Stac Polliadh (right) and Sgorr Tuath reflected in Loch Lurgainn at first light, Coigach, Wester Ross. December 2010 © Mark Hamblin/2020VISION.
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What use are the uplands? Why should anyone who doesn’t live there - apart from a few photographers - give two hoots for what happens them? And why do they need restored anyway? These were the hard questions Niall Benvie put to a number of people who live and work in Assynt and Coigach in the North West Highlands of Scotland. Each has a clear a vision of what the area could be and a certainty that the upland do matter - for everyone.
2020Vision iWitness assignment to Assynt and Coigach
"The dramatic hills around us are inselbergs," explained Highland Regional Council’s Senior Ranger, Andy Summers, from his base in the Assynt Visitor’s Centre in Lochinver. "Over many millions of years, the land around eroded down to leave them standing proud above a wet, rolling plain." Indeed, Suilven, Quinag, Stack Pollaidh and Canisp are amongst the most impressive mountains in Scotland. "Up until the Clearances, this area supported several thousand people. It was a largely self-sufficient economy centred on black cattle. But with the surge in demand for wool during the Napoleonic Wars, people were "cleared" off the land to make way for sheep and moved to the coast to turn their hand to fishing. However, the herring boom was short-lived and many people, faced with very few options, moved away or emigrated."
The "leakage" of young people from this area continues to this day and it is something that greatly concerns Mark Lazzeri, Development Officer of the Assynt Foundation. This community organisation was responsible for the buyout of the 44 400 acre Glencanisp and Drumrunie estates under the provisions of the 2003 Scotland Land Reform Act. With funding from public and private bodies the Foundation purchased the land and is now working hard to build a sustainable future for the estate and the people - and wildlife - that live on it.
Mark describes the Foundation’s role, "We look at all the assets we have in the area, how skills and resources can be pooled then inject a dose of imagination. The economy here is precarious but the community we have and the setting we live in is inspiring. We shouldn’t overlook this dimension of the landscape - as well as the natural resources it has to offer from deer to bog cotton and bog myrtle not to mention space to explore and experiment with different land management models. "I must emphasise that we are looking at sustainable activities - the sort a community needs to support itself. There are many alternatives: why, or example, does Britain import thousands of tonnes of hazel thatching spars from Poland each year when we could be producing these ourselves; hazel grows naturally in this area.” Although opportunities remain limited, for the time being, in the area, Mark has seen a growing trend for locals to return to settle in the area having worked away for a number of years. “Home working via the internet is as possible here as anywhere else." The reality is that in Assynt, as in any other wild area, people will care for the land in the long term only if they have a stake in it. “With our long industrial history, most people in Britain have long since ceased to be land owners. That creates a different attitude towards the land. Here we are showing what can happen when ownership is reinstated."
Sadie and DJ from Lochinver Primary School, planting a tree at the Culag Community Forest above Lochinver. © Niall Benvie/2020VISION.
The Assynt Foundation is one of five major landowners participating in the Coigach and Assynt Living Landscape project, an initiative to reconnect and restore fragmented and damaged habitats over a 600 sq km area; this is nature conservation on the landscape scale. But it is also about creating the opportunities that will keep local people living and working there. The John Muir Trust owns the Quinag Estate where Don O’Driscoll, the Trust’s Wildland Ranger for the area describes why he thinks the uplands matter. “Oh course they keep huge amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere and produce venison but on a more basic level, the uplands are places of potential. Once you build on a piece of land, there is no going back. We simply don’t know what our children and grandchildren will need of the land in future, what they will seek from it. So it makes sense to keep it as it is and to improve it. In my view, “improvement” often means increasing the tree cover closer to its natural extent; trees prevent run off and erosion, make minerals in these poor soils available to other plants and animals in the ecosystem, boost biodiversity and provide shelter belts.”
Don believes that, “We need to take time to stop and listen and look about and beyond ourselves. People have to be part of the picture, stakeholders that value these places and benefit from them, but it’s a two-way street; we have a duty of care to the Land and the other creatures that live here too.
This is a good place to challenge yourself, physically and creatively. And if you think you’re not remotely interested in birds, sit in a hide a few yards from a wild golden eagle as it tears into a carcass and see if you still feel the same.”
The uplands, then, are anything but remote wasteland but neither are they pristine wilderness. Centuries of abusive management have greatly reduced their biological richness and economic prosperity but with imagination and cooperation, wildlife - and people - will slowly begin to return to somewhere fit to live in.
Mountain hare footprints on the snow-covered slopes of Ben More Coigach, Wester Ross, December 2010 © Mark Hamblin/2020VISION.
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Top tips for photography in the uplands:
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Bad weather's not bad
- Don’t be deterred by "bad weather" - it all adds to the atmosphere. You can shoot well before dawn and long after dusk to introduce a strong blue cast to the scene which heightens the sense of tranquility. Close ups of grasses and flowers are enhanced by dew drops or overnight rain.
Take some Support
- It may be a drag, but do take your tripod up into the mountains. While you may be able to hand-hold shots of more distant ridges, if you want to made wide angle shots with lots of depth of field, you’ll need slow shutter speeds and a steady rest. Alternatively, if you are after wildlife, a beanbag supported on an old plastic beer crate makes an extremely stable rest for a long lens.
- Graduated neutral density filters (to reduce the contrast between sky and land) are of limited use where the skyline is uneven; instead, use Lightroom’s Local Adjustments Brush or create a Layer Mask in Photoshop to darken the sky. If the contrast is extreme you may need to combine a pair of identical pictures, one exposed for the sky, one for the foreground.
- If you have to photograph the subject against a pale sky, you might try underexposing the daylight exposure for the background and light the subject with flash. One in a large softbox is ideal, but it that is not practical , fire a flash through diffusion material close to the subject. The flash should be twice as far from the diffuser as the diffuser is from the subject.
Above the clouds
- Take heart: you don’t need to be a great mountaineer to get get shots of the uplands: rarely are the best photographs taken from the summit. But on days when there is a temperature inversion, push yourself to get above the clouds for some astonishing pictures.