to visit.
For this trip, I decided to focus my attention on four: Kearvaig, Glendhu, Glencoul & Shenavall. Shenavall was the first bothy I discovered back in 2013, and images of this tiny shelter and the munros that surround it are what inspired me to kick-start this project. So, as I loaded the car up for another nine-day trip to Scotland I was excited to finally have the opportunity to spend a night inside the bothy which holds a place very close to my heart.
Glencoul & Glendhu
The walk to Glencoul is a steady, continuous incline following a marked track. After tracing the banks of Allt Poll an Droighinn exiting Inchnadamph, the track passes through a boulder-strewn landscape dotted with lochans. Approaching the bealach between Glas Bheinn & Beinn Uidhe, the vastness of Sutherland is revealed, extending towards Beinn Leoid and beyond.
I zig zagged my way to the bottom of the glen, where the terrain eventually flattened out and followed the river towards Loch Beag passing underneath Eas a’Chual Aluinn – Britains highest waterfall. The weather was fair, and any whispers of wind that cooled me on the path through the bealach had no effect now as I crunched through the dry grass and heather. The sound of the waterfall filled the glen and could be heard even as I passed the grassy hills beyond the Loch and arrived at Glencoul.
A magnificent bothy, Glencoul sits proudly on a grassy plain on the shores between Loch Glencoul & Loch Beag. Previously the home to the Elliot family who moved here in the late 1800’s, the main house is locked shut with the old schoolhouse now serving as a bothy taken over by the MBA in 1998. Divided into two adequately sized rooms, there’s easily enough space to sleep a number of people and the flat ground outside is perfect for wild camping if the bothy is full. For me, however, this wasn’t a requirement as I found myself alone with the bothy (and what felt like the entire glen) all to myself.
I set the camera up on the hill beside the bothy, where Scotland’s most remote war memorial stands . A white marble cross with only the names of William and Alistair Elliot etched onto it, the two brothers grew up in the cottage and died during the First World War. The sun set over the loch, painting the bothy with a golden glow and picking out the young ferns among the grass. After shooting a couple of slides of film, clouds began to gather over the summits as cooler air moved in for the night so I packed down and made myself at home in my own private stone tent.
The following morning, a heavy cloud lingered above the loch as I continued my route towards Glendhu bothy. A steep climb up the southern slopes of Beinn Aird da Loch and around the headland brought Loch Gleann Dubh into view, with Glendhu bothy in the distance. After picking my way through a combination of boulders and seaweed (these are sea-lochs), I arrived at Glendhu around mid-morning.
Entering a small, wooden clad room, I became fascinated by the arrangement of objects on the fireplace. Resembling some form of art-installation, somebody had made the effort to crudely string up some antlers, surrounded by an assortment of candle-wax coated whisky and wine bottles & disregarded tea lights. These peculiar discoveries within the bothy walls are what makes entering a bothy so exciting – you never really know what you’re going to find! The walk back to the car was perhaps the least enjoyable part of the project so far. Road walking with mountain boots and a full pack is never fun, especially after a couple of days in the mountains. I treated myself to a night in Ullapool YHA in preparation for another three more bothy nights.
Kearvaig bothy was added to the network in 1987 and overlooks the white sand beach of Kearvaig Bay, where two rivers meet. It’s a huge bothy, with multiple rooms across two floors and is the final bothy on the Cape Wrath Trail, making it a popular stop for weary ramblers. I was once again joined by my walking partner Andy for this section, and after a pick-up in Inverness (and my first official full-Scottish breakfast), we drove the 2.5-hours towards Durness. After a short ferry trip across the Kyle of Durness we walked the military roads towards Kearvaig, accompanied by Jake whom we had met on the ferry.
Jake, 19 from Chicago, was travelling alone across Scotland. He had hitchhiked this far, and was hoping to spend a couple of nights at Kearvaig. He was carrying a fishing rod and hoping to catch something for his breakfast the following morning. Despite his shoes falling apart, he had somehow managed to acquire a bag of biscuits and a bottle of Jura which he dished out that night! The light that afternoon was flat and uninspiring – given how far I’d come I composed a few shots of the bothy but went back inside feeling rather disappointed. Much like Corrour in the Cairngorms, this is one I’ll definitely be returning to in the future.
We shared the bothy with Jake and Dave, another gentlemen travelling alone. We sat around the fire, drinking the whiskey that Jake had carried in and nervously watched him tuck into a bowl of stinging nettles & Ainsley Harriott hot sauce. He insisted it was tasty, and we all just took his word for it. The northerly location of Kearvaig means that it didn’t get fully dark until much later on, and as daylight resumed only a few hours later we spent the morning clambering over the surrounding cliffs and watching the puffins nest below.
Returning to the bothy, I encouraged Jake & David to allow me to photograph their portraits in and around Kearvaig to be included in the project, and they were more than happy to do so. Although disappointed that I didn’t get an image of the bothy itself this time around, the portraits are of equal importance and so I was glad to get a couple more in the bag!
Driving from Durness and loading up to head towards Shenavall it was difficult to not feel a sense of excitement. This was the bothy that started it all and for a few years has remained my number one spot to photograph. Situated within the Fisherfield Forest - commonly referred to as The Great Wilderness, home to Scotland’s most remote munros, Shenavall sits hidden away in the shadow of An Teallach. This remote bothy serves as a perfect starting point for people wishing to tackle the Fisherfield Six, an infamous yet epic round trip covering some of the most famous mountains this country has to offer. An ex-deer stalkers residence, the bothy is one of the oldest in the MBA network having been included since 1966. Approaching from Dundonnell, we followed the track around the southeastern flanks of Sail Liath – one of the ten summits that make up the An Teallach massif.
Arriving in the evening light, the bothy and its surrounding landscape looked as stunning as I’d imagine them to be. A vast valley floor swept away in front of the bothy, where the Abhainn Strath na Sealga flows towards Loch na Sealga, before rising dramatically up to the recognisable ridgeline of Beinn Dearg Mor & Beinn Dearh Bheag. I set the camera up on the hill approaching the bothy and tried my hardest to focus the camera, but the sweltering heat and incomprehensible number of midges (of which we’d been warned about!) made the task near on impossible. Admitting defeat, we retreated to the safety of the bothy.
The glen was filled with a thick morning mist and the smell of wood smoke from our fire the night before filled the air. I stood on the hill above the bothy and watched as a deer picked its way through the haze and darted up the valley. Apart from the sound of the trickle of the burn and the squeaking of the wet ferns underfoot, the area was silent. At first, I didn’t feel optimistic. The chances of catching a beautiful sunrise felt improbable as the bothy was barely visible in front of me. You learn not to throw in the towel too soon with landscape photography, all too often the light you wanted will reveal itself just as you’re packing away – so it pays to wait it out. This morning was a perfect example of this.
As I was struggling to focus the camera, I uttered something under my breathe about how “I wished this mist would fall back 20 feet or so”, and oddly enough that’s exactly what happened! The mist retreated and sunk to the valley floor creating a beautiful carpet of cloud a few feet off the ground. As the sun rose, the light struck the face of the Beinn Dearg horseshoe in the distance and as if by magic, all of the elements came together perfectly. I frantically checked my focus and fired three sheets of film before the cloud dispersed.
We stayed at Shenavall for another night after spending a day exploring the many summits of An Teallach and taking a break from project work. We hiked out mid-morning, and as I said goodbye to the mountains and the bothies of Scotland once again, I felt reassured; safe in the knowledge that I’d be returning again very soon.