Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Skies of Skye and Orkney

As difficult a task as it is to point to a single distinguishing feature of Scotland that stands out in my photographic eye - for so much of Scotland simply transcends an aesthetic breakdown of any kind; Scotland's beauty must be experienced and cannot be verbalized (nor, perhaps, even be photographed in a way that captures its deepest secrets) - I will start my musings on the recent trip my wife and I took to Scotland by recalling the magnificent skies of Skye and Orkney.

"The great plain of Caithness opens before our eyes. This is the northland, the land of exquisite light. Lochs and earth and sea pass away to a remote horizon where a suave line of pastel foothills cannot be anything but cloud. Here the actual picture is like a picture in a supernatural mind and comes upon the human eye with the surprise that delights and transcends memory. Gradually the stillness of the far prospect grows unearthly. Light is silence. And nothing listens where all is of eternity." - Neil Gunn, Highland River (1937)

My previous benchmark for varied dramatic skies was Hawaii, where the weather changes on a dime and the interested observer / photographer can find dozens of different "skies" in any given hour on any part of the islands. But Scotland's skies leave their Hawaiian cousins far in their wake. I have never before seen such dynamic, textured, layered, epic-scale Wagnerian colossī as the "seas of clouds" on Skye and Orkney.

The drama was often so great, and the magic light so fast moving and changing, that all I could do to keep up was to simply click away, mechanically, unable to take in all of the spectacle unfolding before me, behind me, all around me. Once, on our first day on Orkey, even before we arrived at our hotel in Kirkwell after arriving by ferry at Stromness, a spectacular sunset begged us to pull over to the side of the road, and as I was setting up my tripod to catch a sunset, a fantastic - phantasmagorical! - rainbow appeared to the east; as my attention was diverted, my wife screamed that another rainbow was forming to the south! There we both stood, slack-jawed, swaying gently in the Orkney wind, in awe of nature's beauty at its finest. I had even momentarily "forgotten" to do anything with my camera; as my conscious and unconscious minds fused into one and my attention was focused solely on the experience. Such deep ego-disappearing total immersion in the moment, as we soon learned, is the norm for being in Scotland. (It is thus easy to understand the origin of some folk tales, such as the one about Herla - the "wise King of the Britons in ancient times" - who once visited an underworld realm, where he was lavishly entertained with song and dance. But upon returning to his own world, King Herla discovered that centuries had passed!)

"From the high summit watch the dawn come up behind the Orkneys, see the mountain ranges of Sutherland the grey planetary light that reveals the earth as a ball turning slowly in the immense chasm of space, turn again to the plain of Caithness that land of exquisite light and be held by myriad lochs and dubh lochs glimmering blood red." - Neil Gunn, Highland River (1937)

As dramatic as the skies of Orkey are, Skye brings an added dimension (or two or three) to the landscape, literally. For as relatively flat as Orkey is (though it has its fair share of rolling hills and cliffs!) and is devoid of vegetation, the many rolling mountains and jagged peaks of Skye make it a veritable mini-Himalaya, along with its enormous array of beautiful lowland flowers.

I soon noticed a distinct change in my compositions. Where, in Orkney, my eye tended to mostly ignore foreground detail (for, in truth, there was little to be had except an occasional but uninteresting rock or twig) and focus on clouds and sky with a bit of a horizon, in Skye, my camera was taking in the full view from my feet to as far away as my lens could take me! Moreover, because of the lovely colors, I also found myself - very uncharacteristically - thinking and previsualizing in color! I thought back to last year's trip to Santorini, Greece, where I had a related (but very different) experience with "color versus B&W" visualization. In Santorini's case, however, my thoughts on the matter crystalized after I had returned home and was viewing my images in Lightroom. This time, in Skye, the utterly un-ignorable effervescent colors compelled me to adapt my photography from B&W to color on the spot! While this may not sound like a "big deal" to most readers, I can assure you that for one, such as myself, who is almost exclusively a B&W photographer and therefore tends strongly to view the world in B&W, the shift was very dramatic (and, in hindsight, very enjoyable). Perhaps I can use this experience as a stepping stone / learning experience to widen my photographic horizons a bit.

"My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
A-chasing the wild deer, and following the roe,
My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go."
- Robert Burns, My Heart's in the Highlands


andrewt said...

Nice post. Really.

Gary Nylander said...

Nice collection of images, Andy, I love the top image with the curtain of rain, I like the color image too, the top part of the mountains and rain look black and white, as usual beautifully done !


Katie said...

"Scotland's beauty must be experienced and cannot be verbalized"

Absolutely agree with the sentiments in this post. These shots are gorgeous - I'll have to brave the weather myself soon

Seinberg said...

You didn't mention Steiglitz' Equivalents :-) His Equivalents is similar in tone, though infrequently has a landscape in the frame.

Nice shots.

internet marketing services said...

those cloud formations look really amazing. the shapes and the gray gradients simply made this monochromatic image really great.

kathramirez said...

Wow! Perfect photos, nice collection of pictures you have here. I admire those shots really. The way you presented this in one great composition including the pictures is very clear and easy to understand. Great job!

bryan said...

Wow, love that last shot in this post.

Miserere said...


As can be attested by this photo of mine, I am a big fan of clouds, especially when the photos have been properly processed. You have done this wonderfully and have communicated the spirit of Scotland with great clarity.

I have only ever visited Edinburgh, but you make me long for more Scotland. Oh the envy... :-)

katie said...

I was not there with you in Scotland, but looking at your photos and description I wish I was. When I was young I used to like to lie in the boat and gaze at the sky and meditate and had a feeling that I was floating above the earth... It seems to me Scotland would be an ideal place to lift one's spirit. Your pictures are awsome.

Camille Rochelle said...

Breathtaking! :)