Photograph of Cladhach Bay, Coll
An Adventure on Coll
After three years of sheer frustration at failing to make the island of Coll on a photographic adventure, it was with a feeling of amazement that I found myself on the 7am Calmac ferry out of Oban to Coll and Tiree. Neither inclement weather nor other business commitments were going to stop the trip this time!
Having studied the Ordnance Survey map of the island on many occasions, I was fairly sure of the locations I wanted to seek out and (aside from a possible weather front interfering briefly) the overhead conditions were very promising. I disembarked at Arinagour, therefore, with the usual mixed feelings of high excitement and great expectations!
The various authors of books about Coll - at least its landscape and geological qualities (Hamish Haswell Smith's "Islands of Scotland" is a veritable goldmine of information) have it spot-on. The north-west portion of the island – roughly 40% of it - resembles a giant currant bun, with countless rocks (Lewisian gneiss) protruding from heather, grass or moss over its entire landscape mass.
Sheep also proliferate; so do lovely secluded sandy bays and coves. Within ten minutes, I was parked near Baigh an Trailleich, walked the mile or so over buttercup and daisy- strewn grass to the sand dunes above the first of several beautiful beaches I was to capture over the next twenty four hours.
It was, as things turned out, a very busy day. A twenty-minute drive on Coll's narrow, single track highway (mind you there IS a thirty yard stretch of "dual carriageway" as you draw near to Sorisdale!) opened up various photographic opportunities – see the website for more!
A look at the possibilities of photographing Hogh Bay from the ascent of Ben Hogh (a modest three hundred feet or so but, on this occasion, just too much for a rapidly-deteriorating left knee!) was committed to the "maybe next time" compartment. The Bay itself, while easily accessible via the track from the project centre at Ballyhogh, is of rock, rather than shell, sand; not therefore quite as spectacular and thus put into the "first thing tomorrow" box. (That didn’t materialise either – read on!)
The road to Hogh Bay passes a clutch of houses and fields, complete with Highland cattle, at Cladhach. This is a charming spot, where full advantage for photographic ends was taken both of the sheltered houses among green, rock-strewn, low hills then, spectacularly, the tiny inlet below the rocks whose sand was washed by turquoise Atlantic waves gently lapping the shore – image of the month on the website for June/July, as things turned out.
To be frank, despite the disadvantage of having missed dawn on the island early that morning, I had already achieved what I set out to do. There were at least half a dozen great shots "in the can". I wound my way back to Arinagour to check out the food/accommodation situation for that night, managing to avoid several groups of handsomely-kilted local males and their lovely partners as they manoeuvred their genteel way on foot across the bumpy roads and footpaths towards the church on the hillside above the village. It was a "once in a blue moon" day on Coll – a local wedding!
The remainder of the trip was, frankly, frustrating and a minor disaster also lay in store. Some stubborn, high level but light-subduing cloud filtered in, as promised, from the south-west. The wind increased noticeably (Coll and Tiree are renowned for high winds). I decided to do the five miles or so to the south-west corner, have a look at Breachacha, Feall Bay and the historical and architectural gems which lie there – if the camera had to stay in the car for a couple of hours, so be it.
Problem number one was that the airstrip on the island is currently being extensively upgraded. The single track road which services it (and everything else at that end of the island!) was, to put it politely, shambolic. Of course, it is trying to cope – probably for the first time in its life – with enormous machines, earth-movers, tractors and heavy payloads of gravel, stones and cement. It was not coping too well; bumps and dust clouds abounded!
Nevertheless, I got my "inspection tour" done. Crossapol Bay was a long walk past sheep and cattle and definitely required a "first thing in the morning "visit. I backtracked, grabbed the camera gear and turned left towards Ben Feall. I was passed on the flat machair almost immediately by two four-wheeled drive vehicles travelling at break-neck speed, full of excited wedding guests and (almost certainly) a pretty terrified wedding photographer all the way from Oban for the occasion! It appeared that they, too, were heading for the dizzy heights of Ben Feall to allow their own memories of an epic day to be put on film.
It was about twenty minutes later that I came across them again. I was gamely hauling self plus camera gear up the steepest slopes on Coll when I suddenly confronted them; huddled together in a spot where wind speed mercifully halved to near gale force. I would love to see the end product of the picture-taking!
I made it to the top – the view was breathtaking; so was the wind. Feall Bay stretched away towards the south-west, a long crescent of golden sand curving round to point Atlantic-wards; Tiree was now visible some three miles distant. Neither the light nor the timing was right, but I was unlikely to see this wonderful panorama again, so some shots – if only for consigning to the category of "near-misses" – had to be captured.
I have never in fifteen years of professional photography, attempted to take pictures in a gale like that. It was a near impossibility. To get the composition, the tripod had to be in the most exposed spot. My normal rules of 'smallest aperture/slowest speed' were abandoned, of necessity, as I attempted to get something on film in quite amazing circumstances. I stood, knelt, crouched, took glasses off, put them back on as my eyes streaked with water, ultimately shooting off a roll or two of film – with nothing more than crossed fingers in expectation of an odd image which might be acceptable for the portfolio.
As I turned my head to take a final look west, an enormous blast of wind whipped my glasses off my head. I watched half in horror and half in disbelief, as they disappeared over a cliff face to my immediate right. After a fifteen minute struggle, I found a way to grassy ledge below the spot where I lost them. The search which resulted was a forlorn one; it would be no surprise, given the wind speed, if they were already mid-Atlantic somewhere!
Fortunately, my contact lenses saved the day. The prospect of attempting to cover the 180-mile journey home from Oban with rapidly deteriorating eyesight was just TOO fraught to have contemplated! The remainder of the adventure around the island, thanks to ever-thickening cloud then heavy overnight rain, yielded nothing more spectacular in picture-taking and in particular offered absolutely no compensation for a fraught end to the afternoon either in the shape of a glorious Coll sunset or sunrise the following morning.
It was a cloudy start to my day of departure, though light did improve and the architectural glories of the castles at Breachacha were captured for posterity. So was the village of Arinagour itself, much quieter now that both wind and wedding party had abated!
The welcome sight of Calmac’s "Lord of the Isles", as she moved into view from Tiree, heralded the closing moments of a quite extraordinary forty-eight hours, although picture-taking wasn't complete – not by a long chalk! The ship docked in Oban at 5.30, the light was just brilliant, so a further hour and a half was spent, first on Pulpit Hill to catch the lovely view down to the town and the harbour, then around the amazing humps, lumps and hills of the town's golf course at Glencruitten.
The course was in splendid condition, awash with bluebells, while the glorious light offered several great new shots for future golf publications. There was a wee lump in the throat too, as my two sons Campbell and Alistair had their very first golf lessons here from the then professional Iain Auld some twenty five years ago! Iain and his wife Joan now run the hugely successful Glenbervie Guest House in the town.
Just to put icing on the cake, the Pass of Brander, a dramatic, steep-sided, narrow gap in the landscape just before Loch Awe, was beautifully bathed in late evening sun – the scree, scrub, striations and green vegetation were perfectly highlit by a lowering sun. Fifteen minutes later, the photographic side of things at last ceased for the day at Dalmally, where a delectable shaft of sunlight and the unusually flat water of the River Orchy combined to create a great shot of the old stone bridge which carries the road over the water to Stronmilchan.
It HAD turned out a busy day, in spite of the ominous early morning rain and cloud and the adrenalin was still flowing freely over the last hundred miles or so on the homeward journey. The job had been done, most of the target shots achieved, while another clutch of memories had been created for the ageing brain to compartmentalise!
If you haven’t seen many (or any) of the Western Isles, then it's time you did. Arran, Islay, Mull, Colonsay, Tiree and Coll each has its own charismatic appeal; different moods, different landscapes, different people and different climates on each guarantee that you will bring back a host of unforgettable memories.
My adventure on Coll, if perhaps not the most rewarding from a photographic point of view, was certainly one of the most incident-packed! If that, occasionally, was for some totally unexpected reasons, it matters not. Scotland constantly surprises us, in spite of us knowing that we are almost certain to be surprised. From that aspect alone, this country remains unique.