Scotland is a country rich in both history and natural beauty, and I am immensely proud to call it my home. As a child, I spent most of my time in the central urban belt and rarely had the opportunity or desire to explore the more remote parts of the country.
But, the more I traveled around the world, the more I yearned to explore my own home. Over the last few years, I’ve been driven by a passion to explore every corner of this country. My adventures here have been full of wonder and made me appreciate what I have in the place I call home.
My adventures in Scotland often take me to the mountains of Glencoe and the western highlands, a beautifully photogenic area perfect for lovers of the outdoors and wildlife. I’ve spent many a day there roaming the hills, mesmerized by the quaint little houses and reflections in the lochs.
The first time I visited Glencoe the immense scale of the mountains compared to the tiny cars passing through caught me by surprise. I found it difficult to believe I was still in Scotland and, in truth, it felt like I was driving through a mountain range in a far off country.
Each time I return, memories come flooding back from my first time there. I am reminded of the natural beauty. The road that runs through the centre of the glen is simply a joy to drive. It is flanked by imposing mountains, one after another. I love the rugged mountain rocks, formed by the eruption of a supervolcano hundreds of millions of years ago and then molded by glaciers. They look that bit more impressive when a dusting of snow covers the mountain tops. I don’t think I could ever tire of those views.
There’s no denying that the imposing mountains of Scotland are a wonder to visit and explore, but last year I chose to leave the mountains behind and head for the islands and beaches of the Outer Hebrides and the enigmatic archipelago of St. Kilda.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when we set out to visit remote western islands of Scotland. I’d seen images and heard people talk about the beautiful white beaches that apparently rival those found in Hawaii and the Maldives. Part of me always doubted those claims and was keen to judge for myself when I got there. As for St Kilda, I had been desperate to explore the archipelago since I read an article about a new book by Richard Harper called “Abandoned Places.” St. Kilda made his list of roughly 60 locations around the world where the local inhabitants simply left their homes for no good reason. The sense of mystery and isolation was too much to miss and I jumped at the opportunity to visit and photograph the islands.
My journey to the western islands took me past the famous Eilean Donan castle on the banks of Loch Alsh. The castle, which was founded in the thirteenth century and was a stronghold for the Clan Mackenzie, is a photographers dream. Its location, on a tiny island accessed by an arched bridge surrounded by an expansive loch and rolling hills, is iconic. It seems that, no matter how many times I drive past, I am compelled to pull over and photograph the ancient building.
Leaving the castle behind, I headed to the ferry port on the Isle of Skye and, from there, I made the crossing to the islands of Harris and Lewis — the heart of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.
Navigating the winding roads of the island, I took in the beautiful views of the Isle of Harris. The single lane roads weaved inland and back out to sea. The roads ran close to unspoiled white sand beaches and crystal clear waters and I discovered the rumors I’d heard were true — the beaches were just as stunning as those found in the Mediterranean or South Pacific.
Some were massive and stretched far into the distance. Others were small with colorful mossy rock formations. Progress was slow on the single lane roads, as everyone was fighting the urge to stop their car and photograph the seascapes.
As a photographer, I enjoy capturing the sense of scale by shooting tiny remote cottages surrounded by mountains. However, while exploring the Outer Hebrides, instead of finding cottages surrounded by mountains, there were isolated homes overlooking seemingly infinite leagues of water.
Coastal scenes weren’t something I’d previously associated with Scotland … but my perception has since changed thanks to this trip.
From the sweeping beaches of Harris, I drove north to the Isle of Lewis. On the journey, the serene beach vistas faded away and the land became rugged and more dramatic. The roads became steeper and were flanked once again by mountains and jutting rocks.
The Butt of Lewis lighthouse sat perched atop towering cliffs at the northernmost point of the island. The weather was rough and the waters came alive, crashing into the rocks below. I stood near the cliff’s edge, trying to photograph the swell below, exhilarated because of the sheer drop that was only a few feet in front of me.
From Harris and Lewis, I moved on to the fabled islands of St. Kilda. I couldn’t wait to set foot on the island and to explore the abandoned houses described in Richard Harper’s book. Gaining access to the islands isn’t easy, but that only added to the excitement. The two and a half hour speedboat ride to the island made the trip feel more like an expedition. In 32 years of living in Scotland, I’ve never made another boat journey like it.
St. Kilda was once home to a small and isolated community, existing on the edge of the world, miles from anywhere in the Atlantic. In 1930, the islands were evacuated and the community that had lived there for hundreds of years moved back to the mainland. The islands were left deserted.
The islands are volcanic in nature, which explains the unique shapes and textures of the landscapes. The main harbor is semicircular in shape, with steep slopes emanating from the centre. This was the central vent of the extinct volcano that created the island. The volcanic heritage also explains why the archipelago plays home to some of the United Kingdom’s tallest and most impressive sea cliffs. My favorite was Conachair (‘the beacon’) at 430 metres (1,410 ft) above sea level. Understandably, with no path or walkway, the climb was hard but the views were well worth it. It was possible to see the Isles of Harris and Lewis from the top.
After exploring the rugged cliffs and having some close encounters with the Giant Skuas, I took a stroll through the abandoned village and paid a visit to some of the abandoned houses. It was strange to roam in and out of the houses knowing that, almost 100 years ago, they were home to the families that inhabited the island. A plaque in each house details the name of the family that lived there and the years in which they occupied the stone house.
On the return trip, I visited the nearby sea stacks of Boreay, Stac Lee, and Stan an Armin. They were bursting with wildlife, as they are home to the some of the largest gannet colonies in Europe. But for me, the imposing rock faces jutting out of the water were the main attraction.
My trip to the Outer Hebrides and St Kilda have massively changed my opinion of Scotland, my home country, and I am grateful for that. The word “Scotland” no longer conjures images of mountains, lochs and glens … it is now associated with images of serene beaches, crashing waves, and idyllic islands. It makes me even more proud to call this country home.