In early 2015 on a hiking workshop in The Great Wilderness, I first voiced an idea that had been rattling around my head for some time to my hiking companions Sean and Harsharn. I wanted to make a book of the Northwest Highlands, but not just any book – something extensive and spectacular, compelling and challenging. A book that people could get excited about, but perhaps more importantly, a book that I could get excited about. I set a tentative book release date for Christmas 2017 and started saving images.
A Plan of Attack
The goal was pretty clear in my head – photograph the Northwest Highlands extensively throughout the seasons, avoid the classics where I can, and stay as high as possible to capture the grandeur of the mountains. I pulled out a road map of the Northwest, drew on some vague regional boundaries and started. Planning the hikes was an ongoing source of enjoyment in my downtime. I scoured Walk Highlands, flew around on Google Earth and poured over maps. Ultimately I planned on hiking up the majority of mountains in the region and many other interesting locations besides. I had high hopes and plenty of time.
One of the first decisions I made was to ensure that more than half the images were unpublished. Given that most people know of me through my social media channels producing a book of largely unseen work seemed like an exciting approach. It also allowed me to enjoy my own images away from the metrics of comments and likes. The book that I am presenting is the book that I wanted, not a portfolio curated by popularity alone. Still, there have been plenty of drawbacks to keeping these images behind closed doors. Every time I have been to the Northwest in recent years, whether it be on a workshop or a personal trip I’ve had the tricky decision of deciding between what to save and what to post. It’s not an easy decision – my business is largely dependent on traction on social media and with a proliferation of beautiful work filling all channels “2nd choice” images don’t tend to cut the mustard.
I also had to convince my hiking companions on personal trips to hold back the best images on my behalf – quite a big ask! Harsharn Gill has images of waves of snow and dramatic storms in the Coulin Forest as well as photos of remote corners of Torridon. Hamish Frost has a special image of Suilven and some lovely icy scenes of Assynt & Coigach. Sven Soel got the worst deal of all – after slogging it up to the top of Liathach in the snow and camping on top he kindly agreed to keep his shots offline – and boy was that morning good! Conversations at the start of trips began with “Do you agree that….” And finished with “You know those favourite images of yours? You can’t post those!” Obviously I was a little more grovelling! So to the three of you, thank you!
Lastly how do you promote a book online without showing the best images? I’m still working that one out!
I’m pleased to say on reflection, that good luck has followed me more often than bad luck. I’ve put the work in of course, but I’ve experienced enough singular moments in the course of making this book that I consider myself very fortunate. Bad weather is to be expected in Scotland. Sometimes I cancelled trips, sometimes I cut them short and often I went camping on mountains in the cloud. This will not be news to anyone, it’s all part of the game. But on a few occasions I doubted the project altogether, and perhaps the best example of this was the winter of ‘16-‘17.
You can’t shoot winter images without snow or ice and that winter was as mild as they come. I’d blocked out big chunks of my calendar and marked them “Scotland Snow” but it rarely dropped below zero from December to February and a heavy snowfall in January lasted just 2 days rather than the predicted week. As each week passed so I realised that I would have to wait another year. Disappointed doesn’t quite cover it. Fortunately the following winter was fantastic.
Abandoning the Far North
There were two areas originally slated for the book that I hadn’t even visited before deciding to go ahead with the project – The Coulin Forest/Applecross Peninsula and The Far North (the mountains north of Quinag). A persistent approach to the Coulin Forest area produced some images I was happy with fairly early on, but after two trips to the Far North I had little to show for my efforts – perhaps I was asking too much of myself and the Scottish weather.
The most prominent mountains of the Far North include Ben Stack, Arkle, Foinaven, Ben Hope and Ben Loyal, each of which has its own character and charm. But in general they lack the precipitous nature of the mountains to the south and the walk ins are long. I came to realise it would be too challenging physically and too difficult photographically. My time could be spent more productively on other areas. It was quite the concession but ultimately the right decision.
Filling in the gaps By Spring of this year, 2018, my ‘map of peaks completed’ was starting to look quite encouraging. Of all the peaks I have planned to climb and photograph at the outset only 8 remained. Moal Chean Dearg, Beinn Dearg, Beinn Bhan, Beinn Damph, Fuar Tholl, Baosbheinn, Slioch and Beinn Tarsuinn. A happy place to be.
A windy trip in April with Harsharn limited us largely to lower camps and bothies – we summited Maol Chean Dearg and An Ruadh Stac (a bonus) in a fierce gale but with great reward. A lull in the conditions allowed a solitary summit camp on Beinn Dearg – 6 to go.
May brought the heat wave and a sweaty conquest of Beinn Bhan and Fuar Tholl. The finish line was in sight!
In July I found the only cloud in the country with a workshop group – we were shrouded out on Beinn Damph (but I’m still counting it) and couple of days later we caught one of the best sunsets I have ever seen on Baosbheinn. 2 left!
Finally Harsharn and I hiked the Fisherfields, but in two days camped on Beinn Tarsuinn the light never came and Slioch remained, for me at least, unclimbed. A final sortie might have to happen in September right before going to print!
If you’d like to support my work by pre-ordering the book there is a link below. Pre-orders come with a free fine art prints and a named thanks in the book!